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Tales from Kenya III : The thrill of a river crossing

I stretched myself, rolled my shoulders, and raised my hand to stifle a yawn.

I looked behind me and most of the family was fast asleep.

It was mid morning and it was getting hot as the sun stubbornly continued its climb in a cloudless sky.

We had been here by the Mara river for the last couple of hours waiting to see if we can witness a river crossing. There were at least 15 more vehicles around us, waiting to roar for the action to unfold.

But, for now, the wildebeest grazed unconcerned, not showing the slightest inclination to do anything but focus on the abundance of grass right in front of them.

We had witnessed a crossing across the Sand river yesterday so we had an idea on how this can play out. Patience, clearly is the name of the game.

This could take hours, it might not happen at all, or….the crossing might suddenly start.

****

The Great Migration. Listed as one of the Seven New Wonders of the world.

Every year, close to 2 million animals comprising wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, start their remarkable journey in search of food and water. The wildebeest has the largest numbers in this group. Almost 1.5 million.

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Witnessing the incredibly large herds move in a relentless manner in search of food and water is magical


It all starts with the birth of the new calves from the Ngorongoro Conservation area and the Southern Serengeti plains in Tanzania. Tracing a roughly circular path, this unbelievably large number of animals trudge, gallop, swim covering more than 1800 kilometers filled with life threatening risks and dangers of every kind. Its an incredible jouney. And the visual spectacle that it provides is simply breathtaking.

Imagine, thousands and thousands of animals in front of you in a full fledged gallop, thundering hooves raising minor dust storms around them and bodies moving in a blur.

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Sometimes they gallop at a furious pace creating  minor dust storms 


Try to visualize these nervous, anxious beasts standing by the edge of a river summoning up the courage to jump into the fast flowing, deep waters in front of them.

Driven only by the  hope that they will make it to the other end.  The hope of escaping the powerful jaws of the crocs that abound in the waters, the hope that the powerful currents don’t push them away from the safety their numbers provide. And, again the hope, that as they clamber up the slopes of the bank on the other side, there are no predators lurking in the grass. Waiting for them.

The dangers are simply unimaginable. An estimated 200,000-300,000 don’t survive the journey.

Only the strongest survive.

And the luckiest.

****

While its an amazing sight to see these animals dot the entire landscape and even more thrilling to see a maniacal wildebeest run, when thousands run at a thundering pace, nothing…absolutely nothing, comes close to the spectacle and the sheer range of emotions that a river crossing provides.

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Picture perfect. Wildebeest dot the landscape during the migration with the zebras providing striped relief


Yesterday, we had gone through the entire gamut of emotions while watching a relatively small crossing at the Sand River just at the border with Tanzania.

Today we were waiting at the Mara River. It’s a far more dangerous river than the Sand. The waters run deeper, the current is quite strong and you see a lot more crocs sunning themselves on the banks and of course, the deep waters provide them with enough cover.

Our guide, Gabriel, felt that witnessing a crossing over here would be a far better experience. The Sand river, at the point we saw the crossing was little more than a stream. The Mara river…an entirely different proposition.

It had everything. Deep waters. Hippos. Crocodiles. Fast current. A crossing here would be a feast for the eyes.

****

It was a very early morning for all of us. Breakfast at 6.00 and we had set out immediately after that.

We arrived by the banks of the Mara river at around 8.00 and we could see lots of wildebeest peacefully grazing in front of us. There were a couple of other vehicles also hanging around with us.

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We waited for this herd to stop grazing and move towards the Mara river


An hour had passed and we amused ourselves by watching the numerous gazelles around us play and run around.

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A Thomson’s gazelle looks at us curiously


The herd of wildebeest was still grazing. In no hurry to go anywhere. They appeared to be completely oblivious to the fact that a river was just a little ahead of them.

We decide to take a spin around and see if we can spot any other animals. Luck was with us – we noticed a couple of vehicles parked around a bush and rushed over there. Two lionesses were in the shade.

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Pretty soon after this pic was taken, she flopped onto the grass and went off to sleep


But clearly they were not going anywhere. The sun was climbing and the lionesses would be doing nothing but sleep now. Watching a herd of wildebeest graze would have more action than watching the two lionesses sleep !

We headed back to the Mara River.

****

You remember those good ole battle scenes in movies on the epics or of the mighty kings of yore ? How an aerial shot would show the armies assembled in one line, facing each other ? With a large, wide, open area in between them.

