Mara Migration 2022 Edition - A Journey that never ends!
Approximately every 30 minutes or so, a plane lands on an airstrip (example: Mara Intrepid) Watching the flights fly that close across the plains, I love seeing the new enthusiastic arrivals hopping out of the planes to take over the action from those who were getting into a plane to get back home.
The enthusiasm, excitement and craving to experience, feel and be part of the Mara Legends over-powers the sad and “if I could stay for few more days” / “what would happen to the action I left behind” feeling that is just un-explainable. I get this feeling right from the day one each time I saw a plane land. I am typically thinking about the hard-time I would battle with my emotions when I will be on my way back. Like a kid reluctantly going to school, misty eyed, emotions choking up his throat - this is what I go through every time I pack my bags from Mara and watch the plane land on the muddy strip, to take me back home. The only thing missing was a handkerchief tied to my shirt. Guess, I always need a towel.
For the first time, I had a nightmarish experience at Bangalore International Airport. Because of a sandstorm in Sharjah, my Bangalore flight was delayed by 3 hours. Upon that, I didn’t realize my camera tools were kept in my carry bag (I had taken collars off my lens) only to have the security confiscate it. Without which I couldn’t leave Bangalore - Thanks to #airarabia staff who graciously helped me all through to get things sorted. Phew! Finally, departed Bangalore by 630am and no surprises, my entire day/events were in shambles. I almost missed my Nairobi flight! Nonetheless - All went well with touch and go affair. Only after I landed in Nairobi, I told myself - My trip is on!
I stayed in two camps - Mara Simba and Osero Sophia River Camp. I must say, Osero Camp blew me away! Dileep and Remya - Partners of the Osero - were extremely courteous, delightful and great hosts to me all through. I was in for a surprise with all south-indian food, delicacies and not to mention my birthday celebrations! Couldn’t have asked for more. Made my heart flutter 😊. My special thanks to Janardhan, my friend and well-wisher who took utmost care through out my entire trip with top notch planning! Here is one of the frames I'd dedicate to Janardhan!
One of the things I did this time was not to move around but to stay-put in a zone from where I could track the Legendary Lion Prides of Mara - The Salas Boys / Topi Pride, Rokero Pride and Fig Tree Pride. With heavy rains lashing out in the plains and for some reason, the migration was a dull affair (at least during the 10 days I was there); It rained heavily but in pockets, the sun shone sharp and was cruel. No surprises, it was nothing but Lion’s outing during my entire stay. Lions, Lions and more Lions. But Of-course, tracked Luluka and Faulu - Daughter of legendary Leopardess Lorain - besides watching Tano Bora Brothers (2 of the 5 ) hunt down a Topi and Wildebeest on two occasions while witnessed 3 other successful hunts by other Cheetahs. There is always “that” image that comes to my mind if I look back. An emotional one, that talks about a mother and cub! No other jeeps in the vicinity, it is only me and this mother with her cute little toys, one following while she is carrying the naughtiest in her jaws! Here is the most fearsome predator, holding her cub, cajoling and with utmost care, taking her up-hill!
The Prized moment of my trip!
Wet and crazily gold-lit mornings, far across, a column of Cape buffalos, the known bad and temperamental asses of the plains sauntering in a single column, surprisingly taking a restrained approach – perhaps aware of the fact that there were predators all around. Buffalos are known to attack and can be quite lethal. But I am sure we all agree, they can be good posers as well! One of the males had lost one of his horns and as I was watching him, wondered if he lost in a battle with his fellow contestants – Of-course, that also means, he lost his berth, hence named him as – Dethroned King
The Tankers of the Plains
A Typical Scene with Cape Buffalos
As we sped up the hill that is a known spot for the Topi Pride, it may be 2 to 3 days since they had any kill. They were extremely active, their ears and eyes stretched wide - scanning their surroundings while the adolescent and cubs played around without a care in the world. The first day, I spotted all 4 Salas Boys over a buffalo kill but none of them were together. One of them was sleeping while the other turned its face off, wandering down-hill. The other 2 continued to feast. A huge personal disappointment for me was to miss having all 4 Males in a single frame. Alas a box stayed unticked.
