Far Out

Far Out

I was supposed to be in Paris with my wife celebrating our 50th anniversary. I’m in Dublin where I’ll be writing more about this interesting, unexpected journey due to Covid in later days. But today I just gotta write about Marriott!

Marriott is pleased as puddin pie that it’s opening a luxury camp in Kenya’s Mara. “The location and surrounding landscape will … create harmony with the natural world … drawing inspiration from the elements: earth, wind, fire and water.” Not sure about the fire.
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OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

OnSafari: Klein’s Valley

Those damned kids! They ruined dinner once again!

Mama looked at us unabashedly. It was really getting dark, around 7:15 p.m. in the Klein’s Valley that borders Kenya’s Mara to the north and the Serengeti to the west. The sun had blinked out at 6:30p and twilight doesn’t really exist in the equator, but the high stringy cumulus making the moon and Venus blur threw what light the far away sun touched them with back down to the ground. A sort of unexpected twilight.
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Maasai Movement

Maasai Movement

The revolutionary fervor seeping from Hong Kong to Argentina to Mexico has infected Kenya’s most important tourist area, the Maasai Mara.

Younger educated and articulate Maasai ranchers are protesting the contracts that their elder clansmen signed with safari companies that ridiculously are supposed to continue through 2025. Unlike Hong Kong where of thousands of people are flooding into the streets, the Maasai are flooding the tourists areas of the Mara with thousands of cows.

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OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

OnSafari: Lucy’s Future

kenya and lucyWe had a Maasai guide for our final days in Kenya. There are about 500 guides in Kenya’s best game park, the Maasai Mara. Only three are women: “our” Lucy was one.

Two days after national elections, results have yet to be announced but the country looks increasingly like it will accept the outcome peacefully. Lucy won’t be the only beneficiary of peace. In 8 of Kenya’s 47 counties (comparable to our states) provisional results give governorships to women.

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OnSafari: River Crossing

OnSafari: River Crossing

rivercrossingBPWe were among 30 cars on one side of the Mara river – there were another 30 on the opposite side.

I don’t like crowds in the wilderness, and I avoid them pretty successfully. But this is an exception. If you want to see one of the most dramatic still truly wild components of the world’s last great animal migration, you’re going to be part of a crowd.

True, there are plenty of river crossings on the great migration route that don’t draw crowds, and I’ve enjoyed them. But the classic and most dramatic crossings are in the Mara, and there are only a couple dozen favorite crossing spots.

Unlike so many animals, wildebeest are very finicky eaters. All they will consumer is grass. Grass comes after rain. The wilde’s instinct forces them to “follow the rains,” which generally recede over the course of the year in a northwesterly direction onto Lake Victoria.

Before reaching the Mara, the great herds have crossed at least two and sometimes four or five other great rivers as they move north.

The Mara is the last and furthest northern river before the herds are turned back by developed farm fields, towns and villages. Here they cluster and start moving backwards and forwards across the river seemingly without purpose. The instinct to move is too great, and if the movement is a rebound, so be it.

This has been the case for at least the last half century. Before that they may have continued all the way to the Lake before turning around. The boundary is not natural in the wild sense, of course, and it results in the mass confusion, exceptional drama and photogenic scenes that have become the trademark of the great migration.

A bit further south the herds’ decisions to move back and forth across rivers is governed much more by actual rain. Particularly now with climate change, the intense micro-climates may mean a healthy rainfall a few miles to the north, or a drought, a few miles to the south.

I’ve often watched the herds move north out of Tanzania to Kenya right on schedule in June, but then return months early in August because of early, heavy rains in northern Tanzania.

Keep in mind that a wildlife documentary is simply an edited version of what the Miller Family saw this morning in person. I remember encountering a BBC/Nova film crew once shooting a river crossing here in the Mara, and there were at least 20 vehicles just in their team.
We were watching a newborn zebra being defended by its mom against a hyaena when we spotted massive clouds of dust several miles away above the river.

Our camp driver, of course, knew exactly what “favorite crossing place” was near the dust and we headed for it posthaste. Wilde will jump 20 feet into the river and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to scale the other side of a 20-foot canyon, but they prefer easier entries and exits, often dry river washes merging with the great Mara. There aren’t many, and everyone knows them.

To reach this crossing place, we had to drive through the herds, and that in itself was fabulous. I estimated between 3500-4500 in this particular group. They were racing in multiple files and converging on a plateau just above the crossing point.

We slowed down among their incessant blarting mixed with the anxious barking of the zebra. Clearly this group was getting psyched up to cross!

By the time we got to the crossing point most of the prime spaces were already taken by other cars. But our driver knew the river so well that we went down river all of a few hundred meters where it turned and found a beautiful viewing area right there.

