A trip to Maasai Mara, the 1,510 square kilometres of sprawling grasslands of the Great Rift Valley in south-western Kenya, is an incredibly humbling home-coming experience. The African safari you embark on with bravado, reversely, strips you down to your bare, basic being. Located 275 kilometres to the west of Nairobi, which enjoys a subtropical highland weather, the Mara is warmer. When you come way off the city limits, the driver stops at a viewpoint where the highland road dips for the final time to meet the Rift, man's first abode.
A young black rhino following its mother at Lake Nakuru.
The few minimally fitted out towns and some agricultural villages with subsistence farming of millet, maize and wheat fly past; by and by the tarmac ends, and the bumpy dusty safari begins. Before long you begin sighting groups of zebras on either side of the track teasing you with the optical illusion of their merging black and white stripes.
When you stop your van a couple of times for these wild jaywalkers to prance across, you wonder at how the species lent itself to the rights of pedestrians world-wide. In another few yards, groups of five or six hairy-faced charcoal grey grunting wildebeests graze mingling with every hue of undisturbed, unlabelled antelopes and deer adorning all sorts of twisty, curly horns. With game animals so abundant, can predators be far behind?
Yet here tall, athletic Maasai herdsmen tend to their cattle armed with just a spear but confident in the insights gained of their habitat since childhood. They neither fear nor plunder nature, be it the Big 5, or the lesser game. In the Rift, human and other species merely co-exist.
There was one Maasai village close to the gates of the Mara Reserve and the young Maasai John said, "We are not afraid of lions. Lions keep off seeing our red robes."
"However, if the lions kill one of our cows, then we got to avenge it by thrusting a spear right into the mouth of a charging lion," he stated, underscoring the tribe's relationship with the cows and cattle they own.
Their supreme pride in owning cows, or in other words, the possessiveness they feel about all cows even goes to the extent of condoning stealing cows from any non-Maasai or raiding non-Maasai tribes for cows.
The Maasais are a polygamous community; the men may take as many wives as they got cattle dower to pay the wives' families. In the Maasai dance, the young men jump high to woo women and their songs preserve a very primitive intonation and rhythm.
As far as tasty deer and zebra meat went (as our Kikuyu driver David testified), the Maasais never ate game flesh. In short, the wildlife is untouched by the Maasais of the Rift. This nomadic people derives sustenance from their livestock, drinking cow's blood and milk for nutrition and strength, eating ugali and concocting their own medicines and perfumes from the vegetation around.
Within the reserve gates, it is pure savannah country with clumps of acacia trees springing up, umbrella-like, every now and then. Visitors to the reserve are strictly instructed not to step out of the SUVs under any circumstance.
Right at the gates, the tall heads of five or six giraffes are hazily seen at a distance and we rush to see them from close range. They see us looking so excited about having found them but go about their business with the same tranquility as if we were invisible. We see warthogs of Lion King fame, lemurs, baboons, African elephants out of King Elephant and again more zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, antelopes and deer, and different species of big, small and colorful birds.
In the half-day drive from Nairobi to Keekorok Lodge in Maasai Mara, we have already seen such a variety of earth's terrestrial wildlife species born free, roaming freely, alone and in herds, upon the rolling savannahs. Keekorok Lodge, built in 1962, was the first game lodge to be built in Maasai Mara and is located near a permanent spring, which is a hippo pool. With no electric fencing around, hippos, elephants, hyenas and baboons go in and out of the lodge.
A morning and an evening safari are planned for visitors to observe nature in its varying moods. The drivers communicate through walkie-talkies if they have sighted any animals and on the cue of one, the other vans also veer around to that spot.
On our first safari, we saw a pride of African lions enjoying their afternoon siesta. They look up from time to time into our eyes. Even though lions attack only when hungry, our dread of the powerful creatures inculcated since childhood make it a terrifying and awesome experience to be standing so incredibly close to them. Terrified imagining the bloody and deadly scene that would be created if the lion had tried to get into our open roofed van, and humbled seeing the amount of energy lying like gentle, cuddlesome creatures bathed in the evening sun.
David told us that cheetahs and leopards were elusive creatures and if they were sleeping in the grass we will never get to see them. On the way, we passed ostriches holding up their heads to look at the SUVs crisscrossing the landscape. We saw big and small herds of African elephants. We observed the tender care and love of mother elephants towards their kids. Two female elephants guided a very new baby just the size of an exercise ball but full of life, feeling around with its long trunk and going between the legs of the elders, across our dust track to the field opposite. The mother elephant had its 2-year-old bigger calf also with it; the whole group was trudging so slowly for the little one to catch up.
David told us that the little one would get tired on the way and would want to sleep. Then the entire group of African giants would stop their journey and wait till Little Jumbo woke up, ready to continue the trek. We also gained enough knowledge to differentiate between young and old giraffes.
At the resort, a Chinese group narrated how they saw a water buffalo being chased by two lionesses. We too wished hard to catch some action in the wild but knew we couldn't organise a show.
The morning's lack of wildlife-in-action was again compensated by sighting another pride of lions. The patriarchs had claw marks on their face from territorial fights. But despite that, the poise of these animals living in their natural surroundings, organically connected with the rest of the pride, is no comparison with the humiliated, distraught kings in our zoos. Even the biggest enclosures in city zoos can't compensate for the sight, sounds and feel of the Mara.
In the evening safari, we told David we hadn't yet seen water buffalos and hyenas, and David promised he would do his best. Before long, we went past a couple of lionesses enjoying the sun to drive amongst a herd of about 400-500 buffalos going up a small hill. It was an unruly, noisy scene, some were fighting and there were calves in between. A couple of the huge, powerful creatures seemed to be contemplating whether to charge at us.
When we were driving away from the scene, we spotted a really perked up lioness resting regally upon a giant anthill. David drove our van to within two to three metres of Lalla (as we named her). She was beautiful and terrifying at the same time; we felt small before her.
In a little time, we realised that she was extending her neck to look beyond our van. We also looked in the same direction. A 10-12 strong pride of lions was walking stealthily through the tall grass looking straight at the buffalo hill. Lalla, too, would shortly join them. Meanwhile, some spotted hyenas were gathering in another inconspicuous corner of the buffalo hill and it seemed like a Shakespearean drama working towards the climax; that night, a buffalo kill was a foregone conclusion. As the chase had been unsuccessful the previous day, it seemed the lions would wait for cover of darkness.
The lions crossed the perpendicular line up of our vans towards the buffaloes; the whole sight seemed very surreal.
At Maasai Mara, there is drama at every nook and corner played out by each species.
We bid goodbye to Maasai Mara to go to Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru, where the spotlight was on birds. In Lake Naivasha, the hippos lay submerged in the lake edges and we went by boat to an island where we could walk and be photographed with the African ungulates. At Nakuru, we saw black rhinos and even the mating of lions.
It was evening and our last safari was also done. We got out of the SUV, of course with the feeling of not having had enough of wild Africa, and walked towards the Nakuru lodge lobby.
Suddenly, we noticed that the lodge staff were excitedly beckoning us and pointing to some rocks just a short way above the compound. There were the faces of 3 lions peering down at the lodge view from atop the rocks. The lodge staff said, there were three more hidden on the other side.
Again they were so close, my heart skipped several beats. We all stood and admired them till they faded into the night.