It’s such an easy hop from Wilson Airport I barely notice the 45 minutes it takes to fly over the rugged wrinkled steppes defining Kenya’s southern Rift Valley, then onto the great plains of the Masai Mara. The Nilotic Maasai people who remain synonymous with the Mara arrived in the Mara area around 200 years ago, but there’s evidence that Neolithic pastoralist villages were there 2,000 years ago. The Mara was gazetted as a National Reserve less than half a century ago, while around its northern boundaries (the southern being with the Serengeti) many wildlife conservancies have been created in the last decade. The conservancy concept is all about responsible sustainable tourism.
The conservancies encompass community-owned land, creating a buffer zone for the main Mara, while also proving success stories for Maasai pastoralist landowners as well as visitors – a win-win situation. Tourists can enjoy an exclusive experience without the vehicle congestion sometimes found in the main reserve, while assisting these areas to generate fixed incomes and livelihoods for the Maasai communities.
Today I was heading for Kicheche Bush Camp in Olare Motorogi Conservancy, after landing at Ol Kiombo airstrip in the Mara Reserve. It was the end of March and the long rains were late, although the wildebeest were optimistically breeding – there were calves wherever you looked, gazing sidelong at our open-sided Land Cruiser with their characteristically gormless expressions. These aren’t part of the 1.2 million-strong team that migrates to the southern Serengeti in late October and return to the Mara around June; these are the Loita herd who’ve always stayed in Kenya, migrating less dramatic distances into the Loita Hills to the north, then back again
Kiswahili for “mongoose” Kicheche is a delightfully simple, very comfortable camp; its six tents spaced well apart amongst the whistling thorn and looking over a long view across those legendary Mara plains. This is the kind of camp I love – no fences, no pool, no wifi and no frills, but certainly no hardships either. And it’s eco-friendly – all their sister camps are eco-rated too and all situated in wildlife conservancies: Power is solar, while plastic, metal and glass waste is returned to Nairobi for recycling, waste paper is burned, organic matter buried. No plastic water bottles in my tent either – instead containers keeping your mineral water cool. It’s expertly run by a charming and entertaining English couple, Darren and Emma Geary. They’ve created lovely interiors to the spacious tents and they personally host the guests, so joined us at meals for fabulous food – Darren is a talented cook and master baker.
As a rare and beautiful silver bird flits among the thorny branches above, Darren explains that this camp is also extremely proud of its guides: Kicheche has the highest percentage of silver guides in Kenya. I’ve already seen the comment in the guest book about Patrick, one of the guides: ‘best photographer/guide on the continent.’ BBC Wildlife photographer of the year in 2013 Greg du Toit is among the many photographers who come here regularly and Kicheche vehicles, with their camera platforms and bean bags, are very much geared to this special breed of artist. The drivers, being photographers themselves, are adept at positioning you exactly right to get that perfect picture. Our Maasai guide, James Nampaso, has his own camera and kindly shares some of his many stunning pictures with us in this issue.
Olare Motorogi Conservancy is one of the Greater Mara’s success stories and boasts the highest density of lions in East Africa. James finds us plenty to admire: a mating pair with two hopeful male hangers-on (probably the dominant male’s brothers, James tells us); their bellies are full and they idly watch wildebeest from their small knoll beneath the insect-repelling leaves of the orange-leafed croton. The wildebeest graze unconcernedly, aware there’s no threat, as the lioness rolls over to reveal a spotted belly – she’s a youngster and not quite in season yet as each time the male approaches, she moves away. Later that day James takes us to see a huge pride lounging beside a dry stream including twelve cubs from three different litters. The smallest ones play with the medium sized ones, while the larger sized cubs annoy their father or wrestle small bushes. Three lionesses sleep soundly through the bedlam. Nearby a herd of impala snort in alarm although a grazing bull buffalo doesn’t seem too bothered by proximity of these big cats.
The following morning sees us up before dawn, pausing to watch a rare aardwolf before driving on to see if we can find the leopard they call “Fig”. Not only do we find Fig beneath a tree where last night’s kill is hanging on a high branch, we also find her mate, a splendid male. They mate right there on the grass beside our vehicle, a startlingly savage and noisy act, before he climbs the tree and crunches loudly on the bones of the dead impala, dropping bits down for a pack of hovering hyena. The mating couple move towards a rocky hill where we spend an unforgettable morning watching and listening to the mating which occurs every ten minutes or so (and will go on for several days). We munch a very delicious picnic breakfast, watch some elegantly clad topi and listen to a flock of guinea fowl sound the alarm as two eagles soar over. A couple of hippos are out of the river grazing the river banks down to our left, then suddenly there’s a movement to the right: the hyenas are moving in. It’s unclear what they want as there’s no food; they just seem intent on disturbing the leopards, uttering cheerless chuckles as they hound them out onto a rocky promontory where Fig displays herself in all her beauty in the early morning sun. Finally the hyena pack leaves and the mating rituals continue.
We’ve hardly moved all morning, but we’ve seen so much. Then on the way back to camp we watch elephants walk so close to our vehicle you could touch them. Then there’s all the other animals and birds we’ve seen: Fifteen species of grazers inhabit these plains, all of which have developed different feeding strategies to balance out the use of the rich grasslands. Right now it’s easy game spotting, a lack of grass enhancing the many white bones littered over the dry plains. Vultures (there are six species in the Mara) – Lappet-faced and one white-backed – skulk around a day-old kill.
The rains arrive that afternoon, the storm billowing over from the south, drenching the dusty plains in minutes. After my evening drive, while the cocktail ants huddle inside their bulbous homes at the base of the whistling thorns, I enjoy a hot shower and wonder if I’ll make it to supper as the lions are roaring extremely loudly right outside. A Maasai watchmen arrives to escort me, nonchalant about the lions – they’ve moved off a little – but later their gut-wrenching roars rent the damp darkness once again. They kill a zebra that night – right beside one of the other tents.
I’ve spent a year living in the Masai Mara and I’ve visited many times since, but I won’t ever forget this richest of wildlife experiences at Kicheche.