Sunrise in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

Photo by Ralf Κλενγελ (Flickr)

The Big Five and the Tall One

Rahul Gaur

Visit Diary of Kenya and Dubai in 2013


Zero Degree 

As we get off the plane at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, I realise with surprise how green it is—green and pleasant. 

For some inexplicable reason, I have been imagining the whole of Africa to be hot and harsh. After all, it lies bang on the equator. Nairobi is just 1 degree south of the equator. But the temperature in Nairobi is a wonderful 25 to 30 degrees Celsius almost all year round. It is at a slightly high altitude, but as we are told, the rest of Kenya is also equally pleasant. 

The British Connection 

Kenya was liberated from the British in 1963. I am not a sociologist but it seems that the British effect has not entirely worn off. 

Downtown Nairobi and the buildings are beautifully styled in a European manner, people on the streets from all walks of life wear suits regularly, and I suspect English is spoken and understood more than Swahili—the official language. Of course, that might also be because there are 43 different tribes in Kenya, all having different languages, and English makes a useful bridge. 

The soccer craze also seems an important remnant. The day we check in to the hotel, fans of two rival teams are out on the roads. Groups of blue and green-clad young people are singing and dancing, chanting their team cries and stamping their feet. They are cheering their home teams and mocking the opposite team—one young man holds a clucking and flapping hen, presumably a revered bird to the rivals. The revelry ends with the police being called and the fans dispersing. 


We are like that only 

I am pleasantly surprised to see very orderly traffic on Nairobi roads, even on the highway. My pucca Indian (read feudal) instinct always told me that good manners were the prerogatives of rich countries, which Kenya is not. But people are well-behaved on the roads, far better than what we see here in India. We have travelled 700 km on the road and I do not find a single instance of the pedestrian and cycling lane (yes, they have them on the highways too, adjoining the villages and towns) being intruded upon, not even when a long line of cars is waiting to approach the airport. All through the journey, our driver keeps to his speed limit, so obviously frustrating to us Dilliwalas. Our growing economy and development notwithstanding, I wonder when we will be able to sort out our horrible traffic mess. 

While in the traffic, I do not find many new cars, either downtown or on the highway. There are lots of motorcycle taxis, though, lined up at the village squares. The drivers all wear fluorescent jackets and lounge around in their vehicles waiting for the customers, which could be some old lady carrying a pail of potatoes or a young man fiddling with a mobile phone. 

Indians in Nairobi 

There are a lot of Indians in Nairobi, some of them here for three generations; their ancestors were brought here by the British to work for the Railways and the plantations two centuries ago. Today, Indians seem to be well-settled and respected in Kenya as shrewd businessmen who provide employment and pay reasonably well. 

Moving into the city from the airport, we are greeted with large signboards of Indian brands—Tata, Ashok Leyland, and software companies. Later in the day, when we shop in the largest Kenyan superstore, Nakumatt, I find the owner’s photograph displayed there and am told he is originally an Indian. So is another famous resort chain—Sopa Lodges. Nakumatt and other stores stock many Indian products. Airtel is omnipresent with its telecom services, along with its mobile microfinance service called m-Pesa. 

People are aware of India and ask about various things. I did not know that Air India was earlier operating in Nairobi, until several people, including an airport official, asked me why Air India had stopped Kenya flights and when would it resume. 

As an aside, there is some scorn reserved for our Chinese brethren, who are working on different infrastructure projects. People complain they are stingy, do not mix with people, and do not give work opportunities to the locals in their projects. A telling comment comes from our electrician friend Tony who states matter-of-factly that the Chinese “impregnate our daughters and then do not care.” 

Indian Food and Kenyan Coffee 

And where there are so many Indians, can dal and dosa and mukhwaas be far behind? Nairobi boasts not only some very good authentic Indian restaurants but a true-blue paan shop too! I was treated to a tasty paan by a Kenyan behind the counter, who insisted on putting it in my mouth, all the while singing “Khaike Paan Banaras Waala.” We also partake in the famous Kenyan coffee, which some say is the best Arabic coffee in the world. 

At a paan shop

Greedy Pigs, Hustlers and 80 km walks 

On the second day of our stay, the newspapers splash pictures of pigs eating and wallowing in gore in front of the National Assembly of Kenya, not very far from our hotel. It turns out that this is part of a people’s protest against the “greedy” Kenyan MPs demanding a wage hike. Sounds familiar? 

