An Unexpected Weekend in Africa

You know how Patrick Pichette had the beginning of his epiphanies atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, with ‘the vast plain of the Serengeti’ at his feet? I read this and day dreamt a bit, of the clouds and the sun scampering across the vast savannah, chasing shadows and darkness, revealing golden and orange hues in their wake. And promptly and sensibly chastened myself – an African vacation has never featured on my bucket list and Serengiti was as remote a possibility as me voluntarily climbing Mt. Kili.

Cut to a few days later, I was gazing at the ceiling, wondering, alternately, about the wisdom of retiring mid-career, and the wisdom of consuming huge quantities of cereal from the box. The phone pings. It is SG telling me that he needs to visit Nairobi in a month’s time for work. Would I want to tag along?

Never has someone gone so quickly from searching for ceiling spots to finding travel requirements for Kenya. With alacrity seldom exhibited before, I had us vaccinated for yellow fever and researched the hell out of what to expect when going to Maasai Mara National Park. And before you could sing ‘Circle of Life’, I was on my way to join SG in Nairobi.

In keeping with the other-worldliness of the trip, I shall run the blog post as an imaginary interview/FAQ. Some questions people genuinely asked of us, others are made up. My answers are 100% true. No animals were harmed during the making of the interview. So strap on your safari belts…

What made you imagine that you were British, complete with a hatbox and a pair of gloves, out for a visit to the colonies?

Staying at Sarova Stanley, which as the oldest luxury hotel (since 1902) is steeped in history and Victorian charm. Having a drink at the Exchange Bar is highly recommended.

That must be in Nairobi. Where did you stay in the Mara? What did you like most about your stay?

We went ‘glamping’ – that is we lived in luxurious camps. We chose Basecamp Masai Mara because of their focus on sustainability (they have planted 70,000 trees around the camp which makes it a paradise for birds) and integration with the local community.

The camp staff surprised us with hot water bottles to keep the chill away at night. Perfect for bones and muscles tired after the hours in the safari vehicle.

Another day in the Mara
Another day in the Mara

What was your welcome committee like?

At the very entrance to Maasai Mara, we were greeted by a giraffe standing tall and regal. I shrieked and hastily kow towed.

Give us a list of similes, analogies and comparisons using at least five animals that you sighted during your safaris.

  1. The pride of fifteen lionesses were like a gang of close sisters, lying collapsed in their afternoon siesta, languidly ignoring the buzzing flies in the still of the day
  2. The Thomson Gazelle (affectionately called tommies) frolicked and gamboled like children during their school break
  3. …As graceful as the cheetah with her perfectly arched elegance and heavily kohled eyes. Or as inadequate as I feel, trying to do the cat posture in yoga, and thinking of the cheetah
  4. …As bad tempered and lonely as an old male African buffalo thrown out of the herd for being useless
  5. The black-backed jackal slunk like an up-to-no good con artist.
  6. …As unworried as the zebras drinking from a pool, not caring at all whether they had black stripes, or white stripes, or black with white stripes, or black and white stripes or black on white stripes
  7. …As pensive as the baby giraffe who stood mimicking its mother, gazing into the sunset
A baby giraffe's Que Sara Sara moment
A baby giraffe’s Que Sara Sara moment

How did this compare with the previous safaris you have been on?

You mean the one time when we took a boat safari in Lake Periyar in Kerala and perhaps saw some wild pigs several kilometers in the distance? Or maybe you are talking about the exciting time we spent spotting tigers in the Corbett jungles only to see giant termite hills?

Never mind. What were the voices in the head up to on the trip?

They were singing, on loop, the entire soundtrack of Lion King.

That reminds us, can you give us a few bars of the song you rendered every time you saw a certain animal (which was quite often), resulting in SG threatening on leaving you behind as hyena food?

Why, when he was a young warthog…

He found his aroma lacked a certain appeal

He could clear the savannah after every meal…

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase

Hakuna Matata! Ain’t no passing craze

It’s our problem-free philosophy

Hakuna Matata! Hakuna Matata! Hakuna matata! Hakuna Matata! Hakuna matata! Hakuna Matata! Hakuna matata! Hakuna Matata! Hakuna–

 *covering their ears* How did you ensure that there were no marital debates on who is the better wildlife photographer?

I let him take all the wildlife pictures *waves hands dismissively*. I bought a pair of binoculars from the vouchers my office colleagues gifted me on my retirement. The best present EVER! So I peered through those while SG clicked away. I only snapped a few sunset photographs, because I am a far better landscape photographer than he will ever be. Obviously.

What was the one thing you thought would be over-hyped but ended up being totally worth it?

