Into Africa: The Big Four and Beyond

Isn’t it the Big Five? Of course, but we didn’t see the last member of the Five, so Four it is. The most obvious member of the Dangerous Animals of the Safari Club (yes, it’s really a listing of the most likely animals to kill you while on safari) is the lion. We witnessed quite a few sightings in the Masai Mara, and so did many other tour vans too. As you can guess by now, the Mara is a much smaller and far more accessible and well-known reserve, hence the concentration of tourists.

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But we were focussed on the lions and not tourists, and were delighted to come across this young lion (look closely to spot his mane) and his harem so early on in our trip. Here, he was enjoying an evening sip of water while the women in his life frolicked while waiting for him. Francis didn’t want to wait and soon we were part of a convoy looking for more lions.

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Francis’s efforts in following the pack paid off and we soon sighted a mature male lion, most likely in search of either food or a harem to take over. He had a far more majestic mane than the younger one we saw earlier and he very calmly walked past the convoy, later choosing to pass between the cars in front of us! How lucky we were to get so close to the pride of the Mara.

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Our lion adventure wasn’t yet over. Yet again, we took off in search of more interesting sights. This time, we turned a corner and suddenly saw a litter of lion cubs lounging in the shade of some bushes. They all looked up expectantly as they saw our vehicle, making me very glad for the protection of the van. The Masai Mara is definitely not a place to explore on foot!

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Luckily for those who would dare to go on foot, they seemed to be very drowsy from the evening sun and soon lolled over to have a snooze. I’m surprised they managed this despite all the flies on their snouts.

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And as our van went in closer, they looked up again.

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But still succumbed and fell asleep, paws and ears twitching as they dreamed their leonine dreams.

The next member of the Big Five was the elephant. We only saw one family of elephants in our the Mara. Francis told us that we were lucky because it had been raining a far bit, meaning that the elephants wouldn’t bother going to the usual watering holes. They were pretty far away from the van and quite spread out. I wasn’t too impressed because at that distance, I couldn’t really appreciate the difference between them and the Asian elephants that I’m more familiar with. All I thought was that yes, they seemed big, they had tusks and they had very leathery wrinkly skin.

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The reason why they make the Big Five is that they are highly protective of their own, particularly the babies. Heaven help you if you end up between an elephant calf and its mother, or worse, the entire herd.

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So we move on rapidly to the next member of the club, the cape buffalo. Don’t laugh at what looks like a silly double combover hairstyle, that’s its horns. I like how gracefully they curve, but I’m sure the buffalo itself likes better how gracefully the horns impale a threat. Cape buffalo are supposedly very paranoid and adopt a “strike first, ask questions later” approach. A worthy member of the Big Five.

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The next member of the Big Five was also the hardest to spot on our safari, no thanks to the fact that it is critically endangered. This was the only sighting we had of the black rhinoceros, or of any rhinoceros at all. We spotted it in the evening, an auspicious time for us to spot the animals.

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It was ambling along on its way, probably thinking of what yummy twigs and leaves it ate today when a van decided to go offroad and click lots of photos of it. Poor guy.

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Francis decided to stick to the trail and avoid the US$100 fine if caught by the park marshals. We contented ourselves with taking pictures from afar, glad that the evening rays came down beautifully near our rhino.

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The last member of the Big Five is the leopard and sad to say, we weren’t able to spot one in the Mara. Francis’s tactics of following the convoy and rushing to whoever’s reported a sighting over the radio while paying off handsomely for the other animals simply didn’t work when it came to the famously shy leopards.

I decided to add the hippopotamus as a stand-in member of the five, as they are pretty dangerous too. If faced with a threat when wandering around away from its pool, a hippo would adopt a very similar strategy to the cape buffalo: chomp first, ask questions later. Here’s the only time we saw hippos, in the Mara River. Check out how they surface and blow out spray. Cute eh?

And soon it was time to leave the Masai Mara. Bigger adventures in the vast plains of the Serengeti beckoned. We travelled there by the same van on potholled roads winding round the tea plantations of south Kenya.

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It was a very green detour round as we weren’t able to choose the same path as the animals. Unlike them, we had to respect international borders and take the long, scenic route round.

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Into Africa: The Scavengers and the Predators

On to the scavengers. First, the birds. There were several large birds of note, the ugliest of which must be the Marabou stork. This specimen wasn’t as bad as the others of its kind we saw. Its bald pink head was at least smooth and naked, unlike others which had tufts of wispy feathers attached, as if attacked by some wasting disease. While they generally behave as scavengers, they are also known to pluck swallows right out of the air!

