My first interactions with a place are most often through the books I read. For Africa, it has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, J.M. Coetzee’s very disturbing ‘Disgrace’, Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s ‘Out of Africa’ (plus the movie with Meryl Streep), a whole semester studying ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ by Alan Paton and others that I cannot recall the names of. There was also my phase of reading biographies, a lot of which played out in Africa – Gandhi’s first few experiments at Satyagraha, Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid and the Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s chase through Northern Africa that earned him the nickname ‘Desert Fox’. Through these books, I found Africa completely unique, deeply troubled and vibrant; making it quite familiar to home.
In January, I visited Kenya on work. From Nairobi, I took a flight to Maasai Mara for the weekend, on a tiny airplane that wasn’t as frighteningly claustrophobic or rickety as I imagined. After 45 minutes, we landed on a beautiful airstrip in the middle of the mara, full of zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, antelopes and other grazing animals. I could hardly contain my excitement, as I deplaned, all around me, for miles was the savannah spotted with beautiful animals that were wild and free. I had never witnessed something as spectacular before.
On the short drive from the airstrip to our campsite, our driver stopped unexpectedly and pointed us to a pride of lions lazing in the shade. I was still getting over my excitement from seeing the herbivores, on spotting the lions, I was so overwhelmed I could hardly speak.
After combing through many options, I booked a tent at the Governor’s Camp, which as the name suggest once hosted colonial British governors. It was a bit expensive but totally worth it. The Governor’s campsite is the only one situated along the Masai river, giving us an excellent view of the wildlife the river attracts. While I was being escorted to my river facing room, the guard pointed to a large crocodile almost camouflaged in the muck, later from my tent I spotted a pink hippo basking in the afternoon sun. We were warned that at night, we would need to zip up our tents and stay inside as the hippos climb the cliff and walk through the campsite grazing on fresh grass.
On my first drive, our guide began by showing us, what he called ‘Lion food’ – wildebeests, zebras, gazelles and warthogs. Gradually, he took us to the larger, more dangerous animals – another pack of lions and then the majestic elephants. Large, serene and solemn, I felt like bowing down to them the same way Mowgli, from The Jungle Book did. It was mesmerizing to see elephants in the wild, no chains, no saddhus, no saffron on their foreheads and no tourists clicking selfies with them. I ended the day, seeing 2 animals from the Big Five, which consist of the lion, two-horned rhino, African elephant, buffalo and leopard.
I woke up at 4am for a balloon safari that everyone kept telling me was a must do. Having been on the drives in the open air jeep, experiencing wildlife at close quarters, the balloon felt distant and dull. Catching the sunrise on the mara was the highlight of the balloon ride, but for the amount it cost, I would not recommend it to others. Later that day, we spotted rhinos close to the Tanzanian border. The endangered two-horned rhinos enjoy their solitude and looked ferociously at us. It was the first time I felt unprotected in the jeep that was only a few meters away from them.
Three of the Big Five were already ticked off my list, I was getting optimistic about spotting all five, an experience that is quite rare. We soon caught up with the buffalo herd. They were larger than the ones we see in village ponds in India but nothing to really go gaga about. Four of the Five covered, with only the leopard evading me.
My guide after lunch, was a Masai named Duncan. He loved the mara and was keen to learn everything he could about nature and animals. He explained to us how different animals work as a team to protect each other, some have good hearing, some have great eyesight and some can smell trouble. Each uses his power to warn or signal the others, what Duncan called ‘Help Me to Help You’.
Duncan promised us a treat and so we drove off towards the east, over the small hills, through calmer meadows, passing shepherds with their sheep. I caught my breath as we approached a bushy area, before us was a beautiful cheetah and three cubs. I left for Nairobi the next morning, without catching sight of the leopard, despite hours of looking for one. I was a bit disappointed but Duncan cheered me up by telling me, it was just a sign from the mara that I would have to return.
Busy with work, I didn’t see much of Nairobi but I loved driving through its steep hilly roads, spotting flamboyant matatus or minivan taxis. I left Kenya, hungover from the excitement of the safaris and floored by its warm, smiling people. Duncan was right, I am definitely going back!