Across the river were four giant crocs, pulled out onto the sun with bellies already bulging with previous crossings.

So then, like everyone, else, we just waited.

After about an hour, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by wilde! They came so fast the dust came after them! This wasn’t the crossing place, this was our secret viewing area, and it was very rocky and steep at the river’s edge.

Then almost as quickly, they moved away back into the riverine forest. For some reason, they weren’t going down the “favorite crossing place.”

After about another half hour some cars began to leave. We thought we would, too, but just as the engine turned on we could see upriver that the first of the group had reached the river’s edge at the end of the wash.

At first they didn’t seem to do anything but grow in numbers and drink the water. After about five minutes, though, the pressure of the racing wilde behind them forced them to start the swim across.

They walked until the depth of the river forced them to swim, and wilde do this by successive leaping. Water was splashing all of the place. I watched a croc leap out and grab the side of one wilde. It was soon mayhem. Six or seven abreast were swimming across, many getting drowned by others behind them, some actually swimming back across the river!

A half hour later it was all over. A very small group of about 25 wilde for some reason remained on the wash and didn’t cross, but the bulk had move onto the other side and were congregating on the plains and starting to graze.

We found a nice place much further down the river to set up our wonderful breakfast, but the river runs fast here, and numerous “floaters” or dead wildebeest passed by us.

The great migration is like one little muscle in Mother Earth. It’s a reflection of the ecological heritage that makes our planet so awesome. Until we free ourselves completely of our biological roots, we need to truly experience the power of our organic world so that we can concede that we’re only one piece in an infinite universe of life, beholden to the great migration as the wildebeest are to the rains.

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

OnSafari: Maasai Mara

leopardMaraBPWe’re in the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s best game park and the top of the great Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem.

She had killed a wildebeest yearling this morning without much effort. Large files of the great migration are coming through the salient. We saw three groups of about 400 wilde and another of about 1000 that was running in single file.

We even watched a small group of several hundred try to cross the Mara River. Only one did! But the others’ reluctance was understandable. The river is already littered with dead wildebeest among very fat, giant crocs.

So the young female leopard that probably weighs around 120 pounds max had pulled the 220 pound yearling into the crux of a tree about 6-8 feet off the ground. That’s not very high for a leopard who can easily lift 350 pounds 20 feet into a tree.

But she was with an older daughter and I wonder if maybe she was teaching her how to lift the kill. In any case, they made haste with their feast, eating more than half of it in a single setting. That, too, is unusual for a leopard which may take a week to finish off its kill.

The urgency was in part because there were so many vehicles trying to watch them. The Mara gets a bum rap sometimes regarding too many vehicles, and for the vast majority of our game drive we were alone or just with our other vehicle in the Miller family safari.

But a leopard is prize stuff. So all the vehicles in the neighborhood came to see them, and that meant when we arrived there were another 7 vehicles. Once we got our fleeting pictures, I insisted we move on, as even more vehicles were arriving.

I felt she was understandably nervous. The would move together out of the deep bush to one side, then the vehicles would move to that side, and they would move to the other.

It was a fantastic first game drive for us!

We followed the river for the migrating wilde, encountered great herds of buffalo, saw elephant and a bunch of other stuff. The Mara is one of the most beautiful parks in my estimation. As the afternoon light cut across the prairie stopped distantly here and there by a single struggling acacia tree, there was a sense of wild peace you just find nowhere else.

Tomorrow we’re going out for most of the day. Stay tuned!

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

OnSafari: Mara & Maasai

JimMaasaiOur three days of game viewing in the Maasai Mara proved this is the most exciting place to experience extraordinary drama in Kenya.

Hippo Feast
Hippo Feast

Many of the best wildernesses of East Africa are inextricably linked to the Maasai people. The three days of exciting game viewing in Kenya’s Maasai Mara impressed me especially for the simple fact that local Maasai have allowed this wild and wooly place to continue to exist.

Our nights at Governor’s Camp were not peaceful. Screaming baboon, howling hyaena, fighting elephant, roaring lion and grunting leopard even woke me, and some of my clients were actually concerned their first night or two.

As throughout all of northern Tanzania and very southern Kenya, there are too many elephant, and too many means more fights among them, day and night. We suffered two mock charges, one by a collared male that had been relocated after harassing residents of Nairobi.

The salient just outside Governor’s Camp is peppered with lion. We had the remarkable fortune to watch a three-day saga that began when a dead hippo “popped.”

Nothing kills or really wants to eat hippo. It’s too big, too fat and the hide, too thick. But a giant one of probably 3000 pounds or more died on the banks of the Mara River just outside Governor’s probably a few weeks before we arrived.

It ripens and then pops. It did so when we arrived, and we watched several giant crocs open “tunnels” into the fermenting beast.

