The Maasai villages still operate much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. That is, they live in small compounds, with their animals, practicing rituals and ceremonies that have been handed down over generations.
After a performance of a traditional Maasai dance at our game lodge, I was walking back to my tent with one of the porters (it’s dark and there are critters around) and he asked me how I liked the show. “Did you see me jumping?” he asked. The lodge employs Maasai workers both as a contract with the tribe and to add cultural panache to the fancy digs. “It was great”, I replied, not recognising him in his uniform. “Jump highest and get a free lady,” he said with a humungous grin.
I had some understanding around the Maasai practices of arranged marriage and also polygamy, that the community has input into both, including negotiating the bride price. Wealth is measured in cows and wives here, after all. So I asked him whether he got a free lady. Beaming, he said, “Yes. I jump the highest. I’m going to get another one.” 💖
Welcome to the Maasai Mara. This park covers nearly 16002 km, roughly the size of London, which sounds actually smaller than it felt being there. The savannahs seemed to go on forever, or at least to Tanzania, where the Maasai Mara connects with the Serengeti to form an inter-national animal migration route. So once again I felt as though I were in a postcard rather than seated in a Land Cruiser in the southwestern part of Kenya making photos of the place.
The objective, apparently, in the Maasai Mara, is to find big cats. And while I liked seeing leopards and lions lounging in the sun, I honestly preferred the elephants grazing gracefully with their still-fuzzy calves. I preferred the zebras grazing amid the long grasses, the sun painting a glowing carpet. I preferred the giraffes, with necks so long they looked like they were floating along the savannah like giant puppets. I preferred the rhinos for their prehistoric and surreal stature; the rhinos curiously watching, with their notoriously terrible eyesight, the tourist-filled Land Cruisers, as if we were long-lost relatives.
And there were the hippos. If you guessed that these were the deadliest African beasts, you’d be correct! In fact, hippos kill 40 times more people per year than sharks (even coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, but that’s a completely different argument!). The sad truth, however, is that if you include all types of fauna, the deadliest animal in Africa is still the mosquito.
But I digress. Watching the hippos from the bush lodge in the Maasai Mara was a fantastic lunchtime activity. The word hippopotamus comes from the Greek word meaning river horses, presumably because they spend so much time in the water, protecting themselves from the sun. But upon hearing their clamour one afternoon, I have a different theory…
Before Mt. Kenya was called as such, the Kikuyu people called the it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga, loosely translated to ‘the area of the ostrich’, for its black rock and snow-capped peaks that resembled the awkward bird’s plumage. Once the Colonists arrived and simplified (read: bungled) the name, the land (and Mountain) was christened as Kenya.
The last day in the Maasai Mara was elephants and ostriches and secretary birds and hornbills and other savannah oddities, plus trains of wildebeests and hartebeests and zebras, bringing up the rear end of the Great Migration towards the Serengeti. And as much as I’d like to post even more of the thousands of frames I shot, I’ll wrap up with a few more of my favourites.
So while I saw exactly zero glimpses of Mt. Kenya, I left the Rift Valley feeling like I had been squarely in the area of the ostrich for some time. I’ll end with another reading list to paint a more vivid picture of the country from several different perspectives:
Here I was, on a plane much larger than anticipated, flying over Lake Victoria from Kigali to Nairobi. It was like crossing a small ocean, a giant black hole in the night with a lot of unknowns waiting on the lake’s eastern shores. During the flight, I was piecing together in my brain what I thought I knew about Kenya and its history, but memories of the hordes of elephants I saw in Botswana, and the near-misses of them in Rwanda only gave me elephant dreams commingled with fuzzy expectations for the week ahead.
My thoughts, as I wended my way through immigration, then baggage, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, were that thankfully most airports everywhere function pretty much the same, whether in English or Swahili.
Truth be told, I prepared little for this trip. I signed up a mere 10 days before departure, visions of myriad wildlife and their Great Migration dancing in my head. I hastily arranged yellow fever and typhoid vaccines, solicited favors for airport runs and plant-sitting, packed, then departed, leaving my overwhelming reality behind if only for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t had time to consider the urban spaces dotting the beginning, middle and end of the adventure.
