Photo - Robin Powell
The Masai Mara
It was a moment late in the afternoon of my first-ever game drive that hooked me. The sun had shone on the long golden grass most of the afternoon, but then dark clouds had rolled in from the south, dumped rain on us and hurried on. Now a rainbow arched over the yellow plain and its sparse population of ancient balanites trees and beneath the rainbow’s shimmering flag a group of zebra rustled through the grass. Kenya’s most famous visitor, Karen Blixen, once described safari as like drinking half a bottle of champagne, and now, fizzing with the beauty of it all, I could understand why.
Hooked, I would have been happy to drive in the landrover with my daughter Lil, and our Maasai guide, Elly, for hours every day even if we saw no animals, the landscape was so lovely. Partly that was due to good timing. Around July in the Mara Triangle in south-western Kenya, the red oat grass is at its maximum growth. Thigh-high and thick it fills the plain from the steep slopes of the Oloolooloo Ridge to the Ngama Hills on the other side of the Mara River. And all that grass means we were never going to drive without seeing animals; they were everywhere: more than two million wildebeest, zebra and iland migrate at this time of year, from the Serengeti in the south to these rich plains.
Cheetahs roam across a large territory on their own, and, unlike the wary leopards, are comfortable being watched by safari vehicles. Photo - Robin Powell
They join the giraffe who browse the bushes and keep the balanites trees pruned to uniform umbrellas; and the elephants who munch on hundreds of kilograms of leaves and grass a day; various antelopes and gazelle; fruit-eating monkey and baboons, and of course the predators further up the food chain. It’s those predators and the other big animals that are the glamorous stars of the safari experience, but we found we were just as thrilled by the bit players: the lilac-breasted roller, for instance, a bird coloured so brightly turquoise, with a lavender-coloured breast, that it looks like a child’s colouring-in exercise. We would gasp in delight as it swooped over the grass, twisting in the sun to show off that plumage.
A one day old giraffe is shaky on its spindly legs but alert as it stands by its mother. Photo - Robin Powell
We slipped easily into our safari routine. In the morning, our room steward would call from the little wooden terrace outside our tent, with coffee and hot chocolate. From our comfortable, wooden-floored tent, one of 40 in the Kichwa Tembo camp, we could see zebra, buffalo and giraffe on the other side of the electric fence that encircles the camp.
We would grab a quick breakfast in the large open dining room, keeping a sharp eye out for the blue-faced monkeys who like to pinch a piece of fruit from unwary diners, then join Elly for whatever the day might unfold on the plains. Some days we came back for lunch under the trees, eaten as the warthogs grazed on the grass, and the shy bushbuck hid in the trees, others we picnicked far from any lion territory, surrounded by grunting wildebeest. Most afternoons we went out again, and came back to drinks by the infinity-edged pool as the sun set.
Millions of wildebeest, more correctly called white-bearded gnu, migrate to the Masai Mara in July to graze on the long grass. In a month they will have eaten it to dust. Photo - Robin Powell
The staff are mostly Maasai villagers who work at the camp for six weeks at a time, then return to their homes, and their traditional way of life, for two weeks. They seem to have no trouble straddling these two very different worlds and were keen to share details of their life, and to teach us a few Swahili words. So when my daughter spotted a young lioness dragging her kill through the long grass, she could confidently announce ‘Simba!’. We added the sight of the panting young lioness to our list of favourites, and it was a long list!
We saw a secretary bird stab with its dagger-sharp claws at something in the grass, then triumphantly pick up a still-twisting bright green grass snake and gobble it down; sat while fluffy hyena cubs tumbled with each other and waited for their mother to come home; and watched in awe as two topi warred with each other for supremacy, crashing their heads together with fearsome force. We saw a cheetah hotfoot across the still-smoking charcoal of a recently-burned patch of grass; watched the wildebeest surge across the river, and gasped as crocodiles snatched at the unlucky outriders.
A cheetah takes up a vantage point on top of a termite mound. An unwary warthog could be in trouble. Photo - Robin Powell
After just four nights our time was up and we made our last drive out of camp to the airstrip cleared in the middle of the plain. We drove past the elephants that loved to browse in the scrub by the creek, past the muscled giraffe posed on the ridge and yet another crowd of glossy, fat-bottomed zebra. Hooked. I can’t imagine not seeing it all again.
The local wildlife is ever a challenge for the vegetable gardener. In the city the problems might include misbehaving cats and dogs, or marauding possums. Out in the country, wallabies eat everything the lyrebirds haven’t scratched out of the ground first. But we have nothing to complain about in comparison to the Maasai people who try to garden where there are elephants. Elephants eat for 20 hours a day to maintain that impressive size, a size that can reduce a garden to dust in minutes. Yet there is a vegetable elephants won’t go near – kale. The Maasai grow it to add to their traditional diet of cow’s milk and blood.
Photo - Robin Powell
George Musembi, Executive Chef at Kichwa Tembo, also grows it in the two organically managed vegetable gardens that provide the fresh produce for guest meals and for each day’s 150 staff meals. While elephants aren’t a problem in these gardens, as the entire camp is surrounded by an electric fence, baboons and monkeys certainly are. George’s solution is bananas - literally. Like so many children, if given a choice, the monkeys will eat bananas over vegetables any day so George has planted borders of bananas all around the garden. If he can keep up the supply of bananas, his vegetables are safe. He encourages the staff to plant bananas too, and pays them for any fruit they can provide for the cause.
He shows off his success at lunch under the spreading shade of an avocado tree. At a table sprinkled with rose petals, and surrounded by beds of greens, fruiting veg and herbs, with pumpkins and nasturtium hanging off the fences, he serves us the fresh salads and vegetable dishes that are so sorely missed when travel allows only hotel and restaurant food. And for dessert, no it’s not a banana split, but lemon syllabub with fresh strawberries.
Photo - Robin Powell
See for yourself
Kichwa Tembo is an hour from Nairobi by plane. Air Kenya and Safarilink both have several services a day. The camp is part of the & Beyond group. Rates range from US$200 to US$375 per night per person depending on the season and include meals, and morning and evening game drives. There is a separate daily fee of US $60 to enter the Masai Mara national park. For more details go to www.andbeyondafrica.com
Text: Robin Powell