15th, 2004 -> Habari Za Safari: kenya
We heard the trumpet blasts before we saw them:
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
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
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
-> MORE TRAVELOGUES