Having travelled to five of the seven continents in the world, Africa was always an aspirational place for me- often relegated to the movies and TV series. I missed being posted there narrowly as a part of my earlier assignment. I had explored forests and wild life in India, but the fauna on the other side of the world remained a mystery. Finally I got an opportunity for a rendezvous with the Big Five: Lion, Rhinoceros, African Elephant, Wild Buffalo, Leopard- that the continent is popular for, when I went there for my honeymoon. I even added the Giraffe to my list.
We reached Nairobi by Kenya Airways and were immediately escorted to an 8 seater Toyota Land cruiser, with a sun roof for spotting animals, by a soft spoken Kenyan with an accented English that reminded me of the West Indies Cricketers in the commentary box. The drive to Lake Naivasha countryclub resort was bumpy but gave a roadside view of the country beyond the capital city. The resort was strewn with pretty cottages with a lawn in the centre where ‘wildebeasts’ and different varieties of deers hung around like dogs in a park. The pond next to it was fertile with grunting hippos and we were told not to roam unescorted in the evenings, lest we got run over by them! The very first day made us realize that the Africans are utopian in their coexistence with nature.
The drive to the mystic Masai Mara was uneventful and mundane and took almost 6 hours. The very next day we woke up early and left the premises in our Cruiser under the expert guidance of our driver- John- who also doubled up as our guide. The migration period starts in June when you see flocks of most animals; but we were there during the off season in December. Initially even the sight of African elephants excited us, but became a norm as we saw flocks of them frequently. Wild buffalo was more ferocious than we expected. We saw some lions devouring their prey along with their cubs next to the river. Surprisingly they appeared very docile. An interesting sight was that of a ‘strategic fight’ between a male lion and the hyenas for a hunted buffalo. The buffalo was killed by the lion the previous day and left after eating his share. The predatory hyenas used several tactics to distract the lion the next evening, but finally managed to dig in to the meat only after he had his fill for the next day too. A leopard was sighted moving on the tree. Some of the people on the other safaris were wildlife photographers and patiently stood their ground till they could get clean shots of the spotted cat. But even though we tried for 3 days, we couldn’t spot a single rhino. Giraffes crossing the streets like a herd of cattle and ostriches zipping across the horizon made the safari a pleasant interesting experience. We even took a ride on the hot air balloon. But that wasn’t as interesting as the champagne brunch in the middle of nowhere. It was well organized and an unprecedented experience immediately after the ballooning.
John gave us lot of insights in to the animal kingdom. The cheetah is not born with hunting instincts and is taught by its mother. Lions hunt at dawn and dusk as they have good night vision, while the cheetah hunts during the day as it relies on its speed. Giraffes are choosy and eat only nutritious food while they are difficult for predators to kill due to their long strong necks. Elephants prefer higher lands as the grass below is low and crowded with other animals. The personal experience with the animals was a better teacher than any of the programs on the wildlife channels.
The icing on the cake was the the Giraffe park next to the Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. The Manor needs prior booking and the giraffes will have food with you by peeping in through the huge windows there. But the park was good enough for a close interaction with them. You can feed the giraffes there and enjoy the company of these gentle giants.
The Happy Hippies
We passed several Masai villages on our way to the Mara resort- Keekorok. We went to a village that is frequented by tourists and has all the elements well maintained. The village has a circular boundary of logs and thorny branches to keep the wild animals at bay. The gate is shut at dusk. The boundary is lined on the inner side with mud and dung huts. Their houses are made from wood and thatched roof and have no electricity or modern infrastructure. They have basic necessities like mud beds with choir mattresses. The ground is smeared with cow dung and the roofs are very low. In the centre of the village is the open space where all the cattle are kept to protect them from predators.
The Masais are polygamous. The first wife is chosen by the parents and dowry paid by them on behalf of the man. After that the men pay their own dowry. Hence all the Masais living in a village are related to the chief, while the women go the village they are married to. They are pastoral and their wealth is measured in the numbers of cattle owned by them. Even disputes are settled with cattle. Contrary to popular belief, they rarely hunt wild animals. Their diet consists of meat, milk and cattle blood which they extract from their veins without killing them. Even now they light fire with two sticks. Urbanization has led a lot of the Masais to modern education, but most are still stuck in time. Cattle dung is all across the floor.
Their society is patriarchal and we were welcomed by a traditional male dance party. They make handicrafts for the visitors to buy and there is heavy bargaining for the purchase. We bought a few and finally did the bargain. The tall legged tribals are very friendly and worship a single deity called Engai. They have their own doctors who cure them with the herbs found in the wilderness.
A lot of Masais have come out of their villages and are getting urbanized- school, jobs, travel etc. But they have still retained their love for nature and have learned to co-exist. Even the traditional Masais come across as a content tribe despite their ancient practices. They seem to have truly learnt to be happy.
Like a Masai proverb goes: “It is impossible to find a man who has everything, but it is possible to find one who enjoys the things he has”