The wind must have been in the wrong direction that morning. Bushes and tussocks of grass must have masked the lionesses from view. A few unsuspecting wildebeest had braved the current and crocodiles, crossed the river unscathed and scrambled up the steep bank straight into danger, straight into the eight lionesses lying in wait … and now one was fighting for its life. The odds were stacked against it.
At a safe distance its companions stood like a Greek chorus, watching and waiting as the drama unfolded in front of them. The lone wildebeest charged the lionesses: they fell back; they regrouped. It feinted; they countered. The wildebeest went down – but not for long and somehow scrambled to its feet again. It was wounded, but it wasn’t giving up that easily. It was fighting for its life.
On our side of the river we could hear no sound from the far bank: not the laboured breathing, not the skittering of hooves and certainly not the silent measured padding of feline paws. The battle continued noiselessly against a muted palette of dust.
The lionesses were in no hurry. They had strength in numbers, and finally, inevitably, they circled, closed in, pounced. The wildebeest went down for the last time under a pile of tawny bodies, its legs ramrod stiff in its dying moments …
But the lionesses had only been practising their hunting skills … they evidently weren’t hungry after all … they lost interest and walked off. We thought it was all over.
But incredibly, after a few moments, the wildebeest rose shakily to its feet. It stood there dazed, probably as amazed as we were to find itself still alive … and then trotted off to rejoin its companions.
The following day a similar scene played out but with a very different outcome. Another young wildebeest: another group of young lions. The wildebeest held its own for several minutes: the lions scattered ineffectually as the wildebeest repeatedly ran at them, horns lowered. But then it made a mistake – a mistake born of recklessness and bravado. It was a fatal mistake. A large black-maned lion had entered the arena and the wildebeest fearlessly raced up to head-butt it. With one almost casual move from the lion, the wildebeest lay dead – and stayed dead.
We were in the Masai Mara for a week, camping on a high bank of the river. Camping – but camping with a difference, attended to by the ever-smiling Razmon and his team. We were in large tents with en suite shower-rooms and toilets with individual reservoirs kept topped up for hot showers and flushing as required, real beds that had hot water bottles tucked into them at night, bedside tables with electric lamps, a shelving unit to put our things on – and we were served enormous quantities of delicious food. We fell asleep serenaded by the grunts and snorts of the hippos on the other bank – and the occasional roar of a lion. But if all that sounds rather cushy, I’ll just mention that we set off at 6 a m each day in the chill of the pre-dawn in open 4x4s – swaying, jolting and lurching across rutted tracks, puddles, across partly dried up river beds in search of adventure and we returned at nightfall. It was a fantastic experience!
The migration is an annual spectacle in the Masai Mara with a cast of thousands, most of them ugly. The wildebeest is surely an animal designed by a committee if ever there was, surely the creation of different designers working to different specs and different scales, resulting in an animal with elegantly slim legs and smallish body topped by a disproportionately long head, bearded neck and bulky shoulders. Zebras share the show billing with the wildebeest, but not in such great numbers – and they’re much better looking.
Lured by the promise of fresh new grass after the recent rains, long lines of animals streamed inexorably southwards across the plains towards the Serengeti. But first they had to cross the Mara river … and that was what we’d come to see.
There’s no telling when a crossing might take place – or exactly where, although there are favoured crossing-points – or even if. Huge mixed herds massed on the banks, the wildebeest grunting and lowing, the zebras with barking yelps. More and more animals jostled and crowded together, and they were jittery. They are easily spooked: by hippos sashaying along the bank … or a whiff of lions on the opposite bank … or the vultures feeding on the bloated, decaying corpses of those who had already failed in their attempts to get across … or a suspicion of crocodiles that lurked in the waters, waiting for something tasty to come their way …
We had to be careful to be very quiet and not make any sudden moves – and wait patiently in our vehicles. As we watched a few animals might venture tentatively down to the water’s edge … and then turn round again. This might happen several times, with tensions building … then all at once, inexplicably, and as though on a signal, the whole herd might turn tail and vanish in a flurry of galloping hooves and dust. Or one or two, perhaps braver than the rest, might lead them into the river, followed by a few more … and then more: zebras stepping sedately into the water and swimming strongly, wildebeest taking a more gung-ho approach when the main surge gets going, leaping spectacularly into the churning waters and, wild-eyed and panicky, splashing their way to the other side. And then, just as suddenly, they might stop. Something would have alerted them that danger lurked nearby.
In among the dust and the dun-coloured panoramas there are glimpses of gold: predators. It’s the lions, leopards and cheetahs that take the starring roles. And with all those meals on hooves it is a feeding bonanza. No-one goes hungry.
We saw lions hunting, lions feeding, lions sleeping (of course), lion cubs playing and we saw one mother’s attempts to bring a naughty one into line by sitting on it. We saw other (older) lion cubs practising their killing moves with an already dead wildebeest – and lions mating. Our driver told us they copulated every 13 minutes when in the mood … and sure enough …
We spent a delightful day with a family of cheetahs – a mother and six young cubs with sad-looking faces and tousled manes. We found them playing in the early morning sunlight while the mother kept a look-out both for enemies – and for dinner. She caught a Thomson’s gazelle, but in the speed of the hunt the cubs were inevitably left behind. She called them, but the wind carried the sound in the wrong direction and they didn’t hear. She called again – a dangerous thing to do. She could have attracted hyenas with disastrous results for the cubs. She went looking for them – and to our relief after a few minutes we saw her leading all six cubs to the little copse where she had stashed the gazelle. We left them to their lunch …
A phone call was made back to camp for our own lunch to be brought out to us. Meanwhile we relaxed in the shade of a sausage-tree that bore long racemes of dark red flowers that could almost have been mistaken for butterflies … The lunch vehicle was delayed – they got stuck crossing a river – but at last a beaming Razmon burst from the vehicle with a platter of chilled towels for us all to refresh ourselves with while a delicious repast of salads and fruit was spread out on tables.
We went back to the cheetahs and watched the cubs playing until the sun went down, finally leaving them resting on a mound as a line of wildebeest plodded relentlessly ever southwards behind them.
Other big cats spotted? (sorry) We saw the Three Boys of television fame – three cheetah brothers who have been a successful hunting team for more than ten years. But they obviously weren’t hungry when we found them – they lounged around, full-bellied, doing little more than an occasional leg-stretch and yawn.
We also saw leopards – one with the remains of its kill high in a tree – and who nearly lost its balance and fell out of the tree when trying to retrieve it; a mother and son out for their morning constitutional; and a young female with a beautiful dark necklace of spots who did her best to scare us away before she melted back into the shadows of the trees.
A week in the Mara – Nature in the raw: action-packed, mind-blowing, assaulting all the senses. But it’s the little snapshots as well that make up the vivid mosaic of life on the Mara: baboons sitting grooming each other when a nearby herd of wildebeest suddenly erupted into a stampede – and who stayed sitting there impassively (and unharmed) in the midst of the thundering hooves; giraffes who wandered over in curiosity to watch as we changed a flat tyre on the vehicle; hyenas scavenging on the remains of a carcass – and there were lots of carcasses; a crocodile snatching a young wildebeest in its jaws as the rest of the herd fought their way across the river; vultures; jackals golden in the long grass; topi still as statues with front legs raised on a mound, waiting for a female to come by and find them attractive; elephants blowing dust over their backs …
An incredible week.