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How a leopard can kill your enthusiasm

sunny

It was whilst watching the leopard that I realised that I hated the Masai Mara.

With the news that I probably wouldn't be able to finally leave Nairobi until late July or early August (another 6-8weeks or so), i was not necessarily the happiest of campers for a while. But the news that I would have to return about weekly for that period did at least mean that I could attempt to do other things for 4 or 5days a week between hospital appointments. And with that, i pretty much got out of Nairobi as fast as my legs could carry me, or more relevantly, as fast as the Nairobbery traffic would allow. Which is how I ended up in the Masai Mara.

When we first arrived in Nairobi and before I had given in and gone to hospital, we had arranged to do a 4day-3night trip to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru. It soon became apparent that i wouldn't be able to go but Maaret headed off anyway on the first of her blatant abandonments of me, and seemed to have enjoyed her trip. And so on hearing the news that I had a few days before i needed to be back being violated by medical 'professionals', for want of any better ideas I had inquired if the same trip – or any other – would be possible. 24hours later, i was in the Masai Mara.

To be honest, i was happy just being somewhere which was not Nairobi and would have happily settled on stopping in the first random town we passed through. But the Masai Mara? Great, I thought, despite my normal impeccable timing which mean't that i was ahead of the famed wildebeest migration by barely 3weeks. After getting to camp, we – two English guys just out of university, and a really cool Rwandan/Tanzanian-German couple, plus our enthusiastic if quiet driver/guide Joseph – headed out on an evening game drive. And it was pretty good. We saw an assortment of 'normal' animals – a couple of giraffe, zebra, assorted antelopes, non-migratory wildebeest, and buffalo – before spotting a couple of lions away on the hill and later coming across 3 cheetah taking in the late afternoon sun. It was whilst we were watching that I first started to wonder: we had been informed of the cheetahs over the radio, and 6 or 7 other vehicles were in attendance. But I didn't pay too much attention.

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The rest of the drive consisted of us trying to help out 2 vehicles who got stuck (as all were 2wheel drive minibuses, it was the old fashioned way: we all got out to push and get covered in wheel spin-mud), then getting lucky and seeing 2lions walk past us close by in the twilight, stalking a large group of buffalo – and a third coming out of trees a few hundred metres away - before we then got well and truly stuck. And so, in deep mud in the increasingly pitch black and less than 500m from where we had seen lions hunting, we all had to get out and push. And push some more. And then a final time. And then sit in dark bus for ages awaiting somebody to come and pull us out. By the time we finally got back, we were almost 2hours late, and had spent most of our time either stuck, or helping somebody who was stuck.

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Top, one of the pride of lions lazing in the grass, part of the herd of buffalo, and a happy couple - male and female buffalo – staring at us

The following day was an all-dayer. It started well: barely 30minutes in, and we came across a pride of lions (at least 8 male lions, spread through the bushes, two of whom were enjoying a small buffalo snack) who we watched for a while. We then passed through a large herd of buffalo – who were nonchalantly enjoying the grass and sun barely 500m away from the resting lions. I must admit that I hope that I never piss off a buffalo, as if one of them charges you (or your vehicle or house), it won't end prettily. We then spent several hours driving through the rolling savanna, seeing pretty much nothing except for the occasional elephant: in one 90minute period, in one of the most densely populated game parks in the world we saw not a single animal (excepting humans). We also got stuck once, had to help other stuck vehicles twice and 30minutes were spent futiley (i'm pretty sure that isn't a word, but I like it anyway) searching for a black rhino that was rumoured to be around.

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After a short deviation into Tanzania (the Masai Mara is part of the Serengeti, separated only by the political border which is of no real relevance in the park) we reached the Masai river and had lunch, before taking a bit of a wander nearby through a more furtile animal area: zebra, masai giraffe, assorted antelope, some mongooses (mongeese?) and in the distance in the river, a number of hippo. Then, it was back through the empty savanna for a few hours, with variety again supplied by the occasional elephant, breakdown and other minivans getting stuck.

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And then there was the leopard.

