Maasai Mara : Home to six million creatures, this holiday destination is an animal lover’s paradise
Head to this stunning wild life reserve for an experience of a lifetimebrunch Updated: Aug 26, 2017 22:14 IST
“Is this your first trip to the Mara?” is the question I’m confronted with as I board the 12-seater flight from Wilson Airport, Nairobi, to the Maasai Mara, which boasts the largest terrestrial concentration of wildlife on our planet.
“Yes,” I say, my eyes gleeful. The questioner mutters with sharp accusation, “What took you so long?” And I understand both the tone and the question. For even the aerial view of vast stark grassland, punctuated by clusters of thorn trees, is quite the enchantress. From this height, it’s clear where the name Mara, which means “spotted land” came from.
Landing 45 minutes later at the Mara Airport, it’s easy to feel lost, both geographically and in time. Even though I’m no more than 5 ft 3” in socks, I need to bend and twist like a yogi to get off this tiny plane. The airport is an unpaved runway. I grab my bags out of the hold and take off towards the “duty free” – as it possibly existed in times past. It’s no more than a few shanty stalls bordering this rudimentary landing strip, selling wooden giraffes and colourful, traditional shawls.
Man of the Mara
Mako, the driver-guide who will be with us for the entire duration of our stay at Cottar’s Camp – a camp that’s been providing exceptional safari experiences since the 1920s – is waiting. Like most of the Maasai tribe that I run into, he introduces the rolling savannahs punctuated with flat-top acacia trees, with the zeal that only someone who truly loves “his office” can muster. I feel quite light-headed with pleasure as the drive begins. Everywhere the eye turns, there’s a feature, a detail that you want to commit to memory. Warthogs scurry forth with surprising agility. Baboons advertise their fertility, their red bottoms waving in the air.
The aerial view of vast grassland, punctuated by clusters of thorn trees, is quite the enchantress
We ask about the lions, and get rapped deservedly on our knuckles. “There are over six million animals in this park at a conservative estimate. You will see the Big Five almost certainly – the density of free roaming lions around is high, for instance. But don’t let that be your sole obsession, or you stand to preclude the Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelle, impala, wildebeest, zebra, hippopotamus, black-rhino, eland and a five-star spectacle of bird-life – which constitute the African spectrum.”
But it’s hard focusing on the innate wisdom of his words, for at this very moment, Mako drives towards a tree under which a pride of lions relax. The soundtrack of a vehicle arriving is clearly something these lovelies have made their peace with, for the lioness continues to sleep, her legs waving in the air. Two cubs feed from their sleepy mama. And the voyeurs in us, cameras in hand, come out to play.
Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, we arrive at the Cottar’s Camp that’s built discreetly into the landscape and is the luxury-tented safari camp, which is to be our home for the next few days. The tents overlook the Mara plains in the camp’s own private concession. Despite the fact that they come equipped with every creature comfort, it’s hard to compete with the landscape in which they’re set. Mercifully, with all their openness, they strive to let the outside in. Birds surround us. A gecko gazes curiously at me. At night, I fall asleep to the wild-but-invigorating sound of elephants pottering around the watering hole.
The key to making the most of this adventure is realising that no matter where you choose to stay, the camp is only a facilitator. You’re going to want to make it for all the game drives. The dawn excursions, especially. If that means having one less glass of red wine by the bonfire each night, so be it. If it means giving up a comfortable bed and the softest pillow, do it. For there’s a lot to be said about visiting the grassland when it’s waking up. At this magical hour, meeting lions and leopards returning with a kill is not uncommon. A lion with a limp comes right up to our vehicle and sniffs at it with epicurean delicacy. My companion yelps and drops her camera. Everyone shushes her. The trick to get under the skin of any animal and bird life is to adopt a zen-like silence. The only time you’re really required to stand tall, flap your arms and screech like a banshee is when an elephant charge is imminent.
The trick to get under the skin of any animal is to adopt a zen-like silence...The only time you’re required to screech is when an elephant charge is imminent.
I follow Mako’s finger and see in the distance what to me appears no more than a tiny spot. Minutes later, upon driving closer, it turns into a cheetah on the prowl for supper. Another time, it’s a leopard reclining lazily under a tree. On a grassland in which wildlife is the biggest star, the people who’ve lived here for hundreds of years are often not as valued. But superlative eyesight isn’t the only striking thing about these once semi-nomadic pastoralists. Mako navigates his way effortlessly through the complex Mara, with no need for signage or maps, towards a traditional village. The mud and wattle homesteads known as bomas, and designed for people on the move, are obviously built to be impermanent in nature.
Into the wild
The rainstorm hits soon after we arrive at the village. Unlike the familiar monsoon, this rain comes down like nails being hammered into a coffin. The only advice if you’re caught in it is to run back to the vehicle and shelter before it gets too intense to bear. “Remember the ground hornbills we saw this morning,” Mako says. He’s referring to the large, black birds with raw red-looking skin around the eyes, believed to be harbingers of a storm.
The rain dictates that we give up our night safari (a superlative time to see the big cats that come out to hunt). But although animal behaviour after dark would be sweet reward, we’re glad of the rain. The grass will flourish. Watering holes will fill. And being in a storm itself is its own violent poetry. A Maasai man walks by. We offer him a lift. Surely no one can survive this onslaught without shelter. But he has been made strong and fearless by the landscape in which he lives. He strides confidently on, past falling trees and a cowering solitary zebra.
It’s the end of my time here and I know I’ll be back. Not just for the Great Migration, when a mind-boggling number of wildebeest and zebra trek across this grassland, but as much because the Mara feels like a fairy tale. There’s the immense natural landscape that’s hero. Poaching is the villain to be vanquished. The move towards more ecological practices and sustainable conservation is the battle to be fought.
My last memory of the Mara is watching a leopard falling asleep in the bush. And I’m reminded yet again that, without the preservation of these remarkable creatures, the journey to this dramatic part of the world would be a lonelier one.
- For a taste of culture, pay a visit to the tiny Narok Museum, the town’s only official attraction with displays on traditional and contemporary Maasai culture and other Maa-speaking people. (Source: Lonely Planet)
- July marks the beginning of the big event of the famous river crossings! This is the time when the Grumeti-Mara River runs low. It does however swell with Nile crocodiles. (Source: Condé Nast Traveller)
- Make a reservation at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, one of the top hotels to stay in the region. (Source: TripAdvisor)
From HT Brunch, August 27, 2017
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First Published: Aug 26, 2017 22:14 IST