All you who sleep tonight…

 

The message on my phone, blandly said,” To date we have distributed : Non perishable bi weekly and monthly rations to 25,761 people. Ready to eat hot meals : 57,901. Vegetables purchased from farmers for distribution : 11,550 kgs”.

I had been initially at the periphery and later, a little more involved in a couple of areas of the entire operation and I knew that the figures were quite impressive.

I don’t think many agencies that had gamely stepped in to help the affected had much experience in this sort of an activity. How many in the metros would have had the experience to provide relief while a crisis is actually unfolding around you ? Real time. Heck…forget an Indian metro, not many agencies anywhere in the world would have much experience in this.

However, forget pride, there was not even a remote level of satisfaction that I felt.

The last 35 -40 days had passed like a blur. It was towards the end of March…or was it early April, that I had gone on my first distribution trip. Delivering around 14 bags of monthly rations at two different locations.

It has been a perplexing mix of an emotional journey – a little bit of shame and guilt about my lack of awareness of their troubles… their existence in many ways, a growing sense of despair at their situation and soon a mounting mixture of indignation and anger at the powers that be, who never factored in the situation of millions of such people, in their game plan.

*****

I was curious.

How will the process work ? Who will we be distributing these rations to ? How do we identify them ? Where will we be meeting them ?

In many ways, it was an underwhelming night. In both locations, the process lasted just a few minutes. We reach the location, we call the main contact, we  hand over the bags and we leave.

If I was expecting any deep insight, or a  life altering experience, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It was a very ordinary event. 

But one small conversation stuck.  

My companion, had chatted warmly with the group that arrived to pick up their supplies. Asked them where they were from, what they did. Coincidentally,  one of them, he must have been in his late teens, was from the same district and it could have been just that indescribable comfort at finding someone from the same vicinity as his home, that made the kid, almost break down while narrating his story.

He was a carpenter and had landed in Bangalore just a couple of days before the lockdown. Most of the money he had, had run out during the journey itself. He and his mates were housed along with others from the same area but life was brutal – bhookh se mar rahe hain, sir ( We are dying of hunger, sir ). 

Even now, I wonder, how a kid, from a small town would have felt, thousands of miles  from a small village,  that was home, in a truly big, strange, intimidating city. Away from family. Without a job. Without money. Without food. And no idea of, forget the future, but how even the coming week looked like. How he will survive. 

Terrifying thought.

*****

Setting up such an operation wouldn’t have been easy.

Deciding what should be supplied. What is essential ? What can be nutritious ?

For how long ? A fortnight ? A month ?

Where to buy these supplies from ?

Who will set up the packing operations ? Where ? A reasonably large space will be needed.

How will the supplies be transported ?

Getting passes from the authorities to roam around during the lockdown.

Getting the cops to accompany if the distribution is to a large group to manage the crowd.

And, of course…getting the funds to run the operation.

I wasn’t there for any of the initial period of setting up the operations but the learning curve, I am sure, would have been a steep one. Operational issues are relatively easy to get a grip on.

There are far tougher questions out there.

*****

As we handed over the bags to him and were walking towards our car, two other elderly men hesitantly walked up to us. They hadn’t been earning ever since the lockdown and asked us if we have a few bags to spare. Their families were struggling.

We didn’t.

How do you tell a person, who has clearly struggled to overcome his reluctance to approach us, subdue  his pride and ask for help, that we could not help them ?

But, even if we had stocks to spare how do we know if the ask was genuine ? Were they being covered by other groups helping out but are looking at stocking up a bit more not knowing how long these uncertain times will last ? Moreover…can you blame anyone for doing that ?

At the same time,  if a family stocks up for the future at the cost of another that is going hungry  

It felt a bit like playing God.

*****

Recces.

If we do proper recces, identify clearly the people who are in need, who are not being covered by any other agency, we could hone in more accurately on those who are truly in need.

Go to a location. Meet the people. Get an estimate of the number of families, people, the number of houses / rooms. Mark the location on Maps. Get a Point of Contact for future communication. Send the data to a central team that would check if anyone else has covered the community in the recent past.

Over to them.

Different settlements were identified on the map. The details were cross verified. They were  marked as red and green. If red, it meant not covered and meant a yes for distribution.

Tokens were given. Made it easier during the  actual distribution. At least, the bags will definitely be given to those who have been identified as needing it. The same team that did the recce will try to go for the distribution. Easier to identify the right people.

But.

Not easy.

*****

In many ways it was a textbook distribution.

There were 30 bags to distribute. The PoC was a very efficient lady and had a clear plan in place. We were asked to put down 10 bags at a time. She had arranged for ten people to come at a time and the entire process went off extremely smoothly. 

However, a truck coming in to a locality attracts attention. Especially, during lockdown time when no one has much to do and are usually sitting outside their homes.

 A small crowd assembled.

A young man begged for at least a single bag to be given to him. Another lady, pleaded for help for her tenants. She had been helping out with her own rations but naturally that was not enough. There were families with infants. They need help. A third man demanded to know our basis for distribution. Why was he being ignored ?

This was the first drop of the trip. There were three more drops to finish. Everyone could see the bags still in the truck. While we were trying to explain why we could not spare any for them. Taking their contact numbers and promising them that we will return. Its not easy to see the disappointment in their eyes. Or the scepticism. 

We have to leave as they were crowding around us.

Because – social distancing.

*****

Its been just a little over two months back that a horrible new word crept insidiously into our daily vocabulary.

Social distancing.

There were real risks for anyone going out. It multiplies many times over if you are going into densely populated localities and a crowd gathers.

Strict rules were laid out. Protocols were established.

All volunteers MUST be wearing gloves and masks. Carry a sanitizer with you. Clean all touchpoints when you return to your car – the gear shift, the steering wheel. Get back into your house and head straight for a bath. Clothes go in a heap into a bucket of hot water and then for a wash. Wallets. Glasses. Phone. Everything gets a brush with the sanitizer.

Every time.

Every single time.

And, if a crowd gathers. If they don’t listen. Leave. Even if the distribution is not complete. You can return to complete it later.

But. Do. Not. Put. Yourself. At. Risk.

Also, while distributing,  all the recipients have to queue up maintaining social distancing.

Which always makes me wonder.

*****

There was a row of five or six rooms. Possibly around 10’ x 10’ or at the most 12’ x 12’. Not too tall. Cemented over. No paint was wasted on the walls. 

Towards the right, a little distance away, stood a smaller row of smaller cubicles. The toilets. The bathing area was in the open to the left. Common area and where they usually bathe in groups. 

“ How many of you stay in a room ? “

“ 5 or 6 of us”.

5 people in a 100 sft room. Social distancing ? 

When we say there is a complete lockdown, most of us talk from the perspective of the main roads. Take one of the side lanes and you will usually see a different world. People sitting together. Having a smoke. Standing outside the small fish stall. Or just sitting on the verandah of a cluster of shops and chatting. And these are areas where there are proper buildings. If you go to the settlements , its even more densely packed. 

Social distancing ?

Impractical. Illogical. Impossible.

*****

Amidst all the gloom, there definitely are innumerable instances that make you hopeful. How help will come up. Suddenly. Almost every time you need it.

The school that opened its doors and its auditorium to store all the stocks and for packing the bags. And, ensured that its canteen made tea and lunch for the workers.

The people at the FCI godown who ensured that our trucks didn’t have to wait in the queue – NGO ke log hain, jaldi kaam kar lo inka ( These are NGO folks, lets finish their loading quickly )

The guy who turned up to help out with the entire operations of ordering the supplies, getting the labour, arranging for the trucks.

The cops who would arrive at short notice to help out with the distribution if the number is rather high and the crowds need managing.

The guy who turned up with high quality masks and gloves and PPE kits for all the workers involved in the packing and for the volunteers. And got chicken biriyani for the workers who were putting in some tremendous work.

The families who heard that the workers were working the night shift and we had forgotten to arrange for dinner and immediately cooked up a delicious meal for 10-15 people and sent it over.

And, of course, the scores of volunteers, always eager to jump in. To put in long hours in the field. To take up any work that needs to be done, to attend to any issue that needs attention. Day after day.

But, its easy to be lost in the gloom.

*****

“ Sir, can you help me ? “

“Bolo”. ( Tell me )

“ Can you help us get back home ? “ 

We had just distributed supplies to around 50 people who were contract workers for a rather well known company. Supplies that will last them for at least two weeks. 