And, then there is that guy who will shout, “Charge” and the horses will thunder at each other.

If you took an aerial shot of the place we were at, it would look similar. You would have a long line of vehicles arranged neatly next to each other, And opposite us, with a wide space separating us, are the wildebeest. Vehicles, all poised to rocket out of their stationary positions, ready to charge ahead the instant we see the crossing start.

Now, at least in the places where we saw the river crossings, the river is not in the same plane as the flatlands. There’s a rather steep slope from the flatland to the water below. Could be around 10-15 feet below and rather steep. You just cannot see the water below from most positions unless we go really close to the edge. Which we couldn’t.

The vehicles are not allowed to go near the embankment till the crossing is in full flow. Unless, because of the topography, you are having a good side on view from a distance safe enough to ensure that the wildebeest are not nervous because of your crowded presence. Everyone has  to wait till it the crossing is in full flow and then rush to get to the best position. You need a smart driver here.

Although, right now, nothing was happening.

Nothing. Nada. The wildebeest did nothing but graze, oblivious to all the frustrations they are causing all around them.

I stretched myself, rolled my shoulders, and raised my hand to stifle a yawn.

I looked behind me and most of the family was fast asleep.

****

Visualize this.

Its well past 10 am. Getting to be quite warm. Everyone in the vehicles is bored and sleepy. The animals are grazing quietly and unhurriedly in front of us. There are no predators anywhere close by.

It’s a perfect picture of calm and peace.

And, suddenly, with no clear reason or trigger, the atmosphere changes. It’s a subtle change but its unmistakable.

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Suddenly, the atmosphere changes and the herd moves in the direction of the river


You could see that the wildebeest that were till now widely spread out, have suddenly started milling together. They no longer look like dots spread across the landscape. Its one huge mass of animals now. All huddled close together. There’s palpable nervousness. There’s a lot of jostling and pushing.

Soon, its not subtle. In front of you is a really large mass of animals.

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The animals flock together into a large, imposing mass 


And, you see that an impossibly large group is slowly inching towards the edge of the river. A few grunts from the wildebeest can be heard occasionally. Its no longer quiet. There is tension in the air. There is intent.

Everyone in the vehicle sits up a little alert.

Will the crossing start now ???

****

The wildebeest are strange looking animals. They don’t have a clearly defined shape that most animals tend to possess.

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A wildebeest is one of the strangest looking animals I have seen !!


Wildebeests look a very odd mishmash of different animals. If you look at the front view of the head , you could say it looks a little like a cow’s head. It has straggly beard so a profile would make it look like a goat. Its rump and hind legs remind you of an impoverished horse. And to join these two disparate pieces, there is an unimpressive middle. Definitely strange looking.

They are also rather unpredictable.

To watch them requires extreme, monumental patience. The wildebeest can assemble at the edge of the embankment for a long, long time without summoning up the courage to go down. They will stand at the edge and peer down. And do nothing.

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Wildebeest can stand at the edge and look down for ages without crossing


A few hardy souls might dare to take a few steps down the steep path leading to the waters. But its quite possible that they might go half way down and then decide to return back to the relative safety of the flat lands.

Or they could go down to the water, have a nervous sip, lose all the courage it had summoned and scurry back in desperate hurry. Often, for no apparent reason.

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And if they do come down, can scurry back up for no apparent reason


Well, I guess, in their defence, if I were to do such a journey with all the associated risks and with a rather unremarkable defence of my own, I guess I too will be nervous and unwilling to easily commit to any step.

But this could go on for ages. And sometimes, they might make the crossing only to swim back. Yesterday, we saw a lone wildebeest detach itself from the herd, walk a fairly long distance alone back to the edge of the Sand river, stare at the herds grazing on the other side and then trot across the river to join them !!! Why !!!

Anyway, all that apart, right now, everyone is a little alert. Other than, Gabriel, our guide, who is unimpressed. He is still lounging in his seat and proclaims,” You can relax. Won’t happen so fast. This is just how they behave. They never act so fast”

I let the others sleep.

****

Now a few zebras appear. With complete confidence and with a clear sense of purpose, they march up to the edge of the embankment.

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The zebras arrive and bring with them a much needed confidence booster for the wildebeests


That gives Gabriel some much needed optimism. “ The zebras would help,” he announces.

