Wildebeest Migration, Kenya

August 6, 2012

Nairobi, Kenya

Dear Friends,

Sometimes the much awaited second novel or record album (am I showing my age?) is a disappointment, the first was so good.  Suzi had some fears that if we returned to the Mara after the wonderful safari of discovery we had last April it would be like a second novel.  I shared some of those apprehensions but wanted to go anyway, seeing the same land in a different season. As it happened it was spectacular.  We arrived just as the annual wildebeest (we called them Gnus when I grew up) arrived.  Had we come 9 days earlier we would have seen a vacant tall grass plain.  Instead we saw, the rangers estimate between three and four hundred thousand, of the million wildebeest that will traipse across the Mara during the season.  The season often it comes in June so I feared we might have missed it. We got lucky.

The wildebeest migration is a great machine that turns vegetable protein into animal protein, keeps the tall grass short and fertilizes it along the way.  It starts as the wildebeest give birth in the short grass Serengeti Plain in Tanzania in February or March.  As the plain dries out and the grass depletes they begin the trek to the western woodlands.  Sometimes they all move out in as few as 4 days, sometimes it takes weeks.  There they feed and rut by the lakes.  They move with the rainy season and end up in the tall grass Mara arriving anytime after June.  When the food is gone it’s back to the Serengeti to start the cycle again.  This is a relatively new migration route.  Before 1969 the animals only came to the Mara in very dry years. Now it’s an annual event.

The animal protein is appreciated by omnivores and carnivores.  Large cats hunt the wildebeest, as do crocs when they cross rivers.   Hyena, vultures and raptors all join the feast.  People do not eat wildebeest.  The Masai herd cows and do not hunt.  Watching so many animals gives me an insight into how early plainsmen in North America must have felt seeing so many thousands of bison.

Watching the wildebeest is wondrous.  One minute they will be spread out across the savannah and the next they will form up in lines and start to move in an undulating snake dance, sometimes walking, and then running when a pride of lions appears.   But lions do not always cause that reaction.  When the lions are full, after an early morning hunt, they sleep.  I have photos of wildebeest wandering past a sleeping pride. Sleeping lions look a lot like my cat Matzi, lying about in positions, sometimes with one leg up in the air, joints at impossible angles.  I also have a picture of a Liberace mained lion having dragged a wildebeest into the bushes to provide some afternoon shade while he eats his spouse’s prey, muzzle red.


Watching the beests form up and move out is a wonder, but watching them ford a river is even more amazing.  They form up in a huge herd along the river bank, moving back and forth in a wave trying to decide when to cross.  One group from our camp waited three hours to watch a crossing.  We got lucky and had to wait only about 20 minutes.  One animal jumps in and the whole herd follows, thrashing across the river, some trampled, some drowned, and some unable to make it up the steep bank on the other side, falling back into the water.   We saw several crossings, one up close, and others from our camp, which is several hundred meters from a crossing. We could see the animals jump off the high banks and land with a splash. A few minutes later carcasses of some of those who didn’t make it float past the vegetarian hippos wading in the river.  I watch one suddenly flip, hooves in the air as a crocodile grabs lunch from the floating buffet.   Vultures sit in trees and a hyena wait for one to wash ashore.

The wildebeests have to cross the river to get to the Serengeti, but sometimes they cross back and forth.  From our camp (The Entim, or forest, camp) we saw a heard go in both directions.  Perhaps the grass is greener on the other side, or perhaps Darwinism is at work culling out the weaker calves.  One orphaned calf wandered our camp bellowing for its mother.  The wildebeest form up their herds pretty close to the camp, few dozen meters from the farthest tent.

We stayed in the farthest tent on the other side of the camp (there are 10 sleeping tents, a dining tent, a cooking tent and a “lounge” tent.)   In the middle of the night we heard a loud munching.  Hippos were grazing just behind the tent, which is why, if you want to leave the tent at night you wave a flashlight and a Masai guard escorts you to the campfire, dining, or battery charging.  The lounge tent has power for charging camera batteries, computers, and mobile phones.  The camp uses solar energy for electricity and to heat water.   Each sleeping tent has running water and a toilet so we do not have to flash a guard in the middle of the night to go to the loo with the hippos.

Entim camp was a different experience from staying at a resort.  The food is terrific, cooked in charcoal ovens.  The fellowship around the campfire helps you process the day’s wonders.   (Jonathan, the head waiter, came to the campfire to announce that Beef Wellington is about to be served, roasted butternut for vegetarians.)  We had a honeymooning couple from Boeing Europe, he from Seattle, she from Italy.  They had matching safari outfits and Canon SLR digital cameras.  We had a professional photographer from London who was on extended safari.  (I developed a severe case of lens envy.) The photog needs to be on extend safari.  One day he waited 17 hours to get the leopard kill shot he wanted.  His website is http://www.rogerhooper.co.uk/index1.html.  He was traveling with a Kenyan wildlife blogger.   There were American expats living in Angola and Rwanda, an Aussie diplomatic couple posted in Pretoria, a woman from India who now lives in New Orleans, two Japanese men, a German family and a lot of stories.  Alexi, the camp hostess (a blonde who most people initially took as being English) is proud to have been born and raised in Kenya.  She was a great catalyst for campfire craic.  The Masai guides love the land.  Our guide, Daniel, would bring the Land Cruiser to a full stop to pick up one piece of litter.

This safari was more rigorous than the one we took in late April.  At the resort there were two daily game drives of about 2 hours each, the rest of the time we spent resorting.  Here the two daily drives were about four and a half hours each over rough terrain.  One afternoon we drove off the Conservancy to visit a Masai village where we were asked to contribute to the school and got to visit the cow dung and wattle village homes.

The long drives were, at the same time, bone shaking and rewarding. During our two days we found ourselves in the middle of herds of not only wildebeest, but also elephant, giraffe, cape buffalo, zebra and all matter of antelope and deer.  There are also many more young animals than in April.  Daniel found us a cheetah mother and cub, prides of lions with cubs, baby baboons riding on mama’s back, and, of course, the 6 month old wildebeest testing their survival skills against the plains and rivers.  Daniel was raised in the area and knows it well.  He wore his red Masai cape, traditional in his tribe, he said, so the animals know who is coming.  The flight into the camp in the Cessna Caravan gave us great views of both the winding herds and of round corralled Masai villages that sit on the Conservancy’s perimeter.

Suzi and I had planned to be in Uganda now but decided we wanted to see more of Kenya, the museums in Nairobi and Nairobi National Park (we saw lions this time). Tomorrow we set off for the Great Rift Valley.  Uganda and Lake Victoria can wait.  (The Ebola outbreak in Uganda had a little to do with our thinking.)   Our work schedule also changed.  When we got here EDC, who I’m working with, hired Suzi to teach management at the radio station grant writing and project development while I work on the morning news program and management.   So we are working together again, which we both like.

So far, this trip has been no second novel, not even a sequel, both trips were great.  But this one is a whole new adventure of wonder and delight.

Take Care,

Rich McClear


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