Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Winter in Kenya

The migration is here and with it hot dry winds and brisk chill nights. It has not rained since the herds of wildebeest started to arrive and every car kicks up a cloud of dust behind it, visible from many kilometers away. The grass is parched and yellow though the massive seas of grass (where I can see nothing but grass in every direction) are starting to get grazed down. No longer are the sounds of the river and the wind the only things I hear- now the gentle lowing of wildebeest and kwa-kwaing of zebra echo in the distance.

When the zebra cross the river they do it slowly and carefully- but not without excitement. They gather on the banks until that critical mass has been reached and then finally one will take the first step into the river and start to wade across while the young ones are forced to swim. The river is not that high this year- many of the adults do not have to swim at all- but it is still high enough to take its toll.
Photo: A crocodile attempts to take down a zebra (unsuccessfully in this case).
When the wildebeest cross they do so with speed, as if without it they would not have the courage to cross at all. They kick up massive clouds of dust as they stampede towards the river and enter it without a glance, seemingly without planning or foresight. They scramble up the opposite slope as the dirt crumbles beneath their feet and sends many of them plunging back into the water. The carcasses are starting to pile up, catching on the rocky sections of the river and bloating in the sunlight. The vultures are ever-present hovering on the river banks, picking at the dead. Every vulture in Kenya is in the Mara now to enjoy the feast and marabou storks are a common sight. The crocodiles do not have to work very hard, in the frenzy of the crossing many wildebeest are trampled and drown. The many egrets, cranes, storks, and plovers that riddled the wet areas of the landscape a month ago are now a rarer sight.

Beyond the river and the lions and hyenas are getting fat. I have not seen a single dead zebra yet but there is at least one wildebeest carcass being eaten every day by the hyenas or the lions. This morning as some of the wildebeest were milling by the edge of the river, having recently crossed, we see lion ears poking out of the grass. A flash of movement and a young lion is leaping towards the scattered wildebeest. We drove closer and in another flash this lion has leaped onto the back of a wildebeest and taken it down. This is a group of four lions, a mother and three subadults. The wildebeest thrashes about for twenty minutes while the mother lets the subadults practice their killing grip.
Photo: Three north hyenas (Lady on the right) feed on the remains of a wildebeest carcass. 

The other day we came upon a freshly dead wildebeest with three hyenas feeding. The eyes were gone and the guts spilled from the belly, starting to balloon out in the heat. Carcass sessions do not have the same level of aggression, everyone has eaten recently and no one cares to squabble. Other animals show up occasionally but they are already fat and do not even bother to come close. Every inch of free space is starting to fill up with animals. I'll drive over the top of a hill and suddenly the sight of thousands of wildebeest and zebra is spread out in front of us fading into freckles on the horizon. As we drive along a track a few thousand wildebeest are glistening wet in the sunlight and loping across our path into the distance, like a living river they move away from the Mara, the survivors. We drive towards them and the herd moves smoothly, splitting around us until they gallop in front and behind us and then suddenly we are through and the gap we made seals itself without a sound. We drive on.
Photo: Ratchet carries a wildebeest tail while Lady follows.

Clouds build on the horizon in the afternoon and the low rumble of thunder greets the night but the storms stay away from this half of the Mara, instead they skirt the escarpment and we see lightning flashing in the highlands beyond. Still no rain. Wildebeest fill the small luggas and waterholes, covering their shiny coats with what mud is left. The sun is bright and scorching most days- other days the air is thick and hazy with smoke from fires in the south. A dusty sheen coats everything and anything beyond a kilometer quickly fades into the dust. The sky is brown and only if I look straight up can I see the blue peeking through. The dust from the hooves of a thousand grazers fills the air and merges with the smoke that covers the horizon. The light takes on a strange orange and brown glow- it is both stunningly beautiful and eerily surreal. At night the full moon rises and casts a strange white glow across the landscape, flashlights and headlamps rendered unnecessary. In the morning the moon sets slowly into the purple haze on the western horizon against the sea of yellow grass, aglow with the light of the the rising sun. 

