To Hear a Lion Roar
On Safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara
by our loyal supporter Juliane Polster
photographs by Iris Hunt
Many years later and thousand of miles away, we have left a cloudy Nairobi behind us following the footsteps of Leo’s ancestors. In less than an hour, the vast expanse of one of the world’s most famous game reserves appears below us – we are in the heart of the Maasai Mara.
It is hard to imagine that this sweeping grassland is a mere 200 kilometers away from Kenya’s buzzing capital. During the next 3 days, our keen and hugely knowledgeable driver will cover with us hundreds of kilometers of Africa’s untamed beauty.
For now, we are en route to our temporary home advertised as “tented camp” near a seasonal river where our only neighbors are hippos submerged some feet below the surface. Our hosts are the Maasai whose land is held in trust as a national reserve from which the local community is receiving a direct benefit. To treat wildlife as a valuable renewable resource is a new idea to these people who, although proud of their hunting skills, have nevertheless always lived in harmony with their surroundings.
Our tents appear briefly in the distance but blend into the landscape perfectly. Our luxury temporary home in the bush is a far cry from most people’s basic concept of a camp, yet it is easy to imagine the entire accommodations fit for 10 safari-hungry visitors leaving very little trace of its existence when removed.
The driver’s trained eyes spot a family of cheetahs hidden behind a nearby bush. We watch in silence as the braver ones visibly familiar with the warmth of the engine settle on the bonnet of our Landcruiser. Our cameras balanced unsteadily on top of its roof, we are assured by our Maasai guide that it is past their feeding time..
There is no better way to understand the Maasai way of living than to learn it here, from these people who have never left the Mara’s boundaries. We feel vulnerable yet safe in our temporary home away from home. Unlike the larger tourist camps nearby here there is no fence to separate or protect us from the surrounding wilderness.
It is nevertheless a surreal experience to eat fillet steak under the starriest of skies served by a half-naked warrior dressed in his traditional Maasai robe. He senses my amazement and I see the twinkle in his eyes when he confesses to wearing American boxer shorts.
An hour later, chilly by now – shooting stars appear closer and seemingly never ending. The powerful searchlight of our car focuses on a bush ahead of us and it seems to come to life – bushbabies, their reflective eyes briefly giving away their presence.
Earlier, we heard the trumpeting voice of the elephants crossing the river near the camp entrance. Now, in bed, we are reminded once again that very little remains between us and the largest mammal on earth and our imagination plays tricks on us. The sights and sounds of an African night – the Maasai whose spear caught the light of our torch is standing guard motionless.
It’s July, the time of the Great Migration, one of nature’s true wonders. Throughout the month, troops of wildebeest, zebras, and antelopes assemble on the open grassland of the Mara in search of dry weather grazing.
From an escarpment near the camp we see the procession gather un-orchestrated at first, until on our last day when we see the troops form a single line. Soon now, one animal will take the lead to march towards the one major challenge along their journey – crossing the Mara River.
Crocodiles barely visible lie in wait for their prey between the tree trunks along the riverbed. The leader’s diving into the stream signals the rest to follow. In October, the route will take the herd back into the Serengeti where the circle of life begins again – time for a new generation.
At noon and not far from the frantic race: safari chairs under the shade of a tall tree – a picnic straight from “Out of Africa” brings the sounds of Mozart played on an ancient gramophone to our minds.
No safari is complete without an alfresco evening meal under a lonely umbrella acacia. From our hill, we watch the Maasai bring home their cattle while the sun sets over their land in the most surprising colors of purple and orange.
Our safari has taken us on an incredible journey to the home of Kenya’s most famous inhabitants: eland, impala, gazelles, warthogs, cheetahs, zebras and of course the “Big 5” once the ultimate prize for trophy hunters – elephants, rhinos, buffalos leopards, – and lions…
From the darkness of the Mara plains we hear a lion roar – a sound much deeper than imagined. This is the true call of the wild, a call that “Leo,” the MGM Lion never heard.