Zebras and the wildebeest form an odd support group during the migration. They are of no threat to each other. The grass they eat is also different. Wildebeest possess a very strong sense of hearing and the zebras, keen eyesight. If the zebras start moving in a direction, the wildebeest get quite confident that there is no visible risk and they rush forward, often leaving the zebras behind.

“ The zebras never get into the water themselves first. They are good in looking confident and in giving confidence” chuckles Gabriel. “ They just go and stand at the edge. That’s enough for the wildebeest to get the confidence to rush in”

But the zebras turn back.

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Uh Oh…the zebras too turn away 😦


And, in a few minutes, the entire herd appears to be turning around and walking away from the river !

I groan in frustration.

****

However, the herd doesn’t really go far away. They are aimlessly walking around. They haven’t returned to grazing. There’s an air of indecision amongst them.

The zebras too haven’t really moved away and soon the mass again comes together and shifts back to the river side.

From where we are, we are unable to make out if any wildebeest have gone down the slopes. A huge number of animals are now crowding the edge. Our only way of knowing if the crossing has actually begun, is if we notice any of them clambering upto the flat lands on the other side of the river.

More time passes.

****

A vehicle suddenly roars into life !!!

Just a second later the others start !

We will never know whether it was simple nervous energy that made that first driver start his vehicle or if he really saw something.

But suddenly, 40-50 vehicles were roaring across, accelerating over the flat lands to the edge of the river !!

At full speed, with each driver eyeing the perfect place to position his vehicle so that his guests can get a vantage view of the crossing.

“ Wake up, wake up, the crossing has started, “ I shouted to the others and stood up, positioning my beanbag and lifting my camera into position.

“ No !!!! Idiots! “, screamed Gabriel.

Many of the vehicles on our left were heading straight to the river side. Sounded perfect, other than for the little fact that, that course would take them straight into the large group of wildebeest who have assembled for the crossing !

Our vehicle was moving towards the edge of the river but away from the herds so as not to alarm them. But not these guys.

As we took the slightly diagonal route to the river edge, we could see the animals suddenly become aware of this loud roar behind them and turn around to see this large number of strange looking huge vehicles rushing towards them ! Panic !

It was utter pandemonium. The wildebeest dropped all thoughts and plans of crossing the river and just ran in all directions away from the oncoming, rushing vehicles, in complete fear and alarm.

“Oh no !” I groaned.

Have we wasted the entire morning !?

****

We reach the edge of the embankment and Gabriel eases the vehicle into a perfect position and as I look into the waters, I saw to my complete surprise that there were animals that were crossing !

Wow ! I guess the crossing had already started before the remaining animals got scattered thanks to some of the drivers.

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A small number of animals managed to do a successful crossing !!


Not too many of them, but it still was a sight to see them fight in the deep waters, against the strong current and swim to the other side and then scramble up the steep slope.

All around us we could hear the furious click of the cameras as everyone with a decent camera went beserk.

In just a few minutes, it was over.

In complete frustration, we glared angrily at the vehicles that had so badly misjudged their actions and interrupted what would have been a magnificent crossing.

We had such a lovely view too.

****

Whoa !

Whats happening ?

There was a gap between where we were along with the large number of vehicles along with us and the 5-6 vehicles which had gone straight into the herd. And, now all the wildebeest that had scattered in panic had decided that they will still try to make a run for it. Maybe they realized that we were manageable threats.

They came rushing to the edge in a furious gallop. It was an amazing sight. Clouds of dust were being raised and we could hear the thundering of the hooves just a few feet away and see the animals rushing through the dust.

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The wildebeest race towards the edge once again !


But when the first few wildebeest reached the edge they could not see a very clear, safe path to the water. They came to a shuddering halt and now there was even more chaos as the rest of the herd came galloping behind them and hit the wall of their stationary companions.

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But there’s no way ahead !


“ If they come just 5-6 feet towards us, they can see this safe path down to the river,’ Gabriel whispered.

But the wildebeest were in no mood to wait and check. We were still threats and they definitely didn’t want to be just a few feet away from us while they went on an exploratory stroll. They were extremely excitable right now.

They simply turned and galloped away as fast as they had come! The entire herd turned away and raced away from us. Far away from us.

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They suddenly turn around and gallop away


We could see them madly run across the flat lands taking them further away from us but curving away after sometime their instincts taking them to where they knew the river still flowed.

