Maasai Mara

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Endless sky

Flying over the flamingos at Lake Nakuru. Photo by David Lansing.

We flew west into the Mara, following the migration route of tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra below us as they crossed the Sand, or Longaianiet, River following the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The Masai word siringet, from which we get Serengeti, means “vast place” and why they called it that becomes apparent when you fly low over it. In front of us was an endless horizon of tawny yellow grass, sometimes so tall you could see the wind flowing through it like waves, interrupted only by the dark green vegetation along the Sand or the distinctive island kopjes, little rock islands poking out of the yellow grass that, like coral reefs on an ocean floor, become their own little mini eco-systems supporting birds, lizards, hyraxes, and maybe a resident leopard or a pride of lions.

Sandwiched as we were between heaven and earth, what you become aware of, besides the vast numbers of wildlife beneath you, is the way all the colors of the Serengeti compliment each other: ocher-colored earth; grass going from khaki to umber to chartreuse; the deep green of trees and bushes along the riverbanks. All set off by a very pale blue sky that just seems to stretch out in front of you endlessly.

Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, in writing about the Serengeti, talks about the vastness of this sky, how it seems to have “no boundaries, no end,” and how this is almost more than she can handle. “The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky. After sunset, the Africans jam into their round huts and close everything up to keep out the night; if I understood nothing else about them, I understood that.”

Flying over the same terrain, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

The Sand River eventually merges with the Mara River at the southeastern corner of the Mara Triangle and here we turned north. Below us were what looked like a dozen or so big black rocks in the middle of the mud-colored water—hippos. This river is the banquet hall for crocodiles and lions and other predators for it’s where the lemming-like wildebeest cross in order to get to the lush grasslands in the Mara Triangle. Thousands and thousands of the animals will come to the steep banks of the Mara, stop, nervously look around, grunt in frustration, and wait for a leader—anyone, anyone?—to finally dive into the stream and swim across to the other side. Once that single wildebeest makes his move, the entire herd follows—first slowly, then in a nervous panic, like fans at a sold-out soccer game, stampeding from behind so that animals are trampled to death or break their legs running down the cliff or simply drown in the pandemonium. Meanwhile, the crocs and the lions wait, no doubt with smirks on their face, for an easy meal.

From here we flew over the Mau Forest whose rivers, like the Sand, are the water source for the Mara (as the trees go—and they are being free-cut at an alarming rate, as we could see flying over them—so goes the plains) and up to Lake Nakuru, flying low over the western edge as we watched an ungodly number of bright pink flamingos rise up out of the salty soda lake, circle, and land back where they started.

Then up over the verdant Aberdare Forest to the western edge of Mt. Kenya, cloaked in a dark cloud, to the airport at Nanyuki where Calvin and the boys were sitting on the tarmac in their Land Cruisers waiting for us.


Farewell to the Mara

William and Heidi come to say goodbye. Photos by David Lansing.

After breakfast I went back to my tent and packed. Calvin and his crew had left the day before and the other guests, a young family from Italy I think it was, had departed before sunrise because they were taking a domestic flight from the Keekorok airstrip, about a two hour drive away. We were flying out on the Caravan from Calvin’s private airstrip, about a 20 minute drive from camp.

The camp seemed almost deserted. Next to the mess tent was a little round building, like the huts the Masai live in, with several elephant skulls in front. A handmade sign said Dapper Flappers 1920s Shop. In the whole time we’ve been here, I’ve never seen it open but I found Heidi, the camp manager, in her office next door and asked her if they had any maps in the shop and she said they did and got on the 2-way radio to ask someone to bring her the key.

