On Safari in the Maasai Mara

Roosevelt and Hemingway were among the first tourists to take a safari to the Maasai Mara region. They shot to kill and started a tourism craze that had devastating effects on East African wildlife. These days, tourists come to the Masai Mara Game Reserve armed with cameras, long lenses and lots of film. Although today’s tourism industry puts pressure on the fragile ecosystem and the Maasai tribe, they are far less brutal.

We couldn’t very well pass through Kenya without joining a safari to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to see the annual Wildebeest migration. Some companies offer luxury tours with champagne breakfasts and lodges overlooking a watering hole surrounded by elephants. We had to settle for fried eggs with stale bread and a tent with a view of bright stars.

We signed on for a four day visit to Maasai Mara, a vast area in the very south west, bordering Tanzania’s Serengeti, and lying on the wide valley floor of the Great Rift Valley which runs all the way from Ethiopia to Mozambique. The landscape we drove through ranged from flat topped acacia woods near winding rivers to the long yellow grasses of the savannah.

We were anxious to see the annual Wildebeest migration, the largest migration of mammals on earth. Over a million wildebeest walk 800 miles from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in search of fresh pasture. Our guide explained that they don’t really know where they’re going. “So how do they manage to follow the same route every year?”, we asked. “They follow the zebras, of course. They’re actually not very clever animals. When they cross the great Mara River, they just trample each other, and so many are eaten by crocodiles.” For the rest of the day we imagined dressing up as zebras and leading a herd of wildebeest back to Ireland.

The wildebeest are in turn followed by predators, lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas. We were horrified to hear that lions sometimes kill a wildebeest for fun. They will leave the carcass without eating a bite. However, it doesn’t go to waste. There are plenty of vultures circling overhead, waiting for their turn to feed. We did see a lion chasing a small herd of zebras but luckily he gave up. In general, the lions we spotted were lazing in the golden grass, looking very well fed. Lionesses lay like climbing frames under their playful cubs. One little cub we saw rolled from his mother’s shoulder, landing at her nose with a thud and a bus load of “ooohs”.

There are other animals that don’t travel and seem indifferent to the migration which moves slowly about them. We saw several groups of graceful giraffes and enormous elephants and each time we spotted them we insisted on stopping to take photos. Our heads never tired of peering out through the open roof of the roofless bus to see these fantastic creatures.

Each evening we returned to the campsite to eat by gaslight. We stayed in canvas tents, protected from the animals which roam completely free, behind our thick hedge. Maasai people, dressed in their traditional red shawl and white runners, cooked our meals and offered ceremonial dances around our campfire in the evenings, at a reasonable charge.

The Maasai Mara Game Reserve is owned by the Maasai people, who have made the land available for tourism in return for a small slice of park entry fees and low value jobs in the service industry. These nomadic cattle herders are not allowed to graze the pastures within the game reserve.

We visited a Maasai village near our campsite. A woman showed us into her low, square, mud hut. Small windows let little light in but also made it easier to restrict mosquitos. It was dark and smoky but there is malaria here. Back outside, women sat with young children under a tree, making jewellery to sell to tourists. The entire village was surrounded by a high, thick, stick fence and at the centre of the village was a large compound, again well fenced in. “This is where the cattle and goats are kept at night. They are safe from predators here.” our guide told us.

For all their contact with tourism, the Masai seem to have kept their identity. They eat milk and meat because that’s just about all there is. They still mix cow’s blood with milk at ceremonies, carefully plugging the cow’s vein afterwards. One man explained why his spear had a metal point at each end. “This blunt end is for practicing”. So we gave it a hurl. They all carry a spear, and I would too if I lived next to all these wild cats. I’d wear runners too. The Maasai walk a lot.

We waved goodbye to mystical Maasai Mara and, before returning to Nairobi, we spent a day at Lake Nkuru, a little to the north. Here we were rewarded with the sight of a hippopotamus grazing on the lake shore at sunrise amid a noisy cloud of pink flamingos and pelicans. We walked to the still waters edge to feed our insatiable appetite for the amazing photo opportunities which lay all round us. From a nearby clifftop, we admired the pink rimmed lake, coloured by innumerable flamingos. Below, a group of white rhinos grazed on the grass, alongside hartebeest and gazelle. It’s a sight we will find hard to forget, which is a lucky thing; our cameras were stolen the following day, along with hundreds of special images.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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