Travel: Hungry for more in the Masai Mara

Eschewing the tick box-style safari, Sarah Marshall heads to Kenya’s Masai Mara Conservancies for animal encounters akin to a wildlife documentary.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 16th March 2014, 6:00 am
Masai Mara Conservancies, Kenya. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.
Masai Mara Conservancies, Kenya. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

Crouched in the long grass, her unwavering gaze fixed directly ahead, the world’s fastest land animal sits completely still.

A young gazelle grazing nearby has no idea it’s in the eye-line of a hungry cheetah with pestering cubs to feed.

Fingers hovering above our camera shutters, we’re waiting for the chase to begin, wondering what game plan this determined mother has in mind.

We barely have time to release the trigger as she lunges forward, taking the outside track and closing in rapidly on her startled prey. But after less than 100m, she pulls away, as if running out of steam at the eleventh hour.

For the past two days we’ve been following Narasha - as she’s known to local guides - and her two cubs, wincing at her repeated failures to catch prey. Her belly is empty and she looks increasingly desperate. Yet now, when presented with the opportunity almost on a plate, she simply gives up.

What went wrong? Perplexed, we head back to our camp, carefully deconstructing the afternoon’s events like commentators conducting the post mortem of a football match.

But amid the kerfuffle and confusion, one thing is shaping up to be very clear - this is unlike any safari I’ve done before.

I’m travelling with Kicheche Camps, who operate three predominantly locally-staffed camps in three of Kenya’s Masai Mara Conservancies, and for the next four days I am immersed in wildlife, observing animal behaviour in a way I imagine only Attenborough TV crews are able to do.

Located on the periphery of the Masai Mara National Park, the Conservancies are community-owned areas of land, leased from the local Maasai people and run by stakeholders. By offering financial benefits and employment opportunities, the camps have helped to significantly improve community awareness about the importance of conservation and protecting wildlife.

But aside from altruism, there are also some purely selfish reasons to visit: with day visitors prohibited, the number of vehicles here is much less than the neighbouring national park, and tourist density is extremely low. In fact, for most of my stay, I barely see another vehicle in the dusty savannah.

The opportunities for wildlife viewing are also excellent. Relative peace and quiet is attracting an increasing number of animals to the Conservancies, with some of the Mara’s biggest lion prides now resident here.

We encounter one such 22-strong group at sunset. Backlit by a syrupy orange sun, their coats glow radiantly as they slowly fan outward to encircle a zeal of zebra. If they decide to attack, it will be a bloodbath - but the pride will be fed for the next few days.

With so many cubs, a stealthy kill was always going to be difficult, and it’s the young ones’ clumsy, whimpering calls that inevitably give the game away, causing the zebra to scarper.

Although frustrated - it’s hard not to develop empathy for the protagonists of the stories we’re seeing played out - we’re not disappointed.

Already we’ve been in earshot of roaring lions, smelled hippos wallowing in stagnant water holes, and spied hyenas resting in the crevices of rocks.

Action-packed, yes. But this is not a tick-box exercise.

“The Big Five is a butcher’s term,” snarls Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche and an award-winning wildlife photographer. Outspoken, passionate and some might say unrepentantly rude, Paul is also a reason why so many people come here.

His photographic tours at Kicheche continuously sell out, attracting not only keen photographers but anyone who wants to truly observe and understand wildlife in the Mara, rather than robotically crossing off names on a list.

But rewards don’t always come easily, and we spend many hours sat in the back of a hot Toyota Land Cruiser, eating Fruit Pastilles, listening to Paul quote crude entries from the Viz Profanisaurus, and waiting for the wildlife to turn up.

But when they do, Paul knows exactly where to go, and the Maasai guides can quickly manoeuvre vehicles into the perfect position - always observing a respectful distance.

They demonstrate their skills one afternoon when a storm rolls in across the Mara. Having spent the day being mock charged by testosterone-fuelled bull elephants, watching lion cubs sunbathe on granite, and marvelling at a gracious green-eyed leopard dozing in a tree, we’ve already been spoiled with sightings. But as the first few raindrops start to fall, Paul isn’t ready to go home just yet.

As the wind picks up, topis leave their sentry posts atop termite mounds, snorting as a signal to gather their troops and retreat - just like every vehicle (bar ours) on the plains.

A menacing dark sheet of cloud sweeps across the horizon like a heavy velvet theatre curtain being drawn across the stage. But in reality, the show is only just beginning.

Not even the umbrella-shaped acacia trees can offer sufficient shelter as rain pummels the savannah.

Then they appear - a group of playful young cheetahs with energy to burn. Undeterred by the storm, they pelt through the sodden grass, chasing a petrified hare. Pouncing on their prey, they toss it between each other like a football, and it becomes clear this coalition is simply here for sport.

Our driver Patrick coolly swerves into the ideal photo-taking spot as Paul screams directions. But whether we get the shot or not, following the chase is exhilarating. This is the Mara at its finest and most wild and it’s at the core of what Kicheche is all about.

That night as we sleep, a pride of lions wander through our camp, so close I can almost feel their heavy breath on the tent’s canvas walls. There are no fences here, or electric barriers, but our Maasai night-watchmen do an excellent job of calmly herding the pride along a different path.

Unlike lions, cheetahs are most active during the day, so it’s not surprising that we run into Narasha the following morning, still urgently searching for food. Her haunches appear more pronounced than ever and her stomach is almost concave; she’s visibly weary, but doesn’t stop to rest for a minute.

A cheetah’s eyesight is six times better than our own, and she clearly spots something before we do - a pregnant gazelle, an easy target.

Sitting very still in the long grass, she bides her time, waiting for the optimum moment. We’re desperate for her to succeed and even the vegetarian in our group is praying for a kill.

And when Narasha starts sprinting, this time we know she won’t give up.

In the last few seconds, the cubs appear, and grabbing the final moment of glory, they dive at the gazelle, tossing it into the air like a coin.

Heads or tails, it’s a win all round.

Narasha drags the kill to a mound and in a powerful display of maternal instinct and admirable self-control she walks casually away, allowing her cubs to feed while she keeps watch for hyenas and other scavengers. Despite her hunger, she’ll be the last to eat.

A meal of that size will last the family at least a couple of days, so for now, they are satisfied. But life in Africa’s Great Rift Valley is hard for a cheetah, and it could be another week before they eat again.

Our particular story might have reached a temporary conclusion, but tomorrow, no doubt, more dramas will unfold in the Mara.

Travel Facts

:: Sarah Marshall was a guest of Kicheche Camps. Safari Consultants offers three nights full board at Kicheche Mara Camp (Mara North Conservancy) for £2,270pp including international flights, flights to the Masai Mara, transfers and conservancy fees. Based on travel in June 2014. For more information about Kicheche Camps, visit www.kicheche.com

:: A good photographic lens is essential for safaris. An economical option is to loan from Lenses For Hire (www.lensesforhire.co.uk)

:: Paul Goldstein also runs photographic trips with Exodus. Visit www.exodus.co.uk/photography