Have you ever looked at something and thought “how did they do that?” or maybe even “why are they doing that?” That’s the only two questions you need when you’re talking about the 8 wonders of the world. Even that name tugs at something inside all of us. Whether you’re talking about the pyramids or the hanging gardens of Babylon. The name comes from ancient Greece and what it denotes is things that are a “must see.” You have to be there to get it.
First, let us take a minute to address the nation and also humble brag that we got to witness one of the most spectacular wonders of the world: The Great Migration in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We should also add that we did it all on a shoe string budget. The great migration is a spectacle, where out of all the animals you could possibly think of, it’s the wildebeests that chose to do this. Every year like clockwork (almost) millions and millions of hooves make their way from Kenya and into Tanzania and vice versa. What’s up with those guys? Who would know? The migration happens all year round. You’d think it’s just a single file one-way trip but no. Yes, a majority of the animals move toward Tanzania but surprise surprise, sometimes there’s also traffic in the opposite direction. For the purpose of this story though, it doesn’t matter. Most people come for one reason and one reason only. To witness that one moment when all the wildebeest jump into a river just in time for dinner with some crocodiles. The meat at this dinner is served rare.
Here in Kenya, the happening occurs around July to September and the park receives tourists nearly every hour. Sometimes there’s such a huge line of cars at the banks so hard that the animals get spooked and try to cross at more dangerous points. The migration sees the movement of about 2 million of these beasts with about 250,000 dying every year either from predation, starvation, or exhaustion. Before seeing a wildebeest in the flesh, we didn’t even know that they make a sound. We just sort of assumed they just eat and walk around. They kinda sound like cows to be honest. It’s not called the greatest show on the earth for nothing. Let’s digress abit.
Among the wildlife attractions in Kenya, Maasai Mara National Reserve has to be the greatest. The word “Mara” means “spotted” in the Maa language which is an homage to the fact that the landscape is dotted with all these acacia trees. It is home to the big five: Lions, buffalos, rhinos, leopards and elephants; and herds of other animals. The animals on that list got that name because there are lots of people who had a hard time trying to hunt them on foot in days gone by. Our driver, Evans, had all kinds of stories. Once he told us that way back when, if you were a man you had to go out and hunt so you could bring back the bacon or beef or whatever it is that lion meat is called.
Pro tip, the flesh from carnivores isn’t delicious because all the meat they eat imbues their own meat with ammonia. The masculinity and strength of man would be based on the animal they managed to hunt. The big five were most valued because of the value attached to their products: The lion’s head, the leopard’s skin, elephant’s tusks, rhino’s horns and buffalo’s meat and skin. I’m picturing some guy going out and the lady of the house sees him off like, “if it’s not too much to ask, get me the head of a lion!” These hunting trips would often take months because you can’t just walk up to these animals and be like “Hey buddy, I have a favor to ask and don’t make a big deal out of it.” You can’t just bring home wildlife now to show your love. Chivalry is dead! But don’t worry because blue ticks are forever.
The migration is such a huge event that you almost forget that it’s not just about the wildebeest. There’s lots of other animals that go with the flow. You can bet on spotting the game a few minutes into getting into the park. It’s Mostly the giraffes, gazelles, elands and of course a few predators trailing the buffet. Zebras and gnus are closely knitted. Gazelles and antelopes also join the migration but it’s only these fancy donkeys that dare to cross the rivers with the gnus. There’s a symbiotic relationship that exists between them. Zebras have a great sense of sight and the wildebeests have an awesome sense of hearing. All bases are covered. Also, there is always a pair zebras look over each other’s butts for danger so what the wildebeest do is just focus on grazing, mating and playing.
There were a couple of hair raising moments on our trip. We almost got to see a kill. Some cheetahs making advances towards the migrating clueless gnus. It was quite interesting watching them stealthily prying, camouflaged in the savannah and calculating their steps. We are on the side of either animal but we were quite anticipating to see one or the other get taken down. They must have made use of lessons from relative speed. ( A bus is moving at 80kph and a train at 40kph. If the distance between them is blablabla, how long would it take the train to catch up with the bus?) You reckon, right? The cheetahs stopped in their tracks. Buffet cancelled. Maybe they didn’t like the selection.
