“This is Kaburi crossing. Kaburi means cemetery in Swahili”.
David, our guide, points at the river just a few metres from where we have stationed our 4×4, waiting for one of the most incredible spectacles of life and death to unfold before our eyes. We are hoping to get a glimpse of one of the great wonders of the world: The Great Migration.
There is no action though right now.
It can be a long wait. Sometimes the wait can be completely fruitless. We have been warned several times: this is nature. Nothing is guaranteed. No amount of money can guarantee the show: the only valid currency here is patience and perseverance. So we know, for this is our second day of sitting in our vehicle stationed under the hot sun, engulfed in a cloud of dust while staring at an empty yet visibly beaten track that ends by the shore of the Mara river.
I reflect on the name of this location as I scan the river in front of me. I can see proof of previous crossings: dead wildebeest bodies scattered around, their legs unceremoniously raising up in the air from the mud-tinted water, their dignity violated by vultures fighting over their bloated carcasses, caught in the shore mud and in-between rocks.
I cannot even see why the over-sized birds fight so viciously. There is plenty for all. It is nature I guess. It is hard to find an explanation. In the same way it is hard to explain why any animal, let alone a whole giant herd of them, would decide to pick this specific spot to cross a crocodile infested river: the opposite bank is muddy, slippery and straight like a wall. Just a few metres up the same river, the slope becomes much gentler: why do they cross here?
“Because they are stupid” is our guide’s answer.
“I guess they are” I think to myself but I still find it hard to understand how stupidity can prevail over the instinct of self preservation.
We sit patiently and wait. I have a good feeling about it all, despite the disappointment of the previous day.
On the way over in the morning we passed a huge herd of wildebeests. It was enormous, bigger than I could have ever imagined. They all proceeded slowly but steadily in the direction of the river. The quietness of the landscape was interrupted by their monotonous calls. It was mesmerising to watch. With their head bent forward and their rhythmic movement it looked like a line of prisoners who had resigned to their destiny; it also reminded me of a religious procession: the repetition of the calls, the steady pace, that sense of sacrifice.
They eventually caught up with us by the river. Their arrival announced by the noise and the dust; wildebeest and zebra calls became more insistent and their heads were soon visible in-between the bushes behind us.
The anticipation of the moment is incredible yet, despite them being so close the guide kept on warning us that this was no assurance of a crossing. As they closed up towards the opening on the river bank before us, the animals became visibly nervous and more hesitant. They began converging by the shore. Some drank and then skittishly run back unsettling the rest of the herd. The vultures on the opposite bank were visibly excited. The slightest noise and shaking of feathers made the wildebeests jump and run backwards in panic.
It was a crucial moment. There they were, torn between crossing and the instinct of self preservation; I kind of shared their anguish while watching them.
As the number of wildebeests and zebras continued to increase a crossing seemed inevitable. We were all excited: the people (too much), the vultures, the crocs and the lions on the other side.
Ah the lions!
From our privileged vantage point we could see a small pride approaching through the wide plains on the other side of the river.
“If the wildebeests see them, it’s the end of it all” our guide proclaims.
I watched the lions nervously as they approached from the distance still perfectly camouflaged in between the high dry grass. Then the unthinkable happened: an over excited young lioness, attracted by the dust, noise and general commotion broke off from the pride and started running towards the river bank.
In no time the wildebeests on our side of the river started rushing back into the thick bush in an unceremonious and noisy retreat.
Within seconds all that was left was a thick cloud of dust. Wildebeests and Zebras gone.
The lion’s excitement visibly changed into disappointment; she looked lost for a few seconds then, lesson learned and defeated, she disappeared into the thick grass.
“That is a stupid animal” I thought to myself. In reality she was probably just young, impatient and inexperienced.
The show was over. The guide explained to us that now we had to wait for the wildebeests to forget about the lions. I started to appreciate the effort that it must take to create those compelling documentaries we can find on TV and DVDs. A car with a film crew was parked just a few vehicles apart from us, they were there the day before too. It can take months to get the perfect footage. A combination of patience and luck.
If you think that the spot we were at was remote and desolate think again. Remote yes, if for desolate you imagine it devoid of other humans, forget it: we had picked our spot early in the morning to get a good viewing. The secret is to stick to it no matter what. As the day proceeded a grovel of safari vehicles crowded behind us, all criss-crossed in a complex jigsaw. Had we wanted to move, we would have had to mobilise at least another ten vehicles behind us. There was a constant chatter, engines starting and stopping, clicks of cameras, oversized zoom lenses and a lot of expensive equipment. As I turned around I realised that we were part of a small crowd of a selected fortunate few who had travelled from all over the world to witness this amazing sight.
