June 13th, 2001
I am on a safari-bound jeep heading toward the Maasai Mara National Reserve. There are five others in our group. Sofie and Michel are from Sweden. Henny and his father are from the Netherlands. Gary is from Scotland and there’s myself. Steve, our Kenyan driver seems taciturn at best.
We drove out of Nairobi and gradually left the straggling remnants of city life behind. Climbing steadily onto the ridge that defines the eastern edge of the Rift valley, we found ourselves at a lookout point. Down below was the Great Rift Valley. Down below lay the yellow-green mosiac-ed floor of the valley. Largely uninhabited by people, it is home to the animals of the African plains and to some of the Maasai who live in small scattered villages. In the distance loomed Mt. Longonot, one of the volcanoes that rise above the valley floor.
Earlier, we passed the small bustling town of Narok where we had stopped for lunch. The garbage strewn main street of the town was teeming with people – it was market day. Mangoes bursting with red ripeness vied for space on carts with stalks of sugarcane and bunches of corn. Ragged plastic tarps spread on the ground displayed clothing, food, knives, batteries, shoes and sticky sugarcane candy. Men and women adorned in their beaded finery bartered for goods vociferously, the language varying from Maa to Swahili with a smattering of English phrases thrown in. At the corner stood a man toasting corn over a clay grill, doing brisk business. Flies buzzing at the entrance of the store next door announced the butchery. Peeking in the door one could see carcasses hung from the rafters. Steve stopped to buy meat for our evening meal.
Climbing down from the lookout point, we reached the valley floor. Steve said we were leaving the Kikuyu lands and entering the region dominated by the Maasai. The Maasai are nomads and herders. The concept of land ownership is foreign to them, as is agriculture. The farms that we had seen until now petered out and dry arid bushland stretched out on either side of the black pot-holed ribbon of tarmac. Yellow grass, easily waist-high covered the landscape. Dotted through it were the thorny acacia trees. Their flat-topped silhouettes fit the images of african plains that I have in my head. Finally, I can feel “Africa”. It is in these arid scrublands, in the dust clouds raised by herds of goats and sheep. It is in the bright red and orange clothing of the Maasai. The men young and old, wear a checkered blanket and carry with them a spear, a panga, a club and a stout stick. The women wear colourful kangas, one of them wrapped around them and the other used to carry the child on their backs. Both men and women wear intricate earrings, bracelets, necklaces, anklets and wristbands made of colourful beads. Those who have footwear boast crude sandals made from used automobile tires. It is common to see tire treads and ‘Goodyear’ imprinted on the dusty ground. Tall and lean, brown limbs gleaming in the sun, they walk with a grace that seems inherent.
On we went, heading deeper into Maasai country. The tarmac had given way to dirt roads and we bounced and jostled along it. We spotted a couple of zebras in the distance and a small herd of Thomson’s gazelles. Small and delicate, they paused for an instant and then took off, leaping away into the bush, their black and white striped sides standing out starkly against all the yellow. We were just beginning to see the wildlife that the Mara teems with. Not many vehicles pass this way – only those operated by tour companies. At one point we saw a van belonging to some other company stopped by the side of the road. They flashed their lights and we stopped too. Steve, said “cheetah”, and motioned to the side of the road. Sure enough, half hidden in the tall grass, was the head of a cheetah. It took a while for us to spot, so well camouflaged was it. It was waiting, watching, perfectly at home in the surroundings. We watched it for a few seconds when suddenly without warning the jeep swerved off the road, climbed in and out of the ditch and tore into the bush. The cheetah which had been passively surveying the bush took off. Not satisfied with startling the creature into flight, the jeep gave chase. We could almost sense the panic of the poor creature as it ran, swerving this way and that trying to find some safety from the intruders. Amazing as it was, to see the grace and power as it ran, I would rather than we did not chase it. The others in our group seemed to feel the same. We protested but the protests fell on deaf ears. Steve informed us that he had been a safari driver for over ten years and knew what he was doing. I had not known it then, but this seems to be standard practice among tour companies. Apparently there are plenty of tourists who deem chasing wildlife an essential part of the African safari and are willing to pay handsomely for it. Hence the tradition. “Responsible tourism” maybe an oft-quoted phrase but it is worth less than nothing compared to the dollars that “irresponsible tourism” brings in.
