Yesterday I took a short flight of about 45 minutes aboard Safarilink Airlines to get from Loldia House to Little Governors’ Camp here on the banks of the Mara River in the Masai Mara. Sammy and Peter drove us out to the local dirt airstrip where the runway was covered in Cape buffalo and zebra. We drove up and down the runway scattering the grazers who were not eager to leave and then joined the air traffic controller, Joram, who was conducting the same duty as us but on a bicycle. The Meyjes were en route to the same camp so we looked to be spending another 3 nights together.
The caravan 12 seater touched down shortly thereafter to pick us up and I then got a little closer to Joram. Joram had a toothy grin and appeared to be about 60 years old and as I approached him I could not help but notice his hat emblazoned with the words MD and underneath it N. Carolina. So here again in the bush of East Africa I am met with another coincidence as our friendly local airport manager who only speaks a bit of English is sporting a hat from my alma mater. Here in Africa the term “MD” refers to Managing Director. I could not resist the urge to take a photo with the newest member of the UNC faculty and from my personal experience, he might be a good addition to an ever increasing group in Chapel Hill in need of an infusion of real life learnings.
The flight took us over the rolling hills leading into the Masai Mare and eventually touched down in a flatter landscape, something more akin in look to Montana with knee high grasses across long plains that met the horizon with flat topped hills and low mountains. The camp sits at a still further high elevation of more than 5,000 feet which makes for continued cool nights and warm and pleasant sunshine filled days. Our ranger, Stanley, a man of about 50 years of age, short with a plenty protruding tummy, drove me and the Meyjes back to the river where we crossed the short 30 foot expanse by boat, climbed the steps and were met by the camp manager, a Scot by the name of George Murray. While George had lost some of his Scottish accent enough remained to identify his country of origin.
Governors’ Camps consist of four camps all found on the banks of the Mara River. These camps are all also owned by the Grammatica family.
The drive from the airstrip to the river, probably no more than 2 miles, was so full of game viewing experiences that we took about an hour and half to make the drive. Stanley told us the annual plains game migration through the Masai Mara was starting a bit early this year and we could see the buildup of wildebeest in the open plains before us. While we were not here during the peak of the migration we could easily see that the next few days would be filled with opportunities for good sightings.
No more than ½ mile in the distance a single file line of wildebeest began to move from our right to left. They moved at a balanced well timed gait, faster than walking but a bit slower than running. I suppose one would identify his speed as a wildebeest jog. All told there had to be a few thousand of them headed for a destination only they knew. As they continued on and on at the horizon, Stanly saw some movement atop a termite mound and drove us over to investigate. There before sat 5 subadult lions panting heavily after a large feed that must have taken place in the last 12 hours Stanley presumed. The big cats looked to be hardly moving with their bellies full. As we took off a few photos the lions did become a little more interactive with one another and began to show some signs of life. Lions are more active at dusk and night and we were but about an hour from sunset. I assumed these lions were full enough to not need another feeding and would see no interest in the passing mammoth herd of wildebeest but I was wrong.
Being opportunists they all eventually turned their gaze upon the passing plains game and then began a slow, steady but planned out stalk of the possible victims. Stanley had positioned our vehicle so that the lions would walk just past us as their strategy unfolded. Some of the lions brushed up against the bumpers of the Land Rover as they passed. Just as a field general would have laid out a plan of attack, the lions began to spread out along the passing flank of the passing wildebeests who were keenly aware of their presence a few minutes prior but had now lost sight of the cats in the tall grass.
Our angle for viewing was exceptional to enjoy the perspective of the hunt from the lions’ view. The waist high yellow tinged grass gave them excellent cover at dusk from the front where the wildebeest passed but from the rear we could quite well make out the dark markings at the end of their raised tails as well as the black corners of the back of their ears. These markings made it easier for them to follow one another at night, through thicket and on the hunt.
As slowly as the lions spread out we could see they had set up a plan to cut the advancing line of wildebeest and then use those on the right to perhaps take a flanking attack on the remaining animals caught in the rear. The middle lioness took her cue and ran into the wildebeest advancing line creating the organized chaos designed. The lead of the wildebeest line ran at full speed while those in the rear came to a full stop. As they did, the 2 lionesses in the rear maximized their ability for short bursts of speed and pursued a couple of confused animals. As quickly as it began it all ended with the stuffed lionesses being able to run but a f3ew yards before giving up the chase and I imagine, content with the idea of resting under another tree to digest their last meal. We watched the cats do just this and turned the Land Rover back to the camp.
