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Mara-vellous Migration

Mara-vellous Migration

May 2014

Words Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright, Pics Darryl Wright & Daryl Balfour

The annual wildebeest migration is considered one of the natural wonders of the world, concentrated in a relatively small area in East Africa during a very specific window in the year...

There’s something astonishingly, almost achingly, bare about the Masai Mara – you notice it as you fly in (in the little Cessna Caravan 12-seater that gets even the most experienced flyer a bit nervous). There’s not a lot of bushveld, or trees, just kilometres (1 510 square kilometres to be exact) of savannah grassland. The Masai Mara National Reserve, known to locals as the Mara, is a large game reserve in Tanzania lying adjacent to the Serengeti and is named after the Maasai people of the area. The open grassland plains make it pretty easy to see the animals as they’re generally not hiding in the trees, and one is immediately blown away by the sheer scale and concentration of the game – you don’t just see a giraffe with its mate, you see 30 giraffes in a ‘tower’, the collective noun for giraffe. As a result, I learnt more about collective nouns for animals in the Mara than I did in high school – the Mara guides need collective nouns to describe the large numbers. There’s a dazzle of zebras, a congress of baboons, a congregation of crocodiles and a memory of elephants.

One also immediately notices there are people living within the bounds of The Mara. The Maasai are a warrior tribe and feared all over Kenya for their bravery and aggression. The land originally belonged to them, so when the Kenyan government declared the land a reserve they were allowed to stay and farm their cattle. I asked how the Maasai manage not to be eaten by the wildlife, living among it as they do. Legend has it that the Maasai smell different, and the animals know and fear them. This could be one of many reasons the Maasai take part in rituals, such as drinking blood at the time of circumcision. Traditionally the Maasai diet has consisted of raw meat, raw milk, and raw blood from cattle. But there is also the initiation of the teenage boys where they have to go out on their own and kill a lion with their bare hands. I can see the conservationists throwing their arms up in despair about this, but think about it, killing a lion with your bare hands (no weapons allowed) is fair game against the paws of the lion. Amazingly enough, the young Maasai warriors manage to do it. The key, I am told, is that the Achilles heel of the lion is its tail, so if you can get close enough to grab it, he’s all yours. Is this where I add: don’t try this at home kids? The practice of killing lions happened more in the past than it does now – there was concern about the lion population since the Maasai would also kill lions when they attacked their cattle, but these days the government offers monetary compensation for cattle if the Maasai leave the lions alone.

The Cessna Caravan landed its 12 passengers safely onto the dirt track in a stretch of savannah reserved for a runway. Sometimes the guides have to drive down the runway ahead of the plane to clear it of game so the planes can land. As it turns out, we were back on the runway a few days later, but in our Land Cruiser watching a female leopard in full hunting mode. 

The group I was travelling in was not a random selection of wildlife lovers, but rather a focused group of people who have photography, food and wine in common. It was led by the well-known wildlife couple, photographer Daryl Balfour and his birdlife loving and photographing wife Sharna, and put together by Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate. Her plan was to lead the group though a Big Five safari in wine, while Daryl and Sharna showed everyone around from a photographic point of view. Once all the camera equipment was offloaded from the Cessna, Daryl and his guides hurried us back to the camp – there was something very special to see on the way back and we needed to make haste. We were of course all new to the Mara and wanted to stop for every Thomson’s gazelle, but Daryl was having none of it and careered us though the sometimes wet and rough roads of the Mara to find the prize. Ten minutes later the three Land Cruisers stopped abruptly, but what were we looking at? When our eyes focused in the twilight we saw a young male lion mating with a sort-of-willing, slightly uninterested female. There was a lot of snarling and some other rather guttural bush noise before the fun was over. 

‘Welcome to the Mara,’ says Daryl. A special sighting indeed, and in the first 10 minutes of being in the Mara. 

When we arrived at our beautiful private tented camp – hidden from view by a rare outcrop of trees – twinkling lanterns and a few outdoor flame torches was all we could see. A group of Maasai men who were to be our guards for the week welcomed us, tall and majestic and draped in flaming red traditional Maasai blankets and colourful beads. I was told I had nothing to fear (even though there was evidence of a lion kill right next to tent number four and a hippo paw print in the mud outside my tent) and that the wild animals surrounding us would not approach if the Maasai are around. This felt very pleasing as I surveyed the beautiful Hemingway-style tent that was to be my accommodation for the week. The classic East African camp is set up for seven weeks of the migration each year and is taken down for the rest of it. The tents are not standard tents, they’re luxurious with an outdoor sitting area, a bedroom with double bed and side tables, electric lights, a dressing room, bathroom, and a separate loo and shower. Since the showers are bucket showers, we would inform our personal butler when we needed one, and a warm shower would arrive. He would fill it from the outside of the tent, and then inform us it was ready and we could shower to our heart’s content. I put the system to the test and with two people washing hair and dawdling, we didn’t even manage to finish a one-person shower. That’s what I call bush luxury.

