The Masai Mara National Reserve on Kenya’s southwestern border with Tanzania is blanketed with large mammals, so heavily in fact that it takes a day or two to register that the animals are real and not holographic or cutouts from a National Geographic photo spread. This is what happens when you combine a life spent mostly staring into a computer with the ease of international travel. One day I’m in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; 24 hours and four airplane meals later, I’m on safari in the African savanna. The rapid change of scenery can give vacation a dream-like quality. What unsettles the reality principle further is that the animals stare right back at our vehicle, look right down the barrel of my lens for a good long while before scuttering off. I feel like the animal. It is the antelope that watches me.
Chief among the gawkers are giraffe, who as the tallest terrestrial animals are exceptionally fit for surveying the lay of the land, and the wildebeest, the most abundant mammal in East Africa and also the least visually appealing, with a jerky half-sideways gait and a devilish face. This animal is known in the safari community for its annual migration: What happens is that every year more than a million wildebeest, joined by zebra and other antelope (of which the wildebeest is one) move in a clockwise direction from the Serengeti in northern Tanzania, up into the Mara, and then back down again. It’s one of nature’s great symphonies, plus lots of the wildebeest give up the ghost to lions — so there’s something for everyone.
The wildebeest is so silly looking it’s tempting to hop out of the vehicle and grab it by the chin, which is discouraged for reasons of personal safety and just common decency. But even if nobody (else) is talking about it, somebody must be thinking it. Because physical contact with the animals, on many different levels — studying them, showing them off, protecting them from poachers, protecting visitors from injurious contact with them, land appropriation and management issues — is, after all, the central component of this whole safari business. It (the desire to touch or even tackle said wildebeest) also hints at a fundamental question that is no doubt vexing Hemingway readers and admirers of the great and swashbuckling President Theodore Roosevelt:
Will there be blood?
A Brief History of the Safari
What comes to mind when we think of a classic safari experience is a product of both fact and fiction, a combination of the 19th and early 20th century exploits of European colonists in Africa — in East Africa, mainly the British — and the portrayals of these events in books and film.
Where to Stay in Kenya
Any good Kenya travel guide will include a stop in the Mara, where you can book one of eight tents at Serian, a luxurious bush camp opened by Alex Walker, a fourth-generation East African hunter and safari guide. That will be your home base for game drives, fishing, eating and drinking amply in the common dining area. Coffee delivered with your wake-up call is a nice touch. So are the hippos grunting in the river below. serian.net
Plan to explore beyond the Mara on your trip. Shaba is situated in the eastern corner of the Samburu ecosystem in central Kenya, where you’ll find a more arid climate and a unique variety of wildlife. Joy’s Camp overlooks a natural spring where it’s not uncommon to see herds of buffalo and elephant. Each of the 10 tents has handmade glass decor, colorful fabrics and a veranda on which to drink a cold Tusker. Or three. joyscamp.com
Let’s say you and your lady and your entourage have had your fill of fauna, and what you’re looking for now is a private villa perched on the Indian Ocean. In that case, turn off Diani Beach Road onto an unmarked street, pass through a gate, and stay at one of three Alfajiri Villas. From there your itinerary includes snorkeling off a dhow, deep sea fishing, and drinking fresh mango juice provided by the ninja-like service staff. alfajirivillas.com
At roughly twice the size of Nevada, Kenya is navigable by car if you’ve got the time and the inclination to see every square inch. Otherwise, travel from bush to beach with Safarilink. flysafarilink.com
Writer, Photos: Jeremy Berger
These guys and gals were a colorful lot. Frederick Selous: naturalist, hunter, guide, specimen collector, soldier. Beryl Markham: horse trainer, hunter, bush pilot. Denys Finch Hatton: aristocrat, big game hunter and love interest of Karen Blixen, whose autobiography, Out of Africa, was adapted as the Academy Award-winning film of the same name. Robert Redford plays Finch Hatton, which, in my experience, seems to be a good approximation of the genteel European descendants you find in Kenya today, though perhaps more handsome.
