Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mara part III

Greetings All,

Sigh, well I think I've put off writing this third and final post on my safari trip because it seems as if to so will mean that the event itself is completely over. You know how, after you get back from a particularly good holiday, you get the added bonus of those first few days home when you still glow from the joy of the time you had - a few days of extended holiday inside your "I just got back from..." bubble? It slips away soon enough, and normal life takes back over of course. I've just been trying to draw the process out as long as I could - wrapping the time spent at Serian and on the Mara around me like a protective garment against the "Groundhog Day" routine of life here on Camp, the cloth becoming a bit more threadbare every day.

Or I could just be a lazy sod.

Anyway, before I launch into another post, I'd like to send out a Djohn's Djibouti Djournal thank you to...a rock and roll band! The group The Scarlet Ending came by Camp Lemmonier this past weekend to play a couple of shows. We got to meet them as they toured the EMF on what they later referred to as "bring a rock band to work day" - the day between concerts when they toured the base. They were nice, funny, and genuinely impressed with the things that the folks over here do and deal with every day. All of which was nice and all, but they were also really good - an eclectic mix of music that reminded some folks of slightly harder edged Indigo Girls, some folks of Tori Amos, some of the Cranberries or Dave Matthews, and one friend of mine of The Squirrel Nut Zippers (go figure). Anyway, despite truly awful acoustics in the metal barn of 11 Degrees North (our all hands club), they put on two great shows, and hung around afterwards to chat with the folks interested. It was so nice to hear live music - Djibouti is a ways off the beaten track for USO tours and the like - and such a pleasure that it was so well done. They're a band on the rise, from Syracuse, NY. Check 'em out on iTunes or at "". My current favorite song is Before I Fell off their last album. Whew! There it is. My first official endorsement!

Anyway, back to time on the Mara.

Well, although I think I could still give an accurate day by day account, I'm not sure it would make for good reading. Instead I thought I'd tell you about some of the really amazing moments we had a chance to share.

On the first full day of safari (a Kiswahili word from the Arabic safara - to travel), we were in the Land Cruiser rumbling along a dirt road on a short-grass plain, punctuated with low shrubs, termite mounds and occasional bunches of taller grasses. As far as could be seen - to the horizon in every direction - were wildebeest, gazelles and antelope in small watchful groups. If they were on the road they would scramble out of the way as we approached, but mostly we were ignored - although the herds always seemed a bit more on edge when vehicles got within 20 feet or less. Jonathon, from the driver's seat (on the right in Kenya) exclaimed "Look!" and pointed out to his right as he coasted us to a halt.

There on the grass, maybe 20 feet away, was a female Thompson's gazelle in the process of giving birth. We watched in rapt amazement as new life, in the form of a tiny, perfect gazelle made its miraculous appearance beneath the rapidly climbing mid-morning sun. The mother was nuzzling and licking the little Tommy, encouraging it to stand when there was a commotion behind us. We heard, from out of one of the other safari vehicles that had pulled up alongside us the word "Cheetahs!". We whirled about, now looking out the left side and there, slinking through some taller grass were 4 cheetahs - a mother and her 3 adolescent cubs. You can't imagine the mix of admiration and anxiety we felt. The cheetahs were so obviously lovely - casual power wrapped in sinuous grace -and so patently lethal. We knew that the angelic little gazelle just meters away to our right was doomed to a tragically short stay on the grasslands once the cheetahs saw him, to say nothing of his exhausted mother. "This will be quite sad" said Jonathan. We held our breath...and then it happened.

The mother cheetah, who had been strolling slowly in our general direction was, in the space of three strides, running faster then any other animal on earth, a lightning blur of cruel poetry in absolutely liquid motion. She veered to her right, and a small group of Tommys exploded out of the brush, bounding and scattering in every direction. In less than a second, she had locked on to a slower moving juvenile and, pivoting with an ease that should be impossible for a cat running so fast, she reached out a paw to sweep the desperate prey's hind legs out from under it. In an instant the chase, which had been all linear speed and the arcuate path of the springing gazelle, exploded into a rolling, struggling ball. A matter of seconds after that, the cheetah (Shakira, as it turns out is her name - you can check her out on Big Cat Diaries) came trotting back with the catch in her jaws. I'm sure I hadn't exhaled during the whole sequence. Anyway, she dropped the gazelle in front of her three cubs and it was then we saw that the little creature, while wounded, was still quite alive. "She teaches her children to hunt" whispered Jonathan. And sure enough, like kittens chasing a mouse, the adolescents with various degrees of skill or clumsiness pursued the doomed gazelle for a minute or two until finally one of them obtained a neck hold and made the kill. It was an amazing, riveting, horrifying and beautiful thing to witness.

