Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kenya 2011: The Masai Mara

If you have ever watched a documentary featuring scenes of the great wildebeest migration between Kenya and Tanzania, then you have seen images of the Masai Mara. In fact, if you've ever watched a documentary about Africa in general, there's a good chance you've seen images of the Masai Mara. It is iconic: vast open expanses of savanna, dotted here and there by gnarly trees, speckled with distant animals browsing on the gently undulating hills. There are giraffes, elephants, jackals, hyenas, antelopes galore, mongooses, and tons of birds--especially birds of prey. It's quite a magnificent spectacle, even when you visit during the "off" season (which we did), and even when you drive through in the middle of the day when animals have made themselves scarce and there is nothing to see but the habitat. In one of E.O. Wilson's tamer books on sociobiology, he wrote about how the "ideal" human habitat--the one combining all the features that we humans describe as making us feeling happiest and most relaxed--is the African savanna; this stems from the fact that, as a species, we were born there. After spending three days on safari across this habitat, staring at it for hours on end through the car window, I could see where he might have a point.

(A view of the Masai Mara. Our driver kept assuring us that, although the placement of the trees often looks planned, it is not. I don't think any of our students thought that might be a possibility, but I guess that previous tourists must have been suspicious).

We entered the Masai Mara on the morning of our 12th day and remained there for the duration of our stay in Kenya. The trip to the Mara was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable journeys I have ever taken. For one thing, by the morning that we'd left for the Mara, I was undeniably ill. I had moved from "discomfort" to "disease," having awakened twice in the middle of the previous night to run and be sick. I was exhausted and hungry and my stomach was desperately unhappy. Less than a half hour into the trip, I had to ask the driver to pull over so I could run to the nearest patch of bushes and be sick again. Luckily for me, there was an eerie fog rolling across the landscape, so I was completely hidden from the view of the road; unluckily for the antelopes nearby, they couldn't see me coming until I was practically on top of them, so as I journeyed through the mist I sent many startled gazelles bolting away.

Fortunately, this was the one and only "bush break" that I required during our trip. However, my discomfort was only just beginning. The roads that we drove on were, without a doubt, the worst I have ever seen--or felt. We started off driving on a fairly large, well-traveled road; "well-traveled," in this instance, means that there were lots of potholes, because there was a fair amount of traffic. In an attempt to preserve the suspension of our vehicle, our driver kept dodging back and forth from one side of the road to the other, weaving around potholes and ruts. My stomach was such a mess that I was beyond getting carsick, but I saw many green faces amongst the other passengers. What we didn't realize was that the roads would only get worse from here; every time we made an additional turn, we seemed to step down in road quality. By the time we finally arrived at the Mara, we were stiff and sore all over from the incessant bumping. I kept thinking of the early American pioneers who journeyed westward across a series of corduroy roads; I literally have felt their pain.

On the up side, driving through such remote places gave us the chance to have some neat and unexpected wildlife encounters. At one point, when everyone else had fallen asleep except for the driver and I, I looked out my window just in time to see a jackal sit down by the side of the road and calmly watch us pass. Later on, we came across another pack of (probably young) jackals trotting alongside the road, probably off to find a nice place to rest during the hottest part of the day.

We stopped just inside the Mara gates in order to have a restroom break before our long safari across the park. As expected, we were mobbed by a group of enterprising Masai women selling a variety of souvenir trinkets. However, we had expected the mobbing to be much worse, so being accosted by only a half dozen moderately insistent salespeople wasn't so bad. What amazed me is that the students continued to buy items from the salespeople each time we stopped; it's not that the things were expensive--in fact, they were pretty cheap--but I kind of assumed that eventually the need or interest for these products would diminish. The Masai women obviously knew that there would be ever more opportunities to make a sale, which is why they kept appearing everywhere we stopped.

Within minutes of entering the Mara, we ran across our first elephants of the trip. This was the moment that many people had been waiting for, and there was a frenzy of camera shutter activity as everyone documented the event. To be honest, I yet again felt a bit underwhelmed. Because we were required to stay a certain distance away from the animals (unless they happened to walk out in front of us, of course), we couldn't quite get a sense of the size of the elephants; on top of this, I had that same feeling of "been there, done that," from prior experiences in zoos and animal parks. I felt terribly guilty for feeling that way, but as you sit in the safety of your safari vehicle, you can't help but have the sense that the scene is a bit contrived. Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't snap any photos:

(An elephant munching on some bushes. As you might imagine, given the size of elephants and the appetites they are likely to have, these herbivores play a very important role in shaping and maintaining the Masai Mara ecosystem).