And so, landing in Nairobi was very different than arrival in Kigali. Nairobi is fairly large as cities go, with roughly the population of Sydney; 5x that of Kigali. The slick urban-ness of the place was a little jarring as we navigated through traffic from the airport into the city proper. Gone were the neatly cobbled streets and manicured roundabouts I’d come to adore in Rwanda. This was a City, and all vibes pointed to its wanting to be like New York or LA. Luckily, the first order of business the next morning was to get out and head for the Rift Valley. First stop: Lake Nakuru.
Much of Kenya is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. The dry, dusty and trash-strewn roads we were on are also truck routes, wending their way from the port of Mombasa through the ragged farmlands, to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda. Travelling these roads helped paint a clearer picture of some of the country’s struggles, not least of which is their high unemployment rate. Note: Although we were repeatedly told it is around 40%, which likely takes into consideration their high level of self-employment, and which official numbers don’t incorporate, I can’t find any statistics from the World Bank or elsewhere that puts unemployment there any higher than 5.7%. Even so, Kenya’s economy and livelihood has taken hits from all sides these past few years.
The fact that the water levels in the lakes of the Rift Valley are rising, apparently indifferent to the massive drought in progress, is a peculiar geological and climactic (and human-generated) paradox that we were about to encounter first-hand.
At 5 or 6x smaller than Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Lake Nakuru felt like it was teeming with life from the first moments we arrived. Between the fences surrounding the park (keeping animals in and poachers out) and the rising waters (Lake Nakuru is now 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago), habitat is getting squeezed; and, while excellent for wildlife watching, it could mean disaster for an ecosystem if the waters don’t recede soon. One of Lake Nakuru’s claims to fame is its massive flamingo population. They come to the lake because of its warm water and the algae that creates. The rising waters have decreased their population significantly (it was said that sometimes 1 million of the birds flocked here), but in the past couple of years, they have started to return.
So it was a little surreal, driving just from the park gates to our lodge: Buffalo galore, herds of antelope, zebras, giraffes, rhinos… and this was just on the main road. The lodge, nestled within the bounds of the park, was like an oasis overlooking the savannah, and beyond that, the lake itself, glowing a tad pink from the reflection of flamingos on the still water. I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush even a little bit about the lush grounds where the background music was weaver birds; the watering hole replete with visiting buffalo and zebra herds; the jungle huts from which you could hear the gruff sound of lions calling throughout the night…
On our first official safari drive in Nakuru, we spent an hour and a half watching a leopard monitor, then stalk, an impala, only to give up at the 11th hour. By the end of the 2nd day, the bingo cards were filled with all of the Big Five (so-named originally for the difficulty to kill and the danger they posed to the hunter: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo), as well as oodles of points for many of the other birds and critters I’d come to see. By the following day, I was itching to stay on there, but the lure of other parks including the Maasai Mara won out in the end. Also, transport.
Out of Africa, but still here.
Next stop on the itinerary was Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake slightly south of Nakuru. Here, we stayed at a weird lodge with only enough electric fencing to keep out the hippos at night. Water buck and other critters seemed to have free reign of the area, so it was an interesting menagerie-cum-waterside camp experience. Here, too, the waters were very high, meaning that what used to be part of the lodge’s grounds was now part of the lake, and one could see the eerie skeletons of former acacia trees 20 or 30 metres off the shore. The kingfishers and other shorebirds were not complaining one bit.
The afternoon’s activity was to visit a place called Crescent Island, a tiny game reserve in the middle of the Lake. The adventure started with a boat ride over to the island, a scavenger hunt for hippos and crocs en route, and then a walking tour on the island in search of the giant African rock python. I say “in search of” because all we found was evidence, in the form of a massive shed snake skin. Turns out that Crescent Island was one of the many locations used for filming Out of Africa. Legend has it that they imported indigenous animals for the shoots and left them there, rehoming the predators so that the wildebeests and zebras and giraffes and impalas could flourish over time. But that was when Crescent Island was more of a peninsula, and the animals could come and go at will. With the rising waters, it had become an island sanctuary of sorts for the grazing animals, but with water levels recently receding, wily hyenas have made their way back to the island. It will be interesting to see what happens to the balance there if predators have access to this convenient buffet once again.
