Coming around a steep bend, the great Rift Valley suddenly reveals itself, Earth’s underbelly exposed by a rupture in its crust millions of years ago, sparse and desolate as the ocean floor. We have to descend into the heart of this valley to get to Masai Mara, one of the last remaining places on Earth where you can still find animals on land as plentiful as they are in the oceans, and you can experience for a few days what it means to be just one more animal among many.
We boarded our mini-van with great anticipation shortly after the sun rose in Nairobi, three generations of us squeezed in three rows along with our driver Isaac, a native Kenyan and veteran guide. After a few hours of being jostled around on pebbly, pot-holed roads, we finally entered the official gates of the Masai Mara national game reserve.
But, we felt we had truly arrived only once we had our first animal sighting--in this case, a trio of giraffes ambling gracefully, heads amongst trees. In the past, Africans believed that giraffes connected humans to the sky Gods, but to us, road-thrashed travelers, the giraffes we saw were more like divine door-keepers, allowing us to pass through tall columns of their legs to enter the world of the wild.
Moments later, we all turned into kids yelling “zebra crossing” as a troop of zebras crossed the road in front of us. Their stripes befuddled our eyes, turning into haze in the heat and dust. A slender string of wildebeest followed, but Isaac was not impressed by the small numbers and dolefully shook his head. We had specifically timed our trip during this time of the year to witness the annual migration of the wildebeest and zebra, one of the last great animal migrations over land. The sight of them crossing the Mara river in the Masai Mara, undeterred by the crocodiles that feasted on the weaker animals in the herd was much photographed and documented, and one that we hoped we could catch, but the few odd wildebeest were a far cry from the million strong that should have been present by this time.
"The Tanzanians are keeping the wildebeest on their side by giving them water," Isaac complained. And when we inquired why they would want to do that, he retorted, "To keep the tourists, of course!"
Wildebeest aside, over the next few days we ratcheted up an impressive number of sightings, all within the safety of our van. Much like a submarine, our van let us descend onto this erstwhile sea-bed, an ancient world from the past with birds and animals of every shape, size and color, and not too much human intervention other than us tourists. Best of all, in our van, we were on par with the strongest and fastest of the animals.
From our safe shore, we drank in the wildlife surrounding us. We spotted a pack of spotted hyenas, lower jaws square and powerful enough to crunch bone, dragging their shorter hind legs behind them; further ahead, a family of elephants beat the ground to release water from their legs; several species of antelope munched on the sparse vegetation—the miniature dik-dik, Thomson gazelles with their striped horns, the slightly larger Topi, and the largest deer of all—the great Eland with horns thick as tree branches. Packs of wild buffalo, their sickle-shaped horns as dangerous as knives, grazed the fields seemingly as harmless as cows but Isaac told us that they were to be avoided at all cost. And then there were the myriads of birds, most notably the secretary bird with its long red-stockinged legs, thrust-out chest; vultures that sat like great knots on barren trees; and great herons of varying sizes and shapes. Snatches of bright color on a tree or bush turned out to be another novel bird or perhaps even a small animal.
When we were not on safari we took rest in our hotel. Part of the exclusive Serena chain of hotels, the Serena Lodge is designed as a futuristic Masai village with each room a separate stucco “hut” strategically placed on a hill overlooking the Serengeti. Lights are recessed into curved walls, and pop up when lit like opened eyes, and colored stripes adorn the wall much like tribal painted faces or else a Joseph Alber painting.
Looking out of the ceiling-to-floor glass windows of our room, we continued our safari-mongering, spotting a lone bull elephant marauding down the plains at great speed and herds of zebras grazing on a green patch. We were so immersed in our own safari worlds, of trying to see the maximum number of animals, that we barely noticed other travelers even during meal times in the common cafeteria, travelers similarly outfitted with binoculars hanging around necks, sun hats, and vacant gazes more suited to look out into the distance to search for animals than to focus on particulars including each other.
On our third and final day at the hotel, my three year-old daughter called out that there was a baboon staring at us. I spun around to see a full-grown baboon spread out on the window's glass coolly checking us out. We had been warned about keeping our windows closed to keep the baboons away from our food, but this baboon was more interested in us. For a few terrifying moments, the tables were turned as we became the viewed instead of the viewer. Unlike the animals we had subjected to our own gazing the past few days, however, we were not yet inured to being stared at and we screamed until the baboon unplugged himself from the glass and calmly ambled away.
