The participants knew that the Great Migration was the mother of all mammal congregations on the planet. But they were just going to find out why it’s truly special.
A side-striped jackal stood broadside in the late-afternoon sun, with the grass, now browning, swaying gently in the evening wind.
Having packed lunch, installed phone cards and filled up the bean bags, Sachin Rai had led the participants of the Great Migration Photo Tour into the Mara through the Sekenani Gate so they could enjoy a long drive by the time they’d reach their destination for the night, the venerable Mara Serena Lodge.
This lodge, serving as the base for their exploration of the phenomenon called the Great Migration, is famous for being in the thick of migration activity owing to its acutely appropriate location.
Now, merely a few minutes into their maiden foray into the park on the Tour, the infinitely rarer of the two jackal species in East Africa had kicked off proceedings totally unexpectedly. “Welcome to Africa,” declared Sachin.
There is nothing in the natural world of mammals which matches this epochal annual event. The sheer number of animals dotting the plains is stunning, and the smells and sounds of the congregation overwhelming. It inspires awe.
But most first-timers to the Migration discover that it’s not just an extravaganza of wildebeest, or even herbivores. It’s a bona fide wildlife symposium, in which all forms of life reach a heightened state of activity, and animals are virtually everywhere they look.
The numerous zebra, along with gazelle and impala, were conspicuous by their presence as expected, but the spirit of surprise was quickly restored with the sight of a serval, securing the status of the evening as exceptional.
The Tour had barely begun and the group was already elated, so it was on a high note that they took supper and crawled into bed that night.
The next morning opened to peak vivacity, with a kori bustard ambling close to the lodge, blissfully oblivious to its superlative distinction as the planet’s heaviest flying bird, but none the poorer for it.
Then a cheetah stalked a herd of wildebeest with vim and grit but since their quarry was far and equal in alacrity to spot her well ahead of the point of no return, the cat abandoned the doomed homicidal endeavour and instead sat on a mound fostering hopes of better prospects.
Leaving the cheetah to meditate on her imminent future, the group moved on in search of greener pastures and found four jackals – this time the commoner grey-backed variety – and a white-backed vulture.
Going back towards the lodge, they went back to seeing cats, with a lone lioness – the first of numerous to come on the Tour – found doing what most cats do by day – resting hard.
Shortly, she rose and walked into the bushes, before the group encountered another group of jackals that showed a predilection for play, initiating a slew of action-rich pictures.
In the evening the perky mood seemed to have persisted, as was evident from the galloping of some topis, and the spiritous leaping of a herd wildebeest herd.
Then the group was hit by the glorious sight of a male lion sitting out in the open on the great plains, unaffected by the playful atmosphere pervading the savannah. He was watching over his pride, which included cubs, feeding on a kill nearby.
Deciding it was time he got into the thick of things, he ended his repose and walked towards them.
And then he just sat at the kill looking like a million shillings. With the lion having made a lasting impression on the group, Sachin found it a befitting encounter with which to call it a day and digest the magic.
Next morning he led them in pursuit of the same pride. Aided by some excellent navigation by the naturalist-driver they found the lions soon enough. But to their surprise, the cadaver was uneaten.
There was no paucity of possessiveness on the owners’ part, though, as a lioness stalked and chased a vulture that landed on the dead animal’s remains.
The cubs, on their part, were genuinely funny. And while the group was cracking up from watching all their antics, they heard some commotion far away. Wheeling around, they saw a lioness from the same pride chasing a wildebeest, despite already having a kill!
What ensued was a game of nerves, as every so often the wildebeest would turn around and chase the lioness, only for the latter to chase her again. This game of cat-and-’beest went on for some time before the lioness finally let the antelope go.
With the dust now settled, Sachin led the group away from the area and found themselves a male and a female Defassa waterbuck, with her fawn.
Then came a warthog with huge tusks and a really long model-like punk.
A bataleur wasn’t to be left behind, as it revealed itself on a tree branch.
Following this sequence of events, as they were returning to the property they found a cheetah on a mound close to the lodge. So did a topi.
Still hungry for more mammalian attractions, they went on a walk within the lodge premises under the aegis of Sachin, finding rock hyraxes and later some birds too, to end the zoological partisanship.
A scrumptious lunch and a brief nap later, they departed for the evening safari, which was inaugurated in the presence of an elephant as an honorary guest.
Blessed by the goodwill of this large-hearted animal, they went on to see a big male leopard walking across open ground past a grand old tree, before he disappeared into the grass.
Thirsting to see more of him, the group gambled with their time and spent three hours avoiding distracting and alluring updates served periodically by bypassers. Meanwhile they had subjects, such as a pair of giraffes, coming to where they were stationed with infinite patience, and because ignoring oncoming giraffes is considered impolite in Kenya (not really!) they took some pictures.
