warthogs

Green sea

I thought we were fortunate when the decision was taken for me to work at Intona ranch in the Transmara as this would enable us to frequently drive through the fringes of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the jewel of the Kenya wildlife areas.

In fact, I had no idea of the joy that this decision would bring to our lives, something we only came to understand later on and even now the great memories of our time there still linger.

To be able to soak up the immensity of its grass plains during the various seasons was indeed a privilege. We swallowed dust traveling during the dry season on roads that, when the wet season arrived, you would be skidding all over even applying the best wheel control possible! We camped in the open with no fences many times in different places and enjoyed lots of different experiences over the years, some of them I did not do today. It was there where we started to learn “the ways of the bush” with our friend Paul [1].

Even considering that we were not strictly inside the reserve most of the time, the wild animals took the centre stage as you could not fail to find them, even if you wished to! [2] At its most empty the Maasai Mara plains would be dotted with Thomson’s gazelles, zebras, topis, kongonis and the resident wildebeests. As a good friend put it while looking mainly at the herd of Thomson’s gazelle: “they look shoals of tropical fish”.

The elephants and buffaloes were always making an appearance and of course, the lions -our favourite predators- were present, first as random finds and later less so when we knew their territories and places they favoured. The spotted hyenas could be counted in dozens and they were very common and we frankly took them for granted and never looked for them as they were always there!

But when the wildebeest and zebra migration arrived from the Serengeti, the plains were so full of animals that it was even difficult to drive because of the animal density! You would also hear them all the time as they were everywhere, always on the move, even while having their young. Sights and sounds difficult to imagine (and to forget!) unless you have been there!

Apart from their main migration Serengeti-Maasai Mara, they had “mini migrations” within the Maasai Mara. Often, we thought that their motives were to look for fresh grass, but we came to realize that they followed hints we could not get, and we often thought that they were playing a game of follow the leader!

During those times of abundance predators somehow became more obvious and numerous as many would come in pursuing the migration. In particular the packs of spotted hyenas would be seen very often as well as lions, now not only the prides we were somehow familiar with but other nomadic individuals that came and went with the migration.

Gnus at sunrise

We spent hundreds of hours watching lions, searching for leopards, waiting for cheetah to go for the chase, trying to second-guess packs of spotted hyena while chasing their prey or watching the hippo antics at the several pools in the Mara River, while keeping an eye for the opportunistic crocodile to take the unaware drinker.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.
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Visiting this wildlife paradise also offered the chance of seeing the Maasai pastoralists walking on the various tracks, red specks in the vast distances, apparently oblivious to the myriads of animals surrounding them, their full attention on the welfare of their own animals.

As expected, over the years we lived through many events, luckily nothing that went wrong could not be righted and that was a very important condition to enjoy our experiences. I will try to narrate to you some of the anecdotes that took place during that time that I still remember so many years later.

I already described my journey to the Transmara that included passing through the periphery of the reserve [3]. There was a tar road from Nairobi to Narok, the Maasai capital and the last town to load fuel and any last minute items you forgot, although the choice was not that great. There was, however, a chemist and a restaurant where you could have “nyama choma” (roasted beef) with ugali (maize meal) easily and fast or, if you were feeling picky, the more elaborate chicken and chips (oil-soaked) for which you needed to wait quite a while longer. Your commensals would be mainly Maasai that were only too happy to have you with them after having deposited their spears and “rungus” (wooden throwing clubs or batons) nearby.

We never stayed there longer than a couple of hours and, usually we would drive through after refuelling. The stop at the petrol station was, at first, nothing out of the ordinary. However, later on we started noticing that the minibuses also stopped there, and, during the pause, they offloaded their passengers. The wealthy among the latter took their safari to Kenya very seriously and dressed better than the real hunters with clothes from famous brands!

The road from Narok until you reached the Maasai Mara Game Reserve proper was about 130 km, depending where in the reserve you would go. The first 85 km to Aitong were rough, dusty and corrugated but never muddy as it was a well consolidated road. But it will hammer your suspension severely.

