Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Nicholas laughed at my jokes a lot. And he had a way of half-covering his face with his hands when he did so. He had closely cropped hair like that of Obama, whose official portrait was everywhere in Nairobi as stock image for shops offering passport photo service. And when he turned his head to show his profile, I thought the shape of his skull rather resembled Barack’s as well. He had his own travel agency, of which he constituted its entirety.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We were talking about Masai Mara, the nature reserve in southwestern Kenya that formed the Kenyan portion of the Serengeti, arguably Kenya’s top attraction.
On the appointed morning, a van came to pick me up from my hotel. I was the first passenger he was picking up, explained my driver and guide, Isaac, who had a way of holding on too long so that it became awkward when shaking your hand. We picked up Erica and Daniel, a honeymooning Spanish couple from Andalusia. The others, Isaac said, would meet us out of town.
It was a six-hour drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara. But first we stopped at a vantage point to view the Great Rift Valley, a geographical feature stretching from Lebanon through East Africa to Mozambique. Shortly thereafter we picked up the remainder of our party: Christa and Heather from Austin, Texas; Sheila from Kenya who worked on aid projects with the Americans and was traveling with them and wore a USA cap and an “I Heart NY” t-shirt; and another Kenya, Gladys, a nurse.
Past the town of Narok, where we shared lunch, paved roads disappeared. Another couple of hours and we found ourselves in the outskirts of Masai Mara. The visitor to the reserve had three options as to accommodations: hotel, lodge, or camp. Except Gladys, we’d all opted for camping. So now we touched down at Lenchada Camp, one of many. I had wondered about the definition of “camping” and out of an abundance of caution brought my own soap, towel, and toilet paper. As it turned out, “camping” here meant sleeping on a proper bed inside a large tent set up against a brick-and-mortar bathroom with running water and flush toilet. With electricity available morning and evening, it was all surprisingly civilized.
Almost as soon as we’d dropped off our luggage, Isaac hustled us back onto the van. He opened the top so that it turned into a safari vehicle. And we headed into the park for an evening “game drive.”
Almost as soon as we drove past the park gates, we found a handful of lionesses lying lazily under a bush. On a safari one naturally expects to find big ticket animals such as lions only with some effort. But not in the Mara. “Look here,” Christa said ostensibly to the lionesses, “it’s dinner. We have dark meat and light meat!” She began singing songs from The Lion King, pausing to explain that she had three children. In fact over the next two and half days, every time we drove past warthogs, she sang Pumbaa’s song: “When I was a young warthog...”
A bit farther on we came upon one of the more uncanny sights I have ever seen: the half-rotten corpse of a dead giraffe. And I mean that half of it had rotted, but half of it seemed almost untouched by death and decay. It was in a kneeling position. The upper half of its long neck and the head and face had all but disappeared, perhaps picked apart by vultures, leaving behind a black shell. But the bottom half of the neck and the torso remained intact, with its beautiful spotted coat almost still shiny. Especially in contrast to the natural magical grace in the movements of living giraffes, the still lifelessness of this animal made me forget to breathe.
We returned to camp as the sun was setting. Wind blew coldly through my tent at night, but I slept undisturbed. Baboons often scampered through the camp looking for food and might invade any tent not carefully zipped up, so the camp kept a dog to chase the baboons away. But in the night they didn’t bother me. In the morning, though, I woke up to see a mother baboon with a baby clinging to her belly saunter through like this were her backyard. And Christa, Heather, and Sheila said they had heard lions growling in the night outside their tent, keeping them up in fear. Isaac said it was highly unlikely, but later some of the Masai tribesman who worked at the camp confirmed that indeed an unusual lion incursion had occurred while I dreamed.
We spent that entire day in the park. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras, giraffes, elands, jackals, hyenas, meerkats, not to mention gazelles and wildebeests and warthogs, dutifully presented themselves. And in the middle of the savanna we found a lone rhino standing there all moody and brooding and dramatic, a Kit Harrington-type. His horn had a broken tip, which added to the tragic look.
By now we were already getting jaded. Hardly anyone bothered to take pictures of wildebeests and gazelles anymore, and even lions and cheetahs had grown familiar. But then the promise of a leopard hiding the bushes — so the driver of another vehicle told Isaac over the radio — made us perk up. It appeared to have hidden itself really well, though, and I certainly couldn’t make it out through the underbrush.
But the object of the day’s drive across the park was the Mara River toward the western end of it. Here, the famous annual wildebeest migration reaches a climax as the wildebeests, thousands at a time, make the perilous crossing.
When we got there a sign amidst wildebeest skulls warned us not to go beyond that point without a ranger. Isaac pointed us to one, a man in fatigues and carrying an AK-47 like a soldier. He said his name was Ben. And before he led us on a walk along the riverbank, he gave a little talk about how “the animals are not tied up,” meaning that at any moment a cheetah might jump out from behind a tree or a crocodile might emerge out of the river. Hence the AK. Indeed we saw several crocodiles bobbing in the water. They are but one hazard to the migrating wildebeests, however, as the piles of bones on the shore attested. Sometimes they simply trample each other to death as they charge across the river, blindly following the lead animal. Discovering that there was now a bridge spanning the river for the sake of us humans, I asked Ben whether any wildebeests had yet figured out that they could use the bridge and avoid the crocs. Ben shook his head with a wan but amused smile.
But we would not see a crossing, which happened when they happened. Across the river, Ben pointed out, stood an oversized tent. “National Geographic,” he said. “They wait for days to capture the crossing. You’re only here for twenty minutes.”
Also in the river, confident in the face of crocs, were herds of hippos.
By the next morning we were jaded enough, and tired enough, that Christa and Heather asked whether we could take the morning off. But no, the safari would not be stopped. We had one more game drive left before we were to head back to Nairobi. And as though to counteract our jadedness, a party of lionesses promptly appeared with three cubs vying for their mother’s attention. Deadly predators they were growing up to be, but nonetheless one wished to pick up one of the cubs in all their furry glory and just love it to death.
By nine we were on our way back to Nairobi. The road didn’t feel so bumpy this time, but most likely we’d simply gotten used to the bumpiness, just as we were getting used to the animals.
Yes, one gets used to even the Masai Mara, the Serengeti, to the sight of lions and cheetahs stalking zebras on the savannah. Even magic and majesty can grow quotidian given enough time. And that says something important about the truth of human experience and the meaning of a good life. But whether we grow indifferent to it or not, magic remains magic, and majesty, majesty.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."