Some for work, some for a real sense of awe and appreciation, others I am not too sure why. They could have spent their money elsewhere and made the experience better for the ones who cared; for some didn’t quite seem to demonstrate true appreciation of the difference between this amazing moment and a casual stroll in an average man-made amusement park.
It’s amazing how humans become hysterical in certain situations: like clapping their hands at a herd of wild animals (what for? other than disturbing the natural course of events) or ignoring the warnings of a desperate guide and abandoning their vehicle to run closer to the action and towards a croc-infested river, bang right in the heart of lion feeding territory, all for the sake of a better shot with their iPad!
That is what I call plain stupidity!
As I reflect on the absurdity of the scene and our missed chance to see the migration, the wildebeests miraculously reappear. They seem faster this time. Within minutes they are back at the edge of the water and without hesitation this time they start crossing.
The vultures fly up, dust lifts again and water starts splashing.
The stampede finally starts in full swing. The air is filled with agonising calls of stressed zebras and wildebeests. They start tripping onto each other on the other side of the river, some fall back into the water and start swimming back to the start, others get stuck. Calves get separated and cry out. It’s a mix of panic and chaos.
A crocodile that had until then been sunbathing on the shore not too far from the crossing, dives into the water and slowly moves towards the scuffle. Its slow but decisive gliding motion along the river surface is in stark contrast with the noise and the confusion created by the animal crossing. It’s not hard for the crocodile to find a suitable victim. Just a few meters ahead a wildebeest is fighting frantically to free itself from a deadly clamp of rocks and mud. The crock reaches effortlessly for its leg.
I am torn between watching and covering my eyes but I am compelled to observe the inevitable cycle of life. In secret I hope that the herbivore manages to free itself but I know its future is set on a fixed course. After a rather long and feisty fight for life it succumbs to its destiny and disappears beneath the surface.
We watch overwhelmed by a complex mix of feelings for over an hour.
Wildebeests and zebras keep pouring into the river from behind the bushes in a steady flow. Thousands and thousands of them all driven by a wicked and inexplicable instinct.
All I can think is that they really are a simple ring in a long chain; albeit an important one.
Despite the slippery wall of mud many of them make the crossing and run towards the pride of lions now resting under the shade of a tree in the distance. Others are less fortunate.
Dead and exhausted wildebeests slowly pile up on the opposite bank of the river from us, some float away downstream. Some draw their last energy to try to free themselves hopelessly. It’s excruciating to watch.
As the number of animals dwindles we decide that we have had enough.
We have just witnessed the Great Wildebeest Migration across the Mara River.
I am elated and sad at the same time.
We drive back in silence; lost in our reflections for the day. In awe, I keep on repeating the word “amazing” to myself.
Our guide David later confesses that this is the biggest number of wildebeests and the most compelling crossing he has seen in his five years of guiding. I have nothing to compare it to and I am blown away.
To observe animals in their natural environment is a privilege. If you have even just one chance in life to do it, go on a safari. It doesn’t have to be the Great Migration but I can assure you that standing still and holding your breath to watch nature do its thing and see raw life unfold before your eyes, is an experience of a lifetime.
A word of warning though: squeamish individuals need not apply and however compelling it may seem, never seek to interfere with the course of nature.
Life is beautiful and sometimes plain cruel too. That’s just the way it is.
In the vast African bush it won’t be long before you come across some clumsy lion cubs, a skittish baby antelope or a glorious sunset. Then you may find yourself smiling again as you reflect on the simplicity of the circle of life.
Some extra info:
While I normally plan and organize our holidays strictly independently this time we have used the services of Travel Butlers to make our booking arrangements. This was the second time that we used them to organize a Safari Trip to Africa and I have to say that they are truly knowledgeable, always available and very helpful; they offer competitive rates and work with you to tailor your trip to the smallest detail (or even just to book a lodge if that’s all you need). They saved us a lot of hassle.
For our trip we flew to the Mara North Air Strip with Safari Link from Nairobi and spent four nights at the Kicheche Mara Camp in the Mara North Conservancy. This is an un-fenced luxury tented camp with a low footprint and run in an eco-friendly manner. The staff, mostly local Masaai, are excellent and they went out of their ways to help us make the most of the experience. The food is delicious. They are pretty flexible with game drive timings and length and their vehicles are very well set up for game viewing and photography.
I highly recommend it.
If you want to experience the Migration please note that the camp is about 1.5 hrs drive from the crossing. One full day trip to the crossing is included for every 3-night stay. If you want to do more you will have to pay your own entrance fee to the Masaai Mara National Reserve which is roughly the equivalent of US $80 per person.