“ Why would you want to go home ? You have got this support which will last you for the next two weeks. Things will open up soon, work will start. Isn’t it better to stay back? “

“Nahi sir, bahut ho gaya. Bas ghar jaana hai ( No, sir, we have had enoughwe just want to go back home.)

Many of them had worked for four five years in the same company. They hadn’t got their salaries for the last month. However, what seemed to hurt them was the fact that no one had called them to check on them. No one was taking their calls. They were simply left to be on their own. Forgotten.

“ We will do farming at home. We will be with our own people. We will manage. Just help us get back home.” 

They had been going to the nearby police station. Had filled in the online forms, had submitted physical forms on top of it. A few of them had gone to the police station once again that morning to check on the status. And got caned. One of them showed me his injuries. He had applied a bluish white paste on them. After a while, I asked him what ointment it was. It was toothpaste. They could only apply what they had. 

I am usually reluctant to promise help unless I am sure I can deliver. I couldn’t do that this time.  I told them I will try.

And we all did. In multiple ways. Reaching out to multiple people. Cops. Bureaucrats. Politicians. However, nothing seemed to work.

Then we heard that there were 200,000 applicants. There never will be trains for that many applicants. And we hadn’t reached out to THE person who mattered.

He kept calling me. Four, five times a day. Always hopeful that I will have some good news for him. Telling me why he wanted to go home. Hopeful. I could only listen.

This morning, I conceded defeat. I told him that we have been unable to get any support from anywhere.

He had called me from outside the police station. He was once again waiting there. Despite getting caned. Despite being treated badly. Despite everything.

Because he wanted to go home. Another kid from another small village from deep inside the country. 

He hasn’t called me since.

*****

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above…

ALL YOU WHO SLEEP TONIGHT – Vikram Seth

Tales from the Mara III – The fascination of a hunt

She crouched.

Low. Body tense. Poised for motion. Eyes locked in on a single Thomson’s gazelle calf that was grazing a short distance away.

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Ready to explode into blinding motion !

Minutes earlier she was lying low in the short grass, scouting the herd, trying to identify the right target.

The gazelles were nervous. They sensed danger. They had stopped grazing. The looked around skittishly and took a few uncertain steps away from her.

She exploded into action.

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To catch a cheetah in full flight is simply an awesome sight

Forelegs and hindlegs moving in a naturally smooth and synchronized manner, her lithe body moving swift as an arrow through the grass.

The tiny gazelle rocketed off, eyes wide open in alarm, running for its life.

*****

You could go to any forest. Anywhere. You could see as many of the big cats as possible but what will truly make your trip rank high, is if you see a hunt. Any hunt. And, if it’s a successful hunt…nirvana.

In the Masai Mara, however, things are a little different. Take a mix of open grasslands which give you clear views, an abundance of  prey and predators in reasonably decent number…yes, chances are high that you will see a hunt.

A successful hunt ? Well, that’s another matter. You need to be a tad lucky there.

The lions have a success rate of around 15-25% in their hunts, depending on whether they are hunting solo or as a pride. That’s a pretty sad number.

The leopards fare a little better clocking almost 40% as their strike rate. The cheetah sits on top of the pile with a greater than 50% strike rate! However, nature corrects that relatively high strike rate by ensuring that the cheetahs end up losing most of its prey to other predators after the kill.

Sad, though. Imagine going through all that hassle knowing that there is a high chance that you might still lose your meal after you have caught it.

So, clearly, chances are high that you might see a hunt but the guarantee that it’s a successful hunt ?

Zilch.

To make that already pessimistic picture worse, you need to be a photographer.

Cos, its just not enough to see a hunt, it needs to be a successful hunt of course, but you also need to be able to be close enough to the action to get good pictures. Nah, those pics of the animals feasting after the hunt are no fun. Well, of course, you will still take those shots but there is no great satisfaction there.

But a picture of a cheetah flying after a gazelle, eight legs stretched in flight and chase…a picture of a pride of lions, all muscle and brute force, bringing down a huge buffalo ?

The. Holy. Grail.

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A quarter of the dream image. The prey should be there in the frame. And the cheetah should be in full flight…some day 🙂

You need to be tremendously lucky for that, but before luck kicks in, you need to have a brilliant guide who really understands animal behavior.

After that…pure luck, but your chances improve.

*****

We landed on an airstrip inside Masai Mara and started on a game drive right from the airport. You clearly don’t waste time in the wild 🙂

A few minutes into the drive, we admired our first topi standing on a small grass mound looking steadily ahead. Just a few feet ahead, a solitary elephant morosely eyed us, ears flapping idly. There’s always that little bit of extra excitement in your first drive and you stop to see almost all the animals you come by. Slowly, the excitement settles down, the pulse rate steadies a bit, and you tend to become a bit more selective. Right now, both these animals had our full attention.

“Lioness stalking!”

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Look at that focus !! This lioness was a lone one. Not part of any pride. Had to be an amazing hunter to survive, hunting all alone !

Indeed ! There she was, a solitary lioness, crouching in the short grass and steadily approaching the topi who continued to look ahead totally unmindful of the approaching danger from the rear.

A possibility of a hunt within the first 30 minutes of landing ???

Wow. Insane.

*****

All three cats have widely varying approaches to hunting but equally fascinating.

Lions usually hunt in prides. A couple of lions head straight to the prey, crouching, hiding, taking their own sweet time to approach the prey. A couple of others head in a wide semi circle far away from the prey but in reality, ready to wait in ambush. The lions ( usually lionesses, cos the male usually makes an appearance to take the lion’s share ( Sorry ! J) of the meal ) are constantly making eye contact with each other. At the right moment, they charge at the prey. The prey usually takes flight, and if in the right direction will run straight into the second bunch of lions waiting in ambush. Lions are neither too fast nor can they sustain their pace for a long time, so it has to be the element of surprise and brute strength that wins the game. If the prey runs in the opposite direction to where the second bunch is waiting they escape. If they spied the approaching lions early enough, they will have enough speed and energy to escape.

And hence the abysmal strike rate. Tough life.

The leopards, on the other hand are solitary hunters. They are experts at the stealth mode. To see a leopard stalking is a sight. They crouch, keeping themselves very low to the ground, their spotted, tawny colours helping in camouflaging and when they are really close to the prey, they make that decisive leap and the conclusion is swift. The leopard then drags the prey up the tree to eat in peace, their awesome strength in ample display as they effortlessly drag up even heavy kills up a tree.

Cheetahs ? Very different. They have a rather simple approach to hunting. Speed. Speed however, comes into effect only when they are around 100 mts from the prey. They will use the grass or other vegetation as cover to get close and then they just zip. The chase is usually short and absolutely electric. They cannot sustain such high speeds for a long time and that exhaustion at the end of the kill along with comparatively lesser strength combines to make them rather poor defenders of their kills. All this is when they are alone. When they hunt in packs, it’s a completely different story.

By the way, that is the main reason cheetahs hunt during the day. Thats the time the lions and the leopards are not out hunting. Reduces the chances of them being robbed of their kill.

Smart.

*****

The lioness was getting closer to the topi, who was intensely focused on something in the distance, beyond the bushes just in front of it.

Will the topi stay put till the lioness reaches it ? Or will it look around as a rather basic step of self preservation ?

Will the lioness be able to cross that short stretch of reasonably open ground without being noticed ?

Antony, our brilliant guide suggested that we go a little ahead on the other side of the bushes. The lioness will charge, the topi will run and definitely charge out of the bushes right in front and we will be there waiting. And get the best pics.

Sounded perfect. However, best laid plans of men and mice and all that…

We waited. Minutes ticked by.

Finally, Antony said we should go and check what on earth had happened.

And, saw that the hunt was over. The lioness had clearly managed to reach right upto the topi without being seen and the end was rather swift and brutal.

And, yes, I had to be satisfied just with the pics of the lioness with the kill.

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The end must have been really swift. The lioness gave us a passing glance before dragging its meal into the bushes.

*****

We had quite an insane trip.

We saw a lot of hunts. To top that, many successful ones. We saw baboons, hyneas, lions, cheetahs with their kills. We saw most of them during the hunt too. But only in two instances, did we actually see the hunt in its entirety. On three occasions, the culmination of the hunt happened behind the bushes.

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The most common sight. A cat walking upto us with its meal in its mouth.
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For variety, we once saw a baboon walk off with a hapless gazelle. The poor lil thing had innocently wandered off straight into the baboon who was not even hunting !