Little Governor’s Camp is comprised of 17 tents all overlooking a marsh created by the Mara River. The camp tents are lit only by gas light, a creation I enjoy very much. While the main lodge has electricity as does the kitchen, these gas lit rooms complete with running water and bathroom, offer a simple but
safe and secure experience as well as outdoor dining and gathering at a large outdoor fire each evening.
I was shown to my tent and then proceeded back to the outdoor firepit and took a seat overlooking the marsh as the sun set. An English couple, Bob and Helen, introduced themselves and it turns out that they are currently residing in Norfolk, Virginia but a 2 hour drive from my hometown. Bob has been a member of the Royal Navy and now has a position with NATO. Another person, Yuni (or Eunice) Thai from Hong Kong joins in the conversation and the two of us eventually dining together for dinner. Yuni works in London as a banker and is traveling through East Africa alone. Her story of a Chinese mainland born father who swam to Hong Kong during Communist rule to gain a new start in life, as well as her education at Oxford and the University of Chicago for graduate school leads to plenty of topics for discussion.
By about 10PM I am escorted back to my tent by armed security as this camp is not fenced and any and all animals can, and sometimes, are found in the camp. Night time is a far more dangerous time for animal encounters given that lions and leopard are more nocturnal and see far better at night as well as the fact that elephants sleep very little and do not fear man. Interesting to note is that Governors’ Camp posts guards all night to keep the camp secure whereas most camps keep a couple people on duty once everyone reaches their rooms. I woke up a couple times in the night and heard the armed guards coming past my tent.
Morning wake up call came at 6AM, complete with hot chocolate delivered to the tent. I usually sleep very well in the bush, especially in the tent settings where I can hear the sounds of animals, but last night I woke up about 4AM and could not get back to sleep. Nonetheless, he hot chocolate was enjoyed, all 3 cups, and I headed down to the river to meet Stanley and the Meyjes again and along the way
watched the hot air balloon being launched from the rear of the camp. Governors’ offers a hot air balloon safari experience, something I have not done but would like to do soon.
An early morning elephant herd spotting was enjoyed up close and personal. These animals here are very accustomed to the game viewing vehicles and noises that come from the engine and our voices so the elephants stayed quite close. Listening to these mothers and calves feed is of great entertainment. They are eating machine, having to put away as much as 400 pounds of grass and leaves a day given their inefficient digestive system which can only process about 40% of what they eat. A quick way to follow the elephant trail is to look for fresh dung because they will not be far ahead.
The remainder of the drive included sightings of another 5 lions, initially walking down the main road and eventually leading us to a watering hole and then on to take a look again at the proliferation of plains game starting to mass on the open plains. As far as the horizon, we could take in a sea of zebra, wildebeest, topi, warthog, eland, impala, Thompson’s gazelle and more. While this herding of animals was not the peak of the migration there were enough animals in the vicinity of our vehicle to never be more than a few yards from something hunting for food or something being hunted. To be in the middle of such an abundance of animals is a little odd because there is not a real push to drive further out because so much is going on at your front, flanks and from behind. Yet, if you do not drive you might well miss something.
During the course of the remainder of the morning game drive and the afternoon drive, we came across a hyena on a recently killed young wildebeest, eating away quickly before any other predators showed up but not quick enough to outwit the vultures. The white backed vultures showed up in big numbers but were left with but a few scraps upon which to feed once the hyena had his fill. In addition, we saw ostriches mating, warthogs eating on their knees, a battaleur eagle on the ground with a rib bone in his beak, more grazing elephants, more lion on the hunt and the never ending cacophony of wildebeests calling.
Upon our return to the camp, George and I sat down for a good chat whereupon I learned more of his life story. He grew up in a small seaside village near Inverness called Glen Murooney (I am sure this exact name is wrong). His family is still spread out across the Scottish Highlands and he spent some 15 years in London working in the hotel business before getting divorced and beginning his migration from the UK. He spoke highly of the experience of the London experience in the 70’s as a twenty and thirty something year old, going to watch the tail end of the Beattles, the thriving times of the Rolling Stones, etc. He spoke about haw safe the streets of London were then and how benign their idea of trouble was then versus now. He took off for stints in Bali, Indonesia, Africa, then back t the UK and then Africa again. His last story, before he had to head out for his duties, revolved around hosting Charlie Watt from the Rolling Stones a few years back at Governors’ Camp and the good fun they all had given Charlie’s easy going demeanor. George fell in love with a woman from Bali and went into some detail about why the romance could not work given her family Hindu traditional way of life. He then went on to describe his experience visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand a few years back. All good stuff from George and another fine example of the regular, unexpected surprises to be found with people met here in the bush.