Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

A little more than a vignette this week. A story.

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We ride out to the Maasai Mara in a Cessna Caravan I, Model 280B, drawn theoretically in the safety material to transport twelve passengers in staggered rows of four each but in fact refitted with a bench seat for three behind the pilot then five seats staggered behind, one on each side of the aircraft.

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We have come to watch what we can see of the annual wildebeest migration, perhaps the greatest periodic movement of biomass on earth. Specifically to watch a crossing of the Mara River, in which, if the herd is big enough, invariably a few of its members will fall victim to a crocodile. We are here in fact to watch the brutal murder-by-crocodile of a few wildebeests.

Our guide is Richard, and his approach to finding a crossing is simple enough in the fundamentals: You go to a herd and watch its behavior. If it begins to head to the river, race it to reach the general spot before the herd, but stay back. Wait and watch to see what develops. Approaching the water’s edge too soon is an error. Not only might you choose the wrong spot, but the presence of a big, mechanical thing looming on the cliff might dissuade the herd from approaching.

Richard goes to work without much theory, much book knowledge, but he has worked every day for twenty-five years on his home ground, these same plains.

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Sweeping horizon to horizon vistas here. Showers play across the south end of the escarpment that serves as a western marker of the Maasai Mara. Its southern terminus, easily visible, is in Tanzania.

Each morning as our wake-up coffee comes at 6:00, factory sounds waft across the river, puzzling at first. A pole with a windsock rises from behind trees on the opposite bank. Shortly on the first morning comes the explanation as the shell of a balloon rises over the trees, inhaling hot air from its flame-thrower. It seems that they send up expensive balloon rides from the other side of the Mara River, from the adjacent camp.

In effect that wind sock shows the balloon pilot how long his passengers’ dream ride over the plains will be, for, if it reveals winds blowing straight along the escarpment the ride will be short, the pilots being required to put down before the Tanzanian border, to provide his passengers their wilderness champagne breakfast brought by Land Rovers madly chasing the balloon across the plains.

Richard started out as a balloon driver before he was a guide, all those years ago. Given his not so apparent school training for his driver job I don’t wish to speculate on the training required to lift early-morning clients across the way and carry them about in a fire-powered mylar envelope.

•••••

On these safari trips you spend the first three or four days getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, with which you establish the nature of your new relationship.

Richard, we find, is a man of few words. My wife asks a question ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews, sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

•••••

This morning from a distance we spot two lines of animals moving in the direction of water, and the chase is on. The smaller, closer line moves toward the main river crossing. We take the low road, nearer the river than the hills up on the plain.

Seeing the same movement we have seen, other jeeps early on the plain converge on the same area. We circle the herd on the low road and when they reemerge they are above us, and behind where we expect them to be. They have stopped to graze.

The full, unfiltered sun beats down now, three hours past sunrise. We go to height. This close to the herd we find we need some distance to discern movement.

The herd masses, the rear still a line but the front collecting into a grazing mass. The Serena Lodge perches ungainly on the opposite overlook, a row of prefab chalets not exactly aligned along the ridge.

They come for forty-five minutes, continuously massing, and for all their substance, they seem to whisper. They pronounce the sound of the letter ö but the wind in the trees and bird chatter drown out all but the most fervent.

We shed our morning wraps. The herd grazes. We take a forward position along the river’s edge to eat breakfast in a protected place. Although we cannot see the wildebeests they are close enough above us that if a mass movement starts we will hear (feel) the movement of all those hooves.

The herd moves beyond us.

How does it know where it will cross? There are no individual decision makers, but collectively, it seems to know where it is going. Today’s herd is bigger than yesterdays and a line from the opposite direction moves to join up with them. They seek clarity of mission and they have a destination in mind.

Richard stops the Land Cruiser to raise his field glasses. He sees a “huge group” on a cliff beyond. We have been following our own smaller group all morning but now we abandon them for the chase. We stop, as drivers do, to confer with one another. “Thousands and thousands” ahead, he says.

We speed on.

This is the biggest crossing of the season.

We are surrounded. We are in its midst. A group crowds the water here and another behind us dives, energy and a frenzy of dust and mud and movement, each body splayed out, hooves wide-spread, over and off a cliff many times their height, diving blind into the river. The herd marches ahead. Crocodile jaws, open and evil, claim their due. The herd marches ahead and reconstitutes of the far side, and the whole thing takes half of an hour.

The aftermath continues for an hour or more. Mothers have been rent from offspring. They return to the far bank and look this way, searching for their young. Will they cross back?

A few do recross the river, individuals, at considerable peril. Most do not.

Zebras venture close to the water to drink in the aftermath, even a very small baby. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Must be still sated from yesterday’s crossing. A pair of giraffes approach the water but we do not see them drink.

A line of more zebras comes back.

How many do you think have crossed, five thousand, six? Richard thinks so.

•••••

More photos from Kenya in the Kenya Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Another Africa vignette next Monday.

4 thoughts on “Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

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