DCSIMG

Sheer scale of this vast plane is mind-blowing

D9M4W2 Cheetah family (Acinonyx jubatus) and safari car jeep Kicheche Masai Mara Africa

D9M4W2 Cheetah family (Acinonyx jubatus) and safari car jeep Kicheche Masai Mara Africa

Crouched in the long grass, her unwavering gaze fixed directly ahead, the world’s fastest land animal sits completely still.

A young gazelle grazing nearby has no idea it’s in the eye-line of a hungry cheetah with pestering cubs to feed.

For the past two days we’ve been following Narasha - as she’s known to local guides - and her two cubs, wincing at her repeated failures to catch prey. Her belly is empty and she looks increasingly desperate. Yet now, when presented with the opportunity almost on a plate, she simply gives up.

What went wrong? Amid the kerfuffle and confusion, one thing is certain, this is shaping up to be a safari unlike any I have been on before.

I’m travelling with Kicheche Camps, who operate three predominantly locally-staffed camps in three of Kenya’s Masai Mara Conservancies, and for the next four days I am immersed in wildlife, observing animal behaviour in a way I imagine only Attenborough TV crews are able to do.

Located on the periphery of the Masai Mara National Park, the Conservancies are community-owned areas of land, leased from the local Maasai people and run by stakeholders. By offering financial benefits and employment opportunities, the camps have helped to significantly improve community awareness about the importance of conservation and protecting wildlife.

But aside from altruism, there are also some purely selfish reasons to visit: with day visitors prohibited, the number of vehicles here is much less than the neighbouring national park, and tourist density is extremely low. In fact, for most of my stay, I barely see another vehicle in the dusty savannah.

The opportunities for wildlife viewing are also excellent. Relative peace and quiet is attracting an increasing number of animals to the Conservancies, with some of the Mara’s biggest lion prides now resident here.

Already we’ve been in earshot of roaring lions, smelled hippos wallowing in stagnant water holes, and spied hyenas resting in the crevices of rocks.

Action-packed, yes. But this is not a tick-box exercise.

“The Big Five is a butcher’s term,” snarls Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche and an award-winning wildlife photographer. Outspoken, passionate and some might say unrepentantly rude, Paul is also a reason why so many people come here.

His photographic tours at Kicheche continuously sell out, attracting not only keen photographers but anyone who wants to truly observe and understand wildlife in the Mara, rather than robotically crossing off names on a list.

But rewards don’t always come easily, and we spend many hours sat in the back of a hot Toyota Land Cruiser, eating Fruit Pastilles, listening to Paul quote crude entries from the Viz Profanisaurus, and waiting for the wildlife to turn up.

But when they do, Paul knows exactly where to go, and the Masai guides can quickly manoeuvre vehicles into the perfect position - always observing a respectful distance.

They demonstrate their skills one afternoon when a storm rolls in across the Mara.

As the wind picks up, a menacing dark sheet of cloud sweeps across the horizon. But in reality, the show is only just beginning.

Not even the umbrella-shaped acacia trees can offer sufficient shelter as rain pummels the savannah.

Then they appear - a group of playful young cheetahs with energy to burn. Undeterred by the storm, they pelt through the sodden grass, chasing a petrified hare. Pouncing on their prey, they toss it between each other like a football, and it becomes clear this coalition is simply here for sport.

But life is no joke for our cheetah Narasha when we catch up with her the following morning.Her stomach is almost concave; she’s visibly weary, but doesn’t stop to rest for a minute.

A cheetah’s eyesight is six times better than our own, and she clearly spots something before we do - a pregnant gazelle, an easy target.

When Narasha starts sprinting, this time we know she won’t give up.

A meal of this size will last the family at least a couple of days, so for now, they are satisfied. Our particular story might have reached a temporary conclusion, but tomorrow, no doubt, more dramas will unfold in the Mara.

 
 
 

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