Wednesday, 17/12/2008: Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara National Reserve is part of a very large grassland savannah ecosystem. It is the northern extension of the famous Serengeti in Tanzania. Both, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara are best known for their annual migration of wildebeest and zebra, but also for their large numbers of lions, leopards and cheetahs. The big cats of the Masai Mara have starred in many nature documentaries, such as the BBC’s “Big Cat Diary”. Our visit to the reserve did not coincide with the big migration; the large numbers of wildebeest and zebra had left a month or two earlier.
Our chosen campsite was located near the Talek gate, which turned out to be a bit of a disadvantage, as there were not many animals to the south of the Talek River. We discovered this on our first morning drive, when we didn’t manage to see all that much, apart from a few topis. They are a strange-looking antelope species, and like to stand on the top of termite mounds to have a better view of their surroundings and any approaching predators.
We came across a hippo that was grazing out in the open, but, the moment it spotted us, it made a hasty retreat into a nearby stream. Shortly after, we had a sighting of some hyenas, including some youngsters, who look really cute with their darker fur.
The birds were every bit as diverse and interesting as the mammals; here's a small selection including crowned plover, white-browed coucal and bustards.
After a while of driving without seeing much more, we decided to cross the Talek River. We found a ford, but there were a few hippos a little further down the river. One mother and her fairly big youngster climbed out onto the opposite riverbank, but the others stayed put.
The bottom of the ford was naturally paved in stone slabs, but half way across one of our wheels suddenly dropped into a hidden hole! We had a bit of a scary moment, especially with the hippos lurking about, but fortunately, the other wheels found enough grip to pull us out and we were glad to reach the other side of the river! We ended up crossing the Talek and another small river several times during our stay, but after this first little scare Maren at least was always a bit apprehensive! The Mara River with its many crocodiles and hippos was an impassable barrier for our car – you have to be a fearless wildebeest to cross there! – so we always had to cross the Talek to get to the areas north of the Mara River and to the marshes around Governor’s Camp.
Compared with the bush country of Samburu, the open, rolling grasslands of the Masai Mara were not as appealing to us, although we could see the advantage for game spotting, as most animals were easily visible out in the open, with little cover for them to hide in.
Overall, the first morning was fairly quiet. We came across many more topis, impalas, Thomson's gazelles, our first Masai giraffe, an elephant and some bustards.
On the way back to the campsite, we noticed three parked cars clustered around near a big Kori bustard. As a group of cars is always a sure sign that something was going on, we headed over to them and when we approached, we were told that there was a hunting cheetah somewhere in the long grass. However, despite searching high and low, there was no cheetah anywhere in sight, and we started thinking that the people were trying to make fun of us. We decided to stay anyway and wait and see what happened. Instead of watching an invisible cheetah, we had a good look at the other cars, and one of them had a big film camera sticking out of the side! We were wondering if it was a film crew for the BBC’s “Big Cat Diary”, but couldn’t see who was inside the car from where we were parked. After some time waiting in the midday heat, we eventually saw a cheetah walk out of the higher grass. And it was not just one cheetah - it was a mother with three very small cubs! She sat down on a termite mound and we were able to approach her much closer.
The cubs had no fear of the tourist vehicles and even walked over and relaxed in the shade under one of them! After some time mum called them back and all four set off down into the plains. We were very happy to have found our first cheetahs and were absolutely amazed that they allowed us to approach them so closely! It was definitely the highlight of the day!
The rest of the return journey was fairly eventless, with the exception of a few more giraffe and a herd of slightly nervous elephants including a small calf.
After lunch and a rest at our campsite, we set off again into the reserve. As we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to where we had seen the cheetah, we decided to stay south of the Talek River and head further south into the reserve than we had in the morning. The passengers of another car pointed out a serval cat to us, and we manage to spot the animal. We tried to follow it, but it was amazing how the serval managed to disappear in the high grass, popping up occasionally in a totally unexpected place and eventually giving us the slip altogether. Nevertheless, it was an amazing sighting, as servals are not often seen during the day.
The rest of the afternoon produced a secretary bird, several jackals, topis and some Thomson’s gazelles.
Back in the camp that evening, we were again approached by the Masai, who asked us to buy firewood from them and suggested we take a guide for our next day’s drive. We politely declined again, and pointed out that we had managed to find our own cheetahs, and were quite happy looking for things ourselves.
