As I resolve to look up the details on Wikipedia, I realise how the vastness of nature humbles us. I also suddenly recall the National Geographic gene-mapping project, which has established Africa as the place from where the human species originated. I have a strange feeling of having established a lost connection with our collective past, a sort of completing the circle of life. Why am I getting these goose-pimples?
When we hit the plains, the road is lined mostly with villages and some towns few and far between. If names are any indication, the villages are deeply religious—a large number of shops and small businesses along the highway are named after biblical virtues like Beauty, Grace, Joy, Honesty etc. I do actually see a lot of churches (and an odd temple too). There is one shop despairingly named “Nameless General Store.” What is this about, I wonder—atheism or plain laziness?
Lions and Warriors
Masai Mara, the world-famous game reserve, home to the Big Five, carries its worldwide reputation lightly. As we turn southwest from the town of Narok after around three hours’ drive from Nairobi, the road turns to gravel and then disappears altogether. After a while, we are driving through a jungle of mostly grass and short trees intercepted by small streams and brooks. It is slightly hot (the vehicles have no air-conditioning) and in between the trees, we catch a flash of red, which turns out to be a cowherd draped in a bright red chequered shawl.
Slowly, the big trees give way to a land clearing leading to a big gate. At one side is a group of women draped in bright colours, who run towards us with their wares. Beyond the gate, we get a glimpse of a zebra, which is grazing next to buffalo skulls lined up like trophies. We have arrived at Masai Mara Game Reserve.
Masai Mara takes its name from “Masai”—the ancient hunter tribe which inhabits this area. They are fierce, nomadic warriors and it is said that lions do not attack Masai people. “Mara” means “mottled” or “spotted” and refers to the vegetation pattern of the area.
Big Five is part of a hunters’ lexicon of yore, referring to the five most fierce and dangerous animals to hunt—the Lion, the African Elephant, the Buffalo, the Rhinoceros and the Leopard.
The game reserve itself is a vast undulating grassland—an expanse of green merging in the horizon with the azure blue of the skies or the dark green of the mountains. Perched inside our safari vehicles, it seems we are in the midst of an animation movie, with all the animals lined up on a single wide canvas.
There is a herd of wildebeests munching on one side. On the other side are zebras, with their stripes looking almost hand-painted, with a backdrop of gazelles. We stop to let a tower (yes, that’s what a group is called) of giraffes pass; watching giraffes walk is a surreal sight, like these tall animals are moonwalking. Buffaloes hold their famous “whatsup” stare with us, while elephants are not concerned.
We furiously click our cameras, wishing to capture the spirit of what our naked eyes see and our hearts feel, unsuccessfully. In the two safaris we take while in Masai Mara, there are a lot of animals and birds we get a chance to watch in their natural habitat. But the stars of the show are, indisputably, the lions. The moment the wireless radios crackle with the news of a lion sighting, all other animals are promptly forgotten and all vehicles converge upon the spot to make the most of the moment. A lion truly is a magnificent animal and as we watch, holding our breath, we come to realise what it means to be in royal attendance.
On our safari the next morning, we meet the family. In the night, at our lodge in the midst of the jungle, we are invited to watch the feeding of wild animals. As the attendant puts raw meat in the centre of the clearing, we see a hyena, a jackal, and cats standing, poised to fight each other for the biggest share. As he withdraws, the matter is sorted out in minutes, and there remains an eerie silence on the scene.
Masai Mara is nature at its serene best, largely unsullied by us human beings. Animals proudly and justifiably own the space, graciously allowing us to have a peep into their world. As we leave, we carry a lot of memories of this world in photographs, and a lot more in our minds.