Now, that can be really frustrating. There we are trying to figure out where the predator is and which is the specific prey it is targeting. We either wait at a place waiting for the action to explode in plain sight or try to go around the bushes to see if we can catch sight of the closing stages of the hunt.

And then. The successful hunter walks up. With the prey. Holding it as a trophy.

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What ? You missed me hunt ? Again ????

Well, more pics of them eating.

Terrible 🙂

*****

The chances of a successful hunt are higher if the predator hunt in groups.

Duh.

But while watching a solitary predator hunt is awesome, it’s the hunt by the groups that so thoroughly intrigues me.

Numerous questions. How do they communicate with each other during the hunt ? How do they decide what strategy they should adopt ? How do they decide which specific prey to go for when there is an abundance of prey right in front of them ? How do they decide who will do what ? When do they decide to change the target ?

If the hunt fails due to someone goofing up, how is that individual treated in the group ? Do they castigate him for the mistake made ? Or do they do the equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and carrying on ? How do the dynamics of a group change if one member is a tad less effective as a hunting machine ? Is he or she kicked out ? Or are they given last chance to eat the meal ?

But, mainly…how on earth do they decide on a strategy ? We saw two successful hunts by two different coalitions of cheetahs.

Completely different. Totally.

We saw a successful hunt and an unsuccessful hunt by the same coaltion.

Again, totally different approaches.

How. Why.

*****

The Fast Five were on the move.

Their lean frames clearly indicated that they hadn’t had a meal for a while. We had just witnessed a failed attempt and we knew that they will hunt again. After they collect their breath. They will need an hour or two to regain their energy and they will definitely move. They have to.

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The old wily topi that got away. Did you notice the Fast Five bunched up in the grass assessing the hunt ?

We waited. Finally, they had rested enough and they limbered up. Stretching. Getting ready.

Watching this coalition of five cheetahs is such a completely different experience. They walk as if they own the earth. Total badass. Whenever I see them, the famous tune of ‘ The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’ plays in my mind. They strut. They swagger.

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They strut. They swagger. They own the earth.

 

And, right now the Five mean business.

Spread in front of them, is open land. Vast open land. Not a single bush. No tall grass. Hardly any cover for them to hide behind before their frenzied burst. Nope.

The land in front of them sparkled with a variety of offerings. Zebras, gazelles, impallas, topis, elands. All of them grazing and keeping a sharp lookout around them.

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Zebras. Gazelles. Topis. Elands. You can pick what you want. The cheetahs have been seen. They are not bothered.

And the Five just walked in. No attempt to hide themselves, no attempt at camouflage. Nothing. Did I say, badass ?

The five had split up. Two of them walked away and soon could be seen on the horizon, circling the animals one of which would be their target.

The animals in the middle are nervous. They can smell danger. They can see danger. They just don’t know from which side its going to come.

We are busy trying to keep tabs on the five cheetahs. Two of them are far away patrolling the horizon. One of them has now broken away and is coming inside, towards us. There are two of them walking nonchalantly straight into the centre of the sprawling land.

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Look at the cheetah walking so coolly into the middle. No stealth. No cover. Total boss.

Where on earth is the fifth cheetah ??? Is he encircling the animals from this side ? Antony has got us into the perfect position. We can see everything. For the dream shots, however, the hunted needs to run in our direction.

Some of the zebras run off for a short distance. But which direction to run ?

The tails of the tiny Thomson gazelles are twitching rapidly as if trying to quieten its own rising nervousness. The impalas have stopped grazing and looking around. Anxiety is high.

Under the benignly warm sun, in the middle of a lovely picturesque grassland a bitter battle for survival is about to play out.

Suddenly, the scene explodes into action.

Its utter mayhem and chaos. The cheetahs are in full flight. All of them. The animals are running everywhere. You are clicking away madly. You hear the shutters go batshit crazy around you. You don’t really know what is happening.

And then, just as suddenly, peace descends. Its all over. In minutes.

It’s a successful hunt.

*****

You so badly want to take those stunning pictures of a hunt. Sadly, it ain’t so easy.

The first time, I took my heavy 600mm lens to catch the action. Bloody cumbersome to follow the action especially considering the speed with which it happens. Elementary mistake.

Here, I faced another different and curious problem. There were five cheetahs in play. Multiple potential prey. All of them spread wide across the open grassland in front.

On which cheetah do I focus on ???!!!

Yes, the cheetah I was closely watching as it charged was not the one that hunted the impala.

Actually when I saw my pictures later, I realized that I had picked up the worst cheetah of the lot at least as far as this hunt was concerned. Seriously !

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There’s a hunt happening. A successful hunt. And the one cheetah I am focusing on, gets chased by an angry mother eland. Come on….!!!

But we got some good pictures of them feasting 🙂

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The five are busy. The solitary horn indicates that the meal was an impala.
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Is any other predator coming to rob them off their meal ? Cheetahs keep a constant vigil while eating

*****

Apparently, it is a standard strategy with the Fast Five. They just spread themselves and walk into the party. The animals are thoroughly confused as to where the danger will be coming from and the cheetahs with their ferocious speed and agility easily take advantage of this confusion and make their kill.

Simple. Efficient.

But so different from what we saw just the next day.

*****

Rosseta wanted her cubs to learn how to hunt.

Two males and a female. Sub adults. Around 17-18 months of age. Almost on the verge of going off on their own. They had better learn how to hunt well.

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The cubs would be off on their own in a matter of months. They need to learn to hunt independently.

Cheetah sub adults when they move off on their own are still not efficient hunters. As a result, the siblings tend to stay together to increase their chances of getting food. When they become experts, the female leaves the brothers and stays on her own.

Right now, however, they were all one large family and the kids needed to be taught.

And they were muffing up. Two attempts, both of which ended in abject failure. Not that the failures bothered them much. They still frolicked after the futile attempts.

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Hunt screwed up ? Big deal…mom’s there ! Lets play !

Guess, they had faith in the mother.

But the family needed to eat.

*****

She had been trying for the last few hours. Using the bushes as cover. But the gazelles were alert. She couldn’t even get the opportunity to charge at them.

Finally, after more than an hour of trying, she gave up. She moved away from the bushes into the open grasslands.

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Hours of stealth have gone waste. Her lean belly indicates that its been a while since the last meal. She moves away from the bushes

The sub adult cubs followed her. They were all hungry. Rosetta had to make a kill. Mostly by herself. She really could not rely on her cubs beyond a limited extent.

We waited. There were two male impalas sparring with each other for the right of the females. They frequently broke off to look into the direction of the cheetahs. Finally, they moved further away. Taking with them the chance of an attack while they were preoccupied.

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Do we fight for the harem ? Or do we flee ?

Another hour ticked by.

The fighting males had now managed to again come closer to us and the approaching cheetahs.

How can she come close enough to her prey without being seen ? Close enough for her to launch her final lightning attack. Was the grass tall enough ? How will she rope in her cubs ? What strategy will she adopt ?

Or will she do it all on her own ?

Antony had again positioned us well. The cheetahs were coming in our direction from a distance. But, who will they target ? The spread of the land around us was vast.

What followed was simply mesmerizing. Mind blowing in its speed, tenacity and the duration of the chase.

Rosetta had her prey in her sights. It looked as if she was just fixing her prey in her sights. And then she launched, in plain sight, without any of the textbook crouching, into a full fledged attack.

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She takes off. Like a bullet. The prey flees for dear life. ( Now if only we had been so much more closer !!! )

She took off after the male impala at a blistering speed. We could see the impala running for dear life and how Rosetta stayed at its heels all through. Rosetta was not giving up. The chase already seemed to be long. But she seemed to have a plan. Maybe, she stayed slightly to the left of the impala and that made the impala keep turning to its right.

Curving.

Without its knowledge, mind intent only on saving itself, its path was tracing a circle. The impala was headed almost straight back to where the chase started.

Where three hungry cheetahs were waiting.

Rosetta slowed down. The cubs took over. The impala took one sharp turn. Then another.

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Dodging. Swerving. But with a cheetah hot on its heels….as an aside, what I would give to be in that jeep there !!

But three of them were there.

Before we knew it, he was cornered. The three cheetahs hung on like limpets. One had the impala by the neck from under. Another had climbed up its back. The third one had focused on the hind quarters of the impala. Holding on.

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The exhausted mother now approached her cubs, panting heavily. And just when it appeared as if the game was finally over for the impala, the cub that had the impala from under his neck, presumably got exhausted and dropped to the ground ! All of a sudden the impala moved a little ahead and the other two cubs also, surprised, dropped off.

