I will die first. Always. I will give my life to protect you. You will be safe.
I nearly choked on my beef carpaccio. No one had ever said they would die for me before. At the risk of showing my age, I thought such lines only came from the likes of Kevin Costner and Bryan Adams. The statement, made with such matter-of-fact sincerity, was uttered not just from a sense of pride and duty, but because that’s simply how life works out here in the heart of Africa.
I was humbled.
Our Maasai warrior guide Lemeria sat across from us at the dinner table at Saruni Mara luxury lodge. He’d been recounting hair raising stories about life in the bush, including how he’d once fought off a leopard with his bare hands. Seeing our alarmed expressions he reassured us not to worry. We’d be safe with him. Lemeria wasn’t seeking gratitude or indulging in a bit of sensationalism to impress his guests. He just accepted that he would make the ultimate sacrifice should it be necessary. And that’s all there was to it.
I have never felt more unworthy!
Those few heartfelt words affected me quite profoundly, and I’ll admit that over two weeks later, thinking about it still gives me the warm fuzzies. I guess it’s the fairytale factor. The knight in shining armour and all that. Although rather than riding a white charger into battle, this one drove a jeep and carried a sharp stick to fend off lions. Who needs Robin Hood?!
It’s a different world out there, and one we feel honoured to have been part of, if only for a few days.
Safari life in the Mara North Conservancy with Saruni Mara
If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday then going on safari probably isn’t for you. It’s an exhausting experience. Every morning at Saruni Mara luxury lodge we received a wake up call at 5.30 am with coffee and cookies, fortification for our first game drive of the day at 6 am. Yet with every minute of sleep lost, the likelihood of incredible wildlife encounters increased.
Motivation enough to crawl out from beneath the warm duvet.
Morning game drives in the Mara
It’s pretty cold first thing in the mornings, and even Lemeria and our tracker Daniel were wrapped up in blankets as we headed out into the wild. Luckily the sun soon made an appearance over the horizon, and the land slowly began to warm up for the day ahead.
Morning game drives at Saruni Mara were without doubt the best we’ve ever experienced! Even outside the migration season wildlife is abundant, the Maasai guides really know their stuff, and the drives lasted longer than any we’ve been on before. Over 7 hours in fact!
We didn’t arrive back at the lodge until 1.30 pm each day, which was fantastic. At other African safari lodges the morning drives have ended at 11 am, leaving the entire afternoon without much to do. Except drink. Which isn’t high on our to do list.
I came to the Masai Mara thinking I had unreasonably high expectations. I was desperate to see a hyena, having never encountered one before, and it would have been pretty cool to find a hippo or two out of the water. A cheetah would be a bonus but I didn’t for one moment think we’d be lucky enough to see one of Africa’s most elusive cats.
Yet over a couple of days at Saruni Mara, Lemeria managed to find us pretty much EVERYTHING we could ever wish to see. Lions, hyenas, hippos, jackals, crocodiles, buffalo, elephants, vultures, and astonishingly, TWO cheetah encounters. Not forgetting of course the usual assortment of antelope. I always feel sorry for the impala, the gazelle and the wildebeest. Against the big cats of the safari world, they often don’t get a second glance. In fact we came home to find we only have one photo of wildebeest amongst our 1000’s!
Ooops, sorry guys.
We were in the Mara on the first day of the short rains in January. They were late this year, and drought was affecting the area pretty badly. The ground was baked dry, the animals were all really skinny, and the rivers were so low the hippos struggled to submerge themselves.
The lack of vegetation around the river meant the hippos had to walk several kilometres at night to reach food. Some don’t make it back to the river in time (they can’t walk in the day as the sun will burn their skin) and have to lay low in the woods until nightfall. Which is how we came to stumble across this chap taking a walk in the woods.
Despite the lack of water and grazing vegetation, we saw several young animals, some born just a couple of weeks before. Like these tiny fluffy lion cubs that we found hiding in the grass.
