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The Great Wildebeest Meander

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Our lives are in danger every time we step out of our tent past 6 pm without an Askari, Maasai escort. The unassuming protector wears a red checked blanket for warmth draped across his shoulder like an avant-garde fashion statement. The thin spear or knife he carries seems less of an actual weapon than a tourist prop. I think he’s here to keep us calm rather than kill any elephants, buffaloes, lions, or hippos that may charge us on our way to the wifi tent.

They say the thin canvas barrier of our tent wall is enough to deter even the most ravenous of lions from attempting to snatch us from our sleep. I started to doubt this when a lion charged our jeep and was aimed directly at the driver like the cat knew who was in charge (see this blog).

But what about hyenas? I heard a story about a hyena poking through a tent when a couple was fly camping and biting the woman's face half off. She survived and they sewed her face back on, and I don't know if it is a true story or one told to make us behave. Still, we believe them when they say we are safe because we came this far and we can't go back yet and our 5:15 am wake-up call comes mighty early, albeit, it includes coffee, tea, biscuits.

We don’t have much time to think about dying in Africa. They keep us busy with jeep rides, eating, more jeep rides, more eating, and the same all over again in the afternoon. Why did we come? We want a memorable way to spend this anniversary/birthday season. The Great Migration and accompanying River Crossing seem more memorable than our go-to celebration of pizza, beer, and watching an old episode of Suits (unless it’s the one where Mike saves the Firm. Oh wait, that’s the premise for all episodes).

Like the meandering Mara River where herds from the Serengeti cross when migrating north for greener grass, the wildebeest go back and forth, around and back until they eventually make the crossing. Professional videos of the wildebeest migration show the mammals clamoring through deep water to reach the other side of a treacherous river as if the antelope know exactly where they want to go and are willing to risk life and limb to get there. That’s not how it works. The truth is that there is less to the story than National Geographic shows in a film it took them three years to make. “Wildebeest are confused. Who knows when they’ll cross,” the guides who watch them hourly say. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the heck out of our twelve-hour jeep rides over bumpy, dusty roads, with the thorny acacia trees threatening to slap us across the face should we lean too far towards the edge of our open-air safari vehicle. Camps that move in unison with the migrating herd led me to wonder if there might be more to it than we’re seeing. Maybe, National Geographic has it right and I’m the one not seeing reality.

It’s October and the grasslands of Tanzania have been eaten down first by the zebras whose digestive system is strong enough to handle the dry tough grass removing it to encourage new growth for the wildebeest to gobble up in their wake. Many or most migration viewers want to see a river crossing because it’s almost a sure kill.

The first thing a fellow tourist asks as we shuffle ourselves into safari jumper planes is “Did you see a crossing?” and the second question they ask is “Did you see a kill?” After bumping our heads a few times on the way to our seats on the low ceilings of bush planes, we answer, “Yes, we saw three crossings: a wildebeest herd, six zebras, and a family of elephants.” I’m not sure that the last one counts. Elephants do whatever they want whenever they want and it has nothing to do with migration.

We didn’t witness a "kill", but we saw wildebeest and zebras afraid for their lives as they made attempt after attempt to cross a river dividing them and their friends and family. One day in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, we parked along the riverbank with about forty other jeeps to witness the spectacle that never happened. Retrofitted Toyota trucks with pop-up roofs lined both sides of the river on both sides of the road waiting for the fated crossing. Six times the wildebeest trotted down to the shore of the river, some of them getting wet. Six times they ran back up to safety along the bank where the grass was plenty green and plentiful. There was no need to cross. It could wait another day. Having almost a hundred tourits in their path could have affected their decision as much as the dead wildebeest on our side of the river and the crocodiles downstream from there. Probably after the last jeep went home for the night, they all crossed.

Then we saw a crossing. And it was spectacular. Like fireworks going off. It happened in Tanzania’s Serengeti. By then, the crossing mattered a great deal to us because we saw the aborted attempts. We knew it meant life or death for the animals. We watched with awe, excitement, trepidation, exhilaration as they jumped like teeter-totters through the croc-infested water, determined to make it to the other side.