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The cheetah holding the impala by the neck tires and drops off. For some reason, the one clinging on to the back also is lax…

The impala was free ! It had bolted !!!

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The impala had bolted !!! I was intrigued by the lack of bite marks on its neck and back…the cubs were hanging on there for quite a while!!

Rosetta, already exhausted after a chase much longer than a cheetah usually attempts, wasn’t about to lose her prey as easily as that. Her legs might have been exhausted, her lungs might have been collapsing but that primeval drive for food was stronger than everything else, and she sped after the impala and with the efficiency born out sheer experience brought it down and killed it. Swift. Merciless.

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It over in seconds. Swift. Efficient. That’s experience.

What followed was even more fascinating. The cub that had let go of the neck first, which allowed the impala to almost get away, walked away from the rest of the family. As if, ashamed to face them. Two cubs and the mother surrounded the kill, kept a sharp eye around for any approaching predator and started eating. This cub went far away and returned much later.

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Successful. The cheetahs catch their breath. The one guilty of having almost muffed up the hunt has slunk away

Was it feeling ashamed ? Was it afraid to face the mother ? The siblings for almost robbing the entire family of its meal ?

What goes on in the minds of families ?

Will we ever know ?

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The third cub returns. The slightly pale one in the centre. The days work is done. 

*****

No, I didn’t get any pictures of a cheetah flying in the air in hot pursuit of its prey. The few images I got were when they were far away. But maybe I figured what to do and how to do it for the next hunt. When I return.

Till then it will be the memories of two utterly fascinating hunts. Two completely different and totally pulsating hunts.

Leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Kenya VI – How I planned our trip and a few tips

The trip to Kenya was long in the ‘must do’ list. A couple of years we had made all the plans but then the threat of Ebola came up and despite all the assurances of the travel agent, we decided to cancel the trip at the last minute.

Well, at least I improved significantly in the intervening four years as a photographer, so I guess, all for the best 🙂

During this period and especially as my dates were firming up, I read up a lot, studied many pics, met photographers who had gone there many times, took a lot of inputs. Followed some, which didn’t work out well, ignored others, which didn’t work out well either but all in all, it was a reasonably well planned trip.

So here goes….my experiences and few titbits of suggestions for anyone planning a trip.

When to travel ?

Depends on what you are looking for and what your budget is.

July – October – said to be the cool-dry season. Rainfall will be sparse, the migration will be on during the first two or maybe three months and in general sightings will be excellent. Plus, of course, you will see the spectacular river crossings unless you are really unlucky ! On the flip side….this would be the costliest time to travel and there are a lot of other safari vehicles while you are on your game drive. This aspect did come to me as a bit of a surprise. The grass will be tall during the early part of the migration as was the case when we were there but as the grazing happens, sightings become very easy. Sept onwards, it is said, you can spot the big cats from miles away. But the grass does add to the beauty !

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The river crossing during the migration is a spectacle that should not be missed !

November to May –  the wet season. This period could be divided into two actually – the first part, Nov to Feb, the rainfall will be short showers typically in the afternoon and doesn’t really hurt your game drives much. March to May the showers can be heavy and trails get slushy, vehicles can get stuck etc etc. Rates are lower during this entire period of Nov – May, this is the time that newborn animals can be seen and migratory birds too abound.

From what I have read – March to May, which unfortunately coincides with our school vacations, is possibly best avoided. If you want to see the migration then naturally the July – Aug/Sept would be the best time. If you want to see wildlife in general and want to go a little easy on the expenses, Nov would be good.

For me, apart from the fact that I badly wanted to see the Migration, the timing worked out perfectly in terms of the kids’ vacations, so July it was.

We decided to opt for the last ten days of July to maximize our chances of witnessing the migration, allowing for all the delays that could come up.

But.

The best laid plans of men and mice and all that. Well, almost. The migration was delayed. There were sites and apps that had updates about the migration but I found that at least the ones that I was looking up were all completely wrong. They showed that the migration had started when it hadn’t. Best avoided IMO.

We landed at Nairobi and we were told by Alice, who was there to welcome us that the migration hadn’t started.

Bummer.

Gabriel, our guide, driver and go to man for everything, kept a regular tab on the status and finally the evening before we were leaving for the Mara he came up to us with a huge smile and announced that he has good news. The first few animals had crossed the river and then headed back into Tanzania but he said now that they had crossed at least once, we will definitely see the migration.

Why was this delayed this year ? Nature, mostly, I guess. I read that Tanzania had heavier than usual rainfall which also continued a bit later than normal and there was no crying need for the animals to move in search for food and water. There were also some conspiracy theorists in Kenya who blamed the Tanzanian gamekeepers for creating fires which prevented the animals from migrating and extending their stay J

Where to go ?

This is important cos there are no dearth of places to see in Kenya. Its not just the Masai Mara, after all.

For the first time traveler, the usual spots to choose from will be Ol Pajeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha, Amboseli and the Masai Mara.

The entire trip will need to be done by road – air travel is an option but naturally will be far more expensive and wasn’t even considered by us – and the distances are fairly long. I finally zeroed in on Ol Pajeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara.

The reviews about Ol Pajeta, and specially Sweetwaters the resort were excellent. Had to be done.

We debated a fair bit on whether to go to Lake Nakuru or Lake Naivasha and ultimately went as per the travel agent’s recco to Lake Nakuru. Now, Lake Nakuru used to be famous for the flamingoes but now only a handful remain. The alkaline content of the water increased and most of the flamingoes left and are now at Lake Bogoria. But its still a beautiful place and I was really not very choosy between the two places. Gabriel, however felt that we should definitely do Lake Naivasha so we did a rather hectic change that allowed us a glimpse of both places.

I decided against Amboseli. Amboseli is famous for its elephants, the beautiful vistas with the Mount Kilimanjaro providing a stunning background. Its supposed to be incredibly beautiful but Amboseli is quite out of the way. It required a rather long road trip ( 8 hours plus ) and I decided not to spread our trip too thin. It was going to be a tiring trip in any case and I felt that a long road trip after the Masai Mara could be avoided. The trip had to end with the high of   Masai Mara.

One last bit. One could fly in to Masai Mara and fly out.

Personally, I would suggest you avoid doing that for your first visit. A visit to a country includes understanding a little bit more about the country, understanding its history, its present, its culture and nothing is better than a road trip to do that. Flying in and flying out of the Mara alone really takes away that educational opportunity away. For my next visit, thats definitely an option for me, cos I wouldn’t want to do the other places again. But if you are considering this option, keep an eye on the luggage restrictions.

From every perspective, Ol Pajeta is a delightful place. All of us simply loved it. We were amazed at its spread and the wildlife it had. But it was our first stop. Would we have loved it as much if we had gone there after experiencing what Masai Mara had to offer ? I very much doubt it.

So, this is how our final plan looked like :

Day 1 : Land at Nairobi around noon and drive to Ol Pajeta ( drive time 6 hours ). Some itineraries might say that you will do an evening game drive….not possible, if you land after noon.

Day 2 : Ol Pajeta

Day 3 : Drive to Lake Nakuru ( drive time 5+ hours )

Day 4 : Drive to Masai Mara taking a slight detour for a ride around Lake Naivasha ( really long drive, started at some 6 am and reached Masai Mara at 3 pm )

Rest of the trip was spent at Masai Mara before driving back to Nairobi which took around 8 hours after getting caught in some dreadful traffic.

The roads were by and large fairly decent with the exception of the last hour or so into Masai Mara. Don’t go by the time that most sites indicate between places, add at least an hour to what they show. Traffic, road construction amongst other things slow you down.

Ol Pajeta :

Wow.

What a place.

We stayed at the Sweetwater Tents and it was simply splendid. Sweetwaters is located just next to water hole and animals trudge upto the hole regularly. You can hear them at night, you could get up in the morning and step out to see zebras and giraffes just a few hundred meters away. We once returned from a drive to see a rhino and a huge elephant just opposite our tent. In case, you are getting alarmed, there is an electric fence separating the wild area and your tents. Some athletic impalas nevertheless jump over it, but the more dangerous ones cannot. So, rest easy.

The tents are luxurious. The food is lip smacking good. The staff is courteous and really make you feel welcome.

For your first step into experiencing Kenya, this is possibly the best place. The game drives are good fun and you can see quite a few animals.

