Years ago I saw the movie Born Free based on the true story of Joy and George Adamson. The couple “adopted” an orphaned lion cub, named her Elsa, raised her lovingly, and when she was an adult released back into the wilderness of Kenya. A year after disappearing, the lioness sauntered out of the bush, recognized Joy and literally embraced her.
|Elsa the Lioness embracing Joy upon their reunion|
Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would have the chance to see Elsa’s kindred basking in the most glorious of nature’s locale the Masai (or Maasai) Mara, Kenya’s globally famous game reserve.
Driving from Nairobi the capital we, foreign tourists from a number of tour agencies lumped together in one coaster, arrived in Masai Mara early afternoon to what looked like a welcoming group of Maasai women on one side and men on the other. The men were lean, tall and valiant in stature. The ladies, bare-shouldered and brightly frocked, profusely adorned with bracelets, doughnut-like necklaces, anklets, knee-lets, arm-lets, made of stone and glass beads in a prism of effusive primary and earth colors - it was a great photo op. The ladies walked right to our van’s windows. Your immediate reflex is to pull out your camera and click. Then BANG. The ladies pounded on the glass, and angrily demanded money with a scary scowl. Lesson: don’t take pictures or videos until you get permission and made the terms clear, paying or not, through the tour guide. Why did the tour guide not warn us?
Shortly after passing through the gate, we were treated to a sight of hundreds of gazelles. Then the excitement built up to a crescendo – a family of giraffes, harems of zebras and too many to count wildebeests, water buffaloes and antelopes. Relatively virgin, and abundant with kingdom animalia, the savanna was a changing canvas of life moving on a golden carpet of grass spotted with acacia trees.
We hit the jackpot the first day of the safari: Simba – Swahili for lion. Underneath a thorn tree, his female and cubs sleeping beside him, the male with a distinguish reddish mane turned his head upward and gave a head-swallowing yawn. Soon several dusty vans with open top just like ours, filled with humans, encircled the pride. A whir of cameras zooming in, and non-stop clicking crackled the East African air.
That night, we settled in our camp inside a fenced-in compound. Geared for a hundred, we were the only three guests – a young Danish couple and me. The night sky was like a giant planetarium studded with stars. Awakened several times by the heart-rending, near death like loud cries of a hyrax, I peed outside my tent on grass, too scared to walk to the pit house.
|Hyrax - surprisingly dimunitive for its ear-splitting yowl|
Our dark grey canvas tents were not exactly like the ones pictured in Travel and Holiday magazine. A two-inch thick yellowish foam on a camping cot, and clothes clumped into a makeshift pillow, I was snug. After all, for US $55.00 a day everything inclusive (palatable food like rice and eggs, game drives, sleeping quarters), I did not expect the Ritz. You can pop in the downtown offices of Nairobi’s several tour operators who are competing for the backpacker dollars. This means you can get good backpacker safari deals - at least a quarter of what you have to pay online or with travel agencies back in North America. The only difference with the ones that cater for the moneyed: luxury of accommodation, and china versus plastic plates. Once there in the game reserve, it really does not matter.
Next day started early - the hunt for a sight of the "Big Five": lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and Black Rhinoceros. Our chase was not solitary. With their ham radios, we overheard drivers of other tour vans chatter of a cheetah there, a leopard near a ridge, or hippos on the river. Then off we go.
July was migration season. Thousands of wildebeests (actually an antelope) were doing their annual trek to where the water was. Spectacular! It was like “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so. … And God saw that it was good.”
Our expert guide/driver, Joseph, drove us farther towards the Tanzania border, the Serengeti. The Kenyan part of the Serengeti is known as Masai Mara. We encountered packs of olive baboons, hippos and crocodiles sunbathing in the river, zebras, giraffes, elephants, secretaries (a big bird), and those pint-size warthogs. They look like piglets with tusks. “Warthogs are yummy”, I was told by an Aussie I met in a souvenir shop within the park. She had it in a restaurant in Malawi.
Farther out in the plains, safely away from any beastly encounters, we stopped and stepped down on the ground for lunch. Garbed in my “Out of Africa” outfit: khaki shorts, khaki shirt, khaki hat – the rest were white - from Marshall’s; US$15.00 mountain hiking boots from Payless (why pay more?); and $8.00 binoculars from Walgreens, I felt like Ernest Hemingway or Robert Redford, famous people who were in an African Safari. Using the tailgate of the van as table, lunch was grubby slices of what tasted like South African biltong dried beef - Kenyan style, plums, bananas and bottled water.
|Ernest Hemingway in the Serengeti in 1933|
The highlights of the day were a sighting of a cheetah on the prowl, and a large pride of lions, around ten. The gait of the cheetah was that of a supremely confident being. As the lions passed within yards of wildebeests, you would expect the bull-like animals to run scared. You can tell the wildebeests were tense alright but several of them just stood and stared curiously at the disinterested wildcats. The lions probably were tired of devouring an unlimited supply of wildebeests.
The next two days: thousands of antelopes: topis, impalas, hartebeest, and the big cow-sized elands. Hmm, I wondered how do they taste? Very tall ostriches around seven foot high walked funny like someone in drag traipsing on hot coals.
As our four-wheeler maneuvered, surprisingly with ease, through the broad sweeping grasslands (there are no roads), I wondered why Africa was dubbed the Dark Continent. Entirely the opposite. The landscape saturated with bright splendor is earth at its most pure.
Visiting a village walled in by thorned acacia sticks, we were allowed to enter some of the mud-thatched 3 x 5 meter homes. Bare and dirt floor, the villagers slept on hammocks.
We had more company in the camp our last night. An American working in Nigeria who was a graduate of Harvard, two veterinarians from Australia who have been traveling for the past four months in southern Africa, a foursome from New Zealand playing cards and keeping to themselves, and a biracial couple in possession of a foot-long zoom lens.
Upon returning to Nairobi, my friends, working for the many international aid agencies in the city, took me for dinner at Carnivore – a restaurant that serves a buffet (eat all you can) wild game - US$ 40 a head, children half-price. Grilled crocodile was succulent and flavorful. The zebra – naah - bland. The wildebeest, eland and water buffalo were akin to very lean beef. The ostrich had the texture and taste of an old chicken. No giraffe and warthog for tonight. Now I know what lions relished after their kill. As for the animal lovers out there, don’t be alarmed, these game served were farm-raised and the government has now banned exotic meats in the menu with the exception of crocodile and ostrich.
|The iconic cylindrical national government building in Nairobi.|
No zoo can ever substitute for the experience of the wild not even San Diego Zoo's Safari Park or Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I will not be eager to go to a zoo again.
Thank God for those drugstore insect repellants. Fourteen days after I got back in San Francisco California, I knew I escaped malaria. For $3.00 a canister, I saved on those expensive $50 a shot pill and the side effects.