Tag Archives: Wildlife

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Into the wild at Kakadu National Park

Join me as I take you on our ultimate Australian Outback Extravaganza
By Aswathy Kumar
“South Africa…perfect for wildlife?”
“How about Europe…so romantic.”
“I think we should do Philippines…heard their beaches are absolutely spectacular.”

It was my mother-in-law’s big 60th and we were finding it hard to choose a destination for our annual family vacation. After all we were a rather extraordinary group with extremely different ideas of what a holiday should be like. There was my mother-in-law a complete wild life enthusiast, my husband: the adrenaline junkie, my father-in-law, a devout food fanatic, an inquisitive seven year old, my daughter and finally me, a die-hard romantic whose idea of fun was sauntering barefoot on an isolated beach or enjoying a candle-light dinner under a star-studded sky. In short, an interesting mix of people with rather distinct tastes.
“How about Australia then?” Suggested my husband. “It’s pretty massive and I am sure we can find something that each one of us like.” And boy was as he right! Be it getting up, close and personal with the gigantic salt water crocodiles at Kakadu National Park and plunging into the scenic water falls at Litchfield to taking a romantic hike under the rainforest canopy at Daintree to snorkeling with some of the most exotic marine life at The Great Barrier Reef, this monstrous continent did have it all.

Part 1

Into the wild at Kakadu National Park

The sun had slowly started to set as we arrived at our very first stop, Kakadu National park, a 20,000 square km sprawling park declared a World Heritage Site.  A mere four hour drive from the closest International airport in Darwin, we were almost certain that we had finally arrived in the famous Park when the colorless highways and drive-in restaurants started to give way to scenic landscapes splattered with hues of green, scarlet and tangerine and the shrill sounds of thousands of birds soaring in the evening sky started to echo in the background replacing the annoying sounds of sneering vehicles.
Picturesque wetlands, embellished with white and purple lilies, characteristic of Kakadu told us that we were close to our destination. Home to over 2000 species of flora and fauna, I immediately knew that Kakadu was definitely going to be the perfect concoction of wilderness and beauty.

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One of the first things that welcomed us here, were the ’Beware of crocodiles’ and danger signs that were splattered all across the seemingly harmless wetlands, all deceiving us from the danger that lurked right beneath its calm waters. Northern Australia is home to two species, the estuarine (saltwater) and the freshwater crocodiles that are seen in plenty in this region to the extent that any water body that is not mentioned safe for swimming, is better left untouched.
But then again we had travelled this far and that too with my fauna fanatic mother-in-law, so there was no way we were going to leave without getting a sneak-peek. A quick meal and rest later we were walking on top of a wooden bridge, leading us straight towards the Jim Jim Creek, where we boarded our boat that would take us around the Yellow Water Billabong, probably the best and safest way to get up close to these monstrous beasts and experience wilderness at its very best.
Now I have seen crocodiles in plenty at the zoo and even gotten pretty close to a rather humongous one at Crocosorous Cove, in Darwin. But nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience in the next one hour. I still remember the feeling as we spotted our very first crocodile. It was about 4.2 meters and could have been easily mistaken for a floating log. But this one was in no way going to let us pass without letting us know its presence or establish its territory, choosing to move as close as it can get to our boat and slowly cruising along with it. “They like to taunt you and the crocodiles know no fear,” our guide said warning us not to put our heads or hands outside. Apparently they can jump up to a height almost twice its own length and cases of crocodile attacking humans were definitely not unknown in this wilderness.

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As our cruise continued, we sat, clad in our plastic ponchos, in a rather unimpressive boat with strangers, soaking wet as the heavens had decided to open up just then, imbibing the several stories of this original Aboriginal lands, our guide was narrating with much enthusiasm. There was the one of the rainbow serpent, considered to be the protector, source of life and creation among the Aborigines, believed to have created the hills, valleys and the rivers along the way it moved. Then there was another and my personal favorite of Ginga or crocodile man who once got badly burnt and jumped into the river to save himself and later changed into the sandstone escarpments seen at Kakadu.
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The less eerier part of our trip was seeing the innumerable birds that swarmed the water body. Be it the large number of magpies, egrets, jacanas and whistling ducks that had gathered around the tributary for our warm welcome. Kakadu hosts almost one-third of the total bird species found in this massive continent, not to forget the 2000 unique species of plants that make up for the fantastic scenery that unfolded in front of us. If still not exhausted from the boat ride and all the hiking and bush-walking that’s probably the best way to truly imbibe the spectacular, that is Kakadu, you can also experience true aboriginal culture and witness some outstanding rock art, dating almost upto 20,000 years old at the galleries in the Nourlangie Rock region.

