Big Cats of Maasai Mara

Less than a day after horseback riding and bird watching at the beautiful Lake Niavasha, our group of six found ourselves back in the safari van on the trail of more animals in what is arguably the preeminent wildlife viewing destination in all of Africa, if not the world. The rolling grassland of Maasai Mara expanded endlessly around us. Maasai Mara, the home of both wild lions and of the Maasai tribe who are famed for their ability to hunt them. Maasai Mara, where every year, two million animals risk the waiting jaws of hippopotamus and Nile crocodiles as they cross the Mara River between Kenya and Tanzania. This was the untamed wilderness that I dreamed about as a child, enthralled in nature documentaries about Subsaharan African wildlife, never daring to imagine that I may one day find myself squinting into the waving grasses of the savannah in hopes of glimpsing the golden fur of a stalking lion.

My attempts to reign in my enthusiasm about the uncertain possibility of seeing big cats were largely unsuccessful. I knew from previous safari drives in South Africa and Botswana that cats can be highly evasive, but something about being in Maasai Mara made me feel optimistic. We only had a few hours for game driving on our first afternoon in the preserve since it had taken the better part of a day to get from Nairobi to the reserve and to check into the Rhino Tourist Camp, which was completely empty other than us. After we were settled into our tents, Fred (Kenya Tour Budget Safari) introduced us to Ole, a Maasai warrior who would be accompanying us on our game drives for protection, and to help us navigate the reserve. Then we all piled back into the van and soon we were in the reserve, on the lookout for wildlife.

The first notable animal we spotted was another from my unofficial list of birds that I was hoping to see on the trip. A fanciful looking grey crowned crane was strutting through tall grasses with its long, knobbed legs.

As we continued driving, we saw all of the animals you would expect to see right away. Graceful impalas and Thompson’s gazelles grazed alongside the dirt roads, and we saw the occasional wildebeest and buffalo. Ole taught us how to differentiate between Topi and Hartebeest, two striking antelope species that I had never seen before.

Topi vs Hartebeest

We stopped for a while to look at the biggest journey of giraffes I’ve ever seen. The longer we stayed and watched the giraffes, the more of them we spotted. As we enjoyed ourselves, a radio crackled information in an unrecognizable language. I know next to no Swahili. I’ve only picked up a few phrases for basic interactions, and the Swahili names for animals. Nothing I could hear on the radio sounded remotely familiar to me, but Fred and Ole listened attentively.

All of the sudden, Fred started ripping the van through the savannah, no longer concerned with whether or not we were having a comfortable ride. We bounced along with every rut in the dirt two-track road, speculating wildly about what had suddenly sent Fred off on such an urgent mission. In my mind, I dared to hope that he and Ole had somehow learned the location of a cat.

My hopes were rewarded when we arrived at an acacia tree that although otherwise unassuming, had two cheetahs napping peacefully in its shade. Every now and then one of the cheetahs would stir a little, but for the most part they were entirely relaxed. I couldn’t help but miss our house cat, Catness a little bit as I mentally compared the gorgeous cheetahs’ behavior to that of a domestic feline.

After the cheetah rendezvoux, we were all feeling excited and invigorated even though the afternoon was quickly turning into evening and we would soon have to return to camp. I couldn’t believe that we’d already seen big cats, and we still had another full day of safari ahead of us.

There’s not much that could top a big cat sighting, but the reserve had a few more exciting moments in store for us, starting with a close encounter with a large elephant. We also saw a large herd of elephants from a distance, a small pod of hippos in a river that looked entirely too small for them, another grey crowned crane, and caught a brief glimpse of a spotted hyena before it disappeared into the bush.

Back at Rhino Camp, we reveled in the day’s adventure as we ate dinner. We were the only guests in the dining room, emphasizing once again how deserted the camp was. After animatedly reviewing all of the animal sightings we’d had, and speculating about what the next day would bring, we returned to our tents (which were really more like bungalows since they had solid walls) and crashed into bed where we slept peacefully. For a couple of hours.

Around midnight, Vince and I were awoken suddenly by a deafening crash of thunder. It was so loud that it shook our beds, and Vince initially thought something had exploded. Then the rains came pouring down, bouncing off our tin roof with such volume that I thought surely there would be a flash flood. The storm raged for hours. At one point I got up to use the restroom, and just as I was washing my hands, a flash of lighting illuminated the previously pitch-black tent. The sudden sight of my own shadowy figure staring back at me in the bathroom mirror was reminiscent of a horror film jump-scare and made me nearly jump out of my skin. After calming down I reminded myself that this was exactly why you should never look in a mirror in the middle of the night and went back to bed where I managed to get a little more sleep.

At breakfast it seemed like we were all in the same boat, slightly groggy from the unrestful night, but still excited to start the day. A beautiful pink sunrise seeped through gray clouds as we began our drive. The fields seemed sparse, but it didn’t take long for Fred to find another pair of cheetahs, and this time it didn’t even involve any break-neck driving speeds.

The cats were much more active in the cool morning air than they had been the previous afternoon. When we first saw them they were sitting up, giving us a good view of their lanky legs. We also got a better look at their beautiful coat patterns; I was especially enamored with the patterning on their expressive faces.

I couldn’t believe that we’d already seen cheetahs twice, and we’d still barely dented our time in Maasai Mara. Fred continued driving, taking us into an area that felt somehow more remote. Ole borrowed Vince’s binoculars, and Fred drove very slowly so Ole could look out into the bush. We continued on like this for a while. At first, there were still a decent number of animals around. We got a very good sighting of a couple of buffalo.

There were also a handful of giraffes here and there, lots of birds flying around, and a few ostriches, which is always a fun sight.