One of the things I disliked most about the Mara was something that had been foreshadowed during our trip to Lake Nakuru. The drivers are obsessed with finding you what they think you want to see, and their expectations have been formed by experience with your average "Big 5"-seeking tourist (in other words, not biologists who are interested in everything, or conservationists who want to tread lightly). Thus, we were constantly making detours to try to catch glimpses of things that were either too far off, or too well hidden in the undergrowth, to see. The drivers routinely broke park rules and drove around in places they shouldn't have, or approached the animals too closely. For instance, we once drove through a patch of bushes--literally, through the bushes, not between them--so we could barely see an exposed bit of flesh of a napping lion. Given that we'd already seen dozens of lions--including the hunting party during our first big outing--I would have been perfectly happy to let this sleeping cat lie. One truly horrendous encounter occurred late in the afternoon of our first drive through the Mara. After receiving a tip from a passing driver, we caught up with a group of buses that were parked next to some bushes. We had no idea what we were looking at, but eventually caught sight of a lion cub peeking out of the undergrowth. This sighting was met with the requisite amount of cooing, until the cub emerged looking frightened and confused and making pitiful mewling sounds. By collecting stories from the other students, we eventually discovered that originally the cub had been lying there with his mother and siblings, who were disturbed from their slumber when the first of the buses showed up. The other cats had wandered off, but this one--possibly a runt or just a bit more timid--stayed behind. As more and more vehicles showed up, it became increasingly distraught, especially after some of the buses cut off the path the cub would need to take to catch up with its family. Once everyone figured out what had happened, they rapidly asked our drivers to get us out of there; one of the girls in my van actually burst into tears because she was so upset at the thoughtlessness of our drivers and their lack of concern for the wildlife (although I should point out that there was generally plenty of encouragement from the back seat when the drivers indulged in some of their less ethical behavior). Luckily, this story has a happy ending: We ran across the same family of cats on the following day and saw all the cubs sitting safely with their mom. One of them did seem a bit more cautious and withdrawn than the others, and I am willing to bet that he was the one who'd been traumatized by our presence the night before:

(They are as cute in person as they are in photos and videos. You are not ever tempted to conflate "cub" with "kitten," because these guys are much more sturdy and chunky than the baby cats we're used to in domestic settings.)

By the time we reached the Mara, the students were absolutely obsessed with finding the more elusive big cats--leopards and cheetahs. People can spend years in Kenya without ever seeing a leopard, though as we saw during our trip up Mt. Kenya, the commonness of leopard poo indicates that they are always nearby, lurking in the shadows. During our first afternoon in the Mara, we got incredibly lucky and had an amazing leopard encounter. I am not sure who first spotted the leopard, or how; it was lying in a ditch in the shade of some bushes, using the camouflage on its fur to completely blend in with the habitat. Eventually, more and more people caught sight of it as it stealthily made its way through the grass. I have no idea why it suddenly decided to move from its napping place--we weren't that close to it, and, as we shall see, it seemed completely unphased by our presence. In any case, it reached some point when it decided that furtiveness was no longer necessary, stood up, emerged from the grass, sauntered across the road directly between two of the buses, and unhurriedly made its way towards a distant tree, where it presumably was going to nap until it was time to hunt again. I wish I had a good photo of the experience, but it took me so long to spot the cat to begin with that I didn't want to tear my eyes away and go searching for my camera, for fear that it would disappear while I was looking elsewhere.

As for cheetahs, we finally managed to see one on our last day of safari, all thanks to a student who was adamant that we experience the big-cat triumvirate. During stops to view other wildlife, the student repeatedly scanned the distance until, at last, he spotted what he thought looked like a couple of ears poking up out of the grass, probably about a half mile away. To be honest, I think his find was nothing short of miraculous, since I could barely see the cat even when I was getting explicit directions from everyone else in the van. We again were incredibly lucky; the cat not only decided to move, thus making itself more visible, but it actually moved towards us and into a more open area of habitat. What's more, it suddenly started stalking a group of gazelles across the road, and even made a brief dash after a couple of them before deciding it was too much work. So, not only did we get to see an elusive cat, but we also saw it in action. For me, the best part of the encounter was watching a nearby trio of ostriches catch a whiff of the cheetah as the wind shifted, then suddenly bolt off into the distance; for as far as we could see them, they were still running as though their lives depended on it (they most likely didn't--usually cats will only hunt ostriches when they are working in pairs or groups, because the birds' big, powerful legs and feet can launch a deadly assault).

(Having failed to catch a gazelle, the cheetah retreats across the road and tries to recuperate his dignity and energy.)

Of course, me being me, I was also paying quite a lot of attention to the birds in (and over) the Mara. Seeing ostrich for the first time was pretty neat, since I've never seen them grazing in a vegetated area before (in other words, in their natural habitat). I've now seen two of the three long-legged, flightless bird species--emus in Australia and ostriches in Africa; now I just need to get back to South America to spot some rheas. Throughout the trip, we frequently ran across flocks of guineafowl, which are beautiful game birds with speckled blue plumage. One of the groups we saw was running parallel to the road, and from that angle they looked like 2D animals with projecting heads and feet--kind of like the deck-of-card soldiers from Alice in Wonderland. It was a very unusual sight:

(Helmeted guineafowl on the run.)

Perhaps one of the ornithological highlights was a trio of southern ground-hornbills, hefty and rather Jurassic-looking birds that are not seen all that commonly:

Southern ground-hornbills searching for food near the side of the road. A closely related species of hornbill has a bright purple face instead of red; obviously they are not too worried about blending in.)