Tony, about whom I talked earlier, is a young man with a genial smile and honest eyes. He has come to fix the electrical connection at the convention we are participating in. When we ask him about the greedy pigs’ story, he smiles sadly and tells us about the poverty in Kenya and lost opportunities. He is a hustler, he says, which means that he, like many other people here, does not have a regular job. He is out on the streets in the morning, seeking work—any work—for the day, hoping that in a month he would be able to save enough to visit his family in the village. He tells us there are a lot of people like him. 

Paul is our regular taxi driver for the four days we are there. He is a talkative and jovial man, who complains that people have become much too accustomed to a cozy modern life. His father thought nothing of walking down to his village hometown, a distance of 80 km. Eighty kilometres? I ask in amazement. “Yes”, he says, “we lazy people seldom walk more than fifteen in a day! Huh?” 

The story of the missing luggage 

Before we leave for Masai Mara, the world-famous wildlife reserve, I finally receive my missing suitcase from Delhi via Mumbai. When we took off from Delhi, the lady at the airline counter probably forgot to tag the case and I landed in Nairobi without any clothes, except the ones I was wearing. 

While I shop for essentials and make the airport rounds to enquire about its arrival, my family in India is coaxing the airlines people to get it to me pronto. In this case, pronto turns out to be four days, during which I lose much sleep and poise. The twin airline response to my justifiable claim is still awaited as I write this. 

Tamed in the city 

Nairobi has some wildlife parks right in the city, possibly to prepare the uninitiated for the wonders that lay beyond. One such is the Nairobi Safari Walk & Animal Orphanage, which we visit on the last evening of our stay. 

The place is steeply-priced for us foreigners. But the thought of exorbitant admission charges for foreigners at the Taj Mahal serves as a sobering context. 

We are let into an expansive, well-kept zoo, with winding wooden walkways through the enclosures and cages. Hyenas look at us across the fence with curiosity while the white rhino sleeps on, ignoring us completely. The albino zebras munch on nonchalantly, as do the giraffes. Lions talk to us through the glass partition, while Colobus monkeys chatter incoherently. The cheetah sleeps too far away in the bushes for us to see but there are gazelles, crocodiles, ostriches, wildebeests, and birds. Many of these animals and birds are rescued from being orphaned, injured or extinct. 

Having primed thus, we cannot wait to be in the wild. 




The Great Rift Valley & Nameless General Store 

As we leave Nairobi for Masai Mara, the road winds down the mountains and before hitting the planes, we oversee the Great Rift Valley—a vast expanse of green lined by mountains. 

The Great Rift Valley is the name given to a geographical trench stretching a mind-boggling 9600 km from Israel to Mozambique, as Coke dutifully informs us. Look closely at the map in the photograph below and you can see it dropping down from Ethiopia and sliding down over the horn to reach Kenya and then Mozambique. 

Map of the Great Rift Valley

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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. 


Lion (2)



A person from the Masai tribe






A Platter of Skyscrapers & Flowers in the Desert 

I am standing in front of our hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road. Fresh off the flight from Nairobi, the contrast is striking—in place of nature’s bounty we left behind in Kenya, here in front of us is a modern, man-made marvel of a city.

There is a row of skyscrapers of various shapes and sizes gleaming in the morning sun, reflecting a stream of shiny cars whizzing past. Later in the evening, when we are standing at the beach, the famed Dubai skyline is replete with all kinds of skyscrapers, the most famous among them being the Burj Khalifa. 

Dubai Skyline showing the Burj Khalifa

View from the Burj Khalifa

Our hotel has 65 floors and while I look down from our 41st floor room, I think I might not recommend Dubai to someone suffering from acrophobia. 

Hotel Lift

Along the road runs an excellently maintained, elevated metro rail. The flyovers are beautifully painted in golden yellow, unlike the shabby concrete-coloured ones back home. There are neat rows of flowers blooming and lush grass carpets at some traffic intersections beneath the metro. I am told that the shiploads of fertile subsoil needed for flowers is imported from the Netherlands. 

Many times, during the two days I am here, I get the feeling that I am in the midst of a shiny tourist brochure of some city in future.    

Dubai came into prosperity in the early seventies when oil was discovered here, but it is in the last two and a half decades that it has really blossomed as a business, tourism and shopping centre of the world. 

