High above these plains, is the heart from which mighty arteries flow to feed the savannah. I’m watching the hippos wallowing, frolicking, wading and snoozing on the bank of one of these arteries, now sluggish and murky from this year’s extended drought. The crocodiles are barely hidden in the shallow waters of the Mara River.
Scarce showers have turned the curled up, crispy yellow grasses to spring tall amidst the scattered, flat topped acacias. Every season in the Mara is spectacular. Large herds are yet to come with the wildebeest, but we quickly come across a pride of lions, with cubs playing on the carcass of a great hippo – their food for several days. At a respectful distance lie several hyenas, some silver backed jackals, a few vultures and buzzards. They’re not fighting with each other; even as the lions lie about satiated, in the shade of camphor scented croton bushes which repel insects and obscure young ones.
The croton’s spear shaped leaves with their silver undersides and the occasional fiery orange of a drying leaf still attached, glisten and shiver in the light breeze. Through this croton and teclea forest, a path leads us without notice into the camp. The greige tents, barely visible until the clearing in front of the river. From the deck, the hippo antics continue – the young ones slip and slide over each other, whilst the dominant male makes a point of showing his full jaws to possible contenders.
We head in and out of Mara Crossings Camp, from full breakfast, via a fresh lunch to one of several sundowner spots and secluded picnic spots overlooking the river. Between the Mara and Talek Rivers is the Musiara sector within which the camp lies. It’s proximity around major crossings in the Mara River, made famous by film crews. Here, where in dramatic moments, the herds will risk treacherous currents and crocodiles to cross the rain swelled river. A female lion crosses before the headlights and disappears into the thicket. A single hyena whoop gives the pack away. Later, having relaxed in the lounge with its stock of global spirits and wine, eaten a perfectly thoughtful dinner in the mess, I am in my tent listening to the night’s rustles, whistles, grunts and crickets. Eight tents wrap the river which is wide here; with gentle rapids that lull like rain drops on leaves.
The Wildebeest or Gnu are still in the Serengeti, where they will have given birth in January and February on the short plains of the southern Serengeti, then as the rains approach in March, April and May they start marching north to the woodlands of Seronera and around Lake Victoria. In June they rut and mate and in July they continue migrating to the Mara. Their trek is cut by several rivers – Serengeti’s Mbalangeti and Grumeti Rivers and the Mara River, where the crossings are the most thrilling. Because, the Mara is densely populated with predators – ravenous crocodiles and the most lions. Droves of wildebeest are accompanied by antelopes and zebras, stalked, killed and feasted upon.
From October, the herds journey south again and by November and December, they will have reached the Serengeti’s wooded areas, where the cows now heavily pregnant, will spread out on the southern plains.
Later, in October, when all the cars have left the animals alone, they’ll still be crossings, babies and kills. The early morning game drives give you the rising sun, dawn hunts and a bird song to communicate the news of the night. A bush breakfast can be a wonderful way to get out of the car and let the sun push the chill of darkness away. When the sun is up, you may see the action of predators that don’t want to compete with hyenas and lions, like cheetahs. At sundown, your most likely to see nocturnal animals, like the leopard. With a balloon ride, you can spoil yourself by gliding over the plains for an entirely different view.
“If you want to sit under a shade in your old age plant a tree now.” African Proverb
Forest fires have regenerated the earth just below the Oloololo ridge, the plains are ready for the onslaught of herbivore feeding, eating and viewing. Sandev Chodha, director of Mara Crossings Camp tells me that Kenya Wildlife Service rangers are now lighting controlled fires in emulation of natural fires which have been reduced, due to over grazing. Animals have been pushed from the fringes into smaller and smaller spaces due to human activity.
Lakes Natron (Tanzania), Victoria (Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya) as well as Turkana and Nakuru (Kenya) are fed by rivers that flow from the Mau Forest Complex. The River Nile which supplies Sudan and Egypt, gets its water from Lake Victoria. The 25,000 square kilometre Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, depends on this largest montane biome in East Africa, to pump life into it. 675,000 acres makes up the Forest complex, located between the towns of Bomet, Kericho, Molo, Elburgon and Narok.
Deforestation of the Mau forests – for agriculture and settling, logging for wood and charcoal, has seriously affected the rainfall it can create. Some say, if serious reforestation does not happen now, in just ten years, the whole of the Mara-Serengeti system, with its great wildebeest migration will collapse.
“A river that forgets its source will soon dry out.” African Proverb
The original inhabitants of the forest were the Ogiek hunter gatherers who lived sustainably by gathering honey and hunting small game, some began subsistence planting. The Kenyan government in a bid to stop the degradation of forests, has been evicting all settlers old and new. In 2017, the Ogiek won the right to remain on their ancestral home. Justice Augustino Ramadhani said Environmental degradation in the Mau Forest had been caused mainly by “ill-advised” logging concessions and settlement by non-Ogiek people. The Kipsigis evictees have gone to court suggesting human rights abuses, whilst land disputes with the Maasai have exacerbated the fight to save the Mau.