Sunday, July 22, 2012


It is that time of the year when the stage is set for the Greatest Pageant on Earth. That time of the year when an ancient tradition is upheld and performed with centuries-practised ease, and yet, one that is fraught with hardships and adversities galore. Hordes of wildebeest are preparing for their passage from the spent savannahs of Serengeti to Maasai Mara to feast on manna, in what has been an indispensable rite of passage since time immemorial.  In East Africa, wildebeest herds and along with them multitudes of zebras and gazelles are now filling up the horizon of the endless plains and blurring the boundaries of Tanzania and Kenya as they embark on an annual pilgrimage.
Following the scent of the rains and red oat grass that springs from the bosom of the soil in Mara, these mammals embark on a cyclical migration that will ensure their survival and perpetuation of their progeny and species. The animals may not heed borders but they do have to surmount the boundaries of the Mara River that interrupts their migratory route. It is while crossing the Mara that an epic saga unfolds – of predator and prey, of triumph and decay, of leap of faith and fate, of life and death; but mainly of survival. Cats – lions and leopards - lie in ambush on land and crocodiles under water to indulge in an orgy of feast that spells the dance of death for the protagonists.
Year after year, when the long rains start in Kenya, the anticipation mounts even among the tourists, the frenzy equalling what is building in the ranks of the gnus (as wildebeests are called due to their onomatopoeic  grunting). While most may see wave upon waves of wildebeest simmering on the vast expanse, they may not necessarily witness the spectacle by the river that gives the event that edge. Getting to witness a river crossing is a matter of fortuity. By calendar, migration occurs anytime between July to September (old-timers, Kenyans, tell us how the onset used to be early June a decade back and has gone off-kilter since), but the river crossing itself is a mercurial moment. Within a span of a day, one set of tourist may witness surcharged drama at river Mara where the other may come upon a sterile scene.
For the three years that we were in Kenya we tried to time our visit to coincide with the event. I must admit to being deficient of intuition or super-sensory perception of the gnus and considering that bookings had to be done months in advance it was a chance in a million we were up against. In 2009, after a rain check, we visited end-July only to find everything quiet on the Mara front. The river itself was at ebb due to below average rainfall. Away from the river, at places, we came upon single files of gnus – nervous and uncertain - criss-crossing the plains in obvious confusion. These were early stragglers who had lost their way. In 2010, to be on the safe side, we made the Mara trip in September. This time round we were a tad late and while we did not see the river crossing we saw congregations of mega-herds dotting the horizon.  So last year, we hit Mara in August and hoped in hell.
And this is what we saw.