We also stumbled across the nest of a secretary bird, which I am told is not that common of an occurrence. Evidently the birds only nest once in their lifetime, and, given their size, I am guessing that they are fairly long-lived animals. Like many species with those characteristics, secretary birds are experiencing some population declines; we are lucky to have seen the half dozen or so individuals that we did, and the nest was definitely a bonus.

Although much of our time in the Mara was spent meandering across the countryside in the hopes of eventually encountering something interesting, we did make a couple of directed trips. One of these was to the Mara River crossing that is so famous for the role it plays in the violent and painful deaths of many migrating wildebeest. Although fairly empty during our visit, during the migration the river is chock-full of hungry crocodiles, who submerge themselves and wait for unsuspecting wildebeests to wander past. We only saw a couple of the reptiles, both of which were lounging about on the muddy banks. The river was, however, full of slumbering hippos, which occasionally made grumpy snorting sounds and performed their less than endearing poo-spreading display (as they poo, they whip their tail back and forth rapidly in order to fling their scent around towards neighboring hippos).

(Napping hippos, mostly submerged in the river.)

One morning we had a great view of hyenas enjoying a fresh kill as the first rays of light peeked over the horizon. The matriarch of the group was wearing a radio collar that had been attached to her several years earlier as part of a scientific study; researchers have been tracking the movements of her group since that time. Judging by the size of the pack and the success of the kill, I'd say that they were doing pretty well:

(Sunrise in the Masai Mara. The dots to the left are the hyenas enjoying their kill. You might also be able to spot the eagle that swooped down to get in on the action.)

We often encountered some scenes in the Mara that seemed too staged to be real--you had the feeling you were watching a documentary or looking at a nature panorama in a museum. One example is the slumbering male lions that we came across one afternoon. We'd seen many females up to that point, but male was so striking because of his big, stereotypical mane:

(Quite a handsome fellow. He appeared to be co-commanding the pride with another male, likely his brother.)

Another example is giraffes, which you often see silhouetted in the distance, reaching up to browse on leaves in the tree canopy. My favorite giraffe experience was getting to see one in the famously awkward process of bending down to get a drink, a procedure so fraught with difficulty that it sent all the giraffe's oxpeckers flying off to find another host:

(On this evening, we saw over a dozen giraffes wandering across the savanna together. The one on the far right is attempting to lower itself down to drink from a puddle. One really does have to wonder about the evolutionary process when watching something as awkward as this.)

It's easy to become so focused on the big, "exciting" species that you forget to pay attention to the smaller, more common animals. We must have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of antelope during our stay in Kenya, and after you almost become blind to how beautiful they are. The topi, for instance, have the most amazing patchwork pattern of browns on their hides, as though they've just emerged from a drunken ramble through a paint store. The impala are also quite striking, with their giant harems lorded over by a single proud male. We ran across one male who was using a series of indignant-sounding snorts and bellows to get his ladies in line:

(The male impala is the one to the far left, with the horns; all the others are breeding females or juveniles.)

Our campsite, which was located just outside one of the entrances to the Mara and near a tributary or branch of the Mara River, was also quite full of wildlife. Thanks to the intense birding I did there, I was able to bring my trip species total up to 210. On our last afternoon, while the students were working on their assignments, I wandered around and managed to see 5 different species of waxbills: the cordon bleu (which had eluded me since the beginning of the trip), the purple grenadier, the common waxbill, the green-winged pytilia, and the bronze mannikin. These little finches are all really beautiful birds, with incredible colors and plumage patterns. Catching sight of one emerging from the undergrowth is like seeing a gem glittering in the sunlight.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all fun and games in our campsite. During our second afternoon there, we had a tremendous downpour (I couldn't help but think of the Toto song "Africa" the whole time). It was so intense, and lasted for so long, that we experienced serious flooding throughout the camp. Many of the tents were completely waterlogged, and both students and faculty ended up with soggy books, wet clothing, and ruined electronics. I, on the other hand, was staying in a banda and so was let off easy.

I am ashamed to say it, but potentially the most memorable moment of my entire time in the Mara was when I had a bathroom emergency while we were out watching lions one morning. Despite the fact that I deliberately avoided drinking any fluids before we went out in the morning, I found my bladder at the point of bursting just as we caught sight of an adorable family of lions. I hated to admit my condition because everyone was reveling in the scene of cubs nudging at Mom and Dad, trying to get them to wake up and play, and Mom and Dad rolling over and attempting to go back to sleep. Finally, I had to ask the driver if there was something I could do about my condition, and he told me that, with all the lions about, the safest course of action was to drive out into the middle of a huge open expanse so that I could crouch behind the bus and pee in the safety (and relatively privacy) of its shadow. Rather than being upset at the inconvenience the students were amused at the situation, particularly when I took so long to pee (I really had to go) that another bus started driving our way and I had to rush to finish. Luckily, the other bus was part of our group, so it wasn't too humiliating when our driver told everyone what I was doing, and a whole new group of people laughed at my circumstance. On the up side, I was the only person in our entire travel party who had the opportunity to stand out in the open, free and unprotected, in the wilderness of the Masai Mara. For just the briefest of moments, I was sharing space with elephants and feline predators and hyenas, with no car doors or windows between us. Pretty cool.

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