Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crossing Mara Waters

A Photo Essay 

Every year after the long rains, in July, hordes of wildebeest migrate from Serengeti in Tanzania to Masai Mara in Kenya following the scent of sweet grass leaving fallow ground in their wake. These ungulates may not recognize or heed borders but they do have to acknowledge the thread of river Mara that slices their route to greener, rather "redder" pastures, as they travel in search of lush red oat grass. The migration of millions of wildebeest and along with them, zebras, has been going on for as long as man can extrapolate backwards. The epitome of this unique pilgrimage of gargantuan proportions is the river crossing.

Today, we are at Maasai Mara, for the third year in a row, to witness drama extraordinaire on Earth.

...and the nearly 200-km long Mara river is the centrestage of this epic journey.

The Mara river is an entire ecosystem in itself and is, mainly, "kiboko" territory. That is the local name for hippopotamus. Hippos wallow in the water for large part of the day and come out to feed on grass at dusk, for which they travel miles.  Hippopotami are the most dangerous of all animals having caused maximum deaths in man-animal conflict in Kenya!

The Nile crocodile is the other resident of Mara river. It lies submerged under water difficult to detect and at other times motionless basking in the sun for all to see, like this one. Either way it instills fear in the hearts of the game that come down to drink water. Crocodiles - at times six feet long - ambush animals that visit riverbanks.

A marabou stork (right) and a white-backed vulture hang around the river to scavenge on dead animals killed by crocodiles or those that drown during the river crossing. The prospect of easy meal has them reside here temporarily.

After two days of 'game driving' at Mara, finally we see wildebeest (and zebras) gather on either flanks of the river, their anxiety matching ours. Will they or won't they... (cross the river)?


Having reserved vantage viewpoints the audience is waiting, expectantly. The only thing that rivals the coming together of the wildebeest during migration time is, perhaps, the migration of tourists from all corners of the world! To be honest, the tourist influx, off late, has become intrusive. Errant tourists in the larger park premises (as against the conservation zone where we were) bend rules and get into no-go zones, unscrupulously willing to pay 'hefty' fines of  $100, at times, even interfering with the wildebeest movement. Transgressions such as these need to be curtailed assiduously. The only way to do that is to limit the number of lodges within the park and hike the park fees (they are already steep) and fines to 'obscene' levels.

Over million years, wildebeest have been migrating over the endless plains of Serengeti into Mara by bridging the river and there are some 10-15 fjords at which the herds prefer to jump and swim across. The assembling of the herds at a ford is by no means a guarantee that they will cross there. By some telepathic communication the herds wait for the opportune time, sometimes, inordinately, and there is great suspense in the air. The driver-guides, on their part, communicate with each other to tag the coordinates of the gnus. With  years of experience of having 'read' and 'analysed' the behaviour of gnus, they criss-cross the tourist lanes even as the gnus lead tourists on a 'wild-beast' chase!

The gnus led us up the garden path several times and after a fair deal of back and forth we get to this arena where action seems imminent. The suspense is building by every passing moment.

Kicking up dust for the scramble to the river

Zebras accompany the herds of gnus and often pave the way for river crossing

We waited with bated breaths as the zebras came close to the water's edge only to buck back nervously afraid of dangers lurking beneath. Much braying and scuttling is taking place by the edge and after nearly 15 minutes it looks like the zebras are not going to muster enough courage, after all, to take that plunge, today.

Before they decide to wade through the water, the zebras  lick the water or taste it for signs of danger in  form of predators. Perhaps, this lot senses the presence of a Nile crocodile and is, therefore, hesitant to take the next step.

While the zebras deliberate endlessly, the wildebeest that are huddled on top finally descend towards the riverbank...

...and the first one takes the plunge without much ado. Like our driver-guide says: "the gnus are stupid, they will jump without thinking..." But perhaps that 'stupidity' is what is needed to get the juggernaut rolling.

The zebras are still debating...

Meanwhile, the first batch of the gnus have already swum across without a mishap...

...and finally the zebras take heart and follow in the wake of the wildebeest.

and how!

and the crossing is underway full swing...

As more and more wildebeest and zebras jump into the river, hurriedly, eddies of dust swirl about hazing the landscape. 

Finally, after an hour-long drama, the gnus and the zebras have managed to cross the river without falling prey to crocodiles' snares or hippos threatening tactics.

Elsewhere, earlier, we saw this sight of a zebra crossing boldly right in front of a gigantic Nile crocodile... the crocodile had indulged in gluttony and could not be bothered for the moment. As it is, crocs feed once a week and can live on their fat for a long period. 

This is a sight at another river crossing site. Carcasses of wildebeest lay strewn as marabou storks and vultures (Ruppell's griffon, Lappet-faced, White-backed, and White-hooded)  tugged at them, mercilessly. The stench and the sight were revolting but these uncouth scavengers deserve kudos for they are also the "shudras" (cleaners) of  river Mara. 

All in all, we were witness to a "clean" river crossing without the attendant macabre action and we were happy to have been spared the gruesome details. No crocodiles bringing down gnus and no other land predators like hyenas and lions waiting on the river banks like Yamadoot or death personified.  

Wildebeest superherd dotting the horizon. This is how the plains of plenty - Maasai Mara - look through July - October before the gnus depart on their onward journey back to Serengeti. 


  1. Padmaja,

    These photos are amazing! And your write-up is just superb!

    Best wishes,


  2. Padmaja, U must count yourself among the lucky few who has the good fortune of being amidst mother nature in all its Glory!! Great pictures and intresting write up gripping our attention right to the conclusion!!

  3. Alka Rao KolipakamAugust 22, 2013 at 8:23 PM

    Lovely pictures and write-up, Padmaja. I can live through it all while reading this

  4. I read this one just today and boy, am I glad I did! The way you've written it, the photos came to life and even I missed a few heartbeats, as if sensing the fears and the apprehensions of these wildlife citizens as they mutely debated in Shakespearean manner - to cross or not to cross?