In the first hour or so, we saw a pair of jackals feasting on a zebra carcass, a few rhinos – two of them got into a mock fight too – elephants, giraffes and lots and lots of birds. And, of course the gazelles and the impalas.

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One of our first sights….a pair of jackals having an early breakfast
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Yawwwnnn….he certainly wasn’t impressed by our presence !
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A giraffes is such a lovely, gentle oddity…love the manner in which they walk across looking down at you with an air of idle curiosity
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One of my fave pics…looks a sunny happy pic, completely reflecting how we felt

Other than the game drives, there is the chimpanzee sanctuary. You can easily give it a miss. I am sure its doing lovely work in terms of taking care of these lovely animals but it was quite a boring visit. The chimps are behind fences, naturally, and while it had a large area to roam around in, I just didn’t enjoy the visit. An extremely uninterested ranger who took us thru the sanctuary only added to the feeling.

The rhino camp on the other hand was far more educational. We saw only one rhino, Barak the blind one, we could feed him, touch him and feel the toughness of the hide but we were taken around by a ranger who really loved the animals and took a lot of time to educate us about the work they do.

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A rhino fixes us with a baleful glare

They also have a night safari. I am not a big fan of those. You definitely cannot get any memorable pics there and generally don’t enjoy watching the big searchlights roam around looking for the animals. But the rest of the family had an awesome experience. They saw a pride of lions plan a hunt of the buffaloes and spent an hour or more with a few cheetahs. At night. It’s a great experience.

Don’t miss this place. Absolutely must visit.

Lake Nakuru :

The lake is incredibly beautiful. It has a very eerie feel to it when we saw it from a distance. There weren’t too many vehicles when we reached the lake and this is one spot where you can get off your vehicle and roam around clicking the birds. I spent an enjoyable 90 minutes here. Quiet and enjoyable time.

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I think this is a Northern Masked Weaver
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Was good fun to see these pelicans floating around in a solemn manner….
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…and then suddenly, as if on command, all of them dive in :). Kept happening
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A painted stork goes a-fishin’
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A Southern Ground Hornbill hurries past us

We caught a glimpse of the endangered Rothschild giraffe but didn’t see too many other animals other than, of course, the zebras and the impalas.

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The Impala is such a graceful animal…this one was keeping an eye on a few other males in the vicinity

Its really an extremely beautiful place with a lot of birds. Its not a very large place, is fenced more to protect the rhinos inside. I had read that there are loads of baboons here but we found only one crowd as we started our game drive.

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Baboons !!!! Had read that there are lots of them, but we saw only this herd

We stayed at the Sarova Game Hill Lodge. Not in the same league as the Sweetwaters  – actually nothing was ! – but fairly comfortable rooms, not overly spacious but definitely not cramped.

The staff as we found out everywhere, was excellent. It was my sis in law’s birthday and they put together an absolutely smashing song n dance routine to celebrate it as we were having dinner. Came as a complete surprise and that added to the overall memory !!

Lake Naivasha :

We spent an hour on a boat ride here. It’s a fairly large lake. Everyone loved the ride. Personally, it was a bit bleh. I am not such a big fan of the water birds and we had a boatman who was more familiar with people who take pics with their smartphones. For him, to go close to and disturb a few pelicans was doing the guests a wonderful favour. Other than the fact that the act itself was terrible – why disturb the poor birds ! – the fact that he took us so close meant that my lens could hardly take a good pic.

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Why did that fourth pelican have to look the other way and spoil the shot 🙂
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That irritating moment when the boatman purposely scared the birds for our supposed benefit !

Then there are the fish eagles. The boatman would throw a fish into the water and the birds will come swooping down to pick them up. Good photo ops but I sorta screwed up the chances and the boatman was quite reluctant to throw more than a 3-4 fish which I thought was being rather miserly 🙂

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But then, this was the place where I got my first pied kingfisher pic. Of all places.

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A pied kingfisher ruminates about life while keeping an eye on ’em fish

Overall, didnt enjoy it much but I still cannot give a recco between the two lakes. Too little to go by.

The Masai Mara :

What can one say that is not said about the Mara ?

Its pure heaven. Even if there were no animals just driving thru that vast expanse with just the golden yellow grass swaying in a gentle rhythm, the blue sky above and the occasional acacia tree standing as a solitary sentinel of all that it can survey…heavenly.

The animals further add to the experience. And we were lucky. Four river crossings. A failed hunt. Two large prides of lions. A pack of hyenas feasting on a wildebeest kill. Hundreds of zebras, wildebeest, gazelles……

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The Mara version of a traffic jam
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Zebras do provide a wonderful opportunity to be creative after taking a pic 
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The maniacal wildebeest run…and boy, do they gallop !
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We were fortunate to witness a continuous stream of these animals thundering past us

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A bloodstained face of a hyena peers at us. About four of them finished off an entire wildebeest in minutes…just minutes. An entire wildebeest. Wow.

Picnic lunches in the grasslands. Its an out of the world experience. Tho the feeling that there could be a big cat lurking in the tall grass never really goes away !

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You feel all alone in the wide world …there’s absolutely nothing to be seen all around you

A few points, however, that would be worth keeping in mind :

  1. The visit to the Masai village : Found it terribly touristy. Felt it was completely stage managed with a very low real and natural feel to it. Stepping into their huts seemed like a grotesque invasion of their privacy for the plain purpose of satisfying our prying touristy eyes. The money would definitely help them but I frankly didn’t enjoy a single moment of the visit. Eminently missable. You can spend those two hours on a game drive.
  2. The location of the lodge : There are lodges that are inside the Mara. That might be better cos it gives you additional luxury of starting really early in the morning. Our lodge was outside and quite far from the place where river crossings take place. Just reaching the gates used to take us around 30 mins and another 30 mins to be really inside the Mara. The prices, I am sure would be higher but please do check where your lodge is located. I hadn’t and if I had, I might not have chosen our place.
  3. The driver/guide : Conventional wisdom is that a local guide is better to have since they know the lay of the land better and that they get more inputs from other drivers than the outstation drivers. I didn’t get that feeling. Our driver and guide, knew the lay of the land like the back of his hand. Thru the radio you get a constant stream of info – or it could be simple chatter since you anyway don’t understand the lingo J – and we didn’t feel hamstrung by the lack of knowledge at any point. However, many lodges advertise that they have the Masai as their guides as a plus point, and our guy kept underplaying the Masai’s capabilities as drivers, so there definitely is some competitive stuff going on between the two. If you are driving around Kenya, like us, you obviously don’t have an option but to go with the same driver.
  4. Hot Air Balloons : Decide early if you want to do one and book it much in advance. Its bloody expensive, around 450-500 USD per person. We booked it a day before we reached the Mara and while we had thought everything was confirmed and we were told to be ready at 5 am, no one came to pick us up. They are usually over booked and we got royally ignored. We tried to arrange for another ride really desperately but in vain.
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The guy who jumps the highest has the chance of winning the woman….the Masai village visit was a disappointment

We stayed at the Azure Mara Haven. A relatively new place. They bungled up on our reservations, came up with some cock and bull story about another guest having some medical emergency and hence requiring to stay on in our room but finally we got upgraded into a lavish suite.

The staff ? Lovely people. I loved the way after each game drive, they would come up to chat with you about your experiences, what you saw  etc. They appeared genuinely interested in knowing if you have had an enjoyable day. Makes you feel good.

And very prompt in keeping those packed lunch boxes ready in the morning when you are about to leave.

Food :

Again, not my area of interest :). Sweetwaters undoubtedly had the best and the widest fare to offer. And the tastiest. The other places were definitely a couple of notches below. Vegetarian food is not a problem at all. Indian food is widely available and dal roti is almost part of the staple Kenyan cuisine !!

But it would be a good idea to take some snacks for those game drives

Weather :

Definitely take a couple of jackets with you. Another must have –  a bandana to cover your ears. Layer up so that you can peel off those top layers if it gets hotter.

It can get sunny during the day so sun cream, sun glasses etc would be good to have. You rarely get off your vehicle so footwear is unimportant but very often you will be standing on your seats peering outside, so if you are the fussy sort, then its easier to have sandals that can be kicked off when you stand on your seats.

In July, the mosquitoes are less. We rarely saw any so that’s one big nuisance we didn’t face.

Camera :

Ah. The big one. And sadly one where I made a few mistakes.