The Legend - One of the Salas Boys!
When I gaze across vast lands of Mara, I get a feeling of being a part of its history. 4 Musketeers, Black Rock Pride, Bahati - The Veteran Leopard, Kabusu - The queen of Double Cross, Lorain - The beautiful Leopardess, Tano Bora —5 Cheetah coalition - Legends have come and gone - Every season and year, there is a dynasty that get usurped while a new legend is born. There are some who continue to rule the plains of mara for years holding their ground and territory, fighting through every single day - the heroes who have carved out a name for themselves and their pride. I look back as I am writing these lines - watching these legends year after year - History of Mara being written and re-written - it gives me a huge feeling of belongingness, a sense of pride, to be a part of the legendary script that goes on forever and ever.
The Legendary Bahati - Close to her retirement - An Extreme close up shot
For some reason (unknown) this year’s migration has been off-color. Lot of gossip around why the wildebeest herd have not been getting through Mara crossing, the grass shoots that have come up within Tanzania or the grass that got burnt on either sides or may be the heavy off-seasonal rains - you can never know the real reason for they are the best judges before the leap of faith by their leader. I did witness a few jumps on twice however in thin and weak numbers. I did get lucky to catch upon two crocodiles chancing upon a wild beast, but it was sheer heroic effort, grit and determination that made her survive the brutal attack. She was caught in the neck on one side while her legs were held by another crocodile - I almost thought the game was over for her, however to my surprise, she fought tooth and nail, with all her might, shook her head and legs not before giving a mild kick to one of the reptiles before she sped to safety. In life we all get caught in a whirlpool of problems and painful situations. The more we give into it, the more we get eaten. The more we fight and showcase determination, we survive - against all odds!
The Prey and Predator - Mara Crossing!
Mornings were brutally cold, my jeep speeding through the waterlogged roads and small streams, early morning sun coming out in all glory with golden rays spread across the Savannah - it has always been magical and a pure delight. I always look for the Walking towers of Africa - Giraffes - A perfect subject to make some fine images and memories with the rising sun. They seldom disappoint. I had got news about a Leopard but didn’t want to miss the morning date with these giants. After capturing rising sun with them, we sped across to the eastern side of the plains to check on the Leopard we heard few moments back.
A Perfect Morning - Up in the clouds!
There she was! Faulu - She is the daughter of legendary leopardess called Lorraine who was killed by Lions few months back. Incidentally, in 2019, I had great time with both Lorraine and Faulu (who was 8 to 9 months old cub). She was playful, ran all around, showing all the antics one could imagine. Always a mama’s doll and she was doted upon! When Lorain was no more, all of us were worried if Faulu would survive. When I saw her, my guide disclosed that this leopard was Lorain’s daughter it was such a great feeling - feeling of getting back - getting back into time – Oh boy! She had grown, showing off her confidence and yet being playful. I couldn’t express how happy I was - this is what happens when legends and their tribe are followed - One becomes part of their life - their family tree. Unknowingly I realized I had become part of their life. This is how my story goes - being part of Mara, being part of the kingdom, being part of the world that I long to keep watching. Yes, Faulu - An adorable girl - Her eyes shining like a star, her inexperience was visible, but she has come of age! I am sure she would be missing her mother but now she is capable enough to defend herself - As I saw her vanishing into the bushes of Double Cross territory - it gave a sense of relief - I do hope she rules this terrain forever! and until I visit her next, she thrives through the day-to-day survival challenges
Faulu - The Wonder-kid!
