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The Scent of Maasai Mara

The wilderness of Maasai Mara titilates the senses; the calm of the landscapes and the fury of the predators together make for a meditation on the lingering grandiose of Mother Nature.

There is something profoundly sad about the sunset in Maasai Mara. As the dust settles down and darkness envelopes the Savannah, there is an overpowering sense of emptiness. The setting sun, the herd of elephants returning home, the flock of birds retiring to their nest and the huge Acacia trees metamorphosing into shadowy ghosts – together, they convey a deep sense of sorrow.

Into the night, the depth of darkness is exhilarating; the anxiety is further accented by the fear of wild animals. A night in the jungles of Kenya is mesmerising. The creaking grasshopper camouflaged in the grasslands, the croaking frogs resting in the puddle and a slight rustle of the leaves whisked by the gentle breeze, all these and more, complete the mystical theatre of Maasai Mara.

In complete contrast, the daytime, with the harsh sun rays, jarring sound and engulfing dust, represent the glory of African wildlife. Your hands freeze on the camera's shutter when a pregnant hungry Cheetah chases a gazelle endlessly through the savannah. Or, when two lion cubs gorge on half a wildebeest, left by their parents; or when the leader of an elephant herd teaches a protocol or two to its new baby member. Such is the overwhelming power of wild Maasai Mara.

July is a good time to visit Maasai Mara. We reached Nairobi in the afternoon and rested at my friend's home, located in a typically Gujarati neighbourhood. "The idea is to see the migration of Wildebeest from Tanzania to Kenya," I explained to my friend, Roy. "I have booked you a safari van right from my doorstep to Maasai Mara. The rest is your luck," he replied.

But, before Maasai Mara, we drove to Lake Naivasha, next morning. Half an hour outside Nairobi, you can experience the magnanimity of the Great Rift Valley. Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru are a part of this Rift Valley, which stretches from north to the south of Kenya. Lake Naivasha is home to a huge population of Hippopotamus and many species of fish, mostly Carp. The lake is, on an average, 30 feet deep and locals swim in its calm waters, catching fish and selling them to the tourists riding in boats. My son decided to buy two carps and cook it in a traditional fire of dry leaves. We squeezed some lime, polished it with potato chips and a generous portion of Vodka. Some of the most beautiful variety of birds paraded for us, particularly when we neared a dilapidated old ruin. As the hippos came perilously close to our boat, our guide asked us to be quiet and still, as they tilted the boat from under; "More people have been killed by hippos than any other wildlife," he warned.

Next morning, our safari van arrived sharp at 8 am to take us to Maasai Mara. We were only three of us in a reasonably large van, which opened at the top to allow a 360-degree view. The distance from Nairobi to Maasai Mara is about 280 km via the city of Narok, west of the capital. We opted for a night halt at Lake Nakuru. It is home to some of the most exotic birds like Pink Flamingos. Lake Nakuru is ideal for their food with the abundance of algae. On a 'drive' mode on my camera, I captured a mesmeric 'Flight of Hundred Pink Flamingos' triggered, I guess, by their leader's command. The sea of Pink Flamingos was also dotted with Pelicans, who share the pickings. We also saw the Southern Kenyan White Rhinos sunbathing on the sandy banks of the lake, resting under the trees in packs of six or eight. These rhinos were brought in to Nakuru National park to add to the variety of Black Rhinos. That night, whilechecking the captured frames on my camera, I realised how dangerously close we were to the rhinos.

Next morning, we cut across Lake Nakuru and drove up to the Eastern Gate of Maasai Mara National Reserve. Outside, the antelopes were grazing peacefully, oblivious of the congress of noisy baboons. Here, Maasai women try to sell their artefacts and it is good to bargain, as they are used to naïve European tourists paying the quoted price. Soon, we were inside the Sopa Mara Lodge, transported into 5-star luxuries amidst the infinite wilderness.

