They're born free

Game Reserve

They're born free

‘Jambo!’ greets the tall, lithe-limbed Kenyan staffer in Swahili, one of the languages of Kenya (English being the other). As I walk on the gravel path of the beautiful jungle lodge in Masai Mara — the land of the Maasai tribe in south-western Kenya. Mara means ‘spotted’ in the language ‘Maa’ of the Maasais, aptly describing the ecosystem that marks the area, which houses the most popular game reserves known to the civilised world. The Kenyan staffer moves on but I sense someone else around. Two waterbucks with their beautiful antlers shining in the morning sun are staring at me, standing elegantly among the bushy plants that surround the pathway to the dining hall.

Huge expanse

I am wonderstruck at the unexpected visual feast and quickly try to switch on my camera. Before I can look into the lenses they are gone. Not to worry. We are here for three days to watch one of the greatest wildlife spectacles (as described in the travel brochures of Kenya) that take place here with massive migration that originates in Tanzania around July every year, consisting of two million animals, not counting the numerous zebras and several types of gazelle and 300 species of birds.

The information is mind-boggling that triggers my expectations and curiosity to a feverish high. But what I actually experience goes far beyond that. The Masai Mara National Reserve lies 270 kms from Nairobi and takes about five hours by road. There are daily flights to this place but they are small and depend on wind conditions.

The ideal thing to do is visit the reserve in a group and take the road, although it gets uncomfortably bumpy sometimes. So we drive from Nairobi airport in five cars to have a break at Aberdees on the way, a part of the Rift Valley’s eastern wall known for its volcanic range of mountains. The drive is a spectacular one, unfolding a boundless and mysterious area covered by nameless birds and wild life. Beyond the dusty roads, the plains are dotted with bougainvillaea shrubs, bright orange African tulip trees called ‘Nandi’ trees in Swahili, competing with the soothing blue Jacaranda flowers.

Centuries of wind have carved the volcanic rocks of the Aberdere mountain range into strange shapes some like dragon’s teeth. It is a scenic spectacle that is daunting. Aberderes is famous for lodges specialising in night time game viewing  from tree top lodges.

There is a story about the original Tree House, which was unfortunately burned down during the Mau Mau freedom fight. A year before it was razed down, it became part of history, for princess Elizabeth of England stayed there on the night her father — King George VI died. She climbed the tree as a princess and came down the next morning as the Queen of England!   

As for Kenya, you know the country is poor, roads are bad, there are no sign boards even on national highways, there is 60 per cent unemployment, but the lanky and wiry-looking Kenyans are all smiles when they welcome you with Jambo (hello) and Karibu (welcome). They know that tourism alone can save their economy. You don’t see beggars on the road or at any tourist spot.

Or even at the numerous washroom halts you have on the way where the area is lined with curio shops that display a wide range of colourful strings of beads and excellent Kenyan handicrafts mostly crafted by women. The overnight stay at the beautiful lodge at Aberdees is refreshing and we drive to lake Nakuru.

The high way is lined with Jacaranda trees that are in full bloom. We drive inside the National Park to reach our lodge nestled deep inside, savouring the breathtaking view of a thick growth of yellow Acacia trees all around us. And it’s here you see dozens of zebras, waterbucks, hoards of deers, and all kinds of birds. I realise that this land belongs to these creatures. Lake Nakuru, a protected wetland area of about 30 square kms is famous for the stunning two million flamingoes that flock the shallow alkaline lake and has been described by ornithologists as the most fabulous bird spectacle in the world.

But we are in for disappointment. Our driver James lamented the failure of a good monsoon. Therefore the lake has receded and shrunk and the flamingoes are too far away for us to see their full splendour. Scientists also say that the numbers have reduced due to the El Nino weather pattern that has changed the alkaline concentration of the lake.   

Local tribes

We leave for Masai Mara with our spirits low, unaware yet of the treasure yonder. The geographical details of the place are daunting. The reserve is about 1510 square kms having reduced from 1672 square kms in 1984. However,  the reserve boundaries are not confined within this area, but extend north and east of the Masai Reserve called the dispersal area.

Maasai communities live within this space with their stock of cows and goats but centuries of close association with wildlife seems to have resulted in a symbiotic relationship between men and beasts. Maasai men wear a bright red dress to scare away the wild beasts but it seems the latter do not bother them unless there is a stray cow that falls prey.  

The drive is extremely bumpy and the road dusty. After freshening up, we are ready for the game drive with our cameras loaded. There is something with the spirit of this place. Name any bird and it’s here — vultures, marabou storks, hornbills, crowned cranes, ostriches, eagles, falcons et al. As we scream with joy identifying the known ones,  suddenly a family of giraffes loom large across the road in front of our combie. We crane our necks to get a full view of them into our camera and then give up. It is the sudden sight of the lions that actually silences us. I used to think that wild animals lived in dark thick jungles but the terrain of the reserve is primarily open grasslands dotted with clumps of the distinctive Acacia tree.

The starkness of the land comes as a surprise.  It is the land of the ‘big five’ — the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. And all at once they are in front of you within two feet — buffaloes and elephants, lions huddled as a family of six or seven, leopards and cheetahs stealthily waiting for their prey.  Hundreds of zebras and bushbucks and gazelles grazing happily.

Suddenly the bucks and gazelles run helter skelter smelling danger. You are stupefied and awed by what you see. No one speaks standing in the roof-lifted vehicles, viewing the spectacle and feverishly trying to capture the marvel on camera. The grandeur of the big cats roaming so freely is truly humbling. It is a magical moment when you forget your mortal self and frame. The petty human world dissolves and you are on a different astral plane with the born free. 

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