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Of bewitching sunsets and a TikTok-ready cheetah

TRAVEL & DESTINATION
By Jacqueline Mahugu | September 26th 2021

When the sun rises and sets in the Masai Mara, you want to be there to see it. When I got this rare opportunity, I felt as if I had been teleported into a movie with fantastic editing that makes sunsets and sunrises look like the sun god Ra had personally sprinkled pixie dust on the horizon – too good to be true. Nature’s editor truly outdid herself rendering the Mara sky.

And yet, the first time I was at the Masai Mara, I never saw that. At least not unobstructed and in nature’s superior version of technicolour. I only saw it on this second trip.

And it is not just the magnificent sunsets and sunrises that I got to see much better; the stars of the show, the animals, were also at their best. Predators, especially, rest during the day and awaken as the sunsets.

The road from Narok to Masai Mara was recently tarmacked so it is a smooth ride, unlike before when travelling on it felt like a treacherous game of survival of the fittest car. Getting there from Nairobi took me only three and a half hours.

At the gate, I was picked up by a customised safari vehicle driven by the jovial Moses -clad in Maasai garb. He was my guide for the next three days and knew most animals by name and family history.

Last time, I used a tour company from Nairobi, which gives you a tour guide usually also from Nairobi. Those guides know their way through all the parks in Kenya, which is pretty impressive. As good as they are, though, they wouldn’t know it as well as a local moran who grew up grazing livestock in the surrounding area.

It took us a while to see lions last time, and when one family was finally spotted, all the tour vans rushed there, so it was such a huge queue of tour vans all lining up past the family, with rangers letting every van stop in front of them for a couple of minutes before moving on to let the people in the next van see them.

But this time, we spotted them easily, several of them from several different prides, and we watched them for as long as we wanted.

It is as if the morans have Mara-vision goggles, the same way night-vision goggles help you see at night. Moses would point out a lion from very far, camouflaged by the grass and I would squint my eyes trying to spot it until it became obvious or until we got closer.

Big cats

He knew all the big cats by name and character. The biggest lion pride in the Mara is the Sopa pride with 27 members.

I met the Rekero pride, a majestic family of lions basking in the afternoon sun, and also got up close with a huge member of the great Black Rock pride, a group of five males that are the most successful buffalo hunters in the Mara.

Speaking of lions, The Lion King film’s cultural influence is so pervasive that warthogs are called pumbas by everyone here now, just like Pumba, the warthog in the film.

I never saw Timon, the meerkat who was Pumba’s witty best friend in the film but I saw many, many other different species and sub-species of animals which I somehow missed last time, all pointed out by Moses in the course of our game drives.

“They know everywhere in the park. Even if you lose a spoon somewhere in the park and describe it to them, like, ‘You see if you pass this tree, and over this ridge,’ they will find it!” said Jackson Leintoi, the General Manager of the camp I was staying at, Matira Bush Camp.

On my first evening towards the end of the game drive, they surprised me with a sundowner.

While other travellers had already left to make the 6.30 pm mandatory exit time at the reserve, I found safari seats and a well-stocked bar table set up right in the middle of the open Masai Mara with Charles, another moran, as the barman.

The camp is located in the area that used to be the mating place of the famous Notch lions, who were one of the fiercest groups of lions to ever grace the Mara and were the starring cast of the Disney film, African Cats.

There is no fence so as not to interfere with animal movement, but there is a security team of morans who escort you to your tent.

I most certainly was not expecting a rain forest in the hot Savannah plains of the Maasai Mara, but there is one here and as a result, it attracts a lot of bird-watchers who might not even be staying there but come looking for birds. There are more than 500 species of birds here.

“Just this morning, a group of bird photographers came in and said that they had heard it is the only place where you can photograph a Turacco, in this forest. And they got it,” says Monika Braun.

She is a conservation enthusiast from Switzerland. She and Anthony Tira, a globally celebrated wildlife photography guide from the Maasai Community, founded the camp in 2009. It is one big family of about 20 members of staff.

At least 99 per cent of them are from the local Maasai Community. Matira’s combination of local culture, conscious environmental practices and international management has seen it grow into a haven for safari seekers and professional photographers from all over the globe.

My evenings were spent around the camp’s bonfire by the river, trading tales of the day’s safari and learning about the Maasai culture while being serenaded by nature’s orchestra.

Buddhilini de Soyza, one of the favourites of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, took her famous photo of the ‘Tano Bora’ cheetah coalition while staying at the camp.

Reinhard Radke, the famous German wildlife film director is a regular and will be leading Photography Study Tours at the Mara next year, and so will Rahul Sachdev, a winner of Nature’s Best Photography Awards.

It was at the bonfire where I also met Gopala Krishnan from Nikon - the Middle East, who has been documenting wildlife in the Masai Mara for nearly a decade.

The Great wildebeest migration happens in Kenya between July and October. During these months 1.5 to 2 million wildebeest make their way between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Just outside the camp were herds of this popular African antelope with a beard, mane, and a sloping back. I met hundreds, if not thousands of them during our game drives.

Due to the wildebeest migration, food is in plenty and the big cats comfortably sleep for 16 to 17 hours a day.

We also happened upon the rare sighting of a mother Serval cat and her kitten.

These smaller felines have the largest ears of any cat and can live for more than 20 years. They hunt rodents, birds, reptiles, frogs, and insects, mostly by leaping high into the air and pouncing.

Cheetahs are considered vulnerable due to their low populations, which is caused mainly by human encroachment of their habitats.

Dr Elena Chelysheva from the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project estimates that there are only about 72 adult individuals currently in the Masai Mara, with limited options for defence against larger predators.

They cannot carry their kills up trees and, except for their speed, cannot fight off hyenas or lions who often eliminate their cubs and steal their kills.

Sadly, in different years, only between from 5 to 17 per cent of cheetah cubs survive in the Mara, so most cheetahs die before reaching adulthood

One morning, the staff at camp were devastated to learn that Imani, a popular cheetah mum in the Mara, had lost her remaining two beautiful cubs, killed by Lorkulop, a lion from the Black Rock pride.

Hyenas kill them for food while lions kill them to eliminate competition.

I was fortunate to see Nora, a female cheetah who has been nicknamed Tiktok due to her beauty and aloofness.

Tiktok the cheetah

We found her sitting pretty atop an anthill and parked at a respectable distance.

Tiktok waited until we took out our cameras then slowly turned and faced the other direction, dismissing us with a flick of her royal tail - perhaps our phone cameras lacked the adequate pixels she deemed necessary to document her beauty.

A small impala came within a few feet of her, but this cat queen simply rolled over and continued with her beauty sleep. If I did not know better, I would say she was a vegan and didn’t want to ruin her nails!

On the last morning game drive, my guide stopped the Landcruiser next to a lonely acacia tree, and in minutes had safari seats, tables and an English breakfast spread out for me.

Sitting there in the wilderness with the wind quietly blowing through the golden savannah grass, a mug of hot tea and a fresh pastry in my hands, I felt like home.

Time sort of comes to a standstill here. The phrase, “There is no hurry in Africa,” comes alive. It is easy to forget what day it is and it does not matter.

“Even with Covid-19, the animals do not care. Life goes on,” Monika tells me..”

It has been long since I felt so much at peace. This was how nature intended, this is what we have to preserve.

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