The morning opened its eyes with a smile. The clear skies, and red orb of the equatorial sun began a new day’s journey over the horizon as I loaded my kit.
The sounds of the Maasai Mara swept away the disappointment of the previous day. Lions, calling with the soft deepness reserved for members of their own pride, could be heard in the distance, a pod of hippo splashed and grunted in the shallows of the river nearby, and everywhere the counterpoint of birdsong.
We had landed on a tiny airstrip the previous evening from Nairobi, arriving in the alternating bright sun and shadow from drifting cloud that is so distinctive of the Mara.
Indeed Mara is the Maasai word for that mottled look the ever-moving patches of light and shadow bestow on this famous landscape. Sadly, it was too late for a game drive.
However, today looked promising. Within 15 minutes of leaving our lodge, we were two feet from two male lions, their faces torn by the scars of a recent battle, the first, but certainly not the last skirmish, in a battle to
take over a local pride. To ensure a dynamic gene pool nature is both relentless and pitiless, for the old males; banishment and death, for the young pretenders; aggressive procreation and another link forged in the generational chain.
The rain of the previous night far from being a curse had in fact been a blessing in disguise. With no rain falling south of the river, the great migratory herds of wildebeest and zebra were on the move. Rain in this part of the world leads to rapid growth of grass, short succulent and very nutritious grass. Indeed, grass so nutritious, that is worth crossing a rapidly flowing river for and maybe, ultimately dying for.
Suddenly, stampede; thousands of wildebeest rushed east, parallel to the river for a couple of hundred yards, only to reappear in a panic
amongst the bushes 20 feet or so above the swirling river. Some were pushed and fall over the edge, calling in panic as they tried to make their ground.
What we were witnessing was the annual migration, a phenomenon far grander and more patterned than animal movement. It represents collective travel with long-deferred rewards. It suggests premeditation and epic wilfulness, codified as inherited instinct.
By now there was tension in near the river bank, the scene had been building up quickly as more animals instinctively arrived at the river bank only to be met with hesitation. The lions noticed the confusion, and charged in!
A wildebeest more frightened or more determined jumped in the water, eyes bulging with terror and the effort of swimming as it headed towards the opposite bank.
The water thrashed into soaring foam, hiding partly submerged bodies, leaving only sharply curved horns, as dark silhouettes against the surging white spume.
In the melee, a crocodile takes a wildebeest calf, drags it under water, but the rush never falters, animal after animal makes the safety to the shore, lungs pumping with effort, they race past before halting to rest.
Then the call started to reverberate, unnoticed at first, but then louder and louder demanding to be heard. The crescendo of wildebeest grunts, pierced by the haunting calls of zebra mothers parted from calves and zebra calves parted from mothers.
Young animals, alone, frightened and bewildered, return to the water’s edge, defying the oncoming herd to re-cross the raging water, in the vain hope of finding the comforting muzzle of a missing parent.
The lions are tearing into the flesh of a fresh kill. A young gnu. Experience has taught them that they are no match for a pack of hyenas.
Yes, nature is relentless, and yes, for the few, pitiless too, but the herds survive and prosper, numbers in some years with exceptional rainfall can exceed two million animals. The benefit of the migration, the constant supply of nutritious fodder as the rains move north, far outweighs the dangers.
Predation, sickness, distance, hardly puts a dent in the numbers, and no matter how dramatic to us, nor does another dangerous crossing.
Next year, we go again!