Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya -- Nature has provided few more spectacular stages for its incessant drama than these open plains on the southern edge of Kenya.
That drama takes many forms, the touching interplay between elephant mother and child, the graceful dance of a lithe gazelle, the amusing antics of a bodacious baboon.
But never is it more acute and demanding than when it is the life-and-death struggle between predator and prey. It was in the hopes of seeing that most spectacular of an African game reserve's shows that we had parked our Land Rover 100 yards or so away from a cheetah.
At that point, we had spent the better part of two days here on the Masai Mara and had seen enough animals -- in number and variety -- to challenge the imagination. So settling in next to a cheetah for what might be a long and ultimately uneventful wait did not make us restless, wondering what we were missing over the next rise. We were content to sit back, wait and enjoy the view as the sun neared the horizon, lengthening the shadows and enriching the colors. That view takes in miles and miles of the classic East African landscape, the open plains dotted with the occasional thorn tree.
With a cheetah washing itself in the foreground and gazelles, zebras and elephants dotting the background in vast numbers, the visual experience becomes an emotional one, comparable to coming across one stunning work of art after another at one of the world's great museums.
The Masai Mara, a 600-square-mile reserve, is only the tip of the Serengeti iceberg, the northern 4 percent of the famed plain that extends far to the south, deep into Tanzania.
Every July or August, more than 1 million wildebeests -- those bearded animals that look like a cross between a bison and a mountain goat -- journey from Tanzania to the lusher grasses of Kenya, returning in October or November when the rains arrive in the south.
We had come in December, too late for that awe-inspiring migration when the wildebeests, along with zebras and gazelles, risk death by drowning or crocodile in their swims across the Mara River, but still a fine time to appreciate the other offerings of this most famous of Kenya's game parks.
Indeed, such is its fame that the Masai Mara has become a cliche for some African wildlife aficionados. In some places it's too crowded with minivans sprouting cameras and jockeying for position around a pride of lions for the true African experience.
But those complaints are centered on the eastern edge of the park, the closest to Nairobi, easiest to reach by car from Kenya's major city. On the advice of an experienced Kenya hand, we had traveled to the northwestern segment, where the lodges and the Land Rovers are relatively few and far between.
It is best to fly to the Mara from Nairobi, a 45-minute hop on a scheduled Kenya Airlines flight, instead of spending hours on the erratic roads. Usually, your first game is spotted as you come in for a landing at one of the several airstrips that serve the various lodges.
Our destination was Little Governor's Camp, one of four operated around the site chosen by Kenya's British colonial governors for their hunting camp. As you might expect, Little Governor's is the smallest of these, 17 twin-bedded, bathroom-equipped permanent tents in a semicircle around a marsh.
After a bumpy ride from the airstrip on a dirt road, you descend to the banks of the Mara River along earthen steps and clamber into a small boat for a rope-pulled ferry ride over the brown waters. Look carefully, and you may see the protruding eyeballs and nostrils of a hippopotamus.
Lunch with the animals
We arrived at Little Governor's in time for lunch, an open-air affair of grilled meats and a selection of salads. Just as we sat down, as if on cue, an elephant emerged from the trees to graze the marsh grass, joined a few minutes later by the mass of a hippopotamus, arising from the waters for a rare daytime excursion onto dry land. It was a backdrop that made you giggle with anticipation of what lay ahead.
At Little Governor's, each group is assigned a driver and 4-by-4 for the duration of its stay. That meant the four of us, my wife and our two boys, 9-year-old Albert and 6-year-old Owen, got a personal tour every day conducted by Geoffrey Jomo, a five-year veteran of the Governor's camps.
Mr. Jomo was quietly friendly and impressively knowledgeable. He met us for the 3 p.m. drive, bounced our open-topped Land Rover along the dirt road through a small forest full of baboons, then drove us out onto the open plain. A few minutes later we pulled up beside a pride of lions, lazily rolling in the long grass.
In the background, the various families of elephants in this part of the Mara were getting together for what Mr. Jomo said was a yearly ritual during which they exchanged adolescent members, thereby avoiding inbreeding. There were about 75 in this gathering, from long-tusked bulls to nursing babies.
We drove on across the plains in search of game. In the Mara, you can drive right up to the animals, who appear unfazed by the attention. They've grown up with these trucks and seem to regard them as an unthreatening part of the background. This off-road travel might not be good for the Mara's environment, but it's excellent for photography, and for making the eyes of two small boys grow wide with amazement.
Despite their totally natural feel, the Mara's plains have at least in part been landscaped by man's encroachment on the animals' habitat. As the Masai tribe grew and its members sought more and more land in the Serengeti to the south about 50 years ago, the animals had less land to graze on and had to seek lusher pastures in the drier months. Thus was born the annual migration.
The hoofs of the growing herds of grazing animals, aided by the huge appetites of increasing numbers of elephants, turned what had been somewhat wooded terrain into the plush open meadows visible today. Protected in parks and reserves, the animals continued to grow in number, and continued to alter this environment. Indeed, it was hard to imagine that we were seeing only a fraction of the totals visible during the July-October period, when over 2 million migrants crowd this area.