The visit to the Maasai village. One sunny afternoon, we walked to the village in the local Talek community and spent an enchanting few hours learning about the Maasai culture, their practice of polygamy, how they eat no grains, fruits or vegetables and of course, participating in their dance. It is fascinating to catch a glimpse of the delicate balance and connect that the Maasai have with the Park, modern Kenya and their rich heritage and traditions. A must-do, I say!

Our visit to the Maasai Village
The Maasai women sing their special welcome

Did it matter that you did not go during the great migration?

We asked this question of our super-informed and experienced guide, James. He said that the only difference would have been that the animals would have been much more in number, and absolutely teeming! Consequently, the vehicles and tourists would have also much been much more in number, making it quite crowded. From what I read, the migration is recommended for a first time safari traveler and the more experienced folks stick to the supposedly off peak times.

We heard that you felt an inch high during the trip?

The leopard lounged on a on a tree branch, turning his steely eyes on us every once in a while, too disdainful to even laugh at us. We sat as still as mice, near the base of the tree and waited for His Majesty to move. He occasionally flexed his muscles.

What was really an inch high?

The smallest antelopes are called Dik Diks and are about 30-40 cms high, weighing 3-6 KG. We were fortunate enough to play hide and seek with one tiny and watchful creature. Compare it with the largest antelope, the eland which can be up to 5 ft tall and weigh nearly a ton.

Are you done with the trivia?

Such trivia is what makes the safari so much fun. Our guide, James, was a wonderful repository of such information and by the end of the trip, we could tell apart all the various antelopes with ease and chat as experts on the subject of the hippopotamus diet. Oh did I tell you about the hippos?! There were wallowing in a muddy turn of the Mara river, snorting air and water!! And the hippos kissing!!

What is your favorite memory from the trip? This.
What is your favorite memory from the trip? This.

Please don’t gush so much. Tell us another piece of trivia.

Lore has it that the wilderbeest, confused as they are, are formed with the left overs of all other animals J The other more obvious one is that the African elephants have ears shaped like Africa.

You are back! *in a slightly disappointed tone*. Were you not exposed to Ebola?

We were in East Africa and the Ebola outbreak is in the Western part of the continent, making it quite safe for tourists to undertake safaris in Kenya and Tanzania.

You are back! *in a really disappointed tone*. Is the safari safe? Were the animals not tempted to have you for breakfast?

Highly unlikely, especially as you stay strictly inside the safari vehicles. They are specially modified allowing for their roof to be raised, making for fabulous and unrestricted views.

PS. I don’t mean to be facetious about safety or serious diseases. The questions were for real. I hope that the disappointed tone was imagined.

Talking about breakfast, who did you have for breakfast company?

A tree hyrax. This small rodent-like creature lived high up in a tree trunk hole and seemed to be a cross between a rabbit and rat. It peered at us, each day, from its high perch, anxiously surveying and supervising breakfast. Some home-made jam, anyone?

Our breakfast companion
Our breakfast companion

On the subject of food, being a vegetarian, you ate only salads? *snigger, snigger*

I will have you know that the Kenyan hospitality industry is quite used to (but still very puzzled by) the largely vegetarian Indian tourists. So we ate in style, all three course meals, out under the trees or the stars.

Tell us a food related insight.

The Kenyans do amazing things with a deep fryer and cassava and arrow roots. Wonderful with the local beer. *gets misty eyed*

The beer…

…is simply ‘awesome’! The local brew is called Tusker and a chilled pint (or several) are terrific sun downers at the end of a of a safari! We have several fond selfies with our new high spirited friend.

Why did you not go to Serengiti? You should have gone to Serengiti. Oh my!

a) Access is through another country b) We had only one weekend for the entire trip c) Why are you telling me this now?

What was the funniest piece of advice that you read before travelling?

Wear a sports bra to deal with the bad roads. Oh yes, the roads are bad! In fact, they are so bad, that sports accessories will barely help. If you think you can’t deal with the six hour rattling drive, I suggest you fly from Nairobi to the Mara.

Do you notice a change in your TV viewing habits after the trip?

I now watch Wildwives of Savannah Lane

If the giraffe welcomed you, who bid you goodbye?
If the giraffe welcomed you, who bid you goodbye?

Your thank you speech? Go!

I owe thanks to…

  • SG, for his company and his Company for the serendipity of the trip
  • James, our guide, chauffeur, walking-talking nature encyclopedia, and chief translator of all things Swahili, for sharing his wisdom, insights and jokes
  • To James (our camp-manager, of Maasai origin, not to be confused with James our guide) for the wonderful hospitality and being willing to exchange notes on the Indian, Maasai and Kenyan worldview, around the bonfire, in the restaurant ‘under the thousand stars’
  • To Patrick Pitchett for the day dreams and inspiration. Onward to Bali, then.
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