Thursday, October 29, 2009


A shaft of golden light snuck through the folds of the tent and came to rest on a pillow lying next to me on the bed, lighting up a little circle, the size of a rupee coin. It was well past dawn. I could hear songbirds twittering on the trees outside. Other than a weird dream about a hyena trying to bite my hand and steal my watch, I’d slept peacefully and the night had passed without event.

Shrugging away the intense pull of the clingy arms of gravity on nippy mornings, I dragged myself off the bed when the languor of the morning was suddenly broken by an angry chatter and the rustling of a heavy bodied creature next to the tent. I was reminded of last night’s discussion about hyenas and lions and the great roar of the king of beasts that had been my lullaby for the night. Could there be lions in camp? I had seen documentaries where camp grounds and resorts in Africa had on occasions been overrun by a herd of curious elephants or a pride of lions. But all such events, as far as I could remember, had ended with the animals being driven out without anyone being scratched or gored. Emboldened by the light of day I stepped outside the tent and peeped around the corner. In a clearing between two tents sat a troop of grey and white vervet monkeys intently staring at one of the bushes. They seemed to be torn between the desire to run and the urge to fight. Whatever it was that was getting them worked up was hidden behind the bushes. I thought if the little monkeys could act all brave and bothered, so could I and so I stepped into the clearing, walked across a row of tents and went near the bushes. There, sitting proud amidst the bushes, rummaging through the contents of an upturned dust bin with a chewed up lid, sat a rather large, long-maned, male olive baboon.

Now a baboon, if you haven’t seen one, is nothing like our home grown rhesus macaques (the stocky little brown devils) or langurs (the slim, longtailed black faced ones). They are bigger and are built like night-club bouncers. Even leopards are wary of the big males. These animals were dangerous and as I stood there between the agile vervets and the hulking baboon, I realised that without the attendants to help me out of this or shoo the animals away with whatever it takes to shoo them away, I risked getting mauled. And how did I know that I was standing too close for comfort? The baboon told me… You see, when a baboon wants to send out a warning, it yawns and shows off its huge vampire-like canines in a threat display… a bit like a knife-fighter running his finger along the blade of his knife. And when I inched in a little too close, our bin raider looked at me, closed his eyes and ya-aw-wned… those dagger like canines glinted in the morning sun and I got the hint and backed away. What a wake up call on my first dawn in the Mara.

Two hours and a scrumptious avocado salad breakfast later we were finally cruising along the vast plains of the Masai Mara that straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The Mara plains, you must know is one of the greatest theatres of the natural world. Picture this: It is early September and the golden grasslands across the border in Tanzania (called the Serengeti) resonate to a strange sound. They might be hidden in the long grass or round a corner, but that drone fl oats around like a sound cloud and envelopes you long before you see them… gnu, gnu, gnu they go and then suddenly you see them… hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cow-like antelopes – wildebeest (also called ‘gnu’, because of that sound they make), dotting the landscape for a million miles. The sheer scale of the scene, the landscape, the dull hum rolling across that landscape like a tidal sound-wave, and countless animals grazing, strolling, fighting and suckling… it is an overwhelming sight. But the story’s just begun…

Around this time, on a given day, answering a primal call, these huge herds suddenly start marching, like an army responding to a distant bugle, towards the Mara plains in Kenya. But there’s a hurdle. Running between the Mara plains and the Serengeti plains is the natural border of the Mara River. This time of the year, the river isn’t at its calmest and the great herds balk at the river bank. Across lie the green grasslands of the Mara plains but the swirling waters of the river are rife with danger. Besides dangerous currents, this river is home to one of the deadliest predators on the planet, the Nile crocodile. These giant reptiles measure more than 16 feet from tip to tail, and have jaws that could snap a man in two. They lie hidden in the murky waters of the river waiting for an unsuspecting animal to draw close and then lunge at with astonishing speed and power. Once caught in those jaws, they drag their prey into the water, drowning it while other crocs also grab the poor victim and start rolling. This macabre dance is called ‘the death roll’ and the crocs do it in an attempt to tear hunks of meat off the prey.

Instinctively, the wildebeest are wary of jumping into the crocodile infested river but the numbers keep mounting on the banks and as more and more animals join the herds, the ones in front keep getting nudged forward, like a group of school-kids standing in front of the PE teacher who is looking for reluctant volunteers for a ‘clean the school ground project’. The tension builds up until the ones in front get pushed into the river. As the first few crash into the water, the dam breaks and the whole horde, driven by an irresistible instinct, follows through. The crocodiles, like submarines lying in wait, emerge; razor sharp teeth tear through skin and flesh and a feeding frenzy starts that lasts as long as the migration. By the time the last of the herd has crossed over, the crocodiles have eaten enough to last them a lifetime. On the swollen river fl oat bloated bodies of the hundreds that died during the crossing. Some fell to the crocodiles while others got crushed under the weight of others behind them or drowned under the great surge. Yet, hundreds of thousands still made it across, mostly in one piece but many with broken limbs or ugly gashes from a crocodile’s jaws. And the injured don’t last long. They get picked off by lions, leopards and hyenas. It’s a cruel yet grand spectacle; the wildebeest leaping into the rivers; the bone-crushing power of the crocodiles as the massive reptiles ambush the antelope; the raw athleticism of the lion pride as they chase and bring down the injured animals; the birth of a new calf; and a mother antelope courageously fighting off a cheetah which was about to kill her new born calf… the drama of life, and death, is played out in bold strokes of red, blue and green on the Mara, and the savage beauty of the greatest show on earth is so seductive that one stays riveted, through hope and despair, through blood and gore, through birth and death…

And yet my most enduring memory of this great stage is not of the great migration but of a quiet dawn. The plains were surprisingly empty this morning. I was disappointed. We stopped under an acacia and scanned the horizon with our binoculars. Nothing to the left, nothing to the right, all the game had taken flight, no, not a creature anywhere in sight… but what’s this… something had blocked out the view from my field-glasses. I removed them and as I kept them aside, my jaw dropped. Mere metres away from us, loping across the horizon at a gentle trot, were three magnificent giraffes. Taller than most houses, and yet with an awkward grace unlike any other, these creatures, the tallest of all terrestrial mammals (towering over the rest at about 20 feet) seemed to be a throwback to another era. I watched enthralled as the three majestic giants covered the ground with astonishing ease, almost in slow-motion. I could feel the ‘thud’, as their long and elegant strides shook the very earth beneath us. Remember the introductory dinosaur scene from “Jurassic Park” when the human protagonists see their first dinosaur – a colossal Brachiosaurus with his head lost in the clouds in the sky… It felt even more magical and sublime that day… goose bumps popped like a raging rash and my knees went weak… this wasn’t a movie screen… this was real life, as I had never known it before, as I never could, anywhere else on earth but here… raw nature, in a manifestation of unbridled power… I’ve not known that feeling, before or since.

The giraffes faded away across the horizon that day and the plains were empty again.

However, it is the third and final edition of the African saga that contains memories of a night that had some of the most breathtaking moments of my life. Until next week then…


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