There wasn’t a lot in the shop. Toiletries, medications for upset stomachs, a few books, and some Masai trinkets: carved wooden elephants, beaded bracelets, woven baskets—the typical sort of curios you could get at the Masai Market in Nairobi for a fraction of the cost. I was looking for a map of the Masai Mara but all they had was one of Kenya. Heidi said she’d been trying to find a good Masai Mara map but there just weren’t any. So I bought the Kenya map which was $26. It was far and away the most expensive map I’ve ever bought in my life. When I unfolded it inside the mess tent, I saw that in addition to a beautifully rendered map of Kenya that included wonderful illustrations of a Masai moran, or warrior, cheetah, elephant, and a baobab tree, among others, the flip side also had very detailed maps of not only the Masai Mara but also Laikipia, The Great Rift Valley, and Nairobi. I don’t know that it was worth $26 but it was a very nice map.

I have been remiss in not mentioning Heidi before now. She and her husband Josh run the camp in Calvin’s absence. They are both in their twenties and both extremely capable and attractive people. Heidi handles everything from organizing the Masai guides for game-watching to hosting dinners with the clients each night (which, as you can imagine, could get extremely tiresome when you don’t have guests like Uma Thurman and Ed Norton, as they have had). Josh, it seems, does everything Heidi doesn’t—organize the many game-watching vehicles, repair equipment, build new tents and other structures, and also run guests to the airstrips. In fact, Josh was taking us this morning to meet our plane.

The marungu Pete bought from the Masai.

Heidi, dressed as if she were an extra in the movie Out of Africa, came with William, looking dapper as usual in his crimson vest and red fez, to say good-bye, and then Josh organized our luggage and we were off to the airstrip. The morning was beautiful and we passed any number of dik-diks and gazelles, wildebeest and zebra, and even a few giraffes on the short drive. When I saw the Caravan, guarded by two Masai crouched beneath the shadow of its wing, I felt a mixture of excitement and sadness. We were headed up towards Mt. Kenya and into Samburu country and it is always exciting to be heading into new country in Africa or anywhere else for that matter, but we were also leaving this special little corner of the Mara behind and I would miss William bringing me a gin and tonic in the late afternoon and the cry of the raptors floating in the thermals over the camp and the heady smell of leleshwa when walking in the bush.

While Hamish checked over the plane the rest of us loaded our luggage, except for Pete who, while taking photos of the Masai, decided he quite liked one of the simple but nasty looking weapons they all carry, called a rungu, which is nothing more than a carved hard wood club about two feet long with a knob on the end. The rungu is used for hunting and for protection, both from animal predators and human ones as well (in fact, former Kenyan president Daniel Moi liked to be seen with his elegant silver-tipped rungu which he would sometimes pound on a table or his desk when he was angry as a form of intimidation, much like Nikita Krushchev’s famous shoe-pounding episode with Richard Nixon I suppose).

The Masai wanted something like 400 Kenyan shillings for his rungu, which is like $5, but none of us had anything smaller than a thousand note so he ended up buying both of them. And then letting them keep the extra 200 shillings since the one thing the Masai do not carry around with them is a wallet or change. Pete didn’t mind. He was quite happy with his marungu (the plural of rungu) since they were truly authentic if not as elaborately decorated as those sold in tourist shops in Nairobi.

And then we shook Josh’s hand and climbed into the Caravan, me sitting in the co-pilot seat in front and Pete in the very back so he could lower a window and hang out the plane and take photos as we flew over Masai Mara, and Hardy and Fletch in the middle. Hamish guided the plane over the bumpy airstrip, turned the nose into the wind, and we lifted off, Josh waving goodye and the Masai morani watching stoically as we cleared the far hills and disappeared over the horizon.


In search of a leopard

Baboons hate leopards. The feeling is mutual. Photo by David Lansing.

Cottars 1920s Safari Camp is spread out in the acacia woodlands at the base of the Olenturoto Hills which call out to us, literally, every evening when the large troop of baboons that make the tree tops their home bark and scream belligerently at the leopards prowling about the granite koppie below.

Leopards and baboons have an interesting relationship; they despise each other. During the day the baboons scamper over the rocks and in the trees, taking fruits and leaves, insects, lizards, even small snakes, the babies regally riding on the backs of mom, the adolescents batting each other about, rolling on the ground like kids on a playground. Then at night, they roost in the trees, keeping watch below, and should a leopard be in the neighborhood they’ll make this ungodly racket alerting not only the troop to the leopard’s approach but everyone else in the woodland as well, including us.