Thursday, 18/12/2008: Masai Mara National Reserve
Soon after entering the reserve, Mick spotted a leopard mother and cub. Unfortunately they disappeared immediately into thick bush and it was impossible to approach them there. Also, the light was still fairly poor, so it wasn’t a good photo opportunity. But it was definitely a great start to the day! Soon after we came across two jackals, some eland, buffalo and a few hartebeest. We also encountered a mother giraffe and her youngster. The mother was feeding in the trees, while the young giraffe was at first posing for us, but then lost its nerve and galloped away.
We then crossed the Talek River near a group of hippos and headed back towards the same area where we had spotted the cheetahs the day before, in the hope of seeing them again. And yes, we could already see the camera car, and next to it a group of cheetahs! Just as we arrived, we witnessed one of the apparently quite frequent dramas in the life of a cheetah family. While they were happily sitting on a termite mound, which they use as lookouts, a lioness approached the family. Lions will kill cheetahs if they get a chance, presumably as they see them as competitors for food. The little ones especially were suddenly in grave danger! The cheetah mum let the lioness approach frighteningly close before she gave a little noise that scattered the cubs into the high grass. She then moved directly towards the lioness, taunting her and running off as soon as the bigger cat gave chase. Given its speed, the cheetah could obviously easily outrun the lioness, and she managed to lure her away from the area where the three cubs were hiding by repeatedly taunting her. After a while the lioness appeared thoroughly confused, gave up the chase and walked off.
The cheetah mum then sat down on a termite mound right in among the assembled cars and made a series of chirping noises, which sounded more like a bird than what one might expect from a big cat, calling her cubs to join her. One immediately shot out of the grass and joined mum, but there was no sign of the other two. We all waited with bated breath, fearing the worst for the two little ones, but after a seemingly endless five minutes they reappeared together and joined mum and their sibling. Phew! We were all greatly relieved! What a scary moment! They sat together on the termite mound for quite a while and we were able to take plenty more family portraits. When they eventually decided to head off, we decided to leave them to it, after the scare they had just been through.
Just when we were about to drive on, we heard a suspicious hissing noise – we had yet another flat tyre! And we could still see the lioness prowling about, and there were also two buffalos hanging around nearby! Not the best place and time to get out and change a wheel. Maren was posted on the roof as lookout for any creatures sneaking up on the car with bad intentions, while Mick changed the wheel in record time! When we were able to continue, we came across the camera car, which had been following the lioness. The cameraman was none other than Simon King, as we had already suspected! This time he wasn’t filming lions for the famous BBC “Big Cat Diary”, he was making a film for Disney, starring the cheetah mum and her three girls. We later learned that she was named Shakira or Sita. We had a brief chat with him, but he was very keen to set off and follow the cheetahs.
We briefly tried to catch up with the lioness, but she headed off into a thicket and we decided to head towards the Mara River in order to have a short break somewhere in the shade.
On the way to the river we saw several ostriches, wattled plover, beautiful crowned cranes and another Kori bustard.
Charles had prepared a picnic lunch for us, so we didn’t have to return to the campsite and could stay out all day. So we found ourselves some shade under the trees near the river. We finished our sandwiches without interruption, but when we were about to eat our dessert of homemade biscuits, we suddenly heard branches breaking and a herd of elephants materialised out of the bushes. The Mara elephants appeared much bigger than those from Samburu, grey in colour and slightly more nervous. Soon they completely surrounded the car, and we had to hope that they stayed calm. Maybe they were hoping for some crumbs of Charles' tasty biscuits… We kept a few crumbs, in case we had to bribe them to let us pass. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to mind us too much, and just continued with their own business. When it was safe to start the car again, we drove back out onto the plains, where we immediately came across a magnificent bull elephant with quite big tusks.
As it was very hot, we decided to head back to the campsite, although we had originally planned to stay out all day. On the way back we spotted Simon King’s car again and decided to make a quick detour and check what was happening. And what a lucky decision that was! We had only just arrived near his car, when we saw a cheetah starting to stalk a Thomson’s gazelle. She wasn’t very close to the gazelle when suddenly she broke out into a spectacular run – the speed of cheetahs is truly astonishing! After a short chase it was clear that the Thommie didn’t stand a chance, despite making rapid changes in direction, and the cheetah soon pulled it down, clamping its neck with her mouth and suffocating it.
Before the trip Maren had always said that she didn’t really want to witness a kill, as it is so brutal, but we both sat on the roof of the car willing the cheetah on to catch the gazelle! And given that it was the same cheetah we had met twice before, we felt very strongly that she should be successful and get some food for her little cubs. It was an amazing experience to see a hunt from the very beginning to the successful end, and it didn’t take long! The cheetah mum then called her cubs to dinner with those sweet chirping noises. They instantly came running and started feeding on the still warm gazelle.