Almost back at camp, and close to where we had seen the lions the previous evening there was a bit of a commotion. At first we thought it was just a lion or two (we could see one wandering in the distance), but then word came over the radio of a leopard. At first we saw nothing, but then an occasional waving tail and the leopard climbed into a tree. To begin with, people kept a respectable distance. But then, with more vehicles arriving every minute, we all started to close in, driving off road and destroying the vegetation in the quest for the best view. By the time it climbed out of the tree 8 or 9 minutes later and started walking towards the long grass a couple of hundred metres away, the poor animal was pretty much surrounded. It more or less had to pick his way through the hoardes of watching minibuses.

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The leopard

By the time it crossed the road and headed into the longer grass (and an area where no driving was allowed, to aid recovery), there were 8 minibuses within about 5metres of the poor animal, and no fewer than 37 vehicles nearby watching it, with a dozen or so others in view rushing to the scene. Though i admit that I was happy (and lucky) to see a leopard and to get such a good view, I hated myself – and all of them – for being so intrusive and not letting the poor animal have some kind of privacy. The problem, i realised was a combination of the radio linkage between all the vans, and also the terrain: lots of gently rolling grassland and only limited areas of higher vegetation means that you have a pretty good visibility, and it is easy to spot other minibuses, especially when there are more than one stopped and thus see where something has been spotted, and so go and investigate.

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The leopard crossing the path, and (below) some of the minibuses surrounding it

My mood was not helped that evening by the sighting of several herds of cows being grazed illegally by the Masai warriors (they are not allowed to graze them in the inner part of the park), and then the constant hard nosed sell-sell-sell by the Masai villagers back at camp (as well as certain, erm, personal comfort issues that I had). The following morning we went on an early game drive, but by then my heart was really not in it. We saw some hyena attacking the remains of an elephant we were told had died 3months previously, a lioness, and some normal animals before I spotted 3lions lying in the grass off to one side. Joseph brought us up close, and for a few minutes were the only ones nearby, but inevitably, he had made the call and a couple of minutes later there were a dozen buses all around and more converging by the minute. Two cheetahs we came upon shortly afterwards were treated the same way, and pretty much chased away into the bushes: by then, the others in our bus were also pleading with Joseph to leave the poor animals alone and so we pealed off and slowly and without incident made our way back for breakfast.

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A couple of shots from the final morning's game drive

Leaving the Mara, it was an odd feeling. It was undoubtedly a beautiful place, although not quite as I had expected. And there had been some undoubted highlights: the pride of lions on day 2, and seeing the leopard – the first i had ever seen. But the constant hard-sell by the Masai people, and especially, the shame and almost anger I felt for being so intrusive (even though I knew I was part of the problem) to the poor leopard and then the 2 cheetahs more than outweighed that, and I was definitely happy to leave.

One of the worlds great game reserves and tourist attractions it undoubtedly is, but sadly i don't think it will be somewhere that I will look back with great fondness.

Posted by Gelli 10.06.2009 01:25 Archived in Kenya Tagged animal

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Comments

Great post Rich. I've always wondered how these spotting safari's work exactly and this is roughly what I feared. It's a tough mix between showing people what they want to see, and preserving the whole essence of the place to begin with.

10.06.2009 by Sam I Am

Perhaps what they need is to put the tourists on those big buses they use to watch polar bears from in Canada - less vehicles, four-wheel drive with huge wheels to spead the weight and you're safely 5 metres up in the air. It'll never happen, of course.

10.06.2009 by Mike Perkins

Hmm. First, had a hard time getting past the words "blatant" and "abandonments"...Is the camera working OK? The pics look a bit faded. Or is it the man using it? Hm.

10.06.2009 by Ofelia

Ofelia - Pretty much, its the man using it. And Sam - I think they are different everywhere, and maybe my experience was atypical, but there seems to be too much emphasis on spotting stuff for the tourist at all costs (whilst removing the actual 'spotting' part, to a large degree) as opposed to conservation or animal privacy

19.06.2009 by Gelli

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