The open safari vehicle came to a sudden halt, the vast, lush expanse of the Mara beckoning us. Lenny, the Maasai warrior leading the evening game drive, had an increasingly expanding frown as the seconds ticked by. Dileep, my co-passenger, was getting impatient. He had been waiting three days to catch a glimpse of a cheetah and this was his last attempt. He fidgeted nervously with the DSLR around his neck.
I was still getting used to the unending emptiness of the Maasai Mara. Having flown in from Nairobi that afternoon to the Ol Seki Airstrip at the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, about half an hour away from the Porini Cheetah Camp where I was putting up, I was still overwhelmed by the raw beauty of the place.
It was monsoon in Kenya and the conservancy was lush. The grass was shorter here unlike at the actual national reserve where, I was told, nothing could be seen as the wildebeests hadn’t yet got there. Nearby, a zeal of zebras, a wildebeest herd and a tower of giraffes were peacefully grazing to their hearts’ content. This trio are usually found close to each other as they look out for one another. The shades of green for miles around us, against the bright blue sky and the red earth, reminded me of scenes from films and postcards. Scenes I’d often imagined, visualising a striking passage from a book. As I put on the all-purpose poncho kept in the vehicle, I shook my head. Was I really in Kenya, in the wilderness, surrounded by animals roaming freely, and far away from the madding crowd of India?
“I can smell a cheetah.” Lenny’s dramatic declaration broke my chain of thought. Edward, the other Maasai warrior riding shotgun, turned around to grin. The jeep jerked forward and suddenly it was a race against ourselves. Lenny hurtled over rocky pathways, small streams, even through the bush, as we held on to the edge of our seats, the wind blowing in our hair. The excitement was palpable; all of a sudden, there was a sense of energy.
Bursting through a bush, we came upon a clearing where the vehicle continued on a well-beaten track. “Look,” Edward pointed left. Through binoculars, I saw nothing. Stealing a glance towards Edward, I followed his steady gaze through his naked eyes. And then, I saw something—dozens and dozens of vultures. Driving towards the volt were five other safari jeeps. Lenny cut the engine at a distance, much to Dileep’s dismay. “Why aren’t you going there?” he asked, his camera ready. “There are five jeeps there already,” Lenny explained. “We need to wait till one leaves.” So close, yet so far—patience has never been my strong suit. After what seemed like eternity, probably maybe 10-odd minutes, we finally moved closer to the action.
It was my first safari and the magnificent sight will forever be etched in memory—a cheetah with two cubs, devouring what seemed an impala. They were eating slowly, taking their time over the fresh kill, blood covering their muzzles. “Cheetahs usually eat fast because there is always a possibility of other predators stealing their food,” said Edward. Maybe this time the cheetahs knew there was no danger around. A wildebeest lingered in the distance, casually grazing and wondering what could possibly excite a bunch of humans on a normal day in the Mara.
Though the vultures waited patiently as the cheetahs ripped the meat away, a few excited ones tried to come closer. But the cubs were having none of that, shooing them away. The smell of fresh death hung in the air, but our morbid fascination kept our eyes glued. It was like watching a Tarantino film playing out live. “The mother is Nebahati and her two cubs, a male and female, will separate from her in some time, as soon as they can fend for themselves,” we were told. Dileep’s camera went off continuously.
Declared extinct back home in the 1950s, the cheetah is the only animal to have become so due to unnatural causes. We’ve all seen the black-and-white photographs of royalty with cheetah kills on walls of old mansions and palaces.
“Now that we’ve seen a cheetah, Lenny, you have to tell us the story of your scar as promised,” Dileep insisted. The Maasai warrior smiled as his signature red cloth and silver jewellery caught the rays of the afternoon sun. “It was a leopard’s doing when I was younger. It tried to grab cattle and I tried to save it. I was left with the scar after the leopard swiped at my face.” I later asked if he had indeed smelt a cheetah on the drive. “No, no, that was only for dramatic effect!”
