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Meeting Kenya’s lions


Some people would think that a safari isn’t really such a big deal, when you can see all the same animals, and many more, at any good zoo. Now I don’t approve of zoos, or any kind of captivity for wild animals, especially predators. But admittedly, zoos are fun, and comfortable, and convenient, and safe. Not until this trip, however, did I realize how incredible it is to see the animals in their natural habitat.  Their territory, their domain, not behind metal bars and man-made barriers, not controlled and dictated by our rules and requirements, but free, just as they were born, uninhibited. Man becomes insignificant in that world – nothing more than an odd, harmless-looking creature occasionally seen roaming aimlessly about the savannah. Not worth noticing, really (unless a lion happens to be really hungry, or the buffaloes are peeved about something, or the rhino is just being himself). Of course, if you do something silly, like catcall a lion (pun unintended!), or scowl back at a buffalo, or heckle at a hyena (because they’re just so ugly and heckle-able!), or generally try to act cool with any of the animals, even the (usually) mild-tempered elephants, then you’re seriously asking for it – we have to remember that in the savannah, in the jungle, we are essentially powerless, at the mercy of the animals, as it were. It is that risk, that unpredictability, that very chance of anything happening, that makes the safari such an exhilarating experience.

So even though we didn’t see all of the Big Five – namely, the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – and I had dearly wanted to see the leopards (them being my second-most favorite big cat, after tigers), it didn’t matter so much – I just made up my mind that I would keep coming back here, again and again, until I did see them.

And, in all fairness to Masai Mara, we saw so many other things in that one afternoon, that even David was impressed, deciding that we were we were definitely a providential lot. For what do you think happened our way right after we crossed the lions?

A long, lean, strapping young cheetah, elegantly lunching on some juicy antelope. Compared to lions, cheetahs are rather sophisticated, civilized animals – a bit standoffish maybe (unlike lions, cheetahs usually roam about on their own, once they reach the age of 18 months, and only come together with other cheetahs to mate), but not half as vicious and bloodthirsty. That may have to do with the fact that cheetahs are not man-eaters, and, at least in my opinion, the real joy for a cheetah is the hunt, not the kill itself. As far as lions go, I imagine that they will attack anything even remotely edible, being excessively greedy animals. It doesn’t matter to them, whether it’s young, or sick, or defenseless, or even one of their own kind – they just want to feel powerful and get meat to gnash their teeth through. 

Now cheetahs – cheetahs are just cool. This one was sitting there, calmly forking through his meal when we approached.  He glanced up for a moment at the sound of the jeeps, saw nothing of interest, and nonchalantly resumed his lunch. He was a rather handsome fellow, that cheetah, and I think he knew it too – he’d stand up now and again, for no apparent reason, stretch his legs, pirouette, and then curl back up on the ground, making sure he was photographed from all angles. But the funniest was the cheetah’s 12-membered vulture entourage, positioned in a semi-circle at a respectful distance. This scavenger-convoy accompanies cheetahs everywhere, dutifully clearing away leftovers while the cheetah catnaps for a few days (pun unintended, again!).  And so we left the cheetah, snoozing contentedly in the cozy winter sun, the birds already at work, and the rhythm of nature uninterrupted ever since the world began.

We saw families of elephants, complete with moms, dads, babies, and various friends and cousins, strolling right up to our jeep without a fear in the world; we passed through a sea of enormous black buffalo (which was probably the scariest part of the whole safari), staring at us glassy-eyed like they needed no encouragement whatsoever to attack (in fact, David told us, when it comes to humans, buffaloes have a history of being even more aggressive than lions!) We saw a sweet giraffe couple happily sharing a leafy branch, and we saw a few stupid-looking spotted hyenas pretending to be lions. We didn’t get a chance to drive up to the Mara River to see the rhinos and hippos, and it was still too early for the great river-crossing (which takes place about August, when hordes of zebra and wildebeest migrate to Masai Mara from the Serengeti plains), but that again is something I’ve saved for next time.

We had to turn back for the Lodge when evening fell, and were seen off at the gates of the game reserve by a baboon sentinel perched on top of an umbrella-thorn acacia. The night was very cold, we filled ourselves up with hot soup at the buffet, pulled on all the clothes we’d brought, snuggled under the dark green covers of our beds, and slept soundly to the symphonies of the jungle night.

I was sad to go back. Masai Mara had been truly breathtaking. I had never before known the beauty of sheer expanse – trees were beautiful, forests were beautiful, and mountains, and lakes – but the beauty of the desert, the beauty of the savannah, of the prairie, of a faultless, sparkling, everlasting blue sky – beauty that is immeasurable – that beauty is truly sublime. I still yearn for that sky, for that air, for that world where man did not fear beast, and beast did not fear man, but every creature played its part in the great unfolding everlasting tale that is Nature.

There are few places in the world where one feels genuinely happy, happy within. Mecca was one of those places; Saif-ul-Malook in Pakistan, and Masai Mara were others, and Mombasa, though very very lovely, was not – at least not for me. The beach was truly idyllic – powdery-white sands, balmy blue waters, plush green palm trees – and the White Sands hotel was truly honeymooner-heaven, with its spas and saunas and bars and nightclubs and white-curtained bay-windows.  Mombasa was, overall, a rather merry little place, as all port-towns are apt to be, and the old Muslim quarter was just charming – it reminded me very much of the Walled City back in Lahore. Arab traders founded the island-city in the 11th century, and in 1698 Muslims from Oman won it back from the Portuguese after two centuries of abrasive Portuguese rule (incidentally, the famous Portuguese-built Fort Jesus isn’t that great at all – at least not after you’ve seen the Mughal forts of Lahore and Delhi!). The area was taken over by the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1840, and finally came under the control of the British in 1898, who made it the capital of their East Africa protectorate.
Not surprisingly, 70% of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and it was here that I heard the azaan after a very long time.

(Some interesting trivia – the Swahili language derives from a mixture of native African Bantu and Arabic, which is why even today Swahili is strewn with Arabic terms – the word ‘Swahili’ itself is originally ‘sawahil’ in Arabic, plural of ‘sahil’, which means coast, and the word ‘safari’ is a variation of the Arabic word ‘safar’, which means journey).

I don’t know what you’d think, but I generally found the place too touristy for my liking. A great holiday spot for most people, I’m sure, but I’d much rather live two weeks in a tree-house in Samburu, or camp out at Fig Tree and see the leopards by night, or trek up to tiger-haven Rathangore in India, or to Kanchanaburi in Thailand and visit the fabled temple of the tigers (oh dream!).

 Never underestimate the power of dreams, though. I may be just 20 and not very ‘experienced’ or ‘wise’ in the usual sense of the words, but that is a lesson you can never be too young to appreciate. My mother dreamt of the trip to Kenya, originally, when she was just 12 years old – and it happened (in its own time, but well enough). I dreamt of many other things for this trip, and they all came true (later on, in America!). I can’t tell you about that here, but let’s just say, Paulo Coehlo hit upon an elemental law when he said, “If you want something passionately, the whole of the Universe conspires to help you achieve it”.
If you want to get out, you will, if you want to be free, you will, if you want to hear, smell, feel, touch, understand, see the jungles for yourself – you will!
You just have to want it passionately enough. Leave the rest to the Universe.

Now get your bum off that sofa and go see the world!

Kwaheri, na safari njema! (Farewell, and bon voyage!)

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