Life and death on the high plains


We woke early, keen to see if we could get a look at the lions when they are most active. It paid off, with a pride being spotted soon enough. They were feasting on a few wildebeest they had taken down overnight. This was happy hunting season for the lions and they would fatten up at this time of year before the herds disappeared south. Then they would need to feed on more difficult to catch game such as zebra, antelope, and even giraffe or hippos.

Sam sat in the van in the cool morning, wrapped in a red and blue Masaai rug, kindly supplied by Jason. It was Jason’s coat of many colours – well, two. Even though we were on the equator, the plains were at 1600 metres altitude so it could get a bit chilly. Jacob was being very patient with Sam, who was continuing to make way too many references to black and white-skinned people.  I explained to him about the documentary, the reason I was recording everything on a video camera (I didn’t want him thinking I was just another fat cat tourist).

‘You know, I think he is very intelligent,’ Jason observed.

‘Oh he is, you should see him doing maths or with a computer.’

‘I will keep an eye out for this documentary; he is an interesting guy.’

A female lion was dismantling the legs of a dead wildebeest not far from the road. You could hear the ripping of tissues as she tore in. Jackals hovered nearby, aware the lioness would eventually have her fill and then it would be their turn. A male lion was also hoeing into a carcass.  He then marked the territory with his piss, before strutting across the road right in front of our parked van.

Sam was transfixed. ‘He had big balls.’

‘Yes he does Sam.’

 He bounced in his seat.  ‘The male lion has big balls!’

Late in the afternoon Jason took us out in the van again. As we descended onto the plain below our elevated resort , Jason suddenly pulled over and peered through his binoculars. ‘Hold on!’

We took off towards the river in great haste, overtaking other trucks and vans. As we approached the river Jason pulled straight over to the edge and parked abruptly; it was then I noticed a large section of a herd was heading straight towards us. They plunged into the river, leaping in just in front of our bumper bar. Hundreds of them, catapulting down the two metre drop before splashing into the water without hesitation and without apparent care for their safety, their legs splayed and tangled, smashing into each other and slipping on rocks and goodness knows what else as they leaped and bounded across the shallows.

Crocs came from everywhere.

‘F*ck!’ I couldn’t help but for that to slip out.

‘What are they doing?’ Sam was wide-eyed at the window.

‘They’re trying to cross the river.’

‘There are crocodiles!’

‘I know!’

A violent splash emanated from the far bank; a croc had hit a youngster. The crowd in the quickly-gathering  other vehicles gasped in unison.  The wildebeest struggled and kicked but it was no use, he got dragged under the water and disappeared under the stream of the leaping  herd.  Both he and the croc were trampled to death, and the carcasses were feasted on by the other crocodiles as the torrent of the crossing herd shifted to the right. It was real, it was intense, it was life and death on the high planes of Kenya.

Several hundred animals had crossed when a new threat suddenly emerged in the scrub on the far bank. A lioness flashed through the scattered wildebeest, which took off in every direction to avoid her. It was chaos. A few seconds later there was a second run through, with the great tan beast flying at full throttle, but no kill; well, not one that we could see.

The rest of the herd stopped crossing; they had had enough for now. I didn’t blame them one little bit.

‘Wow, Sam, first the crocs and then they have to deal with a lion!’

He was amazed; so was I.

Jason drove us around the park. We spied some rhinos in a swamp. A hyena feasted on a carcass, watched on by a jackal and several vultures. Another group  had spied a leopard lying in some thickets, but was now hiding from view.

We returned  to the river. Another crossing had just occurred, but this time it was zebras. We spied the tail-end of the group. Five zebras ran through the water in single file. I smiled to myself this was a ‘real’ zebra crossing. As we parked on the bank, the aftermath of what had just happened was revealed to us in the waters below and I stopped smiling.

The body of a young zebra was being torn apart by thirty massive crocodiles. The clear black and white stripes of his coat sat perversely in the middle of a violently splashing torrent of bloodied water, with the four metre giants radiating outwards from the poor victim. They thrashed around each other jostling for position and a chance to rip off some flesh, before devouring it in large gulps with their huge gaping mouths pointed to the sky. Occasionally the fat white belly of one of the crocodiles would flash at us, as they rolled their bodies to twist off a bit of zebra meat from the rapidly shrinking carcass. It was enthralling but gross.

I was to learn later from some rather traumatised English newlyweds I met at the hotel that the zebra had taken a long time to die. Pinned by a croc biting one leg, he had struggled and struggled to free himself repeatedly before being retaken, screaming in fear and pain the entire time. It was all a bit too Colosseum-like for me, and I glad Sam and I had not witnessed it. I know it is nature, and that is the way it is, but I was still glad for us not to have witnessed it.