Masai Mara: along the Mara river

Our photographic trip to the Masai Mara was based at Wild Eye’s Mara river bush camp called Enkishui. This camp is located on the banks of the Mara river about two kilometres up river from the Purungat bridge. The Mara river played an intimate role in our wanderings and sightings during the six days we spent in the Mara triangle in early November last year.

“Only by understanding how the world around us works, can we understand our bodies and live well in and with nature and among others.”
~ Julia H Sun

The Mara river originates in the swamps and forests on the Mau Escarpment in the Nakuru district of Kenya. The Mau Escarpment is a steep natural rampart along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley in western Kenya. The escarpment is around 3 000m above sea level and receives rainfall of around 1 400mm each year. The streams that exit the forest and descend over 1 000 m down the southern slope of the escarpment form the Nyangores and Amala Rivers in the upper basin. These two tributaries merge to form the Mara river.

As the Mara continues through the protected areas of Masai Mara National Reserve it is joined by the Engare Ngobit and then the Talek tributaries. The enlarged Mara river snakes its way through the Masai Mara National Reserve and exits under the Purungat bridge. Once in the Serengeti in Tanzania it is joined by the Sand river after which it flows west down to lake Victoria at Mara Bay which is around 1 800m below its source.

“The universe and all creation are there for you to connect your spirit to, and you are special part of the whole. If you can sense the wonder of the vast infinite and eternal universe, your spirit will be lifted to great heights and you will tap the source of your life energy.”
~ Timothy Simpson

In the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks, the Mara River sustains one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world—the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and various antelope which arrive in the Mara Basin during the dry season in search of water and to forage. It also sustains the region’s incredible biodiversity, from forest ecosystems to the multitudes of migrating herbivores between Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve and back again.

This sign at Purungat bridge only refers to the Kenyan section of the Mara river basin.

The Mara river is 395 km long and has a drainage area of 13 750 square kilomteres (sq kms) of which 8 967 sq kms (65 %) is located in Kenya and 35 % in Tanzania. The Masai Mara National Reserve contributes around 17% of the drainage area of Mara River Basin in Kenya. The Mara River basin is bounded by the Soit Ololo, or Oloololo, Escarpment on the west, and the Loita and Sannia plains in the east.

You just never know what you will see along the Mara river no matter what the time of day. This was the iconic male lion, Scar, exuding his dominance at dusk.

Flowing from the high mountains of the Mau escarpment in Kenya to the Mara bay of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Mara River is one of the most ecologically significant rivers in the region. The plains receive only half of the rain received in the Mau escarpment .

The Mara River currently has no major dams acting to significantly modify its flow regime. Peak river flows average 300 cubic metres per second, though this can vary from 90 to 400 cubic metres per second. To put this flow rate into perspective, the Zambesi river flows at an average of around 3 500 cubic metres per second and the mighty Congo river flows at a average rate of about 41 000 cubic metres per second. So this is a relatively small river by African standards but it plays a vital role in the wilds of the Masai Mara and northern Serengeti.

Looking from the Purungat bridge down river into the Serengeti. A flock of white-backed vultures had been cleaning and sunning themselves on the rocks. This is often an area where the wildebeest carcasses stack up when there had been a tragic crossing.

A view of hippo pools where, of course, you will see pods of hippos. This is also a major crossing point in the the migration season.

There are plenty of pods of hippo along the Mara river because it flows all year round. Just up river from Figtree crossing, we saw this female hippo with her calf. Judging from all the bite marks on her right flank she must have got into a fight while protecting her calf. Needless to say the yellow-billed oxpeckers were doing their cleaning work on her wounds.

One of a triad of three year old nomad male lions resting on the Mara triangle side of the Mara river. This nomad was watching the antics of two pairs of Egyptian geese down on the sand island in the Mara river. The deep shallows show its was still early in the morning with the rising sun in the east.

Looking up river from where the nomads were resting. It shows how much the Mara river meanders through this relatively flat section of the Masai Mara National Reserve and also shows how deeply the river has cut into the thick soils. The steepness of banks in certain sections of the river ensure much drama when the wildebeest decide to cross the river at this point.

