Mornings were cool. Dry. And oddly quiet.
We’d heard hippos and baboons at night, maybe hyenas, too, and a bunch of “Who knows?” sounds. Here in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the Kenya-Tanzania border, it could be an elephant, rhino, even lion.
Whatever, it was extraordinary. And that’s exactly why we’d come to Africa.
Up before dawn, showered, and dressed in our safariest of outfits, Carolyn and I downed coffee and cookies (before the monkeys got to them), closed the tent, and crossed the shaky rope footbridge to our Land Rover and Sammy, our Maasai warrior driver, safari guide, and soon to be good friend.
“Look up!” exclaimed Carolyn. The night sky above was jam-packed with stars. When Carl Sagan saw his “billions and billions” of stars, he must have been looking at the equatorial African sky.
By daybreak, we were deep in the African savannah. The iconic, flat grassland seemed to reach to the ends of the earth. Breaking the horizon we saw only the occasional acacia tree. And over there, a rare Maasai giraffe and her young son. And topis. And impalas. Thompson gazelles and little dikdiks. Beyond, by the lonely acacia topped with two tawny eagles, a small herd of elephants.
Ostriches chased an annoying jackal, and all was right with the world.
This was the beginning of time. Eden. God’s country. It was absolute magic, interrupted only by the sound of camera shutters. Carolyn and I looked at one another, smiling, knowing how each of us had spent 60 years waiting for this very moment.
Carolyn will tell her story later. For me, it was a fifth-grade encounter with Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure that turned the Dark Continent, as Africa was then known, to a place of danger, yet infinite wonders. Today, instead of rifles, we pack cameras. Instead of small, leaky tents vulnerable to monkey attacks, we sleep safely in soft four-poster beds, with hot showers, flush toilets, and electric for camera-battery charging.
From that moment three days earlier when Carolyn kissed a Rothchild’s giraffe at the Giraffe Centre near Nairobi, we knew: This would be the trip of a lifetime. A place on a whole different plain, if you pardon the pun, where wild animals take center stage and you, my friend, is there only to treasure and to be grateful for your life and theirs.
What we didn’t know is how intimate we’d become with two tribes of Kenya’s original Africans, the Samburu and the Maasai. That was not planned, not included in your typical safari.
In the relatively remote Samburu National Reserve, located about an hour and a half north of Nairobi via a 10-seater Cessna Caravan, the Samburu village is at first glance little more than a circle of mud and dung two-room, windowless huts, one room for the family, one for calves. Cattle, the wealth of the tribe, are bedded for protection in the center of the village.
Until our safari lodge, Samburu Intrepids built a school for the children and dug a well for the village, these nomadic pastoralists, as do most tribes here, moved often for survival.
The most colorful, most delightful line of singing and dancing women this side of Vegas greeted us. Women young and old were dressed in traditional clothing of bright red material with multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
For eons, these handsome people lived isolated in prehistory. Even the conquering Brits closed the area to outsiders. Today, Samburu sell their jewelry to tourists like us in exchange for their school, well, and open hospitality. With one foot in the Stone Age and the other in the 21st Century, I wonder how long they can resist the temptation of, say, a generator or an outhouse.
Here men have as many wives as they can afford. But when I asked one of these smiling young women with whom we’d become friends if she’d like to be my Number-Two wife, she replied, “How many cows do you have?” And then, after a short consideration, she said to Carolyn, “He’s too old. I want a warrior.”
To which Carolyn replied, “Me, too!”
As with their Maasai cousins to the southwest, meat is only eaten on special occasions. Milk is the Samburu mainstay, often mixed with blood. (At a similar village in the Mara, chronically anemic Carolyn was invited to supper. Unfortunately, our tight schedule wouldn’t permit it. We hope to return someday with a rain check in hand. Carolyn could use the blood!)
The Great Ewaso Nyiro River provides life to this rugged area, so unlike the flat plains with which we most associate Kenya and safaris. Yet the big five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and buffalo) abound. Along with the reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and others almost unique to this area.
From our tent, we watched the animals come to drink. As hunting has been outlawed in Kenya since the 1970s, animals – with the exception of the leopard – are completely unafraid of man and his vehicles. More than once we saw a lion take rest in the shadow of a Land Rover full of tourists on safari.
Safari is the Swahili word for journey. Not just journeys by Land Rover, but those of the mind and spirit. Journeys of self-discovery. Journeys that open the heart and soul.