From God's Own Country to the wilderness of Masai Mara

Animals migrate from the drier grasslands of Serengeti (Tanzania) into the green pastures of Mara (Kenya) to eat the fresh grass and graze and browse their way to turn back on a reverse migration back to Serengeti in September-October (all controlled by Rain). Photo: KR Vancheeswaran

Travelling to the right place can always enlighten people, unfolding new ideas, updating their vision of life, and altering their approach to nature. And for a wildlife enthusiast, it is a dream to visit Masai Mara, the Animal Kingdom in the African country of Kenya.

Remember the mammoth migration of millions of animals including wild beasts, zebras, antelope, and others that had us glued to the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels!

Calling of the Wild: Wild Africa
This is where it takes place. The vast expanses of marshy grasslands called savannahs, where the inhabitants of the animal world from the Serengeti Wildlife Zone to the Mara Region set out on a journey tracking the rains. Recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of Africa and also listed among the ten wonders of the world, the Masai Mara is a must-visit spot at least once in a lifetime.

Though called Masai Mara, the natives call the wildlife reserve The Mara, a large Wildlife Reserve in Narok, Kenya, which is contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The wildlife reserve is named in honour of the Masai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area, who had migrated from the Nile Basin much earlier.

Tourism entrepreneur and wildlife consultant travel KR Vancheeswaran (left) with a tribesman at Masai Mara, Kenya. The group (right) led by Vancheeswaran with the masai people.

The wildlife reserve is also renowned for its exceptional population of lions, leopards, and cheetahs.

In some of the well-known wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala as well as India, animal sightings were very much dependent on the ‘luck factor’ as the animals are scared of the sound of the vehicles and sceptical of human presence. But in Mara, the animals have a carefree attitude towards humans and the tourists are also very much respectful of the animal world.

The Mecca of Wildlife!
According to KR Vancheeswaran (Vanchy), a tourism entrepreneur turned wildlife enthusiast, who is a trainer in eco-tourism initiatives of the forest department and also a consultant in plantation tourism for many plantation groups, Masai Mara is the Mecca of wildlife.

Now accompanying wildlife enthusiasts across the world, Vanchy went to Mara for the third time this month leading a group. Having worked in various countries on the African continent, Vancheeswaran returned to India and started his wildlife resort in Wayanad in 1998.

A few members of the group in the reserve. Photo: Shylesh C P

But the call of the jungle was too loud in him; Vanchy leased out the resort and started a quest for the perfect wildlife zones, travelling from one jungle to the other. And Africa always beckoned him with its richest wildlife reserves in the world.

"Anyone who has lived in Africa would want to go more and more to this lovely continent," he said, with memories of his visits splashing in his mind and his eyes sparkling with lofty wild experiences. Having left African soil in 2003, Vanchy was always eager to seize any opportunity to travel to his favourite space, which is the calmest and greenest of all wildlife reserves. "Thus born my trips to Serengeti and Mara in 2012 with a batch of 12 persons, Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Naivasha in 2018 with a batch of 10, and now this year Mara and Amboseli with a 14-member batch," he said.

Amboseli is known for African elephants. Photo: Shylesh C P

The group, which started its journey from Mumbai, reached Nairobi by Kenyan Airways after a six-and-a-half-hour flight. Mara is another six-hour drive away. The road trip, through the lovely Kenyan countryside, is as good as the destination.

En route, travellers could climb the escarpment to see the Great Rift Valley stretching from Jordan to Mozambique, spanning around 6,400 km! Four hours into the road trip comes Narok, a sleepy tiny hamlet metamorphosed into a tier 2 city with all facilities for tourists, including shopping malls, etc. The Masai Mara comes under Narok County.

"Some of this countryside grows lots of maize, corn, and vegetables, which you can see people selling on the way! Most of the curio shops provide clean and neat washrooms for visitors, unlike in our country," Vanchy said.

An impala spotted during the trip. Photo: K R Vancheeswaran

"The first safari of our team was a grand opening of zebras and gnus through the grassland of Mara to sight a few herds of impalas (medium-sized antelope) and Thompson’s gazelles (small antelope). When our walkie-talkie erupted with the news of the sighting of a love-sick lion and lady, up we went, and since they were love-struck, we found them just there, lazily eyeing the jeeps and seeing their intimate moments! Walkie-talkie is an approved communication method in Kenya and helps keep in touch not only for sightings but also in times of trouble in the bush."

"The next safaris unfolded the will to survive: the migration of gnus/zebras predominantly with other antelope—not in hundreds but in thousands—as far as the eyes can see, only a sea of black and black-white! A spectacle to behold!"

