July 7, 2005
The Lion King
By URIEL HEILMAN
The herd of buffalo appeared suddenly between the tall grasses and squat trees, a dozen or so hulking forms catching us unawares as they emerged from the bush.
At first it seemed as if there were only 10 or 12 of them, eyeing our Land Rover with suspicion. But then the Masai tribesman who served as our scout pointed out another 50 or 60 lined up just off to the side, which my Western eyes had missed entirely in a casually directed glance at what I had thought were just boulders, bushes and tree trunks.
With a horn span of over 40 inches, weighing up to one ton and capable of reaching speeds of more than 60 kilometers per hour, the African buffalo is one of the savannah's deadliest mammals. These buffalo bear little resemblance to the American bison so often misidentified as buffalo, and along with the lion, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros they are members of the Big Five-Africa's five most lethal animals to humans.
My heart froze. If we were between this herd and its young, our vehicle would be no match for a 60-ton stampede or the massive, deadly horns spiraling out of their heads. A string of saliva hung from the jaws of the animal closest to us, and the beasts looked to me like they were lining up for a charge.
I pulled out my camera.
All of a sudden, the animals took off in the opposite direction, giving rise to a noise that sounded like distant thunder, their hooves generating a cloud of dust that rose slowly from the earth. A moment later, they were gone.
This is why I had come to the Masai Mara, the national reserve on Kenya's southern border.
Until the opportunity arose for a trip to Kenya, I never really had considered going on a safari (Swahili for "journey"). I am not much of an animal lover-I haven't even seen "Lion King"-and in my mind a safari seemed better suited for naturalists and the kind of people who liked to spend their vacations seated, rather than hiking, swimming or rowing-not people like me.
But everything changed upon my arrival in the Mara, late one afternoon on a 20-seat propeller plane that landed on a strip of land marked by no terminal, sign or weathervane. The pilot got out to help transfer my luggage from the rear of the plane to the vehicle that had come to meet me, and 25 minutes later I was gazing in wonderment at a lioness nursing her cubs just a few meters from where I sat.
Before sundown I would see elephants, baboons, giraffes, gazelles, cheetah, zebras, wildebeests, a rare sable cat and a bunch of deer-like animals I had never heard of before, including the beautiful topi.
Then it was off to Little Governor's Camp, where I gained a new understanding of what camping can mean.
To start with, the tent I stayed in ar Little Governor's bore no resemblance to the simple nylon structures people toss into the trunks of their cars and erect on the beaches of the Kineret. This one had a bathroom (beday included)-along with a king-sized bed, antique wooden furniture, a rocking chair and a shower. There was no electricity, of course, but there were plenty of gas lamps, and instead of a morning wake-up call a steward came into the tent at the appointed hour with a tray of tea. "Good morning, sir," he said.
Meals were luxurious affairs on candle-lit tables under the African sky, with private waiters assigned to each table and a chef decked out in a white uniform-complete with top hat. He even cooked to my kosher specifications, using a pot I had bought in Nairobi on the first day of my trip. On my first night in the bush, I realized it probably didn't count as roughing it when the pre-dinner scotch I ordered was followed with the question, "Would you prefer red label or black label, sir?"
I could get used to this kind of life, I thought.
Kenya is a magical place, and the Masai Mara is one of its gems. Located less than an hour from Nairobi by plane (the roads there are hazardous, unpaved and very slow), the Mara is home both to Masai warrior tribes that have dwelled here for some 400 years and animals that probably have been here for thousands. Unlike South Africa, where some of the parks have paved roads and hotels, the Kenyans have striven to keep the Mara as close as possible to its natural form-thanks in part to pressure by environmentalists and the dollars that tourists bring.
It doesn't take long to adjust to life in this former British colony, with safari staff waiting on you hand and foot and the unique experience of being in the bush-albeit colonial style.
The days in the Kenyan bush tend to follow the same basic outline. We wake at dawn or near dawn to go see the nocturnal animals out and about before the day's heat forces them into the shade and the hard-to-find places they go to nap. Given the price of the safari (about $300 per person per day), every party gets its own guide and vehicle, which can force its way through high grasses, squat trees, deep mud and tight riverbeds.
It's not hard to find the animals, and the delicate dance between predators and their prey is endlessly interesting. In Africa, there are no weak or old animals, and there are no deaths of "natural causes." Here, it's survival of the fittest. With predators never far behind, the moment an animal slows, breaks its leg or otherwise can't keep up with the pack, it's as good as dead.