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Then there was the Secretary Bird, a really badass bird that eats cobras. Its long scaly legs protect it from the snakes it eats and it gets its name from its black and white colouring that looks like the black robes secretaries apparently used to wear in colonial times.

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And if these two birds didn’t seem a great deal like predators, surely the vultures made us feel like prey. When they spotted us stopping for lunch in a plain away from other predators hiding in the bushes, they immediately wheeled round, landing close by in hopes of a good catch.

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Luckily, they weren’t actually going to eat us, but were more opportunistic in going after the crumbs we left behind. While waiting, they sunned themselves languidly, watching to make sure we weren’t getting away.

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And here I am nervously sitting on the edge of the picnic rug, trying make sure that I had the picnic boxes in close proximity lest undeserving beasts get hold of them!

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And yet another scavenger is the warthog. While they don’t actually hunt other animals, they are known to eat carrion. I guess that’s how pigs got started on their “eat anything” diet.

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And now we start talking! Finally we get to a proper predator, the cheetah. We were very excited to see a few of them together resting in the evening light and were sad not to get a closer glimpse.

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But not to worry, it turned out that cheetahs aren’t very hard to spot at all. The very next day we came up very close to this handsome fella. Francis our guide pointed out the characteristic way of sitting up very straight and staring all round to scan the territory. Seemed like it was on to something.

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Then it got up. I thought it was just walking away, but it suddenly broke into a run and before I realised anything, let alone set my camera to video mode, it had spotted and hunted down, in a quick burst of speed so fast that my eyes could hardly follow, a baby Thomson’s gazelle. It was then that I felt the contradiction and the almost horrific reality of being on safari. At first I rooted for the cheetah, chanting “go go go!” in my head. Then I realised that the baby gazelle was dead and felt guilty for wishing its death. Such is the circle of life: one dies to sustain the life of another.

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Our cheetah didn’t immediately gobble up its kill. It sat in the long grass resting for a few minutes, then hurriedly gnawed at the tenderest part of the gazelle, its rump. Then it sat panting, waiting for itself to recover before continuing with the rest of its meal. Cheetahs spend so much energy on the chase that it often runs out of energy to eat. Many times, it gets chased away from its kill by other animals. Being rather weak at fighting animal to animal, the cheetah normally slinks away when other carnivores arrive.

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A good example being the hyena. Hyenas are much stronger than cheetahs and even leopards, if in big packs often walking straight up to the kill and chasing the original hunters off.

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And they end up scavenging most of their food in this way. Much later, we chanced upon this hyena elsewhere eating what looked the remnants of a baby wildebeest. Poor wildebeest and lucky hyena.

Into Africa: A Day with Prey

The days we spent in the Mara were beautiful, complete with the typical fluffy white clouds and blue skies that heralded good weather. The plains were verdant, signalling plenty of food for the herbivores.

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One of the mornings, there was even a pretty rainbow welcoming us on our drive out.

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And this was when we spotted the giraffes. It’s one thing to see one in captivity, but quite another to see its tall figure distinguish itself from the background vegetation and come nonchalantly closer to our van.

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Soon, it was joined by its friends. This pair even walked side by side as if headed for Noah’s ark.

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Goodness knows where they were going as a group. Soon they formed beautiful silhouettes against the horizon, miniscule against the herds of wildebeest in the foreground.

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Despite its grave, bearded expression, a wildebeest reminds me of rather a silly and faintly stupid gnu (not that I know any clever ones).

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Their herding instincts are strong, and if anyone of them starts running, the rest soon break into gallop too. Even the route they take is pretty much fixed. Check out this video of them jumping over a little depression in the road. It’s not until so many have crossed that one smarter one realises that there isn’t any need to jump, really. Silly creatures.

Yet these silly creatures are the reason for visitors flocking here in this period, some even equipped with the biggest telephoto lenses I’ve ever seen!

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These huge lenses would definitely come in useful to get close up shots of places we can’t easily access, like this islet in the middle of the Mara River. We didn’t have the good fortune to witness a herd of wildebeest crossing the river in huge throngs. A highlight is to witness this spectacle and to watch how the herds nervously come up to the banks of the river, and wait expectantly till one stumbles in, whether out of leadership or misstep. Then the whole horde crosses as one, trampling over the unfortunate who stumble and fall. Many a wildebeest loses its life to the river, only to be fished out by the waiting crocodiles and laid out in the sun. Only when its gory remains are nicely tenderised by decomposition do the crocodiles come in for their feast, like this poor specimen below.

