by Jacqueline Cutler
Tuesday, Sept. 14
Before I jump into today, remarkable even by those who live in the bush, I must tell of last night.
The strict rule at the camp is no one must ever go out alone at night. Last night, it was proven why. A guide, with a heavy flashlight and stick, was walking me to my tent, about three city blocks from where everyone congregates. There’s a bar, a hut to charge electronics and a restaurant.
The unmistakable scent of elephant poop hit me.
“Yes, we have elephants tonight,” the guide says with about the same level of enthusiasm that a waiter tells of daily specials. Some people would linger. I am not among them. I wasted no time in getting to my room. OK, I ran. Soon we could feel the ground vibrate and this morning, signs of the elephant.
The day officially started at 5:50 a.m. with a wake-up. What happens if you sleep in, where are the animals heading? But we were in jeeps and out by 6:30. We pass zebra and impala as the sun rises over Masai Mara.
Wildebeests are becoming commonplace; topi, waterbucks and gazelle roam. It’s cold enough that a long-sleeved shirt and sweatshirt are welcome. The sun rises fast and hot, and soon the stench of rotting animals hits.
Everyone hopes to see the crossing, when thousands of animals, in the midst of their migration, jump into the Mara River to get to the other side, maybe 50 yards, but it’s down a short, steep embankment.
This crossing is vital to the migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Lions lay low in the grass and the guide estimates some 6,000 wildebeest are gathering. A marabou stork, the size of a fourth grader, stands watch.
The wildebeest sound like a cross between goats bleating and cows mooing. We’re in the middle of the herd, as they run around us. Rush hour will never look the same. Nothing will.
Our driver spots elephants. Yes, one would think they are easily found, but this is a very big place. Soon, we are maybe 10 feet from a small herd, three adults, one not quite grown and two calves. We are close enough that I hear the grass being ripped from the ground.
We are in the middle of nowhere, so when the jeep breaks down, you don’t call for roadside service. Our driver and guide, Moses, smiles.
“In the bush, push,” he says.
So we push the jeep out of a rut and he tinkers with it, and return to driving really fast and furious. This would be a high-ticket ride at any amusement park.
By 11-ish, we’re back at camp, for breakfast. I was going to visit a Maasai village, as I want to learn more about their culture. I thought I had seen what there is to see in the bush. Thankfully, wiser people prevailed.
The buzz around camp was that the animals would cross this afternoon. Conservationist and filmmaker Dereck Joubert, who has lived in the bush for 28 years, and shot part of the National Geographic Channel series, had not seen this particular crossing. We return to the bush. Thousands of animals are gathered. They seemed so ready to cross.
What was stopping them?
The smells of a fresh kill? A lion is a powerful deterrent.
Zebras were in one gathering, wildebeests in another, thousands and thousands of animals poised by the river, waiting. What are they waiting for? What will it take for one to jump in?
The current is rapid, and the water is brown and foamy. Crocs snap open massive jaws and the crocodiles that do show themselves are shockingly huge. Really, why would any animal in its right mind jump in? They must. It is part of their migration.
Hours pass, we inch along, other jeeps join. Soon it is a herd of humans in jeeps, jockeying for space. It’s extremely hot. Clearly, the animals are going to cross, it’s just a matter of when. The humans focus their cameras, and at 2:15 p.m. local time, three wildebeests finally jump in. Zebras had inched in then thought the better of it. Within 10 minutes, each animal jumps in; zebras bop as they swim, wildebeests just get the job done fast. They scamper up the far side go on, on their migration.
One zebra drowned (though I didn’t see it) and one small zebra had so much trouble crossing. When it finally made it across, people who had been hushed, in their small jeeps, cheered.
Photos courtesy Jacqueline Cutler and Doan Nguyen