It’s the classic image: the Masai Mara at dawn.
Poised in anticipation but empty of wildlife. Faintly veiled in a gossamer of silver mist. In the foreground is a wash of bone-beige savannah. On the horizon is a scribble of trees. Centre-stage is a single flat-topped acacia tree stuck like a parasol into the wilderness beach. The sky retains the last pink streaks of dawn; the clouds their last delicate filigree of gold. All is silent and still.
And then the dance begins.
From stage-left floats a vast parchment-coloured globe. Like a giant light bulb it flickers ON and OFF with lightening filaments of red-hot flame. And, as it drifts serenely over the acacia, there’s a sudden WHOOSH. The burners are belching hot air into the belly of the balloon. Down it swoops, almost touching the trees lining the river. Briefly, a barrage of camera flashes flare, and then the balloon and its cargo of photographers is gone. In its wake drifts another balloon. And then another: and another… until the entire sky is filled with floating candle-yellow orbs. This is the dawn parade of hot-air balloons, their square baskets filled with sleepy-eyed people who’ve tumbled from their beds at first-light to experience this, the most mesmeric of safaris. From their silent vantage point they’ll look down on the drama of the chase and kill; the skirmish of the plains game, the black tide of the wildebeest and the stately march of the elephants. Later, as the morning winds subside, they’ll drift down to a bump, bump, BUMP landing on the plains. And a champagne breakfast will be served. Here in camp, however, we’ve already breakfasted. Now we’re off for the morning game-drive. And our own ballet of the wild is about to begin.
It’s the time of rain in the Mara and the grass is waist-high. So all is concealed. A herd of buffalo floats across the waving swathes, seemingly leg-less. A flurry of antelopes leap briefly out of it, temporarily suspended like horses on a merry-go-round, and then disappears. A pair of antlers rears: eerily disembodied. The great grey-gleaming mass of a hippo looms briefly into view. He is blundering his way back to the river.
Perched high on a termite mound a plum-coloured topi, his rumps denim blue, keeps watch for danger. He’s the savannah dwellers’ early-warning system. If trouble arrives, creeping unseen through the golden sheaves of grass, it will be he who sounds the alarm. Zick zick.
A herd of zebra is passing through the grass now, their haunches engulfed, only their heads visible. They’re nervous; and with good reason. Behind them there’s a momentary prick of ears.
They’re round and golden. Lion.
Our vehicle pulls up and we survey the scene. ‘There she is,’ says the guide and points away into the distance. Binoculars are raised. ‘She’ is a magnificent lioness and she’s padding swiftly through the grass – now visible – now concealed. ‘She’s calling,’ the guide says, ‘can you hear her?’
We can’t. But we take his word for it. It doesn’t occur to any of us to question who or what she’s calling to. As breathless visitors to the theatre of the wild, we’re timorous; and the driver-guide is king.
The lioness is moving swiftly towards us now, prescribing a vast arc across the plain. Towards her gallop the zebra. It’s a trap. Behind the zebras the ears are moving swiftly now. And there are lots of them. Suddenly the lioness emerges from the long grass and crosses the track in front of us. She’s on a mission: and even we can hear her calling now. It’s a dry hacking grunt of a call. ‘She’s telling them which way to go,’ says the guide. Who? We wonder.
Now the ballet whirls into life and all the dancers are on stage. The herd of zebra, now well and truly ‘spooked’ plunges out of the wings and careers across the track in front of us.
Behind them comes a lion cub.
And then another.
But they’re too late. The zebras hurtle down the track, hooves flailing. They’re not going to risk the treachery of the long grass again. »
As we watch, they blend into an amorphous mass of stripes that grows gradually smaller and eventually disappears around a bend.
In the middle of the track, his long tail waving, the first lion cub watches his would-be kill disappear.
Better luck next time.
Disconsolate, he turns back to his fellows. But they’re already running away. At the foot of a leaning acacia tree, the lioness is sprawled. And she’s still calling. One by one, sixteen golden spotted cubs break cover and leap upon her in play. Their black-tipped tails whirl and interlock into patterns. ‘There are two lionesses,’ says our guide, ‘they take turns in teaching their cubs how to hunt.’ ‘And what about the male lions?’ we ask, round-eyed, ‘where are they?’ ‘Around,’ says the guide, ‘near by.’
Unwittingly we all look over our shoulders.
When we look back, the grass has swallowed up the lions as if they were never there. But we know better. We know what’s waiting in the wings.
Back in camp the ballooners return triumphant. ‘We saw two lions,’ they say. ‘We saw seventeen,’ we say.
But they don’t believe us.