Maasai Mara National Reserve is a part of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Spread over 1,500 square miles, it is a treasure trove of wild animals. The big five; Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo are in abundance and so are Hyenas, Cheetahs, Jackals, Foxes, Giraffe, Zebras and Antelopes; both Thompson's and Grant's. And, of course, you see thousands and thousands of Wildebeest, postmigration. Mara River is the dwelling place of Crocodiles, the ones you see on Nat Geo, jumping on to the migrating Wildebeest. Not to mention Baboons, Ostriches, Vultures etc. There are also some rare species of reptiles such as the Black Mambas tucked inside the marshy swamps and the green desert turtle. Our first encounter in the morning was a giant African Male Elephant, trotting majestically along the path. We froze on the track. The elegant male came close to touching distance of our van, then gently walked away into the bush and disappeared gradually.

A mile ahead, a resting Cheetah caught our driver/guide's attention. We couldn't go very close to the grand predator, as in any National Reserve, you are not allowed to go off the driving track. Soon, we were informed on the walkie-talkie that a herd of elephants have been located nearby. From the edge of a cliff, we could see some fifty odd elephants trudging along a rocky terrain, heading for a watering hole nearby.

As we hurtled down the small hill, we found two lion cubs gorging on a wildebeest. Their parents were resting in a bush nearby, ever watchful of the kids. We parked our safari van, switched off the engine and enjoyed the full view. Both the parties were at ease in each other's presence. We lapped up the drama of lion cubs tearing at the dead animal, playfully pushing the other for a better chunk of meat.

At lunch, we sat under an Acacia tree to fill ourselves. Our driver pulled out folding chairs and handed us the packed lunch he had brought from the Hotel. He said, not all Acacia trees are safe to sit under, as many of them have beehives. Another batch of Europeans tourists informed us that they saw some lions before they settled for lunch. Our guide advised, if we hurry with the food, then we could also see those lions.

Sure enough, our guide could spot the Majestic African Lion following a lioness, imploring her to mate. She was unrelenting. As she walked away like a queen of pomposity, the lion followed her, making sounds to attract her attention. I begged my driver to follow them, even though it meant abandoning the driving track. Soon, we were very close to the Lion King and his partner. As the sound of my camera shutter bothered the king of the jungle, he snarled aggressively and, for a moment, our guide too seemed flustered.

Our next stop was the Mara River. This is the river I have often spotted on Nat Geo, filled with migrating Wildebeest. But today there were none. The crossover was complete for the season. We had to make do with the crocodiles sunbathing on the banks. At a distance, we could see the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is a breathtakingly view – miles and miles of Savannah, gently swaying in the wind. We all were one with nature, spellbound and thankful to God.

We had reached the far end of Maasai Mara National Reserve and had to return to the lodge before sundown. Our guide decided to head back, albeit at a slow speed, so that we could soak in as much as we were able to. The sun was dipping into the horizon as we were crossing a rivulet. A herd of twenty-odd elephants were drinking water. We stopped by to watch them. The younger ones wanted to play in the water, even though the herd was ready to leave. The leader of the pack nudged them to step out, but with no effect. Then came the scold and the little ones ran scared, quickly following the others.

The sun was a red ball now. We were heading east, so it was behind us. The occasional Acacia tree in the backdrop allowed for a perfect frame. We were all quiet, realising that the day has come to an end. Suddenly, our van screeched to a halt. Perched on a rock was a Cheetah craning to look out into the distance. There were a few Gazelles grazing. She looked pregnant and that was confirmed by our guide. In no time, she climbed down and began to chase. We finally witnessed the chase of a predator. Our driver deftly followed the two for a reasonable distance, till they disappeared behind a large chunk of rock.

Thousands of Wildebeest were grazing on both sides, dotted with packs of Zebras, happily cohabiting together. I realised that I was a tourist, and this land belonged to them, not even the humans, and I have to get back to my cacophonic reality. There is a particular lingering scent of the trees and wildlife of Maasai Mara. As we were getting out of the Game Reserve, that scent was quickly diminishing. And, that is when I felt the pangs of separation. It was heart-wrenching to bid adieu to the grand wilderness of Kenya's Maasai Mara.

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