A series II Land Rover we saw there holds our most extreme record of suspension destruction we have seen. It was returning to Narok with still about 20 km to go and it came towards us zigzagging badly. We moved off the road and stopped to let it pass. It was crawling to get back to Narok with the front spring leaves (on both sides!) sticking up the front of the car, as high as the bonnet, I believe soon to come out with unknown consequences, its crew looking rather anxious!

From Aitong you followed straight on through a smaller track, gentler on your car but dusty most of the time and muddy during the rains. Luckily, either when going there for work in the strong LWB panel van Land Rovers or in our kombi first and then our SWB Land Rover, we never broke down and had only punctures and mud-related delays.

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Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

During the first three or four years the VW kombis were the kings of the tourist minibuses and there were hundreds of them moving people to and from Nairobi so spares and service were available all over. Incredibly, later, VW introduced a new model and it was immediately apparent that it had a few shortcomings. Its large back doors kept opening and even bending so the owners resorted to welding them all around to avoid the problem with the result that loading them became a challenge!

We had a first-hand experience with one of those new models when we were following it at a distance to avoid the dust. At some stage we saw its right back wheel starting to separate from the car! We slowed down expecting a serious accident, but the wheel continued parallel to the car.

We then noted that the wheel had the axle attached to it still and this saved the car from a more serious accident giving it some stability albeit precarious. We hooted and made light signals but the driver did not stop and, eventually wheel and axle went their own way, and the minibus entered the bushes and came to an abrupt stop!

This was the beginning of the end of the VW domination and the start of the Toyota and Nissan era!

But not only the new VW kombis suffered from the “open backdoor syndrome”, we did too! It happened once we were returning from the reserve in our Land Rover and suddenly, we felt a welcome breeze, quite an improvement from what the small windows and front vents provided.

It was not until most of our cargo had gone that we noted that our -rather wide- backdoor was open. Perhaps we had driven two hundred metres like but it was sufficient to offload most of our belongings, including our cool box, tent, chairs, sleeping bags and personal luggage that rested in the middle of the road. Luckily no cars were coming behind us and we managed to pick up all the stuff. We needed a new cool box though!

Unfortunately, during the same journey when perhaps we were in a hurry or more casual than usual, we also lost our double mattress that “flew” from the roof. That was a great loss as it had been specially cut to fit within the roof rack if you wished to sleep in the first floor during hot nights. We only noted its absence after we arrived home and I am sure that there was a happy Maasai couple that slept comfortably from then on!

Another inattention led us through a more interesting situation. While driving during the rainy season, as we were prone to get stuck and also to find people stuck, we always carried a thick jute rope that, depending on its last use, it would be tied up either to the front or the back of the car and rolled up there as it was usually very muddy and also it occupied lots of space inside our short Land Rover.

Somehow, during one of our game drives the rope, that at the time happened to be at the back, became undone and, inadvertently, we were dragging it behind the car. We would have discovered this in due course but as it happened, a third party did it before us!

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A lion pride, similar to the playful one.

The pride of lions we found resting around a termite mound, like pussycats do, unusually, started following our car. Things started to unravel when a few seconds later we felt a light jerk and, when we stopped we could see that about four or five cubs and three lionesses had grabbed our rope and were busy trying to kill it while being dragged by us.

Trying to free ourselves, we stopped and re-started but the lions, clearly in a playful mood, still held on! With no other option, as we were not going to get out of the car to chase them off, we continued driving slowly for a while with them behind until they started leaving the rope to return to their friends that had not bothered to leave their resting place.

The abundance of lions offered good opportunities to watch them hunting, either spectacularly chasing their prey or setting up ambushes and waiting for the possible victims to walk past. Sometimes their job was made easy by the victims’ accidental contribution.

One early afternoon we witnessed an unexpected kill while watching one of the large prides resting. Most of the lions were snoozing or just resting under the shade when suddenly we saw that some lionesses stirred and instantly they were fully alert before we knew what was happening.

Scanning the area, we saw a young warthog running towards the lions, unaware of their presence until it found itself among them and, by then, it was too late. Although the lions had eaten, they could not resist a chase and a couple of lionesses went for it. As the warthog was coming at a speed, it managed to avoid the attackers by swerving around them as these animals are very fast on short runs and the lionesses were full of meat.

