Saturday, May 22, 2010

Masai Mara (3): The Game Reserve and Views

Probably the most famous and, as some say, arguably the best of Kenya’s national parks and game reserves, the Masai Mara Game Reserve is famous for both the views and the animals (I’ll try to describe the latter in future – probably several future – posts). It’s a great combination of features, with much open grassland and, since there has been so much rain in the past few months, the grass when I went to Masai Mara was especially high – hiding of course all sorts of things and beasts that don’t have to be exposed because the grass is short.

Indeed, the high grass provoked much fear in Charles and me at one point, as we grappled with the one truly stupid thing we saw on the trip.

In Africa, on safari and especially on game drives and when there is wildlife about, one never NEVER gets out of one’s vehicle. It’s just too dangerous, and the animals don’t know what to make of it. If you want a closer look, you look out of the vehicle or, in my case for this safari (and which many people do), you stand up and look out the roof of the van. But you don’t get out.

As we were moving along on one of our game drives, there were very few other vans and vehicles about, but up in front of us, about three-quarters of a mile away, we saw a van stop and three young men jumped out, obviously in a hurry to respond to the call of nature, as it’s delicately put in some circles. They did what they had to do and got back in the van, and drove away. We were not close enough to say anything, and it would have been inappropriate anyway (although when we saw this happen on another occasion – at Lake Nakuru National Park – our guide was a ranger and she make it clear to the offending tourist that he would be arrested if she saw him attempt to leave his vehicle again – and he hadn’t even got out but had only opened the door as if he were going to alight from his vehicle), but what we saw was frightening. These fellows were taking a chance, for with the grass so high, certainly hyenas and jackals could be there waiting to attack and even big guys like the cats could be well hidden. Stupid move.

Back to Masai Mara. The game reserve is big, some 1,510-sq-km (583-sq-mile) of it, and in addition to grassland, there are rocky hills, massive woodlands and forests, and simply beautiful views from just about anywhere. I’ve tried to capture a variety of views, shown here in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (3) Album – there is no (2) - and I hope readers get an idea of the genuine glory of this beautiful place. I’m particularly taken – as is evident from these photographs – with the sky, and how different in looks in parts of the Masai Mara. I love the different cloud formations, and it is at a time like this that I’m sorry I’m not a scientist. It would be good to have some of the scientific background for all this beauty. But then it might spoil the emotional pleasure, I suppose.

Game drives are a remarkable activity. When on a safari such as this, while there are campgrounds, with very limited facilities it seems. And I have no idea what kind of security one has sleeping in a tent on the edge of the jungle but since I don’t plan to be doing it, I won’t give it too much thought.

Depending on one’s relationship with one’s driver (or if one is part of a package deal in which a group of tourists will be going out together), the game drive is simply that, and nothing more: an opportunity to go out into the game preserve and observe the wildlife in their natural habitat. And with so much variety in the habitat, one never has any idea what will be seen. Of course people get their hopes up, especially wanting to see the so-called “big five” (African buffalo, African bush elephant, Leopard, Lion, and Rhino – all habitats, by the way, of Masai Mara Game Reserve), and there are so many other varieties of animals that it’s almost impossible not to see something. But there are no guarantees with respect to a game drive, and all sorts of conditions can affect what one sees.

Weather, for one, affects whether the wildlife will be out where it can be seen. Also the time of day is important. Most animals – especially predators – have had their chase and their fill by the middle of the day, and when it is too hot, that’s when they rest, sometimes going into as deep a sleep as they would at their normal sleeping times. Other animals, of course, are nocturnal so you’re not going to see them anyway unless you get up very early.

For me, the best method is just to plan a few game drives, at different parts of the day. I’m an early person anyway, so I’ve had pretty good luck going out about 6.00 or 6.30 am (most fairly nice lodges will prepare a packed breakfast to eat on the drive, since breakfast isn’t often served that early in the lodge). On this safari, I did that on two days. I’ve found the morning game drives to be the best, and you can schedule them for as long as you like (mine usually go about 3 to 3 ½ hours, and I get to see a lot). For late afternoon drives, we usually begin about 3.30 or 4.00 pm and stay out until dark (most lodges don’t serve dinner until 7.30 or so, sometimes even later).

Masai Mara is very famous as being the center of the famous “Great Migration,” when hundreds of thousands of grazing move from the Serengeti up through Kenya to follow the rains and the good grass. It’s said to be one of the most spectacular wildlife spectacles in the world, and I’ve seen films of it, and the Great Migration usually runs from mid-July to early September, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to return to Masai Mara this year. It would be a shame to miss it, but one can only absorb so much safari travel.

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