We were glad to leave the hotel, our sense of security visibly shaken. In the van, Isaac further rattled us by telling us stories about tourists who ventured away either from the van or hotel into the wild. He recounted how a Japanese tourist hopped off the van to try to get a closer shot of a lion, and had his camera knocked out of his hand and his neck broken for his efforts. Similarly, an English tourist decided to take a morning saunter in the wild, away from his hotel, but never returned; search parties later found his body stomped into the ground by an elephant. We were not comforted with the choice of our next hotel either; designed to bring us closer to the wild, the hotel had tents for us to sleep in instead of rooms with solid walls, making it a breeze for baboons or similar animals to get in!
Truth be told, we were starting to get a little bored even though our trips out in the van were still filled with excitement as the kids chanted the names of each of the birds and animals we saw. The novelty was slowly fading, but then just when I felt as if there was nothing else to see or do, I would have an encounter that touched my soul. For a few seconds, an elephant looked at me briefly while crossing the road right in front of us, and I felt a bridge between us that transcended the artificiality of my situation there; perhaps his massive girth, so tethered to the earth’s rhythms centered my own frail reality, negating for a few seconds my loss of this special connection.
As I gazed at the scores of animals, I also got the feeling that I had been here before. For over ninety-five percent of human existence, we have lived as hunter-gatherers, and being here in the savannah, amidst the animals, the sensations encoded in our memories are overwhelming. Also, like many religious experiences, I transcend my body in these environs, becoming more than just myself, one with all around. There is an overwhelming sense of being every-where and no-where in this limitless horizon where Savannah and sky meet.
Back at our hotel, we are thankful the tented accommodations are luxurious and outfitted with several layers of electric fencing to keep most animals out, though baboons could still easily get through, as could leopards, the hotel staff coolly informed us. We allayed our fears by getting into the thick of things--we signed up for a walk with a Masai warrior around the hotel's compound, as close as you could get to the wild.
Our tour guide, the chieftain of a village, was a proud, no-nonsense type who pointed out the major attractions along the hiking path. We saw skulls of various animals and were asked to identify them--thankfully none were human! He also pointed out various trees and bushes, his peoples’ apothecary developed over centuries. As we were walking, he gave us snippets of knowledge that had protected his people over the years. He told us that elephants were far more unpredictable, and therefore more dangerous than lions. To avoid them, you had to walk against the direction of the wind since elephants cannot see too well and go primarily by smell. I made a point to remember this piece of advice in case I should ever need it.
Too many vehicles, cameras separated me from the world of the Masai. We were helpless without our car, and more so without Isaac. We could enter this world to spy on animals only because he enabled us to do so, him along with the hundreds of staff in the hotel. With the use of satellite radios, cell phones, the drivers and hotel staff created a vast network, a contemporary forest without which we would not be able to survive in this area for more than a few days. Nor would we be able to see the diversity of animals--currently, the minute there was a sighting of a large animal, Isaac’s radio would start spluttering, and within moments he, and scores of other drivers, would descend upon the hapless animal, often taking illegal paths, out-of-bounds to cars, to get there. In this way, guides made sure that tourists were happy capturing the animal on camera, ensuring a big tip for themselves.
With all his satellite's transmissions and chattering, Isaac was still unable to lead us to the big prize of our trip—the wildebeest migration. We were packing and ready to leave on our sixth and final day, and then all of a sudden, his radio came alive. Isaac hurried us into the van, and within minutes we were speeding down the plain.
Swarms of black dots, seemingly as small and numerous as gnats, marked the boundary of the hill in thick lines. I followed the black dotted line down the hill, onto the plains, and then, as they got closer, watched them metamorphose into hundreds of wildebeest and zebras, all walking in a straight line. They were crossing the road in front of us and continuing to the other side, massing in pools of black at the bottom of the hills. Every now and then, a wildebeest would stop in its tracks when it noticed us, but then a "leader" would come back to urge the animal on. Like an army procession, they kept strict file and order, speaking their own language, following an ancient migration path, the kind that we see only birds use today. Tourists fell from the skies in giant parachutes trying to get a closer look, and the road, the rivers of our times, was fraught with the dangers posed by our vehicles, but the wildebeest carried on, undaunted.
Dwarfed by the thousands of wildebeests and zebras, foreigners among them, we nevertheless felt accepted as they continued with their ageless march despite our presence. They seemed willing to share their world with us as we had never shared it with them-let us be witness to their great journey, and, for a few moments, be just one species among the millions of other animals also given the privilege of being born on our Earth.