Arriving at the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we were taken to the campground of the tour company. Rows of tents lined the perimeter and a log building at one end housed a few benches and tables. This was our the dining space. A round open-sided thatched structure stood in the center. Some of the morans who are hired as guards spend the nights there. They build a fire in the center and stand guard against animals. A shack at the other end housed the shower. A hot shower meant that a fire would be lit under the drum of stored water and then piped into the shack. Not fancy, nothing like the photos that we had been shown in the glossy brochures, it was nonetheless perfectly fine.
June 14th 2001
The vast plains of the Maasai Mara stretch out in all directions. Most of it is a yellow sea of tall elephant grass. The wind blows through them and the waves dance across the surface in ripples. Here and there are spots of green. Small bushes, prickly thorn trees and scrub. There are acacia trees too. Those stalwart sentries of the African savannah stand tall in solitary flat-topped splendour. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky, ferocious in its intensity. The hills in the distance shimmer in the heat. Yes, this is the Africa I imagined. From the dim recesses of memory a picture flashes through my brain – the sun setting on the Savannah, silhouetting an acacia tree. In the foreground are stalks of elephant grass. Gary and Michel both mentioned the same image. We must dream over the same pictures, from the same glossy magazines in our distant corners of the globe.
Steve, our Kenyan driver skillfully navigates the bumps, ruts and hollows. We dip down and up again over the occasional streambed. Once in a while splashing through water in our four-wheel drive vehicle as we meander in search of wildlife. We don’t have to look very far.
I can hardly believe the sight spread out in front of me. This is just like the footage in all those wildlife documentary films that I have seen. And longed to see for myself. This is really true; really real! I am looking at it. But the sense of unreality won’t go away. We, each of us seem to be under the same spell. Goofy grins wreathe our faces as we watch spellbound, our jaws all but flapping in the breeze.
Herds of zebras graze in the tall grass. They look up, shake their thick manes and prance off as the metal intruders approach. Their black and white stripes make a beautiful bold pattern that is mesmerizing as they move off together. There are several foals in the herd, covered in patchy brownish felt that will fall off, as they grow older. The younger ones are more interested in playing with each other than the serious business of grazing. They frolic, butt heads and nip at each other. The zebras share the grazing land peaceably with the herd of Thomson’s gazelles. The gazelles are more delicately shaped. Mostly brown, they have broad black and white markings down their sides and two black stripes on their rumps. They are even more skittish than the zebras. There are sleek looking hartebeestes with their beautifully carved antlers. And wildebeests in all their ugliness. Soon it will be time for the annual migration of the wildebeests. Thousands of them will run across these grounds in mindless seething droves following the rains. The old, the infirm and some of the young will fall prey to the river crossings or to predators. The endless cycle of life will continue as it has for eons on these plains.
Cresting a rise we catch our first glimpse of impossibly tall necks. Giraffes. They nibble on the topmost branches of the trees and once in a while kneel awkwardly to lap at water from a mudhole. But when they move, there is a delicate grace to it. The mincing steps remind me of descriptions of prissy misses stepping out for a walk in the park in days gone by. We moved on too, along the myriad of tracks crisscrossing the plains. A little while later was a bigger surprise. Lion! There it sat, some distance away with only its head and mane visible over the waving grass. It sat on a little mound of dirt surveying the surroundings. Steve spotted it first and operators veered off the tracks and straight into the bush toward the lion. We came within fifteen meters of it and would have been happy to stop and gaze our fill.
