The iconic destination for day three lay to the south west and was the Masai Mara; 1510 square kilometres or 580 square miles of national reserve situated in Narok County in the Rift Valley Province. As a national reserve, it is managed locally by Narok County Council, and unfenced animals move freely in and out of the surrounding Masai Conservation Area administered by Masai Community Trusts. Unlike a National Park like Nakuru the Masai Mara is accessed by the local Masai tribes for the grazing of their extensive cattle and goat herds.
After refuelling at Nakuru we began our journey; dropping into a daily routine that we seamlessly became, and with experiences that just days before had been words in typed trip notes coming to life all around us.
Lunch was served under the only tree that stood in front of a vast souvenir shop; dimly lit, it was lined with rows of wooden animals and figures of ever increasing sizes interspersed with bowls, spoons and magnets. The contents of these rows were repeated as far as you could see and appeared without end; each new row manned by one of the many assistants lying between you and the toilet, which was the priority, at the back of the shop.
It is important to support local people, but bartering is a lengthy process so there was always a disparity between the time it required and that allowed for a stop when there is still a lengthy journey ahead. A fair price was what you were willing to pay and they were willing to accept; both guilty of opportunism sellers pitched high and buyers offered low. Some purchases were made, others lost, and for both parties there was always another day.
The tea and coffee stall did a roaring business; struggling only to provide change for the large denomination notes with which tourists overwhelm everywhere they descend upon. It was a happy place to drink; tea and coffee bridging languages, with our enjoyment and her pleasure contagious. As our truck went to pull away she ran over shouting and waving her hands. At first, we were confused, but then realised that unable to give us all the correct change immediately for our high value notes she now wished to do so. She came to the door of the truck to hand out change to those she was indebted too, and who were then humbled by the importance she placed on an amount they had not given a second thought too.
If you travel to the Masai Mara by road its poor condition, especially from Narok town to the National Reserve, is like a trial of strength that must be endured before you can be permitted to set eyes upon the wonders of nature that reside there. The Chinese funded road alongside us, still tantalisingly incomplete, teased aching bones and liquidised stomachs as the truck manoeuvred around or through the wheel deep ruts, and struggled against the pull of a road edge indistinguishable from the surrounding area.
It was not long before all surfaces both human and not were covered with a thick layer of dust, and some grey tinged by the nausea induced journey were face down on the tables. The road was one continual rumble strip that wore down both mind and body; the weight of heavy tracked vehicles compacting soft soil into a rock-hard unevenness that stretched into the distance. Such a surface is unforgiving on vehicles too, and on arriving at the campsite an exploded anti-roll bar brush and broken leaf spring were discovered. Some well- aimed hammering provided a short-term solution to the problem, but it was clear that something more drastic would be needed to see us through to the end of our route.
We quickly pitched our tents to miss as little as possible of the promised late afternoon game drive; already running late due to the slow progress we had been forced to make over the “road” to the Masai Mara. Arriving at the Reserve entrance our guide left us to check in, and book places for those in our group who had chosen to take a hot air balloon flight the following day.
Immediately we were descended upon by a group of Masai women selling their wares; happening so quickly, it seemed they could only have been teleported in both position and energy levels from the relaxed disinterested group we had seen sitting under a tree as we approached the entrance. The women sell blankets and wooden models, as well as examples of the beadwork they wear including necklaces and bracelets. It was all very good natured, although the women were also selling the traditional Rungu, a wooden club or baton used for hunting, and in their enthusiasm it came very close to the windows of the bus. Erellah returned and another truck pulled up; looking behind us the Masai women were now there although nobody could remember them leaving.
By now the light was fading, and to our surprise the sky began to fill with storm clouds. So much sky in Africa means that the approaching rain storm appeared epic, and as if aware of this the wildlife was nowhere to be found; warthogs, impalas and topis the only creatures prepared to brave the approaching storm. We returned to the camp site in torrential rain followed by an unexpected wet night under canvas in Africa.
By morning the rain had stopped, and in the daylight what had appeared to be thick mud in the darkness was found to be a thin, sticky topping that had been unable to penetrate the sun-baked hardness of the ground below. This sticky top coat moved separately from the dry ground beneath, and lulled us innocently into the belief that the previous night’s heavy rain would impact little on our day.
