20 minutes into our first safari...
A short 45-minute flight on a microlight plane transferred us from the capital city of Nairobi to the endless plains of Masai Mara. As soon as we set foot on Masai Mara, we realized that we were entering not just a territory of breathtaking vistas and abundant wildlife, we were visiting an animal kingdom – a land where the animals make up the rules and humans abide by it. Masai Mara Natural Reserve is located in southwest Kenya, sharing a border with Tanzania. It is named after the Masai tribe who have lived there for generations and share a sacred relationship with the land and its wildlife, something we city birds can perhaps never fully comprehend.
Adorned in bright red robes called Shuka, pierced ears, and a sheathed Masai knife attached to their waist, we were greeted by our Masai guides Daniel and Purunkkei in fluent English. Wasting no time, they asked us to hop onto the safari jeep for a short game drive on our way to the camp. And so it began! We drove through the golden lush savannah passing by the grazing gazelles, zebras, and wild buffaloes. Twenty mins in, Daniel pointed to a hazy figure about 200 ft away, it was a lion resting by a river shore. I scrambled to get my zoom lens out, excited to capture the first of our ‘Big Five’ sighting. With our backs facing the driver, we felt the jeep take a sharp turn, oddly driving away from the sight of the lion by the shore and then coming to a sudden halt. As I casually turned my head to the front of the jeep wondering why the jeep had stopped, I was dazed to see us parked within arm's length of a lion couple resting by a bush. We were in a completely open jeep without any bars or other apparent means of protection, just two Masai men who we hardly knew and six feet wildcats staring right at us! Discomforted by the fact that they could reach us in one effortless pounce if they felt like it, I grasped Dinesh’s hand and nervously asked Daniel – ‘Ummm, is this normal to get so close?’. The only advice we got was to keep the noise low, stay inside the car and enjoy. Clearly, for our Masai guides, it was just a regular day at work. As we tried to gather our wits, suddenly the male lion stood up and started mating with the lioness – no foreplay just plain action. I could tell the lioness was exhausted and uninterested, not that it mattered. It was a scene out of a NatGeo documentary. It took a while to process it all - the raging adrenaline coupled with the levity of watching them go at it every 15 mins!
Watching these and many other majestic animals go about their daily business of lazing under the bushes, breeding and hunting from up close exceed all expectations. The key is to be aware, not do something stupid and simply trust that everything will be fine. Over the next three days, we surrendered ourselves to the African savanna spending early morning sunrises and late evening sunsets out on exhilarating game drives. It’s the collective experience of observing a cheetah chase a gazelle, the maternal instinct of a Topi to protect her offspring from speeding tourist cars, the blank stares of the wild giraffes, the playful group of lion cubs, the two-hour long wait to see the elusive rhinos come out of the bushes, the leopards walk from under our jeep, the scene of a fresh kill, the trademark umbrella acacia trees, the bush lunches in open vistas... and many such memories is what makes a trip to Masai Mara, Kenya a magical travel story.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
It’s February and a pregnant female wildebeest has just given birth in the rich short grass plains of
southern Serengeti, Tanzania. She licks her newborn and within ten minutes the calf is on its feet running along with the herd fast enough to escape a lurking predator. You would agree that witnessing this single birth would be fascinating but imagine if there were 8000 wildebeest births a day resulting in about 500000 calves coming to life within a three to four week period! This is what transpires during the calving season which peaks in Feb-March every year. Even though it appears as if the wildebeest are hosting a feast for the prowling cheetahs, lions and spotted hyenas, this synchronized birth is an amazing evolutionary strategy developed by the wildebeest which surprisingly guarantees a much better survival rate of the calves than if the births were scattered throughout the year. This is because in spite of the abundance there’s only so much its predators can consume at a time. Fascinating isn’t it?!