“Lets follow them,” I suggested to Gabriel. Sure enough, many vehicles roared to life and took after them.

“Silly guys,’ declared Gabriel. “ There’s no path there for the wildebeest. They have to return to this side”.

And then continued,” Of course, we have no idea when they will return or if they will return today’.

Boy.

It was a frustrated bunch that slumped back into the seats.

****

It was now past 1 pm. It was hot. We were hungry, tired, frustrated. We needed a bio break.

Gabriel decided that the wildebeest will definitely not be returning in a hurry and it was perfectly safe for us to retire into some shade and stretch our legs for a few minutes.

We went off in search of some trees and in a few minutes we parked under a few trees and shrubs, roughly in the same direction where the wildebeest had run towards. The herd was nowhere in sight though we could see a few stray wildebeest returning.

It was not safe enough for us to step out and spread our picnic sheet and eat outside.

We stayed in the vehicle and it was a rather disgruntled bunch that munched grumpily on the sandwiches and the errant drivers once again got a mouthful of curses from all of us. We just had a few days at the Mara and it would be such a waste if we spend all these hours here instead of being on a game drive and not see a river crossing.

Sigh. Such is life.

****

A few other vehicles had also followed us and parked in the shade. Everyone had opened their lunch boxes and were moodily eating their lunches. All the vehicles were to our right in a long curve parked along the edge of the tree line.

Stomachs full, the sun right above us, the air felt heavy and we could see many people slowly nodding off. Gabriel had also dozed off as he wasn’t answering our incessant queries about animal behaviour.

Anyway, nothing much was happening.

****

“ Where are these vehicles going ? Are they giving up? “, I wondered loudly.

Gabriel was still asleep and after a few seconds I leaned forward and tapped him on his shoulder.

“ Gabriel, all of the other vehicles are moving,”

Our Land Cruiser roared into life and we leapt forward over the uneven terrain !!

We raced back to the same place where the morning had seen the aborted crossing and I saw a long line of vehicles by the edge of the embankment. And an extremely large herd huddled far ahead, right at the edge.

“Oh no ! We are late !” Nothing seemed to be working in our favour today !

We reached the edge, behind the parked vehicles and craned our necks to look into the water below.

Has the crossing already begun !???

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The animals mill around. We cannot see if the crossing has begun from this point


“ There’s a croc!” whispered my son. And, sure enough, we could see a sinister shape silently gliding towards the point where the wildebeest were all assembled.

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A sinister shape silently glides towards a potential feast


We still could not make out now if the crossing had actually started.

There was no place !

Gabriel tried to edge himself between a few vehicles but nothing was giving us a clear view. The sides are extremely uneven with clumps of mud , grass  and termite hills of different sizes all along the edges. It wasn’t easy getting to a point where all of us and me with my camera and lens, could get a good clear view.

We kept moving forward searching for some space and soon we were getting closer to where all the wildebeest were assembled.

Gabriel reached a decision point. The herd had identified a good point. The slope from the flat lands leading down to the water wasn’t very steep. He quickly cut away from the line of vehicles and inched closer to absolute end of the line of vehicles. Soon we found ourselves behind a couple of other vehicles, not exactly at the edge but almost vertically behind the point where all the animals were huddled.

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Who will jump first ?


From where we were, we could see the point where the animals could jump in and were less than ten feet from where a very messy and chaotic queue was being formed by hundreds of eager, nervous grunting wildebeest.

The animals were far too excited to notice us. Or their primal urge was to cross the river and we simply didn’t appear to be a large enough threat for our presence to dissuade them.

The air was full of loud, anxious grunts. Every animal wanted to move forward. The ones behind were clearly nervous and impatient that they just didn’t have the space to go further.

My position wasn’t the best position. There was a mound right ahead. The antenna of two vehicles was in front of me and I had to be positioned in just the precise manner for me to get a narrow but uninterrupted view of the crossing through my lens.

If the crossing were to start.

But….Will they cross ?

****

This time, the energy, the desperation in the wildebeest was far too high for the crossing not to take place.

“ Its started!!” Shouted someone in our vehicle. I can’t remember who.

And sure enough it had !!!!

One brave or extremely desperate wildebeest had taken the plunge and I could see its horns bobbing above the muddy brown coloured water. Almost straight into a startled hippo !