Animals Chasing the Rain
These animals migrate from the drier grasslands of Serengeti (Tanzania) into the green pastures of Mara (Kenya) to eat the fresh grass and graze and browse their way to turn back on a reverse migration back to Serengeti in September-October (all controlled by Rain). In their frenzy to feed and procreate, they dive through the treacherous waters of crocodile-infested Mara River—some perish, many survive—mating, giving birth, and moving with the lone objective of "survival."

The group got a different perspective on the migration and Mara crossing on a hot air balloon. Photo: K R Vancheeswaran

"Having witnessed both migration and Mara crossing, we hit the zenith with the experience of a lifetime on a hot air balloon, which provides a different perspective of the land and animals. After an hour of being in the air, we grounded in all senses with a bush breakfast with champagne! Oh, what a way to end the Mara visit!"

The next stop of Vanchy and his team was at the Amboseli Wildlife Zone, the land of the gentle giants, which nests a large number of African elephants, the biggest among the tuskers. "Not to be disappointed, we were treated with herds and herds of elephants, each herd having a population of 50 to 100."

Architech Shylesh CP (right) and his wife Deepa (left) during the trip. Photo: Shylesh CP

According to Shylesh CP, an architect from Wayanad and another member of the travel group, the visit to Masai Mara was an eye-opener on how to manage a wildlife region with the participation of local people. "In Wayanad, we had been discussing how to ensure a washroom cum toilet facility for tourists along the highways with the participation of farmers," he said, adding that none of them had materialised so far. "At each tourism spot and en route, we can see countless curio shops with washroom facilities," he said. "Most of the tribals are connected with the tourism industry in one way or another. Everywhere we can see tribal men in their traditional attire serving as security guards, forest guides, curio sellers, folk-art performers, and many more," he said.

Ostriches spotted during the Masai Mara trip. Photo: K R Vancheeswaran

Being close to the Tanzania border, the major water source of the region is the melted ice from the Kilimanjaro Mountains in Tanzania. There is a groundwater channel through which the water penetrates the marshy zones of the Amboseli, providing refuge for millions of animals during droughts in other parts. "We had the most amazing wildlife sightings at

Amboseli, the endless expanse of marshy grasslands where we can watch the giant African elephants with herds ranging from 70 to 100, from 150-200 meters away," he said.

Tourists can witness the horrific part of the animal migration at the banks of Mara River, where one can see countless skeletons of animals scattered. They might be attacked by their carnivorous counterparts waiting patiently under the grass cover. "We have seen countless hunting scenes when the animals cross the Mara River into the ring of foes, including waiting lions and cheetahs. The river is also dangerous as countless crocodiles wait underwater to have a good feast," Shylesh said.

Tourists can watch African elephants with herds at Amboseli. Photo: K R Vancheeswaran

The migration time is a feasting time for carnivorous animals of the region. They keep low in the grass fields and attack the prey the moment they enter the land crossing the river. "In the sky, you can also see countless vultures waiting for their turn to attack the animals and take away their share of the flesh," Shylesh said.

Toilets for tourists are extremely clean at the reserve. Photo: Shylesh CP

Having visited many wildlife reserves back home, Shylesh said, "At Masai Mara, the animals are free in the presence of humans, whereas the animals back home are in the habit of hiding from humans. At Mara, they hunt, mate, graze, and are free to do whatever they want, even in the presence of humans," he said.

One of the tourists, Deepa, with a Masai Man. Photo: Shylesh CP

"I don’t know how many times I have seen the migration of animals on the National Geographic Channel in my lifetime," said Deepa Shylesh, a government official from Wayanad. "I never even dreamt of viewing the phenomenon in front of my eyes."

"I have no words to depict the visuals, the flow of a sea of animals. I have witnessed nothing so wonderful to date in my life, and it will not be in my future," she added.

"And on toilets, they were extremely clean, and the most amazing thing was there was no water, only tissue paper, as the region at times faces extreme scarcity of water, this is the system they have," she said.

"Though initially we were a little embarrassed, during the days going by we were also used to the system," she added. "As a woman, a clean toilet was a much-wanted element in many of the tourism spots back in India, but in this part of Africa, we never faced this issue. Everywhere we had extremely clean toilets," she said.

"Eight wonderful days, living amid the wildest of the wild world! We returned home with cherished visuals of the elephant herds joyfully grazing in vast grasslands on the catchments of vast water pools under the shades of the youngest and tallest mountain of Africa, Kilimanjaro, the great migration of animals, hunting cheetahs, mating love-struck lions, and lion cubs napping under the Doum Palm trees.

"An African experience! Par excellence!! Asante Sana"

('Asante Sana' means 'Thank you' in Swahili, the language spoken on the East Coast of Africa)

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