What was there was plentiful enough -- ubiquitous herds of Thompson and Grant's gazelles, a few massive, shy elands, numerous waterbuck and topi, a large herd of impala, the occasional ostrich, several comical wart hogs, zebras all about, skulking hyenas virtually always present on the edge of the stage, looking for an easy meal.
A small herd of Land Rovers indicated a find, in this case a leopard resting almost hidden at the bottom of a dry creek bed. The Land Rovers also gathered at a nearby Masai village, driving across the park's borders to the tribal land which the Masai share with the animals.
These tall, thin people are semi-nomadic, building new mud-hut towns every year or two as they take their cattle to new grazing grounds. This village was clearly a frequent stop on the Mara tourist route. Its chief asked for about $10 per person for dancing, singing and photographs during a visit. We negotiated half price for the kids.
That night at Little Governor's, there was an excellent three-course meal inside a dining tent, light by kerosene, sounds by nature. Sleep came easily, though maintaining it through the piercing howls of an alarmed bush baby was more difficult.
Tea and biscuits get you up at 6 a.m. for the 6:30 game drive, three hours to examine the awakening plains. There were more lions, elephants, a huge herd of buffaloes, a rare pair of bat-eared foxes, and giraffes eating leaves of trees along a riverbank.
On almost every drive, Mr. Jomo keenly spotted a cheetah surveying the open plains, an ideal locale for the world's fastest land animal to show off its speed.
We returned to camp for a 10 a.m. breakfast, headed out again for a 90-minute drive at 11 a.m. -- the hot time of the day, often spent by the river looking at hippos and crocodiles, imagining the scene when wildebeests spill into these waters. Then we went back for lunch and the afternoon drive.
It was late in the afternoon when we spotted a few trucks jockeying for position across the plains. They were spread out, not focused on one spot. Mr. Jomo saw first the object of their attention, a cheetah making a few runs at a herd of gazelles.
The cheetah was clearly interested in hunting, but not obsessed. Perhaps a half-dozen vehicles watched as she tried to run off the horned male gazelle that was standing guard. The rest of the herd seemed to want to keep a safe distance, but not to move so far that they would lose track of the cat.
Eventually the cheetah tired of the game and settled down in the grass. Some of the trucks moved in closer, others left, seeking more action elsewhere. We settled in. The kids were in back reading a book about birds. Mr. Jomo was stretched across the front seat. Suddenly he perked up. A baby gazelle, perhaps a day old and separated from its mother, was running across the plain.
Would the cheetah spot it, too? We all turned to look. The cheetah circled her head around, suddenly became taut with attention and was up in an instant running after her afternoon meal. We bounced across the plains in pursuit, though the Land Rover was no match for the cheetah at full speed.
It all happened so fast that I wondered if the kids had even taken it in, but Albert was able to describe it perfectly. "The cheetah was running, then it was like it stopped and lay down on top of the gazelle."
But did it bother him to see this little baby killed, its broken-necked body carried in the cheetah's mouth? "That's the way of nature," he said.
Owen was more direct as we followed the cat's lengthy search for a dining spot safe from hyenas. "I want to see the meat," he said.
The next morning, for our last drive, we took breakfast with us to guarantee five hours on the plains. Mr. Jomo was intent on finding the leopard that had been unseen for two days. We passed lions and elephants, gazelles and ostriches. At one point we drove into a rocky Eden-like valley, filled with hundreds of gazelles and zebras, birds.
Three cheetahs strolled across a nearby plain. A jackal frolicked. A small group of wildebeests appeared. As we ate breakfast, a huge giraffe walked by. Still no leopard.
As we drove along the bottom of a valley, Mr. Jomo stopped the truck and peered through binoculars. The side of the valley was covered with scores of brown rocks. Mr. Jomo realized one of them was a male lion.
All the adult lions we had seen in the prides had been females, as the males only show up at mating time. We bounced up the side of that valley for our first view of this magnificent full-maned beast, resting in the shadow of a tree. For the kids, it was Simba of the "The Lion King" come to life, gazing out over his kingdom.
We bounced back down the hill and drove further along the valley. A few minutes later, there she was, the leopard, barely visible, crouched in the long grass. As we maneuvered for a better picture, she got up and walked away, finally sitting down and peering at us with amber eyes.
The last of my 400 frames clicked in the camera. So it was only with my eyes that I took in this final image of the Masai Mara, a beautifully spotted compact package of powerful grace.
IF YOU GO . . .
Almost everyone traveling to Little Governor's Camp buys a package that includes transfers from (and to, on return) a hotel in Nairobi to Wilson Airport, round-trip flight on Kenya Airways to the Masai Mara, transport to Little Governor's where accommodations, three meals a day and all game drives are included, but not drinks, alcoholic or otherwise.
The price also includes the $20 per person/per day park $H entrance fee.
For one night at Little Governor's, that costs $460 per person, double occupancy with a $55 single supplement. Additional nights are $185 per person, double. There is a discount for children. Transportation to Nairobi from Baltimore is extra.
For information on Little Governor's in Kenya, call (254) 331871; or fax (254) 726427.