Friday, August 16, 2013


(This is the sixth in a series of posts about my just-completed Kenya safari.)

After last evening’s brief introduction to the Maasai Mara and its illustrious cast of characters, our expectations are high as we set out on this morning’s all-day game drive. If yesterday’s drive, with its sightings of zebra, buffalo and wildebeest, could be called the forager foray, today’s was to be more like the predator prowl.

     We stop and watch as they alternately 
     materialize and evaporate in the golden 
     mane of grass.

We’re crawling along, scanning the wind-tousled grassland all around us for color breaks, lumpy forms, hints of movement…anything that might give away a wary animal. Sally and I rely on our naked eyes; John and Maria, with binoculars, can identify the nose hairs of a dung beetle.

Nothing. At least not for those of us with unaccustomed eyes.

Leave it to our amazing driver and guide, Eric. Looking in all the same places we are, he points out the lion…no, make that two lions, gliding slowly through the grass not 50 yards away. We stop and watch as they alternately materialize and evaporate in the golden mane of grass. Eventually, they stop to play on a small hummock where we can see them better.

Eric knows every inch of the reserve. We’re amazed how, in this 580-square-mile maze of rough, winding dirt roads, he always knows where we are. Besides using his sharp, experienced eyes, he’s constantly monitoring the two-way radio for word of any animal sightings by other guides in the park.

On hearing one such report (knowing very little swahili, we can only guess who’s seen what) Eric puts the pedal to the metal. Hanging on for dear life, we hurtle across miles of roads we normally would have been crawling along—slowing only for the worst of the dips, bends and washouts.

Sightings that, just yesterday, we would have stopped and gaped at—zebras, wildebeest, even elephants and giraffes—we fly right by. Whatever it is we’re chasing down, it must be good.

     Cheetahs know how to pick their battles.

Then we spot a congregation of five or six other safari vans pulled over by a clump of foliage, and maneuver our way into a good vantage point. There, in that choice spot of shade, are two breathtaking cheetahs.

One lolls on the dusty ground, while the other sits up nobly, scanning the horizon for any sign of rival or prey. As her gaze reaches ours, it passes right through us,
as if we’re invisible. No sign of acknowledgement; not even a blink of curiosity.
I wonder if that’s a good thing–wouldn’t they be better served by unfamiliarity,
by fear?

We can’t tell if they’ve eaten today or not; cheetahs always look hungry. By late morning they prefer to stay out of the hot, equatorial, mid-day sun. We learn that they’re successful in their kills about half the time. Of those, half again are lost to stronger, more aggressive predators like lions, leopards and hyenas. Cheetahs know how to pick their battles.

     “Cubs!!” we all blurt, trying to hush our   
      awe-struck voices to a whisper-shout.

After a lovely picnic lunch in a shady thicket, we mount up for the afternoon game drive. We still haven’t spotted a leopard yet, so the search goes on; we pay special attention to the crotches of trees and any horizontal branches, even if they’re half a mile away.

We come across many more elephants, giraffes, hyenas and an ostrich or two.
This time, we stop.

Then Maria spots something. Whatever it is, it’s just moved behind some
scraggly bushes on the other side of a heavily eroded creek bed. She thinks it
was a big lioness.

We edge closer. For a good ten minutes we scan the bushes. Once we’re convinced she’s gone for good—probably lying down in shadiest, best-hidden place—Eric starts backing out toward the road.

Just then, Sally exclaims that she sees movement. "Just there, on the far bank of the creek. Isn’t that a…it’s not as big…it’s…" I train my lens on the area and zoom in. Maria and John are already there. “Cubs!!” we all blurt, trying to hush our awe-struck voices to a whisper-shout.

If you’ve ever watched Nature documentaries about predator and prey, chances are you’ve seen the chilling footage of nervous wildebeest warily approaching the edge of a river, waiting, it seems, for one animal to muster the nerve to jump in and start swimming across.

Suddenly, a mammoth crocodile explodes out from under the murky water, grabs a terror-stricken 400-pound animal and pulls it in.

We're going to that place, the main wildebeest crossing on the Mara River. As we approach, it’s obvious the river’s full of—one might say overflowing with—life.

     Tomorrow, perhaps the next day, the herd 
     will cross…or at least most will.

And there was no mistaking the danger lurking for wildebeest – crocodiles everywhere. Some congregated in the shallows; a few larger bulls—up to 18 feet long—basked by themselves.

Across the broad, dusty plane that leads up to the crossing, sure enough the wildebeest are gathering. Some edge toward the river, a few follow. But, like a swirling liquid, the flow curls back and settles. We’re told the animals do this every day, waiting to see if one animal will lead the way into the water.

We watch the ambivalent herd for half an hour, but today, they decide, is not the day. Today, there will be no terror at the crossing. But tomorrow, perhaps the next day, eventually, the herd will cross…or at least most will. For a wildebeest, there
is no other option.

PHOTO: Paolo Torchio


Vishnu said...

Amazing photos. Such a treat just to look at them. And feels so breath-taking knowing that you're just a few feet away from these animals. Baby cubs are the cutest of course:)

Laurie Buchanan said...

oh, Oh, OH! — Amazing Photographs and guided tour. Thank you!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Vishnu - Yes, we considered the cubs sighting to be the coup of the day. There were five other safari vans in our party, & we were the only ones lucky enough to see them!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Laurie. So glad you like them!

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