Americans came over as well, guided by the likes of Finch Hatton, or in the case of Teddy Roosevelt, big-game hunters R.J. Cuninghame and Leslie Tarlton. Roosevelt went to East Africa for several months in 1909, a joint venture with the Smithsonian Institution that yielded 23,151 specimens, 5,013 of them mammals, an experience he recounted in a monthly column for Scribner’s Magazine (those columns were published the following year as a book, African Game Trails), and in a silent film, Roosevelt in Africa, by the wonderfully named Cherry Keaton. Most of these specimens ended up in the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C. — today the National Museum of Natural History — though only one, the square-lipped rhinoceros, remains on exhibit in 2013. In other words, this whole trip was a pretty big and exciting deal for Roosevelt and for museum-going Americans in general.
Hemingway would famously go on several hunting trips to Africa, inspiration for the book Green Hills of Africa (also first published serially in Scribner’s) and for the stories “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. The lore of the safari increased in direct proportion to the amount of times Hem walked away from plane crashes. (“His head was swathed in bandages and his arm was injured,” The United Press reported after his second crash, “but the novelist, who is 55 years old, quipped: ‘My luck, she is running very good.'”)
But the world has changed, particularly in Kenya where hunting big game has been illegal since 1977. (There are plenty of places to hunt the so-called “Big Five” — elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard — on the continent, including South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.) The purpose of the ban is multi-pronged, but one assumes its driving force is to slow the decline of the large mammal population, which in the parks of East Africa has nevertheless halved since 1970, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation. Hunting, i.e., what we talk about when we talk about hunting in the U.S., isn’t exactly the problem; large mammal populations in southern Africa, where hunting is allowed on a permit basis, have rebounded in recent years. Ethical arguments aside, issuing permits for hunting can create a revenue source for conservation and for local populations, an argument with many proponents in Kenya today.
The more nefarious threats to the Big Five are large scale poaching on behalf of foreign agents (to satisfy the Chinese market for elephant tusks and rhino horn, for example), the bushmeat trade (animals sold at rural and urban markets in Africa), and the general creep of an expanding human population on animal habitats.
Glimpses of Wild
So while Roosevelt revised the hyena population by negative four on his African safari, this morning I’m staring at the herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle down the barrel of a Canon DSLR, from a seat in a Toyota Land Cruiser. This is the safari adventure de rigueur in Kenya 2013: an educational and photo tour with varying degrees of luxury. It’s possible to go on safari in east Africa with a great variety of tour organizers, among them National Geographic and the very same Smithsonian Institution that funded Roosevelt’s trip. I’m a guest of the Kenya Tourism Board and of Extraordinary Journeys, a tour provider that specializes in luxury safaris. Aside from the obvious amenities, the more expensive camps are also ideally situated in the heart of prime wildlife viewing areas.
The Greatest New TV Show? Africa
As of the time of this article’s publication, nearly every reader, including your humble writer at present, has not had the chance to explore the wild scrub of the Low Veldt, the buggy jungles of the Congo, or the liquid-barren dunes of the Sahara. Let’s not be pessimistic. We’ll get there, some day. But for now, we’ll just have to strap on our Pith Helmet, plop onto our couch, and tune in to Discovery channel’s Africa. It’s Planet Earth on the Dark Continent; we’re pleased rather than annoyed that there’s been no tinkering with the formula. HD makes the country almost as stunning on the big screen as it is in person (we imagine). Until Africa, Africa will do.
We’re out early because morning and evening hours are the most promising for spotting lions, cheetahs and leopards, not to mention in Kenya’s equatorial climate the middle of the day can be downright hot. It’s beautiful here. The sky is big. The horizon is an uninterrupted 360 degree panorama. Acacia trees provide occasional spots of shade for the animals. Acacia in the Mara has a more typical, vertically-inclined posture than in central Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, where the treetops are broad and flat as if warped by the curvature of the Earth.
It doesn’t take long to get tired of seeing wildebeest and zebra (though not the Thomson gazelle, with which I feel some inexplicable bond), even elephants. It’s something of an honor to share the same ground as these beasts; it’s just that from my seat in the car I don’t have the sense of awe and wonderment I’d expected from a safari. Things seem too neat. Not that I want our Cessna to crash next to an elephant herd or a baboon to steal my lunch, but this is Africa man.