Once on the other side, the bank was too steep to jump up. Many struggled to get up the cliff, their front hooves pawing to find footing only to slip and slide back down towards that same river that gave them pause in the beginning. Luckily, they found an alternate path and made their way to safety. This, while another set of wildebeest lined up in front of us, waiting to cross in the opposite direction. Why? To get to the other side? I don't know.

By this time, crocs on both sides of the crossing became aware of the ruckus and came in for a kill. They were too late. All mammals had crossed before they even got wind of it.

We saw three crossings in total and noticed a distinct difference between how each species approaches the challenge. Elephants don’t give a flip about the crocodiles they can squash like bugs. Zebras are the most skittish. Our guides hope they will not be the first ones down the bank because they know the zebras will abort and alarm the wildebeest. Better to let others go first than to have a zebra lead the way.

Wildebeest are absent leadership, the herd simply follows whoever makes the first move. Since their numbers are around 1.7 million, that leaves a lot of choices.

When we saw the six zebras making a go at crossing Number 8 (there are about twelve crossings in the Serengeti), we honestly thought the days of the last zebra, who seemed to be sightseeing, were numbered. I held my breath, hoping for the best. To our collective surprise, all six made it safely to the other side with crocs basking in the sun close by. The zebras turned out to be smarter than we gave them credit for. They picked the most shallow and wide area of the river to cross where the assailants couldn’t use the element of surprise. Not to worry about the crocodiles going hungry. They live full happy lives in the Mara river, feasting in the spring and fall. Sometimes they kill more than they need, storing it for later or letting it rot as a sign of their superiority.

The Great Migration reminded me more of a great meander. We watched from the deck of our tent cabin as a herd walked across the ridge to the right, then circle back and rest at the base of our deck for a few minutes before heading back to the left again. Later, they reversed and head back to the right, meandering their way to the river.

And then there are the zebras...

Hundreds or maybe thousands of herds of zebras were in the Maasai Mara, displaying brilliant patterns of black and white, gracing the landscape in a way that would make Gucci or Vera Wang jealous.

Equally prolific this time of year on the Mara is the Topis, grabbing our attention with regal poses and beautiful coloring. Topis’ patterned fur has a black patch that follows their thigh muscle on an otherwise reddish-brown coat. A distinctive composition. They stand proud and strong on the many termite mounds that are so critical for the ecosystem.

Why else are termites important to the Africa eco-system, you might ask?

Aardvarks eat the termites which give them the fuel they need to dig holes. The only digger in the system, their holes make homes for all kinds of followers like mongooses, warthogs, foxes, rabbits and I forget what else.

The stance Topis takes on top of the mounds, demonstrates their sense of nobility and sensibility. They face away from the wind with their backside facing into it. They can smell a predator coming from behind while visually keeping a lookout ahead, protecting themselves from both sides.

As each day comes to an end, we’re grateful for the Askaris who kept us safe through every night. These brave soldiers spot in a moment the black buffalo blending into the night, or warn of the pride of lions at the edge of the camp, making sure we don’t do something stupid or touristy.

We were taught that the secret to avoiding an unfortunate encounter is to remain calm. And, if it's with an elephant, slowly get behind a tree.

Maybe TV show lawyers have more in common with Askaris than first meets the eye. When Mike from Suits struts in at the last minute carrying a manilla folder, his bluff keeps the hyenas, err other lawyers at bay. Mike exudes confidence in much the same way the Askari's approach animals in the wild, remaining calm and in control. During adversarial moments in Africa or at home in the office, staying level-headed is good advice. That and keeping your eye on the next tree because, if standing your ground doesn’t work, find something to hide behind.

But I have to say one more thing that has nothing to do with the Great Meander...

Giraffes are the most photogenic animals in Africa. Ever since I kissed one (see this blog), I can’t keep my mind off of him, I mean them. So, here are a few pictures of my tall and serene playmates whom we ended each day with.

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