As we left the campsite an elephant stood amongst the trees at the side of the track; it was both a clever marketing touch for excited tourists setting off for their first game drive, and a reminder that it was non- human animals that had priority here, and that in their world there were no barriers. Elephants can be deliberately destructive and aggressive; they also have an inadvertent and incidental clumsiness to them garnished with added deadliness for good measure. The elephant was both a statement of the wonders we were to see and a reminder of our inadequacies when faced with them.
The road into the Reserve was one of our experiences on the holiday of being very close to a premature end to our adventure. The very nature of a camping safari and the terrain you expect the truck to cross makes the adventure through nobody’s fault like walking a tight rope, and we were just about to have a very wobbly moment on that wire.
The truck was moving across an area of very sticky mud that quickly coated the tread of the tyres. It behaved like a skating ring; moving us so unpredictably that each side of the truck was given a clear view of the hair’s breadth that stood between us and the huge holes either side of the road. Our driver Sam was brilliant; skill, experience and necessity giving him the confidence to meet the challenge as we slowly edged forward to safety.
Once inside the Reserve our first sighting was of a Black-Backed Jackal intent on finding breakfast; either at its own hands, or scavenged from the leftovers of an early morning kill. It was immediately eclipsed by the arrival of hyenas that shocked by their unexpected size, as well as the tangible sense of nastiness and cunning emanating from them that was felt by us in the truck.
Far into the distance, to the excitement of us all, Erellah picked out elephants and Sam turned the truck towards them. It was a short lived euphoric moment, as within minutes the mud created by the previous night’s downpour held us fast, and after a few frantic bids for freedom, which saw us hold our breath and pray, we sank ever deeper into a rut of our own making and it was clear that we were going nowhere.
To be stuck is bad enough, but to be stuck in the middle of a game reserve takes it to another level. The crew were quickly on it pulling out metal tracks that hopefully would provide the grip we needed to escape. The whole truck held its collective breath as Sam teased the accelerator, but it was not to be; the sticky mud had filled the tracks and was oozing through them like play dough or mashed potato. Realising we were not moving everyone began offering their solutions, interspersed with grumbles about the wildlife that we could be seeing. All the solutions, if Sam could have heard them through the glass, would have been useless as they had all merged together into a drome, the only use for which would be to give someone a headache. Finally, a professional on board who had released more vehicles and plant than he cared to remember in his career joined in the rescue attempt, and to a mixture of relief and joy combined into a cheer we were out. It was only as the holiday progressed, and we began to see and appreciate the reality of the animals who inhabited the parks and reserves that we visited, that we agreed that although desperate times call for desperate measures getting off the bus was perhaps not the best of choices to have made.
After that the wildlife, as if sympathetic to our unplanned delay came fast and furious; creating a continual background cacophony of clicks from cameras and movements worthy of contortionists to get the best view of what we saw. In the sky, a Marabou stork made a laboured landing, and perched high on a tree was a “Go- Away- Bird”; for once both sexes similar with a distinctive crest on their head. The zebras were abundant, and in the grassland areas their camouflage again made numbers and size difficult to discern. They were joined by the Masai giraffe, the largest species of giraffe in East Africa, which is distinguished by the continuation of the pattern on its body down to its hooves. One the ground mongoose caused great excitement as everyone thought they were meerkats. Just before lunch, when you thought that it could not get any better, we saw our first elephants of the holiday, and under the shade of a tree, plainly irritated by all the attention, a male lion.
Lunch was always a pleasure and an adventure, and the one we took in the Masai Mara was to be no exception. The requirements turned out to be a tree for eating under that had to be on its own, and which for obvious reasons needed to be situated in a huge flat expanse with plenty of visibility around. A tree located we dropped down towards it our arrival disappointing others set on the same mission in an area where trees were limited. It would have been too hot to eat without the shade of the tree, and the light reflected off the parched ground gave us the appearance of cut outs on a lunar landscape.
One of the most numerous inhabitants of the Masai Mara are the wildebeest, so many they filled our view in all directions; from the nonchalant ones that grazed or crossed the track in front of us to those in the distance that peppered the hillsides and plains. Each year they make their famous migration in search of fresh pasture; Erellah tell us to it see rather as a circulatory and continual movement rather than all “en masse “in one direction. Blocking their route is the Mara river our afternoon destination.