Unfortunately for the warthog, after managing to cross a rather large pride it almost bumped on a large male lion that all it had to do to catch it was open its mouth! That was the end of an intrepid but careless warthog.

While on the subject of warthogs, we loved them running with their tails up as if having radio aerial to keep in touch with each other! As it sometmes happens, driving through a narrow track we surprised a family of warthogs that crossed in front of us. Unfortunately, one of the piglets (despite having its antenna up!) got separated from the others and started running on the other side of the road trying to reunite with its siblings.

We stopped to let it do it and then we heard a rather loud “swooosh” and saw the huge shape of a Martial Eagle coming straight and fast towards the separated youngster. The eagle hit the piglet with its talons and held on to it while the poor victim squealed and squirmed trying to get away. Then the eagle tried to take off and flew a few metres with its prey but it soon dropped it. The piglet hit the floor running in the direction where we had last seen its family. The eagle did not chase it but I guess that the unlucky warthog could not live too long after such an attack.

The opportunism of the eagle still amazes us. It must have been watching the warthogs either from a nearby tree or flying above them when the incident happened.

It is well known that cheetah -due to the need to see where they step when they reach high speeds- are diurnal hunters. The Maasai Mara offered them perfect ground to reach their top speeds while chasing their favourite prey ther, Thomson’s gazelles. We did find cheetah sometimes and were lucky to witness a couple of chases, one of which ended successfully.

This particular cheetah was a female and, after strangling its prey and resting, it started to emit high pitch calls that were answered by the arrival of two very young cubs that she allowed to play with the dying gazelle and, after a while, the female killed it and started to feed. It ate quite a bit of the hindquarters and only then allowed its cubs to try it although I think they were still too small to eat too much meat.

After a while of watching the trio we noted the approach of a large spotted hyena, clearly attracted by the commotion and the smell of death as it usually happened there. Clearly the hyena was stronger than the cheetah and its cubs were also at risk.

We expected the cheetah to yield and move away as it had eaten a good part of the animal already. It did not happen! Following some signal from their mother, the cubs vanished, and the cheetah stayed to face the intruder. We feared for its life as the hyena was clearly stronger and appeared determined to fight. Amazingly, the cheetah almost doubled its size as it bristled. Then, the new “super cheetah” went for the hyena.

As the hyena did not retreat, a prolonged face-off over the half-eaten gazelle followed but the cheetah would not back down either. Finally the hyena decided that what was left of the prey was not worth it and scampered off. Once alone, the cheetah returned to its normal size again, called its cubs and resumed feeding on the gazelle until most of their hindquarters, its richest part, were gone.

At that time in the Maasai Mara there was good “bush solidarity” and people would exchange information on their sightings. I confess that at first we relied a lot on the tourist vehicles from the various lodges to find game without asking them and by following them at a prudent distance.

As we started to learn our ways we gradually stopped this practice but we kept finding very helpful people that gave us great information. The Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp was a good example. Apart from letting us camp in the area and use the lodge “facilities”, he was also a good source of information.

Through him we learnt that a female leopard had come to inhabit in a rocky gorge nearby. The animal was, unusually, very relaxed and allowed vehicles to approach her. The Manager, very excited about the find, asked us to follow him to show us where it lived and we obliged. We found it rather easily and from then on “Leopard gorge” as we called it became a constant feature of our trips to Intona ranch as, invariably, we would do the detour that went through the gorge to see if we could spot the leopard.

After a while the leopard disappeared and we did not see it until, a fortuitous encounter with Jonathan Scott at Kichwa Tembo. Exchanging news, he told us that he was following a female leopard with cubs and explained where to find it. “In any case”, he said, “if you miss her, you will spot my car!”

A few days later, we found Jonathan’s green Land Cruiser before we could spot the leopard and then, nearby, we spotted the three leopards. The mother was putting up with her bothersome cubs and their rough play. The cubs were still very young and rather dark, and they enjoyed climbing rocks and trees in a never-ending active mood. I took all the pictures I could and soon run out of film!

After a while we needed to continue our journey to so we went to thank Jonathan for such a great tip. I made a passing comment of how great it was to watch the animals and that I had taken lots of pictures. His reply clearly marked the difference between a real pro and an amateur like me “I did not take any today because the light is not right”. I kept quiet and eventually bought his great book on the leopard [4] to enjoy the pictures I could never had taken but with the nice feeling that we knew both, author and subject!

