The miracle of the Great Migration

THE GREAT ESCAPE TO THE GREATEST MIGRATION

(Posted 31st July 2013)

(One of the many river crossings the herds have to get across in their search of pasture)

Included in the natural 8 wonders of the world, the great migration between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara truly is a sight to behold. Tourists flock to the game reserve, which is an integral part of the transboundary ecosystem, in their thousands every year to see this natural spectacle. Long lines of minibuses queue at the main gates to get into the Masai Mara and flights from Wilson Airport come in thick and fast, buzzing the dozen or so airstrips across the Masai Mara and dotted all over the conservancies before landing and discharging their passenger load into custom built 4×4 vehicles. My Safarilink Cessna 208B Grand Caravan landed with a full passenger load at the Naboisho airstrip, which was added at the end of last year, to make access by air to this particular conservancy easier. Fellow travellers on board came from China, the UK and the US while yours truly from Uganda added some local colours to the passenger manifest.

(My Safarilink Cessna 208B, a Grand Caravan)

The 8 minutes drive from the airstrip to the Hemingways Ol Seki Camp extended to nearly half an hour, as our guide took time to explain the nature of the shrub called Ol Seki, after which the camp was called. Frequent stops to get some early pictures of ‘How are Gnu’, Topi, Hartebeest, Tommy and Grant gazelles and impala, a lonely jackal and a band of mongoose turned the transfer already into a game drive of sorts.

Cleverly integrated into the terrain contours, the Hemingways Ol Seki Camp is almost invisible until we actually drove into the car park area and the top of the tents popped into view.

Scented iced towels were handed out by the staff that suddenly appeared out of nowhere too, a cool mango juice drink offered and following some brief explanation about the upcoming lunch all guests were whisked to their tents. Melinda, the camp manageress, did me the honour herself and in no time we were engrossed in an animated talk about the camp, the game found, the birds and a dozen other issues before she literally had to pry herself loose from me to make sure the preparation for lunch were on course.

(The interior of what can only be described as a suite under canvas at Ol Seki Hemingways, Naboisho / Mara)

It takes a while to take in the sheer size of the ‘residences under canvas’ and the smart interior design keeps the bathroom and dressing area separated from the bed / sitting area by a canvas ‘wall’. After exploring the inside of the tent I turned my attention to the outside timber terrace deck, which offers sweeping views across the valley below and up the next range of hills. A pack of baboons chased each other back and forth, hyrax peeped out of their hiding places before cautiously emerging and then, for no apparent reason, racing back into their holes, and birds of prey circled overhead, effortlessly riding the thermal upwinds.

Lunch allowed for all guests to meet, first in the Library to enjoy an aperitif, on the house by the way as wines and spirits are included in the accommodation and meal package, and then around the communal table. The first course served, a salad of beetroot, butternut squash, rocket leaves, lettuce and herbs was the opening salvo by the chef, colourful, tasty and gone in a flash, making way for a well presented main course which included couscous and al dente veggies, besides some very tender meat. Homemade ice cream concluded the meal, made the traditional way I remember my maternal grandmother making it all those decades ago, and I knew I had come home, of sorts.

Tea and coffee, soft drinks and freshly made juices, as are a range of alcoholic drinks like wine, beers and spirits, are always available in the Library, a lounge where guests gather to chat, read or use an internet hotspot and of course to conclude the lunch table conversation before everyone returned to the shade of the very airy tents for an afternoon rest, or else in my case, what else, to start working on the story I came to write.

The silence of the mid afternoon only got disrupted by the sudden bursts of bird song and the rustling leaves of the trees in the strengthening breeze before assembling again for the afternoon game drive. Later on probably the same troop of baboons seen earlier made a racket chasing each other around and just as fast as they came they were gone again, silence restored.

