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BIG CAT DIARY; With encounters to top any wildlife TV documentary, the Masai Mara's conservancies are the ideal choice for African safari, says SARAH MARSHALL.

The colours | | the Mara are almost as spectacular as the wildlife. Right: A tour group shadows a lion BIG CAT DIARY BURNING laser beams through the branches of an Acacia tree, the leopard's gaze xes on a point far in the distance.

URNINGlike two laser beams through the branches of an Acacia tree, the leopard's gaze xes 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 nally paying o. 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.

We've been waiting almost two hours for the sluggish cat to make a move, and now our patience is nally paying o. 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 1980s powerdressing soap star. Her glassy green eyes are xed on a troop of baby warthogs following their mother to a den. Alert, and with every well-oiled muscle red into action, the killing machine makes chase - and we follow suit.

Head lowered, her shoulder blades bulge at right angles, giving the sultry cat a silhouette to rival any 1980s powerdressing soap star. Her glassy green eyes are xed on a troop of baby warthogs following their mother to a den. Alert, and with every well-oiled muscle red 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.

e t Sighting a leopard is dicult, seeing a kill is rare, and being the only vehicle present to witness the event is almost impossible. But it's moments such as this that make Kenya's Masai Mara conservancies the best place in the world for a big Sighting a leopard is dicult, seeing a kill is rare, and being the only vehicle present to witness the event is almost impossible. But it's moments such as this that make Kenya's Masai Mara conservancies the best place in the world for a big cat safari.

In 1997, Kenya Wildlife Service launched the Parks launched the Parks Beyond Parks Beyond Parks campaign, outlining campaign, outlining an eco-tourism an eco-tourism initiative where initiative where local pastoralist communities could benet from leasing land to tourism. In 2005, the rst conservancy in the Mara was set up at Ol Kinyei, and there are Now ve 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 benets are twofold. While the Maasai people prot from tourism, guests also enjoy excellent wildlife viewing.

e number of camps in each conservancy is restricted and no day-trippers are permitted, meaning trac 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 minibuses distressing wildlife, the National Reserve is still teeming with game, and is also the only place to watch the Mara River's lions," says Val, who manages the 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."

Meaning 'coming together' in " Maasai, Naboisho is the youngest conservancy and also home to the Koiyaki Guiding School, where our Maasai guides, Bernard and Johnson, both trained.

Having worked with a number of professional photographers, guides NEED TO KNOW S | ARAH MARSHALL was a guest of the Kenya Tourism Board. Visit magicalkenya.com A | SILIA Naboisho Camp (asilia africa.com) is from PS465pp per night, including fly camping; at Kicheche Valley Camp (kicheche.com) it's from PS405; Mara Plains Camp (greatplains conservation.com) is from PS550; Elephant Pepper Camp (cheli peacock.com) is from PS420. All rates are full board and include conservancy fees.

K | | AyA Y Airways (kenyaAirways.com) operates daily overnight flights from Heathrow to Nairobi, from PS732.41.

safari.link (flysafarilink.com) offers daily scheduled connecting flights from Nairobi to all the major game parks in Kenya.

at Kicheche know all the best spots in the Mara, and with split-second expertise can manoeuvre vehicles into the best viewing positions.

at Kicheche know all the best spots in the Mara, and with split-second expertise can manoeuvre vehicles into the best viewing positions.

Bernard and Johnson demonstrate these skills when we head out before dawn to photograph one of the Mara's blood orange sunrises.

Bernard and Johnson demonstrate these skills when we head out before dawn to photograph one of the Mara's blood orange sunrises.

We quickly nd our subject, a stately male prowling through the whistling thorns, scattering nervous impala like pins in a bowling alley.

We quickly nd our subject, a stately male prowling through the whistling thorns, scattering nervous impala like pins in a bowling alley.

It| the rst of many lion sightings, with later encounters involving an aggressive courtship (leaving a male scarred and limping), and a nursery of cubs from as young as three weeks old.

It| the rst of many lion sightings, with later encounters involving an aggressive courtship (leaving a male scarred and limping), and a nursery of cubs from as young as three weeks old.

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.

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 With so many predatory big cats around though, it's unlikely they'll all survive. Having hidden her young in the thickets, we nd Nabiki hunting for prey, but with little energy left in her gaunt body, any attempts are quickly aborted.

e cheetah's vulnerability becomes acutely apparent when we accidentally stumble into a 'scaredy cat' on foot, sending it shooting into the savannah.

In the reserve, guests can only disembark vehicles when accompanied by a park ranger, but at Asilia Africa's Naboisho Camp, 'y camping and walking safaris are both possible, under the guidance of experienced camp manager Roelof.

With a mobile kitchen, 'u"y duvets and even a re-heated shower beneath the stars, 'y camping is much more glamorous than simply pitching a tent in the bush.

Having been cooped up in a vehicle for several days, I enjoy the freedom of stretching my legs and taking time to appreciate the Mara's smaller details.

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

eir future though, is precarious.

"e 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 isnancially successful, so tourism is vital. 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.

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' Long after dark, we listen to lions hunt a herd of wildebeest, with thousands of eyes glinting like fireflies in our spotlight...

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The colours | | the Mara are almost as spectacular as the wildlife. Right: A tour group shadows a lion
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 14, 2015
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