THE WAKE-UP CALL COMES at 5:45am. “It’s on your side,” I mumble. And as my sleepy wife scrambles in the darkness to grab the phone, she nearly strangles herself in the mosquito net that shrouds our bed. We lie there for a few minutes longer, struggling to get our bearings. Then, suddenly, it registers: we’re in the Masai Mara, the most densely populated wildlife zone in Africa. And we’re about to head off for an early morning game-drive …
Our long-dreamed-of safari was already proving better than advertised. Arriving in Kenya, we’d packed bags and bodies into a Land Cruiser and bounced westward – across the equator, through the Great Rift Valley, and along some of the pot-holiest, bone-jarringest roads in the world.
On the way, we’d seen what we’d flown halfway around the world to see: animals-animals-animals … up-close, in their natural environment, and often in full flight!
We’d gone eyeball-to-eyeball with some oversized elephants, wallowing happily in a muddy swamp. We’d locked horns (well, almost) with a dangerously grumpy buffalo. We’d got down-and-dirty with squadrons of pink flamingos, feeding in the shallows of an alkaline lake. And we’d parked within spitting distance of five prehistoric, armour-plated rhinos!
But the best was yet ahead. According to our fun-loving Kenyan safari guide, Africa’s Great Cats lay waiting for us further west, on the vast savannas that stretched beyond the horizon …
It’s hard to explain how totally unlike a zoo these game-parks are. What you can’t see in a photo or on a TV screen is the foreverness of those landscapes, the endless yellow grasslands, the countless thorny acacia trees, the baked/cracked dust-pans that can take an hour just to drive across, the clumps of vivid green that signpost a stream or waterhole.
And what you can’t smell, feel, taste or hear are the rich scents that flood the air, the dry wind that buffets your face, the dust that invades your mouth and nose, and the birdcalls-grunts-rumbles-shrieks-growls that suddenly break the silence.
The animals own this land. It supports them in a complex cycle of life and death. And here we were, surrounded by all this vastness – sometimes speechless, frequently awestruck, constantly amazed at what we’d just witnessed.
I kid you not: there were moments that felt almost sacred …
Masai Mara Regional Park – along with its famous neighbour, the Serengeti (over the border in Tanzania) – is centre-stage for the most dramatic wildlife show on earth: the legendary ‘meals-on-wheels’ migration of wildebeests and zebras.
And, close behind the million-strong herds that swarm the grassy plains, are the hungry predators – lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals and vultures.
You’ll have trouble believing this, but during yesterday’s game-drives we watched, spellbound, as
- a beautiful full-grown leopard slid gracefully down the large tree up which he’d been snoozing, and (with a warning snarl) loped off into the undergrowth.
- several magnificent lions (first, females with their nearby cubs and, later, a bachelor party of adolescent males) brought down a number of unlucky wildebeests.
- four cute young cheetahs romped playfully around our vehicles while their mum, quite unconcerned, checked the landscape for their next hot meal.
All of this (like I say) close-up, for real, and right there in front of us!
We’re going on a lion hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day.
We’re not scared …
I’d often sung this silly song with the kids in my life, but I’d never been on a real lion-hunt before. I’d never seen for myself how lions-on-the-prowl can creep, superbly camouflaged, through long grass. I’d never seen a herd of wildebeests run panic-stricken in every direction when the lions begin their charge. I’d never watched these natural predators single out their prey, sprint alongside, leap on its back, lock their jaws around its throat, and bring it crashing to the ground.
And I’d never known how quickly the silence returns, the dust settles, the panicked herd stops bellowing and starts grazing again, and the successful lions begin to feed.
We lost track of time that morning, hanging out the open roofs of our safari vehicles with cameras glued to our faces. One wary lioness, needing some privacy I assume, dragged her still-kicking lunch into nearby bushes – never once taking her yellow eyes off us. Another healthy female, pooped after all this chasing around, seemed happy just to lie down and relax, while her cubs played roly-poly on the wildebeest she’d just killed.
Yes, I know. Scenes just like this have been happening for thousands of years all over the sunburnt African continent. But the incredible/powerful/awful display put on by those big cats that warm Wednesday was put on just for us, I’m sure.
Heart-stopping, I reckon! And I’ll never forget it, as long as I live …