“No price is too great to pay for inner peace. Peace is the harmonious control of life. It is vibrant with life-energy. It is a power that easily transcends all our worldly knowledge. Yet it is not separate from our earthly existence. If we open the right avenues within, this peace can be felt here and now.”
~ Sri Chinmoy.

A single male lion looking at the three nomads from the other side of the Mara river. We were hoping that he would cross and was perhaps part of the coalition but after watching the triad for about 15 minutes he wandered off back up the hill away from the Mara river.

The Wild Eye camp is located on the banks of the Mara river. The proximity ensures you are serenaded by hippos during the night and you can occasionally hear leopards coughing and lions roaring. Being a bush camp you really feel like you are immersed in the wildness of the place.

We left the camp just as the sun was rising and this was the view through the croton bushes looking south onto the Mara river.

Just after we had left our camp road and turned onto the main reserve road to the Purungat bridge, we saw this young female leopard in the early morning light making her way along the edge of the croton grove next to the Mara river.

There are many fantastic dramatic photographs of wildebeest and zebras crossing the Mara river. They all fear one predator in particular, the one they cannot see under the water when they cross the muddy Mara river – the Nile crocodile. On average, a Nile crocodile can live for up to 70 years even in the wild. Their age dictates their size and the larger older crocodiles have seen many crossings and must have vast knowledge and experience when it comes to hunting in the Mara’s muddy waters.

On average, the adult Nile crocodile can grow to between 2,8 and 5 metres in length with the the Kenyan Nile crocodile in the Mara River averaging of about 3.65 meters. The adult crocs can weigh between 70 to 700 kg, averaging about 200 kg in the Mara River. These crocs can survive for long periods between meals – though when they do eat, they can eat up to half their body weight at a time!! !

The Nile crocodile is a sexually dimorphic animal, meaning the males are physically different to the females. The males grow to between 25%-35% larger than the females, but a female is bulkier than male with the same length. This species does not reach an adult size but keeps growing as long as it lives. Adult males can be between 2-5 meters long; larger males can weigh close to 700 kilograms. Due to their growth and long lifespan, the upper limit of their age and size is still unknown. There have been records of large wild crocs, measuring more than 6 metres in length and 900 kg in weight.

Maui Maui is a well frequented migration crossing point and it is easy to see why this is the case. It has relative flat entry and exit points. What does make it tricky for the animals is that it is full of rocks and there are rapids to catch those that cannot swim fast enough through the flat water. The crocs are usually waiting for the exhausted swimmers at the bottom of the rapids.

Later in the afternoon we went back to where we had last seen the nomads but as is usual in the bush, nothing stays the same. We drove down to Peninsula point, which was another major migration crossing point but all was quiet except our guide, Jimmy, saw a leopard moving along the bank in the gloom. How he picked up the visual of the leopard in the first place I will never know.

That in-between time in the bush is when the fragrances are released by the latent temperature change and when the bush seems to holds its breath for a few magical moments.

“There is a universal, intelligent, life force that exists within everyone and everything. It resides within each one of us as a deep wisdom, an inner knowing. We can access this wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom through our intuition, an inner sense that tells us what feels right and true for us at any given moment.” ~ Shakti Gawain.

We were surprised to see wildebeest and zebra still massing on the west side of river in early November. In the foreground, the Mara river is bordered by bushes which disguise the steep banks at the Figtree crossing point. The animals further back against the hill were grazing but watching the zebra and wildebeest massing next to the river. Interestingly, as soon as the numbers massing on the banks of the Mara river got to a certain point it triggered all the animals on the plains to make their way down to the crossing point.

We never did get to see a crossing although, at times like this, it looked like the crossing was about to happen. The odd animal did cross though.

The Mara river is a fascinating focal point in an otherwise diverse Masai Mara National Reserve. It sustains life and takes it away. It acts as a choke point in the massive migration which results in a huge build up of animals waiting to cross its lethal murky waters.

The major rivers in Africa on which I have been privileged to spend time, such as the Limpopo, Mara, Orange, Chobe, Zambezi and Congo have left an indelible mark on my psyche because of their indomitable presence.

“A river is water is its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike.

3 thoughts on “Masai Mara: along the Mara river

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s