Late in the evening, when they had given up all hopes and all but one vehicle had gone past them, and they were about to join the league of the towel in-throwers, just when the sun was about to set and the heart was about to sink, the leopard stirred.
Stir and rise he did as one of the vehicles ahead instantly reported his grace’s presence on the road first, and by the time they got to him, he was seated up in the grass off the road, and having rested enough, found himself ready for the slow and onerous task of buffalo stalking. For the group, of imminence was the slow and onerous task of leaving the leopard and getting back to the lodge, but it had to be done.
The next morning they found no dead buffalos, but a hyena and very soon a lioness in the grass graced by some lovely back light that Tour Skipper Sachin Rai termed “delicious.”
After this ‘tasty’ start, they found the same pride as the previous day’s, but unlike the hyperactivity those were given to, these representatives of Africa’s largest cat species were deep in snooze mode. They had freshly killed, and since death had been the overwhelmingly strong theme of the Tour so far, and a bunch of sleeping lions can have a soporific effect on the even the most perky of people, the group carried on to find something rather more vivacious.
This cri-de-coeur was answered by a red-throated spurfowl, before death re-entered the scene in the form of an abandoned kill on which sat several vultures. Further away from the cadaver was a tank bund on which sat a juvenile African fish eagle, calling for the adult sitting below out of the group’s view.
In the afternoon they went to the Mara river to check for crossings, and instead made pictures of baboons and an old buffalo with stunted horns.
Having criss-crossed the tortuous paths of the Mara River part of the park for the first four days, Skipper Sachin Rai chose to move to the Talek River side.
Here, as they navigated through herds of wildebeest dotting the plains, they noticed at a distance some vehicles huddled together, which is usually a sign of an ongoing sighting of something significant.
Approaching the spot very slowly, they saw a lioness stalking a herd of wildebeest. And within half a minute of their reaching there, the lioness took off on a charge at the chosen one, jumped on it and nailed it to the ground. It was over. Gone in thirty seconds.
The wildebeest still had grass in its mouth that it hadn’t had a chance to swallow. The end had been sudden and swift for her, but such is life on the savannah.
It was time to proceed back towards the lodge. But instead of tracing their way back, Sachin decided to take a detour southwest through the area in which they had seen resting lions earlier, in the hope that they’d get them in good light this time.
Overhead, clouds were looming over the towering trees, dwarfing them on the expanse. The Mara was delivering every bit of the magic that Sachin had promised the participants.
In this exalted setting they found the morning’s pride – a family of six. The clouds – collectively a giant softbox manufactured by nature – diffused the sunlight with the result of eliminating harsh shadows and reducing the dynamic range of the scene.
Just then, a lioness climbed a big mound covered with plants, making it look like she was sitting atop a bush.
The clouds eventually let go and started showering. The group took a parting shot of a lioness yawning before returning to the lodge.
The next morning’s ride was high on morbidity, as they crossed the river to the other side to see scores of dead animals in the water.
Later, they came across a couple of lions and lionesses at rest.
Before long, they received the happy news that a leopard was seen, so they drove all the way there to find a female who had just descended from a tree. She walked by a brook and disappeared after the group had had a cursory chance to fire away a flurry of frenetic shots.
Some time later they found a serval for the second time on the Tour – which was a case of ‘once toured and twice fortunate.’ Shortly thereafter, a family of playful hyenas marked the end of an eventful day.
Next morning they first found a pair of black-bellied bustards.
Then they tracked down a pride of lions they hadn’t seen before. The early morning light was good as one of the cubs played with a wildebeest head as its toy.
Then the mother called time on all the play and took them to a shaded place. The pride seemed to be a disciplined lot, as they all started walking in a single file. They were also a gracious lot, blessing the group with some good photo opportunities.
Then as the group moved on, they stumbled upon a cheetah. Being seated for some time, she commenced walking and then moved in a large circle to check for predators.
This prompted Sachin to surmise that she had cubs there, and they went on to find five! Wanting to not disturb them, the group carried on to look for crossings instead at Lookout Point.
On their way back, they swung by the cheetah point again, this time finding the family closer to the road, which helped them achieve some truly heartwarming closeups.
Just before reaching the lodge they found a lioness stretching, probably as a precursor to an evening ramble. By now it was overcast and with dusk approaching, Sachin decided to initiate the slow drive back to the lodge.
Somewhere midway more magic happened. A stunning double rainbow graced the sky – a giant arch connecting the heavens and the earth; a celestial piece de resistance; a reminder of how special Kenya is; a phenomenon; a miracle.
Masai Mara had opened up to the group in all its colours, just as it had for the rest of the Tour. Touched by this wondrous farewell, the group learned that that, more than anything else, was what was great about the Great Migration.