The safari is over. For eleven days, we were allowed to be voyeurs into a world still wild with life and death in East Africa. Up before dawn, my brain was in a continual state of reprogramming, each new creature spotted depositing a search image in my mind’s databank, undoubtedly pushing out some other piece of useful information: the number of my bus line in Brooklyn, the name of a person I still consider a friend. But now I know, for the moment, the fingered contours of a vulture’s wing, the black-backed ears of a lion hidden in tall grass, the way the white on the leopard’s long striped tail flick back and forth as she shoos away flies. But listen. There is an auditory search image as well. The two-tone call of the rufous-naped lark, the gentle upward whoop of a hyena that defies its savageness, the maddening ceaselessness of the red-breasted cuckoo.
But here is one day. We’re in the Mara in southern Kenya, looking south to the mountains of Tanzania with the Serengeti beyond. We’ve already seen leopards on the bank of the Ewaso Ng’iro, a martial eagle eating breakfast, and been surrounded by a herd of elephants in Samburu further north. We’ve touched the rough-hewn hide of Baraka, a blind black rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy and then watched as two wild black rhinos moved across the plain, stopping to eat creepers growing upon the grave of another rhino that was once a park favorite. We watched a lioness sleep on a log that arced up out of the undergrowth near Lake Nakuru, which was rimmed with the pink of flamingos. And then, as we sat in the still afternoon light, we noticed that there was another lioness…and then that there was a cub, two cubs, three cubs, just two months old.
But the call of the Mara in July is about the wildebeests. They come with their spring calves in one of the largest migrations on earth. When I was here with the students a few weeks ago, we witnessed the first wave, arriving early and perplexing the locals. Now, they remain mysterious. No more have arrived and no one seems sure where the thousands we saw before have gone. There are crossings strung along points of the Mara River and this is where the jeeps cruise in search of witnessing something spectacular. We come across a small herd of fifty beesties, but they stare at the water, unconvinced. Approach. Withdraw. They could do this for hours. Or days.
Teeku, our guide, was raised on this land and has a sense of it that few people have of their surroundings no matter where they grew up. He loves this landscape, returning to it over and over, but he can also gauge the loss even while we see abundance. He knows there are fewer lions on the move, more Maasai cows illegally grazing, very few Egyptian vultures overhead. Now, watching the “bewilderbeests” pause, he scans the horizon, sees movement elsewhere and leads us on.
Farther upstream, at a place called Cul-de-Sac Crossing, zebras are amassing, thousands of them, each unique with its own set of stripes that trail up off a hefty body into a cropped mane alternating black and white. Some are sidled with foals, fuzzy brown with cream. A winding funnel of a passage leads to the river, surrounded by scrubby forest on both sides. We approach and sit quietly. Like wind vanes, their noses all point toward the river and their braying has begun, a cacophony of trumped up gumption, urgent and scared. Unlike last year, when the drought left the riverbeds close to dry, there have been six months of rains this year. The grass is thick, and every living creature is copulating, procreating, bearing their young and savagely trying to see that young one up to adulthood. And the river is a torrent of rough brown liquid seventy-five feet across. Hit the wrong spot on the far side, and an animal will face a sheer wall of earth twice its height, its hooves useless.
We don’t sit long. One brave zebra steps in and a key is unlocked. They all crash in behind it, swimming against the current to reach the bank that’s low enough to clamor out. A few wildebeests are in their midst, and the oddly proportioned animals seem to all find their way to the sheer spot, collecting one upon the other as they panic to find footing. On the incoming bank where we sit, we are surrounded by a dust storm kicked up by the zebras, and on the far side, they soak the soil with the muddy water of their exit.
The stampede sends reverberations through the earth and water and the crocodiles respond. They have been in a semi-dormant state for much of the year and it’s early in the migration. They are hungry, and they are huge. Several wait downstream but one that looks to measure twelve feet long and a yard across comes in from the right, moving fast. We watch, our bodies reaching out of the open roof of the jeep, baking in the sun, cameras clicking, as the crocodiles cruise in and begin their attack, taking – we lost count – maybe ten zebras down, most quickly and mercilessly with a quick nab of the throat and then dragged down below the waters, except for that one.
God, that one zebra that the first croc went after its rump, then there were two, then three prehistoric reptilian beasts coming at it from all sides except its head which rose above the water hoping for air and escape. The zebra paddled hard, fighting for a life it couldn’t have anymore as they ate it alive, one swallowing the intestines it had pulled from the baying drowning dying creature while a good five feet away from it, and meanwhile, a lioness has moved in and sits for a short spell watching the blur of black and white until she leaps and takes down one in a microsecond, dragging it into the brush.
The zebras panic back and forth, surges into and out of the water, making their loud winneying and crying out to their separated offspring, to their parents or young across the waters, in a rhythmic, pulsing braying beat, and this goes one for an hour, more. I am breathless. Several escape the crocs, only to be caught by the lion. There is a second lion kill, by perhaps a second lion. Who can keep track? The crocs gorge.
One zebra, injured on ass and head, steals away and we come across her a kilometer from the river bank, standing on the savanna – how did she even make it this far? We pull up to her and watch as she teeters, unsteady legs buckling, and falls to the ground, and we watch her die, there, before us, watch as her legs burst into one last full gallop as she lies on her side in the tall tan grass, watch as her struggling mouth and eyes let go and relax in her blood-drenched face. We watch.