Kenya – spirit of old Africa

Wild Dancing and Dappled Land

Africa’s quintessential wildlife destination straddles the equator with exquisite natural and cultural offerings. Nirvana for photographers, Kenya hosts teaming herds and prolific prides in the iconic Maasai Mara. While in the shadow of Mount Kenya are swathes of wilderness where wild dogs and unique species roam – and this is also home to the stoic Samburu people with a penchant for bright colours.

By Keri Harvey

Samburu jump

Samburu jump

Brown dust rises from the earth in the still morning air. The rhythmic ‘who-ha, who-ha, who-ha’ is strangely primeval and hypnotic. It musters energy and focus. And then the jumping begins. One by one, lithe muscular bodies rubbed red with ochre and wrapped in intricate beadwork rise higher and higher like human arrows piercing the sky. Neon coloured cloths drape the men’s waists and most wear simple shoes fashioned from old car tyres. The Samburu warriors are honing their impressive jumping skills. Over and over again they thrust their shiny bodies into the air to the chorus of evocative chanting. This is how the warriors greet the day – dancing in the dust.

“Our herds are everything; our wealth and our life,” says lead warrior Lekolua Ltajio, his finely plaited braids held in place by elaborate beaded headgear topped with a single rose. “We jump to see the enemy, so we can protect our cattle,” he adds. Mostly the enemy is predators not people, so the young warriors stay awake through the night to watch over their beloved livestock. They rest by day, dine on a mixture of blood and milk for stamina, and generally lead a charmed life adored by the ladies. To attract the attention of warriors, Samburu girls craft elegant beaded jewellery as gifts for them. Lekolua has a particularly fine collection, but smiles and says he wants to remain a warrior for at least another 10 years before he thinks of marrying. Samburu warriors must stay single and focused on their task.

The wilderness area of Laikipia, with its rustic Samburu villages, lies at the foot of lofty Mount Kenya. Here wildlife is truly wild, and also unusual. Many species endemic to East Africa occur here, and include the pin-striped Grevy’s zebra with round ears, Gerenuk or Waller’s antelope which look like long-necked impalas, and Reticulated or Somali giraffe with clear white borders between their brown patches. Tiny, delicate Kirk’s dik-diks are also plentiful in Laikipia, and are the staple food of a large pack of wild dogs that also lives in the area.

Mount Kenya in mist

Mount Kenya in mist

There are few wildlife experiences as thrilling as tracking, finding and following a pack of wild dogs as they hunt for dinner across the high altitude plateau. The terrain of Laikipia is rugged and makes for a rough ride, but the experience is raw nature, unfettered. After the adrenalin rush, a relaxed meal around the fire out in the bush ends the day. There must surely be worse ways to spend a Wednesday evening, than kicking back in true wilderness, old Africa style.

Wild dogs on the hunt

Wild dogs on the hunt

The vast, undulating plains of the Maasai Mara are the flipside of the coin of wildlife experiences. Both are in Kenya – Laikipia is in the northern and the Mara in the southern hemisphere – but in reality they are completely different worlds. Flying in to the Maasai Mara, the sheer scale of the conservation area and the herds that live there will take your breath away. Uncountable numbers and divine diversity in leaps, journeys and crashes of wildlife which are without doubt unmatched anywhere else on earth. The Maasai Mara is extraordinary and will leave you grappling for words to describe it. ‘Mara’ means ‘dappled’ in Maa language and refers to the acacia trees that sprinkle the rolling savannah and give the area its ‘iconic Africa’ look. But in reality there are just no words for the sheer beauty of the place.

The steep-banked rivers that mesh through the landscape, and form the natural borders of the 250 000 hectare Maasai Mara, are renowned by nature lovers and photographers alike for the million plus wildebeest that cross them during the annual migration from Serengeti in the south. From September to November it’s a feeding frenzy for crocodiles in these rivers, as they keep wildebeest numbers in check. Photographers come from around the world to the Mara with the single desire to freeze frame this epic and dramatic wildlife migration. Darwin’s theory plays out before you, savage and real.