Which, of course, really annoys the leopard (it also annoys me, but I have less skin in the game). Sometimes if the leopard is really annoyed, he’ll kill a baboon or two. Not to eat but just for fun. Or perhaps to shut them up. But here’s the thing: baboons kill leopards as well. In a very organized fashion. A troop will surround the leopard and when the cat attacks the point man, usually a young male—but not the dominant male—other, larger males will quickly close in from all sides. The leopard, of course, will take out many of the baboons but eventually the numbers overwhelm him and sooner or later the troop will rip the cat to shreds. It is, in short, nothing less than a war between the species.

Yesterday afternoon, about an hour before sunset, we decided to hike to the top of the hill behind us, both to enjoy the sun setting over the Rift Valley and to see if we could spot one of the leopards that the baboons are always barking and screaming at. But you don’t just put on your hiking boots out here and climb a hill. There are too many unseen dangers. Like the leopards and the baboons. So Calvin sent us out with one of his young Masai guides, Jackson Oletura.

Pete shooting Jackson atop the Olenturoto Hills. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

Jackson is tall and powerfully built with long legs and long arms decorated with beaded bracelets and colorful bands just below his knees. He wore the traditional orange red shuka, knotted at his shoulder like a Roman toga (the Romans once occupied North Africa, where the Masai originally lived, and it is thought that the shuka as well as the Masai panga, which resembles the short Roman fighting sword, and even their sandals, were copied from the Romans). A bandolier of metal amulets ran across his chest. Low on his hip was a leather belt with a sheath holding his panga, a sort of broad bladed machete that everyone carries in the bush, and in his hand every Masai warrior’s most precious possession, a spear with a razor-sharp blade on the end. He looked regal, as do most Masai, and there was no doubt in our mind that should we surprise a leopard (or he us), Jackson would dispatch him with utmost haste.

We climbed the trail up the hill in single file, staying behind Jackson, who moved with the ease and grace of a gazelle. Twice Jackson gave us a hand signal to stop, peering intensely at a dark cave or boulders in a depression, but there was no leopard. At least not one we could see.

Cottar’s camp is at 6,200 feet and we were even higher than that and the air was surprisingly crisp, the sky gray with slow-moving clouds that looked like the remnants of a thunderstorm that we had seen earlier coming in from the east. At the top of the hill you got the full effect of the camp’s setting; the umbrella acacias spreading across the upslope just to the camp’s edge where the woodland then turned to a green forest of cedar and kigelia and commiphora, the thorny, small-leaved flowering bush that is so prevalent across East Africa. It really was a beautiful setting.

The sun had already set behind us and slowly the day was losing light. Pete, sensing the evocative mood of the setting sun, took some photos of Jackson standing on a granite boulder, his spear in hand, looking out over these plains where he’d grown up. Then we quickly descended the hill, listening and looking at the shadows, breathlessly both hoping and fearing we’d hear that distinct, rough sawing sound of a leopard alerting us to his presence, but we never saw or heard a sound. Not even from the baboons.


The nostalgia of Africa

My camp bedroom with its foldaway beds from the '20s. Photo by David Lansing.

The weather has been quite comfortable and even in the middle of the day unless you are on the ground with the heat rising through your shoes and the dust in your nostrils it’s very pleasant. Still, after a languid lunch in the cool shade of the mess tent and maybe a couple of Tusker beers, everyone wanders off to their tents for an afternoon nap. I’ve tried doing this but it just doesn’t seem possible. I lie on my foldaway bed, draped with an open mosquito net, and study the rolling hills of the Siana plains and the distant Kuka Hills, thinking of the animals coming down from the Serengeti, listening to the white noise of unseen birds and insects, smelling the wild sage and lilac, dazed, groggy, the way one is on a very long flight, but unable to sleep.

Calvin's father, Glen, in 1963.

