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Remember that scene from PBS’s “Nature” in which hundreds of wildebeest leap into a muddy river in a mad rush to get to the other side, only to be swept away by the current or eaten by crocodiles?
Live it with me now.
Every spring and fall, 1.5 million wildebeest and 800,000 Burchell’s zebra migrate between Serengeti and Masai Mara in equatorial Africa. They must cross the Mara River, funneling into any of four crossing places, sliding down steep red dirt embankments sixty feet high into shallow but very muddy water about fifty yards wide. They swim against a stiff current toward the opposite bank, not as steep but very rocky.
Mara’s muddy water conceals huge hippos and the biggest crocodiles I’ve seen outside Costa Rica. The hippos don’t bother the wildebeest and zebra, but the crocs are fat and well fed. . . .
When my travel agent cousin Betty planned our Africa trip, she said, “I want to see the Great Migration.”
“Some people come to the Mara for several days and never see a crossing,” warned Andrew, our Kenya driver-guide, as we jolted to the river at 3 PM one afternoon. He parked the open-topped Land Cruiser at one bend of the river where we could photograph the crossing—if it happened--plus hippos and crocs sunning themselves on the sandy riverbanks below.
Clouds built up on the horizon, muting shadows and promising rain.
Far in the distance, thousands of wildebeest shuffled in a single line toward the crossing. When a few began sliding down the embankment, we got excited and hauled out the cameras. But these few only glanced at the water then scrambled back up the embankment.
Behind them, hundreds more galloped toward the crossing. “They have to cross,” mused Betty. “Otherwise the new arrivals will push them.”
But it was not to be. Instead of crossing, the animals milled around on the far bank. We lowered our cameras. A family of African mongoose amused us for a while. The wind kicked up dirt and the smell of smoke and rain. We waited. Thousands more wildebeest gathered on the horizon but still, none crossed.
Other drivers reported cheetah activity so we moved. For the next hour and a half, we photographed four near-grown cheetahs tumbling like housecats.
Then the radio crackled.
“They’re moving!” Andrew gunned the engine.
We raced back to our viewing spot. Same scene as before: several wildebeest on the bank, staring at the muddy river, but no movers. Hundreds raced toward the river, but none crossed.
I was not excited.
It rained. We closed the vehicle top. The rain stopped. We opened the vehicle top. Still none crossed. It was 6 PM. The sun would set in minutes. “Will they cross at night?” I asked Andrew.
“No,” he replied. “They will wait until morning.” We began packing our cameras away.
“They’re moving!” Someone yelled.
I wasn’t excited—until I looked up.
Wildebeest dived into the river!
At first the wildebeest crossed in single file, but almost immediately, sheer numbers overwhelmed the queue. They bounded in, dozens at a time, and swam hard against the muddy current. This was it—the crossing we’d waited for!
Now I was excited. . . .
In ever dimming light, we shot the leaps, swims and struggles to the other side. I gave up after one picture. My 3X zoom was too short and my lens inadequate. But Betty and the others in the Cruiser clicked away with their telephoto lenses, some as long as my arm.
Bruce, a professional photographer, balanced his 400-mm telephoto on a beanbag nestled in the Cruiser’s open top. “I’ll send you some of mine,” he promised.
I replaced my camera with binoculars.
By now, dozens had reached the opposite bank and struggled to clamber up. The current grabbed many who couldn’t get a foothold on the embankment. Still, hundreds swam onward.
“Why is that one drifting downstream?” I asked, noticing one wide-eyed wildebeest separated from the others and making no attempt to get to shore. “Why isn’t he swimming?”
A crocodile head turned the wildebeest over on its back, splayed its legs then pulled it under--right in front of me.
I let out my breath.
In thirty minutes, the last wildebeest crossed. We counted five that didn’t make it. Andrew gunned the engine and turned on the lights. We had a dark, muddy trek back to the lodge.
But we’d witnessed what Betty came for: a crossing of the Great Migration.
c. PLATINUM Spring, 2008