While on the issue of the rare observation of leopards we did have another close and surprising encounter. With our friend Luis, we had been driving over the plains for a while when we decided to stop for a rest and a bite. So, we parked under a nice tree near a rock ledge and we were eating when an agitated driver of an open safari vehicle came to tell us that we had stopped under a sleeping leopard! We checked and, effectively, it was resting above us. Luckily it had ignored the three large monkeys sitting, eating, drinking and talking below.

So these was a collection of brief observations and experiences we went through during our many visits to the fringes of the Maasai Mara and the reserve itself. More lengthy adventures follow soon.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/25/camping-in-kenya-maasai-mara-game-reserve/ and related posts.

[2] Southern Africans say, with a tinge of jealousy, that animals seem to be tied to pegs on the ground, so visible they are compared with their game watching in the “jesse”.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/05/31/traveling-to-intona/

[4] The well-known photographer and author that was based at Kichwa Tembo at the time, working on his books. “The Leopard’s Tale” is about this female leopard. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Scott_(zoologist)

Encounter with lions

We left Masuma dam and its elephant parade and got to Main Camp, only to discover that our lodge was still occupied by the previous guests from South Africa. It seems that the latter rule in Zimbabwe and they appear to show little respect for the local regulations and arrangements. After a three-hour wait, we finally managed to move into our lodge and settled down with the apologies of the Park manager but not from the interlopers!

We enjoyed the area, particularly the outstanding Nyamandlovu pan and viewing platform that, as usual, was very popular with the elephants. However, as we had just enjoyed a private elephant act, we did not spend much time at the pan and instead looked for other forms of excitement.

During one of our game drives a helpful fellow traveller proudly informed us that there was a lion pride on the prowl near the Dom pan nearby. Finding them did not take long (all credit to my wife, again!) and we watched them trying to see how many they were. After a while counting heads, legs and tails we concluded that they were one adult male, two younger males, three females and two cubs.

We spent some time watching the lions to see how many they were.

Counting lions.

Although it was mid morning they were alert and clearly looking for prey. They moved towards Nyamandlovu pan and positioned themselves at a vantage point that enabled them to see the pan and, more interestingly, a small herd of wildebeest grazing in the dry grasslands, surrounding the pan. The lions kept a keen eye on potential prey but they seemed to ignore the wildebeest, to our surprise, as they would have been the obvious target.

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

As we waited, elephants walked in the background ignoring the lions and vice versa. Only when a couple of young adult female elephants, unaware of the lions’ presence, walked straight at them, was there a sign of fear when they quickly bolted and ran tail up while the lions stood up, preparing for a possible withdrawal. It seemed to us that the lions were not keen on the wildebeest but attentively watching something else that we could not see.

The three lionesses prior to the failed hunt.

The three lionesses.

Suddenly one lioness stood up and started to walk with the clear “hunting gaze”: keeping her neck stretched straight out in line with her back and her head always leveled, despite walking over irregular terrain.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

She is stalking somthing we did not see!

She is stalking something we did not see!

While watching her we lost sight of the other two and we realized that a hunt was on although we still did not see the prospective victim! We prepared ourselves for action and suddenly a couple of warthogs came running across the field, moving very fast and away from the visible lioness.

The warthog sees her and runs away!

One of the warthogs running away.

She went for them running at full speed for a short distance but quickly gave up the chase, as the warthogs at full speed were too much for her. While the warthogs disappeared, two more heads popped up in the grass in front of us. Something had failed in the ambush! Perhaps the warthogs smelled the lionesses or, as they looked young, they did not have the necessary skills to shut the trap. Whatever the reason for the failure the exercise proved to be too much and the females went back to the group and proceeded to do what lions do best: rest and sleep! We left them there hoping to find them again later.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

They were still there in the afternoon and, only when the day cooled down did they move into the bush where we lost them. Luckily they passed very close to us and we managed to take a few good pictures before they disappeared.

Resting on the road.

Resting on the road before moving off.

Showing us her "tools"...

Showing us her “tools”…

An older male joins in.

Two of the males moving off.