Of course the kings of the plains rule these parts, and even though we saw dozens of them, each and every lion encounter remained thrilling. Lemeria always seemed to know where to find them, and we saw several different types of behaviour. From lone males resting in the sun after a hearty meal, to a young family feasting on a fresh zebra kill before the mother dragged the entire carcass into the trees for safe keeping.
If you want to see lions, this really is the place to come!
Yet for me, there was one really special moment that made me go all weak at the knees. The cheetah. Considering there is only one cheetah per 100 square kilometres in the Mara, we were really lucky with the sighting, and even our guides were excited.
We saw her on two separate occasions, and the last was a moment we’ll never forget.
Cheetahs and lions don’t mix. The latter often kills the former, thus they’re rarely sighted together. But guess what? That’s precisely what we came across on our second day in the Mara North Conservancy. The lion lay in the shade of a tree, eyeing up our cheetah who had wandered into its path. We all sat watching with baited breath, and Lemeria whispered excitedly that the lion was sure to chase the cheetah at any minute.
Lo and behold, it did, and Hubbie managed a couple of quick snaps, despite it all happening in a matter of seconds. Such a rare sight, we were all bouncing up and down in self congratulation for the rest of the day.
The icing on the cake was an encounter with a leopard on the way to the airstrip at the end of our stay at Saruni Mara. Already buoyed with all the incredible wildlife we’d seen, Hubbie and I weren’t expecting to see anything new on our drive out. Yet Lemeria heard some guinea fowl squawking in a nearby woodland and deciphered the racket to mean that a leopard was nearby. He managed to position the jeep in the exact spot where a magnificent specimen emerged just a few minutes later.
Seriously, the guy has a 6th sense!
The leopard stalked right past our vehicle and lay down a few metres away in the shade, before deciding that an afternoon in the treetops was a better prospect. As we drove away, leaving him in peace, we could just make out two piercing green eyes glowing amongst the branches.
Watching our every move.
Breakfasts out in the bush were the highlight of Hubbie’s day, food and animals being two of his favourite things!
At about 11 am each day Lemeria would pull over in a suitably shady spot, and point to a nearby bush which would serve as our toilet. It’s a strangely exhilarating feeling, squatting behind a sparse bit of shrubbery with your pants around your ankles, watching giraffe and impala walking across the plains.
Definitely the best view from a loo we’ve ever had!
Food always tastes better outside doesn’t it. Perhaps it’s something to do with increased sensory awareness. Whatever the reason, the fresh fruit, sausages, muffins, pancakes and hot coffee all went down a treat.
Night game drives in the Mara
After dinner each evening we headed out with Lemeria and Daniel for some night game viewing. A chance to encounter elusive nocturnal creatures, and see lions and hyenas at work. In the darkness, the Mara plains seemed a world away from the the ones we’d explored by day. There was menace in the air, and we felt a certain nakedness that comes with unaccustomed blindness.
To be honest I felt like a sitting duck. Perched in our open sided jeep just waiting for some hungry beast to come and claim its supper. I struggled to get my head around the fact that the animals were indifferent to vehicles. They just see people as part of the whole machine, and therefore neither a threat, nor dinner. Whilst in the daylight this is a comforting reality, at night when senses are heightened, it just seemed like madness. Yet of course it was fine.
As we drove slowly through the Mara North Conservancy with just headlamps and torches for light, hundreds of glowing eyes shone unblinking in our direction. We couldn’t tell whether they were friend or foe, but it was an eerie experience, being watched like that. Owls hooted as they flew overhead, hunting for furry rodents, and hyenas cackled in the gloom much nearer than I would have liked.
It was at this point that our Maasai guides became animated. They’d spotted a hyena running hell for leather towards a distant clump of trees. Apparently its behaviour suggested dinner was on the cards, a fact backed up by some unearthly laughing a few miles away. Lemeria stepped on the gas and we jolted alongside the lolloping creature, following him all the way to a snarling pack of hyenas, chowing down on an unfortunate wildebeest.
