ENCOUNTER MARA          - 19/9/2011      <--Prev : Next-->

It was indeed on our "bucket list" and it was an exceptional experience. exhilarating, spectacular, amazing, and yet we felt oddly guilty !!

The word "un-patriotic" came to mind as we had firmly advocated for our whole lives that our game parks in Zim were the best - and now we could not longer say that in all truthfulness !

After a visit to the Masai Mara life changes.

One thinks that one is prepared for the spectacle, so much has been written and filmed about "The Crossing" the fabled wildebeest crossing, but nothing can prepare one for this incredible primeval occurrence.

Our encounter with the wildebeest began at a conservancy in Kenya called Encounter Mara. A little to the north of the great Masai Mara Game Reserve itself, this brand new tented camp is in fact run by a young Zimbabwean conservationist who went to Whitestone school with our youngest. Sean Anderson and his wife Tess run a very special eco-haven with all the trimmings which made our "Encounter Mara" unforgettable.

From the silent Askari swathed in silver chains and a scarlet shuka, standing on one leg, spear in hand, guarding the outside of our tent, to the fireside evening bomas and excellent meals, Encounter Mara has it all. Their safari vehicles were well equipped and beautifully maintained and the guides who took us to the migration were fabulous and fully trained in eco-guiding.

We had always been under the impression that the massing of the Wildebeest was a single and sudden massive scamper from the Serengeti plains across the Mara River to the Masai Mara plains. Nothing could have prepared us for the astounding sight of mile after mile after mile of plains game as far as they eye could see, a seething black mass of zebra and the comical but gentle wildebeest or as he is more fondly know - the gnu, undoubtedly one of God's caricatures.

We drove for three hours feasting our eyes on vast swathes of wildebeest, every nook and cranny, every hillside, every rolling down was a seething mass of munching migrators !!

Their golden beards standing out in the Kenyan sun, contrasting sharply with the black and white of the zebra, and all the while interspersed with elephant, giraffe, Topi, Grant's Gazelles, Thompson's Gazelle, impala, eland, waterbuck and then there were of course - the Cats !!

We saw prides of lion, paler in colour than our own, giant swaggering prides, with tummies so full they could do little but lie in the shade of the stunted bushes, waiting for their next meal !! Lion, cheetah, leopard, hyena, jackal, vultures, all cohabiting in the most magnificent of all game parks we certainly had ever seen.

"Hmmm" said the pundits, "early September? You will have surely missed the fabled crossing, you could be just too late". Only Mother Nature knows for sure when this phenomena will take place. Sometime, African Time, between June and October, its a big window to guestimate !!

Unlike our own parks, the Mara is a hive of vehicle activity and we thought smugly, distastefully even, who wants to one of many game viewers in the Mara when we can have the entire Hwange National Park to ourselves most days ? But exhilarated and overwhelmed with the sheer majesty of numbers, we sallied forth with the other safari vehicles to find a vantage point from which to seek the fabled "crossing."

And indeed it was our fabulously lucky day. We had cautiously undertaken a hot air balloon flight from the camp to the Mara, followed by a champagne breakfast after a very safe landing by yet another Zimbabwean - (but that's a story for another time.)

The wildebeest were undoubtedly a lot more restless than the previous day, we had seen from the air that they were forming massive patterns, giant lines many kilometres long, instead of grazing peacefully as they had been the day before. Was Mother Nature going to be kind to us? The guide told us that they are fractious creatures, crossing from one side of the river to the other several times in a season because after all the "grass is always greener!" isn't it ? Positioning ourselves on a high ground vantage point, we waited, cameras poised expectantly. We were all firm migration experts after just two days in the Mara, and watched through the binos as the game massed and the herds along the river bank on both sides became more and more dense.

They formed massive wave like patterns of uncertainty, and although the majority of the safari vehicles were controlled in deference to the game, the "matatus" (taxi/combis) from Nairobi were doing their darndest to upset this fragile eco system. Suddenly the cavalry charge started, we watched in open mouthed dismay as the primordial herds started to move like a giant dark cloud and the matatus began their frenetic, crazed vehicle charge to the nearest chosen crossing point. Our guide stubbornly refused to join the stampede knowing it would only terrify the gentle beasts and so we snuck slowly to another crossing point away from the madding crowd.

Our luck was in, the wily wildebeest turned from the morass of vehicles and thundered towards us where we had an unspoiled view of this amazing natural phenomena. Thousands of beasts, large, small, old, young, thundered bravely towards the river, where giant crocodiles lay patiently mouths literally open in delight !

The river was not wide but it was fraught with danger, the sides were steep and several eco- unfriendly vehicles blocked the path at the top. We watched breathless as these amazing beasts with their spindly legs, leapt by their hundreds into the river, swam as fast as they could hoping, praying to get to the other side without being caught by those thrashing, vile reptiles.

On the other side the banks were steep and slippery, inundated with boulders, and they threw their all into clambering painfully, in a frantic ungainly mass, up the other side. Our hearts were in our mouths, our tears literally fell as little ones were swept away or could not make the bank in time.. It was one of those agonizingly long, silent, special, interminable moments in time when one could but marvel at the majesty that is nature.

To get details on Encounter Mara contact sean@africanencounter.org