Greatest wildlife show on Earth
WILDEBEEST, zebra and gazelles come charging through the unmistakable African landscape – Kenya’s Masai Mara is teeming with animal life. We’re here for the annual “great migration” and it has to be the greatest wildlife show on Earth.
BBC wildlife photographer Warren Samuels (Big Cat Diary) has spent much of his working life in Africa, including the past 10 years on the Masai Mara.
He tells me that the Masai is “far superior” to any other game park in Africa.
“It is big cat country. It is open country, no thick bush and you have panoramic views. You are also close to the animals,” says Warren as we gently and silently drift in a hot air balloon above the rolling grasslands.
It’s an enthralling spectacle both at ground level and from the popular balloons that rise with the early morning sun. We catch the animals as they are meant to be: in the wild, naturally.
It’s thrilling, totally unscripted, unpredictable. We are close-up and privileged onlookers.
Each year between July and October up to 1.5 million wildebeest flow north in a mass migration to the Masai Mara, a round trip journey of some 2000km.
The 1510 sq km. Masai Mara National Reserve borders Kenya in the south and is effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park game reserve in Tanzania.
The most-visited eastern edge of the park is 224km from Kenya’s capital.
Named for the traditional tribal inhabitants of the area, thesemi-nomadic Masai people, and the Mara river which divides it, theMasai Mara is dominated by wildebeest.
The annual migration, which also involves zebra and the flightyThomson’s gazelle, begins in the Serengeti and rolls into the MasaiMara. They return south from October.
The rains create a flush of growth on the Masai grasslands providinga feast for the wildebeest and many other animal species who, in turn,load up the meal table for predators, including lions, cheetahs,leopards and, on the river crossings, crocodiles.
Back on the ground, in our open-sided safari truck, we are on a game drive with our guide/driver Moses.
A pride of lions has brought down a wildebeest and is feeding. Theyoung lionesses take no notice of us, although we are within a dozenmetres – and even closer to a male which could, if he chose, take usfor meals-on-wheels.
But the animals here have grown used to the game drive vehicles – so long as we stay inside – and life for them goes on.
Later, more vehicles wait at a Mara river crossing where wildebeestand zebra will wade and swim across to the other side. They cross intheir thousands, some becoming victims to the fat crocodiles who lie inwait. As we watch, one wildebeest falls into the jaws of a crocodilebut eventually struggles free to the cheers of the tourists looking on.No kill this time.
The so-called Big Five – lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo andrhino – are all found in the park, although the latter is scarce, withtoo many having ended up as bottled aphrodisiac.
Moses is a genius at finding animals and positioning our vehicle for the best and closest photos.
And what a show. We spot a cheetah on the hunt. It has marked out alone Thomson’s gazelle and gives chase for 200m right in front of us.
The gazelle eludes the cheetah this time. (Although the fastestanimal on four feet, the cheetah can sprint for only a short distance.)We give a little cheer.
We move on to watch a herd of elephants, led by the family matriarch, swinging its way to a waterhole.
Over the truck radio we hear there is a leopard in a nearby woodedarea. We head toward it. By the time we get to the spot, the leopardhas moved on.
Undeterred, Moses drives further into the wood. Soon he spots theleopard. It is sitting high in a tree. We watch, fascinated, until theleopard comes down and vanishes.
The Masai Mara is a bright hope in the battle to save wildlife. Buteven here some species – giraffes, impala, warthogs, topis andwater-bucks – have declined significantly at an alarming rate.
Perhaps the imprint of humans on this fragile ecosystem is too great.
We leave the Masai Mara by air but not before our first takeoff isaborted when a zebra and a warthog dash across in front of us on theunfenced airstrip.Getting there
■ Cathay Pacific has threenon-stop flights a day from both Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong,plus daily flights from Brisbane and six flights weekly from Cairns.All flights feature the airline’s new fully flat bed seats in BusinessClass and a revolutionary Economy seat that reclines in its own cocoon.
■In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific flights from Australia connect with KenyaAirways flights to Nairobi on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
■ For more information contact Kenya Airways on (02) 97674310 or 1300 787 310 or email email@example.com
■ For information on a flight with Governors’ Balloon Safaris visit www.governorscamp.com