The Rising Stars of Kenya’s Greater Mara

Dusk is done and I see nothing. But, even after a long hot day tracking wildlife in the bush, my guide refuses to quit.

He edges the Land Cruiser we’re sharing forward, headlights off, and makes a a blind, wide arc to the left. After he parks and cuts the engine, we wait in the dark, listening to a light breeze riffle the nearby brush.

Several lonely minutes later, a thunder of hooves erupts, and a couple dozen topi rush toward us. A lovely reddish-brown and purple by day, the horned antelopes are mere shadowy outlines now. They weave around us like X-wing Starfighters, then vanish into the blackness.

My guide turns and flicks on a red light. Six pairs of lion eyes blink at us from 15, 20 feet away. The fearsome animals are sitting still, unperturbed, perhaps plotting their next raid for food.

I’m on a night safari at Kenya’s Olare Orok Conservancy, something you can’t do in neighboring Masai Mara National Reserve.

True, the 932-square-mile reserve’s big skies and open plains are stunning. But I’m finding that making the adjacent conservancy my home base in the Mara region has doubled my experience: There are more options and fewer visitors to compete with.

The wildlife should be happy, too. “We get complaints from the national reserve guides that we have more cats,” says conservancy warden Richard Pye. “We provide the better habitat.”

Eight of these privately managed conservancy areas—“rising stars in Africa,” per one article—now ring the Masai Mara, the most famous safari site in Kenya. While the reserve has experienced problems as a result of over-grazing cattle and tourist hordes, these private conservancies have helped double the country’s protected lands in the past decade.

The conservancies—which represent partnerships between Maasai landowners and local tourism operators who lease their holdings for conservation purposes—impose crucial limits on grazing and provide Maasai herdsmen with a steady monthly income. At the same time, the private camps found within them trend toward offering scaled-down visitor experiences designed to minimize environmental impact.

In an interview with This Is Africa magazine, conservationist Cynthia Moss hails the community-run conservancies as the most successful and significant tourism development in Kenya since the creation of its first national parks in the 1940s. It’s easy to see why.

One morning, in the reserve, I watch 20 cars crowd a passing leopard in the twilight. Less than a half hour later, back within the bounds of the conservancy, a lion named Handsome struts with a flick of his mane within five feet of my guide and me in our vehicle. No one else is around.

I’m staying a couple nights at Mara Plains, a National Geographic lodge located in the Olare Orok Conservancy. The property’s ten tents are elevated on platforms made from old railway ties, much of the produce used for meals is grown in the on-site garden, and the water is solar heated.

Staffers here hand out giant Canon telescopic cameras for guests to borrow on game drives. I happily discover a pod of hippos live in the creek beyond my sprawling tent, where a copper bathtub rests on claw feet. Even the Wi-Fi works.

Nowhere do you find fences. “It’s the animals’ land,” says Shaun Mousley, one of the conservancy’s managers (who, incidentally resembles a young Jeff Bridges, though he has never heard of him). “We let them walk through.”

On two occasions, I am accompanied by Dan Waisane, a Maasai from the Chyulu Hills area to the east, who acts as my private guide and driver. He is very into wildlife (he says he is as moved by the animals and landscapes as I was on my first visit every day he’s in the bush) and feels like a knowledgeable pal.

Dan directs the vehicle slowly, and often off-road, braking to point out a cheetah panting in the shade of a bright orange croton plant (a natural insect repellant, I’m told), pink-beaked vultures feasting on the bloody ribs of a gazelle (“this is fresh, probably killed by a cheetah in the night”), and an olive-and-white lapwing bird hopping on one watermelon-colored leg.

“Look!,” he says breathlessly. I hear pitiful squawks as the small bird hops several feet before dropping its “hurt” leg and flying away. “It [was] pretending to be injured, to lead predators away from its eggs.”

It occurs to me that the best part of the safari experience (my first) has to be learning about animals you never even knew existed.

Most people come to the Masai Mara region at this time of year (July through September is peak season) to witness the  blue wildebeest migration, when an estimated two million of the “wild beasts” (that’s the literal Afrikaans translation) trade the Tanzania Serengeti for Kenya’s fertile red oat grasslands to eat and mate.

Though the migration is a spectacle in itself, the majority of tourists are drawn here not out of admiration for the wildebeests, but in hopes of watching them die. And they die in incredible numbers, in dramatic and bloody take-downs at the hands of crocodiles, lions, leopards, and cheetahs. (Don’t worry; about 99 percent survive.)

After the predators have left a kill, hyenas, vultures, jackals, even termites finish the job. In the end, not even bones remain. As Dan puts it, “the wildebeest feeds the Mara.”

I’d never seen one before. Quickly I observe that the herbivores, a type of antelope, are—how to put this kindly?—probably the most aesthetically unappealing creatures that will ever walk the earth.

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The Maasai claim the wildebeest was made from the “spare parts” of other animals. It has an oversize goat-like head covered by what appears to be a dark brown horse mask, with artificial-looking horns above and a dangling blonde goatee below.

Its squat, hump-backed, pinto-size frame of steely gray is emblazoned with a few barely visible vertical stripes. Dropping below its rump, which is a consistently lighter gray (I’d say by about 20 percent), a tan-and-black triangular mullet droops into a full horse tail.

This creature is a fidgety runner, kicking its off-kilter back legs sassily in its feverish getaways, often turning back as if surprised it’s actually moving. It grunts like an old-fashioned a-hooga horn, sounding off like a cow-pig honking its alternative name: “gnu, gnu, gnu!”

As I travel around Kenya, I’ve been asking the people I meet to name their favorite animal. Dan’s is the cheetah. “They’re very alert, very focused,” he says. “Unlike other cats, they don’t scavenge.”

For now at least, my favorite animal in Kenya is the ungainly and unloved wildebeest. To be sure, they play a key role in drawing visitors and tourism dollars to this special place.

“People say they are silly or stupid,” Dan says, “but they are clever. Look at their numbers. Their population is growing.”

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, exploring the world with passion and purpose. Follow his adventures in #MakeItKenya on Twitter and Instagram.

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