July news – Mara Plains & Mara Toto camps, Kenya

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find ways in which you yourself have altered”

Nelson Mandela

Supa, Hujambo and Hello to you from the central Masai Mara. It has been forever since our last report and for that we would like to apologize and also to clutch at excuses such as.. Opening the all new Mara Plains. We write this report from the breakfast table in the public area of the fully rebuilt camp, now fully open and functional.

All around us we can here a symphony of sound flooding across the sun-draped plains, literally covered in wildebeest. The Great Migration front line hit us a week ago in a big way, and we have since been listening to their monosyllabic grunts 24/7, watching and hearing the herds pass all around us.

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So much has happened here in the Mara since the last report, written from Mara Toto. Foremost to it all for us would have to be the opening of the new Mara Plains – a camp ‘unlike any other in the Mara or Kenya’. Seven large, spacious, luxurious, character-filled tents sit on rough wood, raised decks creating minimal footprints on the ground. All the timbre used in the camp was brought in from sustainable sources – the blue gum poles from plantations; the teak railway sleepers painstakingly shipped in from stock-piled yards in southern Africa. The decks are built on recycled steel understructures and no cement was used in the construction, ensuring the camp is fully removable and non-permanent, staying within the policy and regulations of the Olare-Motorogi Conservancy (arguably one of the best wildlife viewing destinations in the world). Taking the minimal impact of the camp further, part of the reason for the rebuild of the old Mara Plains was to use the opportunity to try to set a standard for ‘eco’ camps and lodges in the Mara and further afield. The camp runs 100% on solar power with a small generator set up for the ironing of linen and clothing. All the water comes from a solar-pumped well in the camp, and all waste water is channeled through three large treatment units removing all effluent before being returned to the water table through a ‘french drain’, completely clean.

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The second top event of the past month would be, as touched on above, the arrival of the Great Migration. About three weeks ago a few reports from the Sand River region reached us mentioning a couple of little scatterings of ‘early bird’ gnus. Then, two weeks ago we heard that the front line was crossing into Kenya in a big way. Three main bodies of the movement had been reported, very similar to last year – the eastern body of the herds moving into the area towards Kikorok lodge and Sekenani; the central movement heading straight across the Burungat plains from Lookout Hill and crossing the Talek river at multiple places all at once; the third and most westerly movement went straight up into the Mara Triangle area.

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Wildebeest Crossing, by Max Rogers (aged 10)

Over the course of the week on the Talek river huge dust clouds could be seen down the river at all the crossing points and more as huge numbers of mainly wildebeest, with some zebras, Grant’s and Thompson’s, ran the gauntlet of the crossings and the predators that converged on them for the easy pickings. Once across the river, the leading herds of the central movement really picked up speed passing ‘nine kilometer’ junction and heading onto the plains just south of Mara Plains and Mara Toto. Here they paused for a couple of days as they found the salt lick and contemplated the crossing of the Ntiakitaik River just below the camps. From here, when they decided to move again, it happened en masse. By then some of the larger numbers that had crossed the Talek behind the forerunners had caught up, their numbers now huge and very dense. The crossings of the Ntaikitaik began in earnest – all day and into the evening the plains between the Olare and Ntiakitaik rivers filled with wildebeest. Seen from the camps they appeared on the horizons like an oil slick which then spread into multiple dots growing in size until finally both camps were surrounded. And this is where we are now – there are still huge numbers around us.

The grass is fast being cropped down, the levels of water in the rivers are fast dropping as they sustain so many lives, the hyenas and lions are in Eden, killing more than they could possibly eat and eating more than we could possibly gauge. As you can imagine with this time of plenty there has been a huge rise in the levels of energy and activity in the ecosystem around us. For the past week we have had some spectacularly noisy nights around the camps on all sides. The two ‘Double Crossing’ male lions have been calling their claim on the territory, mainly due to the eight young males from the Enkoyeni pride having moved downriver onto the northern boundary of the Double Crossing territory. The two huge males must be feeling a little insecure about this up-and-coming coalition of eight. They also must be a little worried about the youngsters from the Moniko pride who also, like their Enkoyeni counterparts, have recently been ousted by the Moniko pride males. These young lions have been moved onto the Double Crossing’s eastern boundary in what was a couple of dramatic displays by the Moniko pride males, culminating in an amazing sighting one morning a couple of weeks ago when guests watched some action as the young males made some bad mistakes trying to stand up to the big pride males.

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Also responsible for much of the noise in the nights have been the local clan of hyenas around the camps. One has to feel sorry for the wildebeest who must hate nightfall with a passion, knowing that these hugely successful predators are becoming active and beginning to seek out and pressurize the herds looking for sign of weakness. On the noisiest nights we have heard the resident clan around us making multiple kills around the camps starting with howls for support, worried bleats from the cornered wildebeest then crazy laughing and shrieking as another soul supported the circle of life. On one night around the 14th of July one of these incidents happened just to the left side of one of a camera traps we had set up in the camp. The footage of fifteen hyenas tearing past the camera in the direction of the bleating before the camera was engulfed in dust was almost as dramatic as the amazing footage one hour later of the huge blonde Double Crossing male walking straight up to the camera, putting his muzzle into the lens, sniffing and misting it up.

