The COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world in 2020 seemed to upend everything. Busy city streets became deserted, aeroplanes disappeared from the skies and face masks became ubiquitous. Having spent the first year of the pandemic in Nairobi and Hong Kong, we saw reminders everywhere we looked. But one place at least seemed unaffected: the Maasai Mara. Here, antelopes, giraffes and wildebeests kept grazing the savannah, exactly as before. Lions and cheetahs kept on hunting them, oblivious to our human disease. Even the semi-nomadic Maasai people continued life much as before, herding their cattle across the open plains.
The only thing that was missing was the tourists. Other than the Maasai, the few people in the Mara were Nairobi residents like us, tentatively returning to domestic tourism as the sector opened up following the relaxation of travel restrictions. We visited in November 2020, using a booking originally made for April, during the height of the first wave.
We flew in a tiny twelve-seater plane from Nairobi’s second airport, Wilson. The plane was so small that the pilot and co-pilot sat on regular seats at the front, like in a bus, and we were only allowed to bring small soft bags. After a 40-minute flight, we came down over a very basic airstrip – just an earth runway on a flat area of open plain. Giraffe crossed a stream alongside the runway as we came in to land, looking strangely foreshortened from above.
From the airstrip, it was a one hour drive in an open-sided safari jeep to ‘House in the Wild’, where we were staying. This was in Enonkishu Conservancy, rather than the national park proper, which meant that the wildlife coexisted with Maasai herders. The open savanna was dotted with mud brick villages, plus the occasional school or church. Tall, red-robed herdsmen with large herds of cattle were almost as common a sight as the wild animals. It made for an interesting alternative to the national park and possibly a more sustainable one – everyone in the local community gets a percentage of the tourism fees, so local people have an incentive to maintain the wildlife. Poaching is very rare.
We wore masks whenever we were with other people but, being in the middle of nowhere and spending most of our time outdoors, we were able to relax in a way we hadn’t since the start of the outbreak. Friends who’d visited pre-pandemic told me that as soon as a guide spotted a predator, they would be joined by dozens of other safari cars, each trying to get closest to a kill. But it felt like we had the whole conservancy to ourselves. We barely saw another tourist all day.
We had an excellent Maasai guide and driver, Moses, who delivered a stunning array of wildlife encounters. The standout experience was the cheetah kill, which I described in part one of this blog, but that was far from the only one. Other highlights included:
A giraffe eating leaves from a thorn bush, using its long tongue (up to half a metre) to reach around the thorns and get at the leaves beneath. Giraffes love the leaves from the top of acacia and mimosa trees. Their tongues are prehensile, meaning they can grasp things. “They use their tongues to pull leaves from the tree,” Moses said. “The long length is also useful for finding and picking leaves among the thorns.”
A hyena peeking out of a burrow by the side of the road. “The hyena didn’t make this burrow,” Moses said, “It stole it from another animal.” Hyenas are not related to dogs or cats but are in their own family of mammals. They have unique bone-crushing teeth which allow them to munch down entire skeletons of large animals like wildebeest.
Speaking of which, a wildebeest with a lame back leg. Its herd arrived with the great migration two months before we did. “This one will not survive,” Moses said. “Some day soon a predator will come for it and it will not be able to run away.” The name wildebeest is derived from Dutch via Afrikaans and means wild beast or cattle.
The weird-looking secretary bird. This is a unique bird of prey that has an eagle-like head and body on crane-like legs. This one is probably a female – the males have even more head plumes. They are also famous snake killers. “It was looking for a black mamba to eat,” my son Zefi reminded me afterwards. The bird is not actually named after a secretary. More likely, its name derives from the Arabic ‘saqr-et-tair’ or ‘hunter bird’.
An eland antelope. Eland herds are often accompanied by a loud clicking sound. Scientists believe that the weight of the animal causes the two halves of its hooves to ease apart when walking, and the click comes when the hoof snaps back together. The sound carries some distance and may be a form of communication.
A herd of around 20 elephants, including a matriarch and some young calves. The adult elephants pulled branches off the trees and stripped the bark to eat.
A herd of buffalos with oxpecker birds perched on their heads. In a classic symbiotic relationship, the little birds pick out ticks from the buffalo’s hide to eat, keeping the buffalo clean and providing a good meal for the oxpecker. The buffalos will tolerate the birds and sit still, even as they explore inside the buffalo’s nostril with their beaks.
A bold warthog on the lawn of our safari lodge, the aptly-named ‘House in the Wild’.
After one of the drives, I had a chat with Moses. I asked him how he got into guiding. “My home is just 10 kms from House in the Wild, so I grew up around here,” he said. “My Maasai name is Titimet ole Nampaso but I also have an English name, Moses, which I got when I went to school. It was around 12 kms from my home to school. Every morning, I woke up at 5am and walked to class. And in the evenings, I did the same. So I used to run and that’s why I have a very streamlined body like a cheetah.”
After school, Moses went to college and studied wildlife and tour guiding. After graduating, he started working in the tourism industry. “I wanted to do something related to nature, because I grew up in this beautiful environment,” he explained. “I used to look after the cattle during school holidays and I would come across animals like elephants, buffalos, lions and lots of birds. So I got the interest to learn more.”
But African wildlife can also be dangerous, as Moses found out at a young age. “I learned how to stay on the safe side when you come across an elephant,” he said. “One time, when I took the cows to the water to drink, an elephant was already there. I was driving the herd to the water but then we disturbed the elephant and it started to charge. It chased the cattle away then it passed the cattle and started chasing me. So I had a 200 metre race with an African elephant.”
Moses had a lucky escape. “It nearly killed me, and probably would have except for the experience that I got from my father,” he continued. “I took off one of my shuka robes as I ran and threw it in a tree. The elephant thought the shuka was me and got distracted. It knocked the robe down and started stamping on it. That gave me the chance to run away. I made a few zig zags into the bush and got away. That was very lucky, wow.”
I told Moses that Joyce and I were big fans of BBC wildlife documentaries. It turned out that David Attenborough had been in Enonkishu Conservancy in 2018, filming the lion episode of ‘Dynasties’.
“We were on the same game drive, but he was in a different camp,” Moses recalled. “David was being guided by a friend of mine. They were featuring a male lion named Red, who was from a famous pride of lions called the Marsh Pride lions. And when they were filming Dynasties, I was on the same game drive with them. So I actually saw David with their vehicles, and that’s how I knew he was around.”