As the rains end, the land begins to dry up signaling the herds of wildebeest to gather their young and start their migratory journey towards the north. Guided by the weather gods, over 1.5 million wildebeest along with thousands of zebra’s and antelopes traverse from the drier lands towards the champagne colored plains of Masai Mara, Kenya in search of greener pastures and water. The resident predators of Masai Mara eagerly await their arrival. As if predation on land was not enough, the wildebeest must also cross rivers infested with crocodiles to make it to the other side. Aug-Sept is usually the time when you can see thousands of wildebeest nervously line up to the shore of the Mara river in Kenya. As the pressure builds up from the incoming herds, all it takes is one brave soul to take a plunge into the river and all others follow suit. Imagine the thundering sound of a stampede crossing the Mara river, it is a quite a spectacle. By late October, the rains are back in Serengeti and it’s time for the wildebeest to make their way back, this time crossing into Tanzania from Kenya and completing the loop. Over 250000 wildebeest fade away en route this annual migration.
The ‘Great Annual Wildebeest Migration’ is this endless quest for survival. It is one hell of an arduous clockwise 1800 miles long trek that exemplifies the cycle of life and death running on an infinite loop. In case you are wondering what a wildebeest is, it is a mean looking animal with a large head, a beard, and curly horns - here’s one.
The privileged life of the African lion
Spotting a pride of lions sleeping under a shade after a sumptuous kill is a common sight in Masai Mara. The feminist movement has definitely not reached these majestic cats as the adult male lion lives a rather spoiled life sleeping for about 20 hours a day while the lioness does most of the hunting, (despite of which the male lion eats first), raises the cubs and puts up with untimely and frequent mating calls from two or three different male lions within the pride. In return, the male lion will occasionally roar to feel important and intimidate other pride.
The darker and fuller the mane is, the more popular the male lion is with the ladies. It can also mate with a female tiger, leopard or jaguar to spice things up. It must also be a relatively stress-free life given that lions are apex keystone predators, that is, they are not preyed upon by any other animal; at max, a sneaky hyena could try to steal its food but other than that, lions are mostly unscathed in the daily survival contest that unfolds in Mara.
In the vast plains of Mara, you can spot the striking stripes of a zebra from a distance.
I couldn’t help but wonder - why has nature painted these animals with vivid black and white patterns? Doesn’t it make it easier to be preyed upon? Seems this ‘stripe riddle’ has puzzled scientists for a long time who are still figuring out why zebras have stripes. There are many theories. Some attribute it as a way to repel disease-carrying insects (apparently some flies find it hard to land on a striped surface!). It could also be to help reduce its body temperature especially after a long day out in the sun. The black and white parts of the skin absorb different levels of heat from the surrounding air, the resulting tiny opposing airflows give rise to little swirls of cool air over the skin.
Another theory suggests that when zebras travel together in a big close group, the pattern of individual zebra’s blends in with each other. To a prowling predator like the lion, this could be confusing and potentially freaky as it sees a large, amorphous blob of striped mass moving instead of many individual zebras! So it could be to protect the herd as a whole. The striped patterns are like a fingerprint, each zebra has a slightly different arrangement making it easier to recognize and track each other in the wide plains of Mara. Whatever be the reasons, it bears testimony to the amount of thought and purpose behind all of Nature's creations!
The Masai People
The Masai are a native African pastoral tribe living in Tanzania and Kenya. We were fortunate enough to get to know some of these incredibly kind-natured people at our camp and get first-hand insight into their way of life. Looking at their tall slender built and the ease with which they engage with wildlife, you can immediately sense that they are born warriors. Protecting cattle is a big deal for them. Visiting a traditional Masai cattle market is a unique experience as cattle is used as a currency to buy clothes, bread or exchange other livestock. Along with music and storytelling, their semi-nomadic lifestyle is also governed by age-old traditions, from the circumcision ceremony for a boy to become a warrior to drinking cattle blood on auspicious occasions to training to hunt lions! Even though the younger generation now has access to education and urban way of life, the tribe at large has managed to preserve its distinctive culture.
