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Wildebeest migration: The river crossing that dwarfs the rest

By Peter Muiruri | August 1st 2021

 “kill” by the river. You will struggle to make out whether the wildebeest was split asunder by a crocodile or an angry hippo. You will feel like those Nairobians who got stuck in the city when the ‘vrooming Vasha’ rally was on a few weeks ago.

Take heart, you will be in good company. You love your country and deep in your heart, you endeavour to uplift the livelihoods of those who depend on Masai Mara for a living. Make no mistake, I would love to watch the wildebeest migration if only to bag some bragging rights. But the spectacle has evaded me yet again.

Last week, I made a visit to the Mara, the second in as many months. My friends in the region had sent me a few photos that whetted my appetite for the migration. Some wildebeests were making the famed crossing. A few days later, I hopped on one of those regular parties that treat Mara as their second home.

We left Nairobi on a cold Tuesday morning for the four-hour drive to the plains. The sun’s rays began to penetrate the clouds just before Narok town, uplifting our expectations further. Leaving the main highway a few kilometres after the town, billowing dust devils swirled, making landfall on nearby wheat plantations. A young Masai boy drove his family’s wealth across a dry riverbed, searching for a calmer spot to forage. From the bowels of Aitong Hills, an impala sprinted across the road, forcing our driver to hit the emergency brakes. Life in the Mara was beginning to unfurl.

From these hills of Aitong, the plains of Masai Mara spread out in all their splendour. A twisting but vibrant greenline stood out from the nearly parched earth. Trees lining up the Mara River, the lifeline of this ecosystem and on whose banks are some of the most exclusive lodges in the Mara. Some, like Fairmont Mara, our pit stop for this leg of our safari, lie a few metres from the bank, on a wooded part of the Mara with a wire fence separating guests from the grunting hippos.

Time seemed to ebb away faster, with so much to see and do. In the Mara, the humid afternoon air lures one to snooze, and like the animals that call Mara home, to awaken just before sunset for nocturnal flairs. And so we left the camp for the hills, Aitong of course, where a bonfire set near the rhino sanctuary awaited. Enroute, a pair of male elephants engaged in friendly banter, the sound of tusks making some in our party uneasy. Well-fed zebras scampered to avoid being caught up in the jumbo fight. A journey of giraffes (colloquially called so because of the way they gracefully traverse the plains) also made their exit from the scene, their necks slowly disappearing in a nearby thicket. The end of another day in Ol Choro Oiroua Conservancy.

At the sundowner, animated conversations pierced through the calm evening. Creatures of the night began to make their presence known. Crickets chirped. Their sound is known as stridulation. A non-stop sound. From a distance, a hyena ‘laugh’ was the alarm we needed to get back to camp, and to our hippos.

My friend who had promised a front row seat at the migration comes from Aitong. He was still optimistic that come the following day, the wandering grazers will be doing their thing at the river, but deep in the game reserve. “I was there yesterday and I saw the crossing,” he reiterated.

At first light, we were on our way to the reserve, stopping briefly to observe a lone cheetah and an impala kill. Kibe, our driver tried his best to manage our expectations as we drove towards Talek Gate and into the reserve. He has been on these tracks before—15 years on the wild beat. Many times, he has woken up early with the hope that his guests will see the migration. “These are wild animals and do not have any appointment with anyone,” he warned us. “Enjoy Mara’s abundance.” And there was plenty, right after crossing the Talek River bridge.

Through the radio, Kibe received word that a pride of lions was having an early meal a few kilometres from the gate. Within minutes, other drivers who had received the same information flocked to the scene. The lions were least bothered by our intrusion, until one driver, against the park rules, decided to veer off the track, stopping just a few metres from the pride. He was too close for comfort and the lions just carried off their quarry into the woods much to the chagrin of the other guests.

We drove on, but stopped again to search for some eyeglasses that Kari had dropped while taking photos of some wildebeests. At the ‘Lookout Hill’, so named for its higher elevation in comparison to the rest of the park, we watched as herds approached the river, hoping for one to dive in and ignite the action. But no. They were content with snorting along the banks. We drove close to the river. “Hapa iko tu msumeno.” Kibe was referring to a crocodile—the jagged teeth resembling a saw—that too, was patiently waiting for the period of plenty to start.

I called my friend again later that evening. He was sorry that we didn’t get to see the crossing. By the time you are reading this, tens of thousands of wildebeests and zebras will have already crossed the Mara River. We had missed our appointment. Yet, there is more to the Mara than wildebeests. It is the conversations by the fire, the bush dinners and wild breakfasts. And the spectacular sunsets. Still, it will be another year of the wildebeest.  

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