Male hormones have turned the ostrich’s legs red. He flaps his great black plumes exposing white wing tips against the variation of hills and space. Two females show vague interest in his powers of attraction. It is mating season and the lion cubs stalk, roll and attack each other in the unusual for late January, verdancy. A little one tugs at a lioness’s tail while she sleeps.
Dark clouds are gathering fast behind us whilst before us the sun is turning the tips of red oat grass a shade of purple. A rumble gets Jackson to rev the engine and spin the wheels over a puddle, so we skid up towards the family of giraffe. The female nuzzles the male’s neck and he smells her urine, whilst the baby gets up and bites its own hump setting the ox-pecker in flight. A female hyena and her furry spotted cub lie cradled in the road and only get up to lope off, when we stop to gawp.
A flash of lightning promises the thunderstorm we just beat as we get to Naibor Camp. Naibor means white and it was first camped at a place dotted with white rocks before it moved to its current location. According to Jackson it also means clear or pure in Maa. And this, to our senses is an unadulterated experience of the wilderness.
Jackson is a Maasai from the Amboseli area and has ring scars or initiation tatoos on his face. We’re looking into the shy eyes of a Thomson’s gazelle in a long moment before it runs off, but Jackson points out that it’s not alarmed as its tail is wagging from side to side. The alarm signal would be the tail flicking up and down.
Petro takes over as Jackson has to leave due to a family emergency. He has two lower front teeth missing and tells us the Maasai from this region remove them – “incase you get a disease that causes your jaw to lock, someone can feed you through the gap”. Petro’s name is also Kapoto or man who moves with the cows. He got his nickname when he first saw a car as a child and asked what caused it to move. Petro from Petrol is therefore the modernised version of Kapoto.
The Gnu are in the Serengeti having babies. Undisturbed by the crowds, every Topi seems to have a rapidly suckling, buff coloured kid in tow. With them are the buffalo, forming herds a mile long, leaving in their grazed tracts, white tissuepetalled flowers.
Many sounds soothe us – favourite music tracks, sizzling food scents, clinking ice. The jungle is not quiet. No matter how loud it is, we cannot call the noise around this curved stream, pollution. Birds trill over the river as it rushes past rocks, from which rise the snorts and grunts of hippos as they charge each other. Later, when the bats come out to chase the moths, the crickets wrap all other sounds. Then the rain patters on leaves above us as hyena whoops take their turn between the guttural reverberations of lions. Comforting, visceral sounds.
Sitting here, it is easy to see why so many folk tales across the world use animals as characters to teach us lessons about how best to live our lives. I’m thinking of the one in which the lion or was it a tiger, on passing other animals overhears warnings about a beast. On reaching the watering hole, he looks into his reflection and asks himself – Who is the beast? Am I the beast?
In the pelting rain, Petro perseveres passionately up and down the slippery black cotton soil to show us a fully grown male leopard that is just slinking away to lick itself. Several times it gets up and moves this way and that in his toilette to give us a better look at its gorgeous, spotted coat.
We sit by the campfire despite the drizzle, enjoying a neck massage from the spa’s therapist. The wind picks up and then the rain beats off its sound and we have to go into the mess-tent to eat. Swathed in shukas and lit with candles we are secure, the food is welcoming and warmed with a spicy butternut soup.
This is bona fide camping made comfortable, rustic wash stands with metal basins and pitchers. Refillable, up-cycled glass bottles and toiletries filled in aluminium dispensers. The showers are a canvas bucket pulled up at just the right temperature. It’s friendly to the environment and as authentic to camping as luxury will allow.
The dwarf mongoose come curiously close at breakfast and the hours spent in camp are delightfully filled with life around the river bend. This is the Talek River, a tributary feeding the Mara River. Local fig-wood is hewn into cushioned seats and tables that jut out on a deck and around the curve of the eastern bank.
Two large red holes on the great male hippo’s hump are the result of repelling a contender for his family. The little hippos splash in and out avoiding the bigger ones, staying close to their mothers. My ten year old girl has set up her camera on a tripod but the crocodile is in the water in a splash too quick to capture. Watching the action, has made her hungry and she finds the healthy lunch of fresh salads and vegetables, extremely good.
The riverine forest throws up a couple of Egyptian geese that settle on the rocky bank to preen themselves. A great butt appears out of the water, vigorously flipping faeces with its tail. There is nothing superficial about this experience, it forces you to participate whilst you relax and listen to the wilderness, acutely aware of the game around you, you smell it as it lives its life beside you.
Naibor is in the centre of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.