By Santiago Legarre
Life is a game of mixed feelings. We always tend to see the grass greener on the other side. Safari is like the game of life; it is always a good excuse to transport us, by way of analogy, from animals to higher beings.
In October of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Ashnil Lodges and Camps invited me to visit Masai Mara. As always, what I witnessed in the national reserve was extraordinary — a leopard with a warthog kill in its mouth; bits and pieces of the great migration (a dozen dead wildebeest floating on the Mara River together with the carcasses of two zebras with a couple of young crocs attempting to cut their skin, while hundreds of vultures circled above) — those wondrous cheetahs, the majestic Tano Bora cheetahs (they were still five).
Nevertheless, what was more remarkable of the visit last year was not what I saw but what I failed to see — people, cars, traffic. It was a sad prospect, a gloomy feeling. The Mara without tourists is not the Mara. The Mara without tourists can’t survive. For the first time in my life, in this my 10th visit to that most outstanding of all the Kenyan game reserves I longed for the presence of what I had always disliked — humanity.
Almost a year later, I returned to Masai Mara. Courtesy of Safarilink, it took me less time to get from Wilson to Ol Kiombo than it had taken me to drive from home to the airport. If it had always been my belief that the most efficient way to go to the Mara is by plane, I should add, in this ever health-conscious era, that it is now the safest way too, especially given the extraordinary care with which airlines (in my case Safarilink) handle their operation.
So it was that in this new visit of August of 2021, thanks Edward, my Ashnil guide, I witnessed again the extraordinary. A rock python digesting an impala; the new, reduced “Tano” Bora taking down a young topi at full speed (it was my first time ever to see the unbelievable sprint of a cheetah and the Olympic-style somersault of the antelope; a beautiful serval cat jumping frantically in the early evening…
Nevertheless, by way of contrast to the previous year, what was more remarkable in this year’s trip was the presence of people. Lots of them! The famous Mara traffic jams were back. Rangers struggled maintain order, instructing van drivers to move in a single line so their passengers could view mama leopard with her cub. I’m sure this vehicular congestion sounds vaguely familiar. Perhaps you even hated it in the past or maybe that is why you have never been there in the first place. Who likes crowds? But, if I may introduce another analogy, when your dog has rabies, the solution is not to kill the infected pet but to treat the infection.
I had always hated the crowds in the national reserve too. This time, I loved them. Perhaps I matured a bit. This time I did not consider crowds an impediment to my best visit ever in terms of sightings. Without people the game reserve can’t survive.
Dear pandemic tourism, welcome back to Masai Mara!
Santiago Legarre is a visiting professor at Strathmore University’s Law School