How long have you been interested in wildlife?
I was 10 when my father took me to the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa, where we stayed with the then founder-field director (and sometime director of Project Tiger), the late Saroj Rai Choudhury, who had adopted a tigress named Khairi. I remember taking Khairi for walks on a leash in the reserve and even sharing a bed with the tigress. For a 10-year-old, that was an unforgettable experience. I went back to Kolkata and raided the British Council Library for books on all kinds of animals, from the ant to the elephant… There was so much to learn about wildlife. Later, when I could afford a camera, that interest in animals morphed into a passion for wildlife photography.
And now you visit the Masai Mara at least once in two years.
All photographs by Pratap Bose
What is it about the Masai Mara that draws you to it?
Well, it’s tough to say exactly. It’s not the largest park in Africa—that is Tsavo—but I prefer it to South Africa, which I find a little too touristy. But yes, the Masai Mara is associated with a lot of folklore, because of the animals and the tribesmen who live on the fringes. Moreover many of the Nat Geo series are shot there. Plus, after so many years, there’s a degree of familiarity. I also know the land, know where to go to spot animals or kills.
But your wildlife trips aren’t really about roughing it out.
No, they aren’t. For many years now, I have engaged the services of Joe Charleson and his wife Gillian, who run a very exclusive place at Leleshwa Camp (www.eastafricasafariventures.com), on a secluded conservation area adjacent to the Masai Mara game reserve. They charge around $1,000 (approx. Rs40,000) a night per couple, but what you get out of that is quite unbelievable. Basically, you get to do whatever you want: There’s no itinerary, no fixed times when you have to go on a safari or have your meals. You are in the camp with a 4x4 Land Rover, an English-speaking certified wildlife tracker, a Masai wildlife spotter, and you can decide to go wherever and whenever you want to. For instance, we would finish dinner at about 10pm and set out at night to watch the lions team up for a kill and return at 2am. You are never hurried at all in whatever you choose to do. It’s not a problem at all if I have to wait two hours for a great picture. There were times when we would just watch vultures in the sky and drive for two hours looking for a dead kill.
Another great service they provide is a full packed lunch with some great wine, along with deck chairs and a table, so one can stop anywhere in the wild and have lunch under the shade of an acacia tree.
The tents that they put up are very nice indeed and have all the facilities one could possibly ask for in the wild. You might get a scare sometimes with an animal scratching the canvas in the dead of night—but that’s all part of the adventure.
This time around, the four days with Joe and Gillian were preceded by three days at the Tsavo West National Park, where we stayed at a place called Finch Hattons (www.finchhattons.com), rated Africa’s Best Tented Lodge for many years now.
Was Nairobi your first stop?
Yes, we flew Kenya Airways to Nairobi and then took a four-seater single-engine turbo prop to Tsavo. The best way to get around Africa is by the small turbo aircraft run by a few private companies, which do hopping flights to most of the African reserves. That is an experience in itself because all the small airfields are just dirt strips in the middle of nowhere! When we where flying from Tsavo to the Mara, we couldn’t take off because we had a large herd of zebras blocking the runway for 15 minutes!
What makes Tsavo so different from the Masai Mara?
The Tsavo West National Park is covered with volcanic cones, rocky outcrops and lava flows. The northern part of Tsavo West is the most developed in terms of lodges and infrastructure. It has spectacular scenery with a rolling volcanic landscape carpeted with long grass and dense bush. Tall vegetation makes game spotting here a little trickier than in some of the other parks. The Big Five can be found in the park, along with a fine range of antelope species.
At Finch Hattons, the tents are set along the edge of a natural freshwater spring, which flows through three pools and is home to a resident pod of hippopotami. You will experience wildlife at your doorstep, as the camp is unfenced—animals come and go as they please. You can actually relive the golden era of the safari, with five-star elegance and excellent cuisine served on fine china with silver and crystal.
And, you were in time for the annual migration at Masai Mara. Was this the first time for you?
No, this was the fourth time we were seeing the migration, but it is still an impressive experience. As far as the eye can see, it’s just animals all around, maybe 100,000 wildebeest and zebras, in one go, moving in a line as if they’re playing follow the leader, or in a huge cluster. The wildebeest outnumber the zebra 10:1, but they’re all intent on moving south, and completely oblivious to the human intruders in their midst. For, we are in the middle of the swarm of animals, they are all around us.
Did you go animal spotting at night?
Oh, yes! It’s quite an eerie experience to be out in the dead of night in the park, just the four of us. The only light comes from the very powerful searchlights we carry with us and the first sign that we’re close to an animal comes when the light reflects off their eyes. Around 11 one night, we saw a herd of lions bringing down a large male giraffe. That was an astounding sight, the kind one usually sees only on Nat Geo. We were very lucky to reach the right spot at the right time.
Was that Memory No. 1 from the trip?
We saw pretty much every animal on this particular trip except the rhino. But, the other vivid memory was formed late one evening when we saw three cheetahs—brothers—team up and kill a Thompson’s gazelle. It was dusk, around 5.30-6pm, when we saw the cheetahs. We could make out they were hungry and kept pace with them as they singled out the gazelle: One cheetah went ahead to cut off its path while the other two attacked it. It was over in 10 minutes and the leopards, very suspicious animals at the best of times, immediately dragged off the kill to protect it from us, the intruders. Again, we were very lucky to see the sight as cheetahs usually kill in the daytime.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at email@example.com
Fly from Mumbai to Nairobi with Kenya Airways; round-trip economy fares start upwards of Rs20,000, including taxes.