The Peculiar Smell of Death…

[Originally Published in 11/2013]

The herd waits; call it nervous anticipation. It takes one animal to find the courage to cross  – to urge the herd forward, and though the need for fresh grass is primal, no animal seems to be in any hurry.   They sense the water 20 feet below is filled with unseen danger.  If the mass rush down a steep slope doesn’t cause death or injury, the dangers lurking just below the surface might – unpredictable currents, the territorial hippos, or the occasional crocodile that knows an easy meal is coming soon.  But it’s time to cross. This is the Mara River – the lifeblood of the Maasai Mara and for these animals, existence depends on crossing this river regardless of the cost.

It’s called the Great Migration – the movement of over 2 million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other grazers, across the plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, in search of new grass and fresh watering holes.  It’s October in Kenya, the start of the rains, and the herd is now heading south back to Tanzania – to fresh watering holes and new grass. The cows are laden with the next season’s young; the bulls spent from the rut. The calves are sure in their footing after a summer of learning to use their long, spindly legs. The herd must move in order to survive and that movement will force the animals to cross the Mara River.

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The herd on the move towards the Mara River

On the far size, the herds gather. The riverbank is full of wildebeest and zebra, and looking off into the distance, more are making their way to the water.  The loud bray of the zebra is unmistakable, but the wildebeest are quiet almost as if contemplating their fate. The trees that dot the water’s edges are filled with the carrion eaters – the old birds, ragged and stark in their appearance, patiently waiting for the meal they know is inevitable. The number of animals gathered, and those still arriving, is staggering. 20 or 30 thousand, maybe more?  It’s impossible to say. Off in the distance we see them – thousands – pushing forward being drawn by some invisible force none of us sees or even understands.

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African White-Backed Vulture patiently waits in the trees above the Mara River

It takes one animal to start the rush across the river. From our vantage point, we see faces poke through the thick brush tentatively trying out the first steps to the water.

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Hippos spar for the best spot in the water

Below, the hippos wait along with the remains of those that crossed before and found the water too overwhelming. Bloated bodies of wildebeest covered in bird droppings are caught amongst the rocks – eyes gouged out by the hungry cranes and vultures.

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The river doesn’t discriminate – young or old, nothing rejected

We wait and the herd waits. Unknown time passes as we watch the animals across from us. It’s easy to lose track of time here. The days in the Mara fluctuate between moments fueled by sheer adrenaline, to minutes that drag on endlessly.  But one thing is certain – the animals will move at their pace.  We play an anxious waiting game wondering and watching the animals before us.

And as quickly as it starts, it’s over. Something startled the herd. Animals turn around and walk slowly away returning to old, familiar territory. Why? Maybe a vehicle got to close? Maybe something in the water that didn’t seem quite right? Thousands of animals turn around and walk into the sunset.  The crossing won’t happen tonight – at least not here, at least not now.

Yet the need for fresh grass is too strong and the next morning, the call comes – the herd is gathering once more. We rush to the same spot and this time, the animals are more determined. The first wildebeest have already made it across and compared to last night, there are even more waiting on the ledge above.

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When one finally crosses, the momentum drives the rest to follow

The chaos is overwhelming. The wildebeest and zebra clamor to get to the water cutting new trails on the side of the river. It’s a mass of hoofs and legs stomping on one another. Animals bound over those that are too slow often breaking legs in their plunge to the bottom.  They try to find new and easier routes, maybe a spot less crowded, but ultimately crash into the water en-masse, and struggle for the far side. Fear, or maybe trepidation – each animal experiences something. Some take the plunge without thinking, while others pause seemingly building up their courage. Those that wait too long risk being trampled in the rush. Earlier this morning, we saw a 15ft crocodile sunning on the banks right below the spot where thousands are trying to start their trek. It’s not hard to guess where the crocodile is positioned now. On the far side of the rushing water, a large gathering of 20 or so hippos waits. Their large heads bob in and out of the water lunging and biting at anything – even each other, upset over the interruption to their peaceful, morning soak. It’s a maddening rush forward – a goal oriented yet mindless stampede for survival.

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The steep, first step. The river and all the danger waits below.

For the wildebeest, the crossing is a lesson in singularity. Every animal crosses of its own accord – or so it seems. If a calf is unable to follow its mother, the cow will press on leaving the small youngster.  Maybe she’ll wait for a minute or two on the other side; maybe she’ll even look back across the river with a small snort. But she won’t wait and lament the loss. Survival is all that counts and eventually, she will regroup with the herd. The zebra, though, seem to take a different approach. They gather in their small groups, they cross as a herd, often single file, and once they’ve made it to the other side, regroup making sure that each member is accounted for. They are disciplined, noisy and communicative reminding me of a group of school children holding each other’s hand while crossing the road.

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The zebra calmly wait for their turn

On the far side, the animals that have made it up the riverbank push forward to the new grass. The herd disperses – the large number will not travel together until forced to cross the river again. The animals that make it are tired yet they still find the energy to gallop or trot forward. Their trial isn’t over. Lions, leopards, hyena and cheetahs also call the Mara home. There is safety in numbers and no animal wants to be caught alone.

Spooked, the herd leaves. The crossing will wait.
The crossing behind them, the search for new grass continues

Maybe it’s an hour or so later – the crossing is almost to an end. How many animals made the passage this time? Easily 30,000, maybe more.  They’ve already started to move slowly out of site – stopping briefly to graze, loping ahead in search of their own herd, but eventually disappearing over the rise. On the river, the dismal aftermath is evident. New bodies, easily distinguished from their bloated counterparts, are queuing up next to the old remains.  They’ve already gained the attention of the birds that patiently waited in the trees above. Their long, grisly vigil is rewarded with fresh kill.

