Imagine looking into the noble eyes of a male lion or learn the agile dances of ochre-smeared Maasai warriors, basking in the brilliance of the greatest bird show on Earth.
Nothing prepares you for the African nights.
At dusk the wind dies, as whining cicadas and hidden night birds trill the first notes. A jackal wails. Other voices join in: yelps, hoots, a strangled cry. A hyena’s eerie cackle explodes into deranged shrieks in the darkness beyond camp. Shuddering, you edge closer to the campfire.
Then suddenly, rumbling, primal, a deep-throated roar so close your skin tingles and you hold your breath, hoping it’s not as near as it sounds. There is no mistaking this one- it’s a Lion!
This is why I love Africa: to get close to the wildlife, and to live for a time under African skies. Lured by the tales of Hemmingway and Conrad, I am on safari in Kenya.
Masai Mara Game Reserve
After dropping into the Rift Valley we stop for lunch in a grove of cactus-like trees that shelter a colony of weaver birds. As we rest, my wife suddenly points in the distance. “Masai.” I strain my eyes but see nothing. Then, slowly, they come into focus: three scarlet-clad figures moving toward us.
Twenty minutes later they arrive, tall and muscular, each man armed with a spear, short club, and several long poles. “If the lion breaks one stick, they still have more,” my wife explains. Nomadic, the Masai spend entire lifetimes in lion country. After exchanging a few words with my wife, they stride away and vanish in the shimmering heat.
Driving into the Mara is like entering a pastoral Eden. Herds of wildebeest and zebra dot the rolling hills. Gazelles leap ahead of our van, racing full speed across the savannah. Giraffes drift ghostlike among stands of acacia. Warthog families trot single file through the dried grass, their whip-like tails held straight up.
At first the clicking of camera shutters threatens to drown out the birdsong and the braying of zebras, as one by one, the animals we’ve seen only on television materialize before us. This is National Geographic Africa. We soon learn to pace our picture-taking, knowing we’ll have a week to shoot film.
We stop to watch a cheetah scramble up a tree. Ten feet up, the cat loses his grip and tumbles to the ground. With an aloofness typical of felines everywhere, he nonchalantly shakes off the dust, climbs up the trunk to a high limb, and poses grandly as cameras fire away below.
Each morning we find lion mothers sharing fresh zebra kill with their cubs. The youngsters play like kittens, stalking and attacking each other between feeding sessions. The adult males, bellies swollen with meat, have eaten first, and are usually found resting in the shade.
But even in this landscape of hunter and hunted there is humor. If the lion is king, then the monkeys are the jokers, liberating food from our camp with the stealth of commandos, chasing their mates through treetops, tumbling and teasing and staying half a step ahead of trouble.
At twilight we return to camp and hot dinner. Melodic Swahili conversation among camp staff drifts through the clearing. While we eat, a herd of 25 elephants crosses the ravine below us.
As the fire burns down, the bush comes alive. Grunts and screeches erupt from beyond our ring of light. The thought of spending the night in a tent with only a thin canvas wall separating us from the creatures behind those voices is unnerving, but my wife assures me we will be safe. Still, we huddle close to the glowing coals.
Arriving as afternoon thunderheads build, we drive through the woods north of the lake. Baboons peer from the brush along the road. A shy bushbuck fades into the forest gloom. Hornbills flap overhead.
We leave the trees and park at the dry edge of the lake bed. The distant water appears pink, but a closer look reveals tens of thousands of flamingoes. I recall the scene in the movie Out Of Africa, where Robert Redford and Meryl Streep fly over this same lake as thousands of birds rise in pink clouds.
With an eye to the darkening sky, we grab cameras and hurry across the bleached lake-shore toward the water. The ground turns muddy, so we shuck our shoes and keep going. As the mud underfoot changes into a sucking quagmire of knee-deep muck and flamingo feathers, the first fat raindrops hit. Within minutes a fast moving squall rips across the lake, soaking us.
Driving to a more solid section of shoreline, we sit out the brief downpour, and then walk toward the water as golden light pours across the valley. Black sky gives way to enormous white clouds, and the curtain lifts on an exquisite pink ballet in the shallows. Not a word is spoken, and the only sound is the mutter and honk of thousands of flamingoes.
Samburu Game Reserve
We camp on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River. It’s humid here, dense with peculiar vegetation. Small hills rise like islands from the valley floor. The place is thick with birdlife.
Nighttime, and I write by the glow of lantern light as the forest beyond swells with a chorus of croaks, peeps, and chirps. A bird coos a dreamy note, over and over.
Ground-dwelling cicadas emerge from holes, crackling the steamy air with their shrill buzz. Green moths as big as my hand slap against the glass lantern. Fireflies dance over the river.
At dawn I visit the camp outhouse, but halt at the sight of swarms of bats swirling around the door, slipping silently into the toilet hole. I find an alternate site for my morning ritual.
Over breakfast we compare notes from the previous night. My wife heard limbs snapping as elephants moved through the bush next to camp. I saw green glowworms by our tent. We were humbled by the guttural bellow of nearby lions late into the night.
As I write about this safari, I have come to a conclusion that “Africa may be God’s own continent, but Kenya is His resting place.”