If you've got good luck and a good guide, you may spot an animal eating something it has killed. If you're extraordinarily lucky and able to find a way to observe the animals without disturbing them, you may see a kill-though we are told this is exceedingly rare. We counted ourselves lucky when we found two cheetahs ripping apart some fresh meat too eviscerated to identify. We also followed three hyenas as they picked up the scent of fresh blood and tracked their way to a lone jackal feeding on a gazelle. It took only a moment or two for the hyenas, who are known to steal prey even from lions, to wrest the gazelle's remains from the feeding jackal.
Along the way, I learned how to recognize animals by their feces (hyenas can crunch through bone, so their deposits tend to be bone-white; elephants hardly digest food, so their excrement looks almost like straw); how to use different bushes and branches to "brush" my teeth, cure my ails or satisfy my hunger; and how the animals eat, sleep, mate and die.
I learned that lions kill giraffes by jumping on their torsos and biting their necks, but that if they miscalculate and miss, a giraffe can kill a lion with one swift kick. I learned that though a gazelle can run 50 miles per hour and is surpassed only by the cheetah, at 70 m.p.h., you don't have to be a cheetah to catch a gazelle-clever animals will find other ways. Indeed, this aphorism, first articulated by my guide Joe Charleson, applies equally well to a broad range of human endeavors.
I also learned that the best time to visit the Masai Mara is mid-June to early October, when the season of the Great Migration brings millions of animals from across the Tanzanian border into the Mara. During this season, wildebeests and other animals move in packs of thousands across these great savannah plains, coming to mate and feed in Kenya's lush grasses after the early winter rainy season of April-June.
I visited in April, just before the great rains came, and at one camp had the unique experience of being alone with my companion in the African bush-as well as a staff of 12 to serve us, of course.
After two days at luxurious Little Governor's Camp, we took an all-day drive through the bush to Leleshwa Camp, a cluster of eco-friendly tents by a riverbed at the northeastern edge of the Mara, somewhat off the well-beaten tourist path. After several days of game drives in park's most popular area, Leleshwa was a welcome and refreshing change.
Unlike Little Governor's, Leleshwa is designed specifically to leave no permanent mark on the land. Instead of pipes for hot water and concrete floors, we had canvas floors and showers-by-order: When you wanted to wash up, a steward drew the water from the river, heated it up over a fire and then hoisted it up into a large bucket suspended near the roof of your tent. You pulled a string, and three or four minutes of pleasant showering ensued behind a flap in your tent.
Accommodations were no less pleasant than at Little Governor's, however, with bountiful meals, ample tent space and the little things that make camping in Kenya so memorable-like the hot water bottle that is slipped between your bedsheets every evening to keep your feet warm through the night.
And Joe Charleson, the delightfully cheerful Briton who owns Leleshwa camp and was our guide during our stay there, was a veritable walking encyclopedia about the animals, plant life and human settlements in the Mara, giving us a unique perspective on the bush. He even took me to a Masai village school one day, where he distributed schoolbooks paid for by a generous Westerner who had visited the school some months earlier. In return, the children treated us to a colorful dance and song performance, which I captured on video on my digital camera. Two months later, I received a letter from one of them in the mail.
The experience felt far more authentic than the visit to another Masai village I had taken two days earlier, where a village leader collected his $10 fee, talked to me about how the Masai eat only meat, blood and milk (it was once true, but not so much anymore, I later learned), and then instructed the native women-several of them his wives-to sell me homemade trinkets.
One morning at Leleshwa, instead of piling into the Land Rover, we took a walking safari, escorted by two Masai warriors armed with bows and arrows in case we ran into trouble. We "hunted" for game on foot, drawing our binoculars when we spotted clusters of zebras and gazelles and learning about the flora and fauna from up close.
We ended up in a large clearing where, to my surprise, breakfast was waiting for us on a table set up under a tree covered by a tablecloth, freshly squeezed fruit juices, cereal, rolls and coffee. Then a waiter approached from behind the jeep to ask us how we wanted our eggs cooked.
Late afternoon game drives ended in similar fashion. After seeing some hippos bathe in a river, elephants trod through low-lying trees or Masai children sing at a local school, we headed for a nearby mountain, crashing through the bush to reach the top before sun set.
Then the cold Tusker beers and Cokes came out, a bonfire was set, and we sat contentedly as we watched the sun go down and the symphony of sounds rise up around us-crickets, frogs, beetles and the occasional lion's roar.
Then it was back to camp under the brilliant African night sky, with the flashing eyes of unknown animals watching us through the tall grasses.
After four days in the bush, my friend and I returned to civilization for Shabbat, where we spent the weekend at the scenic Great Rift Valley Lodge, a two hours' drive from Nairobi, near Lake Naivasha.