The Colonial Past & Migration of Indians
Just after a few interactions with the locals in Nairobi, be it the Uber driver (yes there is Uber in Nairobi too!) or hotel staff we could not help but notice that everyone spoke fluent English. This Texas state sized country on the equator is home to over 40 ethnic tribes and 50 indigenous languages yet most business, government, and schooling is conducted in English. Swahili which evolved from native Bantu and Arabic influence is spoken in more informal settings. As in the case of India, the English language is a gift from the British. It also bears proof to its colonial past which continues to influence its present and shape the future.
Long before the Europeans and British hit the African coastline, the coastal region was buzzing with its native Swahili people who traded spices, ivory, and gold with the Arabs, Persians, Indian, and Chinese. These thriving Swahili city-states caught the eye of Vasco da Gama in 1499 opening the doors for the Portuguese siege which eventually led to the collapse of the Swahili trading centers by the 17th century. The Portuguese rule later fell to the Omani Arabs who consolidated control of the coast by 1830. Towards the end of 19th century, the British finally joined the party and did not leave for the next 100 years.
Kenya’s modern day history has its roots in the creation of Britain's East Africa Protectorate in 1895 and it becoming a British colony in 1920. The British started the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway (also referred to as Lunatic railway) to gain access to untapped interior regions. Indian Punjabis and laborers had already helped Britain to build railways back home, so they had the skills needed. Over the next five years, Britain recruited more than 32000 Indian laborers to Kenya promising a new life in Africa. The Indians who traveled to the African shore had little idea of what they had been signed-up for. As if the brutal heat and menace of widespread disease were not enough, the railway construction site was also a hangout spot for two Tsavo lions - a pair of man-eating lions who were notorious for dragging workers from their camps at night. Over 40 lives were devoured upon by the Tsavo lions before they were shot dead, they now lay in Chicago’s Metro Museum. This railway in many ways laid down the economic and cultural roots of this nation.
The British Apology
Under the British rule in Kenya, Indians were second class citizens to Europeans but enjoyed a relatively higher status than the third-class native Africans. Segregation was practiced based on skin color, and there was blatant oppression against the Africans limiting their free movement, schooling, participation in business and civil service. Meanwhile, the early Asian settlers (also referred to as Asian Kenyans) gradually began to set foot in business, post office and mobilized internal trade within the region.
Like all colonial countries, the torture and ill-treatment eventually led to an uprising called Mau Mau movement in 1942 as a section of the local tribes vowed in secrecy to free Kenya from the British rule. The Asian Kenyans joined forces demanding increased rights. As the rebellion movement grew, Kenya was put under a state of emergency from 1952 to 1959 and thousands of Kenyans were incarcerated in detention camps by the British. Fast track 2013, long after Kenya finally gained independence from British in 1963, the UK foreign minister issued an apology and announced Britain to pay £20m as compensation to over 5000 Kenyans for their sufferings during the Mau Mau uprising. This was after a long legal battle but better late than never. Once independent, Indians and Europeans were given two years to switch to a Kenyan passport. Not everyone took up Kenyan citizenship and ones who chose not to were frowned upon as disloyal. A switch in balance in power came in play as local Africans gained greater influence in commerce and politics. The post-independence era of Kenya has seen times of strained relationships between African-Asian communities; the social integration continues to evolve even today. Affluent Indian families and businessmen have been accused of exploitative behavior against the Africans while Indians have expressed a feeling of seclusion and disdain from the other end. Inter-racial marriage is still taboo. The current generation Asian Kenyans who account for less than one percent of the population are proud of the contributions made by their ancestors and they continue to play a pivotal role in Kenya’s private economy.
Most of us think of Kenya as a poor, developing country which produces world class Olympic sprinters, but when you scratch beneath the surface of perception, Kenya unfolds a familiar story of a glorious past, of being robbed of its riches and its ongoing struggle to prosper and catch up with the rest of the world.
Kenya is the best place to start your love affair with Africa. The incredible wildlife and the rawness of the whole safari experience make it a trip of a lifetime. There is immense history in the land, as there is beauty in the simplicity of the people. Nature is truly marvelous & no other place does justice to it, as Kenya does.
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