Masai Mara: Watching the Wild Life of Wildlife
Updated: Feb 24, 2018
A safari in Kenya is a bucket-list classic, and deservedly so. But it's the detail as much as the grandeur that stays with you afterwards - like being jealous of zebras' arses.
To the novice, safari highlights are never quite what you are expecting. You have in your mind the sweeping plains, the mane of a lion, the buffalo and zebra wandering about; but what sticks with you is the the sound it makes when a lioness sneezes, or the rip of grassroots being torn from the ground by the supple and dexterous trunk of an elephant.
Governor’s Camp is the original Masai Mara safari camp, dating from 1972 and long since joined by a dozen or more younger pretenders. It occupies a bend of the River Mara, in whose brown and drowsy waters many hippos reside, wallowing lumpen in water up to their backs all day long, breaking the monotony with an occasional honking grunt.
Here, 37 tents house travelers in relative luxury: comfortable beds, hot showers, powerpoints to charge your phones and cameras (but not hairdryers, which would barely reach the power of a fan on the low voltage). We are fed in great abundance, often exercising just to burn off enough calories after one meal to garner enough appetite for the next, and the food is chiefly western. There is a suitably rustic bar by the river, buttressed with hefty logs in the ceiling and a range of sundowner cocktails; and there is a spa.
But people are here for the game drives, and they do not disappoint. You get two game drives a day as part of the package and you can easily spend eight hours a day on them, bouncing around in military-green Land Rovers. One leaves with the sunrise at 6.30am, returning before lunch; the other at 3.30pm, returning at sunset a little after 6pm.
We have the same driver throughout, and he is a gentle giant of a man called Japhet, all kind smile and guttural chuckle, the sort of man who appears in Hollywood movies to impart great wisdom and kindness in a deep bass voice before being shot by an arch-villain two thirds of the way through. Friendly and capable, he has two particular skills: the ability to spot the apparently invisible, such as a leopard in thick distant bush, and the further ability to explain it in exceptional detail, from the markings on river birds to the preferred eating habits of particular types of rhino, the calving season of zebras to the behavior of baby elephants.
The Masai Mara is, in the main, a great flat plain, and surprisingly green when we visit, though apparently a week or so earlier it had been yellow and parched. It teems with life. Perhaps this is normal to those who come often to East Africa, but to the visitor from the city it has a wonderful absurdity about it that can seem a little unreal, as if one has stumbled onto the set of Jurassic Park. To me, it would probably be no less unlikely to see a Triceratops passing the vehicle as it is when a herd of giraffes wander over to take a look, staring at you with calm curiosity.
Life, everywhere: thousands of zebras and impalas, herds of elephants off for a wander, hyena lying in dens waiting for the sunset so they can start hunting, whole packs of lions sleeping flat out in the sun, heavy-browed buffalo in droves looking like a ton of bad mood with horns on, crocodiles up to five metres long basking camoflaged in the riverbank mud, birds at every height and of every voice. There is pregnancy and birth everywhere you look, and even where there is death it is generally providing life to something else. Even in the camp, where there are no fences, there is properly wild wildlife. During our time, it is most visibly a family of warthogs, whose young offspring skip and cavort and battle and at one stage run headlong into the table of some dining Germans.
It can be overwhelming, and it is with some guilt that you sense your attitude turning from “Wow! It’s a buffalo!” to “Oh. It’s just a buffalo.” But within the sweep of it all, highlights emerge, from the epic to the comic.
So, for example, every member of our jeep eventually confesses to a deep envy about the arses of zebras. They are fine behinds. Taut and toned, not an ounce of fat, just a shapely rounded chunk of muscle; you could spend a hell of a long time on a stairmaster trying to replicate a zebra’s arse, and even then it wouldn’t have the symmetrical striping arrangement, and the sense that this must be where the zip is to undo the whole costume.
A true comic highlight is the sight of an ostrich going batshit mental at 6.35am. There are plenty of ostriches about, and most of them just stand around, watching the jeeps go by with what must be familiarity. One, though, takes quite a turn at our presence and legs it into the middle distance in a high-stepping charge that is a little bit John Cleese and a little bit Usain Bolt and a little bit like a supercharged turkey, stumbling on the uneven ground but regaining its ungainly stride before turning repeated circles on the spot for no good reason. This ostrich is having a hell of a morning.
Our luckiest moment comes when Japhet spots a leopard, the shyest and most elusive of animals, while everyone else is looking in the other direction at a crocodile. Abandoning his usual serenity for a moment, he hurls the Land Rover across a ditch and through high grass to try to get to the place where he thinks, correctly, the leopard is going to emerge from the bush. He couldn’t have been a centimeter more accurate in his prediction and the graceful, scary, downright stylish animal walks within inches of the Land Rover before slinking off into the bush again. I am videoing it on an iPhone: “It’s a bloody leopard!” I can be heard whispering.
The whole thing looks so radiantly harmonious during the day, a cheetah looking out at the impalas, a crocodile motionless a few feet from dormant hippos, that it can be easy to forget that as one sips a sundowner or ponders the choice of dessert, these animals are killing one another in the background. The most popular thing to do in these parts is to come for the Great Migration and see the big cats and crocodiles feasting on the wildebeest making their way north, but I’m not sure I would like to see it. It is impossible not to get connected to the baby elephant, terrified by an impala one tenth of its own weight, reversing baffled into a tree and eventually sitting down and conking out into instant sleep from the sheer exhausting energy of it all, protected patiently by a matriarch the size of a truck.
Here at its most elemental, the circle of life writ large, city life can seem distant and ridiculous. One day we almost run over a gazelle and as it leaps away, a baby falls from its body and lies there in amniotic fluid in the dirt road, utterly bewildered by life, by the split-second shock of emerging from warmth and darkness and security to bright light and dust and the wheel of a Land Rover and a vast world full of predators. Our instinct is to call a vet or something. Certainly to intervene. But where’s the sense in that, when a thousand lives and deaths and murders that are meals are happening by the hour?
The abundance of the wildlife can make it tempting to think of this as a safari park, but it is real life with all its dangers, and at night you are not permitted to walk around the camp without an armed guard; they hang around by the tents all night long, listening to the hippos and elephants and the whole orchestra of East African nocturnal life. There is a lot of trust involved in letting someone drive you a few feet away from an apex predator, when you notice a lion look your child in the eye, but they know what they are doing and the animals seem to ignore the Land Rovers almost entirely, having learned from experience that they’re not going to do anything more threatening or interesting than look.