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Meeting Kenya’s lions

The Masai Mara National Game Reserve is situated 270 kilometers west of Nairobi, a distance you can cover by either jeep or plane. The Masai, a nomadic pastoral tribe indigenous to East Africa, have inhabited the plains of southwestern Kenya and northern Tanzania since 1500 A.D. During the colonial period, thousands of Masai people were pushed off their ancestral lands for the expansion of cities and railways, and resorted to extreme poaching (in collusion with white hunters) when their traditional means of subsistence (i.e., cattle-rearing) was denied to them.

The Masai Mara game reserve was inaugurated in 1961 to protect the animals in the deserted and wild country in which wildlife had become increasingly sparse by this indiscriminate poaching. The protection of this area favored re-population of the territory by the Masai, who were then incorporated into the economic picture and put in charge of the reserve’s management. Though land conflicts are still about, the chosen formula for preserving this natural space attempts to render some reward to the Masai by means of trade with tourists, both through campsite management, handicraft selling and visits to villages. All of it provides a permanent income source, albeit scarce and fluctuating, for this people who fight for preserving their traditions against progress.

We rented a jeep from the “Discover Kenya” safari agency to take us from Nairobi to Masai Mara, a large white 8-seater with a convertible roof and absolutely no shocks whatsoever (we discovered this later, of course!) Our driver was very tall, very lean, had close-cropped curly hair, yellow cheetah-eyes, and might’ve been a Zulu warrior if it weren’t for his ordinary pants-n-shirt ensemble, the fact that his name was David, and that he drove a Toyota Hi-Ace.  Another unlearning experience, by the way – the majority of Kenyans do not practice voodoo or any other primitive religion. I remember one of my friends asking me very excitedly to get him some “crazy voodoo beads” from Kenya. I was curious myself about the kind of beliefs they practiced, and wanted to learn all about their ancient myths and gods and goddesses (avid religions-person that I am). But it came as a short surprise when our Nairobi driver Agre looked positively offended when we innocuously asked him what religion he practiced – “I’m a Protestant, of course!” (in fact, he was a part-time priest, and delivered sermons at a local church on Sundays!) – forgetting that, when the British came, they not only brought a system of government, but a religion. “Before the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.”  66% of Kenya’s 32 million people are therefore Christian, around 20% Muslim (the Muslims were actually here much before the British, merchants from Arabia and the Middle-East in the 8th century, but they kept mostly to the coast, and were more interested in trade than proselytizing – more about that later when we go to Mombasa) and the rest followers of ancestral tribal beliefs, as well as some Hindus and Buddhists.

David, however, was more forthcoming when it came to talking about his people’s past, and we learnt many interesting things from him on the 5-hour journey to Masai Mara.

This is one journey I shall never forget! For one, we passed through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen – rolling pastures, woodsy valleys, sweeping plateaus, every bit of land so delightfully green it wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, it was a banquet, a 12-course meal, amply seasoned with zebras, gazelles, baboons, and even a pair of giraffes and ostriches thrown in for pudding (which we were rather lucky to see, according to David, considering we hadn’t even reached the actual game reserve yet!) You see, zebras and gazelles roam around as freely in the Kenyan countryside as cows and goats do in Pakistan. It was most fascinating. We saw our share of Kenyan cows and goats too (which are rather different looking from our kind), shepherded by skinny-legged red-swathed kids who’d wave at us rather violently with the toothiest of grins each time we passed. These were Masai children, David told us, recognizable by their distinct red clothing, and we saw many of them on the way. The Masai wear only a single sheet of hand-woven woolen red cloth wrapped like an ehraam (the dress Muslim men wear for pilgrimage) around their bodies – be it rain or storm, sun or snow, they wear nothing else. We fascinatedly stared at their bare arms and legs teasing the wind as if it were high summer. How wonderful the human body is, really, how terrifically adaptable! It reminded me of that Creation story, one of my absolute favorites, about when God sent the angel Azrael down to earth to collect soil to make man’s body with. Azrael scooped up handfuls of soil from all four corners of the earth, some red, some white, some black, some yellow, and out of these different colors were born the four races of man, each race perfectly suited and acclimatized to the land it had sprung from. And traveling through that wide, beautiful country, through its bustling towns and villages, its farms, it wildernesses, past the unmistakably African acacia trees, the laughing, shiny-faced people, I felt no longer like a foreigner. I wasn’t really a foreigner – for beyond race, beyond the shade of our skins and the mould of our features, we were all just children of one man and one woman. They were neither black, nor white, nor red, nor yellow – they were, simply, human.

