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Migration - Masai Mars - Il Moran trip report

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I’m recently back from a trip to Kenya: eight days split between Masai Mara (staying at Governor’s Il Moran) and Shompole in the Rift Valley. I went to the Mara especially in hopes of seeing the Great Migration, and to Shompole especially to chill out for a few days.

This post has some random thoughts about the trip in general and wildlife in the Mara and Rift Valley. I will create a separate post for the Shompole Camp itself.

You can find some photos of beasts in www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=aephx4n.3oc7a587&x=0&y=-legh40 . Most are from the Mara, but a few are from Shompole.

(I also have a little bit of video, but I need to find a decent way to show it. When I uploaded one to YouTube, it looked awful. The video is in QuickTime format; suggestions on how to make them available would be welcome.)


Migration

The migration is late this year, Joshua, my guide and driver at Il Moran, tells me on our first drive. But that means only that we’ll see fewer wildebeest and zebra on their march. Joshua points out a darkish bar on the horizon: it is a line of wildebeest.

I loved just sitting among the wildebeest, as they grazed, moseyed along, then grazed some more. As they marched with a purpose, as they trotted. A few leaders would encourage them along, running back and forth among the herd, grunting in a special way that only a wildebeest will grunt.

I was fascinated to see how their lines formed. There would be a line of wildebeest on the march, and one by one the grazers would join the line, in perfect timing. Then maybe one or two grazers would start to march on a slightly different course, all the while as other wildebeest joined the main line. Then two or four wildebeest would follow the renegades, and the two or four would become 20 or 40, and a new line of wildebeest had begun. The two lines might meet up and merge, or not. A line would stop and the marchers would again become grazers, until another line began.

On the first day, we were in a herd of about 200 wildebeest. On the third day, the herd numbered about 5,000. At the height of the Migration, I am told that the herds can be in the hundreds of thousands.

This is the migration.

I am very glad that I had arranged for a private vehicle. I was able to sit for hours on end among the creatures, just watching wildebeest be wildebeest. They are not the most stunningly beautiful of animals: they have long dark faces, a hump on their backs, and a running style that is not nearly so graceful as that of a giraffe or cheetah or antelope. But these noble beasts have a mellow disposition and the wisdom to be able to survive with a home, moving in a 500-mile circuit every year.

Death

Joshua spotted activity: some hyenas had taken down a wildebeest. Six or eight hyenas are at the scene, as well as dozens of vultures, a few marabou stork, and 2 jackals. The hyenas will pull the wildebeest apart and take the best parts for themselves. The vultures will wait, not especially patiently, for the remains. The storks and jackals are hopeful, but won’t get anything until the hyenas are full.

The hyena will even eat the bones. The outside of the bones will become soft enough for the hyenas teeth to gnaw, until eventually the entire bone structure (except skull) is gone. Nothing will be wasted.

River Crossing

The Mara River looks to be 50-60 yards wide. The banks are rocky, with cliffs and vegetation. The current is strong, with plenty of rapids. And along the river’s edge lies the occasional crocodile.

I am staggered by the size of the crocodile. It is enormous. Joshua tells me that the croc we see is probably 700-800kg (1500-1700lb).

I had wrongly assumed that “the crossing” meant that each migrating wildebeest or zebra would cross the Mara once. But no. Many will go back and forth – or at least try to go back and forth – several times. Joshua believes that some of the wildebeest or zebra will get to one side of the river, spend a few days, then decide that the grass is actually tastier on the other side.

Swimming across the river is not a simple feat. The current is strong, and the alligators are menacing. But it is one thing for the wildebeest or zebra to make it to the other side of the river, and very much another thing to make it up to safety on top of the river bank. After the first few animals have crossed, the rocks on the river’s edge become wet and slippery: it’s all to easy for the next creature to slip and break a leg. If so, he is helpless and will drown.

A group of 10 zebra make their way down to the river. They are no longer relaxed, as when they are grazing: their eyes are open wide, and their tails wag furiously. The tension is palpable as 3 or 4 line up at the water’s edge. A hoof is tentatively placed in the fast-moving water, and they are going to cross. No, they’re not: one zebra jumps back 3 steps and the rest instantly follow suit. This goes on interminably.

Finally, after dozens of false starts, one zebra jumps in, followed by a second and a third and another then another. They’re trying to swim straight across, but the strong current carries them downstream. The first reaches the other side and clambers up on the rocks, as do all the rest. The smallest zebra has trouble jumping up on the rocks, but eventually makes it.

The wildebeest then jump in, 15 or 20 of them, while a few hundred stay behind. The wildebeest all make it, as well. A line of vultures, meanwhile, stand in grim watch on the riverbank above.

I saw no zebra or wildebeest perish during their crossing, and I’m happy for that.

The Migration, redux

The migration, I learn, is not something to be seen. It is something to be experienced.

To spend hours among the wildebeest, the unending herd of wildebeest as they graze and march and graze some more and run and escape death – or not – all while on a never-ending journey. To be among these noble creatures who have no homes. For me it defies description.

The Masai Mara
The Migration is, by far, the most amazing natural spectacle that I have ever witnessed. To be able to experience the Migration is, for me, reason enough to go to the Mara.

You also can see an incredible volume of animals in the Mara; finding large mammals there is as challenging as finding cows in Wisconsin. Off the top of my head, I recall, in addition to the beasts mentioned earlier, Thompson’s gazelle, impala, mongoose, hippos, giraffe, great gazelle, warthogs, baboons, hartebeest, cheetah, topi, and surely many more, to say nothing of all the birds.

And all of my fellow tourists and safari-goers. At the river crossing, I counted 19 vehicles on our side of the river, and another 7 or 8 on the Kichwa Timbo side. It was not unusual to see 5 or 6 vehicles around a cat. However, it was also not a problem to enjoy places all by yourself – for example, relaxing in the midst of a wildebeest herd.

Il Moran

I really enjoyed Il Moran; it is a lovely camp. The lodge and all of the tents (there are 10, I believe) overlook the Mara River, where a group of hippos routinely spend their days relaxing and bathing on the other side.

My tent is beautiful and luxe, and it is enormous -- as large as most hotel suites. The tent has a queen-size bed, a writing desk, 2 comfortable chairs, a hanging closet, and clothes rack. The bathroom includes an open rain shower, toilet, bidet, double sinks, and towel rack. The verandah has 4 chairs. The furniture is made from exquisite wood – it is stunningly beautiful.

The staff are especially warm and gracious, always making themselves available.

Lunch is a spectacular affair, served at river-side tables. A homemade vegetable soup starts things off, followed by a buffet that typically includes a barbecued meat (chicken or lamb for example) plus 6 or 8 warm and cold dishes (salads, potatoes or rice, cold meats, etc.), as well as dessert. Dinners are more formal, served in the open-air dining area. They also begin with a homemade soup, followed by an appetizer, then a choice of two main dished. All of the food is absolutely fresh and delicious.

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