Without the privilege of sight, sounds were louder and smells were stronger. The sickly sweet tendrils of death were provocative in our nostrils, intensifying our excitement at the prospect of being so close to a kill. It’s a grisly thing, the business of life and death. Yet it’s just nature doing what it’s supposed to do.
Ignoring us, the hyenas got to work. They are particularly unsavoury creatures, often not bothering to kill their prey before eating, but at least they don’t waste anything. They eat it all! We watched in gory fascination for nearly half an hour, laughing with Lemeria and Daniel when the jeep headlights spooked the hyenas and sent them running. Turns out that these beasts with sharp teeth and no morals were scared of their own shadows, thinking the dark shapes were lions! Idiots. We were soon all rolling around with tears streaming down our cheeks at the sight of them repeatedly returning to their feast, then running off again, frightened. It was lovely to see that despite experiencing events like this day in and day out, for most of their lives, both Lemeria and Daniel clearly still found a lot of joy and excitement in the moment. For them the wildlife out here isn’t just a day (and night!) job, it’s their life!
Reluctantly we left the hyenas and went hunting for lions. Personally, I was thrilled that we’d managed to see a porcupine earlier that evening, a very rare sighting, as well as a polecat, and would have been happy leaving it at that. But everyone knows it’s the big cats that people are really here to see.
We heard them before we saw them.
The chilling guttural roars of male lions echoing across the grassland. A roar isn’t actually a threat. It’s just how they communicate, but to the untrained human ear it’s terrifying! Lemeria soon caught up with them on the open plains, a pride of 5 golden lions out on the prowl. Zooming alongside them as they ran and roared through the night was something I’ll never forget. We were soon surrounded, and knowing they were just metres away but not being able to see all of them at once was scary yet thrilling.
I pulled the blanket up and snuggled closer to Hubbie, reminding myself of Lemeria’s promise at dinner. Quite how he would single handedly fight off the entire pride I wasn’t quite sure. Yet somehow, having trust in him was enough. We were safe. And whilst that knowledge didn’t stop the hairs on the back of my neck well and truly standing on end, it meant I could sit back and enjoy the experience.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive!
Hubbie has put together a brilliant video showing exactly what it was like out on the game drives. Keep an eye out for adorable yawning lion cubs, laughing hyenas and the lion chasing the cheetah!
Behind the Scenes
So Lemeria fought a leopard.
It’s not a story you hear every day, and although it’s not mine to tell, I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing it with you. It’s a great illustration of Maasai culture, and really shows how different life on the plains is to our own comfortable and safe existence back here in the UK.
Many Maasai families keep livestock, because out here goats and cattle are currency and wealth. There was a time when the Maasai would defend their stock by killing anything that took one of their animals, but today wild game has a bit of a carte blanche and is protected by law. Instead, the Maasai are able to claim compensation from the authorities for any lost livestock, as long as they can provide evidence of the loss.
Which is how 7 months ago, Lemeria came to be following a blood trail into the woods. One of his goats had been taken by a big cat, and he needed to photograph the carcass in order to make a claim.
Looking at the ground, intent on finding his goat, Lemeria didn’t notice the culprit up in a tree overhead. The leopard pounced on him without warning, and a battle between man and beast ensued. I’m convinced Lemeria must have supernatural powers, because despite horrific injuries against a foe most people wouldn’t stand a chance against, he somehow managed to survive.
Even during the terrifying wrestling match Lemeria knew he didn’t want to kill the leopard. It was only following instinct and protecting its dinner, and the code of a Maasai guide is to protect life after all. Even if the creature in question had no such qualms. Eventually he managed to momentarily strangle the animal, giving him the chance to escape, leaving the leopard relatively unscathed.
After just a week in hospital Lemeria came back to work, guiding tourists around his beloved plains. I wondered whether he held any animosity towards the cat that nearly took his life, but seeing his animation at spotting our leopard on the way to the airport made me realise the extent of his respect for wildlife.
Which in turn only served to further increase our respect for the man.