Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kenya: Scary Safari Stories

I'm writing from a town on the lower slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It's the highest mountain in Africa and even as I swelter in the equatorial heat, the almost-ever present clouds occasionally part, revealing a peak partly covered in snow and ice.

I spent the last week or so in Kenya, where I went on safari in the Masai Mara National Park. It's an extremely large reserve where wild African animals live in an unspoiled environment while safari vans zoom around trying to get close enough to the animals for tourists like me to stick their head out of the open roof to take photos.

Scary Safari Story #1

We were lucky enough to see three very hungry lions - one male lion and two females - hunting. They had a clever strategy, moving slowly in a v-shaped formation, with the two females somewhat ahead and to the left and right of the male. They slunk through the long, dry, brown grass, trying to trap an impala. However the impala was far too quick so the lions remained hungry.

Sometime later our safari van got a puncture, and we had to stop to replace the tyre. The driver needed our help, which meant we had to get out amidst that same long grass that camouflages hungry, hunting lions so well. The driver wasn't so happy with the whole deal and asked us - needlessly - to stay as close to the van as possible. I used the avoid-the-sharks-while-swimming-at-the-beach strategy, and made sure I was always closer to the van's open door than at least one other person. I think we set a new world record for amateur tyre-changing, and we even gave those Formula One pit-stop guys a run for their money.

Scary Safari Story #2

We slept for two nights in tents at a campsite just outside the Masai Mara national park. No fences mark out the border of the national park, only a small creek which any animal worth worrying about could easily cross. The campsite was run by a Masai guy, one of the tall, slender people who wear blankets and mutilate their earlobes into long, elastic shapes and look something like this. After the sun had set we sat around a campfire and the Masai guy told us fascinating stories about how elephants and hyenas sometimes wander through the campsite in the night while everyone is sleeping. Even a lion, he said, had been known to pass through.

Fascinating stories indeed - until I woke up at 3am in the morning with a really strong need to go to the toilet. Outside I could hear unfamiliar howling noises that resembled those hyenas I had heard from a distance earlier. I tried to go back to sleep, hoping the pressing need would go away, but of course it never does; it just gets more demanding. Eventually in desperation I got up and put on all my clothes, hoping that my trousers were permeated with special wild-animal-repelling chemicals. I opened my tent zipper just wide enough to stick my head out, terrified that a hungry lion with a taste for human meat was waiting outside my tent, ready to swipe me with a powerful claw as soon as my head appeared. But there I saw, in the middle of the campsite, the Masai guy sleeping on a deckchair next to the embers of the fire. (In the morning the Masai told us that he sleeps on the deckchair every night, to keep the hyenas away.) Seeing him gave me the confidence to quickly go outside and do what I had to do, while every rustle in the nearby bushes had adrenalin pumping through my body. I can't describe how sweet the relief was when I got back in my tent.

The next night I made sure not to drink anything for a few hours before going to bed.