Behind us, the newborn had struggled to his feet, and as we looked back he trotted off with his mother to join the herds that blanketed the plain. We would come back by that way some hours later, to find the site of the cheetah kill now occupied by Maribou storks and white-backed vultures. It sounds so dopey now to say that we had seen the whole of the circle of life, but at that time, in that place it felt true and profound.

Later that day, after baboons, crocodiles, hippo and hyena aplenty we were on our way back toward the camp - heading roughly east I think - when we saw another solitary cheetah. He was seated atop a termite mound, gazing serenely across the Mara as clouds and dusk gathered in the eastern sky. He let us drive up quite close, and again Jonathan killed the engine, letting the utter stillness of the African plain wash over us. We spent what must have been 10 minutes just studying him - this gorgeous, lithe cat atop his hill like a statue on a pedestal. He gave no indication that he noticed us, appearing to look right through us when his head swung in our direction. After a time, he stepped delicately down, and strode away from us to the west carrying himself with a dancer's grace into the darkening evening. It was like seeing a Greek statue, suddenly fluid and agile, stride out of the museum. Amazing.

Another day we headed to the Trans-Mara reserve, a bumpy ride through the back country to the other side of the river in pursuit of a black rhino. Our ride was interrupted as a family of elephants descended from the hills above us as we negotiated the high country of the Ooloolo escarpment north of the river. They crossed the road behind us - adult females and some babies - and disappeared into the trees on the the slope below us, their presence revealed now only by the shuddering of the trees as the adults shouldered them aside. As always, they walked with an unhurried gravity that seems all the more real when they are free and wild and out and about on elephant business.

Don't ask me how Samuel and Jonathan did it. Dropping down out of the highlands, we navigated through marshy roads along the river marge, along paths choked by reeds and thick grasses. We seemed to be headed nowhere in particular until Samuel sat up (he usually spent his time seated behind high atop the canvas cover of the cargo compartment, his legs dangling down behind our seat) and pointed. "There he is!" he exclaimed.

Now, odds are you've seen black rhinos at the zoo, and they are remarkable creatures in any setting. Here though, as the solitary creature made his way through the grasses and marshland, he was a breathtaking figure of power and odd grace. The zebra and antelope moved warily out of his way, for he has a deserved reputation for a bad temper. The tall grass opening before him and closing behind reminded me of the way that warships look as they cut their way through the water - an uneasy mix of gracefulness and lethality. His gray flanks recalled to me the USS Missouri (BB 63) - the most curvedly beautiful, and unabashedly lethal ship I ever had the pleasure to see underway. Like the sea foaming off her ample beam, and the brutal 16 inch batteries on her fore decks, this creature shed the brush and greenery, his massive head and wicked horn sweeping this way and that - in search of food, danger, or anything foolish enough to challenge him. He was at once ominous and tragic - there are said to be only 5 black rhino remaining on the Maasai Mara.

Later that day, we patrolled the bank of the Mara river, hoping to catch a "crossing". Somewhat differently than I would have thought, there is no single crossing of the river by the herds of wildebeest and zebra. Instead, having arrived in the Masai Mara after migrating from the grazing lands away south, the herds cross back and forth across the river - seeking the best grass, or the most congenial setting, or whatever motivates wildebeest. Jonathan and Samuel had no particular explanation for the hazardous traversals of the crocodile infested stream except to attribute it to the essential fickleness of the wildebeest heart. With this in mind then, small armies of safari vehicles - vans, buses, Land Rovers and others patrol the banks of the Mara, watching for the telltale gathering of large groups (and they really are endless) of wildebeest at the river's edge. It is an odd truth that perhaps the most reliable sign of a crossing is the cloud of dust kicked up by the swarm of pursuit vehicles. Spotting such a cloud, earlier that day, Jonathan had had us hurtling along the dusty road toward the river - it felt like we were trying to win the Paris to Dakar rally. As always though, his driving was impeccable and we arrived just at the end of a major crossing from our side to the other.