If you are into wildlife photography, then take two cameras. Easier to manage than to keep changing lens. I had two but pretty early in the safari, my daughter and then my son, took over the ownership of the second camera ! I am not complaining tho, was nice to see them get involved in it.

I had a 200-500. It’s a lovely lens but there are so many occasions when the animals come far too close for that lens to be effective. A 70-200 would have been a lovely one to have with me.

Someone had suggested that to me but I ignored it. Big mistake.

Someone else suggested and I rented a Tokina 11-16 mm. Big mistake too.

It was just too much and I barely used it. Maybe I missed all the right opportunities but overall, I thought it was the wrong lens to take.

Other bits :

Listen to your guide. Trust him. He knows far, far more than you. Let him know what you want to see, if you are into photography, let him know that you want the best angles ( actually best to tell the agency well before so that they get the right guide for you ), let him know which animal interests you. But, bottom line – do as he says.

Stay quiet. Especially when you are observing the animals. There are those groups that are incessantly chattering and this disturbs big time.

Both local currency and USD work quite well. Always best to keep a little of the local currency handy ( best to change at the airport itself, you get better rates than the hotels ) Check with the guides right at the start of the trip about the tips that need to be given at each place.

The guide typically gets anywhere between 5-8USD per person per day.

Take a local SIM card at the airport itself. Easiest place. Go for Safaricom. You usually get coverage deep in the Mara, not that thats a good thing !

Take empty water bottles. The vehicle will have a large water canister which is replenished regularly. Very environment friendly.

In summary :

Plan a trip.

It was the most fabulous and memorable trip that we have taken as a family. Its tiring. It can be exhausting. Each day you wake up at 5 am, the day ends after sunset and you are in a vehicle most of the time in between. But its just too rich an experience to ever miss. My wife was talking about our next visit when we were driving back to Nairobi.

Plan it well. I hope all this helps you that little bit in your planning.

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We shall be back !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Kenya III : The thrill of a river crossing

I stretched myself, rolled my shoulders, and raised my hand to stifle a yawn.

I looked behind me and most of the family was fast asleep.

It was mid morning and it was getting hot as the sun stubbornly continued its climb in a cloudless sky.

We had been here by the Mara river for the last couple of hours waiting to see if we can witness a river crossing. There were at least 15 more vehicles around us, waiting to roar for the action to unfold.

But, for now, the wildebeest grazed unconcerned, not showing the slightest inclination to do anything but focus on the abundance of grass right in front of them.

We had witnessed a crossing across the Sand river yesterday so we had an idea on how this can play out. Patience, clearly is the name of the game.

This could take hours, it might not happen at all, or….the crossing might suddenly start.

****

The Great Migration. Listed as one of the Seven New Wonders of the world.

Every year, close to 2 million animals comprising wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, start their remarkable journey in search of food and water. The wildebeest has the largest numbers in this group. Almost 1.5 million.

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Witnessing the incredibly large herds move in a relentless manner in search of food and water is magical

It all starts with the birth of the new calves from the Ngorongoro Conservation area and the Southern Serengeti plains in Tanzania. Tracing a roughly circular path, this unbelievably large number of animals trudge, gallop, swim covering more than 1800 kilometers filled with life threatening risks and dangers of every kind. Its an incredible jouney. And the visual spectacle that it provides is simply breathtaking.

Imagine, thousands and thousands of animals in front of you in a full fledged gallop, thundering hooves raising minor dust storms around them and bodies moving in a blur.

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Sometimes they gallop at a furious pace creating  minor dust storms 

Try to visualize these nervous, anxious beasts standing by the edge of a river summoning up the courage to jump into the fast flowing, deep waters in front of them.

Driven only by the  hope that they will make it to the other end.  The hope of escaping the powerful jaws of the crocs that abound in the waters, the hope that the powerful currents don’t push them away from the safety their numbers provide. And, again the hope, that as they clamber up the slopes of the bank on the other side, there are no predators lurking in the grass. Waiting for them.

The dangers are simply unimaginable. An estimated 200,000-300,000 don’t survive the journey.

Only the strongest survive.

And the luckiest.

****

While its an amazing sight to see these animals dot the entire landscape and even more thrilling to see a maniacal wildebeest run, when thousands run at a thundering pace, nothing…absolutely nothing, comes close to the spectacle and the sheer range of emotions that a river crossing provides.

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Picture perfect. Wildebeest dot the landscape during the migration with the zebras providing striped relief

Yesterday, we had gone through the entire gamut of emotions while watching a relatively small crossing at the Sand River just at the border with Tanzania.

Today we were waiting at the Mara River. It’s a far more dangerous river than the Sand. The waters run deeper, the current is quite strong and you see a lot more crocs sunning themselves on the banks and of course, the deep waters provide them with enough cover.

Our guide, Gabriel, felt that witnessing a crossing over here would be a far better experience. The Sand river, at the point we saw the crossing was little more than a stream. The Mara river…an entirely different proposition.

It had everything. Deep waters. Hippos. Crocodiles. Fast current. A crossing here would be a feast for the eyes.

****

It was a very early morning for all of us. Breakfast at 6.00 and we had set out immediately after that.

We arrived by the banks of the Mara river at around 8.00 and we could see lots of wildebeest peacefully grazing in front of us. There were a couple of other vehicles also hanging around with us.

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We waited for this herd to stop grazing and move towards the Mara river

An hour had passed and we amused ourselves by watching the numerous gazelles around us play and run around.

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A Thomson’s gazelle looks at us curiously

The herd of wildebeest was still grazing. In no hurry to go anywhere. They appeared to be completely oblivious to the fact that a river was just a little ahead of them.

We decide to take a spin around and see if we can spot any other animals. Luck was with us – we noticed a couple of vehicles parked around a bush and rushed over there. Two lionesses were in the shade.

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Pretty soon after this pic was taken, she flopped onto the grass and went off to sleep

But clearly they were not going anywhere. The sun was climbing and the lionesses would be doing nothing but sleep now. Watching a herd of wildebeest graze would have more action than watching the two lionesses sleep !

We headed back to the Mara River.

****

You remember those good ole battle scenes in movies on the epics or of the mighty kings of yore ? How an aerial shot would show the armies assembled in one line, facing each other ? With a large, wide, open area in between them.

And, then there is that guy who will shout, “Charge” and the horses will thunder at each other.

If you took an aerial shot of the place we were at, it would look similar. You would have a long line of vehicles arranged neatly next to each other, And opposite us, with a wide space separating us, are the wildebeest. Vehicles, all poised to rocket out of their stationary positions, ready to charge ahead the instant we see the crossing start.

Now, at least in the places where we saw the river crossings, the river is not in the same plane as the flatlands. There’s a rather steep slope from the flatland to the water below. Could be around 10-15 feet below and rather steep. You just cannot see the water below from most positions unless we go really close to the edge. Which we couldn’t.

The vehicles are not allowed to go near the embankment till the crossing is in full flow. Unless, because of the topography, you are having a good side on view from a distance safe enough to ensure that the wildebeest are not nervous because of your crowded presence. Everyone has  to wait till it the crossing is in full flow and then rush to get to the best position. You need a smart driver here.

Although, right now, nothing was happening.

Nothing. Nada. The wildebeest did nothing but graze, oblivious to all the frustrations they are causing all around them.

I stretched myself, rolled my shoulders, and raised my hand to stifle a yawn.

I looked behind me and most of the family was fast asleep.

****

Visualize this.

Its well past 10 am. Getting to be quite warm. Everyone in the vehicles is bored and sleepy. The animals are grazing quietly and unhurriedly in front of us. There are no predators anywhere close by.

It’s a perfect picture of calm and peace.

And, suddenly, with no clear reason or trigger, the atmosphere changes. It’s a subtle change but its unmistakable.

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Suddenly, the atmosphere changes and the herd moves in the direction of the river

You could see that the wildebeest that were till now widely spread out, have suddenly started milling together. They no longer look like dots spread across the landscape. Its one huge mass of animals now. All huddled close together. There’s palpable nervousness. There’s a lot of jostling and pushing.

Soon, its not subtle. In front of you is a really large mass of animals.

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The animals flock together into a large, imposing mass 

And, you see that an impossibly large group is slowly inching towards the edge of the river. A few grunts from the wildebeest can be heard occasionally. Its no longer quiet. There is tension in the air. There is intent.

Everyone in the vehicle sits up a little alert.

Will the crossing start now ???

****

The wildebeest are strange looking animals. They don’t have a clearly defined shape that most animals tend to possess.

