In the heart of nature

Undated Handout Photo of Wildebeest at sunset in Mara North Conservancy, Masai Mara. See PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Renato Granieri. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya.
Undated Handout Photo of Wildebeest at sunset in Mara North Conservancy, Masai Mara. See PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Renato Granieri. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Kenya.

Burning like two laser beams through the branches of an Acacia tree, the leopard’s gaze fixes on a point far in the distance. We’ve been waiting almost two hours for the sluggish cat to make a move, and now our patience is finally paying off.

Leaping from the tree, she heads towards the thorny scrubland, stealthily lifting one paw in front of the other as if to steady her stare. Head lowered, her shoulder blades bulge at right angles, giving the sultry cat a silhouette to rival any Eighties power-dressing soap star.

Her glassy green eyes are fixed on a troop of baby warthogs following their mother to a den. Alert, and with every well-oiled muscle fired into action, the killing machine makes chase - and we follow suit.

Zig-zagging through grassy mounds, the air exploding with high-pitched squeals, it takes less than two minutes for the opportunistic predator to snare a pair of piglets, her sleek rosette-covered coat now stained ruby red with blood.

Sighting a leopard is difficult, seeing a kill is rare, and being the only vehicle present to witness the event is almost impossible. But it’s episodes such as this that make Kenya’s Masai Mara conservancies arguably the best place in the world for a big cat safari.

In 1997, Kenya Wildlife Service launched the Parks Beyond Parks campaign, outlining an eco-tourism initiative where local pastoralist communities could benefit from leasing land to tourism. In 2005, the first conservancy in the Mara was set up at Ol Kinyei, and there are now five projects bordering the National Reserve.

Mara North, where I begin my stay at the nature-embracing Elephant Pepper Camp, is one of the largest conservancies, with 12 camps spread across 90,000 hectares, and conservancy fees, paid by every visitor as part of their bed stay, shared between a management body and 800 landowners.

But the benefits are twofold; while the Maasai people profit from a growth in tourism, guests also enjoy excellent wildlife viewing.

The number of camps in each conservancy is restricted and no day-trippers are permitted, meaning vehicle density is exceptionally low, and it often feels like the vast plains and palette-plundering skies belong solely to you.

But despite negative reports of packed, camo-clad mini buses distressing wildlife, the National Reserve is still teeming with game, and is also the only place to watch the Mara River’s famous migration crossings.

The Mara Plains Camp, which straddles the Mara North and Olare Motorogi conservancies, offers guests a day pass to the Reserve as part of their stay.

With palatial, colonial-themed tents, it’s undoubtedly the most lavish camp in the Mara, but the greatest luxury afforded guests is the flexibility of game drives.

We set out at 5.15am one morning, to find a leopard nursing her cub at the bottom of a small ravine on the border of the reserve.

Unlike the solitary and powerful predator we’d spotted days earlier, this is an altogether different creature; gentle, caressing and playful. We spend an hour, alone, watching the two-month-old cub nuzzling, pawing and even biting its mother for affection. Vehicles can’t officially drive through the reserve until 6am, so it takes them some time to interrupt our intimate display.

With a packed breakfast and lunch in the vehicle, there’s no need to return to the lodge, so we maximize our time on the action-packed plains.

A spotted hyena rips into the belly of a fallen wildebeest, snorting hysterically to call other members of the pack, while a few kilometers away, Martial eagles hunt surprisingly resilient mongooses that fight back with the ill-judged bravado of David challenging Goliath.

Long after dark, we listen to lions hunt a herd of wildebeest, with thousands of eyes glinting like fireflies in our spotlight, as the ungainly creatures break into a stampede. Finally, we return to camp 15 hours after we first left.

In Africa, overall, the lion population is declining, but in the Mara - and particularly the Naboisho conservancy - numbers are booming.

“We’re very proud of our lions,” says Val, who manages the excellent six-tent Kicheche Valley Camp with her husband Brendon. “In 2011, we had barely any, but now we have one of the biggest prides in the Mara.”

But an abundance of lions isn’t good news for everyone. We go in search of Nabiki, a four-year-old cheetah who recently gave birth to four cubs. With so many predatory big cats around though, it’s unlikely they’ll all survive. Having hidden her young in the thickets, we find Nabiki hunting for prey, but with little energy left in her gaunt, frail body, any attempts are quickly aborted.

That night, we sit around a campfire, listening to hippos lolloping in the river. We haven’t seen another person or heard another vehicle all afternoon. That silence and seclusion is precious, and testimony to the success of the conservancies.

Their future though, is precarious.

“The Mara is on a lifeline at the moment,” admits Roelof, blaming Ebola and terrorism fears - both, in reality, far removed from the Mara - for a drop in holiday bookings to Kenya. “It’s struggling for survival.”

He’s right. Persuading Maasai to swap grazing land for wildlife will only work if the project is financially successful, so tourism is a vital link in the chain.

During a week in the conservancies, I’ve seen, heard and sensed more than in every safari I’ve been on combined.

If bookings do remain static, I fear it’s not just the Maasai who’ll be missing out.