This afternoon instead of a nap I stayed in the mess tent, abandoned except for William, in his crisp white kanzu and crimson vest and fez, who brought me a pot of tea while I sprawled on a settee with tapestry cushions and flipped through a book I found on the coffee table called White Hunters. In it was a photo of Calvin’s grandfather, Mike, wearing a hat—the same hat now sitting on top of the bookcase behind me.

There is something about the whole Cottar lineage thing that I find striking and evocative. It’s not just knowing that this camp is so close to where Calvin’s father, Glen, established the first tourist camp in the Mara or that these golden plains and acacia woodlands are where Calvin learned to hunt at 15, but that Olenturoto Hill, where Calvin has built his elegant little camp is, as he says, “the epicenter of the Cottar soul.”

Imagine having a place in the wilderness like that? A spot where your father and his father all camped, walked the miles of thorn-bush and undulating hills of golden grasslands, a place that has become what Calvin calls “a cellular memory.” Something you retain in your subconscious even if you didn’t directly experience it.

While I was sipping my tea and thinking about all this, Calvin wandered in and sat with me. I told him what I’d been thinking.

He pulled some other books and memorabilia out of the old bookcase behind me, showing me old photos of his greatgrandfather, Charles, as well as shots of some of the old tent safaris and such. It’s so odd. This landscape seems so familiar to me—in a primal sense. I guess it’s part of what Calvin calls le nostalgie d’Afrique, perhaps best described by Hemingway when he wrote, “All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

Like Hemingway, I am still in Africa. And yet a part of me is missing it already.


Wild dogs and Englishmen

A Masai giraffe in front of a flat topped acacia. Photo by David Lansing.

We’ve fallen into a pleasant routine here in the Mara. We try to gather in the dining tent by 6:30 for a quick breakfast of fruit and coffee (Calvin would like us to be up by 5:30 but it’s just not going to happen). Early morning is the best time of day. The air is cool and fresh, the sky alive with chattering starlings and weavers and mourning doves. It is the cooing of mourning doves that, for me, is the soundtrack of Africa.

We might spend three or four hours looking for game, always with a specific species in mind, yet we are easily distracted. In search of a leopard in a tree we instead come across three or four Masai giraffe browsing on a flat topped acacia or cautiously sipping at a water hole, their ridiculous legs splayed out in all directions, like a dog on an ice-skating rink, which is when they’re most vulnerable to an attack by a lion. Do you know how easy it is to spend your morning just watching a giraffe drink?

And then there’s always the wild goose chase like the one we went on this morning. Yesterday Calvin heard a report that a pack of wild dogs was in the area. Very rare. Once common in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, they’ve been reduced to almost nothing as a result of disease and persecution by the Masai and other tribes because they are a threat to livestock. I’ve read that even 20 years ago there were probably 500,000 wild African dogs and now there may be less that 4,000 remaining.

Pound for pound African wild dogs may be the most efficient hunters in East Africa. Hunting in a pack, they pursue their victim relentlessly, handing off chase duties much the way cyclists do in a peloton until their prey is exhausted. Then 20 or 30 or more wild dogs come in for the kill, dragging smaller antelopes or even a zebra to the ground.

African wild dogs. Photo by Chris Mahoney.

Anyway, Chris Mahoney, one of the guides at Cottars Camp, was told by the local Masai yesterday that there were some of these rare animals in the area so he spent most of the day looking for them, finally coming across 15 or 20 of them with pups in a den just before dusk. He snapped this photo of three of them with his cell phone just to show us. The quality of the pic isn’t very good but you get the idea.

The thing is, wild dogs don’t stick in any one place for very long. They have an incredible hunting range that can extend for hundreds of miles and tend to hang out at one place for maybe three weeks before moving on. Which is why Calvin was rather keen to take us out looking for them early this morning (they hunt mainly at dusk and dawn and tend to hide in their dens during the heat of the day). They’re extremely elusive however, particularly around man (as they should be) and we never could find them. Not that it really mattered. Just being out in the open grassland for the morning was reward enough.


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