Holiday Destinations- the majesty of the Masai Mara, Kenya
PUBLISHED: 10:40 07 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:05 05 April 2013
Katie Jarvis travels to the bewitching country of Kenya, where she sees the 'Big Five': lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard... and so much more.
As we move from the luxury of our tented room by the side of the Mara river (which teems with squelching hippo and snag-toothed crocodile), fat globules of cool rain fall, dispelling the swelter of the day.
Its a benison; a summoning charm that woos the migrating wildebeest back to the rich, sweet grass of the Mara plains. Wildebeest that leap and frolic in the peppermint-clear air of the morning, revelling in the sheer good-luck of getting through another cruel African night. Wildebeest: long-faced like old men, bearded like sages, as giddy as girls on prom night.
And with the wildebeests come the lions. Hold on, Abdul Karim, our guide, says, as he swings our game little jeep from the bumpy mud track onto an equally bumpy grass track. A huge male lion is resting in the long orange and green grass, while cubs cuff and tumble on a neighbouring tummock not 20 yards from us. In the near distance, a lioness seemingly oblivious to our presence begins a long stalk, watching with deadly patience as the wildebeest munch their way across the plain: truly a slow-food movement.
Kenya is a country that bewitches. Read any literature Karen Blixens Out of Africa; Born Free; and many more besides and youll feel the love. We fly into Nairobi on a 777 before being driven along its crowded highways to Wilson Airport. Here, we board a Twin Otter, which wheels high over the well-to-do suburb of Karen (named after the Danish Baroness Blixen), before turning due west to the Masai Mara National Reserve, some 300km away.
We land on a grassy strip in the middle of nowhere, where one man coordinates the safari planes that take tourists to their camps. Sometimes the planes have to buzz the runways to clear them of wildebeests, he says. Other times, we have to chase away the lions resting under the shade of the aircraft wings.
And so we board an even smaller plane, where we watch with the pilot through the cockpit windscreen, as we bounce towards the escarpment in the distance, barely rising above 6,000 feet on our five-minute flight. Its a wonderful way to see the Masai Mara grasslands that look to our western eyes like Minchinhampton Common with giraffe. The Masai part comes from the hospitable tribal people who live here in circle villages, their children herding bleating goats on escarpment slopes, with sticks to scare the wild beasts that surround them; Mara means dotted: dotted with isolated trees and bushes.
A ubiquitous jeep takes us by road, across a bridge where we excitedly spot our first zebra; past a wandering train of lumbering elephants and trees punctuated by the heads of grazing giraffe; and beside lolloping mopeds packed with brightly-costumed locals. Our tent at the exclusive Olonana Sanctuary camp is no bivouac; think Colonel Gaddafi in his desert rendezvous with Tony Blair. The only sounds outside our bedroom are the strange calls of animals and the rushing of water from the Mara River that runs directly in front of us.
At tea one day, we watch a lone bull elephant cautiously making its way down the steep bank to spray its hot body with cool river water. As we eat our meals breakfast omelettes to order; superb three course lunches and dinners; afternoon tea before the second safari of the day we see hippos sticking their nostrils out of the water and giant kingfisher waiting to scoop tasty catfish from strong currents.
But its the safaris we live for. Were up at 6am, ready for the first of the day. Abdul points out a yellow-throated longclaw perched on an acacia; when it sits on its eggs, its markings assume the appearance of a snake the safest of ploys. Theres a pretty speckled usambiro barbet; startling bee-eaters, which imitate flowers, thus enticing their food right into their mouths; and an innocent-looking fiscal shrike which earns the alternative name Jackie Hangman, thanks to its habit of storing prey by impaling it on acacia thorns.
Plants, too: Abdul (who learned vast amounts travelling with his peripatetic father, fighting poachers) shows us the East African Greenheart tree, with its spicy bay-leaf-like foliage. Locals exploit plants antiseptic qualities by using twigs as toothbrushes, or sticking them under their armpits as deodorant. Theres the prickly cordia leaf, which dries into sandpaper to smooth arrow shafts. And the hallucinogenic candelabra tree that hippos love to chew.
We see giraffe fighting, swinging their long necks at each other like battering rams; there are squabbling lappet-faced vultures, gorging on the carcase of a baby zebra; another full-grown grazing zebra has its buttocks scored and bleeding with the imprint of lion claws. It must have kicked its way free; but the hyenas will follow it; its as good as dead,
Abdul says. A hippo, with scratches on its back from a fight, will doubtless perish, even from so small an injury. Nothing grows old in Africa.
After three nights, we drive out of the Mara to Laikipia, at the foot of Mount Kenya, five hours away. After a hairy start (on a Nairobi motorway, motorists avoid road-work queues by simply turning in the middle of our carriageway and heading towards us), we drive through fertile valleys until we reach the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, 90,000 acres of wilderness, home to Kenyas largest population of black rhino.
In the growing dark, we head through the bush for 30 minutes until we arrive at the Kicheche camp of six tents, based around a waterhole in the middle of nowhere.
Never will I recreate the excitement of seeing the inky night reddened by the licking flames of a campfire, deafened by the noise of creaky tree frogs. And then dining round a table with food as if from the Ritz, cooked in a simple African oven. As we retire to our tent at night more remote than ever we hear a roar as if from a few feet away. In the morning, were told it was a bull elephant at the watering hole. Petrifying, awe-inspiring, wonderful.
We see the Big Five out there: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and a dusk-glimpse of leopard. And so much more, besides: red, green, blue iridescence of carapaces, lion cubs wrestling, wild dogs playing with a plastic bottle, strange spiky plants whose millennia of origins I cannot imagine or grasp, amid air shimmering in the heat as if its teeming molecules are so full of life they cannot stay still. The people sit, waiting for the next move from the vibrating world around them.
I am a visitor to a remote past that I have loved and lost. Ive seen cheetahs, panting in the sparse shade of a boscia tree, arms around each other, tails flicking, purring like cats; a black-chested snake eagle, staring with yellow eyes from the top of a dead tree. Ive witnessed the extraordinary: hyenas whose sibling cubs will battle to the death if of the same sex. (Its even said they fight in the womb.) A feisty baby elephant, trying to intimidate our vehicle, while its mother watches indulgently. Ive seen a dazzle of zebras, a journey of giraffes, a committee of vultures.
And now, as I write this, Im sitting quietly on the equator, a pride of six lions in front of me, a group of alert impala watching their every move. And, suddenly, a jackal runs past.