So what now? Well, some of the huge crossings of the Mara River have begun in a big way. Many of the western most herds of the central movement of the migration up into the central Mara have, over the past week, veered west onto the Topi Plains, Musiara, over Rhino Ridge and down to the crossings heading into the Mara Triangle. As is the way with these crossings, they have been filled with stress and anxiety and huge amounts of drama as the herds of both zebra and wildebeest pack onto the riverbanks before charging into the river and in some cases the jaws of the waiting crocodiles.

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The herds in the Olare-Motorogi conservancy have on the most part adopted the mid-day waiting stance as they stand with their reflective back ends pointing into the heat of the sun and their heads down. They are waiting for what we all hope will come – the small rain showers that will keep these beests with us in the area and clean out the sulfuric rivers a little. As the mid-day heat and the haze cools towards the evening the herds become a little noisier and they begin grazing more. Then as the sun hits the horizon and the moisture in the air is finally given time to settle one can watch the young fawns from this year’s birthing jump and trot and cavort around one another. The bulls begin to defend their small territories against one another and the scene which was all about energy preservation only hours before becomes one of activity and displays.

As briefly touched upon earlier, on the predator front all the carnivores and carrion feeders are all very fit, healthy and happy. Before the arrival of the gnu’s the Enkoyeni pride were all quite split and spread out, making the most of what they could in the ecosystem. It seems the young males had been kicked out and made unwelcome some time ago leading to them being found on the periphery of the pride. On occasions when they raised their heads and looked in the direction of the three mothers and their nine cubs the mothers did not hold back on their snarls and warning against the ex-pride members. Now that the herds have moved up the Ntiakitiak into the prides range the females have moved south with their young but always seemingly keeping the Ntiakitaik river between themselves and the adolescent male coalition on the west side.

The Moniko pride has once again made a return to their usual half-year haunt on their namesake hill. Over the month previous to the arrival of the Great Migration this pride of big cats had spent much of their time in the north and east of their range where they positioned to make the most of the arrival of the regional Lloita hills migration entering the OMC from the east. As this movement arrived and passed through the Eseketa valley the pride followed them until finally they were back in the central conservancy with a 100% success rate of their cubs.

Onto the spotted cats, we are so happy to report that this past month on the Olare Motorogi conservancy alone we have had 20 different cheetah! As you can imagine this is a huge number for 30,000 acres and tells us a story of great success on these community conservancies. Cheetah are a very specialized species that require certain conditions and prey to survive. Out of these 20 some of the more regular characters would be Narasha and her two yearlings, Nosim with her son (these two went their separate ways a couple of months ago), the female from the litter of six that started their lives on Naboisho conservancy, the two brothers from the reserve (honey’s boys), Amani and her three youngsters, and some new characters on the scene. And all the way from the Mara Triangle we have a coalition of two large males who have moved in to take advantage of this area and its plentiful offerings.

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In terms of leopards, Acacia and her latest cub have definitely stolen the limelight this month with their antics. Some lucky guests have been able to witness Acacia hunting successfully, taking her kills up trees, playing with her cub and having a great time with very few worries in the world. About two weeks ago these two were part of what has been considered a very rare phenomenon. Leopards are generally solitary animals, unless of course it is a mother with a cub. This would of course be called a pair of leopards, but sometimes one can be lucky enough to see more than two, and this is where it becomes a ‘leap of leopards’ (collective noun). Incredibly, on this occasion guests from Mara Plains and Mara Toto found four all together! It was Acacia and her latest cub, plus her cub from last year (Fig) and the huge resident male who we consider to be the father of both cubs (Yellow). What a great sighting, and the best thing about it – there was no one else around.

Some highlights from the month other than those mentioned already would have to be:

  • Watching Amani the cheetah and her three yearlings hunt across the front of the camp at sunset.
  • Witnessing a ‘catrick’ in a 1 kilometer space with a cheetah hunt, some lionesses with cubs and a leopard with her cub in a tree.
  • Helping the wildlife vet locate a wounded elephant then watching him dart it, treat it and wake it all in the lights of the vehicle. The Elephant was lucky to survive a spear wound it received outside the area.
  • Walking along the plains through the middle of the migration with the herds literally pouring off to the sides to let us pass before closing behind us.
  • Watching lions get chased off their kill by hyena’s while on a walking safari.
  • Witnessing the first inter-camp football game between Mara Plains and Mara Toto. Mara Toto 1, Mara Plains 0

Right, well that about it for now, writing this finale from the deck of the new public area at Mara Plains, looking out at the lone tree framed in front of the camp, which is providing shade for the wildebeest crowded beneath it. From now, for the next month we expect to start doing some longer day drives down into the reserve and onto the Mara River where the crossings of the river will become larger and more frequent. We hope (as does the wildlife around us) that we may get a couple of showers of rain in the next week or so, helping to settle the dust, clear the atmosphere, take the dusty coating off the grass and set the plains alive with life.

Karibuni (welcome) to Mara Plains – Great Plains Conservation, Masai Mara, Kenya.

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With many thanks to Svein Olav Ekvik and Max Rogers for this use of their photographs

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