Cool grey skies hang their high curtain above the savannah this morning. Scarcely any flash of colour. Just pale grassland, reaching as far as the eye can see, the horizon broken only by the gentle rise of distant hills and the lonely spread of a guardian acacia tree.
We rumble on, the tyres of the Land Rover clawing restlessly at the gravel. A shroud of pink is forming slowly in the east, where an invisible sun is lightening the underbelly of rippled cloud like some low energy lightbulb down a lonely corridor – weak and inept at first, then adding detail with every second.
Dawn on the Masai Mara – daybreak over one of the last wildernesses on Earth.
We stop. A pride of lions is lying languidly by the road, gorging on fresh red meat. One unlucky wildebeest, amongst the millions migrating across the plain this August, won’t live to see another day.
Two lionesses, cubs and a large male eat happily, unperturbed by the flood of vehicles that arrive to gawp beside us.
We edge forwards several times to gain a better view, but once three minibuses and two more all-terrain vehicles pull up, we leave the masses to their photo feast and follow another, narrower track across the plain for a mile or so.
Late last night, we watched a herd of elephants stroll by here, and then came across a leopard feeding in the rain – chewing on another wildebeest which he’d pulled whole and warm, halfway up a tree. He’s still there, with food for days to come. We wait a while, and we’re undisturbed.
Far in the distance, I can see another gaggle of vehicles, closing and manoeuvring into place around another tree. A group of vultures is gazing down on all the Canons and movie cameras from the highest branches – and there’s an ironic symmetry to that scene which I somehow can’t ignore.
The skies are brightening now. On the horizon, four balloons are rising slowly. How marvellous it must be to look down upon this landscape, to see the herds of game parting before your shadow. But this is our last morning, and perhaps we can save that adventure for another trip.
Young Nixon will guide us today, he says, and we’re taken inside a hut where a family and cattle sleep. We emerge thoughtfully to watch the village welcome dance.
Tall, lean and elegant young men dazzle with their flying leaps and forceful song. It’s a friendly and homely occasion, with no trace of discomfort on either side – the beaming brows and shining smiles soon put paid to that.
Ten minutes go by, and then the village girls gather, swaying and singing softly with a different tone entirely. Their children play happily all around us. At last, we’re shown the local workshop where I spy a pretty bowl, with a price of many shillings. Ah, yes – the exchange rate’s fallen lately, says Nixon astutely, running high speed mental maths like any City broker. Yes, Mama’ll take seventy dollars for that one. And the truth is I like it, but just not that much.
A few hours later, our driver meets us again with real excitement. Let’s go, he says – I think the moment’s come. Soon we’re weaving through a giant gathering herd of wildebeest, with scattered zebra milling here and there. We make our way slowly down to a bluff above the river. And prepare to wait.
Quite miraculously, it all happens just a minute later. The wildebeest have stopped their wandering, and turn around together. Then, one by one, the first few wander down to the bank, raise their noses cautiously, and slowly start to cross.
A line of hooves and manes and horns slides gently into the river, not fifty metres away. With leaps and bobs and a chaotic rhythm, one after another they reach the other bank. A group of zebra looks down, ponders the decision for a while, and then decides to join them – as faster runners they’re happy to stick safe beside the wildebeest, wherever they may roam.
The bounding procession continues with a stream of new animals seemingly ever renewing from far behind. And then, in a moment, it all stops. The bank falls silent, as the final few wildebeest turn sharply away. Twenty others are already committed, and continue furiously and frantically across. They don’t look back, but if they did they’d see what we see now – a lioness prowling threateningly around the bluff. With no success, this time.
In the afternoon, we pass an hour or four upon a lonely, dusty airstrip, waiting for our plane to fly us back to the beach. Across the open plain I can see half a dozen vehicles weaving silently, each looking for that perfect filming spot or wildlife scene.
And as we soar, much later, high above the savannah, I look down on the edges of the Masai Mara far below me. Beyond the reserve lie the scattered corrals and huts of a hundred Masai villages, the people booted off their land to make this wildlife park. Thin mangy cattle, and patchy grazing – it’s not much to live off, but there are recognisable fields here, of a kind. There’ll be game animals, too – there are, across the whole of Kenya, but this is a different landscape, where animals venture but can no longer truly find a home.
And it all spins together now, to make an impression I’d really rather miss. Those unbroken, endless expanses of African savannah are nowhere near that huge. Not any more. The Masai Mara covers just 1 510 km2 – the size of Surrey, or half as big as Rhode Island. Inside a country twice as large as France, and a continent the size of Africa, it’s not that big, and not nearly big enough.
The Serengeti stretching across the Tanzanian border is on a vastly larger scale. Maybe there are rather fewer tourists there – fewer vehicles, fewer balloons, fewer new tracks dissecting the grassland.
Joined together, the two reserves cover 16 000 km2, an area the size of Yorkshire, or Connecticut. And there are many other national parks – Tsavo East in Kenya is much larger than the Mara, too.
So don’t get me wrong – this is an amazing place, which offers fantastic gift to anyone who visits. We’ve seen elephants, and buffalo here, and topi, lions, warthogs, a cheetah, leopards, zebra, wildebeest … and many more. I can’t enthuse enough about the joys of seeing wildlife in this way.
And yet, there’s a nagging anxiety, deep within my heart. An unwelcome vision forming which won’t easily fade, not now I’ve seen it, lurking in that darkly deepest future which comes nearer every day.
Because I’m afraid.
Afraid that I’ve spent three days watching wildlife, in the final zoo on Earth.
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