And so were we.

The second reason why I shall never forget that 5-hour journey to Masai Mara, is because I realized, on that journey, how many bones there actually were in my body.

It sounds strange, but trust me, you would discover the same thing if you’d been put in a box and thrown down a mountain. A rocky mountain. Don’t think I’m complaining, though, about the roads – the roads were, of course, rather, rather, rather bad – or about the van – it was, of course, rather, rather bumpy. It was the most fitting way to start a safari, I’d say – but 5 hours of nonstop bouncing can rattle up your insides quite a bit, and turn you a more than a bit mad. It was the craziest, funniest madness ever. David tried ignoring our yelps and shrieks of tearful laughter, but I swear I saw him chuckle more than once in the rearview mirror. It was, altogether, a thoroughly insane trip, and we reached the Mara Simba lodge (where we were staying) thoroughly battered and blue, but giddy with excitement. And, as we were soon about to discover, every second of the trip was worth it.

The Mara Simba lodge is a pretty, misty, quiet woody place nestled deep in jungle brush on the banks of the Talek River. Mobile phones don’t work here, and the lodge landline is usually out of order. It was like being time-warped into another dimension, an unknown parallel world – a world where we became different people, new people, our minds cleared of past memories, knowing that here, we were truly away, unreachable, untraceable, undiscoverable – free. It was a strange, liberating experience, forgetting who you were and just being. It stirred my soul, made me glow, made me grow, and I felt there wasn’t a happier, serener person than me in the world that day.

We checked into our (simple but lovely) rooms, had some lunch on the lovely patio-restaurant, witnessed a mongoose family-quarrel under the terrace, saw two monster crocodiles sunbathing on the shore of the river, and then, we were ready to go.

David was waiting for us outside, with the homely old white van transformed into an intrepid top-open safari jeep. We all were suddenly rather grave – this was it, this was the moment, this was the reason why people from all times and ages came to Africa, this was why we had come to Africa, what we had dreamed about doing. And here we were! I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Every part of me was trembling with excitement – what would I see? What would I find? What would I feel? Would I be disappointed, or would it be something beyond my wildest expectations? And as David revved up the jeep and we slowly climbed onto the track heading to the simple wood-posted entrance of the Masai Mara game reserve, I knew already that I was in for the experience of a lifetime.

From the moment I started writing this article, I’ve been wondering (and fearing) how I was to write about this part. Some things are just inexpressible. You may go crazy taking photographs and videos, but when they come out and you see them back at home sitting in your living room, you realize that they are utterly soulless. Only in imagination can you recreate the vision that really was, that you saw, and then maybe you can try putting in into words – you may or may not be successful, but you still try. And that is what I’m going to do.

The wind rips past your face, screaming in your ears, your hair flapping madly behind you, your cheeks white with cold – and all of a sudden there unfurls above you a picture; a canvass so wide it fills every corner of your vision, overwhelming you and absorbing you in its depth, it its sheer vastness. And at that moment, you feel there is nothing and no one in the world between you and your God, but that great, rolling, timeless blue sky.

I cannot even begin to describe that sky to you. It took my breath away. You remember I talked about soul-temples in the beginning of this article – that sky, that sky I beheld at Masai Mara in Kenya, that sky was my temple. You cannot appreciate sky living in a city, or in a forest, or even in the mountains. But there, aboard that rattling jeep in the middle of the wild gold African savannah, there, I understood. I understood why the steppe peoples of Central Asia worshipped Tengri, and the Native Americans of North America worshipped Manitou – how could you not venerate, how could you not adore something so awesome, so pristine, so ineffably beautiful?  It looked like God had just re-painted the roof of the earth with the freshest, purest of colors, and if you reached out a bit in front you could actually grab a tuft of cloud in your hands, or brush against the sky with your fingertips.