In 2019, I had a great time watching Tano Bora males. Coalition of 5 Males - They ruled the plains of Mara - growing in confidence. Hunting had become easy. They were not challenged. I spent a few evenings with them back then. Fast forwarding to this year, 3 males are gone and now, there are only 2 left. These two brothers are so closely knitted - I am sure deep inside, they know, their time is up with age catching up - They seemed to be tiring up fast. Even though they are hunting quick and eyeing large prey such as Topi and wildebeest, they seem to have lost a step or two. Life goes on in the wild as well as in general. With every passing day, we are slowly getting into time. Watching them both, cuddling, nuzzling, and just playing around - the bond between them, or do they get a feeling about their survival or what will they go through if one of them goes missing? At times it is so abstract. As I watched them groom one another, it made me shudder to think how it would be if one of them is no longer there? How will the last one in line cope up with the emptiness? It is always a vacuum I go through when I think of the past and how it is now - Time and tide waits for none. Cut to the chase, we tracked these brothers for 3 days, made some memorable images, waited for hours together for them to hunt down - I do hope when I am back in Mara in 2023, I still have chance to spend time with these running machines.
Tano Bora - The Legendary Coalition - 2 of the 5 brothers
Tano Bora - A successful hunt!
Causing a commotion!
Whether it is migration or not, game is on all through day and night in the endless plains. It is the game between Predator and the prey. Predators get their life while Prey loose theirs. After the big ones have their fill, Jackals or Hyenas or the vultures clean up the dead. But the remains of the dead have a lot to say! Orphaned with their remains, their spirits tell a different story. The spirits that are unseen - the spirits that are blind, dumb and numb. Each one of them had a part in the history of these plains. Each of them fought for their survival, they fought for their herd or clan or family. They would have stood tall to defend while shielding the young ones. Time in these plains run with these spirits. It runs with these souls that are long gone. We got a call that Rokero Pride had made a kill, so had to take the shortest route from Topi Pride territory. The drive was so beautiful with thick vegetation all around, puddles of water from previous night’s rain, the sound of the tyres sloshing past these water holes even as my heart beat a thousand times thinking if I’d get the best of the frames or if I’d get to spend time with these majestic cats. While we zoomed past, I saw something stared at me - something that took my attention - those two eyes that caught my attention was trying to communicate — I asked Ben to stop for a moment – they were the remains of a Cape buffalo. The entire setting was quite eerie. With scattered clouds floating over, the emptiness in those eyes, life that was taken away, life that was meant to live, was it a sacrifice or was it a hard-fought battle or may-be it was surrounded - in the end, no one heard the story nor seen nor felt. When I stared, those two eyes kept staring back at me. Right into me, right through me. So many untold stories, forgotten tales, hard-fought death and just silence. The remains have no words to share. It is the silence of the dead. The moment I made this frame, I wanted to name this image as “Silence of the Dead”.
Silence Of The Dead
With rains lashing through the evenings, the setting sun ensured to play hide and seek. The imaginations and visuals I had in mind were long gone but it still offered lot many opportunities to me. When I am in the land of legends, there are just a few things to complain about. When lights are low, clouds are heavy, mind thinks differently - uniqueness or how to be creative. It challenged me once again. Besides my tryst with big cats, I had loads of time I could spend with other subjects. While Impalas are quite common, their fights aren’t. I was lucky enough to snatch a few frames. Another incredible moment was a Black Backed Jackal family (with Pups); It is quite rare of them to showcase themselves. Or a Chanting Goshawk with a kill (Lizard); In fact for the first time, I happened to see a mother Giraffe nursing her little one! I must say, I looked around only to see Mother Nature blessing her mortal ones. These were straight lifts for me, from the documentaries I watched a zillion times - The Animal Kingdom.
A Dream come true!
A dream come true -
Since my childhood days, I have been watching the eternal foes of the plains on Television. The Lion and Cape buffalo! Arch rivals. In the last 15 years or so during my wildlife trips, unfortunately, I never witnessed a live battle. Their fights, kills, gorging one another to defend their family, feed their family. But this time, I was lucky. Watching a live battle was one of the best experiences of my life. That fateful day, as usual, after having a sumptuous lunch, my typical routine was to go up the hill, me and my guide take our afternoon siesta for 45 min and then resume our game drive. We took a decision to go towards Topi Pride (We had been following Rokero Pride that morning). It was cold - the air was moist - Black clouds hurriedly moved on. Upon reaching the downhill, we saw the Topi Pride Male and his entire gang of 28 lions huddle around a bush. Nearby there were 2 Bulls (Cape buffalo) in the waterhole. Besides our jeep, there was one more.