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Look at the startled hippo !!!


Another 3-4 jumped right behind the first guy. Soon it was a procession. Grunts were piercing the air. There was a cloud of dust all around us. The wildebeest pushed and jostled their way to the edge.

Right now, there was no indecision, no measured weighing of the options in front of them.

It was mob psychology at its peak. One of them had jumped in and now everyone wanted to do the same.

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Emboldened, the others follow


A wildebeest just had to do to reach the edge of the river and without thinking it would plunge into the waters, consequences be damned, and swim for dear life.

The current also picked up and we could see that the hitherto straight line that the wildebeest were charting had now turned into a wide, deep U.

From our position, we could see the wildebeest jump in and then we would see them get pushed out by the current , vanish from our line of sight and soon reappear on the far side as they clambered out of the water and up the slope.

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Slipping, grappling for a foothold, desperate to be out of the dangerous waters.

Though the slopes also could be highly risky for them. The slopes were steep, the surface slippery and the wildebeest have rather thin legs. Its quite easy for them to slip and break their legs. Fortunately, we didn’t see that happening.

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The slippery rocks, the muddy inclines all provide risks after the river is crossed


“ Where’s the croc ? “ asked my son.

Good question.

Watching a crocodile attack a wildebeest would make the river crossing perfect. If an attack were to take place here it was most likely to happen close to the middle of the river on a hapless animal that had got pushed out a little more by the current. It could be risky for the crocs too otherwise to get caught in the middle of a rush in the water. And, that part of the journey was completely blocked thanks to a large termite hill in front of us. Right now we could only see them plunge in and then see them clambering out.

Tough luck.

It was a relentless procession of the wildebeest running in and jumping into the water. The energy, the nervousness, the fear….it was a breathtaking spectacle.

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It was a continuous procession of animals jumping into the water


It struck me that so far I had not seen a single zebra plunge in. There were a couple of them amongst the large number jostling about on our side, on the river side, but they hadn’t yet jumped in.

****

However, just as suddenly, there appeared to be a slowing down. There still remained hundreds of wildebeest and zebras on our side but they were coming back up. No idea why they were having second thoughts.

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For no apparent reason, the remaining guys hesitate


And just as it started, it stopped. Grunts still rent the air but it didn’t seem to have that nervy edgy feeling of earlier. The animals still milled around but it seemed to be moving around disconsolately, not restlessly.

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…and turn back


A few of them still rushed to the edge and looked anxiously at the other side but didn’t take the plunge and soon trudged back up.

It was over. Our fourth river crossing.

****

The gathered vehicles started reversing and moving away. Quite impatiently. The show was over, three quarters of the day was over and everyone wanted to squeeze in as much of a game drive as possible.

We hung around, along with 10-15 other vehicles, waiting for the rest to move away and the dust to settle down.

We could see a few wildebeest on the other side coming back to the edge of the river and looking at the herd left behind. Five of them made the descent too and then suddenly plunged into the waters and started swimming back.

Wow !! Why on earth !

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The power of motherhood. Five mothers rush back to their calves


“Mothers. Their calves might have stayed back and they are trying to be reunited with them,” sagely observed Gabriel.

And, so it was. It was a very heartwarming sight to see the five swim safely back to this side, run up the gentle slope and exchange a soft head butt ( fist bump ? ) with their friends and family. A couple of calves ran up and started suckling immediately deriving much needed security and reassurance after what would have been a terrifying period.

****

As we started moving away, we drove along the edge of the river, looking below at the waters.

The question remained. Where were the crocs. We had seen quite a few of them sunning close by a few hours earlier. We had seen at least one of them swimming in the direction of the crossing.

And then we saw a couple of them in the water, partly sunning themselves on a rock.

“ Are you sure it is a rock ?” chuckled Gabriel.

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The one that didn’t get away


At least one of the wildebeest wasn’t lucky that day. Or wasn’t strong enough.

 ****

Phew !

What a morning ! We had experienced every type of emotion. From the initial patience, to frustration, to anger at the fellow vehicles for spoiling a crossing,  to a point where we wondered if we should wait any longer, to the sheer energy and thrill of watching the herd throw caution to the winds and fight for survival…wow !

There was silence in the vehicle as it swung away from the river to a game drive in search of the big cats.

All of us were lost in our thoughts as we tried to collect our own individual recollections of a fantastic experience.

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