A walk in the wild

Exploring the grasslands of Masai Mara

The time was 7.00 p.m. We had just stepped back into our cream colored tent, our secret getaway for the next three days. Although the staff insisted that the furniture and the setting that surrounded me were truly African and quite characteristic of the Masai tribe, I felt more like an Arab princess amidst its high-rise fabric roofs, embroidered cushions, ornate carpets, leather trucks and antique lanterns that I often associated with tales straight out of Arabian Nights. I had just put on my little black dress and was all looking forward to a quiet romantic bonfire dinner with my husband. I was about to grab my jacket as the weather was slowly starting to get a bit chilly when I heard a knock on the door. It was a bit unusual because it was rather late for housekeeping and we definitely hadn’t ordered any room service. “Maybe we are getting a complimentary bottle of wine,” I joked to my husband.

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When I opened the door, I was surprised to see a lean old Masai standing outside, his expression almost unreadable yet somewhat menacing. He held a spear in one hand and with the other he supported the red-checked shuka (the Masai blanket) draping his boney frame. His skin was wrinkled with a huge scar that went straight from his lips all the way up to his cheekbones. He was unlike the Masai who had greeted us at the hotel lobby or unlike the pleasant English-speaking Masai who had acted as our guide a few hours ago. He didn’t even look like any of the Masais who had eagerly waved at us as we passed by them, signaling us to stop for a lift or simply to take a picture with them. This man at my door…was probably the oldest I had seen yet. With blood shot eyes, there was something ominous in the way he stood by my doorstep gesturing us to hurry.

He told us in his broken English that he was there to escort us to the restaurant which was just a few minutes’ walk from our tent that was cut off from the rest of the hotel that housed the restaurant and the main lobby. We had specially opted for this tented accommodation located right on the Savannah. The tents had no boundary walls surrounding it and one step outside and you could see the grasslands of Mara stretched out in all its glory right in front of you.

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We were a bit surprised and even a bit annoyed as we weren’t expecting company at the time and we definitely didn’t want anyone telling us what time to exit the room for dinner on our holiday. As we stood there staring at him, not budging a bit without having given an explanation for his strange appearance, he simply smiled at us and pointed his spear at something moving in the grass outside.

“Lioness,” he said… “Three of them…they are out on their hunt.”
I peeped outside to see what this strange old man was talking about.
And there right before my eyes, on the grass, at the point where the artificially laid lawn of the hotel met the tall golden grass of the Mara lay three lionesses…majestic, peaceful and extremely beautiful…her golden skin almost shimmering in the moonlit night.

That’s Masai Mara for you…raw, untouched and extremely wild. Known for being one of the finest and the most popular game reserves in Kenya, extending to an area of over 500 square miles, in the grasslands of Mara spotting a lioness relishing a wildebeest or hyenas dragging a kill to its den is nothing out of the ordinary. Vultures preying on a left-over gazelle or a pride of even 15 lions consisting of cubs and lionesses taking an afternoon siesta, quite oblivious of the safari vehicles surrounding them, are all common sights here.

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Situated at a mere 140kms from Nairobi, the best way to get to this game reserve is to rent a four-wheel drive from the capital city as the roads leading to the game park is far from smooth or welcoming. And there is no doubt that the best and the most sought after period to visit the magnificent Mara is during migration, also referred to as The Great Migration. From July through October, every year almost a million wildebeests, thompson gazelles and zebras cross over to the Mara from the Serengeti in search of sweeter grass that is specially found in this region during these months. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras grazing on the grasslands of Mara make for an absolutely breathtaking view if you travel to the National park during this time. Though the price you pay can be rather steep, having a packed lunch at a specified picnic spot amidst the countless wild animals makes it well worth it. If you are lucky and you make it at the right time when the animals cross the Mara River you may even see them fall prey to the large number of crocodiles and other predators that anxiously await their arrival this time of the year.

Though there are several game lodges and hotels to enjoy a perfect blend of luxury, elegance with a splash of adventure opt for the several tented options at Mara that offers a little something for those wanting to enjoy nature in all its rawness. If you are staying in one of these luxury tents or camps situated near a water hole and not protected by any boundary walls, you are sure to see a hippopotamus grazing in the night or even a herd of tuskers by simply peeking through the drapes of your tent. Here you are also sure to see a family of baboons fighting over a fallen fruit, watch a single tusker quench his thirst at the river or catch a glimpse of the Masai giraffe nibbling at the acacia while you lounged around in your king size bed, or while savoring a five course gourmet meal at their fancy restaurant or enjoying a rejuvenating massage at its tree-top spa.

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Apart from the big five, Masai Mara is so famous for that include lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino and the buffalo, it is also home to plenty of others like the hippopotamus, gazelles, topi, eland, giraffes, crocodiles, cheetah and zebras amongst many others. Mara also sees several birds mostly raptors like the vultures, long-crested eagles or migratory birds like the hornbills, crowned cranes and African pygmy-falcons.