As we sit restlessly in our immense, six-wheeled safari truck, we contemplate the thoughts that might be running through the minds of the thousands upon thousands of zebras and wildebeast standing on the far side of the treacherous Mara River.
Every year, as part of the annual migration, millions of these beasts brave the crossing in order to seek food and refuge in Masai Mara from the Serengeti plains of neighbouring Tanzania. Every day over the course of two months, a crossing point is chosen and animals charge across the river in what makes for a truly astounding natural world wonder.
One or two daring zebras carefully edge closer to the river bank. Behind them, an army of wildebeest blacken the horizon as far as the eye can see. The zebras tentatively paw at the water, all too aware of the risks associated with this rite of passage. Fortunately, it hasn’t rained in over a fortnight, so the tide level is low and the current is forgiving. The crocodiles that inhabit the river appear scarce; they drift further downstream, so still and silent they could easily be mistaken for rocks. However their needle-sharp teeth protruding from their powerful jaws, occasionally emerge, asserting their dangerous presence.
Back in the ex-Swiss military defence vehicle cum safari truck, we continue to wait. Our impatience to witness the event is mounting. Hundreds are killed during each crossing – crushed in the stampede, pulled under by the surge or picked off by crocodiles. Those unwilling or unable to cross face an even worse fate. Death by starvation is served up for those lucky enough to escape the many predators that remain on the Serengeti. This is evolution at it’s most cruel – we’ve all seen the Lion King. However, one thing is for sure. This is definitely a collective undertaking. A quick glance through binoculars reveals what can only be some sort of inter-species conference, as the animals discuss the game plan for the crossing. Wildebeest or zebra, they are all in this together.
Suddenly there’s a flutter and then a splash. The first zebra is in the water. But wait, it’s a false alarm: the zebra sheepishly clambers back to shore. All the animals retreat ten feet. The entire population on the far shore can sometimes wait for days before taking the plunge. We lose a bit of heart. It’s already been two hours in the sweltering afternoon heat of the Mara. But the whole situation can change from a waiting game to a boiling dust-filled frenzy in a second. We decide to speedily change vantage points. A swift negotiation of trees brings us to a position no better or no worse than the one we just moved from. We wait some more.
One fellow turns to his phone. Apparently, the whole situation will be more bearable accompanied by some choice ‘gangsta’ rap. No sooner has Xzibit claimed he will ‘forever be a G’ than a tremendous rumble is followed by the unbelievable sight of animals leaping into the air and plunging into the river. Dust clouds billow out from the bank. A wildebeest takes on a short-lived but beautiful gracefulness for the few seconds it takes them to cross. Not bad for a funny looking creature with skinny legs and the face of an old man. The way they leap off the shore is almost poetic, casting their fates into the hands of the gods.
One wildebeest fails to reappear after the initial jump. A crocodile has surely dragged it down. The remaining animals rear to an abrupt halt. There will be no more crossing today. On the opposite bank, the creatures are pushing forward in incredible numbers, frolicking in their new grazing ground. We are left in awe of the brief but momentous event we have been fortunate enough to behold. As so often in Kenya we find ourselves humbled. I am sure that even Xzibit would be lost for words.
Written by Raoul Vaswani, Balloon Fellow 2014