29 September 2009

The Migration: The Greatest Show on Earth

We were pretty worried for this trip as Kenya faced the worst drought to hit the country in over a decade. The so-called "long rains" that usually fall in March and April failed this year, and some areas have now been in drought conditions for almost three years. No one knows why the drought has been so bad. Many attribute it to global warming, but others say it is simply part of the long-term weather cycle in East Africa.

Luckily, by the time our Squiver Phototrip started, so had the rain. On our first night in Nairobi we got some serious showers and we were all hoping the same was happening in the Masai Mara. On our flight to the Mara we didn't know what to expect - how many wildebeest would be there, if any?

The annual wildebeest migration happens from July-September between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Thousands of wildebeest and zebras make the seasonal migration in search of food during this time, and predators such as lions take advantage of their movements. From July-August the wildebeest cross the Grumeti River in Tanzania on their way to Kenya.

When we flew over the Mara, we couldn't believe our eyes: there were wildebeest as far as our eyes could see, literally covering the landscape. It was a wonder we could land the plane without hitting some of them! The following days the weather was perfect; fresh in the morning, nice and warm during the day, and usually some showers in the afternoon. We could see the landscape getting greener and the wildebeest certainly enjoyed the fresh grass.

Obviously, we all wanted to see a crossing, which is actually easier said than done. It takes a lot of time, and luck, to see one. On several occasions we waited on the edge of the Mara river, sometimes watching thousands of wildebeest piling up on the other side, gathering courage to cross. But the Mara river is infested with huge Nile crocodiles, so it's understandable the wildebeest are a bit hesitant. And if one wildebeest gets spooked, they all run off. Patience is the key to success, and eventually we got to see a crossing from very close by. The water level was still low and there were no crocs in the water, which made it a lot easier for the wildebeest. Quite an impressive sight!

Of course wildebeest were not the only species we saw on this trip. We got some good lion sightings, lots of elephants and even a cheetah kill. Again, our patience paid off. We saw that the cheetah was watching a small group of gazelles from a distance, and decided to wait and see. The cheetah was just sitting and watching and didn't seem all that interested, the gazelles were pretty far away and the cheetah was not making any effort getting closer. But then it suddenly started to move towards the gazelles, first creeping, then trotting and then running at full speed. By the time the gazelles noticed what was happening, the cheetah was already half way there. One of the gazelles was still a young baby, and the cheetah tried to confuse it and separate if from its parents, an effective strategy. Moments after it took off, the cheetah caught the gazelle - it was all over before we knew it. Something we will not easily forget.

Another highlight was the balloon trip over the Masai Mara. It's already impressive to see so many wildebeest on the ground, but you don't realize the magnitude of this phenomenon until you see it from the air. Thousands of wildebeest forming long trails covering the landscape below, zebras and impalas running across the plains, and hippos and crocs in the rivers. Our pilot landed the balloon in the middle of the Masai Mara, after which we had a bush breakfast with a long line of wildebeest passing only a hundred meters away from us. The perfect end to a perfect morning.

Thanks to all participants for a wonderful trip, we hope to see you again!

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