It is 1pm, a bright and mildly breezy day. After a five-hour journey, we wait to be cleared into the game reserve. The landscape is breathtaking; open grassland, rolling hills, and towering escarpments.
A fleet of tour vans slows down. Tourists disembark — yawning, stretching, but giddily exuberant. The backdrop is irresistible.
For first-timers, selfies are a must. As if awakening from a deep slumber, a group of enthralled women traders decked in traditional Maasai attire jostle as they encircle us. Persistent, code-switching between Kiswahili, English, and Maa, they persuade tourists to buy their wares with varying degrees of success.
My friends and I have just arrived at the Sekenani gate, one of the entry points to Africa’s greatest wildlife sanctuary, the 60-year-old Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I had longed for this trip, the third time in years.
Enthusiasm consumed us as we waited to savour the world's coveted big game viewing ecosystem.
For me, it was much more than that. The scenes outside and inside the game reserve are reminiscent of the pre-Covid times; droves of mini-buses filled with gaming enthusiasts, scattered in the bushes, eager to see the kings of the jungle.
“This is unbelievable, different from watching National Geographic,” says David Karani, a friend.
Maasai Mara is as diverse as it is spectacular. Its sheer size is a marvel— it stretches 1,510 square kilometers. The anti-poaching measures have enhanced the populations of lions, cheetahs, and leopards.
We are welcomed by a bloat of hippos at a section that plays host to perhaps the world’s most breathtaking wildlife spectacle, the Great Migration. There are about 3,500 hippos in this river alone, a guide tells us, and they move as distinct families with marked territories.
Dozens of tour vans crest the horizon with open rooftops, thrilled occupants crane with their binoculars, camera phones, as they traverse the picturesque landscape. This offers some hope to a sector rising from the rubble.
Tourists are slowly returning to the Mara — as in many other destinations. It is a harbinger for a sector, heavily affected by travel restrictions and a people who endured tough moments.
Reminiscing the pain and penury he witnessed, Evans Atsiaya, our driver-guide, jobless for nearly a year after Covid-19 struck, says some of his colleagues went into depression and died.
“They took loans, bought tour vans. They were paying loans running into millions of shillings. They lost everything when auctioneers came knocking,” he says.
Our conversation is cut short as the van comes to an abrupt stop.
“See them,” says Evans. Two ferocious cheetahs have just made a kill. Unmoved by the tour vans, they devour their prey— a gazelle. A rare riveting moment.
Does this happen often, I ask. “Every day,” he replies. Few meters away, a relaxing lioness stares. “This is an old lioness. It has cleared a sumptuous meal,” says Evans.
As we embark on a 150-kilometre game drive on the second day, we pass through the Keekorok Lodge (Keekorok in Maasai means, the place of black trees), tucked right in the middle of the Mara, where we find Ole Loet. “We must protect the wildlife and wilderness. They are the reason why visitors like you come,” he says.
He ushers us into the hippo bar where visitors can watch hippos and crocodiles co-existing. He is among thousands of workers in the industry who were affected during the closure of the lodge. “It has been tough. When we see you, we know we will take our children to school, put food on the table,” he says.
Ashiembi wa Ndukwe, a director at Go Trip Africa is optimistic that the tourism sector— which employs over 100 million people worldwide—will recover.
“Travel restrictions are the main barrier to recovery of the sector,” he says.
Wildlife accounts for seven percent of global tourism and 80 percent of visits to many African destinations, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). It adds that a rebound is expected by the third quarter of 2021, with domestic demand recovering much faster.
As we drove back to our lodge after a 150-kilometre game drive, a parade of elephants roamed freely in the darkness, occupying the entire road. Exhausted, we stopped to give way.
After three days, 300 kilometres of up-close sighting of the animals, a lion pride consisting of males and females escorted us, in a majestic walk, towards the Sekenani gate. Our time was up, and we set off towards Narok town en route to the bustling metropolis we gladly avoided for a while.
So much for the sights and sounds that drive folks to the wilderness and for which millions of Kenyans throughout the tourism chain derive their livelihoods.