The guard has the measure of us. He’s bored, probably hasn’t seen another visitor all day. It’s starting to drizzle, a chilling, seeping rain that reminds me of Scotland where I grew up. As the wind picks up, gusting over the desolate moorland, I wonder what on earth we’re doing here. “Two thousand each,” the guard says, looking speculatively at the skies, rapidly darkening with every moment we dither. “And you’ll need a ranger.” I argue that it should cost 1,000 shillings, and point to the noticeboard with the advertised prices. We’re right, but the argument at this point is futile.
We’re at the furthest, most remote edge of the Maasai Mara at Sand River gate, ordinarily a Mecca for the seasoned campers shunning expensive lodges. Although still, barely, in Kenya, I feel as if we could touch the wide expanse of Tanzania and the Serengeti.
Like most, I have typically experienced the Mara in a conventional way: flying in, staying at a luxurious tented camp and surrendering my independence for a couple of days to experienced Maasai guides armed with an intimate knowledge of the reserve and the animals within.
But a stay in a plum Mara lodge usually requires a hefty chunk of one’s savings. There are ways to slash costs, not least by piling into a crowded minibus with a bunch of sweaty tourists. Or, you can DIY it, driving your own car, picking your own lodges, and even camping. But would the wildlife experience be anything like as good?
By the time we pulled into the Aruba Mara camp, a campsite a hundred metres outside the Talek gate, the car was making the first of its ominous, clanking sounds that would dog the trip.
We were not experts in pitching tents, and certainly not in the darkness. The first we found to have no fly sheet, the second became a tangled mess. Luckily, I had a couple of spares, and Edward, our Maasai host, quickly took us under his wing, and showed us how the experts do it. Sweat pouring down my brow, I suggested we retire to the bar for some food and drink. “Closed now,” he said. “You should have rung ahead.”
Instead of heading out on a game drive the next morning, we watched a mechanic wriggle into position underneath the battered Toyota Prado, and solder broken parts together. I parted with 500 shillings, and we hit the road again. We meandered through the park, marvelling at the plethora of wildebeest, which had in earlier weeks started their arduous journey to the Mara, braving the treacherous rivers with gaping crocodiles lying in wait.
Spotting big game – particularly the cats – is something of a science. An experienced guide will notice an empty clearing where droppings indicate that plains game were recently grazing, and surmise a big cat might be lurking in the undergrowth nearby. We had no such innate sense, and instead used our observation skills to spot a cluster of minibuses that might suggest something interesting nearby.
En route to our next night’s lodging, Julia’s River Camp, a budget lodge situated in a prolific wildlife-viewing part of the reserve, we lost our way. The Mara is short on signs, and maps are of little use when dozens of unmarked tracks criss cross the plains. It was 7:00 pm, and dark, not a twinkling light to be seen, and we were driving around in circles. The wildlife was the least of my worries – far more concerning was the prospect of a zealous ranger catching us breaking the golden rule of never driving at night.
I called the lodge and James, the manager then, asked us to describe where we were. “Um, somewhere near the river, but it has opened out a bit,” I faltered as a hyena slunk in front of our headlights. “Stay where you are,” he said, “and we’ll drive out to find you.”
The next day, I asked a ranger who to call if lost in the Mara at night. “You shouldn’t be driving in the reserve at night,” he admonished. “I know,” I said, “but say you do get lost, and it gets dark, who do I call?” He looked at me unsympathetically, and said, “You shouldn’t drive in the reserve without a guide if you don’t know the way.”
After a night on stony ground, Julia’s offered a spot of luxury. We had a simple dinner, chatted around the campfire, and retired to a fairly spartan, yet comfortable, furnished tent which I didn’t have to leave to go to the loo.
The next morning, we ditched the car for a game drive in one of the camp’s vehicles. I hadn’t yet seen any cats, and I wondered if a budget safari means economising on the wildlife experience. But my doubts were soon dispelled. James stopped the car, and smiling broadly, said, “Cheetah.” We watch the group of male cats prowl just metres away from the vehicle. As I fiddled with my camera, James whispered, “Watch, they’re going to hunt.”
All my adult life I have dreamt of seeing a cheetah give chase, reaching the incredible speeds (100 kph) that make it such a successful predator. And now we watched breathlessly as a cheetah launched itself into the chase at full pelt, the wildebeest in its sights vainly trying to outrun it. Within moments of the kill – while the cheetah were still catching their breath – a pair of hyenas arrived on the scene, and snatched the wildebeest from under the cheetahs’ noses. They burrowed their snouts in the unfortunate beast, tearing at chunks of flesh, bone and entrails, raising their blood-coated faces only to snarl at the gathering vultures and jackals, all longing for a bit of the kill. What we’d witnessed was the whole, bloody cycle of death in the Mara, with not a minibus of tourists in sight.
Later, we hit car trouble again, the near front wheel starting to emit a highpitched screeching sound of metal on metal. A colleague holidaying in the Mara texted us excitedly, giving us a blow-by-blow account of the wildebeest crossing the river, crocodiles snapping at the beasts plunging ungainly through the surging waters as they made their great trek north from the Serengeti. Come quickly, she urged, while it’s still going on. But the car was going nowhere, and nor were we. “I can’t believe we’re here during the migration and we missed it,” I muttered to Brian.
The mechanic patched the car back together – and we were ready to go. By now, it was 400 pm and prime game viewing time. But we were pressed for time and whizzed past grazing wildebeest, zebra and a herd of elephants, intent on reaching Sand River before nightfall.
And so here we were, at the ends of the earth – or so it felt. After his lukewarm welcome, the guard led us away from the gate to a charming spot under a tree on the river bank, and our spirits started to pick up. We pitched our tents and huddled next to a campfire, set up by the rangers who would keep us safe for the night.
I awoke early, and surveyed our surroundings in an entirely new light. The sun started to edge its way over the horizon, spreading a golden, ochre hue over the boulders and surrounding moorland. Hundreds of campers before us had woken to the same view and I started to appreciate why Sand River is considered one of the country’s more magical wild campsites.