Just as we rolled up, a young wildebeest was clambering out of the current to the far shore when the the muddy water roiled and and enormous crocodile snatched the creature, vanishing into the river so quickly as to make one doubt that a 250 animal had been there just seconds before. At that though the crossing ceased. The day stretched on, and although we saw a few zebra cross at another place upriver a little later - crocs made a a couple of half hearted attempts, but zebras are sturdy little fellows, and shook off the hungry reptiles with ease - there was no other significant activity. We had pretty much decided to to head back to the camp - it had been an amazing day in any event - when 200 yards from where we sat the wildebeest on the opposite bank began to surge toward the water. It was on. We were in prime location to see hundreds and hundreds of wildebeest splashing across a shallow part of the river . A major crossing! You can see the beginning of it on the video clip attached to last week's post.

Now, your average wildebeest isn't a prepossessing beast at all, looking for all the world as if it had been assembled from spare parts left over at some "hoof 'n horn" assembly plant, and it seemed as if the odds were stacked against them. At the first step into the watercourse, the crocs arrowed to the site of the crossing - large, sinister, and dangerous looking. The wildebeests appeared doomed as they and the waiting crocodiles converged , and then...they all made it. Every blessed one of the horde! As it turns out wildebeest have this sort of sideways rear legged kick and bounce move that wrested every one of the crocs' intended meals out of their snapping jaws. In part the reptiles seemed confused by the sheer multitude of the herd, but most of the individual credit for their escape must go to the surprisingly agile wildebeest. At the end, we all breathed a sigh of relief - for as happy as I am to grant the ancient race of crocodilians their right to a meal - I must admit to a certain sympathy with my fellow mammals.

The sigh turned out to be premature however, as hard on the heels of the big and agile wildebeest came a small herd of Tommys, who apparently reckoned that the wildebeest must know something to go to all that trouble. Now the Thompson's gazelles are graceful athletic creatures in their own right, but in the chest high water of the river Mara, their best strategy is to, well, bounce. And bounce they did, reaching incredible heights out of the surging waters. Alas, it availed them only a little. The crocs were revved up and waiting. After the hoof slashing, horn tossing confusion of the wildebeest crossing, the Tommys were like popcorn to the crocs. The great tails would thrash, the water boil and "snap!" - a Tommy would vanish. In unbelievably rapid succession five of the gazelles were gone. But at last they were across - maybe 15 of the little chaps. And then, incredibly, they couldn't find the route up from the river bank to the pasture above...and they headed back across the river. Two more fell to the crocs, who by now were growing sated, and then they were back on the other side. Everyone in the caravan of safari vehicles (another 10 or so had rolled up) cheered the stunned survivors as they scrambled up the bank to safety. The evanescence of life in the natural world, and nature's profligacy with her gifts could not have been writ more plainly before our disbelieving eyes.

Ah friends, I could go on. There were more such days ahead: hikes along the Mara bank with a Maasai warrior guard and an elephant encounter, a pride of lions hunting in the rain and lightning laced darkness of the Mara at night, an incomparably beautiful leopard lounging on a tree branch - inert until those huge yellow eyes opened and gazed speculatively in our direction, skidding to a halt on a rain slicked dirt track when a petite mother crowned plover stood fearlessly in our way, wings raised over her head to prevent us from hitting the handful of downy chicks that scurried away on her left ( the sheer self abnegating courage of it still catches my breath). And the birds...hawks, eagles, vultures, cranes, storks, shrikes, rollers, bulbuls, fly-catchers, hammerkops, bee-eaters, gorgeous starlings, guinea fowl, bustards, mousebirds and my favorite, the go-away bird (really!). It was every day a pageant, and every night a feast. It was among the best vacations I can imagine - made almost perfect by virtue of my congenial travel companions, and only almost perfect because I couldn't share it with my wife and son.

But I'll be back .

Anyway, gonna end here and move on in my next.

Besides the animal pix (the Cape Buffalo sat under that same tree every day as we passed them), there is a picture of our little safari crew - Johanna, Adrian, Samuel (next to me on the right) and Jonathan (between Jo and Ade), and me. There is also a picture of the EMF crew (the one in uniform) with The Scarlet Ending.

You could do worse today than to buy an album, and book your stay at Serian.


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