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Yet, it is a rule of nature that one forgets the sacrifice of a single animal as it gives up its life only to sustain the life of another. We remember the teeming herds and marvel at the millions that live in the great expanse of the Masai Mara and the neighbouring Serengeti.

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And the zebra caught our attention. It was clear that they were far more intelligent that the wildebeest they hung out with. They cleverly realised that wildebeest startle easily and rely on them to be watch-outs. In return, zebras chomp down the tougher plants, making them easier for the wildebeest to feed on the tenderised parts.

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I never got tired of looking at zebras, they always looked so pensive, as if hiding a secret.

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Except, of course, the baby zebras who looked so fuzzy with their brown stripes. Their main aim in life is simply to look cute.

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Aside from the more common wildebeests and zebras, we saw some lesser known and lesser seen animals, like the eland. It is a large antelope-like creature weighing up to 300 kg. They tended to be quite shy, mainly because their size restricted their running speed. It is easier for them to move away when they see threats, whether real or perceived, in the distance rather than wait for them to come closer before deciding to run.

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And outside the reserve, there were also these gentle looking wild donkeys. Their long ears and flippy tails made me realise why Winnie The Pooh’s Eeyore is so cute!

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And then it was time to return to our strange little safari tent. It was hardly real camping as it was essentially a tent erected on a concrete base, complete with plumbing (there was a separate bathtub and shower area as well as two sinks in the bathroom!) and electrical wiring. Neither did it truly qualify as a room because there was a double layer of netting and canvas letting in plenty of air (and sound), and insects if we were not careful. Nevertheless, we were very impressed by the four poster bed here.

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Into Africa: First Glimpses of the Masai Mara

We knew we were close to the Masai Mara when we started seeing Masai villages on the way. First, the herds of cattle caught the eye. It was amusing to see the tribesmen accompanying the herds invariably talking on their mobile phones, a nice update to their traditional ways.

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After seeing a couple of Masai settlements, we started to recognise the characteristic huts: ramshackle dwellings held up by sticks and held together by a mixture of ashes, cow dung and earth. We didn’t get many pictures of these places, even though we’d passed by a traditional market and many Masai on the way to there. Our guide, Francis, cautioned us that Kenya had privacy laws protecting the Masai. That in itself wasn’t as big a warning, it was the next tip that made us put away our cameras: watchful tribesmen would fling rocks at unsolicited camera lenses poking out of tourist vans.

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The only candid picture I have of Masai tribespeople was at the gate to the Masai Mara Reserve. Here, I was trying to take a picture of the gate and was very pleased to have the brightly dressed ladies selling their wares in the picture too. It was a pity that I didn’t buy any souvenirs from them because it was the cheapest in the area. If you end up going too, do yourself and them a favour and get whatever souvenirs you need here.

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Then we passed into the reserve proper and started going crazy taking pictures of whatever life there was, such as these wildebeest. We were wildly excited that they were the first animals we saw as we’d decided to come here in July to see the Great Migration of millions of wildebeest to the greener plains of the Masai Mara.

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Next, we were beside ourselves when we spotted a baby zebra.

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And even more excitingly, necking zebras! We were told that they do so to rest their weak backs and to have a 360ยบ view of the surroundings to guard against predators.

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After a while, we realised that it was incredibly common to see wildebeest, zebras and the various antelope-like creatures in the Mara, like these topi below. I guess we were entitled to our noob moments!

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We were canny enough to realise that there wasn’t going to be any shortage of Thomson’s gazelles any time soon. It was almost impossible to point at camera and not get one of these in the viewfinder. Their fluffy bobbing tails and bouncy gait were cute though. For an animal of such ubiquity, it was strange that we didn’t have that many pictures of them. They were skittish, making it hard for close up shots. Makes sense to be skittish if you’re the favourite prey of cheetahs.

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We also took time to admire the scenery, going from the typical tree and cloud shot…

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… to two trees and sky…

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… to the same two trees and sky with water! It does rain in the Mara, just not as hard as in the tropics. When it rains, the potholes fill up and make things difficult for unwary drivers.

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But on a fine day, the road meanders along and the puddles are easy to spot. Onward to our next animal adventures!

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