Some of the herd that’s lost their nerve still pace above the water – the momentum to cross now lost. They turn around returning to the diminishing grasslands. Tomorrow, maybe then next day?  Eventually they’ll have to cross but the time’s not right. Yet a few still remain – trapped on the lower banks  – unwilling to cross; unable to rejoin to the herd now in retreat.

An adult animal is in the water. It chose a poor place to cross and it’s caught in the swift current. The wildebeest struggles, tires and is swallowed under the crashing water. It comes up, gasping for air, but is quickly pulled under. We stand witness to power of the Mara. It quietly disappears, dragged downriver – another victim of the crossing; one of the estimated 200,000 that will die during the migration.

Watching up river are two large adults who have found themselves abandoned a small island. It’s not safe here. The island is surrounded by carcass and hippos, the river deeper than upstream with a swirling current. They’ll not only have the rest of the river to traverse, but a pile of dead brethren to climb over before making it ashore. Broken limbs? Most likely – if not from the dead in their path then from the steep traverse up the riverbank. We will leave here before we learn their ultimate fate.

On the far side banks are three more wildebeest – two adults and a small calf. The animals are trying desperately to make it back to the top to rejoin the departing herd, but the muddy banks are too steep and slippery now. The journey to the water is one way – the first step is a final commitment to crossing.

The calf follows the adults trying to find clamor up the steep side. On the far side, a cow waits patiently. We can only assume it’s her calf but she won’t wait long. The herd is already pushing forward and she can’t be left behind – she’s an easy catch for a hungry pride. A few tentative glances back to the far side and she gallops off. The calf is left to fend for itself.

After a few more unsuccessful tries to scramble up the muddy embankment, one of the larger animals makes its first attempt to cross. The river is 40 or 50 feet wide but again, danger is always present. With less than 10 feet to go before success, the wildebeest is confronted by the powerful jaws of a snapping hippo forcing a quick retreat back to where it started.

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No place left to go but across

This spectacle painfully repeats until finally, the three animals make it across. You can hear an audible sigh of relief from all who witness this struggle as the young calf finally makes it to the flat land above the river and gallops off  – hopefully to find its mother. But there’s no stopping, no waiting, no catching of breath. The calf must rejoin the herd or risk certain death.

As the three gallop over the hill, the crossing comes to an abrupt end. Another small chapter in the story of the Great Migration is written.

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A quick glance hints at the difficulty of the crossing

We won’t bear witness to another crossing but we would see the remnants of many throughout our remaining time in the Mara.  As we drove to another part of the park, we stopped at a border crossing where a vehicle bridge traverses the river. But something’s wrong – the place has an eerie, otherworldly feel to it even though humans live here.  The sky above is black with large birds – the cranes, the storks and the vultures – the ancient harbingers of death.  The smell from piles of rotting flesh is unmistakable as we get our first pungent tang of what waits under the bridge.

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A pile of rotting carcasses brings the carrion feeders

The view below the border crossing is difficult to describe. The river of life?  Not here. This is the river of death. The water is full of rocks – twists and turns where boulders have piled up over thousands of years. Now the boulders are traps for animals whose fate was sealed miles up river. The banks are piled high with the bloated carcass of wildebeest, zebra and cape buffalo – anything unlucky enough to have perished during a crossing.  The smell is stomach churning and it’s hard not to start convulsing from the overwhelming stench of rot. But it’s impossible to turn around without witnessing this final act. We stand on the river’s edge, each of us deep in thought, as we watch a dead animal float along legs waving wildly in the current. We’ve irritated the death eaters who flap their wings and squawk loudly, but only for a brief moment. They quickly settle back down to their feast of a thousand. They start with the eyes, the soft flesh that doesn’t require much work and their handiwork is obvious in the remains all around us. And why work? The food is easy to come by – there are hundreds of carcasses to choose from. Each of us will leave this place commenting on how our clothing is permeated by the nauseating smell of rotting flesh, and it quickly turns into the topic of the day. Yet it’s not the overwhelming odor clinging to our wardrobe, but the site and smell being burned into our memories that will stay with us long after we’ve said goodbye. Even now, the stench and the visions remain. Even now, the memories are hard to put in to any sensible order.

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A stormy sky looks down on the skull of an African Elephant

The Mara River is the River of Life, but not life like we imagine. Its 395km journey to Lake Victoria is what defines the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara. Without this river, this might be a barren plain where life will never exist. Animals and people live here because of the river’s journey and the journey is not without sorrow and hardship. For those of my generation and younger, we were raised on twisted fantasies of Africa. Maybe it was the Walt Disney version where pain, death and suffering might happen somewhere in the “gooey middle” but the ending was always happy and punctuated by a rousing, “feel good” song designed to sell millions. But this, the crossing, the brutality of what we’ve witnessed,  is reality. Life on the Mara River is punctuated by death – death is always present and always in the forefront. Traveling across the savannah finds the memories of past life everywhere – the skeletal remains of animals that once were; the fresh carcass feeding all those in search of life. The death of one will bring sustaining life to others. Death is beautiful here – twisted and cruel, unforgiving yet common, grotesque and macabre – a reminder of our own mortality and stark lesson in humility. Man does not rule here and never will. For thousands of years, the river’s worn the crown and here it will remain until the waters finally run dry.

And the herds will continue to move, following the seasons, always searching for better pastures.