Most of the animals were hard to spot in during our drive. We had hoped to see the lions hunt too. Our driver told us that some animals get irritated over the noise and the flies that come with the presence of the wildebeests, so they try to move to quieter places. Elephants, especially. . Following stories on the Mara recently though, a lot of action has been going down. I wonder what has changed but by now we should be at the point where you’d love to witness these hunts in the Mara.
The peak of our visit definitely was witnessing the drama associated with crossing of the wildebeests along the Mara River. First, with animals and nature, patience is a virtue you have to exercise. We almost missed this action. Driving to the river, a handful of the gnus, in a single file headed towards the river. When we got to the site, we scouted for a good spot and sat there crossing our fingers that we would see something. Some people actually couldn’t take the wait so they left. Word was that there had been a crossing the week before, so having them cross again was actually a big ask. The animals were just chilling and drinking from the river. Maybe it was because of all the crocodiles laying by the banks of the river. It is not guaranteed that you will witness the great show. You can’t put a clock on mother Nature.
Everyone was there just trying to speak a crossing into existence when a herd of the gnus arrived and started to look for a place to cross at. Away from their predators, lurks a dilemma of jumping off the cliff. It was mind-blowing and hilarious at the same time watching the gnus take on the cliffs. There is a group that got the edge, looked below then turned back. Everyone else was watching from a distance. We had a lot of “yes, yes, Go, go!” and sudden “ahh!” moments. Probably 45 minutes into our wait, with no apparent trigger one of them successfully crossed over. A few minutes later, a herd jumped in and crossed.
Up in the air went the bellowing of the wildebeests. A signal was sent. The sounds of the wildebeests can travel as a far as 2km. Must have been the sounding of the males. From a distance, we spotted thousands of them approaching. A cloud of dust rose from the force and running of the gnus. Literally 50meters away from us, the assembling happened! It was a long 20-30 minutes of chaos and ‘ga-noo’ sounds of the wildebeests fill up the air. We stood in anticipation and anxiety. It would have been disappointing for us, having waited for close to an hour only for the gnus to turn back and head towards a different direction. Trust, this was a possibility!
They did the thing! One after another. Hoping from the cliffs and into the water. Whoop! In a single file and chromed together. There could be an odd zebra. If you blink, you miss it. At this point your excitement is likely to turn into fear as the wildebeests charge across the flowing Mara river and try to avoid the crocodiles. The smaller animals are at a disadvantage because they’re slower and have less experience. However, once the wildebeests cross safely to the other side having climbed up the steep and slippery rocks safely, you tend to let go of a sigh of relief. Add that to the list of things that can take your breath away. Corona and wildebeests. Either someone was cutting onions nearby or some of us were actually so overcome that the tears were flowing.
Despite the number of lives lost during the crossing, the gnus give birth in thousands during their migratory cycle. That is how they manage to balance their number and ecosystem. The experience cannot be adequately described by words. This is the part that we urge you to make a point of experiencing this then come back and tell us your experience. Again, you can have us plan your entire trip. Deal?
Admittedly, the flow in the number of travelers at the moment caused a huge distraction in the activity of the animals. So how do you ensure you enjoy the spectacle and other animals responsibly?
Do not leave your car. I think some people really underestimate the “wild” part of wildlife. You could be lion poop by evening if you’re not careful.
Keep to designated roads and tracks.
Minimize disturbance to animals. Do not drive between them or position your cars close to the paths the gnus use to cross the river.
Keep to the speed limit 40kph.
Do not play loud music within the park. Actually don’t blast it at home either. It scares the neighbor’s children.
This is just the tip of our Maasai Mara Trip. Stay tuned for part two.