Last week’s trip to Masai Mara was almost like manna from heaven. The man of the house was sinking under tremendous work pressure when the savannah lifeline was thrown at him by good friends Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee. They were going to inspect the site of the new Porini Cheetah Camp they would soon be setting up in the Ol Kinyei conservancy (in partnership with Gamewatchers Safaris). Would we like to tag along?
Of course, we wanted to, but that would mean taking the Friday off from school/work but thankfully that was doable. The universe also conspired to make the daughter’s tutors busy elsewhere over the weekend. Mara can never be experienced in 2 nights but we had been away from the bush far too long to afford to be choosy about such small things.
The road trip to Porini Lion Camp in Olare Motorogi conservancy was quite uneventful and we reached by lunch time. We hurriedly ate what we had to and got ready for our first safari of the trip. It was threatening to rain some time soon and the light was magical. As I watched hundreds of wildebeests and other usual suspects grazing on the golden plains, I found a perfect photo getting composed right in front of me.
We made a short stop at Mahali Mzuri (Sir Richard Branson’s famous high-end property) in the same conservancy to check it out. While the accommodation was extremely luxurious, what fascinated me more was the huge viewing deck (attached with every room) along with the thrilling fact that one could watch lions while soaking in a bathtub! All this of course comes at a pretty high premium.
The grasslands were relatively empty and just when we spotted a lone giraffe at a little distance, our driver-guide Geoffrey said that the giraffe looked nervous! But why, we could not fathom as there was nothing around. We inched along the path looking right and left, when we suddenly spotted the cause of his ‘nervousness’. Basking in the sun was a majestic lion with a really imperial air. He sat there for a while, then walked down for a drink of water after which, he marked his territory before retiring for the day.
There were quite a few Topi gazelles with very young calves. We also found a pair of lion siblings due to an incredible distance-sighting by our guide. They were resting and the brother had a very full stomach. The sister however looked like she could do with some more food.
A stationary Landcruiser at a distance drew our attention and when we reached there, we found two very large hyenas. However, its occupants were excitedly pointing downwards, which we later learnt was because of a sighting of a crocodile eating a zebra. Since we were on the other side of the river, we could not see what was happening on the bank directly below us. On our way, we saw some giraffes and two jackals trying to ferret out a prey from a termite mound against the backdrop of beautiful crepuscular rays (Jacob’s Ladder).
Then it started to rain and we all got quite wet. But we managed to see two lions out on a hunt – we followed them for a while till it got very dark – and soon after we found ourselves inside our camp. The lions were hunting within a walking distance from our tents! Early next morning, we heard a roar pretty close to the camp which probably came from these two big cats.
Experiencing sunrise at Masai Mara can be spiritual for some. Our morning safari started with a heart melting scene of a lioness (from the Ol dik dik pride) nursing her 6 fluffy little balls of delight – barely a month old. I often get consumed with very evil thoughts when I witness such unbearable sights of cuteness – like kidnapping a few cubs for a while or darting the mother to sleep for half an hour to play with her litter!
But since I don’t succumb to such diabolical ideas, I did the next best thing – I sat there for one and a half hours, watching the mother patiently and indulgently suckling her 6 adorable cubs. My like-minded companions didn’t seem to mind the wait at all. She was a handsome creature who stayed in one place all this while, for us to feast our eyes on them.
Ultimately, she had enough of the “torture” (or maybe the sun was getting too strong) and got up to go down to a shadier place, away from our prying eyes. We also noticed the rest of the pride lounging on a higher level, where there were older cubs.
It is quite interesting to observe how morning shows the day. Of the litter, there was one cub who was more adventurous than the others. It was very curious about the surroundings and almost ventured out to the river bank – tell tale signs of a future leader. There was another one, a follower, who kept a safe distance.
Of course the bird lover in me did not miss out on her feathered friends who intermittently flitted in and out of the scene – Egyptian geese, bulbuls, bee eaters, eagles, kingfishers, hornbills, kestrels and more.
And then we spotted the magnificent cheetah Musiara with her 3 grown up cubs, lazing in the savannah sun. We had last seen them in December 2015 and it was so heartening to see all 3 survive such heavy odds. They were quite active and looking for a kill but the gazelles looked alert and evaded them. Later we heard that they managed to get their afternoon snack an hour after we left. But we were quite happy to enjoy the glorious sight of the beautiful mother with her gorgeous cubs.
Our next stop was Porini Mara Camp in Ol Kinyei conservancy. En route, we stopped by the air strip to see off some of the Lion Camp guests. Later, we were lucky to sight a resplendent tree agama lizard trying to mate with a most nondescript female without much luck. All this grand show of colour was proving to be somewhat futile in his hunt for a potential mate. There were quite a few females around the tree who seemed to be teasing him in turns.