Lynn & Bill Vogt
Lynn & Bill Vogt

They didn’t get much to eat before one of the local lion prides displaced them and began gorging on the meat deep below the hide and fat that was finally available.

That drew hyaena and the hyaena drew birds and for the next two days we watched an endless drama of dozens of lions feasting and fighting and fending off literally 30 hyaena, not to mention the 14-foot crocs at river’s edge.

When the lions could just not stuff down another morsel, most of them went away, but as lion prides are want to do, one remained behind stuffed to the trimmings to “guard” the kill. She managed this for almost a day before submitting to her own need to sleep off the gluttony.

The hyaena pounced on the remaining carcass screaming and laughing and seriously fighting with one another. Vultures grabbed bits of meat and fat out of the air that were being flung from this giant holiday meal from hyaena completely inside the carcass!

That, my friends, was only one of dozens of exciting experiences this amazing reserve afforded us all. Quite far from Governor’s at Double Crossing we watched three lions stage a hunt of warthog from start to finish, leaving their 4 four-month old cubs sitting in a line about 5 feet from our cars.

We saw the most amazing assemblage of animals: topi, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, waterbuck, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle and probably others I’ve forgotten, strung across the unbelievably beautiful rolling hills of the Mara.

We watched the giant martial eagle attack guinea fowl. We saw two male impala sadly stuck together at their horn after a vicious fight. We watched hundreds of buffalo stampede through the waving tan oat grass, white egrets flung about them like fluff exploding from a pillow. We saw a mammoth hippo start to attack a Landrover.

And we watched amazing bird events, including maybe a thousand Abdim storks take off for their return journey to Europe easily circling up six or seven thousand feet in all but a few seconds.

It’s breathtaking being in The Mara. Always has been and always will… if the Maasai say so. Because all around the Mara are Maasai farms and businesses. We saw them. We followed a wild black rhino out of the park onto their land.

Running a farm or a small shop or teaching in school with too many elephants outside and lions threatening your livestock isn’t easy. Tourism and its benefits manages a fragile balance with this tolerance.

Let’s hope it continues.

Vizuka Mara

Vizuka Mara

maraghostsOne of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.

Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.

Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.

Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.

The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.

The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.

First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”

“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.

Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.

Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.

The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.

It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.

(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.

From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.

I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.

Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.

That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.

The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:

Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.

But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.

In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.

Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”

He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.

Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.

For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.

Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.

Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.

But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.

What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.

From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.

But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.

Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.

Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.

OnSafari: The Mara

OnSafari: The Mara

pinksunset.mara.08aug.447.jimWhy spend the time and money to travel north on a Tanzanian safari to the very border of Kenya, and then not cross?

I ended my extremely successful McGrath Family Safari game driving along the great Mara and Sand Rivers, seeing really giant crocs, looking longingly to Kenya. You aren’t allowed to cross over.

Ever since the 1979 dispute between the two countries closed the border, numerous attempts by good politicians on both sides have tried to reopen it to no avail.

Oprah stood where my family had lunch yesterday, peeved to smithereens that she wasn’t allowed to cross a few years ago.

Nobody can. Not even the politicians themselves.

The dispute is now so old that recounting its history is like critiquing a marble statue: Interesting, but it’s not going to change.

We had great game viewing these last two days, including a family of 12 lion in a weeded kopjes, elephant playing along the river, giraffe starting at us as we bumped and hurdled ourselves over really bad roads, and to everyone’s glee, 5 baby rock hyrax popping out of a rock design placed at the edge of our camp’s swimming pool.

But it’s a long … and expensive journey to get here. Obviously we aren’t unusual, because the camp we stayed in, Asilia’s Sayari, is expanding (now 15 tents) and is one of the most expensive and luxurious camps in Tanzania.

The southern (Tanzanian) side of the rivers that make up some of the border with Kenya are filled with camps. We encountered almost as many game viewing vehicles as we did in Tarangire. So clearly, we’re not alone.

The attraction is the allure of the migration. Read my last blog to see how crazy this is! Yet we are all driven by history, and in fact the chances today of seeing the great herds in Tanzania are definitely chances that on every day of the calendar are moving northwards.

But more correctly – and this is my own experience – they aren’t moving as much. It’s wetter, so more grass, and areas previously dust bowls at certain times of the year in Tanzania are no longer.

Personally, I love the Mara. In Kenya it’s called the Maasai Mara. Here it’s called the Mara District. But it’s the Mara, absolutely one of the most beautiful places on earth.

It’s cold at night like Seronera, but it never gets really hot during the day even with clear skies. It rains almost every day of the year except in October and November, which I love because it’s not the least disruptive (it never rains for long) and it’s dramatic and turns the veld into a bouquet.

(P.S. The animals like it, too.)