I’ll pause here to regroup, and to make the drive up out of the Rift Valley and on towards the pinnacle of the trip, the Maasai Mara.
I’ve been home for a week and a half now, and been asked what was your favourite part? more times than I can count. It’s hard to summarize in a photo or one hundred. What I’ll never be able to share adequately is the sheer enormity of Africa, even the enormousness of the very small piece of it I visited for such a short time (the nearly 2000km travelled in 8 days covered just the tip of one country). What words can’t rightly describe is that Africa has its own pulse. It’s in the music of the savannahs, the air, trees, animals and soil. Somehow, this energy works itself into yours and begins to infuse into your veins its vibrant blood orange sunrises, its pomegranate sunsets. The wild sage perfume on the air permeates your senses while rustling bush fuses with birdsong and erases the idiocy of first world problems in the back of your brain.
We’d spent the morning on a safari drive in Chobe National Park…the scores of eles and giraffes, antelopes, baboons and all manner of avian creature dancing on our brains. It’s hard to digest one’s first safari: I resented the jeeps – I’d rather walk these trails even though I know I’d be a lion snack before lunchtime. And I resented the other safari vehicles spoiling the view, disturbing the peace, touristing where I wanted to get deeper into nature. And at the same time, the vantage point was fabulous; as were the loaner cameras with 400mm lenses. The guy who texted our driver to let him know where to find the lion: super-cheesy but worth the shots I was able to get.
It’s with this tingle of seeing Africaup close still resonating that we enter Zimbabwe. We’ve survived the 2-hour (that-could-easily-have-been-4-without-help) wait to get visas and cross at the Kazungula border post. Finally free to proceed, we work our way down the road through Zambezi National Park, which is cool because again there are no fences, and the elephant, ostrich, giraffe, zebra (etc.) sightings have yet to get old.
Next stop Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.
Since it is our last day together, my friend and I decide to splurge on the long version of the helicopter tour over the Falls. We’ve been in Zimbabwe for exactly an hour and we’ve set off on foot down to Vic Falls. I won’t comment on political affairs here because I’d like to go back to the country someday; suffice to say that their economy is in freefall, as evidenced by the billion-dollar bills being hawked by trinket-sellers as we walk. This strikes me as a sadly ironic incongruity to the modern shops and cafés (the likes of which we had not seen in a week), as we walk through town to meet the ride to the helipad. Also not lost on me: a billion Zimbabwean dollars will not buy a loaf of bread; in fact, their currency has been entirely demonetised.
African masks on offer at the local market
The affable heli pilot gets us situated: I’m in front, as it’s my first-ever helicopter ride; clear windows top to bottom! I can’t wipe the “OMG-this-is-so-much-fun” grin off my face as we do figure-eights over the exquisite (understatement!) Victoria Falls and the adjacent canyons (collectively, Batoka Gorge) on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border. I want to go exploring here (Calvin, are you game? 😏), I think as we fly over the gorge-ous rock walls, then swing over Zambezi National Park for a quickie aerial safari (elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, check!), and we’re back where we started. Wonder: wondrous! Heroin-esque adrenaline pumping, I somehow resist temptation to blow the trip budget and do it again. Afterwards, I’m saddened to hear about a hydroelectric dam project that is slated for this area, threatening endangered species and adventuring in one fell swoop. I’m told that Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River god, is not at all amused.
And just like that, the trip, proper, ends with a group dinner, local beer and a singing/dancing performance by a Zimbabwean performing arts club, the adorable and talented Umkhankaso Wamajaha. They have us dancing and laughing, enjoying this last night.
I’ve said my goodbyes (Bis zum nächsten mal mein freund) and my flight isn’t until the following afternoon, so I’ve decided to go back into Botswana for a full day of land and water safaris at Chobe.
