It’s hot. The midday sun pours its heat down on us – no shadows. Sweat dries before it cools; skin turns every shade of pink to red. Makes you want to crawl into shade under a tree, or rock – anything rather than jump in the river. Brown coffee coloured water tumbles and splashes over rocks, in a brightly joyous journey but it is full of crocodiles with backs the size of dining tables.
Vast herds of wildebeest ebb and flow, swirling in indecision. Dust drifts bovine smells; the air is filled with grunts and replies becoming a base rhythm to the scene – building tension. We have time to think about why we are here.
The annual wildebeest migration between Serengeti in Tanzania, and Masai Mara in Kenya is one of those ‘must see’ ‘life ticks’. River crossings are the highlight when thousands of wildebeest, and occasional zebra, mass on the banks of the Mara River in a time worn urge to follow the rains to new grazing. To get to the greener grass on the other side they have to swim across the crocodile infested river. It’s not a decision taken lightly and there are many tentative hooves in water withdrawn before the final leap of faith. Launching themselves into the air the first ones dive into the racing stream and barely keeping heads above water they swim for their lives, urged on by the pressure of hundreds following behind.
Safari vehicles wait in the blistering heat loaded with camera clad tourii, hanging back until the first brave ungulate takes the plunge. Then, as if he has pierced some invisible force field, the others pour through the same hole, widening and fanning out along the bank. Once the crossing starts vehicles race forward to claim vantage points. In the swirling waters crocodiles ease into position, sliding off river banks and moving forward barely perceptively ever watchful for a feeding opportunity.
A young wildebeest slips on a rock, and in the chaos of hooves and horns becomes separated from the crowd. Gnarled yellow green heads motor towards him. It is a matter of seconds before a gaping tooth studded jaw closes on him, and with unstoppable force pushes him under the water.
A time warp flashes to mind and we are in the Colosseum urging some super predator to despatch a hapless victim. What is it with the human race that attracts such gruesome fascination to horror from a safe vantage place? Its all around us – formula one racing; CNN; Hollywood….
A herd has crossed. A calf is left behind on the other side with a small group of zebra.
The mother calls entreating the calf to cross. He doesn’t want to. One look at the water and he turns back repeatedly. More wildebeest start calling him on. The zebra turn back. Finally he must answer the call of the herd. He leaps into the current and bravely (am I anthropomorphising?) gives it his best. Another green yellow head eases up and casually takes hold of him more than half way across. He is gone. The herd mill about in confusion. Should they go back?
A hundred cameras have recorded the event – myself included. Yes I know crocodiles have to eat too but……
An adult wildebeest is taken but manages to break free. On reaching the far bank
The audience cheers – more Colosseum flashbacks.
Finally in a riot of emotional highs and lows, the drama is over for the day. Tourii fainting from heat head for safe places to have their picnic lunches. Check the bushes for buffalo first – wouldn’t want one to charge out and gore anyone.