Filmed in Kenya’s Masai Mara, Disney Nature’s new film opens in UK cinemas on 27 April. It tells the stories of Fang, the leader of a lion pride, Mara, an endearing lion cub and Sita, a fearless cheetah with five cubs. Set to be an epic, the film has been described as ‘bringing The Lion King to life on the big screen’. This true story gives an insight into the strong family bonds of the big cats in their savannah environment. Many will be familiar with the area from the BBC TV series, Big Cat Diary.
The Masai Mara
The Masai Mara National Reserve is a wildlife Mecca. It encapsulates the epitome of how you imagine Africa’s wildlife to be – large herds roaming bleached plains, with rolling hills, endless vistas and dramatic skies. With two rainy seasons annually, it supports higher numbers of wildlife than the parks of southern Africa. Living alongside the wildlife are colourful, Maasai pastoralists. They still pursue a traditional lifestyle, herding their cattle on the open plains.
The Mara-Serengeti Eco-system
The Masai Mara forms the northern section of a vast eco-system which stretches south into Tanzania, incorporating the Serengeti National Reserve, and north to the Loita plains, an area of some 25,000km². ‘Mara’ means ‘dappled’ in the Maa language. It’s an apt description: the savannah is bisected by the dark green of riverine forest, interspersed with quartz outcrops. Rich grasslands, dominated by red oat grass, Themeda triandra, are the feeding grounds for numerous migrating zebra, wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelle, as well as Grant’s gazelle, topi, eland, impala and buffalo. Clumps of gardenia bushes form petticoats around Euphorbia candelabrum trees, a favourite haunt for lion. Lone Balanites trees are a popular roost for secretary birds, vultures and raptors on the open plains.
Giraffes prefer the savannah woodland, dominated by numerous Acacia species, such as the whistling thorn with its large ant galls, A. drepanolobium, and the wait-a-bit thorn, A. brevispica. Elephant enjoy the marshland and forested areas, also preferred by waterbuck and bushbuck. The tiny dik dik and black rhino inhabit acacia thickets. Riverine forest is at its best along the Mara river and its tributaries the Talek, Olare Orok and Ntiakitiak, whose headwaters lie in the Mau forest to the north. There are magnificent stands of African greenheart, Warburgia ugandensis, African olive, Olea africana and various fig trees, which attract troops of monkeys and olive baboons and a variety of birds such as green pigeons and casqued hornbills when in fruit. Within the rivers are numerous pods of hippo and large crocodiles – particularly at Hippo Pools south of Mara bridge and in the Mara river near Governor’s Camp.
Home to the Great Migration, the most spectacular wildebeest crossings are during August and September on the Mara and Talek rivers in the northern section of the reserve. Predators are never far away from the plains game. Lion and cheetah are commonly seen on the savannah, while leopard prefer the riverine forest. There are numerous clans of spotted hyena, seen in the woodland areas in the northern section of the reserve, but they are more often heard, their eerie howls lingering on the night air. Of the smaller mammals, jackal, bat-eared foxes and mongooses are often seen around termite mounds.
Tips on game viewing:
- take a guide – you will see and learn a lot more about the animals and their environment
- the best time to see the wildlife is early morning and late afternoon – midday game drives are hot and tiring when the animals are less active
- have realistic expectations – wildlife documentaries take hours of patience to film, so do not expect to see constant action between predators and prey.
- in busy periods, the Mara gets very crowded. Have consideration for the animals and do not surround them with vehicles. Cheetah especially suffer from this as their preferred hunting times are during peak viewing periods.
- take a good pair of binoculars
Places to stay
The Mara has fantastic places to stay. There are numerous options, from lodges to luxury camping. Consider, Elephant Pepper Camp with its gold eco-rating, Porini Lion Camp with a silver eco-rating, Kicheche Mara Camp with a bronze eco-rating, Rekero Camp – a partnership with an unique Maasai guide and Big Cat Diary presenter, Jackson Ole Looseyia, and Mara Intrepids.