The Big Five are so called because they are the most difficult animals to hunt: lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and black rhinoceros are all found in the Maasai Mara.

Down By The Watering Hole

15th July 2016

Olivia Greenway visits the stunning Maasai Mara Natural Reserve in Kenya and is lucky enough to get up close to the Big Five... and to one very naughty monkey!

If you have never been on a wild game safari (or even if you have), a visit to the Maasai Mara Natural Reserve is up there with the best of them. This protected wildlife sanctuary on the south-western tip of Kenya, covers 580 square miles, and shares its border with the much larger Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Maasai people gave the name ‘mara’, meaning ‘spotted’, to the area: the typical landscape here is clumps of thorn trees, scrub and dotted cloud formations. The land belonging to the Maasai people is leased to safari operators, guaranteeing the Maasai a regular income but retaining their land rights, and there are scores of camps, though most are pleasingly small with fewer than a dozen rooms.

This region is, of course, famous for the Great Migration, a natural phenomenon that happens from July to October when the hoofed animals move north from the Serengeti in search of fresh pastures. Millions of animals migrate: it’s estimated that around 1.3 million wildebeest alone are involved, closely followed by their predators, the lions and hyena. Even if you are not able to witness this feat of nature, though, there is plenty to see any other time of the year.

It’s left to the ecosystem to manage the reserves. Any disruption to the natural balance is usually caused by human interference. The worst of this is poaching, but Kenya has gone to great lengths to keep this under control. Hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, although critics (usually pro-hunting countries) claim that this has resulted in loss of animal populations and, ironically, an encouragement of poaching.

The Big Five are so called because they are the most difficult animals to hunt: so we have lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and black rhinoceros, all found in the Maasai. In the 1980s, black rhinoceros numbers dropped to low double digits, largely due to poaching, but there has since been a gradual recovery, and apart from the Big Five, there are scores of other animals to enjoy. The skittish Thomson’s gazelle, with distinctive black stripe on their side, are plentiful, as are topi – the dark brown antelope with grey smudges – and eland, the stouter light brown antelope. Giraffe roam the plains with a number of different zebra. There are also crocodiles in the rivers, hyenas, cheetahs, jackals, and my favourite: warthogs. How could you not love a warthog?

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is an important safari hub. I fly to the Kempinski Olare Mara in the Olare Orak Conservancy, north of Talek, from the local Wilson Airport. It is possible to drive – the journey takes five hours – but the flight, lasting around 40 minutes, is so enjoyable that I would highly recommend it. In a small 16-seater plane, you fly low over the bush, with ample opportunity to view the animals from your eyrie in the sky.

When you land on our airstrip, your guide with jeep is there to greet you with a welcome drink. It’s then that you first notice the slight warm breeze and the fine red dust that will cover everything for the duration of your stay.

The transfer to our lodge takes about forty minutes. After about ten minutes, the driver suddenly stops and points to the middle distance: a cheetah with her three cubs. The mother is looking at a herd of antelope, grazing in the distance. She crouches, pointing her body towards the herd. Suddenly, like an elastic from a catapult, she is off. Along with her cubs, we all watch, willing her to succeed. The antelope are quick to react, though, and bounce away. At one point it looks as if the cheetah might have some luck with a younger animal, but he speeds up, presumably knowing his life depends on it – and she can’t reach him. She stops running and gives up, returning crestfallen to her cubs. She looks thin and tired and now there is no food. We all feel the disappointment.

On arrival at our lodge, we are struck by its simplicity. No walls or fencing; a roundabout made of sun-bleached animal horns; the Kempinski flag flying proudly from a flagstaff. The main wooden-built building comprises the reception area, large lounge and dining area. Twelve separate detached wooden guest lodges – with canvas walls and roof – are dotted around, with simple stone paths leading to each of them.

We’re led to the wooden raised outdoor terrace where our table is set up, ready for lunch, attractively sited under a couple of established shrubs with thick branches. I’m just wondering why there is a Maasai, in bright red traditional robes, ‘on guard’ nearby, when a monkey springs down from the branches, rushes across our table, takes my bread roll and disappears. The Maasai reacts with lots of noise and much shaking of the spear… but the monkey has long gone and the bread with it. This is, I reflect, the animals’ homeland (as well as that of the Maasai) and we are the intruders.

The guide who takes us to our lodge tells us never to walk around on our own at night, but to call reception for an escort. Mostly, the animals leave the lodges well alone, but elephants have recently trampled down some trees. Safety is paramount.

Our lodge is splendid. Along the whole of one wall there are floor-to-ceiling patio doors, leading onto a sundeck and a view of the bush. At one end of the sun deck is a plunge pool and, in the foreground, the steep banks of a river.

The polished wooden floors are laid with brightly coloured mats. There’s a king-size four-poster bed, with a lounge area next to it, and a bathroom with a magnificent roll top bath and views of the bush through the full height window.

Dinner is a very pleasant affair – it is never crowded here, even when all the lodges are taken. We retire briefly to the salon area for a nightcap before being escorted back to our lodge, ready for sleep. The sounds of the bush against a background of cicadas are very different from the familiar traffic noise of home.

Twice daily game tours in Land Cruisers are included in the cost of your stay. I love the smell of the bush and the sense of freedom one gets on a game drive. I like seeing the ordinary animals and not just the rare ones. You’ll encounter elephant, giraffe, lions, probably cheetah, zebra and many antelope – and along with the animals there are over 470 bird varieties: I’ve spotted a secretary bird, vulture, eagle and long-legged crane in just a couple of trips.

The days (and evenings with their splendid sunsets and sundowners) pass quickly – and all too soon, it’s time to return. But we do have that spectacular flight over the bush to look forward to…

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