INTO AFRICA: Part Six -- Cheetah Time on the Mara Plains
MAASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE – I was awakened at 4:45 by a soft rap on the door. “Jambo, sir! May I come in with your breakfast? A Maasai staffer placed a tray with tea, heated milk, and shortbread biscuits on my desk. “Enjoy your day, sir!” he called out and quickly left.
The van was waiting to take us on a half-hour jaunt to another site, where a highly anticipated treat was awaiting: a hot-air balloon ride over the Mara Plains. We waited in the humid dark for the day’s passengers to arrive from different camps. When all eight of us were gathered, the British pilot gave a lecture on how to position ourselves in a balloon when we take off, while we’re in the air and when we land, then we climbed into the basket. Shortly after that, the pilot shot eardrum-pounding blasts of hot air into the balloon, the massive yellow, red, orange and purple bulb began to expand, and then suddenly ropes were thrown off and we began to rise. As the sun’s first rays flared over the rim of the horizon, we floated gently into the sky.
We floated over the tops of trees, looking down on vultures in their uppermost branches. We passed over herds of wildebeest and elephants, saw dik-diks and topis, monkeys and giraffes. In the murky curves of the Mara River we spied a dozen slick brown lumps of hippopotamus backs, and long wrinkled mud-colored crocodiles motionless on its banks. As the sun rose, the colors of the landscape changed from dawn’s deep blue and green shadows to golden sunlight that spread like butter over the grasses of the plains.
Viewing Africa from the balloon provided a wonderfully different perspective. We could see the broader contours of the land, the winding river, the flowing plains, the great swathes of trees, the mountains and escarpments rising in the distance, the multi-hued greens and golds and browns of the bush. It was absolutely quiet in mid-air, and as the vast, wildlife-animated landscape unfurled below, the experience was tranquil and exhilarating at the same time.
After an hour, we began to descend, floating over a dirt road, then over some trees, the ground approaching with deceptive speed. “Assume your landing positions,” the pilot said. As we had been taught before taking off, we all sat down with our butts on the basket floor, our legs locked against the basket’s outer wall and our backs pushed as hard as possible against the basket’s inner wall. We could feel the ground rushing toward us with almost dizzying speed and then — bounce! bounce! bounce! Like a plain landing, we bounded along the bumpy bush for about 10 seconds, then skidded along the ground for another 15 seconds or so, until the craft finally came to a stop on its side, so that our backs were parallel to the ground. This was like a really good amusement park ride, except that we had to figure out how to extricate ourselves from the basket. Benjie and Jennifer used heretofore hidden acrobatic skills to get themselves out, and I eventually managed to pretzel myself over onto my side and to slide onto the ground that way.
After we had disengaged from the basket, staffers approached bearing tall flutes of champagne. “Welcome back to earth,” one said, handing me a glass. I walked over to where Benjie, Jennifer, and Jill were standing. “To Maasai Mara!” We clinked glasses. “And to our wonderful safari!
An elaborate breakfast had been arranged on a low table in the bush. Covered with a red-checked cloth, the table had been set with bowls of fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage, toasted bread, butter, and jam, coffee and tea. We sat on folding stools in the grass and reveled in the incongruous luxury.
Just as we were finishing breakfast, Sammy our driver and Lewela arrived in our van. Perfect timing.
We set off on a game drive. During the course of the drive we saw big brooding Cape buffalo, mud-caked elephants, treetop-munching giraffes and a young hyena emerging from the hole that led to its underground home. But the wildlife highlight of the day occurred about a half hour into the drive, when Sammy spotted a yellow flash in the grasses to our left. He crept closer, slowly and steadily, until a mother cheetah and her two children suddenly emerged into a wide area of lower grass. What a sight! There was something breathtakingly sleek and elegant in the way they walked, the lean rippling lines in their flanks, the sloping spotted back, the slim, quick, powerful legs. Speed personified – or rather, cheetahfied.
We followed them for a while. They were scouring the plains for their breakfast. They would walk slowly, majestically, for a few paces, then lift their heads to smell the wind and look at the plains. At one point they froze – a herd of Thompson’s gazelles was grazing in the near distance, and a couple who weren’t paying attention seemed to have strayed from the others.
Suddenly the mother cheetah went into stealth stalking mode, sinking into the grass so that she virtually disappeared, slinking forward long taut leg-stretch by stretch. We could make her out now and again, low to the ground, her belly almost touching the soil, sliding ever closer to the gazelles. The gazelle closest to the cheetah looked up and around, ears twitching; the breeze was blowing toward the cheetah. Closer. The gazelle went back to its grazing, and was soon enrapt again in the grass. Closer. My throat was dry; my palms were wet. Closer.
Then the air went electric. In a bright yellow blur the cheetah leaped up and pounced toward the nearest gazelle, which shot off as soon as she noticed the spotted blur. The gazelle vaulted through the grass and the cheetah gave chase, bounding forward in time to the gazelle’s leaps. The chase continued for 30 seconds that seemed like an eternity, then the gazelle suddenly veered to the left and leaped into a waterhole, high-stepped through the water and scampered out onto the other side. The cheetah bounded into the water but was slowed by it and stopped in the middle of the waterhole, abruptly giving up the chase. The gazelle bolted on to the safety of the herd.
We resumed breathing, and continued to follow the cheetah, who had returned to her two cubs. Would they find breakfast? Who was the good guy and the bad guy in this drama? Neither, of course. On some gut level I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Life in the wild.
The cheetahs strode to the shade of a tree, and before long the two cubs had climbed up into its branches. Their mother continued to search the plains. Was there a kind of desperation in her manner or was it just my projection? Her children were hungry; there must be breakfast out there somewhere. She spotted another herd of gazelles and began to crawl toward them. We followed slowly behind. She neared them, heading toward one loner who was lingering over a patch of grass while his mates had nervously scattered away.
Suddenly a couple of bush bird beauties – the regal crested crane, the national bird of Uganda, adorned with a flamboyant golden crown – flew into the air and settled near the gazelle, where they began to emit a distinctive cry.
“Look at that!” Lewela said. “See how the prey work together? The birds are trying to warn the gazelle that the cheetah is approaching. We see this often here – the prey work together to keep each other safe.”
Alerted by the birds’ cries, the gazelle leaped away to re-join his herd. “I bet that cheetah would like to get her paws on those birds right now,” Jennifer said.
Our glorious day in the bush ended back at the camp with a feast of sweetcorn chowder, a “Sultan’s Seafood Festival” of ginger prawns, saffron crab, and smoked sailfish fritters with eggplant and mashed potatoes, and a rosemary and orange crème caramel for dessert. We will long remember the bounties of Bateleur.
Now it is 10:00 pm. After dinner I was once again escorted by a gun-bearing guide along the pathway back to my tented camp. And once again, no buffalos or other inordinately scary things appeared in the arc of his light.
For a moment, though, I was the gazelle on that dark path, and now that I am back safe in my tented camp, I feel simultaneously relieved and, in an odd way, disappointed.
Africa is getting under my skin.