Time has passed and we have left the Mara and are in the village of Shela on Lamu Island, a small but very happening spot in the Indian Ocean off Kenya’s northern coast, but more on this later.
Since I last added to the blog the rains appear to have arrived; the rainy season usually begins in late March or early April and we chose our time to come based on arriving before the rains began, while the grass was still short and while the opportunities for observing and photographing were at their best, however.....the rains have arrived. We spent our last week driving into the Park every day as well as spending time in our own Conservancy which meant that most days we were out for 10 or 12 hours in our vehicle and on one occasion we left at 6am and finally returned to the camp at 7:30pm, very long day. On only one day did we get persistent rain in the day but on most days while heavy clouds continually passed overhead, we were only occasionally interrupted with an intense burst of rain lasting 20 or 30 minutes. The long steady rains seemed to time themselves nicely to arrive in the evening and then pour overnight so we were relatively rain-free during the day, but the tracks and trails became very boggy and getting stuck was a continuing concern.
Guide John, in the course of chatting, mentioned that there was a weekly market held every Thursday in a village about 30k away which was the major market in the region for cows, sheep, goats and vegetables. Couldn’t miss this opportunity so although it had rained heavily overnight we chugged our way over and through stretches of deep mud and mire to the market, took us about 90 minutes to cover the distance, not including the time it took to raise the Land Cruiser on a jack and change a flat tire. One fascinating occurrence along the way; shortly after replacing the flat we saw, about 20 metres off the side of the track, a dead zebra lying on its side. There were no marks or wounds and it must have occurred only moments before as none of the carrion cleanup crew had yet arrived and John surmised snake bite, a black mamba or puff adder. Plowing on we arrived at the market and spent some interesting time talking with cattle owners who all seemed to be friends of John and who were there to buy or sell their animals. All the Masai appear to own cattle, including John and the other men who work at our camp, a Masai without cows seems to be an oxymoron. We were told that the market was smaller than usual since the overnight rain had swollen rivers and creeks and made them impassable for many cattle traders and only those in the local area were able to attend.
We are very struck by the Masai, both men and women, who compare very favourably with other tribes that we have met in other parts of the continent. Both men and women are much more soft-spoken, straightforward, open and notwithstanding their reputation for ferocity, surprisingly gentle. Everyone that I talked with about their cows and their animals was happy to chat and seemed easy and relaxed and, I’m trying to find a culturally acceptable way to frame this thought, were very sure of themselves, an equal to all they met. They give the impression of knowing who they are, knowing they are important in their world and not having anything to prove to themselves or others.
On our way back to the camp a couple of hours later we passed the remains of the zebra, surrounded by 3 different species of vulture and some hyena, and nothing remained but a stripped rib cage, 400 kg of animal completely reduced to bare bones in a couple of hours.
Our days in the Park were spent trying to find the 5 cheetah boys, never did, and the leopard and her cubs, never did. The cheetah boys seem to be still in the south somewhere near the Tanzanian border and the leopard has completely disappeared, no one has seen her or her cubs since the day of the hunt and although we stopped every vehicle that we passed and asked for word of the leopard, no one had seen any the family, so we left on our final day without sighting her again. In wildlife photography as in shopping, Moscow Rules prevail!
We did have one extraordinary occurrence however, and one that does not appear to have a happy ending. We drove into a section of the Mara where a mother cheetah and two of her younger children had been seen. By younger I mean possibly 2 years old, certainly old enough that they would normally be kicked out the parental cheetah’s basement and told to go and earn a living. These three had been hunting together and as it turned out mother cheetah was Malika, a very famous cat, and one we had been trying to find when we were here 4 years ago. Malika is very well known as she has overcome some pretty remarkable odds, her mother having been killed when she was still a young cub. This would normally have been a death sentence for her, cubs just aren’t able to survive on their own, but survive she did, partly as the result of figuring out that safari vehicles, far from being a danger to her were actually able to help her. She seemingly had the habit of leaping on to the hood of vehicles to eat her catches while hyena had to stand by and watch, where normally they would have taken any small catches she made and either starved her to death or killed her outright for food. By a variety of wiles she managed to reach adulthood and is known to all the guides in the Mara. In fact the 5 cheetah boys that we have been trying to locate and the ones about whom the BBC is making a film are all Malika’s children.
We had crossed the river the previous day to try and find Malika and the water at that time was over our hubcaps and was running quite briskly but we had no success finding Malika. Next day when John heard that she had been seen in the same area and we arrived at the river, because of the heavy rain overnight, the water was now racing and much higher. We decided to try and cross and the water was now over the hood of the vehicle and seeping under the doors into our car; we were naturally concerned that if we became stuck getting across it would be quite a job to get help pulling us out while the water continued to rise. However cross we did and found Malika and her two youngsters and stayed with them; there was not much game within distance for them and they very surprisingly, but maybe not so surprising given that it was Malika, decided to cross the river and try a new hunting area on the other side. The river was about 8 or 9 metres wide with a drop of about 2 or 3 metres from the top of the bank to the river below and we watched as Malika somehow made the jump and landed safely on the other side. The two youngsters however were very unhappy and could not muster the courage, they continually searched the river bank, ran a little way to the edge and then halted just before making the leap. They then climbed a termite mound at the side of the river bank and yelled to Malika on the other side. She paid no attention to them and sat with her back to them for about 10 or 15 minutes. We during this time, raced back to the other side of the river where Malika now was and waited to see what would happen. When she realized that nothing was going to induce the youngsters to make the jump on their own, she walked to the river bank and found a spot where a small mound of grass earth a couple of metres in length still protruded above the water about a third of the way across the river and stood and growled at them and I guess basically told them to get their furry tails across. So mustering their courage they bounded to the little island and since there was barely room for all four legs, immediately bounced to the bank on our side. The second youngster was not so lucky and fell short of the bank after leaping from the island and barely scrambled out of the water, while being pulled downstream by the river. As the day was drawing toward sunset we left them knowing that now they were on our side of the river we would likely be able to find them the following day.
On our way home the rain suddenly sheeted down in torrents and with all windows and rooftop hatches tightly locked down the rain still managed to seep its way into the truck. It was slightly terrifying to see flat savanna suddenly turn into a lake as far as the eye could see and the tracks and trails become racing streams. Driving was problematic since we couldn’t stop without sinking in the mud and becoming truly stuck. We were also aware that if we had not crossed when we did we would have been stuck on the other side of the river cut off from our part of the Mara and with no way to get back.
We finally caught up with the 2 cheetah youngsters the day before we left the Mara but no Malika to be seen anywhere. John guessed that she had crossed back over and left the two youngsters, using this as her opportunity to toss them from the nest and make them fend for themselves. We left the following morning to fly to where we are now, Lamu. On our drive to the grassy airstrip in the midst of the Mara savanna, John told us that Malika had not been seen since the rainstorm and the speculation was that she had tried to recross the river to leave the youngsters and the river being so high, had misjudged and been swept away. I asked John to text me if he had any further news, either a sighting of Malika or if her body was found but so far nothing, very very sad.
So we are now in Lamu and I’ll save my impressions for my next post.