Cheetahs, elephants, hyenas, antelopes, buffaloes, ostriches, lionesses—we saw them all on the drive. Next to the Ol Kinyei Conservancy is Naboisho. A total of 90,000 acres, it gives wildlife lovers a chance to enjoy a more private viewing of animals— in the wild of course, but much up close and off the road, which isn’t allowed in the national reserve.
A bonfire back at camp kept us warm, as stories were exchanged over G&Ts. The camp was set up about a year ago by wildlife enthusiasts Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee. Boasting six luxurious tents at the foot of White Rock and the Olare Lemuny stream nearby, the camp is camouflaged to match the surroundings. Set up on Maasai land and run by locals, the camp offers employment opportunities and also rent. About 600 bank transfers take place every month, Nirmalya told me later. There’s wifi in the tents and the camp is powered by solar energy. It isn’t advised to step outside the tents after dinner—a few of the big five have come into the camp in the past. “Once an elephant came in and darted away after picking up grass from a pile that had been cut,” Jui told us, “saving him the effort of working for his meal.”
A scrumptious dinner later, it was time to curl up under the comfortable blanket for a good night’s sleep before next morning’s game drive. I could barely contain my excitement thinking of what wild nature had in store. I wasn’t disappointed.
“See that, on the hill?” Lenny pointed. The sun had just risen but the wind was chilly. I had no idea what I was looking at. Handing me the binoculars, he asked me to look straight ahead. At first, all I saw was green. But then, there was movement. It looked like a wildebeest was running, running for its life. Behind were three hyenas, chasing to wear the prey down. “This is why we never find the Mara boring. We see something new every single day,” Edward smirked as Lenny gave chase. By the time we reached the spot, the animals were long gone but the Maasai guides are magicians. They managed to track down the kill about 15 minutes away. A cackle was already tearing at the poor wildebeest. “Hyenas never eat alone,” I was told. “They always send out a signal to their brothers to join because selfish eaters won’t survive in the clan.”
The kill was gone in minutes, only hooves and horns remaining as evidence. Hyenas eat fast to not allow other animals a chance to steal the kill. The crunching of the bones, the jostle for space, the blood on their faces—the noise of the cackle cut through the silence of the vast wilderness. It was morbid but mesmerising. The excitement, the rush of adrenaline, the vast openness, the majestic creatures—wildlife can be addictive. I knew then that wildlife had become a part of me, and I would be leaving behind a piece of myself in the wildness, hoping to come back one day.
Survival of the fittest. We use the term loosely in everyday life when the going gets tough. I knew where the saying stemmed from, but only in the open grasslands of the Mara, surrounded by the wilderness, silence and beautiful animals, does one truly understand the meaning—being fit enough to survive the day amid constant danger.
The only direct flight to Nairobi is from Mumbai (Kenya Airways). I flew Air Arabia, with a halt in Sharjah, from New Delhi. Other options include Oman Air. For the flight to the Maasai Mara, I flew Safarilink. Indians are eligible for e-visas ($51 for single entry). One needs a yellow fever vaccination certificate, taken at least 10 days prior to arrival in Kenya.
Where to Stay
I was hosted by Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee at the Porini Cheetah Camp, Ol Kinyei Conservancy. There are six luxury tents with an additional single bed in each, making it perfect for families.They offer three-night packages with airstrip transfers, game drives in the conservancies and Maasai Mara National Reserve, park fees, sundowners, food and drinks, stay, and walks with Maasai warriors. I also stayed one night at the in Nairobi National Park and enjoyed a game drive. For all prices, contact Santosh Ojha (+firstname.lastname@example.org).
Best Time to Visit
From June to October during the wildebeest migration through the pastures of Maasai Mara and neighbouring Serengeti in Tanzania. I visited in the monsoon and saw a lush Mara, prior to the annual event.
>Carry a fleece for early morning game drives.
>Tipping is prevalent, so keep Kenyan shillings handy.
>Indian cuisine is available at the camp. Jui gives visiting Indians a taste of home in Kenya.