June 2010

We Five and the Big Five at Mara Plains

The final act in the African drama staged by Anastasia’s Africa’s, which I experienced last month, was a stay at Mara Plains Tented Camp in a private reserve adjacent to the Masai Mara. Gorilla tracking is a hard act to follow, but even after that, Kenya was a sensational closing act.

I took my first African safari in Kenya with Micato Safaris in the ‘90s, and though I have experienced many safaris since, none has ever surpassed it for seeing the great wildlife of Africa. Within Kenya and Tanzania is the region of the great migrations, during which the wildebeests, antelopes and zebras follow the fresh grasses produced by the moving rainy season, and they are relentlessly pursued by the predators. The animals are always moving, and if you are in the right place at the right time, you will get to witness a spectacular, epic drama.

David Sugden, Anastasia’s ground operator for East Africa, who was born and raised in Kenya and worked for Abercrombie & Kent in Nairobi for 17 years, says that the Masai Mara offers the best game viewing in Africa, and many would agree with him. The great migration follows a clockwise route of 1,800 miles on the vast Serengeti Plains. On the Kenya side of the border, the Serengeti is called on the Masai Mara, but there is no border in nature. My group stayed at the Mara Plains Tented Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy, a private reserve adjacent to the Masai Mara. Because the reserve is private it’s less crowded than the Mara itself. Guests of Mara Plains are able to explore the Mara as well as the private Olare Orok and Mara North conservancies, which are themselves more than 100,000 acres. The private conservancies provide rental income for 1,000 Masai families who legally own the land.

We rode a Cessna 12-seater aircraft from Nairobi to Ol Kiombo Airfield, which is serviced daily by Safarilink and Air Kenya from Nairobi. It was a 45-minute flight and was thrilling, giving us a grand perspective of the landscape of Kenya with its great grasslands, winding rivers and clumps of trees. Riding in a small aircraft over the open plains evoked the days when there were few roads in East Africa and the bush pilots provided the only practical means of transportation. And that is still more or less true, beyond the developed urban areas.

We landed on a red dirt airstrip. A small greeting terminal stood next to the runway. We were met by a Masai who went by the name of Ping and was our guide for the next few days. We loaded into his Land Cruiser and headed toward Mara Plains Tented Camp. Our route took us over rudimentary dirt roads and tire paths. Within a few minutes we came up on three lionesses. Ping pulled up near them and turned off the engine and we watched them as they walked lazily to a puddle and drank from it. Lions are exaggeratedly lazy and expend as little effort as possible most of the time, but when they launch into action in pursuit of prey, the display of power can make your heart stop. Within moments of landing we had already seen lions, one of the most sought after sights in Africa, something many who go on safari never see. Before we reached the camp, we also came upon a herd of 17 elephants.

Ping parked and we walked across a wooden suspension bridge to the Mara Plains Tented Camp. It was pleasantly rustic, with seven tents on wooden platforms for guests, plus a luxurious open tented public lounge area with leather couches and chairs, a day bed, wooden tables and a red woven rug. Next to it was another tent that served as the dining room. Inside the accommodations were a blend of luxurious and rugged elements, with constructions of unfinished wood and rough hewn logs, as well as smoothly varnished wood floors. The shower had a log wall on one side and sheets of thick plexiglass on two other sides. There was a pair of brass sinks and a flushing toilet. The large double bed was piled high with covers and pillows, with end tables on both sides. There was a writing table, shelves, a closet and an artistic construction of branches for hanging clothes.

Ping took us on morning and evening game drives and used his intimate knowledge to lead us through many fascinating encounters. He knew the area with the intimacy of a native who loves his home country and devotes himself to studying the environment on a daily basis. He knew the animals in the area and was aware of their movements. We drove up within 20 feet of a leopard, an elegant and regal beauty who made the lionesses seem drab and ragged in comparison. She was calling her young with a low growling sound which soon attracted two scampering cubs, which she cleaned tenderly as we watched. We saw a massive heard of zebra that turned the landscape into a patchwork of stripes. There were wily hyenas, bat-eared foxes, topi and herds of Thompson’s gazelles, with striking black stripes on their sides. They “spronked,” with a bouncing gait that is used as a signal of danger to the rest of the herd. We watched two gigantic hippos fighting in the water, creating great turbulence and only surfacing periodically until one chased the other away. We saw giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, eland, buffalo, warthogs, baboons and a variety of colorful and impressive birds. The great migration was still a month away, but already there was an abundance of wildlife to see every time we went out. We looked for a cheetah, but never found it. And we didn’t see rhinos, but we saw most of the other large African wildlife.

There’s nothing like an African safari, and no description or cinematic presentation can convey the experience of seeing these animals in the wilds, unfenced, unhindered by human beings. Beryl Markham, a bush pilot in the 1930s expressed it perfectly in her memoir West with the Night: “To see 10,000 animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquerable mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.”


-- David Cogswell

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