That sky was something that could make believers out of atheists.

I could write a book just describing that sky, and the feelings it evoked in me, but don’t worry, I’m not going to do that here!  We did of course see other things on the safari, many other things. David had warned us not to expect to see anything, however, apart from droves of gazelles and zebras (which was a bit disconcerting) – he said that since the animals wandered about the savannah completely at will, sometimes in Masai Mara, sometimes crossing over to the Serengeti National Park in neighboring Tanzania, it was near impossible to predict where any of the animals would be at any particular time. But the Sky gave us hope, and at least I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
We romped about in the jeep for an hour, zigzagging through ubiquitous dirt tracks and drinking in some spectacular scenery. How David knew where to take us in that limitless unmarked expanse of savannah is beyond me – but soon enough the gazelles appeared, Thomson’s and Grant’s, grazing prettily on the sides, skipping along in front of us, occasionally casting curious glances in our direction with their wide dark eyes. There were antelope too, great grand curvy-horned bucks, and innocent-looking impalas, and then wildebeest, with their unmistakable shaggy gray beards, and this other unimpressive bovine creature called topi. We saw them, sometimes lounging around in intimate little groups, sometimes in enormous herds, all swishing their tails, twitching their ears, and ruminating over supper, quite oblivious of our presence. Sometimes they’d be seen hanging out with funny looking birds too, crowned cranes, Marabou storks and blue quails, and sometimes we’d catch them in rather embarrassing positions.

Soon the zebras also showed up, but they were never seen by themselves, or even in pairs. Zebras are fully aware of their own desirableness in the eyes of a lion, and sticking together in big bunches is the only defense mechanism they have to save themselves from becoming cat food. So when a lion sees a flock of zebra, he actually just sees an indistinct muddle of stripes, and while that can even confuse us at times, it is positively bewildering for the lion, who is also color-blind. But if you happen to be an individualistic, itinerant kind of zebra, it’s not likely you’ll even last the day.

While David was telling us all these things, I was thinking how exciting it would be to actually see a lion making a kill. Not that we’d seen any lions yet. In fact, there was no sign of them anywhere. The zebras and all the other creatures were in quite a placid mood – there seemed to be no cause for alarm in the near future. David observed this, and after pondering a moment, abruptly swerved the jeep onto another track heading in the opposite direction. “This way,” he intoned under his breath, and we silently wondered where he was taking us.

I don’t know where we were, but for the first time since the beginning of the safari, we saw a sign of other human beings – a speck of white parked about thirty miles ahead, with ant-sized heads popping out from on top, looking with great interest at something in the grass. We made our way there. And as we approached the other jeep, we saw with our own eyes what it was that those people were gaping at.


Six lions.

Lolling about in the grass, barely a 100 yards away from us.
Ripping the flesh off what looked like a wildebeest carcass.
It was unbelievable. Nobody spoke anything – nobody even breathed. All you could hear was the sound of wind rustling through the grass, and the grunts and chomps of the lions as they devoured the wildebeest.

I was transfixed. It was possibly the most thrilling moment of my life. I was tingling. They were beautiful. They were terrifying, merciless, wild. I was hypnotized by them, watching them gnaw hungrily at the mangled carcass, their mouths crimson with blood. It was a fresh kill – the lionesses had pounced upon this wildebeest perhaps only minutes before our arrival. There were three lionesses, two cubs, and one male, a young maneless who was dominating the meal. He was a budding chauvinist, grabbing the meatiest morsels and snarling nastily at any one who tried to sneak a better bite. It was macabre, and gruesome, and fascinating. Fear had completely vanished from my mind, for fear is of the future, and at that moment there was no future – just the present, raw, throbbing, feral.

We had seen the first of the African Big Five.

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