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A wildebeest is one of the strangest looking animals I have seen !!

Wildebeests look a very odd mishmash of different animals. If you look at the front view of the head , you could say it looks a little like a cow’s head. It has straggly beard so a profile would make it look like a goat. Its rump and hind legs remind you of an impoverished horse. And to join these two disparate pieces, there is an unimpressive middle. Definitely strange looking.

They are also rather unpredictable.

To watch them requires extreme, monumental patience. The wildebeest can assemble at the edge of the embankment for a long, long time without summoning up the courage to go down. They will stand at the edge and peer down. And do nothing.

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Wildebeest can stand at the edge and look down for ages without crossing

A few hardy souls might dare to take a few steps down the steep path leading to the waters. But its quite possible that they might go half way down and then decide to return back to the relative safety of the flat lands.

Or they could go down to the water, have a nervous sip, lose all the courage it had summoned and scurry back in desperate hurry. Often, for no apparent reason.

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And if they do come down, can scurry back up for no apparent reason

Well, I guess, in their defence, if I were to do such a journey with all the associated risks and with a rather unremarkable defence of my own, I guess I too will be nervous and unwilling to easily commit to any step.

But this could go on for ages. And sometimes, they might make the crossing only to swim back. Yesterday, we saw a lone wildebeest detach itself from the herd, walk a fairly long distance alone back to the edge of the Sand river, stare at the herds grazing on the other side and then trot across the river to join them !!! Why !!!

Anyway, all that apart, right now, everyone is a little alert. Other than, Gabriel, our guide, who is unimpressed. He is still lounging in his seat and proclaims,” You can relax. Won’t happen so fast. This is just how they behave. They never act so fast”

I let the others sleep.

****

Now a few zebras appear. With complete confidence and with a clear sense of purpose, they march up to the edge of the embankment.

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The zebras arrive and bring with them a much needed confidence booster for the wildebeests

That gives Gabriel some much needed optimism. “ The zebras would help,” he announces.

Zebras and the wildebeest form an odd support group during the migration. They are of no threat to each other. The grass they eat is also different. Wildebeest possess a very strong sense of hearing and the zebras, keen eyesight. If the zebras start moving in a direction, the wildebeest get quite confident that there is no visible risk and they rush forward, often leaving the zebras behind.

“ The zebras never get into the water themselves first. They are good in looking confident and in giving confidence” chuckles Gabriel. “ They just go and stand at the edge. That’s enough for the wildebeest to get the confidence to rush in”

But the zebras turn back.

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Uh Oh…the zebras too turn away 😦

And, in a few minutes, the entire herd appears to be turning around and walking away from the river !

I groan in frustration.

****

However, the herd doesn’t really go far away. They are aimlessly walking around. They haven’t returned to grazing. There’s an air of indecision amongst them.

The zebras too haven’t really moved away and soon the mass again comes together and shifts back to the river side.

From where we are, we are unable to make out if any wildebeest have gone down the slopes. A huge number of animals are now crowding the edge. Our only way of knowing if the crossing has actually begun, is if we notice any of them clambering upto the flat lands on the other side of the river.

More time passes.

****

A vehicle suddenly roars into life !!!

Just a second later the others start !

We will never know whether it was simple nervous energy that made that first driver start his vehicle or if he really saw something.

But suddenly, 40-50 vehicles were roaring across, accelerating over the flat lands to the edge of the river !!

At full speed, with each driver eyeing the perfect place to position his vehicle so that his guests can get a vantage view of the crossing.

“ Wake up, wake up, the crossing has started, “ I shouted to the others and stood up, positioning my beanbag and lifting my camera into position.

“ No !!!! Idiots! “, screamed Gabriel.

Many of the vehicles on our left were heading straight to the river side. Sounded perfect, other than for the little fact that, that course would take them straight into the large group of wildebeest who have assembled for the crossing !

Our vehicle was moving towards the edge of the river but away from the herds so as not to alarm them. But not these guys.

As we took the slightly diagonal route to the river edge, we could see the animals suddenly become aware of this loud roar behind them and turn around to see this large number of strange looking huge vehicles rushing towards them ! Panic !

It was utter pandemonium. The wildebeest dropped all thoughts and plans of crossing the river and just ran in all directions away from the oncoming, rushing vehicles, in complete fear and alarm.

“Oh no !” I groaned.

Have we wasted the entire morning !?

****

We reach the edge of the embankment and Gabriel eases the vehicle into a perfect position and as I look into the waters, I saw to my complete surprise that there were animals that were crossing !

Wow ! I guess the crossing had already started before the remaining animals got scattered thanks to some of the drivers.

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A small number of animals managed to do a successful crossing !!

Not too many of them, but it still was a sight to see them fight in the deep waters, against the strong current and swim to the other side and then scramble up the steep slope.

All around us we could hear the furious click of the cameras as everyone with a decent camera went beserk.

In just a few minutes, it was over.

In complete frustration, we glared angrily at the vehicles that had so badly misjudged their actions and interrupted what would have been a magnificent crossing.

We had such a lovely view too.

****

Whoa !

Whats happening ?

There was a gap between where we were along with the large number of vehicles along with us and the 5-6 vehicles which had gone straight into the herd. And, now all the wildebeest that had scattered in panic had decided that they will still try to make a run for it. Maybe they realized that we were manageable threats.

They came rushing to the edge in a furious gallop. It was an amazing sight. Clouds of dust were being raised and we could hear the thundering of the hooves just a few feet away and see the animals rushing through the dust.

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The wildebeest race towards the edge once again !

But when the first few wildebeest reached the edge they could not see a very clear, safe path to the water. They came to a shuddering halt and now there was even more chaos as the rest of the herd came galloping behind them and hit the wall of their stationary companions.

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But there’s no way ahead !

“ If they come just 5-6 feet towards us, they can see this safe path down to the river,’ Gabriel whispered.

But the wildebeest were in no mood to wait and check. We were still threats and they definitely didn’t want to be just a few feet away from us while they went on an exploratory stroll. They were extremely excitable right now.

They simply turned and galloped away as fast as they had come! The entire herd turned away and raced away from us. Far away from us.

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They suddenly turn around and gallop away

We could see them madly run across the flat lands taking them further away from us but curving away after sometime their instincts taking them to where they knew the river still flowed.

“Lets follow them,” I suggested to Gabriel. Sure enough, many vehicles roared to life and took after them.

“Silly guys,’ declared Gabriel. “ There’s no path there for the wildebeest. They have to return to this side”.

And then continued,” Of course, we have no idea when they will return or if they will return today’.

Boy.

It was a frustrated bunch that slumped back into the seats.

****

It was now past 1 pm. It was hot. We were hungry, tired, frustrated. We needed a bio break.

Gabriel decided that the wildebeest will definitely not be returning in a hurry and it was perfectly safe for us to retire into some shade and stretch our legs for a few minutes.

We went off in search of some trees and in a few minutes we parked under a few trees and shrubs, roughly in the same direction where the wildebeest had run towards. The herd was nowhere in sight though we could see a few stray wildebeest returning.

It was not safe enough for us to step out and spread our picnic sheet and eat outside.

We stayed in the vehicle and it was a rather disgruntled bunch that munched grumpily on the sandwiches and the errant drivers once again got a mouthful of curses from all of us. We just had a few days at the Mara and it would be such a waste if we spend all these hours here instead of being on a game drive and not see a river crossing.

Sigh. Such is life.

****

A few other vehicles had also followed us and parked in the shade. Everyone had opened their lunch boxes and were moodily eating their lunches. All the vehicles were to our right in a long curve parked along the edge of the tree line.

Stomachs full, the sun right above us, the air felt heavy and we could see many people slowly nodding off. Gabriel had also dozed off as he wasn’t answering our incessant queries about animal behaviour.

Anyway, nothing much was happening.

****

“ Where are these vehicles going ? Are they giving up? “, I wondered loudly.

Gabriel was still asleep and after a few seconds I leaned forward and tapped him on his shoulder.

“ Gabriel, all of the other vehicles are moving,”

Our Land Cruiser roared into life and we leapt forward over the uneven terrain !!

We raced back to the same place where the morning had seen the aborted crossing and I saw a long line of vehicles by the edge of the embankment. And an extremely large herd huddled far ahead, right at the edge.

“Oh no ! We are late !” Nothing seemed to be working in our favour today !

We reached the edge, behind the parked vehicles and craned our necks to look into the water below.

Has the crossing already begun !???