(The vista from the tent deck – it does not come any better for sure)

Purpose built 4×4 vehicles take guests out in the bush, to explore, see and experience and the guides, in my case David, silver rated by Kenya’s professional safari guide association, took pride to explain their heart out, from how ants turn ordinary little thorn trees into the whistling thorn trees, pointing out the pinkish legs of the male ostriches as a sign of the mating season, expertly explaining the unique composition of the zebras’ stripes like a human fingerprint and answering the dozens of questions about flora and fauna in general. He in fact found a pair of leopards, a huge male and a female, together only, as he explained, since the mating season was underway, and as the sun progressively came down towards the horizon we were able to watch the mating rituals unfold for over an hour, while enjoying our favourite drinks from the cool box, and in my case from the thermos flask, being African tea and camp made cookies. Only the conservancies can provide that level of intimacy with nature, alone, or at best with one or two more 4×4’s around, unlike in the main reserve where prides of lions are often surrounded by dozens of minibuses, struggling for a good vantage point to take pictures.

(Sunset over the Masai Mara)

In fact, for most of the year visiting the conservancies will be the smart choice, making it smarter yet by staying on them for game viewing, and only during the annual migration time are visits into the Masai Mara Game Reserve an absolute must. It is only here that visitors can take escorted walks across the wilderness or do night game drives, during which the rare nocturnal animals can be found.

But at this time of the year, when the great migration sweeps across the Masai Mara like a giant lawn mowing machine, a trip into the main reserve is mandatory as the migration of zebras and wildebeest rarely reaches the conservancies. Ol Seki prepares packed lunches, very lavish packed lunches one should add, and the cool boxes are loaded with ice and drinks to last the entire day, from as early as 6 in the morning till the very late afternoon.

Many ask when is the best time to visit the Masai Mara for the migration and my tip always has been to be there when the great herds reach the Mara River, and assemble in their tens of thousands before the push from the back by yet more arrivals, combined with the instinct and need to reach the pastures across the river, propels the herds into the river, running the gauntlet of the huge crocodiles which lay in wait, expecting their lunch to literally swim into their gaping mouths.

One can use a thousand words to describe the experience of a river crossing by thousands of wildebeest and zebras at a go, the relief when mothers are reunited with their calves after successfully making it across, the animal grief of young ones seeking a mother lost to the crocs or a mother looking and calling desperately for her calf swept away by the often raging currents of the river. But no words, no story ever written down can substitute the personal and close up experience of sitting in the car or on the roof and seeing one of nature’s greatest spectacles unfold in front of one’s eyes, with all the splendid and all the gory details of life and death, as only Mother Nature can produce.

This is nature’s Hollywood and Bollywood combined, directed by forces which were long in place before mankind discovered the destination and a reminder that this needs protecting for future generations to preserve the gift we found. I have seen the migration often, having been resident in East Africa for over 38 years now, and yet, every time I see it I feel the privilege, the blessings of coming eye to eye with the greatest wildlife show on earth.

This time, as before, the animal kingdom was full of twists and turns, of triumph and of tragedy all blended together, leaving the predators with full stomachs and the big herds, for our eyes at least, still looking the same size after the river crossing as they looked before.

Estimates are that up to 1.5 million animals, mainly wildebeest, aka Gnu and zebras migrate through the Serengeti every year, following age old patterns imprinted in their genes and inspite of twists and turns of the way eventually finding the pastures they need to sustain themselves. From the low grass plains between Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, where between January and February the females give birth by the thousands at a go, the herds make their way back North, when the young ones are strong enough to start that long trek for the first time, one the survivors repeat throughout their life. It is truly a sight to behold, and a dozen ‘awesome’ will not nearly match reality as it unfolds in front of the eyes of tourists, when the herds, after resting and grazing, suddenly get nervous and then in long lines almost instantly stampede off, galloping and trotting along those routes their kindred has done for thousands and thousands of years. I have seen this miracle of nature many times since I first arrived in Kenya decades ago, and the sight of the Masai Mara’s undulating plains, first appearing quite empty and then, when coming across another height and expecting yet more empty vales, the big herds suddenly occupy an entire valley, and the valley beyond, and the one beyond, one teeming mass of hoofs and horns, the bellowing sounds of the males and the answers of the females and the shrieks of the young ones seeking their mothers often reaching a crescendo not even distantly thought possible. When the herds move, at speed, the thunder of their hoofs form a sound which lacks any comparison in nature in today’s world as the sheer number of wildebeest use the earth as their drum, beating it with their hoofs to announce their coming for miles ahead.

