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The Big Five

Masai Mara, Kenya

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Kenya is not a rich country, and one of its major sources of foreign exchange comes from tourism. The single largest tourist draw in the whole country is, of course, the Masai Mara park reserve.

The name Masai Mara conjures up images of endless miles of savannah. In fact, the reserve only covers a couple of hundred square miles. It is one small part of the much larger Serengeti plains, and sits in the basin of the Great Rift Valley, a huge geological fault line that stretches virtually from the top to the bottom of Africa, and, in fact, continues northwards well into the middle east and nearly into Europe. The Masai Mara is home to a huge array of wildlife, and, despite its small area, you can see almost the full range of large plains animals that Africa has to offer.

By American standards, entry to the Masai Mara is not expensive: as of 2005 it stands at around $35 for a non-Kenyan adult. It’s hard to take in all the sites the reserve has to offer in a single day, so one of the most popular options is to stay within the boundaries for a few days, residing at a tented resort or lodges such as the Siana Springs or the David Livingston. Most such resorts tend to be situated towards the eastern end of the reserve, closer to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Once you’re holed up at a resort – which tend to offer all-inclusive dining and accommodation options – very many viewing activities are open to you. You can do more or less anything from geological guided tours to explorations of the local plant life. However, the most popular option is to take a Land Rover voyage of discovery around some of the animal sights of the reserve.

All of the so-called ‘big five’ are here: lions, elephants, cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros. If you’re lucky, you’ll see all in a single day’s guided exploration – though you may find that each animal has slightly different characteristics from what you might expect.

Arguably the most dangerous of the big five is….the buffalo. The most famous of the Masai Mara’s species were originally designated the Big Five by game hunters in the days when the great animals of the savannah were targets for guns rather than cameras. The hunters were disconcerted to find that, although the odds were stacked in the favor given their use of firearms, more of their number became casualties to buffalo than any of the other four species, each of which was apparently more aggressive. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. The buffalo, which is fleet of foot, aggressive and congregates in herds, turned out to be a far more dangerous opponent that many of the other large species, whose primary form of defense was to run and hide. For modern hunters of big game – people like you who will be armed with cameras rather than high-powered rifles or shotguns – the buffalo are often the surprise highlight of a Masai Mara safari. They may not be pretty, but the sight of them gathering, feeding and moving in large herds can be awe-inspiring.

After the buffalos, the second most fearsome creature is probably the elephant. These great creatures move with an incredible speed that belies their apparently unwieldy bulk. Young bulls and nursing mothers can be particularly aggressive if they feel their personal space is being invaded, and they have even been known to charge Land Rovers – though you can rest assured that your reserve-accredited guides will know exactly how not to provoke these great beasts, and exactly the right moment to hit the gas if things do get a little hairy.

Oddly, the creature that has historically accounted for the most human fatalities in this part of Africa is not even one of the Big Five. The hippopotamus didn’t make the classification simply because it was no fun to hunt – it typically just sits around in its mud pool doing nothing very much. However, despite their peaceful and even comical appearance, hippos, if provoked, can turn into fearsome killers. On a flat sprint they can easily outpace even the fastest of human runners. So, although these oddly beautiful creatures are wonderful to observe, you would be best off doing so from a distance.

The animal that most people come to the Masai Mara hoping to see, the lion, is not a disappointment exactly; but because they tend to do a lot of their hunting in the cooler hours of the day you’re much more likely to see them lying around sunning themselves than doing anything particularly exciting – this is particularly true of the males, who tend to spend nearly their entire lives just lounging around, waiting for the much more aggressive females to bring back a kill.

The Masai Mara is one of those places that you simply must visit if you want to consider yourself well-traveled. This is a primeval landscape, and one of the few places on earth where human beings can consider themselves a long way off being the most fearsome beasts around.