Life and Death on The Great Migration

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August 20th 2010
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The small plane skidded across the skies as it carried me to one of the greatest spectacles on the planet. The two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other animals that move from the Serengeti in Northern Tanzania to the lush plains of the Mara in Southern Kenya is termed “The Great Migration”. Of all the safari experiences on offer in Africa, this is considered to be without equal.

After flying over lush pastoral areas of various green hues the landscape changed to the blanched Mara plains. Clusters of dark flecks were scattered across this pale expanse, and this was my first sighting of the wildebeest, albeit from a distance. A soft landing was followed by my emergence onto the packed dirt of a Mara landing strip, where staff of the Porini Lion Camp were awaiting my arrival, a camp as exclusive as it was expensive. Though I usually opt for a cheaper style of travel, paying a premium in some circumstances does make a significant difference, and a Mara safari is one of them.

It was quickly apparent that the amount of wildlife at the Mara during The Great Migration is astonishing – I saw more animals in the first hour then my combined five days of previous safaris. This opinion was shared by others, I met a UK chap who boldly stated that he witnessed more animals during his four days then he did on twelve visits to South Africa. The Mara was grand in its scope – instead of seeing several giraffe, one could witness a dozen; instead of a couple of hippopotamuses, the Mara had pods of thirty; and instead of glimpsing one lion, I saw prides roaming and resting. As for the wildebeest, one could espy thousands at a time as they grazed in fragmented groups or moved in extended lines across the landscape. Many of these encounters were at such close quarters that my telephoto lens was too powerful for animals only metres from me. The Mara’s grassy plains allowed for excellent spotting of a menagerie worthy of the best David Attenborough documentary.

The Lion Camp’s location in the Olare Orok Conservancy had enormous benefits. As this requires a separate admission fee it deters all except guests of the three small camps located within. Thus, when we happened upon a pride of lions munching on a wildebeest, the experience was shared with only one other vehicle. The other advantage of being in a private conservancy is the ability to partake in nocturnal drives, which provided the most memorable moment during these ten weeks of holiday.

After observing three cheetahs (who used our vehicle as cover) hunting prey, we were returning to the camp after sunset whereupon we were halted by a stream of wildebeest that emerged from the darkness in the hundreds. Illuminated only by the vehicle's headlights, they appeared from our right to race across the tunnel of light before melting into the night again. Our guide shone a searchlight to where the wildebeest were heading and I gasped in amazement, for its powerful beam reflected off the white, yellow, orange and blue eyes of the wildebeest that were turned in our direction. It was as if the stars had fallen from the skies and gently descended upon the Mara plains to paint the darkness with their kaleidoscope of blinking colours.

I was so enthused by this moment that the following evening I headed on a night drive, but this time we found ourselves encircled by a wildebeest herd, and after turning off the engine to fully hear the noises of nature,
Close encounter with a buffalo - Mt Kenya National ParkClose encounter with a buffalo - Mt Kenya National ParkClose encounter with a buffalo - Mt Kenya National Park

View from the photographer's hide at the Mountain Lodge.
we were surrounded by their bleating sounds and innumerable reflecting eyes. These two evening encounters rank amongst the most magical experiences in my life.

The camp itself was indeed exclusive, only 10 oversized tents were so immersed in its environment that one needed the employed Masai Warriors to escort guests between their tent and the dining tent at night due to closely lurking animals. Elephants and predators are reported at only trunk or paw length from the camping facilities and I witnessed a hippopotamus only a hundred metres from my tent.

My only full day at the Mara involved a nine hour drive with the hope of witnessing wildebeest performing their famed crossing of the Mara River. We watched many wildebeest shift toward the river then back away, and this ebb and flow continued for hours as there seemed no organisation within the masses. Their cautiousness was understandable for crocodiles lay in wait and two weeks prior there was a feeding frenzy when dozens of wildebeest were taken during a crossing, and many of their carcasses could still be seen. However, despite our patience no such crossing ensued, but I was not too disappointed as The Great Migraton
Mara giraffe - Olare Orok Conservancy, KenyaMara giraffe - Olare Orok Conservancy, KenyaMara giraffe - Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya

Note the darker markings compared to other giraffe species.
had already exceeded every high expectation - a truly stunning experience.

The next safari experience was to the Lion Camp’s sister establishment at the Porini Rhino Camp situated in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya. This camp was even more exclusive with only six tents and though the wildlife was not as prolific, it was another wonderful experience. As we neared the camp an incredible hailstorm erupted and turned the dirt roads into a skid pan which caused more than a few exciting moments, but this soon passed and we arrived at another tastefully designed camp that blended beautifully with nature.