We look down on the Mara to see hippos spanning the river; their “cuteness” belying the deadly nature of the stepping stones their snoozing bodies created. On the bank, massive crocodiles deceptively doze in the heat of the day; while others move through the water a liquid arrow head the only sign of their presence. From above wildebeest have massed and look down at the water, while others stand at a distance watching and waiting. Vehicles gather and fall silent; the expectation is palpable. Erellah explains that days may pass when no crossing is made, and that many visitors go home disappointed.
From the vehicles there comes a gasp, and cameras are made ready as two wildebeest break from the herd and walk to the edge ready to launch themselves. Once a crossing is underway it is like the breaching of a dam; the wildebeest carried along by those who follow are unable to stop even if they wanted too.
As if aware they are watched, and have the power to disappoint, the two adventurers turn back and return to the herd. In the water is the reason for their reluctance; a large crocodile blocks their watery route and they are not going to give him the satisfaction. We call it a day; half-heartedly convincing ourselves we have some sense of the reality of the wildebeest migration, until now familiar to us only in its digital form in the many crossings we had seen on television.
We drove away to enjoy the hippos once more, and then the bonus of an elephant spotted further along the bank. But to our annoyance we drove straight past it; our shouts met in equal volume by Erellah who said the wildebeest were on the move. Inside a dust ball the truck went as quick as legally permitted to join others waiting in a mismatch assortment of dirt washed vehicles. The wildebeest had stopped again, so the guides agreed on a partial withdrawal to allow them space; silence fell as we watched and then a cry went up that at last they were entering the water.
For the film buff it is a moment taken straight from “Mad Max”; the vehicles start up and move off as quickly as possible jostling for the best space to satisfy the picture hungry tourists seated within them. When the engines are turned off it is the noise of the crossing that strikes you: a regular and deep rumble created by the hooves mixed with the sound of the water that is parted and pushed away by the wildebeest as they cross, and then their grunts desperate but also reassuring to the young that have no choice but to enter the water with their parent.
For twenty minutes we watched as the drama unfolded: the wildebeest empowered by numbers rushed to the water creating an unstoppable flood that funnelled down into one small area of river bank sculpted by the endless stamping of hooves upon it. As they entered the river their speed ebbed and flowed; despite their earlier awareness of the crocodile some seemed in no rush, saving their energy for the climb up the opposite bank and hopefully the better grazing beyond.
There are always zebras no matter what; but as also migratory they were not just here to watch, but were full on participants joining the wildebeest in their crossing. The zebras seemed more relaxed or perhaps less intelligent; stopping half way across the river for a chat and drink perhaps about which direction to take. With so many wildebeest joining the rush like a Boxing Day sale it seemed hard to imagine what might dim their enthusiasm.
There was a shout; someone had spotted the “what”; an extremely large crocodile was rushing towards the wildebeest aiming for the spot just before safety when the water deepened dramatically. Everything seemed to slow down in our minds as we counted each wildebeest safely across as the killer moved ever closer until it was upon them. The regular pattern of the water churned up by the wildebeest like the steam from the wheels of a steam train changed suddenly to resembled that produced by a motorcyclist or rally driver turning endless circles with the accelerator hard on. Amidst the froth we saw some frantic kicks that just missed snapping jaws followed by a chaotic scramble up the bank.
A collective cry went up from the bus; a cow and calf had started their journey towards this murderous whirlpool. The cow seemed intent on crossing and the calf had no choice but to follow close behind. With certain death moments away as she lifted her hoof to enter the deep the scene in front of her seemed to trigger a memory in her mind and instinctively she drew back. The cow turned and led her calf back to safety having survived to attempt the crossing another day. The message soon reached the opportunists arriving to cross, and they all dropped their heads to the ground to begin grazing as if that had been their intention all along.
Slowly realising the spectacle was over the vehicles began to move off; the jolt of our truck bringing us back into the moment and we all uttered hopelessly inadequate words to describe what we had seen and how we felt. We sank into seats frantically flicking back through photos and sharing each other’s delight in the moments we had captured. Erellah and all the crew were on a high too; so rare a sight to capture on just one day’s game drive in the Masai Mara. All memories of the frustration we felt when stuck earlier in the day faded as we realised that everything has a purpose; that delay had meant our arrival at the exact moment that the wildebeest chose to cross.
It could not get better than this, and when Erellah suggested that with an hour and a half drive ahead of us to the campsite now might be a good point to turn for home there were no objections raised.