The far side of the Mara

HR-LB-shutterstock_330832193Writer Brian Jackman makes a nostalgic return to the Masai Mara, and finds new treats in store

For me, the Mara will always be special because this was where I saw and heard my first lion. Not close enough to feel the air vibrating as I would in years to come; but loud enough to be hooked for life in what is still the richest slice of wildlife real estate in Africa. That lion belonged to the Musiara pride, a family I came to know well. For five years the photographer Jonathan Scott and I followed them and chronicled their lives in The Marsh Lions. Published in 1982, the book was an instant best seller, and the lions themselves would later become the feline superstars of the BBC’s hugely successful Big Cat Diary TV series.

Those carefree times among the Marsh Lions belonged to a golden age. In those days there were only half-a-dozen camps and lodges in the entire reserve, and from Rhino Ridge all the way down to the Serengeti border, only the ruts of old tyre tracks or the hum of a light aircraft heading for Governors’ Camp indicated that the 20th century had ever come this far.

Today, despite its popularity, the Mara remains Kenya’s finest wildlife showcase. It is Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, hoisted 5000ft into the sky along with its immense landscapes of acacias and cloud shadows and chest-high oat grass, its endless herds of migrating animals and nights that echo to the rumble of lions.

BACK IN BIG CAT COUNTRY
And now, four decades on since my first visit, I was back again in big cat country, but this time on the far side of the National Reserve, where nothing but a line of stones in the grass separate the Mara’s rolling ridges from Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti National Park – a border the migrating herds cross with impunity every year on their immense journeys.

Having landed at Keekorok airstrip I was met by Moses Kaleka, the most affable guide you could wish to meet, and one of the most knowledgeable, and together we headed south on the hour’s drive to Sala’s Camp – my base for the next four days.

Ahead rose the Nyamalumbwa Hills, just across the Tanzanian border, with the Kuka Hills lying farther off, like the silhouette of a sleeping warrior. This was a corner of the Mara that was new to me, and the closer we got to the Sand River the fewer vehicles we passed and the more excited I became. Why had I never come here before? Here was the Mara as I thought I would never see it again, and the Sand River itself, with its banks and bends and graceful shade trees seemed even more beautiful to me than the mighty Mara River itself.

Set on the banks of the Sand River, Sala’s is the first camp to see the migration arrive and the last to see its departure. Its owners, Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley, are fourth-generation Kenyans and their camp, named after their eldest daughter, was built in 2004 on the site they used for their mobile safaris. It is part of the Safari Collection, whose portfolio of properties also includes Solio Ranch in Laikipia, Sasaab in Samburu and Giraffe Manor in Nairobi.

Last year Sala’s was given a high-end makeover. Out went the old familiar safari tents, replaced by state-of-the-art canvas rooms with plate glass fronts offering hardwood decks, private plunge pools, en-suite bathrooms with free-standing copper bathtubs and uninterrupted views of the Serengeti. Not even Hemingway in his heyday enjoyed these comforts, and you won’t see so many vehicles as in other parts of the reserve. “That’s because of our situation right down by the Tanzanian border,” says Mikey. “Most guides seldom come this far and would soon be lost if they did.”

SALA’S PRIDE
This year the migration arrived early. An advance guard of 300 wildebeest had already crossed the Sand River two weeks before my own arrival in mid-June. Now the herds were pouring into Kenya by the tens of thousands; and waiting for them were the lions of Sala’s Pride, whose home range extends across both sides of the border and whose roaring echoes around the camp nearly every night.

Compared to the Mara’s world-famous Marsh Lions, these Sand River cats are relatively unknown; but at full strength, ruled by two magnificent males in their prime, they are the biggest pride in the National Reserve, and next morning we set off at first light to look for them.

We crossed the shallow Sand River to find ourselves in a 12km stretch of the National Reserve that lies between the camp and the Serengeti border and is virtually exclusive to Sala’s Camp.

Following the end of the long rains in May the grass was lush and green and tall enough to hide a lion; but it was not long before Moses managed to spot Scar and Alex, the two adult pride males. Alex sported a heavy black mane, while Scar’s mane, although equally luxuriant, was blond, making both lions instantly recognisable. With them were 14 other members of the 31-strong pride, including seven cubs that romped and ran in the company of their mothers as they headed for the shade of the riverbank trees to lie up for the rest of the day.

For Sala’s pride and for all the Mara predators the arrival of the great migration heralded a time of plenty. Gone were the lean months of the rainy season when the Mara lions might go hungry for days. Now their hunting grounds were alive with zebras and wildebeest, and their numbers were growing by the hour.

THE ADVANCING HERDS
Moses and I sat with a picnic breakfast under a desert date far out on a high rolling ridge, and heard the sound of the advancing herds, carried to us on the wind like the distant roar of motorway traffic.

The rut was still in progress, the noisiest time of the year, when some 250,000 bulls try to mate with 750,000 cows. With them were spiky-horned yearlings and large numbers of calves born three months earlier on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti.