The kitchen was something altogether unspectacular and unbelievable, yet it was a proper bush kitchen with an experienced safari chef. Incidentally, safari is a Swahili word meaning ‘to go on a journey’ so the Mara chefs cook five-star meals in any location. With just a metal bush oven fuelled only by fire, the chef produced soufflés, profiteroles, quiches, cakes, meringues and several other delicious dishes. This was, of course, also a food and wine safari experience.

Daryl Balfour plans his safaris with great care so that guests have a full experience of food, wine and photography. A typical day involves leaving camp at sunrise – to catch the best light for photography – in an off-road vehicle with just four guests and an experienced wildlife and photography guide. The morning’s game drive then involves searching for game and spending time shooting it from different angles according to the light. The vehicles are all equipped with photography bean bags so that you can lean your camera on them for stability, and lessons and tips are dished out all the way, from composition tips for the inexperienced to technical info for the experienced. 

At the mid-morning snack stop, the three vehicles in our party met up again to share stories, sightings and shots before slowly heading back to camp, stopping at interesting sightings en route. To create fun within the group, Daryl put a challenge to us, that of catching a shot of a lilac-breasted roller in flight. This may sound easy with modern cameras being so intuitive – just put it on automatic sports mode and hold your finger down – but not with this crowd. The roller had to be perfectly composed, have a superb background, be totally in focus and be close up. Almost every tree in the Mara has one of these common, but beautiful, birds in it, so there was a lot of stopping to meet the challenge. The prize was a magnum of Warwick Trilogy, to be judged by Daryl at the end of the week. But in essence the true prize was honour.

Back at camp it was showers followed by lunch, and of course a glass of wine or two. All the wines during the week were Warwick wines, but due to the heat, only the whites – Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc and First Lady unwooded Chardonnay – were drunk at lunchtime. Our afternoons were spent lounging, reading, and analysing photos. Daryl set up a full media tent where we could download our pics and even project them on a big screen for others to comment on, crit and learn from, and every evening after the game drive there was an opportunity to ask Daryl to comment on the pics.

After the evening game drive, everyone went off to get ready for dinner. We had each been given a kikoi when we arrived on the first day and Daryl encouraged guests to wear them in the evening around the camp fire. The kikoi is a traditional East African garment, similar to a sarong and colourfully striped or checked.

Each night, the Warwick wines were paired with four-course meals and there was always a theme to the tastings. There were verticals on Trilogy where we tasted the same wine but from eight different vintages – a blending competition done with barrel samples – and a blind tasting where everyone had to guess which wine was in their glass.

There is no game management in the Mara (i.e. no culling of animals). This is because both the Mara and the Serengeti, which borders the Mara to the south in Tanzania, are not fenced. The Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem is 25 000 square kilometres and game moves freely in this area, therefore regulating its numbers according to the food available. If food is scarce in one area, for example, the animals will move to a new area where it is plentiful.

Wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the Masai Mara, and around July every year, these ungainly animals migrate north from the Serengeti plains to the Mara in search of fresh pasture, returning to the Serengeti around October. The migration is said to involve more than a million wildebeest, half a million Thomson’s gazelles and around 300 000 antelope, with countless hungry predators in tow. 

At dawn on the first day we headed out in search of the wildebeest. After all, we had come to see the migration, and since our trip took place in the first week in October, we just managed to catch the tail end of it. It’s very hard to time the migration exactly as it varies each year in response to many factors. Few are lucky enough to see the Imax movie-style scene where a million Wildebeest cross the Mara River into the Mara from the Serengeti in the space of a day. The predators gather, waiting for easy prey. The crocodiles lie in wait in the river for the old, young, weak and trampled. The lions and hyenas wait on the banks of the river, and the whole event turns into an incredible natural spectacle.

We sadly did not see the river crossing. Our camp was about 200 metres from where some of the wildebeest had crossed, so it would have been a high traffic zone near our camp at the time. The wildebeest had migrated to the north-eastern side of the Mara in search of fresh grass, and we travelled to that area on a long and rewarding drive where we were surrounded by herds of up to 8 000. The sheer scale of the herds was truly impressive, all moving together like a school of fish in synch.

We had another incredible sighting the next morning – a territorial stand-off between two lions, a male and a female. At one point we thought it was simply a courtship, but with claws out and teeth bared, it quickly became evident that it was something else. We spotted the male lion strutting along the plains close to where a known lion den was. This lion wasn’t from this part of the Mara and had walked for more than an hour in search of new territory. The female of the den sensed him immediately, left the den and started walking away. Then a huge, spectacular fight ensued with both lions up on hind quarters, with massive paws swiping and fangs out. The camera experts were beyond excited to be catching this kind of a scene in the beautiful morning light.

The Mara is truly spectacular, no matter which season you go. Catching the heart of the migration would be a wonderful treat, and an added bonus, but the quality and quantity of game on display is extremely rewarding at any time of the year. Pairing the wildlife spectacle with fabulous food and wine takes the experience to another level, and it is certainly one that will forever be imprinted on our minds. 

Daryl Balfour organises photographic safaris in the Mara throughout the migration season. During each week of the seven-week period, a different wine estate and its wines are featured. To find out more about these Wild Photo Safaris go to

Source: Winestyle Magazine