By Jonathan and Angela Scott
I have travelled the world with my wife Angela in an attempt to capture the visual splendour of our wild places. We have marvelled at the sight of tens of thousands of king penguins pressed shoulder to shoulder among the guano spattered tussock grass at St Andrew’s Bay in South Georgia; have crouched along the edge of a sparkling summer torrent in Alaska’s Katmai National to witness the giant coastal brown bears feasting on the profligacy of the salmon run. Both are epic in their own way. But even when I was a child growing up on a farm in Berkshire I always knew that the greatest wildlife show on earth was to be found in East Africa, the venue of an annual event starring 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebras and hundreds of thousands of gazelles. This great migration roams the length and breadth of the Mara-Serengeti in its never ending search for grass and water, a journey fueled and patterned by the miracle of rainfall. Thank the Lord there are still no fences separating Kenya and Tanzania to stifle the passage of all these wild animals; no Customs or Immigration to slow their movements: not even the mighty Mara River can thwart their urge to keep moving for long.
After nearly forty years on safari in what I consider to be the finest wildlife sanctuary in the world, I still feel an exquisite sense of anticipation and excitement at this time of the year when the Mara welcomes back the throng of grunting braying wildebeest and zebras to its rolling grassy plains. Though Angie and I have a beautiful home on the outskirts of Nairobi with an Out of Africa view of the Ngong Hills, our stone cottage at Governor’s Camp in the Mara overlooking Marsh Pride territory is where our hearts beat strongest. I first set eyes on the Masai’s spotted land in 1975 on an overland journey in a Bedford truck from London to Johannesburg. I had studied zoology at Queens University in Belfast and was determined to find a way of working with wildlife. That journey through Africa stole my heart. I sold my onward boat ticket from Cape Town to Sydney and after two years working with wildlife in Botswana returned overland to Kenya. For the next five years I lived unpaid at Mara River Camp honing my skills as a wildlife artist and photographer before crossing the river to base myself at Kichwa Tembo in the Mara Triangle. In 1982 my book The Marsh Lions was published (co-authored with the award winning journalist Brian Jackman) marking a turning point in my search to transform my childhood passion into a career. Everything – yet nothing – changed when I met Angie, the girl with the long blonde hair; the love of my life who was born in Africa and shared my obsession with wild places and photography. Angie and I were married in 1992 atop the Siria Escarpment that towers 300 metres above the plains at the western edge of the Reserve. We have never looked back.
Time in the Mara is measured by the arrival and departure of the migration and each year in early June the first wildebeest make their way across the Sand River close to the border with Tanzania and the Serengeti National Park where the great herds spend the rainy season on the park’s abundant short grass plains, the birthplace of the migration. From now until November the Mara plays host to up to 600,000 wildebeest depending on how wet or dry it is. The herds make repeated sweeps across the grasslands mowing down the red oat grass that has grown tall during the long rains that begin in late March and continue until June. At home in Nairobi we listen for word from the ‘bush telegraph’ – the network of tour drivers and safari guides who anxiously enquire about the whereabouts of the wildebeest and pass on their findings to us. Pilots ferrying visitors to the Mara’s camps and lodges are besieged with questions from land-based residents as to the movements of the herds.
But this year the rains were sparse and the wheat farmers who lease huge tracts of Masailand to the east of the Reserve face huge losses. The farmers are not the only people concerned about unpredictable times. Tea and Coffee prices have been disappointing, while Kenya’s lucrative Tourism Industry has been blighted by incidents and Travel Advisories, taxes and insecurity. Britain, the US, Australia and France have warned about security concerns at locations on the Kenya coast. Time for this Brit to pack his bags and head home? You must be joking!
The problem with Travel Advisories is that they have a blanket effect on the host country even as overseas governments attempt to be specific about their concerns. Mention one part of the Kenya coast as having security issues and you risk writing off the whole country. They perpetuate a climate of Fear. A Travel Advisory about Zimbabwe can easily prompt the uninformed to presume that it’s not safe to travel to Zambia. And our neighbours in Tanzania will certainly be feeling the effect of Travel Advisories relating to parts of Kenya. That’s simply not correct. If we abandon wildlife based tourism we threaten the future of the very wildlife that Britain has called on the world to protect. Poaching will become even easier for the criminal gangs who are the main beneficiaries. The only way to win this war is to stick together.
I am proud of my British heritage but equally proud to call Kenya my home. Not so long ago Angie and I shared the stage in London with the legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes to speak about our travel adventures. Fiennes exemplifies the great British rallying cry “Stay Calm and Carry On”. “And that is exactly what we must do. Our children went to school here in Nairobi; Angie is a Kenyan citizen by choice not birth, our daughter Alia was born here and so was her son Michael. Her partner Richard works for a Kenyan company and loves it here. Alia and Richard chose the wonderful Aga Khan Hospital as the birthplace for our Grandson and as I write Michael is on safari with his parents at Baringo Island Camp in the Great Rift Valley. He has already made two safaris with us to the Mara along with visits to Ol Pejeta in Laikipia and Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks. He spent Easter at the Mombasa Serena and loved every minute of his time there. Michael is 10 months old, yet already he has met the Marsh Lions that Angie and I know better than some of our human friends, the same big cats familiar to millions of viewers around the world through Big Cat Diary, the TV phenomenon first aired in 1996 culminating with Big Cat Live in 2008. The show is repeated on the BBC and Animal Planet to this day – with hundreds of video clips on YouTube for the uninitiated.
People think Angie and I don’t have a proper job – that life is one long holiday as we follow our dream. When they ask us where we go for a holiday we say the coast – celebrating the ocean that Angie so loves having lived for most of her childhood in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. We love nothing better than to feel the sand under our feet and the sun on our faces, to smell the sea breeze. I have never forgotten standing stunned by the brilliance of the blue of the sea and the whiteness of the coral sand at Diani Beach on Kenya’s south coast where we camped as over landers in 1974. But it is the mighty Mara where our hearts truly lie. We hear the Marsh Pride are in robust good health. And so they should be. Their territory embraces Musiara Marsh and Bila Shaka and was swamped with animals this summer as the armies of wildebeest and zebra trekked to the Marsh and intermittent water courses – the luggas as they are known – to slake their thirst. The killing was easy for the pride; their cubs are prospering – and we were there to watch and photograph them. Not least to witness how our old friends Scarface, Sienna and Bibi were faring.
The great cats have always inspired people throughout the world – even in places where they never occurred. Lions and tigers appear as motifs and emblems on our ancient crests and banners, urging us on in to battle, to fight the good fight with courage and honour – to prevail. We will lick our wounds, pick ourselves up and come back stronger and wiser than ever.