Rhinoceros were the obvious attraction and we followed one thanks to the excellent African eyesight of my friend Maureen. We witnessed a massive herd of elephants, an equally large group of buffalo and possibly the biggest eland in Africa. Porcupines, who are endemic to the area, dig deep holes in the road including one that claimed our vehicle (the feeling of the car falling was disconcerting) which required all on board to assist in extracting the rear tyre so as to continue our journey. Also within the boundaries of Ol Pejeta is a Chimpanzee Sanctuary partnered by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Jane Goodall Institute which was a highly educational visit.

The evenings were cold and the hot water bottle waiting on the bed after returning from dinner was a welcome addition. This attention to detail was indicative of the Porini camps; the smaller number of visitors meant a personalised service and ensured that you experienced the abundant wildlife in their specially designed vehicles without feeling crowded at any time – an experience that receives my highest recommendation.

The final safari destination was the Serena Mountain Lodge perched on the foothills of Mt Kenya. This lodge is only utilised briefly by most and I was the only guest during my visit to stay for more than one evening. However, this wooden lodge with wonderful views over the waterhole and salt lick from each room was superb and is worthy of several nights. Each evening at dinner, one could specify animals you wished to see, and a wake-up call would be received if they arrived at the waterhole during your sleep, thus enabling a viewing of your favoured beast from the comfort of your balcony.

Animals can sense when disturbance is about, and their intuition and experiences inform them that after lunch the lodge is almost empty as departing guests have already left, and arriving guests have yet to check-in. Unbeknownst to me, many animals choose this window of time to visit the waterhole, knowing that they will enjoy an undisturbed drink.

It started with first one, then two and suddenly over 20 elephants emerging from the undergrowth directly below my balcony. I raced downstairs to the photographer’s hide and was the only one inside to observe 27 elephants and an equal number of buffalo. The animals were so near that I could hear the elephants slurping water and the buffalo rending grass. To be the sole occupant of the photographer’s hide and to witness the grandeur of nature at such close proximity was exhilarating. It was a glorious finale to my ten week holiday.

Within 36 hours I was leaving Africa on a dreaded overnight flight on Ethiopian Airlines. I arrived at Dubai and joyfully transferred to business class on Qatar Airways. A short flight, followed by an enjoyable breakfast at the Premium Terminal in Doha, saw me commence the most relaxing flight of all my travels. A full complement of staff only needed
The grand elephants graze near dusk - Olare Orok Conserancy, KenyaThe grand elephants graze near dusk - Olare Orok Conserancy, KenyaThe grand elephants graze near dusk - Olare Orok Conserancy, Kenya

Their young are always kept in the middle of the larger adults.
to deal with eight business class passengers flying on this sector, but these staff were required for the 40 passengers on the return. As expected, with a staff to passenger ratio of more than one to one, the service was exceptional.

I was exhausted after 26 hours without sleep so I pressed the buttons to convert my seat to a bed, curled under a blanket, activated the seat massager, closed my eyes and drifted into a blissful slumber, a slumber where dreams of elephants and lions danced around in my head...

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26

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Topi stand guard - Masai Mara National Reserve, KenyaTopi stand guard - Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Topi stand guard - Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Topi gather on high portions of land and gaze in different direction to ensure the best protection.
Crocodile eyes a meal floating along the Mara River - Masai Mara National Reserve, KenyaCrocodile eyes a meal floating along the Mara River - Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Crocodile eyes a meal floating along the Mara River - Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

We saw dozens of dead wildebeest in the river after crocodiles engaged in a frenzied feeding a few weeks earlier.
Wildebeest eyes at night - Olare Orok Conservancy, KenyaWildebeest eyes at night - Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya
Wildebeest eyes at night - Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya

"It was as if the stars had fallen from the skies..."
Sykes monkey considering what mischief it can make - Mt Kenya National ParkSykes monkey considering what mischief it can make - Mt Kenya National Park
Sykes monkey considering what mischief it can make - Mt Kenya National Park

These annoying creatures always tried to enter my room.
Up close with a slurping elephant - Mt Kenya National ParkUp close with a slurping elephant - Mt Kenya National Park
Up close with a slurping elephant - Mt Kenya National Park

View from the photographer's hide at the Mountain Lodge.
Dawn over Mount KenyaDawn over Mount Kenya
Dawn over Mount Kenya

My room had a beautiful view of the mountain.

Comments only available on published blogs

15th March 2011

seat massager?
Lovely photos, Shane. I pray I get to do this too before my knees give me trouble . ;-) But hey, I didn't know about the seat massager on the Qatar business class! I once (just once) flew the same airline and class, but didn't discover the seat massager. Drats! [:(]
15th March 2011

Wow PH Just beautiful pictures! love GG
15th March 2011

Great blog Shane. I really enjoyed reading it.
16th March 2011

Wow, amazing blog. I'm bookmarking it for the time in the far future that I finally get to do a Safari and need the info for the best one. You took some great pictures too! Keep the blogs coming!
8th September 2012
The Great Migration - Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

A winning photo!
This image won me a US $500 safari voucher with Gamewatchers Safaris & Porini Camps - first time I have ever received a prize in an international photo competition!

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