We are flying in a four-seater propeller plane, headed to our first of the five game parks we will visit, Amboseli. I sit up front beside the pilot, sporting a goofy, Sky King remembering grin. Dr. M sits behind us, noticeably less enthusiastic.
(There are two kinds of people – those who feel more comfortable with someone else flying the plane, and those who feel more comfortable flying the plane themselves. “Flying the plane” being a generalized euphemism for being in control. I hail from the former of those two categories of people; Dr. M, from the latter.)
As we begin our descent, our pilot picks up the microphone of his two-way radio, and he mumbles a few “call letters” and some other stuff I can’t make out and probably wouldn’t understand if I could. I do not hear a return response.
A few minutes later, the pilot tries again. Again, no response from the “tower.” His third effort is also met with eerie silence. Succeeding efforts draw a similar response.
I am now starting to worry. I imagine landing at the airport, and discovering a bloodbath. On the first day of our photographic safari. I further imagine the assailants, hearing word of our imminent arrival, patiently waiting to pick the wealthy travelers’ pockets. After… we are gone.
What else could it mean if the “tower” wasn’t responding? My nerves were already fraye, because my little run-in at the airport. (See: We Once Went To Africa – Part Two.) Plus, virtually every article in the Nairobi paper, I noticed, included brutal, hyper-aggressive-type verbs, as if the local inhabitants took such behavior in stride. People were always “pouncing” in these articles. Businessmen had the competition “by the throat.”
When we finally landed on a tiny landing strip, there was nobody there. More specifically, there was nothing, other than a small landing strip, there. No airport. No “tower” to alert of our arrival.
What was our pilot doing with his repeated announcements, I inquired? He was alerting nearby airplanes of our position.
I might have been a little jumpy.
Soon, however, the more reasonable portion of my brain took charge. If people had been brutally massacred during photographic safaris, surely the word would have gotten around, and tourists would have stopped going on photographic safaris. To my knowledge, no such misadventures had taken place. (If they had, the Nairobi would have licked its chops covering the “carnage.”)
My paranoia subsided. It was time to settle down. And look at the animals.
Which is what we did, during our twice-daily, two-hour excursions around the game parks. Our guide-driver, Patrick, shuttled us around in a white, Volkswagen minivan, whose roof was specially hinged, so we could stand up inside, and photograph the animals. (Rather than getting out of the minivan, and being eaten.)
The two expeditions took place early in the morning, and around sundown, both animal “feeding times.” Sometimes, the call came out, “Another group just found lions eating a gazelle. Let’s move!” And people would interrupt their breakfasts, and race out to shoot a pride of lions with blood on their faces, eviscerating their prey.
(I never quite “got” the “Circle of Life” concept, so loftily venerated in The Lion King. As far as I can tell, the “Circle of Life” is just animals eating other animals. I know the story. The hyenas take charge, and mess everything up. But what exactly did they do? Eat the animals out of order?)
Dr. M and I specifically skipped the blood banquets. But we never missed our two-a-day opportunities to head out, and meet the animals where they lived. I am not a huge fan of house pets. But experiencing animals, free and flourishing in their natural habitats? There’s something exhilarating about that. That’s what we came to see.
And that’s what we saw. Confident-looking lions, elegant giraffes, zebras (both white zebras with black stripes and black zebras with white stripes. Really.) Lumbering rhinos, hungry hippos, loping herds of antelopes, wildebeests and gazelles, and, my hands-down favorites:
To locate the elephants, we picked up a special “elephant finding” guide. The elderly gentleman – I’ll bet he was around when there was hunting – displayed the traditional low-hanging earlobes – they hung, like a foot down, the result of ear-piercing, and then stretching them with weighted stones. Every once in a while, the guide directed Patrick to stop. He then stepped out of the minivan, and inspected the “signs”, which generally meant elephant poop.
Shortly thereafter, as if on cue, a dozen or more ponderous elephants emerged from the underbrush, and to our excitement, and a little bit, our terror, they surrounded our suddenly flimsy-feeling minivan, as we stood up, and shot dozens of pictures. Photographically, they were almost too close. We had to use our shortest-distance lens to capture them in their enormous entirety.
We also encountered less familiar wildlife. Flocks of exotic birds, such as the highly colorful Superb Starling, which is apparently ubiquitous, because its picture graces a Kenyan stamp. We also saw dik-diks (dwarf antelopes), gerinuks (slender antelopes who eat the high foliage by standing on their hind legs and stretching upward with their giraffe-like necks), dung beetles (beetles rolling balls of dung around that were considerably bigger than the beetles themselves), and the Rock Hyrax (which resembles a guinea pig, but is not quite as attractive.)
The only animal we missed was the cheetah/slash/leopard. This incompletion upset me. But I was only being greedy.
The game park lodges we stayed in were invariably First Class. Our meals featured elegantly prepared entrees, with those cream-filled swan pastries that you regularly find at weddings, for dessert.
So this won’t get too long, I will mention visiting only two, diametrically contrasting locales. One of them was the Mount Kenya Safari Club – where peacocks strolled freely in the garden – where we were given the “Vice President’s Suite”, whose giant picture window gave us a magnificent view of the towering Mount Kilimanjaro.
Once, during “Cocktail Hour”, I found myself, seated under a large, mounted elephant head, enjoying brandy and a cigar, wondering, “How did I get here?” and should I really be feeling such giddy excitement, surrounded by a room filled of taxidermied trophies.
On the other side of the coin, we arranged a visit to a Masai village. When we arrived, we found flies everywhere, though the locals themselves seemed entirely untroubled by their landing on their faces.
When we entered the village, I immediately felt my hiking boot stepping into something squishy, which, I looked down, and discovered was cow dung.
“I just stepped in cow shit,” I announced. Then, I surveying the building material of the huts of the village, adding, “This whole place is cow shit.” And so it was.
After hosting a guided tour, the village chief permitted us to take his picture. That’s when I noticed something strange. As I centered him in my viewfinder, I suddenly recognized who he was. This was the same fellow whose picture my friend Jim Burrows had taken when he’d visited Kenya the year before.
Apparently, this was a “show village.” They brought all the tourists there. Now, instead of feeling like white folk exploiting the indigenous population, it seemed more accurate to view the exploitation as mutual.
We got out of the place as soon as we could, many of the flies finding asylum in our minivan as we headed away.
It is, of course, impossible to convey the uniqueness of this once-in-a-lifetime experience in a single posting. (We used up forty roles of film.) But, hopefully, this was a satisfying taste.
Wrapping things up. Tomorrow: Two stories about monkeys, a cultural insight, and an epilogue.