It was literally freezing. We decided to go for a quick inspection only to find out that one of the Matriarch - named Winter - had died. She had a huge hole in her hind legs. Apparently, one of the buffalos had gorged her (all these happened when I was taking my nap). After looking around a bit, we saw two Cape buffalo near-by but in a waterhole. There was a lot of unrest. One could feel tension in the air. In deep anguish, the Pride Male roared few times and snarled at his family. The entire pride surrounded Winter - as though it was their ritual to pay respects to her - they stood for a minute or two before breaking away towards the buffalos. The next 48 hours were nothing but a battle. Until 645pm - the two buffalos worked together to defend the Lion Pride (Total 28 Lions); Every time, Lions surrounded, one of the bulls came out of the waterhole to defend with attitude and determination.
Finally, one of the bulls squandered and moved on leaving his partner all alone to fight it out. Incidentally, time was up, and we left for the night. I kept on wondering - did the Lions get the kill? Or did the buffalo managed to escape from the clutches of certain death? I didn’t sleep that night. 5am Sharp, we left our camp - I was hoping the action would continue. By the time we reached the spot, it was as-is. The buffalo was still in the waterhole and lions had surrounded. Seems like the battle had continued through the night without an outcome. The sun was sharp, and both parties were confident to go for the kill. Every time the buffalo stepped out to walk few meters outside, the inexperienced cubs harped on to the buffalo only to see it get back into the waterhole. This continued. Even the male and the experienced females couldn’t do much - There were close to 12 to 15 Cubs that literally spoilt the scene. Neither they gave enough time for the buffalo to step out nor they showed patience. It hung in mid-air. I didn’t move an inch from morning through evening. On one occasion, the bull walked through the creek for few meters when the Topi Pride Male saw a window of opportunity to pounce but alas, the timing was bad. Hurriedly the bull jumped into the waterhole. Lions do not like to get wet and the Bull took that as an advantage for 2 whole days! To me, it was a battle of titans - 28 Lions Vs. 1 Cape Buffalo. If I would carry a point or two from this epic battle - Mental Strength, Determination, Positive Attitude and Never Give Up thoughts - stood out. Can’t imagine how excruciating it was, lasting for 48 hours with neither of them budging. The match swung both-ways, but it was completely spoilt out by the cubs. Sadly, it was my last day at Mara. At 6pm, I told Ben - guess I remain unlucky to witness the outcome of this battle. I almost cried knowing the fact, I may not see such an event ever again. Staring at the waterhole, I took a heavy breath and with a shaken voice, I said, Well, I am calling it a day and trip. Let us head back now. May be to cover up my tears, it started to rain. On one side I was deeply disappointed about the fact I couldn’t get to see the final battle but on the other side I appreciated what I got to see. It was the final night of my stay.
Battle between the Titans!
And still the Cape Buffalo held his fort - Until I departed.
Next morning when me and Ben were having Coffee, he reluctantly told me - Magal - Lions made the kill last night. I didn’t smile - I didn’t laugh. I just bent down my head for a minute. He said, Next time! We got into the jeep heading towards Keekrok Airstrip. All the events unfolded in front of my eyes; it was heavy. I was behaving like a school kid who does not want to go to school. I didn’t want to leave Mara. I wanted to drive up-hill, stop the jeep under an acacia tree, with gentle breeze blowing, wanted to sip a hot cup of coffee and may be lay down. Feeling as though the entire plains are mine. It is mine. I belong here. Mara Plains call for me. Ben nudged to let me know that it was time for me to leave - After hugging him tight, thanking him - I made my way into the flight – for my journey back home.
Year after year, I make these trips, but my hunger never seems to have satisfied. From the window of my seat, I looked down - even as my flight soared high, those roads that we used to drive, those water holes that we crossed, the tricky Talek River we crossed, the long roads became small, the entire plains could fit in my airplane window as my flight kissed the damp clouds. I let go a heavy breath as we landed in Wilson Airport and from there on, my mechanical self-became active or hyper-active. My emotional self said, it is okay - Until next time!