When you’re so ugly that Wikipedia describes your mouth as shaped like a lawnmower, it seems justifiable to exact a subtle revenge on humanity. And wildebeests do just that. They dither.
Once the well-heeled wildlife tourist has ticked off Africa’s Big Five, they only need to witness the annual migration of wildebeest crossing Kenya’s croc-infested Mara River and the job’s done.
But now it’s payback time for the wildebeest. It’s they who decide the date and time to cross the Mara, not Abercrombie and Kent. So you track them for days, thousands upon thousands of them blackening the plains. To keep up spirits when the sundowners fail, guides will say they’re definitely moving towards the Mara River. Then just one critter – not a born leader, not an alpha male nor Mensa member – but just your everyday gnu, (as Scrabblers prefer to call the wildebeest), turns away from the Mara, the whole bloody herd stops dithering to follow, and the 4×4’s return to camp for a subdued dinner.
By Day Three we’d been following our four thousand-strong herd for so long I could virtually name each one. Tortured by their illogical path and ho-hum attitude to destinations, datelines and return flights, I was ready to drop our guide my last dollars for us to circle from behind and stampede them over and be done with it, but he pointed to game wardens hovering to fine any off-road excursions.
So when the herd started another meander towards the water and the guide said this could be the moment, we exchanged glances and thought of dinner round the camp fire. And sure enough, just one changed its mind and we’re back to square one, but this time they’re met by another odd thousand coming towards them and they turn again, this time gathering on the banks for a mass dither, only for a lone hippo to appear from the bush and spook them into another hour of debate. By now there were around thirty 4×4’s lined up in hope, engines off, under the steely gaze of the game warden who ensures any decision to jump is the wildebeests’ alone.
And then it happens, they’re actually going for it. You’re catapulted back as all thirty engines burst into life, snaking through the blinding red murram dust like a blanket finish of the Paris/Dakar Rally as the guides race for the prized front row on the river bank and a life-changing tip. As the dust clears, there’s the hypnotic sight of five thousand wildebeest leaping from the banks and rocks, creatures never designed for swimming whose thrashing hooves churn the water white as they struggle for safety; a watching hippo turns tail at the mayhem but a croc’s head slinks closer to the main column, but this is a young one who needs four or five attempts before a black head rears back and then is sucked below.
It’s all over in minutes as they shake themselves dry on the opposite bank and begin the same slow follow-my-leader as if it’s just another day at the office. And you may think they’ve finally got their act together, become collectively decisive at this moment of truth. Ugh, ugh, that’s not in their DNA; they’ve been known to swim back across the Mara, munch a little, dither a lot, and wind up the tourists before they decide to cross it once more. Looking at their faces, with mouths like lawnmowers, you’d never guess they’re getting the last laugh.