The landscape around Porini Mara Camp looked more wild. You had a feeling of owning the place. Hardly any safari vans, no crowds and no off routes – it was like having your own private safari in a place with a very high density of cats and other sightings to keep you constantly chuckling with delight.
We quickly finished our lunch and went off for our afternoon game drive and spotted some beautiful fireball lilies, birds, jackals, wildebeests, crocodiles, gazelles, antelopes, giraffes and elephants. The plan now was to look for the big cats.
Suddenly, we got the news of a leopard roaring near our camp – immediately we turned back to look for it. As we approached our camp area, the guide spotted unusual baboon behaviour. Looking up, we saw a whole troop of baboons perched on tree tops, their tails hanging silently. I have never seen such well-behaved baboons in my life!
Right through our wait/search for the elusive leopard – which was for over an hour – the baboons stayed right up there, motionless and in pin drop silence. Some huddled together, some clutching on to their babies and some just by themselves, on the thinner branches that cannot support leopard weight.
This is the beauty of Porini guides. First, every vehicle gets a driver-guide and a spotter. More than their phenomenal spotting skills, what will astound you more is their uncanny inference skills. They can track cats simply by observing animal behaviour. Over and above spotting them, they will also find them for you. I have been to many camps but the Porini guides beat everyone hollow.
If you truly care for the earth and love wildlife, you can be guaranteed of an unforgettable experience in any of the Porini camps. They are more expensive as they are in a conservancy with very few camps but if you can overlook resort luxury (the tents are very comfortable but you won’t get pools or spas or gyms; instead you will get one bucket of warm water for your bath) and focus only on experience, this is the place to be in.
Our guide kept looking and then we heard a roar from a nearby bush. We went and parked near it and waited. Our men also imagined two soft “roars” in the interim period, later identified by our guide as belonging to a goose and a frog! How more embarrassing can it get? And then a loud and clear roar almost made us fall off our seats – the leopard could not be more than 10 metres away. Our guide saw a movement in the bush and we were very excited but a bit uneasy at the same time. I had never heard a leopard’s call before and its proximity was a bit unnerving. We wanted to change the position of our vehicle and discovered that it had got stuck in a very awkward situation!
Nothing we did could make the Landcruiser move even by an inch. In the middle of all this, there was another roar, this time even closer. The camp was very close and we nervously asked the driver if it would be wise to dial them for help. Now, the Masais have a very strong sense of pride. It is a big blow to their ego to ask for help and so he didn’t even consider our suggestion. Instead, he asked the men to get off to reduce the load. Naturally, he wouldn’t even dream of asking the women/children to do so. Incredulously, we asked if it was safe to do so, to which he calmly assured us that it was. We kept a lookout for possible dangers to cover their backs, but without abandoning our sense of humour. The guide had to sometimes remind us gently to shush.
However, we were still confused as to why the leopard was roaring – if it was a mating call, another leopard ‘on heat’ was likely to arrive on the scene soon. If it was a roar to announce her claim to the territory, the neighbouring lions may come to challenge her status. Neither situation was comforting, to say the least. But our guide and spotter seemed very relaxed as they tried to get the car out. The extreme edginess of the situation however, made our otherwise camera-shy men smile unnaturally widely, displaying a false sense of bravado.
The next roar was softer, indicating that the cat had decided against human prey and moved away. Our car also was out of danger and we drove around, trying to locate the source of the sound which kept getting softer and softer. We safely returned to the camp, not really disappointed because this experience was worth much more than a mere leopard sighting.
Post dinner, the plan was to go on a short night drive. Jui and Nirmalya had told us that night drives in Ol Kinyei are quite rewarding. This is yet another plus of staying in Porini camps. Night game drives are included in the package and the thrill of driving out after dinner is incomparable to any other experience. Red lights are used to spot animals as they do not really bother the nocturnal ones. Yellow lights can temporarily disorient an animal for up to 30 minutes, yet many conservancies do that – charging a hefty fee for their night safaris.
Here, they do not even shine the red light on any animal for a long time as that makes the predator and prey more visible (either depriving the cats of their food or giving the prey a lesser fighting chance of survival). In fact, the Masai guides even dim the car headlights if they spotlight and stun any animal. Nightime in the forest is supposed to be a dark time, providing refuge for some and opportunity for others. Laws of the jungle need to be respected as much as possible, wherever, whenever.
It had rained more heavily in this part of Mara and the red light attracted hundreds of termites. I had been assured of sighting bush babies and the usual nocturnals like the spring hare (African kangaroo), scrub hare, jackals and so on, but within a minute of our night game drive, we were rewarded with a very rare sighting of an aardwolf feeding around a termite mound. Surprisingly, this very shy creature made no effort to move away. Possibly because the red light attracted his favourite food (termites) towards him. The animals we saw later, paled away in comparison after this very rare sighting!