The reason for this is clear as we roam about the city—the rulers have a vision and the will and enterprise to implement it. It helps, of course, that this is a constitutional monarchy. Also, there is a faceless army of ex-pats who toil behind the general store counters, metro counters, in schools, behind taxi steering wheels, in construction fields, and wherever. 

Flowers in Dubai

Elevated metro rail in Dubai

The miniskirt and the abaya 

We have just come out of the hotel for some morning coffee when we see a couple of young girls getting out of a car. The girls are clad in miniskirts. Miniskirts? Out on the street in the United Arab Emirates? I am surprised.  

Moving inside the coffee shop, I find myself queuing up behind a young girl clad in the traditional abaya—loose black robe from head to toe—with only her face visible.  

Which one is the real Dubai? I ask myself. 

In the two days we are here, I see that Dubai, which has Islam as its official religion, and has achieved a comfortable juxtaposition of the miniskirt and the abaya to become a truly cosmopolitan city-country. People from all over the world come here as tourists and for work, and Dubai accommodates all religious and social identities with confidence and aplomb, worthy of a mature state. 

The world’s shopping mall 

That Dubai is a shopper’s paradise was not unknown to me. What I never imagined was the sheer scale and magnificence at which Dubai shops. Wikipedia lists 69 shopping malls in Dubai, but the list does not tell the whole story. Each of the malls is an island of cornucopia with the best brands from around the world vying for shoppers’ attention.   

With only a day and a half on our hands, we get a chance to visit three—Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and the Ibn Battuta Mall. 

Dubai Mall is the world’s largest mall, with around 1200 stores, stretching along various levels and arms. It provides entrance to Burj Khalifa and hosts the magnificent Dubai Fountain. 

Mall of the Emirates is the original shopping destination, and it seemed to me that it houses exclusive brands. 

Ibn Battuta Mall is a beautiful, themed shopping mall, based on the travels of the famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta lived in the fourteenth century in Morocco, and in the 30 years he travelled, he covered pretty much the whole world. This mall has different sections designed as the various places he visited. I wish we had more time to explore all the sections. 

The Travels of Ibn Battuta

At the top of the world. Well, almost. 

Burj Khalifa strikingly demonstrates the power and beauty of superlatives in the modern world. It is a 163-floor building, the tallest in the world, and houses hotels, offices, and residential apartments. 

Dubai markets its attractions well. Burj Khalifa offers a chance to look out on the city from its 124th-floor observation deck, and we realise this is probably the highest we would be able to get to on terra firma, barring the Everest. We decide to ride up and are able to get tickets for the 10 p.m. slot. 

We return in the night to join a queue, which passes through a succession of sleek galleries lined with attractive visuals about this modern architectural marvel, to be finally let into a plush elevator. The adage of a journey being even more enjoyable than the destination is proved correct, as the elevator doors are shut. The walls are lined with moving visuals emitting a bluish light within, and soft music fills the cubicle. As the elevator starts its 1-minute journey upwards at a speed of 10 metres per second and our ears start popping, the tempo of music slowly increases to match our rising excitement and reaches a crescendo, when the doors open to reveal a bejewelled Dubai glittering beneath our feet, beyond the glass floor and walls of the observation desk. 

As we soak in the beauty of the scene below—streaks of traffic lights, gleaming rows of Dubai fountain, Burj Al Arab, our hotel, and the Palm in the distance—we once again admire the bravado of the vision which has produced this feat—the Burj, and also this city called Dubai. 

In a mall

Mall ceiling

And in the end, the wailing baby 

It is the day we are flying out. Far behind us in the queue is a woman travelling with her baby. While she is trying to manage her luggage, her baby starts wailing uncontrollably. As the wailing and her discomfort continue, the stern official at the counter gets up to see what the commotion is about.

It seems to us that he is visibly irritated, as some of us are too. He, however, calls out to someone and the mother and the baby are escorted to the counter, ahead of everybody else, to be cleared on priority. The queue resumes. We are back home the next day.

A graffiti in Dubai with a powerful message

All photos by Rahul Gaur

Rahul Gaur is a marketing professional living in Gurgaon, who nourishes his soul with the written word. Apart from being a closet poet, Rahul hosts a literary podcast Majhdhaar, where he reads out interesting pieces of literature for discerning audience.


Twitter: @rahuljigaur

Instagram: @majhdhaar