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January 15th, 2004 -> Habari Za Safari: kenya

We heard the trumpet blasts before we saw them: three young bull elephants, moving towards the high bank of the Uaso Nyiro ("Brown") River. We were in Samburu National Reserve, a dessicated scrubland in central Kenya that explodes with lush vegetation near the river. The elephants wanted to cross, but they did not like the look of the steep, sandy embankment. One by one, they stepped off the edge. The sand, of course, gave way, and the pachyderms stumbled and rolled ignominiously into the water. It was hilarious.

That same day, we came across a lion and lioness sleeping near the river. Lions, as all expert trackers know, are most easily spotted by looking for large numbers of stationary safari vehicles. The lions weren't moving - not even teeth-baring yawns that could be photographed and passed off as roars. The male did twitch occasionally. 'Dreaming of the chase!' we all thought. After more than an hour's vigil - which saw a dozen vehicles come and go - the lions finally stirred. The female had barely covered ten meters before the male was on top of her, pumping away as he bit her neck. He had obviously been dreaming about something else.

Wild animals are not always graceful. They trip over bushes, they fall down, they clamber over sleeping colleagues. They have no shame. They poop, they fart, they lick their groins, and they generally stand with their butts facing you. They spend a lot of time sleeping in the shade, or in dense thickets where it is difficult to see them. They do not stand in good light and wait to be photographed. They do not organize hunts for the benefit of encircling Land Cruisers. All these traits are annoying to impatient tourists hell-bent on seeing the Big 5.

Everyone wants to see the Big 5: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. But few know that the Big 5 is an old hunting term, referring to the five most dangerous animals to hunt, and therefore the most prized for big game hunters to shoot. The modern 'safari' (the Swahili word for journey) developed naturally from the big hunting safaris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As hunters turned into park rangers in the mid-20th century, safari clients began to shoot film instead of bullets.

It is a bitter irony that the same White Hunters who killed staggering numbers of animals would become the chief stewards of Kenya's wildlife parks. Something like guilt must have possessed them as they saw once abundant wildlife cut down by an ever-increasing fusillade of hunters' bullets. Both "Born Free" and "Out of Africa" - two books which defined the romantic image of Africa - were written by women who lived with and loved former White Hunters turned conservationists.

There is little denying the adventure and romance of these mens' lives. They knew the bush and the animals better than just about anyone else. They were crack shots with rifles and pistols. They disappeared into terra incognita and returned with trophy ivory, satisfied clients, and perhaps a few new scars evidencing the danger of their profession. Ernest Hemingway based characters on them, Hollywood actresses had flings with them, millionaires and royalty wanted to hunt with them, and young men in Europe and America wanted to be them. The greatest hunters became bonafide celebrities: Bill Judd, Alan Black, Denys Finch Hatton, Bror Blixen, Richard Cunninghame and George Outram, to name a few.

Arguably the most famous safari was that of [former] US president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, whose 1909 expedition "was the largest ever assembled, with five hundred porters in addition to camp and hunting staff." Roosevelt - remembered in the US as a conservationist who set aside millions of square miles for national parks and founded the Sierra Club - shot 9 lion, 6 buffalo, 8 elephant, 8 black rhino, and 5 white rhino. His son, Kermit, shot 8 lion, 4 buffalo, 3 elephant, 3 black rhino, and 4 white rhino, as well as 3 leopard.

Brian Herne, author of "White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris," noted that the Roosevelt bag was "for the most part relatively modest" for the times. The death toll of the safari business was shocking. Leslie Tarlton, co-partner of premier safari company Newland and Tarlton, had trouble recalling the number of lions shot by his clients in just one year, 1911: "The exact figure I do not remember, but I believe the total was either 695 or 795." Today, a 'msafiri' (traveler) will be ecstatic to see just one lion or leopard.

In these 'grand old' days of African safaris, it took tens (and sometimes hundreds) of porters to carry an expedition's provisions. Preparations took months and an average safari was two months long. Crowds would gather in Nairobi to watch the party march off into the bush. Today, you can arrive in Nairobi on one day and be on safari the next day, sharing a pop-top 4WD van with 5-6 others. There used to be lots of animals but it was hard to get there. Now it is easy to get there, but far fewer animals. Still, patience is a virtue shared by few on safari. Many smaller, less dangerous animals are ignored in the mad rush to shoot (photographically) the Big 5. And once seen, a Big 5 constituent no longer excites. You should have seen the desperation with which people were seeking their first leopard as the safari drew to a close.

More important to us than seeing any particular animal was seeing the animals displaying a variety of natural behaviors. We saw elephants flinging trunk-fulls of cooling red dirt onto their backs. We heard the crack of male elephants sparring with their tusks. We watched infants nursing from the pendulous breasts between their mothers front feet. We gasped as a massive old tusker charged a vehicle that got too close. We witnessed a stampede as a herd fled from some unseen danger. We must have seen hundreds of elephants, but we never tired of them. After all, how many times will we get to see elephants in the wild? These animals have never been caged, but one is struck most by their freedom.

Each park's landscape and vegetation was different, and that made the animals seem different too. Rains had transformed Amboseli National Park overnight. A bleak salt pan had become Lake Amboseli, the dusty plains were sodden, and magnificent Kilimanjaro had a new dusting of snow. We already had seen a hundred elephants, but the lone animal who posed in front of Kili was singularly spectacular. Hippos wallowed in new water holes, and hundreds of ducks had materialized.

Maasai Mara's rolling grasslands had been clipped by great herds of wildebeests and zebras, who had since moved south into the contiguous Serengeti plains of Tanzania. Lake Nakuru was surrounded by low forests of yellow-barked acacias, and higher up, by dense stands of euphorbia cactus. Doum palms lined the river bank in Samburu. The main trunk bifurcates once or twice (making the doum the only palm with branches), each fork topped by a crown of fronds.

On our first full day of game viewing (in Maasai Mara National Park), we saw the following: 3 lions, 16 zebras, 7 ostriches, 50 hippos, 11 topis, 81 elephants, 38 giraffes, 70 buffalos, 61 Thomson's gazelles, 69 impalas, 23 hartebeests, 9 eland, 2 dik-diks, 2 bushbucks, 60 wildebeests, 33 warthogs, 29 mongooses, and 2 crocodiles. We were amazed at the number and variety of animals, most easily spotted. But Shem, our knowledgeable driver/guide remarked that there were "very few" animals in the park at this time of year.

Finally, for those who care, we DID see the Big 5.