We did not want to crowd the creature out of its own home. But yet again there is no response to our requests. True to the philosophy of tour operators, Steve keeps driving until we are barely two meters away. And we stop. And we stare. Magnificence is the word that springs to mind. It is a large male with a huge black mane. The wind riffles through it as the beast sits there looking at the landscape with a nonchalance that is enviable. The presence of these curious visitors does not seem to bother it in the least. It simply ignored us. Inevitably though where there is one safari vehicle, there are bound to be others. Soon a group of vans and jeeps had converged on the lion. Each van had a crowd of excited laughing chattering tourists and each driver vied to get his passengers closest to the beast. The lion was all but hemmed in on all sides. The battery of flash bulbs exploding within a meter of one’s nose could hardly have been pleasant. More than once the lion got up, turned to give us his back and settled down again. I cannot blame him. And this is low season. I shudder to think of the plight of these animals when it is high season.
Some time in the afternoon we stopped further afield for a picnic lunch. Ah, the joy of being allowed out of the vehicle to stretch our legs! A lone acacia tree on a small hillock offered scant shade as we wolfed down sandwiches and bit into mangoes. And watched the haze of heat shimmer in the distance. There were no signs of life – animals or human that we could see. Now and then drifting on the breeze were what sounded like fog horns on ships. Asked about them, Steve said that they were hippos trumpeting. We would be going by the hippo pool next. And we did. The muddy water ran along the riverbed churning up silt and flotsam. At first glance the surface looked unbroken but as we watched we saw first one snout and then another lift above it. From time to time they would surface, breathe gustily and dive back in with a splash. Blistering rays, scorching heat and the sun-baked ground – I can well understand their need to remain submerged. Not so the crocodiles though. Around the curve of the river, on the opposite bank lay a couple of crocodiles. Lying motionless, they looked more like logs or dead tree branches but every so often you could see a tail twitch. A lizard lay sunning itself on a rocky ledge nearby, its head up, watching. Its colouring was jewel bright, from the deep red head to the indigo blue of its tail-tip. Nature’s palette never fails to astonish me. Curiosity had brought us closer to the edge of the bank than was deemed reasonable by one impressive hippo. He was out of the water in a flash and splashing toward the shallows trumpeting loudly. The Kodak moment was well lost in our scramble to get up higher on the bank.
It was growing dark by the time we headed back toward the campground. Clouds gathering in the east made it seem darker than usual. Tongues of pink and orange lined the slate gray clouds as the sun dipped down toward the hills. But the surprises in store for us were not quite over yet. As we jolted our way over the rough tracks we disturbed a family of warthogs in their foraging. Startled, they raced off into the bush, trotting with their little stump of a tail stuck straight up into the air like an antennae. Ugly as they are, they looked comical. Further on was a pair of ostriches by the side of the track. Bigger than I remember from pictures or the zoo, their colouring took me by surprise. Black feathers tipped with white and a brilliant red long scrawny neck topped by an absurdly small head sat on long strong legs. Fluffing their wings, they craned their heads around. Looking down disdainfully down those long necks, they stalked off. They did not seem to be flustered; merely irritated at being disturbed. Rain was beginning to spatter as the sun went down. A dark shape darted across the road. The light from the headlamps were reflected in the eyes of the animal. But we did not need that to recognize the sloping shoulders and strange loping gait of a hyena. It was gone in a flash, almost before we knew it was there. We did not know it then but we were going to go to sleep that night listening to the long howls of a hyena pack close to our campground.
As the disc of the sun slipped down behind the hills, an acacia tree stood silhouetted in the fiery orange sky. In the foreground were waving stalks of elephant grass.
Moran: A warrior. Boys when they are twelve or thirteen go through an elaborate ritual to become morans. They spend the years until late twenties serving as warriors, protecting their villages until they can marry and have a family. Each age group carries with them strict rules and laws by which they must live.
Panga: A twelve inch double bladed knife usually carried in aleather scabbard attached to the belt.
Kanga: A thin printed cotton cloth, usually with a swahili proverb printed on it. Kangas are sold in pairs; one to wrap around your waist and one to carry the baby on your back.
Maa: The language of the Maasai. They share this language with their cousins, the Samburu, who live in northern Kenya.