Maasai Mara: Inside Kenya's most famous national reserves
Excavations and adventures amidst the lap of mother nature
It’s fascinating how we often grow up with certain images stuck in our minds for years. Of people and places, we have heard and read about but never seen. And it’s even more mesmerising when we finally come face-to-face with the sights and sounds of reality of that person or place without often realising how we had been secretly waiting for that very moment to arrive.
Our trip to Kenya’s legendary Maasai Mara (also Masai Mara) earlier this month — my first in over 19 months, thanks to Covid-19 pandemic — as part of a team field trip to test new cameras by Nikon, produced one such watershed moment. And it came on the second day of our stay in the famous game reserve as we went on a wild goose chase late evening looking for a rhinoceros, the only member of the ‘Big five game’ that we were yet to spot until then.
But as the rhinos took a rain check (and we eventually didn’t see even a single one), we got a moment to savour for life — that moment when a rainbow emerged above the distant horizon and out of the faraway mountains as dusk fell and the tranquillity of the night sky slowly began to descend on the vastness of a rain-soaked Mara, as the locals love to call it. No flora, no fauna, no nothing. Just open July vanilla sky and the enormity of one of the world’s most famous grasslands and the sublimity of it all to embrace with arms wide open.
Personally, this was my third time in Africa (after two previous trips to South Africa for cricket assignments), but only the first time when I had experienced a moment of magic like this. My reunion with an Africa I had seen years ago for the first time in an adventure storybook I read in middle school — Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon), the cult novel set in the early 20th century telling the story of a young Shankar Ray Choudhuri, an ordinary young Bengali man, eventually landing his dream job of exploring the wild of Africa while working as a clerk at a railway station.
After a few months laying rail tracks, he encounters the first of many dangers in pre-World War I Africa: a man-eating lion. Later, he takes up a job as station-master in a desolate station amidst the Veldts, where he narrowly escapes a deadly black mamba before eventually going on a path of huge discovery.
For us — the team and myself — it was no less a journey of self-discovery, of learning to connect with nature and its unchained wild beasts, of understanding their quirks, their might and the beauty in their diversity, of knowing what survival out there in the wild takes, of seeing what it’s like to hunt in packs and live in pride.
But if you are faint-hearted like me, the kill by the predator you will see will continue to haunt you long into the night and the grunts of the prey you hear will continue to reverberate for as long as you remember. Ask me and I will tell you how images of the three cheetahs hunting down a zebra (see photos) continue to permeate the mind, over two weeks since we returned to our homes in Dubai.
Know the Big Five game
In Africa, the Big Five game animals are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros (both south-central black and southern white species), elephant, and Cape buffalo. Khaleej Times multimedia journalists on the trip were lucky to film all of them, except rhinos. The term ‘Big Five’ by big-game hunters refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Each of the big five are examples of Africa’s charismatic megafauna, featuring prominently in popular culture. They remain the most famous of Africa’s large animals found across a host of countries in the continent, including Kenya.
What is Maasai Mara?
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is an area of preserved savannah wilderness in southwestern Kenya, along the Tanzanian border. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras and hippos are among its most famous animals. A huge population of wildebeest fills its plains during their annual migration. What makes Maasai Mara special is its stunning landscape highlighted by its grassy plains and rolling hills, entwined by rivers like the Mara. It is on the banks of Mara where we had a sunrise breakfast while spotting hippopotami take a majestic bath.
Maasai Mara, also sometimes spelled Masai Mara, is locally known as The Mara and is named in honour of the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area, who migrated to the area from the Nile Basin. Mara means spotted in Maasai language and it comes from the many short bushy trees which dot the landscape, especially the acacia (see photo).
The Maasai Mara is one of the most famous and important wildlife conservation and wilderness areas in Africa, world-renowned for its exceptional populations of lion, African leopard, cheetah and African bush elephant. It also hosts the Great Migration, often considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
The Maasais and their traditions
The Maasai people make up a community that spans across northern, central and southern Kenya and northern parts of Tanzania. As pastoralists, the community holds the belief that they own all of the cattle in the world. The Maasai rely on their lands to sustain their cattle.
Tradition continues to play a major role in the lives of modern-day Maasai people, who are known for their tall stature, patterned shukas and beadwork. Most of them have now moved out for work and livelihood but some of them continue to retain their lifestyle and villages for the benefit of curious tourists, as we found out.
How to get there
The Maasai Mara is one of Africa’s most famous safari destinations. There are a number of lodges and tented camps catering to tourists inside or bordering the Reserve and within the various separate conservancies which border the main reserve. There are several airfields that serve the camps and lodges in the Maasai Mara, including the Ol Kiombo airstrip we used to fly in on a 14-seater SafariLink aircraft, one of the several airlines that fly scheduled services from Nairobi and elsewhere multiple times a day. There are several flights, including Emirates, Etihad and Air Kenya that connect the UAE’s airports with the Kenyan capital.
What you must know
We flew out of Dubai and current protocols required us to provide Covid-negative certificates ahead of both journeys and undergo a rapid PCR test upon return to Dubai.
What’s a game drive?
Game drives are the most popular activity in the Maasai Mara, but other activities include hot air ballooning, nature walks, photographic safaris and cultural experiences. But there’s nothing like watching a pride of lions languishing, at an arm’s length, on the grassy plains on a sun-kissed afternoon while on a game drive or a family of giraffe out on their majestic morning stroll.
Photos by: Juidin Bernarrd and Abhishek Sengupta