Happy zebra hyena clan and north hyena clan have both moved dens. Happy zebra to a den just 500 meters away from their first one, a little further from the road and a little more tucked into the valley between two broad hills. Perhaps it is a little more private from the many steps of the wildebeest? North has moved down closer to the river to a den that is surrounded with thick nyazi grass with a few ideal flat open patches for socializing. Neither clan has to move far to hunt and feed now, food is on their door steps and even the males and subadults are fat. All the tracks are dry making it easy to travel to each corner of the territory but this time of year it is not necessary. Wells are starting to get low and eyes search the sky, wondering if those clouds blowing in will bring the rain here. Weather is very localized in the Mara - it may rain at the oloololo gate and be bright and sunny at the south gate on the same day.
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) with a carcass at the den.
Photo: The mara river, viewed from above.

A genet has shown his face in camp, being so bold as to approach the lab tent while we sit at the table with the light on. He briefly meets our gazes, ascertains that we do not have any food and continues on his way down to the kitchen tent. He has no luck down there either and we see him skirting the trees and disappearing into the darkness. During the day banded mongooses and dwarf mongooses befriend us, scurrying throughout camp and occasionally attempting to get into trouble. I don't mind them for it means that we will not see any snakes in camp while they are there. We did have a black mamba in camp last week, just a glimpse of twisting black flesh in the grass and leaves as it continued on its way through the woods.

The elephants have left now that the migration is here. They do not care for the thousands of noisy wildebeest invading their home and they have gradually disappeared from the area, slipping away quietly without a backwards glance in a way that one would not think to associate with creatures the size of elephants. I have learned that elephants have a unobtrusive manner about them that somehow causes them to blend into the background such that you hardly see them until they flick an ear or turn their heads and you catch a glimpse of white tusk. Unless it is night time and you rudely interrupt the herd as they cross the road. Then elephants are the scariest and most dangerous thing in the Mara as they flare their ears and raise their trunks to trumpet their anger at your noisy intrusion into their quiet lives. 
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) relaxing early one morning.

The youngest little black cubs are starting to get their spots and show their faces to the rest of the world. While their mothers sleep by the den holes they boldly step a few meters away then run, trip, and tumble back. They are quite the curiosity to other hyenas who steal careful glances at the mother and then gently lick and play with the newest member of the clan. The males have started showing up around the den more often too, perhaps drawn by the females whose cubs are graduating or perhaps with full bellies they just have more time on their hands (paws). Matings and immigrations (of new males from other clans) tend to peak around the migration. They too show high curiosity towards the cubs but the adult females are quick to chase them off if they get too close and then the cubs join in the chase as if it's a game - keep the males away! 
Photo: Ypsilanti (left) cautiously approaches Log Cabin (right) and George Costanza (cub). 

At night I've been zipping up my tent tight, no longer allowing the gentle night breeze to sooth my dreams. Nights are chill now and I pull on sweatpants, a long sleeve shirt, and pile on the blankets. Waking in the darkness at 5:15am is hard, and putting my feet down on the floor of my tent in the cold night air is difficult. But when I unzip my tent to step outside and relieve myself in the woods the gentle scent of forest in the morning fills my senses and I scan with my light quickly (looking for eyes) while the smells and sounds of the Mara invigorate me. By breakfast time I have peeled off my layers and retreated to the shade of the lab tent. Still- no rain.


biobabbler said...

Wow. That was an AMAZING post. Thank you SO much for your photos and descriptions.

And apropos of nothing, that 2nd shot reminds me SO much of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. The calm feel to the scene, the PERFECT lighting, really a stunning shot.

Good to know re: mongooses. Next time I see one here, I'll be sure to be friendly. =)

p.s. I LOVE that you named a hyena Yspilanti. =) Brings me back (I went to UM, at A^2).

dee said...

LOVED the post !! Thank you!
Please keep it up!

Louisette said...

Inteersting post, greeting from Belgium

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