There are woodlands, but they aren’t as dense as further south, so you can reach a rise in a hill and have vistas that stretch for dozens if not hundreds of miles. It’s a lush carpet of greens: the shining reflective green of grasses and the deep dark fur greens of the trees and few woodlands.

And, of course, the rivers. We spent most of our time up here along the Mara River. It’s a raging, but not very deep river, bubbling over lots of big rocks producing white water and little cascading waterfalls everywhere you look.

Also everywhere you look are hippos, uncountable there are so many, and some of the world’s largest crocodiles. I think the biggest one we saw was probably 14 feet, but I have seen them twice that size!

The birdlife is exceptional. First of all, things are easier to see when the woodlands are thinned out. So, for example, we saw numerous klipspringer, steinbok and reedbuck, and even an oribi! These aren’t rare animals, just difficult to find because of their size, color and stealth.

The same is true for birds. So within a half hour we saw a hoopoe, a pygmy falcon and the pink-eyelidded Verreaux’s Eagle Owl!

But it’s not all good news. Tanzania – at least up here – pays a lot less attention to its wildernesses than Kenya. So there are many, many more tse-tse. There are many fewer tracks that we can use. And most of all …

… Tanzania does not allow off-road driving as the Kenyans do in the Mara. That’s critical. The official Tanzanian position is that it damages the ecosystem, and there is some truth to that.

But it’s a little truth, and the real truth has to do with Tanzanian corruption and lack of resources dedicated to tourist parks. So as Kenya calms down (the British removed their travel warnings on the Kenyan coast last week) I think that I and most of my colleagues will choose to travel to Kenya to see the Mara rather than here.

But the McGraths and all the others we met here this time made absolutely the right decision. The southern Serengeti remains my favorite place, but … the Mara is a close second!

Dangerous Plays

Dangerous Plays

stupidtouristwithlionAs access to Africa’s wildernesses develops and improves, visitors are becoming less respectful and careful. This puts everything in jeopardy.

The photo above of a self-drive tourist in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve last Sunday “posing” in front of a pair of lions was taken by a film crew at some distance from the tourist. Presumably the tourist didn’t notice the film crew.

The series of photos was first published in London’s Daily Mail. Click here for the full sequence.

The tourist spots the lions, which seem to be about 15-20 meters away. He stops the car then exits the passenger’s side (right side) which is the opposite side to the lions.

He then races around the car to place himself between the car and the lions, leans back with a thumb’s up obviously posing for another person in the car who probably takes a picture. He then runs back around the car and gets back in.

The photos capture no reaction from the lions other than an occasional glance at the tourist.

These are certainly wild lions, and why they didn’t react is impossible to say. They appear to be a mating pair as it is unlikely to see only one male and one female alone together.

Lion mating is pretty routine: It lasts about three days during which time the pair often can’t be roused by anything, not even hunger. But not always, and it’s impossible when first encountering them to determine at what stage in the three-day mating process they are.

I’ve encountered a mating pair when the male charged our vehicle. There is often a vicious fight between males for the right to mate prior to the mating commencing, so it was possible we arrived just as that altercation had ended.

I’ve also seen mating lion break apart to join a kill. Once again such an anecdotal encounter could be nothing more than having happened to arrive just at the end of the mating process.

I don’t think it’s possible to conclude why these lions were so passive in this case. I suppose an equally cogent argument to my own anecdotal experience is the clear fact that more and more tourists are seen by lions, now. Generations of lions in places like Kenya’s Maasai Mara are becoming more used to people and learn that they aren’t threatening.

That, of course, is a degradation of the wilderness but one that I can hardly oppose. Without tourists — at least in Kenya — there would be little wilderness left.

We are at an interesting crossroads in the development of African wilderness for tourism. As so clearly illustrated in this example, wilderness is taking on the characteristics of a theme park, one that definitely has elements of danger in the experience which seem precisely to be one of the main attractions.

And at least in this case flirting with that danger is apparently one of the selling points.

There are dozens of stories of tourists going too far and paying the price. Just google “tourist killed by lion” or “tourist killed by buffalo” for a tidy wrap-up.

Many of these tragedies aren’t quite as wanton stupidity as evidenced in the photo above, but many are.

What concerns me most is that as more and more of these incidents occur, lions and other wildlife will grow more and more accustomed to man and his peculiarities. This seriously jeopardizes their own wild behavior.

There are many people in Africa who consider lion in the same regards as Montana ranchers consider wolf. A tamer lion is much easier to kill.

And there will be more and more tourists injuries and deaths as well. These two ends of the stick will burn right through to the middle, and tourist parks like Kenya’s Maasai Mara will either have to become far more restrictive or will simply be sold to wheat farmers, or both.

The result is that there will be less wilderness for us all to enjoy.