Suddenly, at this critical moment, a large herd of cattle appeared, moving straight towards the cheetah family. The cheetah mum was clearly nervous of this intrusion and pulled the cubs off the kill, which sent Simon King into a fury. The herd of cattle were well inside the reserve where they shouldn’t be, as it is strictly prohibited for any livestock to enter the protected area. But because the land outside the reserve was so overgrazed, the Masai frequently ignore the rules and bring their animals onto the better grazing. As the Masai run the reserve, nothing much gets done about it. Simon King told us that he had reported several herds of cattle in the area over the past days, but to no avail. Apparently, the cheetahs hadn’t fed for three days, so it was extremely important that they were not interrupted before hyenas and other scavengers found the kill. Vultures were already circling overhead. Simon King drove over to the cattle and, together with one of the tourist cars, started banging on his doors, chasing them away, in order to protect the kill of “his” cheetahs. As we didn’t want to add to the stress of the cheetah family, we left, hoping that they would be able to eat enough before the hyenas and vultures descended on the kill.
Further along we saw a car in the distance parked under a tree and we were just about to head over to check it out, when we spotted a pride of lions under a bush directly ahead of us! There were at least ten very sleepy lions under a couple of bushes, including several fairly big cubs. We approached them, but only one lioness briefly got up in order to flop down in a more comfortable position. Nothing else looked set to happen, but we were amazed again at how close we could get to these wild animals!
We decided to check out the car, and when we reached the tree, we could see that there were three cheetahs hanging out there! They were three males, and, as it later turned out, TV stars too! The three sleepy cats were just about to finish their siesta, stretching and yawning.
The apparent leader then got up and started heading away from the tree and past our car.
The other two brothers seemed to be more reluctant to get going and lounged around for a while longer. Eventually they got up too, but before heading off they marked their tree by peeing against it, and also followed the other call of nature.
They then headed off, walking right past the parked cars and down the track towards where their brother was waiting for them. All three then headed in the direction of the resting lions, so we hoped that they wouldn't have a nasty run-in with them.
We had a chat with the guy in the car, and it turned out that he was one of Simon King’s trackers, who followed these three cheetahs all day long and called his boss if it looked as though anything exciting was about to happen. The three cheetahs were known as “Honey’s Boys”, the sons of Honey, one of the famous cheetahs of the “Big Cat Diary”, and they were about to become one of the most formidable cheetah coalitions in the Mara.
We spent a little bit of time watching a group of hippos in a wide bend in the Talek River, as well as two elephants, who were enjoying the fresh greens on the riverbank.
Closer to camp we came across yet another cheetah sleeping under a bush! After all the unsuccessful searching in Samburu, we saw eight cheetahs in one day in the Masai Mara, and most of them were TV stars! We decided not to cross the Talek River again, but stayed on the north side of it, which briefly led us out of the reserve and back through the Talek village, where we had our punctured tyre fixed.
We were extremely pleased to have made the detour to the Masai Mara, even if we didn’t enjoy the landscape as much as Samburu. It was certainly an amazing place for the big cats, and we also saw the “usual suspects”, including elephant, hippo, Masai giraffe, and lots of antelope and gazelle, warthogs, jackals and even a serval cat.
Friday, 19/12/2008: Masai Mara National Reserve – Nairobi
Our next destination was going to be Amboseli National Park, which is known for its elephant families living at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. As we planned to continue to Tsavo National Park afterwards, we had to fit in some time for shopping in Nairobi beforehand. Before leaving for Nairobi, Charles insisted on cleaning the car, as it was rather muddy and, in his opinion, “unworthy” of going to the big city! One has to keep up appearances!
The drive to Nairobi was pretty tiring again, as it was hot and dusty and parts of the road were in very bad condition. In the afternoon we arrived in Dagoretti, where Charles lives, so we called in to visit his house. His wife, Victoria, welcomed us with a belated lunch, which was very welcome after the long hours in the car! While we ate, their three sons were telephoned and told to come and meet the muzungus. So we met Charles’ whole family, except for his daughter, who lives in a different part of Nairobi after getting married. After this visit we headed off to Karen to do our shopping, and then to the campsite just outside Nairobi National Park, where we had booked two small rooms for the night so we didn’t have to set up our tents.