“Jump in the vehicles, there is a river crossing building not far away”, and with those words, our guides for the week managed to load our group of guests straight into the Land Cruisers and within only a couple of minutes of touching down in the Mara Triangle we were bumbling down the road towards the Mara river and a herd of wildebeest that were gathering on its eastern bank. They were words that I wasn’t sure we would be hearing this trip, as with the rainfall patterns this season, the wildebeest herds had largely moved back south into Tanzania, and river crossings were not a guarantee. Fortunately for us, our group were all experienced bush-goers, and they appreciated that nothing in the bush is ever guaranteed.
As we moved hastily towards the river, it slowly dawned on me that the last time I had woken up, I was surrounded by the bushveld of the Timbavati in the Greater Kruger, and now suddenly I was engulfed by the open grasslands of East Africa; after months of excitement it eventually began to feel real, and my lack of sleep over the last couple of days was no longer part of my conscious thoughts.
Within ten minutes we pulled up to the western bank of the Mara river, and found our position in the parking bay of Land Cruisers and safari vehicles; it was a bit strange being surrounded by a couple of dozen vehicles as a welcome to the Mara, but as we would soon learn (and love), these crossing points were about the only occasions that we would have to share our sightings with other vehicles – despite stories of reckless guides pushing their luck getting too close to animals and having them crowded by vehicles, this could not have been further from the truth in the very well-managed Mara Triangle conservancy where we would be spending the next seven days.
We quickly learnt too that the one thing you need to have to enjoy the excitement of the river crossings is patience, as they involve much waiting around watching indecisive wildebeest chopping and changing their minds about whether or not to cross (and after seeing the size of the crocodiles in the river, who can blame them?). You can be rest assured though, that a natural process that has been going on for millennia is not going to be stopped by a few large reptilia hiding in the murky waters.
Within an hour and a bit of our arrival at the crossing point, the first brave wildebeest entered the water, and it was at that point that everything else seemed to fade away and it felt like we were the only ones watching as a stream of ungainly gnus followed their self-chosen leader into the water; it was like we had been transported into a real-life nature documentary. But this wasn’t a nature documentary. This was real-life. Moments later it was even more real when we got to witness how quickly it can be ended in the jaws of a crocodile. It was thus almost surreal that an hour later we were unpacking our bags at the Wild Eye camp, and cracking open a Tusker Lager to celebrate the start of what was to be a mind-blowingly fantastic trip.
Living in the bush, and seeing nature’s wonders on a daily basis has over the years desensitized me to many things, and made me take much of what I experience for granted; not something I am proud of, but something I am always honest about. Its not that I am unappreciative of what I get to see and experience, but it just becomes commonplace. And so it is, with this in mind, that you must really appreciate how special a place the Masai Mara is to have caused me to spend much of the week shaking my head in wonder, and having to dip my sunglasses down so as not to reveal the tears that were welling up on occasion.
The Mara is Magic.
Although I have travelled to in both Southern and East Africa in the past, never before have I seen such a bounty of wildlife, nor such diversity. To say that what one experiences here is beyond words is not just a way of me trying to avoid having to write a lengthy report, but it is more about not being able to adequately describe how one can drive for hours on end, and literally every time one looks up, there is something in your field of view to look at; be it the masses of zebras and wildebeest, the omnipresent buffalo bulls dotted on the periphery of the hillcrest woodlands, the jackals and hyenas waltzing across the plains in search of food (they really don’t need to look far!), or any of the other 25 large species of mammals that I ticked off during the stay (and I missed out on the aardwolf, civet, dwarf mongoose, dikdik, and rock hyrax to take it to 35 species for the group for the week).
With so much going on, one is never short of photographic and viewing opportunities.
Yet despite the incredible viewing and photography, what really struck me (and the rest of our group) the most about this week with Wild Eye was the people. If putting our wildlife experiences into words is a difficult job for me, then trying to explain the hospitality and friendliness of the Wild Eye staff is next to impossible. Having worked in the hospitality industry for the last decade, I know what boxes need to be ticked, and Dickson and his team at the camp not only managed to tick all of those successfully, but managed to tick boxes that I didn’t even know existed. It is the only place I have ever been to where by the end of day one, the front-line staff were addressing everyone by first name!
It is a small – but often overlooked – gesture that makes the biggest difference, and immediately makes you feel like part of the family. Needless to say, there were few dry eyes in the house when the dreaded day of departure came all too soon. From the start to the end, the staff excelled at meeting the guests’ needs, be it with preparing a warm shower after dinner, or with a sneaky chocolate left on your pillow before bed. And how they managed to make such good food in the middle of nowhere without electricity is still beyond me!
The camp is set on the banks (quite literally) of the Mara River, and your nights are filled with the sounds of hippos, hyenas, lions and leopards that are best heard through the open canvas flaps of your safari tent. Yes, the camp is basic, but it has all the comforts and essentials one needs to experience the Mara in an authentic manner. One “downside” is that we actually didn’t get to spend a great deal of time in the camp, but that was only because our four guides were doing such a great job showing us the wonders of the Mara whilst out on Safari.
We were in the capable hands of Jimmy, Sammy, Ken and James, and they never ceased to amaze us with their spotting and positioning. Late one morning Jimmy pointed out a pride of lions on a kill, under a tree, 600m away. Even with binoculars we could barely see them.
What impressed me even more was the sensitivity that the guides showed towards the animals, and never let the pressure of a photographic opportunity get in the way of the animals natural behaviour and comfort levels; again, something not often associated with the Mara. Over and above that, it really surprised me that on a number of drives, we barely saw any vehicles besides our Wild Eye teammates; to drive for hours surrounded by such abundance of wildlife and see no one else was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the whole experience.
The purpose for this whole trip was to see and photograph animals, and whilst all of the above adds massively to the overall experience, it would have been for nothing were it not for what we got to see during our 10 hours of daily safari. And yet again, I’m at a loss for words in trying to describe that, as I don’t even know where to begin. Even trying to narrow seven days worth of viewing into a few highlights is difficult as there was just so much! Was it the forty different lions in no fewer than eight different prides? Or maybe seeing three different serval in one afternoon? If not that, then it may well have been the half a dozen river crossings with crocodiles taking topi and wildebeest, as well as an opportunistic lioness that snatched a young wildebeest seconds after it had successfully navigated a river crossing? I think that if the truth be told, it was all of the above, plus the time quality time spent at the hyena dens, the quintessential African sunsets, the hours spent at the bottom of the escarpment with tens of thousands of wildebeest, buffalo herds, zebra herds, elephant herds, giraffe herds, (you get the picture), and simply just driving down to the unfenced international boundary with Tanzanian and watching a herd of elephants feeding in a sea of grass dotted with Balanites trees, uninhibited by fences – you just cant get more “Africa” than that! I could go on and on, but suffice to say that every day was different, and the guiding team did a great job of showing us the diversity of the Mara triangle that I don’t think many guests were expecting.
With the words failing me, perhaps it is just best if I let some of the pictures do the talking? One of the guests commented that what she loved so much about this particular photographic safari was that there as just so much to practice on – an aspect that had frustrated her on previous safaris where opportunities to try techniques and put into practice what had been taught to her were limited. Wildlife photography in the open plains of East Africa is quite different to that of southern Africa, as one has the opportunity to show more of the environment in the shots, and this was something that we worked on quite a bit with the guests; animalscapes.
Sadly though, before we knew it, our week in the Mara was over; the memories however, will last a life time. And very pleasingly, based on what all of the guests said, this week with Wild Eye in the Mara will definitely not be their last.
So until next time…
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