Soon the animal sightings became nearly non-existent save for one impressively large vulture that soared overhead before landing in a massive nest. Eventually we started to entertain ourselves by looking at plants instead of animals, the most interesting of these being a kigelia, or sausage tree. It wasn’t hard to determine why it would be known as a sausage tree. Its long, yellow fruits indeed resembled sausages. Apparently the fruit can be fermented into a beer of sorts, although we never managed to find anywhere that served it.

Eventually Fred and Ole gave up on the path they had chosen, and turned around in search of a more active location. This proved to be a smart move almost immediately when we saw an utterly bizarre looking southern ground hornbill, immediately followed by a pair of spotted hyenas walking down the middle of the road. The hyenas were much cuter than I had expected, but Fred warned us that they are quite viscous despite their adorable looks.

We continued to drive without much sense of urgency or purpose, stopping to look at various different kinds of antelope. When the radio crackled through with an indecipherable message, and Fred started racing off in a seemingly random direction, I knew we were finally on the trail of something really exciting. This time it took a lot longer to find out what that may be. The first indicator that we’d found what we were looking for came in the form of a few other vans congregated in one spot. As we got closer, I saw that the bushes in this area were overflowing with lions.

Everywhere you looked, you could see some appendage of a lion sticking out from a cluster of leaves. Clearly the cats were not excited about the midday heat, and were basking in the shade of the bushes for a much-needed nap.

I tried to keep track of how many lions there were, but lost count around twelve. By my estimation there were more lions present than there were cars, and it was possible that the total number of lions was somewhere near the total number of humans in the vicinity. This seemed crazy to me and I asked Fred if there was a lot more tourism before covid. I assumed his answer would be yes, but he astounded me when he said that pre-covid there would be around 200 cars in the reserve on an average day, and that a lion pride like this would normally have sixty vehicles gathered around it. His description was starkly different from what we were experiencing. We rarely saw other cars unless a cat was in the area, and even then it would be one to five other vehicles, not even close to sixty.

With that in mind, I felt even more grateful for our more intimate encounter with lions, and we got to stay and watch the pride for an ample amount of time.

Seeing lions and cheetahs in one morning was borderline unbelievable, and I was feeling like this was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life. Immediately after the leaving the pride behind, Fred and Ole got excited again at a line of trees that were growing in a formation that suggested there was probably a river hidden beneath their branches. With so many trees and water around, I felt sure that they had reason to believe a leopard was nearby. This never panned out, although Fred did later confirm they had been looking for leopards.

So the leopard is the only member of the “Big Five” that I have yet to see (all the more reason to go back someday), but we did happen to catch a glimpse of a much smaller wild cat. A beautiful serval crossed our path, and bounced off into the tall grasses before I had a chance to catch a clear photo of it.

By now it was definitely time for lunch. We made our way over to a much flatter part of the park where the road was flanked by gazelle, topi, and zebras. It hadn’t even occurred to me that we hadn’t been seeing any zebra until that point, and their flashy stripes were a welcome sight.

We also kept catching glimpses of some small, fox-like animals that Fred and Ole couldn’t remember the name for. I snapped a very bad photo (the foxes were small and far away) to use for identification purposes whenever we got an opportunity to use wifi. Zooming in on my photo, I decided to call them grumpy foxes until I knew what they actually were because they had squashed, angry looking faces. As it turns out, they were bat-eared foxes, which is an equally accurate name.

Soon, Fred and Ole found the perfect hilltop for a picnic. Fred parked the van under a perfect acacia tree and we ate lunch on a bright red Maasai shuka as a herd of topi kept watch from a safe distance.

After lunch, Fred drove us to a bluff overlooking a picturesque river. He explained that this was where the great migration happens in the summer months. There wasn’t a wildebeest in sight, but we were still on the lookout for animals in the form of crocodile and hippos. Looking into the quiet gorge below, I couldn’t help but recall footage I’ve seen of wildebeest and zebras trampling as fast as they can through these very waters, some getting lucky and making it across, and some getting absolutely shredded by crocodiles.

We would witness no such existential struggle, but we did see a handful of massive crocodiles who looked menacing even as they basked lazily in the sun.

Not far downstream we had a front row seat to a group of hippos parading along the banks of the river, splashing through the water, and sometimes coming to blows with each other. Eventually these hippos met up with a raft of hippos so numerous that it defied calculation. They joined their fellows in disappearing under the murky river water with only their heads poking up for air.

The rest of the day was spent at a leisurely pace. We spotted multitudes of warthogs, complete with babies, more hyenas, a vibrant lilac breasted roller, baboons, a jackal, a massive herd of bachelor impalas, and just when I thought the day was coming to an end, we got out third and final cheetah sighting!

This pair of brothers had opted to lie in the middle of the road as if they didn’t have a care in the world, as an irate grey crowned crane honked at them from what he had apparently deemed a safe distance.

Having a final cheetah encounter felt like perfect symmetry for ending our experience in Maasai Mara. Fred later explained that the cheetahs are so casual around vans because the Maasai who own and manage the reserve actually protect them from lions.

When we got back to camp, Fred told us about his childhood growing up in the forest near the border of Kenya and Uganda. He made sure to include tips about what to do if you ever encounter a leopard on foot (not something I hope to ever experience). We had some time to walk around camp, which was now teeming with mischievous vervet monkeys, then we ate dinner and turned in for one last night in our tents.

4 comments

  1. Great post, thank you.

    I’ve been twice, the first time as the migration arrived. Your script brought the Mara alive, as did the images.

    Cheers, David Annette and David Beeson

  2. Great post, THank you.

    Your script and images brought the Mara alive.

    I’ve been twice, once as the migration arrived – in July / August.

    Thanks for this.

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