We woke up to another beautiful sunrise and got ready for our last safari. We saw the same herd of elephants walking in a file ahead of us. We also spotted a magnificent Bateleur eagle.
We couldn’t find any cheetahs but found a lion hidden in the bushes. While Olare Motorogi conservancy was bone dry, Ol Kinyei had received quite a bit of rain. All cats (except tigers) hate to be wet and move on to drier pastures or go up the hills when the plains become marshy. That is why this part was not full of visible cats.
Normally, this conservancy is famous for being a cat country where you will always see cheetahs and lions and more often than not, leopards as well. If you want to see the elusive cats, you better come here. You should also ideally spend 3 nights for a more fulfilling experience.
Our guide seemed to be on some kind of a secret mission as he kept looking for something. He stopped at a secluded spot and bent down to peer into a small ravine, carefully covered by a thick bush. Then he exclaimed happily ‘There she is!’ Who? What? Where? He maneuvered our Landcruiser into a waterlogged ditch and asked us to look through the bush. And sure enough, there was a lioness with 3 newborns, who were yet to be taken out in the open as they were still very vulnerable.
It was quite a scary situation as she was only about 30 metres away and it is well known how fiercely protective mothers are of their cubs. Every time we peered through the branches, the lioness would look straight at us but gradually got assured that we did not pose any real threat to her babies.
Naturaĺly, we were thrilled at this rare sighting. Only rangers know where a new mother is hiding her cubs and in a conservancy, this news is often shared with the camp since it is safe to do so – the number of visitors are small and the camps very responsible. We were privileged to be taken to this spot because Jui and Nirmalya were with us. They gave a new dimension to our safari experience with their personal involvement which incidentally, is extended to all their clients.
Since we had a flight to catch later in the day, we decided to leave the mom and cubs in peace to look for something else. But as Geoffrey tried to reverse, he discovered that the Landcruiser had got precariously stuck in the slush. The wheel did not get any traction and kept spinning wildly, emitting black fumes and carelessly flinging muck in all directions. The lioness immediately sat up, looking very alert. We had got ourselves in BIG trouble! After a few futile attempts, even the proud Masai realised it was a hopeless case and decided to call for help. But the call was made after a few more attempts.
Tensely, we waited there for over an hour albeit punctuated by uncontrollable fits of nervous, semi-silent giggles over things that were not even remotely funny, like various modes of death, adding an extra layer of clothing by wearing a waterproof poncho to make the biting more difficult and so on.
What was truly noteworthy was the extremely cautious behaviour of the Masais – the same guys who so very nonchalantly asked our men to get off the car in really close proximity of a roaring leopard the previous evening, did not even attempt to step out of the car in the presence of the new mother lioness. Instead, they kept looking at the bush to gauge her mood.
Finally, help arrived in the form of a Landcruiser loaded with 5 smiling Masais along with a driver and mechanic. They brought some branches and threw them in front of our wheels — but did not dare to step out. Such is the depth of their respect for the new mother. A shovel was chucked nervously from the other vehicle but it lay on the ground, untouched, as it didn’t reach close enough for our driver to pick it up without leaving the car. Nobody attempted to get out of the vehicle.
This (branch throwing) exercise was of little help and so the other Landcruiser decided to go around to park behind us. The tarpaulin cover was pulled down on the lioness’s side of the vehicle to block her vision of the major movements happening on this side. One by one, 7 of us crossed over to the other car and drove away happily and with a huge sigh of relief. Our Landcruiser was left abandoned there, to be rescued later as and when the lioness moved away with her cubs, which was bound to happen soon, given the degree of disturbance caused by us although unintentionally.
Truly, it was a hair-raising experience.
It would be unfair to end my post without mentioning the very hospitable Banerjees. It is going to be the first Indian hosted camp in Masai Mara. Food is usually a big problem for Indian tourists in Kenya, especially the vegetarians. That will definitely not be an issue in Porini Cheetah Camp as they intend to address this problem very earnestly.
They are both extremely passionate about conservation, wild life, creating general awareness about the delicate balance in nature, and their child-like enthusiasm can be quite infectious. Their biggest USP is of course, to host the clients and accompany them in their game drives. And when the host resides in the camp, every service – from housekeeping to food to guiding – goes up a few notches. I’m really looking forward to the opening of their camp in June 2017.
P.S. – We enquired and found that our Landcruiser was retrieved from that ditch the same afternoon. The lioness had predictably moved deeper into the ravine with her cubs, out of human sight, but was still in the vicinity. Because when the Masais went to retrieve the vehicle, there was a loud growl the moment they stepped out.
(All photos, except otherwise mentioned, is by the author.)
PPS: My family had the privilege of signing the register of Porini Cheetah Camp as guest #1 and I’m happy to report that it’s running happily to outstanding TripAdvisor reviews. Here’s a link from one of leading Indian dailies.