The Ancient Rifts

Updated: Aug 8

Tracking the Big Cats in the Mara Triangle

The promise of the short rainy season is thick with the expectation and arrival of dark gunmetal grey clouds over the Great Rift Valley.. maybe today...

This East African Rift mountain range, spans approximately 6,000 kilometres (3,700 mi) in total length, that runs from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon which is in Asia to Mozambique in Southeast Africa. The valley is bordered by escarpments to the east and west and has stood sentinel for as long as the esteemed Elders, Wisemen, Nomads and Masaai warriors have crossed these plateaus, since the first sunrise we can remember. 

As I reflect and stand warming my hands by the early morning fire in camp, I’m summoned by a muted pearl spotted owlet whistle… and the Askari (masai warriors) approach silently with a warm cup of coffee (kahawa).  We exchange firm brotherly handshakes and the customary greetings and low whispers as we clink our steaming enamel mugs of chai (tea) & kahawa.

Samahani Kaka … “Excuse me brother” we have heard the lions contact calling, Scarface, and his brothers Sikio, Morani and Hunter were heard in the west earlier. Having heard the same muted calls it is re-affirming to have heard the same vocalisations and audio.

After a quick conference around the fire-pit, we decide to wake the guests before the allotted morning call time, so that we can head out as the dawn begins to break the horizon of the ancient ridges and rifts. Tracking the magnificent coalition of the 4 musketeers across the vast Savannah grasslands of the lan known as the Mara triangle, takes time and precision as the territory they marshal is vast. This was going to be another epic morning on safari.

Sikio, brother to the Famous Scarface

Leaving the unfenced perimeter of camp, the excitement and adrenaline is tangible as our clients quickly orientate themselves and adjust their shuka’s to the rousing cool morning wind. Perfect temperature for our big Cats to move undetected by their prey items, on the early morning crisp breeze, if Scarface has decided to hunt. The Paradise pride must be somewhere in the region, making up the full complement of nine females, sub-adults and cubs. 

As the dirt tracks give way to the vista dotted with acacia trees we choose to check the western section of the Mara Triangle as the Oloololo escarpment clears the horizon bold and true. The collection of tracks quickly appear in the soft mud parallel to the river's edge, as I gaze at the gait and measure the tracks - the coalition moved here in the early hours of the the waning moonlight after midnight. The brothers have paused to drink I explain the story told by the collection of tracks, moving boldy north. Why?

As I scan the ground further along the muddy ruts, it's clear they’re moving quickly and with purpose. To gain time we use the vehicle to figure out the general direction, our clients prep their camera’s ISO’s with a tangible glee. The art of tracking and the suspense of the clues, its addictive in finding the answers to the questions….

Tracking the pride

How did they move, When did they stop, how fast are they approaching their final destination? Could it be a formation of a hunt for wildebeest prey, are they scent marking to defend their territory, Could one of the pride females be entering the oestrous phase?

We press on delicately and as fast as we can, scanning the low grasses, the small dormant termite mounds as the sun begins crest the ancient rifts of the Valley. The Land Rover strikes the incline as I engage low-range and remind our clients to secure their camera gear for the bumpy two-track we used last week, when we found the pride feeding. Could it be the same tactical plan this week, using the high ground to their advantage to wait in their signature ambush formation of 1 on 3. My mind races as I scan the ground for clues of disturbed grasses and forged pathways newly trodden in the morning light. 

Switching off the engine, we silently listen for sounds that would indicate a disturbance in this vast kingdom. Scanning with our binoculars for the tell tale signs of movement, a blur catches my long range view. I ask our clients to scan in the same region, the two o'clock position on the ridge.

Martin! I see what you’re seeing, it looks like a tale flicking in the grassy knoll. Asante Barry, I whisper. I breathe out slowly as I as refocus the binoculars. It's the pride, moving headed by the females walking in single file, with the rest of the youngsters breaking the line to ambush each other in kindergarten antics…..

I reach for key to turn the ignition to slowly position us for the pride to walk onto our vehicle, with the sun behind the pride for the backlight images we need to create. The shutter buttons click behind me as our clients test their settings. A scent on the wind jerks my peripheral vision, as I recognise him. I motion to our photographers to remain still, quietly I point to the east, and release the key from my fingers. Taking a deep breathe I smell the distinctly strong musty wet territorial marking of the musketeers. We have found them as Scarface breaks the grass 200 yards from us.

He sits up majestically looking at me, scans beyond me as the pride continues its route march toward him. The muted calls of the females carry on the light air past our position summoning. Moving us quietly and purposefully into position.. This morning we once again will have the glorious opportunity of capturing the imagery of the prides, ritualistic greeting ceremony. The silent clink of the tin mugs earlier with my brothers around the fire, has made the morning blessing of gratitude permeate my entire being.

It is this that draws me to return each year to the magnificent region of the Masai Mara region, where the ancient rift valley stands sentinel.