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The animals mill around. We cannot see if the crossing has begun from this point

“ There’s a croc!” whispered my son. And, sure enough, we could see a sinister shape silently gliding towards the point where the wildebeest were all assembled.

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A sinister shape silently glides towards a potential feast

We still could not make out now if the crossing had actually started.

There was no place !

Gabriel tried to edge himself between a few vehicles but nothing was giving us a clear view. The sides are extremely uneven with clumps of mud , grass  and termite hills of different sizes all along the edges. It wasn’t easy getting to a point where all of us and me with my camera and lens, could get a good clear view.

We kept moving forward searching for some space and soon we were getting closer to where all the wildebeest were assembled.

Gabriel reached a decision point. The herd had identified a good point. The slope from the flat lands leading down to the water wasn’t very steep. He quickly cut away from the line of vehicles and inched closer to absolute end of the line of vehicles. Soon we found ourselves behind a couple of other vehicles, not exactly at the edge but almost vertically behind the point where all the animals were huddled.

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Who will jump first ?

From where we were, we could see the point where the animals could jump in and were less than ten feet from where a very messy and chaotic queue was being formed by hundreds of eager, nervous grunting wildebeest.

The animals were far too excited to notice us. Or their primal urge was to cross the river and we simply didn’t appear to be a large enough threat for our presence to dissuade them.

The air was full of loud, anxious grunts. Every animal wanted to move forward. The ones behind were clearly nervous and impatient that they just didn’t have the space to go further.

My position wasn’t the best position. There was a mound right ahead. The antenna of two vehicles was in front of me and I had to be positioned in just the precise manner for me to get a narrow but uninterrupted view of the crossing through my lens.

If the crossing were to start.

But….Will they cross ?

****

This time, the energy, the desperation in the wildebeest was far too high for the crossing not to take place.

“ Its started!!” Shouted someone in our vehicle. I can’t remember who.

And sure enough it had !!!!

One brave or extremely desperate wildebeest had taken the plunge and I could see its horns bobbing above the muddy brown coloured water. Almost straight into a startled hippo !

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Look at the startled hippo !!!

Another 3-4 jumped right behind the first guy. Soon it was a procession. Grunts were piercing the air. There was a cloud of dust all around us. The wildebeest pushed and jostled their way to the edge.

Right now, there was no indecision, no measured weighing of the options in front of them.

It was mob psychology at its peak. One of them had jumped in and now everyone wanted to do the same.

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Emboldened, the others follow

A wildebeest just had to do to reach the edge of the river and without thinking it would plunge into the waters, consequences be damned, and swim for dear life.

The current also picked up and we could see that the hitherto straight line that the wildebeest were charting had now turned into a wide, deep U.

From our position, we could see the wildebeest jump in and then we would see them get pushed out by the current , vanish from our line of sight and soon reappear on the far side as they clambered out of the water and up the slope.

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Slipping, grappling for a foothold, desperate to be out of the dangerous waters.

Though the slopes also could be highly risky for them. The slopes were steep, the surface slippery and the wildebeest have rather thin legs. Its quite easy for them to slip and break their legs. Fortunately, we didn’t see that happening.

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The slippery rocks, the muddy inclines all provide risks after the river is crossed

“ Where’s the croc ? “ asked my son.

Good question.

Watching a crocodile attack a wildebeest would make the river crossing perfect. If an attack were to take place here it was most likely to happen close to the middle of the river on a hapless animal that had got pushed out a little more by the current. It could be risky for the crocs too otherwise to get caught in the middle of a rush in the water. And, that part of the journey was completely blocked thanks to a large termite hill in front of us. Right now we could only see them plunge in and then see them clambering out.

Tough luck.

It was a relentless procession of the wildebeest running in and jumping into the water. The energy, the nervousness, the fear….it was a breathtaking spectacle.

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It was a continuous procession of animals jumping into the water

It struck me that so far I had not seen a single zebra plunge in. There were a couple of them amongst the large number jostling about on our side, on the river side, but they hadn’t yet jumped in.

****

However, just as suddenly, there appeared to be a slowing down. There still remained hundreds of wildebeest and zebras on our side but they were coming back up. No idea why they were having second thoughts.

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For no apparent reason, the remaining guys hesitate

And just as it started, it stopped. Grunts still rent the air but it didn’t seem to have that nervy edgy feeling of earlier. The animals still milled around but it seemed to be moving around disconsolately, not restlessly.

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…and turn back

A few of them still rushed to the edge and looked anxiously at the other side but didn’t take the plunge and soon trudged back up.

It was over. Our fourth river crossing.

****

The gathered vehicles started reversing and moving away. Quite impatiently. The show was over, three quarters of the day was over and everyone wanted to squeeze in as much of a game drive as possible.

We hung around, along with 10-15 other vehicles, waiting for the rest to move away and the dust to settle down.

We could see a few wildebeest on the other side coming back to the edge of the river and looking at the herd left behind. Five of them made the descent too and then suddenly plunged into the waters and started swimming back.

Wow !! Why on earth !

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The power of motherhood. Five mothers rush back to their calves

“Mothers. Their calves might have stayed back and they are trying to be reunited with them,” sagely observed Gabriel.

And, so it was. It was a very heartwarming sight to see the five swim safely back to this side, run up the gentle slope and exchange a soft head butt ( fist bump ? ) with their friends and family. A couple of calves ran up and started suckling immediately deriving much needed security and reassurance after what would have been a terrifying period.

****

As we started moving away, we drove along the edge of the river, looking below at the waters.

The question remained. Where were the crocs. We had seen quite a few of them sunning close by a few hours earlier. We had seen at least one of them swimming in the direction of the crossing.

And then we saw a couple of them in the water, partly sunning themselves on a rock.

“ Are you sure it is a rock ?” chuckled Gabriel.

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The one that didn’t get away

At least one of the wildebeest wasn’t lucky that day. Or wasn’t strong enough.

 ****

Phew !

What a morning ! We had experienced every type of emotion. From the initial patience, to frustration, to anger at the fellow vehicles for spoiling a crossing,  to a point where we wondered if we should wait any longer, to the sheer energy and thrill of watching the herd throw caution to the winds and fight for survival…wow !

There was silence in the vehicle as it swung away from the river to a game drive in search of the big cats.

All of us were lost in our thoughts as we tried to collect our own individual recollections of a fantastic experience.

Tales from Kenya I : Masai Mara. Finally

Masai Mara.

I was finally here.

I have been planning this visit for at least five years. I have read up voraciously about the place. Pored over countless pictures.

I knew almost every single clichéd image that existed about the place. That black and white portrait of a handsome male lion staring impassively into the camera. That other profile  which had the breeze gently ruffling that shaggy mane. The silhouette of the acacia tree with a giraffe next to it. Then the one of the wildebeest captured mid air as it was leaping into the frothing river in the course of its perilous annual migration.

I had read up about animal habits. Knowing what to expect helps you sense an opportunity a few precious seconds earlier and that might be enough time to compose a lovely image.

I learnt that if lions of a pride approach each other they will nuzzle each other or play. Perfect to get a cuddly shot.

That an elephant kicking at the ground would usually mean there’s a good chance it will use the loosened soil to dust itself by throwing the dirt on its body with its trunk.

That if cheetahs are lying on the ground and there is a mound or a termite hill nearby they are likely to get on that to get a better view from that raised platform.

That if one zebra starts to roll, others are likely to follow and especially since they tend to walk in a single file, the ones behind will roll in the same place.

I was possibly as ready as I could be.

Mara.

“Maaarrra”, our guide, Gabriel, carefully pronounced it. Stretching the first ‘aa’s, rolling the ‘r’s and dropping the last letter into a soft whisper. He repeated it a few times. For effect. It worked.

It means ‘dots’ in Maa, the Masai language, he explained.

“Look around you and you will know why”, he continued.

The grassland is wide open. And dotted with hundreds of small trees. None of them were close to each other. Nicely spaced.

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And what a place it is ! Covering 1500 square kilometres its HUGE.

There were times that we could look all around us, in a 360 deg sweep and see nothing but the blue sky, the golden yellow grass swaying with the breeze and the trees on the horizon. Nothing else. Nothing.

And then there were times that we look around and see the landscape dotted with animals. Thousands of them.

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A landscape that never tires of giving you exquisite opportunities to take memorable images.

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Masai Mara.

Rarely have I ever arrived at a place with so many expectations.

I couldn’t wait for the next few days.

More on that soon 🙂