Our small van, Sam and I in the back by ourselves, and our Maasai guide, Jason up front, careered along the winding, ochre road as it wound down the precipice overlooking the plains of the Maasai Mara, western Kenya. As we descended, the wildlife started to emerge. Zebras scattered off the road, pods of elephants roamed through the zephyr tussled grasslands, a family of giraffe grazed nearby. Thompson gazelle, grand gazelle, waterbuck, topi, impala and elan. The vibrant colours of ‘lilacs’, yellow-billed storks and ground hornbills, the majesty of secretary birds, marab, vultures and ostrich.
This was the Africa of dreams.
Thousands of wildebeest stood in vast herds while the flat horizon was broken only by the occasional flat-topped tree. A huge sky arced above. Buffalo glared at us, baboons darted up trees and warthog marched across the plains. A hippo standing in a creek, startled by our presence, splashed away from us. A massive crocodile sat on a muddy bank. All this, and we were only driving to our hotel, located in the centre of the park.
On our arrival at the hotel I realised why it had cost so much. This place was way better than anywhere else we had stayed at in the entire trip. The hotel was seriously up market, and Sam clearly had his mother’s ‘champagne’ taste in accommodation.
‘I want to stay here longer Dad.’
‘We are only here two nights.’
‘I want longer.’
‘So do I, really, but we can’t afford it.’
I was glad for his sake. We had been roughing it for so long, so it was nice that he could enjoy some comforts.With five-star hotels, though, comes five-star wankers. This became evident during the afternoon game drive, as fellow guests boarded the line of safari vehicles outside the hotel. Men in their sixties with camera lenses the length of a wildebeest’s leg, likely acting as p*nis substitutes. One man, who, of course, was loud and opinionated, had a drone camera. Seriously? Unless you are a professional cameraman or cinematographer, there is no need. I secretly wished it the camera would crash down among a lion pride and he would dare try and retrieve it. Now that would make an interesting photo.
On the game drive, the van passed vast herds of wildebeest numbering in the tens of thousands, all heading for the Mara river. Constantly boosting the herds was the great migration. Long columns of bovine refugees, silver and black, stretching in meandering lines to the horizon; one of the greatest nature shows on Earth.
Sam watched them pass.‘They are like the Lord of the Rings. They are an army.’
‘Yes, I suppose they are.’
‘They are buffalo soldiers!’,
He started to sing the song that we had heard about a thousand times since arriving in Cape Town; Bob Marley is huge in Africa. Technically they were wildebeest and not buffalo, but I still liked his joke.
Each year 4 ½ million wildebeest work their way the 300 kilometres up from the Serengeti, feasting on the soft green-gold couch grasses, and enter the plains of the Maasai Mara, where the adults mate. This was the land of love for the wildebeest. Whereas the wet green forests of central Africa had screamed for your attention, the plains of eastern Africa whispered in your ear.
The migration was on, and already hundreds of thousands had arrived. For unknown reasons, the wildebeest feel compelled to cross to the north of the Mara River before heading south again. The crossings carry a serious risk, with dozens being taken by crocodiles. In a sort of natural cull, it is usually the old, the young and the weak that are most easily taken. Their defence is in their vast numbers; as a species they can afford to take a few hits at the river.
The line of cars stood beside the river, its occupants lingering to see if one of the herds would make the dash across the shallows. The herd threatened but didn’t go; not this evening, Irene.