The jeep, a little less cushy; the air, a little crisper; the safari drive begins slowly – animals opting to sleep in just a bit until the sun comes out and releases the chill from the day. We wend our way through many of the same trails we passed a couple of days earlier and I recognise some of the landmarks: a sun-bleached elephant skeleton, a fish eagle nest (with occupants!), the trail that runs along the river, where we see hippos and giraffes and warthogs and a plethora of birds foraging for brekkie in the warming morning.
And as if on cue, the sky brightens and we come across a pair of young elephants playing and eating on a tree close to the trail. As we slow, one of the eles takes interest in our vehicle and with a teenager’s confidence begins walking slowly but surely towards us. Even young, this animal is taller than the jeep, and so I am on eye-level as s/he approaches, stops, and watches me/us in what seems playful amusement, a couple of metres from the vehicle. A warning from our driver: do not move quickly. Do not say anything. We wait, collective breath held, to see what happens next.
And what happens next is Africa magic.
I have no idea how to determine the sex of a young elephant (they say it has something to do with the indentation on the forehead), so whether this is a mating rite or a male dominance display, I do not know. What I do know is that it was magnificent: after intimidating this big thing in the road (us), the smaller ele walks in front of the jeep, then across the road to a small clearing, the larger one (male, I’ve surmised) following. In a dance-cum-duel, the pair pauses time with a soft and slow forehead-to-forehead, trunk twisting ritual, never releasing eye contact during the minutes they remain locked in this posture. It is sensual and sweet, powerful and emotive. I’m certain they’re communicating by touch; elephant telepathy. When they are finished passing the wisdom of ages to each other, they resume their defoliation of the nearest tree. We make our way out of the park, energies transferred to this ardent devotee as well. The safari ends on the highest of notes.
Chobe River, redux.
We board the small boat after lunch, much smaller than that of our river safari some nights before. At first, I lament the size; but once we’re on the river I quickly realise this craft will be able to sneak us so much closer to wildlife in the marshy areas at the island’s fringes.
The wildlife here on the Chobe River does not disappoint. Between this morning and this afternoon, we’ve played safari bingo, with but one space remaining for the win: elephants and giraffes in their lofty elegance; warthogs rooting about as if they’ve lost something precious, or scrumptious, in the mud; hippos looking like small tanks on the riverbank; antelopes of every size and shape: impala, kudu, steenbok, sable, waterbuck… Birds of every class and colour: cormorants and cranes; guinea fowl and kingfishers; oxpeckers and African jacanas cleaning hippos, spoonbills hunting for fish, egrets and storks and fish eagles and the spectacular little lilac breasted roller. Still evading us is the stealthy African lion.
We’re in the marsh watching some cape buffalo at close range. The sun is getting lower in the sky, signaling that we would soon need to turn back towards the dock. I’m wishing this day would not end, because that signals the end of my African safari days as well. As this thought surfaces, we see a group of impalas and some warthogs on the opposite riverbank suddenly take flight, running en masse away… We’ve all seen some Nat Geo special or another and know to look towards what they are running from. We see nothing until we’re just about to pull away; farther down the riverbank, two logs take shape in the form of young (and, as the guide explains, inexperienced) lionesses.
One stays put. The other begins a casual-cat stroll towards where the impalas were. She slinks, then she waits. And as she waits, a small group of sable antelope appear (also where the impalas were) and apparently either don’t care or don’t notice the not-small cat watching them. Step by step, she creeps closer (and closer to us, which is spellbinding from our vantage point). As if mocking her gorgeous but clearly not skillful hunt, the antelopes slowly migrate closer to the bush until they are out of reach.
With a very housecat “I meant for that to happen” air, she does a graceful about-face, stretches, and checks in with an “are you in or are you out?” look to her partner before pointing herself towards the buffalo (again, even closer to us!). Cat #2 is not impressed, nor does she move. Kitten #1 is uninspired after all this posturing, assesses the cape buffalo situation (each out-weighs this cat by at least 300%) and decides to take a siesta in the long grass to further consider her options.