(Elephant and hippo can be seen, together with big cats and much other game and many bird species, on every game drive across the conservancy)

A visit to Kenya, a visit in fact to East Africa, should go on everyone’s bucket list and be ticked off before it is too late. Getting some of the world’s finest examples of hospitality combined with those awesome sights of the great herds sweeping across the Masai Mara, cannot be bettered and it was therefore no surprise that fellow guests spent as many as five nights, others four and others three, at the Ol Seki Camp to get their fill of nature’s drama not just once but twice or thrice. It is truly the great getaway to the greatest migration on earth, and while thousands of wagenis fly into Kenya from the other side of the world, those of us living in the region have it much easier to get to see the migration. Kenya Airways connects Eastern Africa with Nairobi, and a quick cab ride to Wilson Airport, some 15 kilometres distant from JKIA, will then offer multiple daily departures to the Masai Mara and the conservancies, flights lasting between 45 minutes to an hour.

(The Mara Naboisho Conservancy, one of 8 along the main boundaries of the Masai Mara Game Reserve)

Conservancies have become trendy in more recent years, after pioneers like Lewa Down’s Craig family converted from a cattle ranch with wildlife to a pure wildlife area, as did others who followed in the second wave, spearheaded by such foresighted individuals like Jake Grieves Cook, whose successes then opened the way for many others to do their ‘deals’ with the Masai group ranch owners.

Conservancies have improved the ‘health’ of the environment, in areas prone to often long droughts, where cattle and goat herds at best find borderline pastures but at the expense of accelerating soil erosion due to overgrazing and regular trekking to the sparse water sources.

The author arrived on the Naboisho conservancy via Safarilink, Kenya’s premier safari airline, which connects the country’s parks through their hub at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, but also through direct flights between for instance the Masai Mara and the greater Samburu / Lewa Downs / Laikipia / Loisaba conservation area. Naboisho is one of now 8 conservancies lining the boundaries of the Masai Mara Game Reserve like a string of pearls with only two ‘blank spots’ left on the map before a continuous protective belt of land dedicated to conservation and wildlife will provide a much needed and in fact hugely important added buffer to the Mara’s original expanse.

Hemingways’ Ol Seki Camp provided the base for this flying visit and being set on the edge of a steep drop into one of the many valleys offers a spectacular vista for guests. The supersized 6 standard tents – frankly there was nothing standard about them in terms of size and furniture – and even the two larger megasized tented suites, are an example what Kenya’s hospitality industry now offers, innovative approaches with relatively small properties serving the upper market segment with passengers flying in and out of their chosen locations to spend maximum time on site, in the places they came to see. Ol Seki convinces through both simplicity as well as luxury, the luxury of solitude, the luxury of camp manager Melinda Rees’ and her staff’s undivided attention, the luxury of sharing meals on a communal table where tales are told and where Melinda, like a matron, holds fort and shares with her guests the stories of events and sightings they may not have experienced.

(Star gazers will at night find ‘rich pickings in the skies’ and the main star formations, already looming large overhead, are brought closer even when using one of several telescopes available at the camp)

There is no pool at Ol Seki, unless the daring wish to take a dip in the waterhole below the main deck, and as I have often said before, having one or not does not define or redefine one’s own perception of what ‘luxury’ should entail. I much prefer the homely comfort of the Library over a conventional bar where I need to perch myself on a bar stool as opposed to lounging in the sofa sets or arm chairs. In case of the Ol Seki ‘Library’ a range of reference books is available, as are binoculars, and guests do come in to put the feet up after a morning walk, guided by silver and bronze starred guides who know the area like the back of their hand. Luxury in the bush, and yes, that is a very personal perception and experience, does not need fancy gadgets and in-tent connectivity, aircondition and an infiniti pool, but only takes a great location, a designer who dares to turn his or her dreams into reality on the ground and a team of experienced and dedicated staff to give tourists and local visitors alike that very best ‘Hospitality made in Kenya’ can provide.

