Wild Africa in sharp focus

Love, death, violence, laughter - who needs Hollywood when you've got the animals of the Masai Mara? asks Peter Moss
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The Independent Travel
The sun has just risen over this far-flung corner of Kenya's Masai Mara game reserve and we were up to watch it. The sound of silence is gently nudged by the soft whooshing of flames from the hot-air balloon that drifts lazily by. The sleepiness of our dawn start has all but gone, eager anticipation proving to be the perfect wake-up call.

Our Jeep pulls up in a small clearing amidst the semi-dense forestation that conceals who knows what. We'll find out soon enough. Right now, though, it is the open ground that grabs our attention. There, crouching low to the ground, is a young eland, an elegant gazelle-like creature. Alive. Just. Hovering over him are two young cheetahs, about three-quarter grown, toying with him under the watchful gaze of their mother.

The cheetahs pat the eland on his rump, let him loose to run a bit then rein him in. It looks like play, a game of tag perhaps, or grandmother's footsteps, the eland waiting his turn to creep up on the young cheetahs.

But no. The cheetahs' intentions are rather less frivolous. They are learning to kill. This is Tom and Jerry for the drive-in screen, only Jerry's got no mouse-hole to escape through. For some 20 minutes, an eternity to the terrified eland, he is teased and tormented before being quite literally eaten alive, the prevailing silence rudely punctured by the sound of cracking limbs and greedy chomping. Like Joe Pesci being buried alive in GoodFellas, death never came slower. And all this just three or four feet away from us.

I couldn't watch and yet I couldn't not watch - the episode was as compelling as it was distressing, This is what we wanted to see, a real-life kill, the stuff safaris are made of. It was awful and awesome. In an act of blatant voyeurism we were witness to a brutal gangland murder.

"It's the law of the land," said my wife Susan, ever the pragmatist and now warmed by a shot or two of brandy. "There's a natural order out here and I'm afraid the eland doesn't rank very high." Her wisdom offered scant solace, especially since we had discovered, when the eland was fully exposed, that he was a she and she was pregnant. I nearly cried.

What could possibly follow this? Something gentle and graceful. Please, God, something gentle and graceful, something soft and pink and fluffy ... and alive. Not a bit of it. Instead, this being quite clearly Eat-a- Neighbour Day in East Africa, a huddle of vultures were busy devouring the remains of some wretched creature. All that was left was a horn and a few bloodied limbs. Not nice. Very not nice.

John, our guide, was blessed with an eye keener than any four-legged beast, and within minutes he was driving us into thicket so dense you could lie right down and still bang your head on the foliage overhang. He'd seen something. He cautioned us to silence, and I understood at once why David Attenborough speaks in those hushed tones.

We opened the roof, poked our heads out, squinting hard to gain extra focus through the gorse and bracken that enveloped us. And then, Geronimo. There, all but beneath us, basked a pride of lions - Mum, Dad, and assorted cubs, one of them on his back, legs akimbo, just crying out for tummy tickles. They were gorgeous. Had common sense not prevailed over temptation, I'd have been out of the Jeep to frolic with these handsome cats and their cuddly kittens. But I'm a pragmatist too, and I'd sooner eat chopped liver than be chopped liver.

We left the lions to their siesta and headed out across the plain, our four-wheel drive scattering hundreds of migrating wildebeest, hartebeest, zebras and hyenas. The wildebeest is an odd lot. I'd always wanted to see wildebeest, ever since Basil Fawlty, with one of his most devastating pieces of invective, assaulted a complaining Mrs Richards with the classic line: "What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically past...". With equine body and long flowing beard he looks half-horse, half-rabbi, which I guess means he can gallop and deliver a sermon at the same time. (I was going to say canter - but never milk a good gag dry.)

"Hey Dad," said Lucy. "Where are the elephants, then?" Where indeed. They were what I had made the breathtaking 90-minute light-aircraft flight from Mombasa to see. They were what I lay awake thinking of the previous night, unable to sleep through the honking of the hippos that shared our base at the Mara Buffalo Camp, so magically sited in this northernmost corner of the Serengeti National Park as it strays just beyond Tanzania and into Kenya.

We continued to bump and grind across the plain. More balloons floated by on an airborne safari. I gather they are not supposed to land in the reserve for obvious reasons of safety, a balloon being less adept at a speedy getaway than a modified Range Rover.

One did land recently, we were told, and the balloonists apparently provided some hungry carnivores with a first-rate dinner: human beings in a basket.

Past warthog and baboon, jackal and rhino, we continued. Lions were feeding on zebra, oblivious to our proximity and to our cameras, before slaking their thirst at the watering- hole, the lesser beasts queuing up as if by rote for the pickings. Vultures hovered. Still we continued, mesmerised by the sheer scale of this, the ultimate in live theatre.

More cheetahs came into view, our wish for something cuddly again granted, this time in the shape of the tiniest, fluffiest little cheetah kittens you ever saw. Three of them, picture- postcard cute, stepping out behind their mother, learning to walk without stumbling. Enjoy your innocence while you still have it, chaps. You'll be learning killing soon.

On we went, giraffe and bison in tandem, until suddenly, all around us is clear, nothing in view, just emptiness and space. We stop, look, listen. Then, with a silent grace that belies their sheer size, a herd of elephants appear from nowhere, striding past us in a scene that suggested they had just seen The Jungle Book and decided to stage a re-enactment for their own amusement. How do these immense creatures achieve such serenity? How do they move so sedately and with such effortless poise? Nothing that big should be that dainty. It was like watching Oliver Hardy doing that little dance in Way Out West. On they went to the watering-hole for their morning ablutions. On we went in search of still bigger and better, our nerve ends tingling, cameras at the ready. And this was just our first day.

We were lucky. Some people, I'm told, see lions but not cheetahs or elephants or black rhino. Some see elephants and black rhino, but no big cats of any description. Us? We had the lot, no holds barred. Finest piece of entertainment I ever saw. This was no B-movie, this was an Academy Award- winner, and in best Oscar tradition I'd like to thank John the driver, my son the cameraman, my wife the pragmatist...

GETTING THERE

Somak Holidays (tel: 0181-423 3000) offers a number of safaris in the Masai Mara game reserve. A two-week holiday costs pounds 1,131 until the end of June, including return flights on Kenya Airways, one week's half-board accommodation at a resort in Mombasa, and a week's full-board accommodation on safari in the Masai Mara, based on two sharing. Alternatively, you can book just the return flights through Somak Travel (tel: 0181-903 8526) for around pounds 250.

Other tour operators arranging similar safari holidays include Abercrombie and Kent (tel: 0171-730 9600), and Hayes and Jarvis (tel: 0181-748 0088).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Kenya Tourist Board (tel: 0171-355 3144).

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