This cat-and-not-quite-mouse game could go on for the better part of the evening, so we leave the marsh; we’ve already overshot our departure time by an hour and we’ve got to be back to the Zimbabwe border by 6 to make it through Zambezi National Park before dark. If the thought of hitting a deer crossing the road back home is frightening, consider the prospect of hitting an elephant or wildebeest; except in an emergency, the locals do not drive this road at night (a group of foreigners waiting on a lion does not constitute an emergency).
It’s with this on-the-edge, semi-fulfilled, almost-ecstatic-but-still-really-fantastic feeling we return via the Namibia side of the river, boarding the safari vehicles that will take us back to the border crossing (multiple-entry visas in hand, this crossing is significantly less traumatic than the first) and through the national park as the sky is on the brink of sunset.
I sleep this last night feeling full and sated, from both dinner and sensory overload from the spectacular day; not looking forward to the hours and hours I’ve got ahead of me, bouncing from Vic Falls to Joburg to Doha and finally to Boston, bedraggled, a full day later.
It’s a little bit absurd, looking back at this trip and trying to explain the experiences without sounding like a braggart or like I’m blowing it out of proportion, when in truth I don’t feel worthy of this place. Like India in impact, Botswana was dust wrapped in colours and shapes and smells, its nature is something I’ll never be able to describe without visual aids. There is no light where I’m from that rivals sunset on the savannah. There is nothing wild I’ll see back home that compares to the sight of a mother elephant shuttling her baby across the river while he sprays water in playful objection.
I’m drawn to places that make me humble, that make me feel the enormity of the natural world, that demonstrate the fragility and the impermanence of being, that make me realise my mere speck-ness in the Universe…
How do you thank a place for adding texture to your existence?
When I was little, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d say a Nat Geo photojournalist, the photo bug gifted to me by my father. It’s certainly the reason I started a travel blog: to release the words in my head about the places I’ve been, together with the photos, to complete the story (much easier in digital). My early-on adventures were in 35mm and pencil-on-paper. Midnight jungle hikes and diving the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef in Belize, Mary’s Place in Roatan; the Arizona desert, the mind-blowing ruins at Tikal…
But here I am, 12000km from home, packing a bag to spend the night camping in the Okavango Delta. Yesterday, we took a low-altitude flight over the Delta, mesmerised by the maze of animal tracks in the dry desert grass that map the routes to the best watering holes. The herds of toy animals below ironically reminded me of a Nat Geo special, and I only know it was real because I have the pictures on my camera, telling a thousand words for every giraffe, elephant, zebra, impala, hippo and water buffalo seen from above. Even today, writing about the experience, it seems like a vivid dream (inclusive of massive turbulence!). Neither words nor pictures can do justice to the enormity that is the Okavango Delta. Roughly 20,000 square kilometers in size, the Delta stretches from the northern border of Botswana and its fingers fan out towards the Kalahari Desert. A multitude of endangered species call this place home: cheetah, black rhino, African wild dog, lions and a multitude of birds. If we have the chance to see even one of these beasts on the course of our trip, it will check multiple boxes in my life’s wish list.
Expanse of the Okavango Delta
Ginormous termite mound
Notice the tracks?
The Delta goes on it seems like forever…
Our little bush plane
Let it be known that I am an elephant freak. Peut-être the reason I gravitate towards Ganesha, I don’t know. And before this trip, I had never seen an ele outside of captivity. I had it in my head that there would be a moment where my heart exploded upon seeing my first elephant in Africa. It just so happens that the first wild elephant I saw in Africa was out a bus window, driving down the Cross-Kalahari Highway at 70km/hr (little did I know then that the once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience was to come on my last full day here).
Into the Delta.
