Nature's endless struggle plays out amid the splendor of Masai Mara KENYA'S BIG GAME

April 02, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya -- Nature has provided few more spectacular stages for its incessant drama than these open plains on the southern edge of Kenya.

That drama takes many forms, the touching interplay between elephant mother and child, the graceful dance of a lithe gazelle, the amusing antics of a bodacious baboon.

But never is it more acute and demanding than when it is the life-and-death struggle between predator and prey. It was in the hopes of seeing that most spectacular of an African game reserve's shows that we had parked our Land Rover 100 yards or so away from a cheetah.

At that point, we had spent the better part of two days here on the Masai Mara and had seen enough animals -- in number and variety -- to challenge the imagination. So settling in next to a cheetah for what might be a long and ultimately uneventful wait did not make us restless, wondering what we were missing over the next rise. We were content to sit back, wait and enjoy the view as the sun neared the horizon, lengthening the shadows and enriching the colors. That view takes in miles and miles of the classic East African landscape, the open plains dotted with the occasional thorn tree.

With a cheetah washing itself in the foreground and gazelles, zebras and elephants dotting the background in vast numbers, the visual experience becomes an emotional one, comparable to coming across one stunning work of art after another at one of the world's great museums.

The Masai Mara, a 600-square-mile reserve, is only the tip of the Serengeti iceberg, the northern 4 percent of the famed plain that extends far to the south, deep into Tanzania.

Every July or August, more than 1 million wildebeests -- those bearded animals that look like a cross between a bison and a mountain goat -- journey from Tanzania to the lusher grasses of Kenya, returning in October or November when the rains arrive in the south.

We had come in December, too late for that awe-inspiring migration when the wildebeests, along with zebras and gazelles, risk death by drowning or crocodile in their swims across the Mara River, but still a fine time to appreciate the other offerings of this most famous of Kenya's game parks.

Indeed, such is its fame that the Masai Mara has become a cliche for some African wildlife aficionados. In some places it's too crowded with minivans sprouting cameras and jockeying for position around a pride of lions for the true African experience.

But those complaints are centered on the eastern edge of the park, the closest to Nairobi, easiest to reach by car from Kenya's major city. On the advice of an experienced Kenya hand, we had traveled to the northwestern segment, where the lodges and the Land Rovers are relatively few and far between.

It is best to fly to the Mara from Nairobi, a 45-minute hop on a scheduled Kenya Airlines flight, instead of spending hours on the erratic roads. Usually, your first game is spotted as you come in for a landing at one of the several airstrips that serve the various lodges.

Our destination was Little Governor's Camp, one of four operated around the site chosen by Kenya's British colonial governors for their hunting camp. As you might expect, Little Governor's is the smallest of these, 17 twin-bedded, bathroom-equipped permanent tents in a semicircle around a marsh.

After a bumpy ride from the airstrip on a dirt road, you descend to the banks of the Mara River along earthen steps and clamber into a small boat for a rope-pulled ferry ride over the brown waters. Look carefully, and you may see the protruding eyeballs and nostrils of a hippopotamus.

Lunch with the animals

We arrived at Little Governor's in time for lunch, an open-air affair of grilled meats and a selection of salads. Just as we sat down, as if on cue, an elephant emerged from the trees to graze the marsh grass, joined a few minutes later by the mass of a hippopotamus, arising from the waters for a rare daytime excursion onto dry land. It was a backdrop that made you giggle with anticipation of what lay ahead.

At Little Governor's, each group is assigned a driver and 4-by-4 for the duration of its stay. That meant the four of us, my wife and our two boys, 9-year-old Albert and 6-year-old Owen, got a personal tour every day conducted by Geoffrey Jomo, a five-year veteran of the Governor's camps.

Mr. Jomo was quietly friendly and impressively knowledgeable. He met us for the 3 p.m. drive, bounced our open-topped Land Rover along the dirt road through a small forest full of baboons, then drove us out onto the open plain. A few minutes later we pulled up beside a pride of lions, lazily rolling in the long grass.

In the background, the various families of elephants in this part of the Mara were getting together for what Mr. Jomo said was a yearly ritual during which they exchanged adolescent members, thereby avoiding inbreeding. There were about 75 in this gathering, from long-tusked bulls to nursing babies.

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