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I wrote this journal back in Oct ’11 soon after my trip when my excitement was yet to die down (it still has not died down as I dream of this place all the time). Shared with a just a few people so far. Going back to the Journal and reminiscing (as the excitement builds all over again for the upcoming trip in 9 weeks) made me think I should get this Journal out. Publishing this for the first time. Hope this inspires you to go to this Paradise..

– Vijay Ramanathan, June 2011

 

Sections

Wildlife Paradise

The Africa Attraction

Predators & their Prey

Lions in Heat

Cheetah with a Gazelle Kill

The Cheetah Hunt

Memorable Moments

Postscript

Wildlife Paradise

Teen Lion

My emotions were on overdrive the entire week. A state of heightened anticipation – a natural high that I still seem to be mulling in and refusing to come back to this so called civilization that we belong to. The Mara is an endless expanse of savannah. Miles of grasslands on all sides. Nature’s bounty playing out the food chain and the circle of life. Carnivores hunting for daily food. Scavengers feeding on left overs. One can see carcasses lying all over the place. Herbivores go about their business of feeding over the grasslands – the unlucky ones fall prey & end up as a meal to the higher species. An immense setup that is hard to explain over words and requires one to experience in person. A pristine Reserve that holds nature’s wonders in an environment that one is fortunate to experience in this modern time. Hopefully I will be able to take you to this place with this journal as I recollect key experiences.

The Africa Attraction

No trip to the Masai Mara or other parts of Africa is complete without the Big 5 which comprises of the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino & Cape Buffalo. A set of mammals that came to be known as such based on the degree of difficulty to hunt as opposed to their size. Every one of them are spectacular in their own way. The photographic opportunities were immense, partly due to the roll of the dice working in our favor on this particular week. There was no better place than Mara to witness wildlife behavior – be it kills or how they tend to their young or how they mate.

The Africa Attraction

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Predators

Predators come big and small & they hunt down big and small creatures. On occasion, even elephants and giraffes fall prey while the smaller ungulates make up daily meals.  Predators are aggressive and opportunistic. Over land and in water. It is truly a survival of the fittest. Lions form the top of the food chain and hunt in packs. Leopards are secretive and sometimes haul their prey on to trees to save it from others. Cheetahs depend on bursts of speed to trip their prey down to kill them to make up for their size. Hyenas are quite the opportunists and take away kills from predators big and small. At the same time they are quite capable of killing and fending for themselves. Crocs  wait in water to get crossing wildebeests & zebras. Jackals go for smaller creatures in order to feed themselves. Scavengers such as Vultures and Marabou Storks clean up the carcasses and prevent decay and infection in the area. All other herbivores feast on the grasslands for their daily sustenance. For prey, being in the wrong place at the wrong time leads to immediate death. Across species, new borns, cubs and calves suffer a very high mortality rate and are lucky to see it to adulthood.

Wildebeests

Around 1.3M wildebeestsmigrate to the Masai Mara and cross the river in search of greener pastures. During season they offer food in abundance to the predators.

Tommys

The Thomson gazelleis smaller than the Grant’s Gazelle & is the favorite meal of the Cheetahs.

Impalas

Impalas– Another beautiful species from the antelope family with a lovely rufous/golden coat. Also seen in good numbers.

Zebras

Zebras – These horse/asses relative with distinct stripes also form a significant portion of ungulates in the Reserve.

 

 

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Mating Behavior On arrival at the Mara, for the first day and a half, we observed lion mating sessions for hours on end. The routine was fairly simple & cyclic.

Sleep Lions normally sleep 20 hours a day. In between mating, they will sleep for 10-15 minutes and get back to the job in hand.

Nuzzle There is a fair bit of nuzzling happening between the lion & lioness.

MateAfter every short bout of mating, there are big and small grunts and friendly snapping, snarling & biting at each other (lion’s versions of hickeys I suppose :))

Cheetah with a Gazelle Kill

This cheetah had it’s fill to make sure it did not hungry for another day at least

On the second day afternoon, we came across a cheetah which had just killed a Thomson’s Gazelle. We saw the cheetah devour the gazelle for almost 1 hour and 20 minutes till it could eat no more. Clearly, it wanted to eat as much as it could, so it does not have to hunt the next day. Never seen a bigger stomach bulge like this! In the meanwhile there was a big  buildup of vultures of all kinds in the neighboring trees. Then they started assembling closer to the kill. Marabou Storks started landing up. The cheetah took plenty of breaks in between its meal. Finally, the cheetah walks away almost after spending an hour and 30 minutes with its kill. The vultures and the storks pounce in on the remains and it was amazing to see the feeding frenzy. The bigger Lappet faced vulture came in late to the party and bullied its way inside. In a matter of minutes, it was all over. The Marabou Stork did away with the spine – the last remains of what was left!

Feeding Frenzy – Vultures & Marabou Storks polish off the remains of this Gazelle..

The Cheetah Hunt

We could not believe what we were witnessing.. a cheetah going after Tommys

We crossed into the Mara Triangle on the 5th day of our stay. Kalyan had shot 3 Cheetah cubs with its mother the previous week. On our way to the Serena, we went to see if the 3 Cheetah cubs were still on the South side of the Triangle with their mother and we found them! A bush with just enough shade was providing refuge for the adorable young cubs. Since the light was too harsh we decided to return that evening.