Safari vehicles shuttle us to the launching point where a flurry of activity is readying mokoros (dug-out, flat-bottomed canoes – once wood, now made of fiberglass) to ferry us from the fingertips of the Delta to our campsite some kilometers farther in. Our poler, Papillon, expertly maneuvers us through the hippo highways and back roads of the Okavango, through the Delta reeds that mask the myriad animals watching our parade of canoes. It feels like we’re floating, which we are of course, but it feels lighter and quieter than a traditional canoe or kayak somehow. The water is so still, it’s like a mirror magically guiding our craft along ancient paths. At the end of one such path, we pause by a larger pool to watch a hippo family playing and cautiously checking us out – popping in and out of the water, one by one, with a unique “spluff” that sounds not unlike a whale spouting. Papillon, chatting along the way giving us names of birds and history of this magical place. The polers have an organised association here, shuttling tourists around the Delta. The government of Botswana issues exams for different level of naturalist; each of our polers seem to possess several levels of knowledge of the flora, fauna and ecology of this region.
Hippos weigh more than a small car, can apparently walk up to 1km underwater (they don’t swim) and are considered the most territorial of animals in the Delta, killing more humans than any other animal here, not for a quick snack but in defense of their domain. We’re wary but excited to see them snarfle-surfacing nearby. I keep thinking it feels a bit like being inside a Nat Geo safari special, except the air smells like a sweet mixture of camp smoke and sagebrush. Still the silky texture of the air prevails. It is flat for kilometers and miles; only reeds distinguish wet from dry land, and even that depends on the season.
We arrive at camp after about an hour and a half through the wetlands, eat lunch and venture out for a quickie bush walk with one of the guides. This introduces us to the expanse of the Delta on eye-level. It’s nearly unfathomable, its size, and the volume of life this place contains; again, it feels almost surreal. As we walk, the delta grasses appear as if they are waiting out the mid-day heat for the afternoon traffic to resume. I learn that the pervasive desert sage is an insect repellent, though to my surprise and relief (malaria pills in tow), I’ve seen very few mosquitoes. One thing is certain: I will never again smell sage and not instantly be teleported to the Okavango.
As we saw from the air yesterday, there is a complicated matrix of animal trails, crisscrossing their way across the grasslands. From the ground, the trampled, well-used paths reveal myriad tracks and we see elephant and lion footprints; also antelope and zebra scat (we know they know we know they’re here). Two maribou storks (a humongous Sub-Saharan flying beast, listed in the Ugly Five according to our guide) circle in the sky above; desert grass waves in the slight breeze. Our eyes and ears are pealed for any sign of the Big Five before we head back to camp to rest before our sunset bush walk.
Mokoros safely docked at camp
Our tents for the evening
It’s day’s end and animals* are on the move from their mid-day siesta to grazing or hunting grounds. We’re walking farther into the Delta and we’ve gone by mokoro across to another island to see what we can spot. It’s a prickly anticipatory feeling, knowing you could be prey, depending on who or what you come across here. This feels different from any other hike I’ve been on – all senses alert for shifts in wind, rustling grasses, animal behaviour, signs of tracks or fresh poo.
There are reedbok antelope bounding, tigger-like through the tall grass. Cats are elusive this evening, but we see a dazzle** of zebra grazing in a field not 100 metres away. They notice us, but continue alternately grazing and keeping watch, as is their nature. It is incredible to observe them interpreting their continuously-changing surroundings. They all alert to some unseen hazard in the trees nearby, moving en masse just slightly Eastward before relaxing and resuming their meal (enhancing our photo-op in the process).
We race the sun on our way back to camp, the African sky is fire against the wheat-coloured plains. We see more zebra, impala, birds, and as I’m disembarking the mokoro, a tiny elephant shrew (a member of the lesser-known Little Five) bounces into view at my feet, doing its best kanga impression.
The sun sets as we arrive back at camp, and while we didn’t see an elephant this time out, I know this walk is a mere appetizer for what we’re to see in the days ahead. Already I want to spend an extra week here in this spot (despite the warnings about straying too far from camp and a strong suggestion on checking the bush for the glow of eyes before going to the toilet).
The magic of the savannah overshadows the night’s activities only slightly: we’re eating grilled food around an open fire in the Okavango Delta, listening to our polers sing songs from this part of the world. Laughter abounds. I’m lucky to be here, I think, and haven’t even seen an elephant up close yet.
We venture back to the mainland in the early morning hours