Breakfast over, we drove up to the summit of a local viewpoint known as Strawberry Hill. We could see waves of wildebeest and zebra spilling out across the plains towards the Mara Triangle until every ridge and hillside was black with slowly moving columns that spread out everywhere except along the meandering luggas – the seasonal watercourses with their dark shade trees and dense scrub where the lions were lying in wait.

From our lofty vantage point I could see deep down into the northern Serengeti as far as the granite kopjes of Wogakuria, and away towards the tabletop silhouette of Mike Tango Hill in the Mara Triangle where the ashes of Myles Turner, the great Serengeti warden, lie at rest in the land he loved.

Through binoculars I picked out the hunchbacked shapes of hyenas rocking through the grass in search of the lame, the sick and the young. Scavengers they may be, but the hyenas – the slovenly gangsters of these open savannahs – are also efficient killers in their own right, accounting for more wildebeest calves than all the other predators put together.

THE ROCKY VALLEY LION PRIDE
The next day, Moses and I set out to explore the Rocky Valley, where giant slabs and domes of weathered granite lie in the grass like basking whales. The area is home to the Rock Valley lion pride. The pride’s seven lionesses and solitary pride male were nowhere to be seen, but later in the day we had better luck on the plains beyond Sausage Tree Crossing, where we came across a pair of mating lions.

The male was a superb specimen with a magnificent black mane, and Moses recognised him instantly. This was one of the sons of Notch, the legendary Lion King of the Masai Mara. Oblivious to the close presence of our vehicle, he mounted his lioness at regular intervals – a fierce wooing that ended every time with a volley of bad-tempered snarling.

It had rained overnight, drawing in still more herds of wildebeest and zebra in numbers beyond counting, along with eland, kongoni and topi, all moving through the tall waving grasses and over the long ridges that rolled away like the waves of the sea; and wherever we looked, on the sunlit green slopes and in the wide hollows below, lay the ever-growing multitude of the migration.

Water lilies still bloomed in the pools that lay in every lugga, and beside one we found the carcass of a wildebeest the hyenas had killed and were now busily demolishing. In no time the squabbling hyenas were joined by a pair of quick, darting jackals. Then the vultures arrived, settling over the carcass like a feathery shroud, until all that remained was a wreckage of ribs and a dark stain in the grass.

Yet no matter how many wildebeest fall prey to the carnivores, the great mass would survive, taking part in the greatest wildlife show on earth to the delight of every visitor in the Masai Mara, until the onset of the short rains in October triggers their return to the Serengeti and the short grass plains where they were born.


LIONS
Everybody who goes on safari wants to see a lion and the Mara has a greater density of the big cats than anywhere except Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park, a much smaller area. The greatest numbers and the biggest prides are to be found in the conservancies, notably Naboisho and Olare Motorogi.

ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME
A hot air balloon flight over the Mara has to be one of life’s great experiences. Best described as going to heaven in a picnic hamper, you lift off at dawn, enjoying a vulture’s-eye view of the plains and their teeming herds before touching down for a champagne breakfast in the bush. Best to book in advance, with prices from around US$500.

The Great Migration
The migration happens every year as the wildebeest herds embark on their 2900km journey, chasing the rains in a race for life. The action takes place across 400,000 square kilometres of woodlands, hills and open plains – a wilderness bigger than Holland – covering Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The wildebeest are the key players (1.5 million of them) accompanied by 200,000 zebras and 500,000 gazelles.

Their odyssey begins in the south of the park when half a million calves are born between January and March. When the rains end in May the wildebeest move north to the Mara, their dry season refuge. Zebras are often the first to arrive, chomping down the tall grass with the wildebeest in their wake. Here they remain from July through to October, and if you want to see the spectacular river crossings this is the time to come.

With the beginning of the short rains in late October the migrating herds trek back to Tanzania, making this a good time to be anywhere in the northern Serengeti between Klein’s Camp and the Lamai Wedge. Come February and the herds are back on their calving grounds and the circle is complete.

WATCHING CHEETAH
The Mara Cheetah Project recommends that you never rush towards a sighting of cheetah and keep a distance of at least 30m from these rare and vulnerable animals. Do not surround a cheetah on a kill. Minimise the number of vehicles at a cheetah sighting. Keep noise levels down to a minimum and never come between a mother and her cubs.

DID YOU KNOW?
When the Masai Mara National Reserve was established in 1961 it covered only 520 sq km. Today the figure is 1,510 sq km – almost the same size as Greater London, and the adjoining conservancies that have sprung up since 2005 have doubled the amount of land set aside for ecotourism. Ranging in size up to 74,00 acres, they help to protect the dispersal area beyond the reserve where the migrating herds roam in the dry season. Based on a partnership between safari companies and the Maasai landowners, the conservancy camps include some of Africa’s finest, and the game viewing – especially for big cats – is unrivalled.