After checking into the Serena and soaking in its ambience, views & birding opportunities, we had lunch & headed out for  the afternoon Safari. Ominous clouds darkened the sky and it started pouring. Mustafa, our guide took another route and avoided the eye of the storm. What a gift that turned out as we saw two handsome male lions on the side of the road. As the rain subsided to a drizzle, we got some lovely closeups and portraits of this handsome male lion. We then went in search of the cubs.

The rains almost played spoilsport as we met a family of lions with cubs & wondering if it had driven away the cheetah. After a few minutes of that sinking feeling Mustafa suddenly spotted the Cheetah in the distance. There was a surge of excitement. Mustafa maneuvered the Safari vehicle to the road crossing on the other side in the hope that the Cheetah and its cubs would come towards our side. And it slowly started walking towards our side.

At this time the rain started coming down with more purpose and we were forced to close the top down. As I was admiring the gazelles in the horizon some 500 mts away. the cheetah had come really close to the road & to where we were stationed. I whirled around to look at the cheetah which is when I sensed it moving. The Cheetah too had seen the gazelles and was planning dinner. I found myself screaming, “She’s moving – going for the kill”. The next thing I knew, the top of our Safari vehicle had flown open & I heard Kalyan screaming on the top of his voice “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot”! As the adrenalin took over Kalyan, Abhilash & I became possessed as our cameras started emanating rapid machine gun like shots as we tried to capture as much of the action as we could.

The cheetah shot like a rocket towards the gazelles. The gazelles were all scrambling madly but one of them had fallen prey to the incredible burst of speed that the cheetah had. It was all over in the next minute and a half or so. Then we saw the cheetah emerge with a Tommy in its mouth and it moved a little away from the kill spot and called out for its cubs. The playful cubs came prancing towards their mother. They will have a proper dinner today. As the cubs start to eat, the gazelle kicked involuntarily a few times and even raised its head. It is then we realized that the cheetah had not killed it’s prey  completely  in order to train the cubs right from this tender age (few months old) the art of eating and killing. One of the startled cubs ran away as much as 10 feet away when the gazelle moved.

It was finally story over for the gazelle as it breathed its last and there is this sense of sadness as to how nature works in these cases. But that is how this natural ecosystem works and the circle of life continues. Finally we  notice the rain on us and we close the Safari top down.

The excitement started to subside. We start breathing normally and we start reviewing the pictures we have taken.  We got the best hunting pictures ever – that too in silhouettes! On the drive back to the Serena we opened Tuskers to celebrate and contemplated silently on what we had just been through. Not only had we witnessed something completely special, we had also captured these special moments. A sense of satisfaction seeped into  us as we called it a day.

Cheetah kicking up dust as it negotiates a right hand turn at maximum speed on the way to closing in on its kill..

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There was some serious necking going on with these six giraffes. Offered us an amazing sighting.. Cheetah with her playful cubs on a termite mound in early morning sun the day we left Mara! A 1 hour sighting of the cubs playing & a gift for life!

Getting to Mara is half the fun!

After landing in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I got a Kenyan visa on arrival and was received by Chris from the travel company African Horizons. I was immediately whisked to Wilson Airport which houses all the smaller planes that fly out of Nairobi. The weather was pleasant with a tinge of chillness and my anticipation heightened as I saw two Giraffes to the left of the highway as soon as I got out of the airport. We flew Safarilink to the Intrepids landing strip in the Mara on an ATR 72 holding 35. Depending on number of travelers, one can land in a 6 seater even! We returned in a 14 seater toNairobi. Masai Mara cannot be complete without visiting both sides of the Mara river. We stayed at two resorts during our 7 day visit.

Comfy Tents

Mara Fig Tree Camp This Resort is on the Eastern Side of the Mara and is one of many on the Eastern side. It is located on the banks of the Talek River and we had rooms right on the river in Luxury tents with big comfortable bathrooms. The room also offers a view of the Mara at eye level from across the river. We spent 4 nights here.

 

Mara Serena The only Resort available in the Mara Triangle. Situated on a hillock with a airline seat view of the Mara on the East from every room, it is built in a Masai style and is a classy resort.The Mara Triangle is run by the Mara Conservancy and occupies the western side of the Mara river. The Triangle is the more scenic of the two, better run and has lesser crowds due to the paucity of resorts. While a few vehicles alone will have to take the onus on tracking key sightings, the rewards are rich in that the crowds are lesser. We spent 3 nights here. Note: Both Resorts offer a variety of bird sightings and is a delight for birders.

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The Masai Mara completely blew me away in every facet & totally fulfilled my expectations. The wide open spaces with exotic species grazing at leisure just made for a potent combo. In addition, comfortable weather, great accommodations, comfortable safari drives, an excellent guide/driver in Mustafa, and an outstanding photography guide in Kalyan added up to make this trip a truly memorable one. This is one place I see myself being a lifelong visitor as long as health, time and money permit. – Vijay Ramanathan, Oct 2011 All images © Vijay Ramanathan, 2011. vijay.ramanathan@gmail.com

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