This is only one aspect of the Maasai Mara though. Because of its vastness, fertile volcanic soil and abundant rainfall, there’s always grass here so resident wildlife is abundant and diverse. The big five are everywhere and in a single drive you’ll likely see more wildlife encounters than you can count. Just four days there yielded herds of elephant and wildebeest, hunting cheetah and leopard, mating lions, mating giraffe, buffalo, caracal, endemic topi and Thomson’s gazelle, hippos and even a zebra crossing. Predators are abundant, kills are everywhere, and game is accustomed to vehicles which means photography is just awesome – and that goes for birdlife too. Sightings are spectacular and guaranteed, giving photographers a meze of unusual and creative images to capture. Being on a private vehicle customised for photography, a skilled Maasai driver up front, and accompanied by an experienced wildlife photographic guide, makes possible in days what could otherwise take years to photograph anywhere else in Africa. This is the fast track to acquiring excellent wildlife images of your own.

Henry Sadera grew up on the edge of the Mara and has been driving in the park all his adult life. Always dressed in his blood red shuka – the traditional blanket of the Maasai – while driving Henry explains the Maasai people’s respect for wildlife. “We just don’t eat wild animals,” he says. “The Maasai Mara doesn’t have any fences so the wildlife sometimes wanders out and grazes with our cattle. It doesn’t bother us. But our cattle will never cross the river into the Mara. That we don’t do. The Mara is for wildlife only.” Henry wrinkles his nose when we offer him biltong. “No thanks,” he says, “it might be springbok.”

Leaning over his steering wheel as if to look a little closer, Henry points ahead and says simply: “Cheetah”. Nobody on board notices anything in the long grass surrounding us. We only see the cheetah when she lifts her head, while long ago Henry spotted the tip of her tail in the tall grass. Slowly the cheetah sits up and looks around. She starts to walk, directly towards us. Stops. Sits. Watches, and changes course towards our second vehicle of photographers. Then she takes everyone by complete surprise.

In a single leap the cheetah lands on the vehicle’s roof, oblivious to the surprised occupants inside. She’s completely relaxed. Not so the photographers who can’t take a single frame because the spotted cat is sitting out of sight on the roof. “Her mother taught her to do that,” says Henry, casually leaning back in his seat and watching the unusual scene, “she also used vehicles as vantage points to be able to see further across the plains. It’s really clever.” Three minutes later the cheetah jumps off the vehicle’s roof and continues her leisurely trip across the open plains, as if what she has just done is completely normal. For her it may be, but all aboard are speechless.

Past a rare sighting of mating hyena, we head to a Maasai village outside the park to meet the chief. He’s expecting us and has donned his ceremonial lion’s mane for the occasion. “It’s just for you,” he says, as we greet him, “lions are important to the Maasai, but we don’t kill wild animals to eat.” Inside the circular kraal, demarcated by rough-cut branches, the Maasai villagers are going about their daily business. Some are checking the cattle, while others do the washing or clean house. A group of young warriors sit in a circle to one side talking amongst themselves. Then one stands up and the rest follow and stand side by side.

In silence, with just the whistling of the wind, they start to jump. Higher, higher, higher into thin air they go, one by one. “They stay lean so they can jump high,” comments the chief, after one warrior reaches for the moon. Their red shukas against the indigo sky are blindingly bright, and I ask the chief why the Maasai chose red for their traditional clothing. “It’s so we can see each other far across the land,” he smiles. “We only like red, not like the Samburu who like all bright colours. I think red also scares away lions.” I’m not buying his story, and smile back unconvinced. “Ok,” he says, “the Maasai chose to wear red so that in the tribal battles the enemy couldn’t see when we were bleeding. Now we just like the colour and are proud to wear our shukas.” They’re also proud custodians of the dappled savannascape of the Maasai Mara. That slice of timeless old Africa where the herds still gather just as they always have. And the people jump for joy.

Sidebar

Travel Advice:

For photographic safaris and tours to Kenya and various other destinations contact:
C4 Images and Safaris
www.c4safaris-images.co.za
email: minette@c4images-safaris.co.za
Tel: 087 805 7641(SA); +27 (0) 12 993 1946 (international)

Stay at:

Entim Maasai Mara
www.entim-mara.com
email: info@entim-mara.com

Laikipia Wilderness Camp
www.laikipia-wilderness.com
email: annabelle@laikipia-wilderness.com