I have just returned from an exceptional photographic trip to the Masai Mara hosted by Coetzer Nature Photography (CNP). After arriving at Nairobi and an interesting journey across town, we took off in a light SafariLink plane from Wilson airport heading for the Masai Mara. This flight, lasting 45 minutes, took us over the Great Rift Valley and landed us in the northern part of the Mara Triangle, close to the Oloololo Gate. The migration is one of the main spectacles at this time of the year. The Mara river crossings usually start around June/July and end in October each year. This year the main body of the migration seemed to have taken place about three weeks earlier than normal. The migration involves mainly Wildebeest and Zebra but also Thomson’s Gazelle. These herbivores migrate in a clockwise direction from east to west across the Mara river.
Wildebeest apparently have no herd structure beyond the mother and calf relationship. This means that any individual can start a crossing. In the next image I have shown a small herd gathering on the east side of the Mara river, massing before they cross. This herd was very skittish with the slightest disturbance triggering a mass retreat. The tourist vehicles you can see closest to the river bank were a real problem as over enthusiastic game guides kept pushing too close to the crossing points resulting in the herd abandoning the crossing. This happened four times over three days. The Mara (which means spotted plains because of the Desert Date trees scattered across the plains) is relatively flat. As such the Mara river meanders through the plains in a snake-like fashion. This provides the animals with many places to cross. This sequence of images was taken at Fig Tree bend down close to the Tanzanian border. The river banks were steep in this part of the river.
Once massed there appears to be a push from the animals at the rear to drive the front animals to take the plunge. It is clear that the more experienced animals know exactly what the dangers are during the crossing. Not only do they have to run the gauntlet of huge Nile Crocodiles in the river but also carnivores such as Lion, Leopard and Hyaenas which are waiting for them the other side of the river. In places, the Mara river is deep and fast flowing, probably five kilometres per hour. Easily fast enough to sweep a weak swimmer downstream.
The first animals in a newly arrived group do not run straight into the river but mill around very unsure of whether to cross or not. They advance down to the river’s edge and are easily spooked by either a Hippo snorting or sight of a crocodile or Lion on the far bank. The herd can advance and retreat from the river’s edge a couple of times before they finally start to cross. This process can take hours. Sometimes the crossing is abandoned for that day. Patience and luck are key in seeing and photographing a crossing.
The modus operandi at a river crossing for the tourist vehicles on the west side of the Mara river was to stay back around 100 metres from the river’s edge until the first animal had entered the water, Then there was a mad dash to drive down to the river bank to get a good sighting of the crossing. Fortunately photographers with long lenses do not have to vie for the closest position.
The crossing starts in an orderly manner with a single line of animals swimming across the river. The crossing sometimes includes a mix of Wildebeest and Zebra but in the few crossings we saw, the Wildebeest tended to move first. It was not long before the order turned to a scramble. Any Hippo in the area knows to get out of harms way.
As the numbers of animals grow, so they kick up the dust making the scene more and more dramatic. Once the crossing starts the river turns a muddy brown.
The straight line of animals soon becomes a curve as the fast flowing water drags some of them downstream.
What seemed very strange to me was the wildebeeste on the bank especially those high up on the bank would watch the animals in the water and follow them down stream. Then all of a sudden on what seems to be a suicide route they would start to jump down the steep cliff in the bank to get the water’s edge and launch themselves into the river.
Once of the Wildebeest start jumping down the cliffs, the line of animals entering the river becomes fragmented and the crossing starts to become more chaotic.
The animals can hardly see so just seem to follow the animals around it.
It is clear that the animals are terrified of what they think is in the water.
The Wildebeest launch themselves off the steep river bank.
The dust gets thicker and the herding is dictated by the animals around them.
Once in the water, away from the dust the task of crossing the river starts in earnest.
Wildebeest are clearly not built for swimming so a herculean effort is required by them.
The fear in their eyes is evident.
Once they get to the other side of the river they either find an easy sand bank to climb onto and make their escape or else they face a rock outcrop.
It is remarkable how many of the Wildebeest make it across the river.
Once across they face the predators on the other side of the river and the smell of the sweeter Red Oat grass. Once this grass has been cropped the herbivores move on down to the Serengeti, usually toward the end of October.
What triggers 1.5 million Wildebeest and an estimated 300,00 Plains Zebra to make this daunting journey, no one knows for sure? They clearly need fresh grazing so perhaps the sound of thunder or smell of rain is the trigger. The prevailing wind in the Marais North West to South East.
The full spectacle of a crossing is indescribable because of the combination of animal movement, sounds and the enormity of it all.
This is the first of a number of posts each week showing images from our journey through the Masai Mara. The abundance and variety of game make me think Noah must have parked his ark at the gate and allowed the animals to just pour onto the plains.
I am going to link this post to CNP’s Facebook site and want to thank Lou and Veronica for an awesome experience. The sightings and experiences were way beyond my expectation. We don’t see plains like the Masai Mara in SA , other than in the Karoo and parts of the FreeState, which don’t accommodate the variety and quantum of game.
I hope over the next series of posts, one per week, I will convey the ‘specialness’ of the place.
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.
I hope you gained a sense of the spectacle of the crossing – until next week.