Since Hemingways took over the camp and started putting their own stamp of hospitality on Ol Seki, the camp has gained Silver Rating by EcoTourism Kenya and will in early 2014 start their attempt to have this raised to the rare Gold Rating by implementing further sustainability measures over and above the already stringent requirements for the Silver Rating. Melinda, in several conversations during the two day stay, in fact had answers to all my pertinent questions and said when asked what makes Ol Seki special: ‘What makes Ol Seki special? To use a trite phrase, ‘let me count the ways’! The height. We are incredibly lucky to be placed up on a high rocky escarpment. Every tent and deck has the ground fall away in front, leaving spectacular views of the open savannah plains below. If you stand on your deck, you can truly see for miles of wilderness; the only movement being the slow motion of a wandering elephant or sudden sideways jump of wary antelope. Every now and then the view gets exciting; we’ve had both lion and cheetah make kills just below the escarpment and have been lucky enough to watch the chase. There are not many places where you can enjoy your icy cold gin and tonic on a comfortable deck chair while watching a pride of lions have their dinner!

The personal touch. With only 10 tents; every guest is a friend within hours of arrival. Whether you wish to enjoy privacy, eating in your own private quarters; or join other guests for meals in the mess area, we do our best to ensure that your holiday is exactly as you would like. Fancy lunch at 4pm? Not a problem if that is what suits you! James, Jeff and myself are always here and we actively enjoy spending time with people which makes hosting a pleasure rather than just a job. I believe that this shows and that our guests leave truly knowing that we enjoyed having them with us.

Being a part of the Naboisho conservancy. The 50,000 acres of the conservancy is owned by 597 individual Masai families who have come together to create a safe haven for wildlife that also benefits themselves. Monies paid for land rent, for bed night fees and accommodation go to help develop schools, medical clinics and the Koiyaki guide school which all helps to create a better quality of life for the local people in the area. Our land owners come to see us on a regular basis, they often drop in, just to say hello. We employ sons and daughters from these landowners and everywhere you go in the area, really does feel like a big extended family and everyone is welcomed.

For me personally? The staff. I could not ask for a more willing, friendly, hospitable group of people. They have made me extremely welcome in their part of the world and are always willing to try new systems and to work to ensure that our guests are as spoiled as possible. Of our 27 staff members, 21 come from within 10km of the camp and it shows. They know the area, the people, the animals, the good and the bad. This makes organisation and activities a great deal easier to arrange.

Lastly, I very much like the tent design. Having a circular room gives a wonderful view spanning almost 270degrees. This gives a lovely sense of airy space and the pale colour of the canvas simply increases this. The tents are large, a family of 4 would not feel cramped and when living out of a suitcase and in hotel rooms for a few weeks on holiday a sense of space for a few days is a luxury to savour’.

Any more questions? Well Melinda will be happy to answer them during a stay at Ol Seki where classic hospitality blends perfectly with the surrounding nature to create that dream spot for a safari holiday.

Visit www.flysafarilink.com and www.hemingways-collection.com for information of how to get connected out of Nairobi to Kenya’s great wildlife parks and where else Hemingways has more such gems. A little hint in closing, one is found on the highly acclaimed beaches of Watamu, where the real Ernest Hemingway made regular appearances in the old days to measure himself against the big game fish of the Indian Ocean, and the latest addition, Hemingways Nairobi in the wooded suburb of Karen, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, about which more will be said elsewhere.

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