In less than an hour, the 12-seater flies me from Nairobi, over the rift valley, and lands me smack in the middle of the Maasai Mara. I freeze for a bit on the airstrip, orienting myself to a vastness I have never seen before. It’s about to rain, it is cold, and the mara has an allure very different from the image I have in my head. The grassland is a mossy carpet of new shoots, broken by shrubs and an occasional umbrella thorn. In the horizon is a moving silhouette of wildebeest: in a couple of months these antelope will swell into a migratory flood.
Letasuna Nkoitoi, swaddled in a red-and-black checked Maasai shuka, drives up in an open top safari van. He is a wildlife guide with Porini Cheetah Camp located in the privately owned Ol Kinyei conservancy where I am headed. He tells me that the grass in the conservancy — unlike in the adjacent Maasai Mara National Reserve — is kept shorn all year round by resident herbivores.
The savannah indeed lies brilliantly bare here: I can see a family of dwarf mongoose disappear down a termite hill, a red-headed rock agama basking on a rock, and a wading hamerkop, a smallish brown bird, which apparently builds nests so big and strong, they can take the weight of a human. And then, every few yards, there appears on the wet grass a gleaming white skull or vertebrae — of wildebeest, Thompson’s gazelle and zebra — wiped clean by a pecking order of carnivores and raptors.
We drive across the grassland, through a river in spate, around trees mangled by elephants, past giraffes and kopis, hyenas and vultures drying their outstretched wings, and make it to the camp, very hungry. Cheetah Camp is a discreet, high-end ‘eco’ safari camp: it is tented, minimising the use of concrete; it runs on solar energy; it is unfenced, so wildlife movement is not restricted and it employs members of the local Maasai community.
It also happens to be owned and managed by Indian citizens. Over butternut squash soup, seasoned fish, mango and avocado salad and home-baked bread, the hosts Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee, avid wildlife enthusiasts, tell me about their instinctive call to move to Kenya from Bengaluru, and, exactly a year ago, their decision to start this camp.
A third of the clients at Cheetah Camp are Indian, who find comfort in the option of Indian food here. “Sometimes it could be just a cup of masala chai or khichdi they may want,” says Jui. But a big segment of their clients are British tourists (and she notes they often request curry — “chicken curry, lentil curry, cottage cheese curry”).
As we head out on day two, Nkoitoi tells me it is time we saw some big cats. “No guest has gone home without seeing a lion or a leopard or a cheetah,” he says. I am in no hurry to see one, I’m pretty entranced by a pair of grey crowned crane — the national bird of Uganda — so extravagantly plumed they look almost fictitious.
Nkoitoi grew up in a village not far from the camp. “I looked after cattle as a boy. And I had to scan the area constantly for lions.” Today he can tell where a big cat may be lurking by the direction that a wildebeest herd is facing, or by the alarm call of an impala, the cackle of a guinea fowl.
The guide gets word that a cheetah may be in the vicinity. This is special — according to a study last year, just 30 cheetahs remain in Maasai Mara. But the ‘vicinity’ means several square kilometres — the animal could be anywhere, behind a boulder, tree, under a bush. We drive around for a few minutes, and he hits the brakes by an orange leaf croton bush. And sure enough, there it is, a supine feline, an adult female, smaller than I expected, lying under the shrub. She lifts her head, peers at us for a few moments, swishes the tip of her tail clearly annoyed by the attention, and goes right back to sleep.
As we drive back to the camp I ask Nkoitoi how he spotted the cheetah with no herbivores around to pick up cues from. “Oh, I saw its ear flick from under the shrub.”