Set on a mountain overlooking the Great Rift Valley, the lodge is one of countless places Kenya's richer set escapes to on the weekends to get away from the heat, noise and oppressive crowds of Nairobi.
There's plenty to do at the lodge-including golf, horseback riding, cycling, swimming and boat tours-and plenty not to do. The views from the balconies of the well-appointed rooms are a great place to relax with a book, or sing the songs welcoming the Shabbat while gazing out at the earth's widest valley just kilometers away from the equator.
All meals are feasts of excess, with buffet lunches and dinners in the main dining hall consisting of game meats, poultry, salads, vegetable dishes, desserts, and plenty of fresh fruit, including pineapple and passion-fruit that's to die for. And if you play your cards right (or wrong), you will be serenaded during your meal by a pair of Kenyans doing their best renditions of classics from Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles.
I passed the time at Naivasha taking my first golf lessons (from a Kenyan, no less), viewing wild zebras on horseback and just living my life in African time-that is, slow and spontaneous.
Then I went home, and started dreaming of my next trip to Africa.
How to plan your safari
Late June marks the beginning of the season of the Great Migration, when millions of animals cross the border from Tanzania into Kenya and the Masai Mara. It lasts through early October and is the best time to visit Kenya. The only time safari camps are closed is during the rainy season from April through early June. If you're particular about your dates or have very specific desires, safari companies advise booking several months in advance.
It's virtually impossible to plan a trip to Africa without going through a safari company, which takes care of all the little details a Westerner might easily overlook. I used the reliable Born Free Safaris (www.bornfreesafaris.com or 800-4-SAFARI in the US), a US-based outfit, which took care of everything from transportation from Nairobi's airport to internal flights and sojourns in the bush. East Africa Safari Ventures (www.eastafricasafariventures.com) took care of my visit to Leleshwa Camp.
Safaris run at about $300-$350 per person per day-meals, lodging, and vehicle and guide included (not including the flight to the bush on Air Kenya, which costs about $200 round trip). The safari company can help plan your trip for you, or you can specify camps you'd like to visit. I spent two days at Little Governor's Camp (www.governorscamp.com or +254-20-273-4000 and two days at Leleshwa Camp (firstname.lastname@example.org or +254-20-574-746). I highly recommend both.
Reservations at the Great Rift Valley Lodge, where price varies according to season, can be made by calling +254-311-50047 or visiting www.heritage-eastafrica.com.
The website of the Kenya Tourist Board, www.magicalkenya.com, also is a great resource for planning your trip, and they have offices in the United States and Europe (see the website for phone numbers.
Aside from the occasional charter flight, there has been no direct flight to Nairobi from Tel Aviv since the 2002 bombings of the Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa and the attempted shooting down of an Israeli airliner. Though these incidents are fair reason for caution when visiting Kenya (for which both the US and Israel have travel warnings), I figured the threat of terrorism was far greater at home in Israel than in the African bush-and proceeded with my anxiety-free vacation from there.
Ethiopian Airlines flies to Nairobi from Tel Aviv several times a week, with a stop in Addis Ababa. The schedule is wearing-you'll need to spend several hours in the middle of the night in the Ethiopian airport before taking the two-hour, early morning flight to the Kenyan capital-but it's the cheapest and easiest way to get to Kenya from Israel (around $660 round trip).
Once in Nairobi, the 5-star Stanley hotel downtown offers day rooms if you don't want to stay in town overnight. Wilson Airport, the domestic airfield from which charter flights depart to the Mara and other remote locations around Kenya, is just a few minutes from downtown. The planes are small, but the flights on Air Kenya are relatively smooth.
Before you get to the bush, you'll want to outfit yourself for a safari. The people who work in the bush wear traditional safari garb unironically, down to the olive-green socks, straw hats and khaki shorts you've seen in the movies. Though you can wear T-shirts and shorts, safari garb works best; just make sure not to wear bright-colored clothing if you want to get close to the animals. Also, be sure to bring some warm clothing for the nighttime-African evenings can get quite chilly.
As far as protection from the animals, there's not much cause for worry (though inoculation against Yellow Fever is required before entering the country). If you keep to the rules, the animals actually pose little serious danger. Here, the human is the superpredator from which all animals steer clear, I was told. Danger comes primarily when an animal feels threatened-for example, if it is surprised by a human, or if you come between a mother and her cubs.
That's why hikers in North America sing and whistle to keep away bears, and it's why the Masai in Kenya, who live in lion and cheetah hunting grounds, wear bright red clothing and beads around their necks that jangle as they walk: Nobody wants a surprise encounter.
Visitors with guides and Land Rovers need have less concern about their safety-or about pretty much anything else for that matter. The safari staff attends to all your needs.