In Kenya’s forests, wild beasts roam free and humans are mere bystanders, realises Air India’s pilot Khushwant Singh Matharu, as he rides into the heart of Maasai Mara
Miles of rolling grass in myriad shades of gold and green, punctuated by clusters of trees. The grassland, serene and seemingly uninhabited, melting into a spectacular sunset. But as I watch this nature’s panorama, mesmerised, a patch of grass sways, revealing a zebra nodding its head at an imaginary foe. I train my binoculars to catch its stripes better, when a sauntering giraffe cuts across the lens, its elongated neck towering over the landscape, making the trees resemble delicately trimmed bonsais! I pan the horizon again, hoping that the grass would maybe reveal a lion savouring its meal! But then, that’s the magic of the African savannah, a natural habitat for wild animals. Roaming wild and free as intended by nature, this is an experience that can only be felt in its entirety in this magical world!
I am on my first safari to Maasai (Masai) Mara in Kenya, the mecca of wildlife enthusiasts. We reach Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and the journey into the magical world begins almost as soon as I step out of the airport. Maasai Mara, on the Kenya-Tanzania border, is around a five-hour drive from Nairobi.
Around me, a mesmerising world opens up: women in the most vibrant coloured clothing I have ever seen, children playing happily and elderly men lazying and watching the world go by. The people here believe in co-existing with nature, and at a pace that nature has determined!
I drive past several pit stops on the way where small shops sell local art and crafts, including masks, stools with painted leather seats and wooden statues of the Masais. I stop to admire and purchase sculptures and animal figurines made of soap stone (which the locals call kisii stone) and Kenyan handcrafted jewellery.
As I near the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the villagers give us a glimpse of modern day Africa. The car comes to a halt to give way to a pair of herders leading their cattle, and as we wait for the entourage to pass, I spot a group of morans (members of the warrior group of the Masai people) in their traditional signature red clothes and accessories, updating their status on social media. I ponder upon how the people hold on to their roots yet keep up with the developments of the world. My reverie is broken as I stumble upon my first magical moment: the sight of a lone giraffe munching on the leaves of a tree. It’s nonchalant, unperturbed by our SUV and a few other vehicles that have stopped to admire its grace. As camera shutters buzz I realise that for us humans living so far removed from nature, just this one sighting is captivating!
The enthusiasm builds as I enter the game reserve and spot a dazzle of zebras – some grazing, some gazing into the distance but all of them, quite amusingly, keeping off flies with their tails. A few metres away I spot the wildebeests. They may not be the most glamorous inhabitants of the African savan – nah but it is their annual mass migration across the Mara river at the end of the rainy season, that has documentary filmmakers, wildlife photographers and nature lovers flocking here in large numbers and camping for months, hoping and praying to witness what some call one of the seven wonders of the natural world! We hope to catch one of the Big Five (leopards, elephants, lions rhinos and buffalo) but it is time to call it a day.
Back at the property I am staying in, which boasts an adorable hippo pool (a small waterbody in which hippos soak their day away), I savour a soul-filling meal before re – tiring to my room only to be awakened by a shrill trumpet. I rush out and am greeted by a hotel staff, who asks me not to panic and mentions that it is common for elephant herds to walk into the property premises. This makes me acutely aware that I may be nestled warm and cosy inside a resort but I am still on their land, a place where the wild roam free.
The following day, I head out in an SUV, my eyes peeled to see wild animals, unblinking, lest I miss out on a sight. I hope to see a lioness chasing her lunch, a coalition of cheetahs or some species of predators, and my prayers are answered. In the distance, under the canopy of a giant acacia tree, I sight them: a pride of lions – three playful cubs, the vigilant lioness and the ever-so confident lion – feasting on a fresh kill. A shiver runs down my spine as the lion looks up from his meal, seemingly satisfied, and fixes his gaze in my direction, as if posing for my camera.
Although I go on to spot herds of elephant with adorable calves, buffaloes with their sculpted horns, a lone cheetah lazying on a mound of dirt and several other animals going about their way with little or no concern for the curious bunch of humans in the distance it is the sight of the lion family that makes my day. I also notice elands, a huge herd of gazelles, a cackle of hyenas and a plethora of such birds as grey turaco, lilac-breasted roller, kori bustard, sooty chat and grey crowned crane during the safari. Maasai Mara might be the best place to truly experience a wildlife safari but by no means is it the only one. The adjoining vast plains of Serengeti in Tanzania are a worthy competition. So is the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania, which is best approached from Nairobi, with lodges on the rim of the volcanic crater. Not to forget such gorgeous waterbodies as Lake Nakuru (in Kenya) that turns various shades of pink when flamingos flock to it in hundreds. As the afternoon safari ends, we are welcomed by the sight of Maasai warriors, dressed in their bright red costumes and vibrant jewellery, dancing with gaiety. As these tall men move and jump, their flying figures silhouetted against the brilliant evening sky, I can’t help but wonder about what other mysteries this land holds. My stay in Kenya is short but I am returning with a treasure chest of memories and a box full of photographs. I leave with a heavy heart but not without promising to return soon to this wild paradise.