We encounter a pride of lions, about eight of them, straw colored and splayed out on the ground. Lions, unlike the other animals out here, don’t give a shit about humans taking pictures from vehicles; you don’t get to be king of the jungle by sweating passers-by. In the distance a Land Cruiser from another camp approaches. (Guides from the various camps in the Mara communicate with each other by radio to improve the total amount of Big Five viewing.) A hundred yards away the vehicle blows a flat. There are rules on safari. One of them is don’t get out of the vehicle around predators. Rangers are called to the scene while the other guide changes the tire. The lions, meanwhile, have roused themselves and now sit on their haunches, motionless except to breathe, staring directly at the guide until he’s finished the vehicle maintenance. Here we’re witnessing experts in their field: Like a surgeon conducting a heart bypass or a cellist performing a solo, a lion peruses the menu.
In the afternoon I go running with Dennis, a driver at Serian Camp, where I’m staying for a few days. Dennis competes locally in the 800m. His brother was member of the Kenyan running contingent at the Sydney Olympics. He has a big smile and good running posture — leaning slightly forward at the ankles. He doesn’t speak much English and I speak no Swahili, so we spend the next hour and a half running quietly through the Mara. A herd of at least two dozen impala darts in front of us, each bounding 20 or 30 feet in stride. Wildebeest stare. Zebra graze. Dennis chases after a hyena and hoots at it. I hoot at it. I secretly want this afternoon jog to turn into some kind of dangerous encounter I can regale my friends with back home. The time I outran a gazelle. Ironman triathlete improbably outfoxes angry bull, rides away at 60 mph on Thomson gazelle. A mix of fact and fiction. Dennis would probably keep my secret. Maybe it’s enough just to have the opportunity to run with some giraffe in the background. At 5,000 feet above sea level, under the hot sun, my lungs and face burn.
Thoughts Over Sundowners
The day’s final game drive is going along fairly predictably until we see a topi — a type of antelope fond of standing on mounds — staring into a swath of long grass. Other animals pause nearby as well, giving whatever’s under surveillance a wide berth. Our guide puts the truck in first and inches toward it. Maybe its a predator, is the consensus. A shiny sphere pops up. It looks like a turtle shell from a distance. No turtles out here, though. As we approach it’s clear we’re looking at people hiding in the grass. Four pop up directly in front of the vehicle to avoid being run over. Then two on the left flank and two more on the right. They’re wearing traditional Masai shukas and carrying spears. They assemble quickly into a group and make for the river, the border between conservation land and the village where they probably live, our driver explains. He calls the rangers to report the incident.
Back at Serian Camp our group sits down with Adrian and Roisin, the camp managers, for cocktails, or “sundowners” as they’re called on the safari circuit. I’ve taken to drinking Campari and soda so I don’t get lit up too quickly. Adrian wears the traditional Kenyan kikoy, a colorful fabric wrap — like a sarong — which is gutsy, fashion-wise, for a guy. He’s had an exciting day, he tells us, tracking down Masai teenagers illegally hunting lion on the conservation land. Olamayio, as it’s called, is a right of passage in the Masai tribe native to this region of Kenya — but it’s also illegal since the Masai have agreed to receive rent for the conservation land in exchange for vacating it.
There are rules on safari. One of them is don’t get out of the vehicle around predators.
The teens got away. Good for them. I don’t want to see a bunch of kids go down for chasing lions with nothing but a spear — that’s a pretty cool thing to do. And good for Adrian, whose mischievous smile seems to indicate that he relishes the possibility of things not going exactly as planned, the possibility of adventure.
And this is one of the things we’re after when we travel: adventure. I’ve never been much for going places to look at things and have somebody tell me about them; I’d rather read it all in a book (except for a cheetah — I’m goddam ecstatic I saw a cheetah). Killing things and dressing them in the field is one type of adventure, the one Hemingway and Roosevelt favored in East Africa. It’s helpful to remember that Roosevelt was accompanied by some 250 guides and porters along his trip, and that he stayed in a tent with a tub and a library; he wasn’t crawling on all fours through the bush with a Winchester. Much of the time the entourage was just looking at wildlife and taking photos.
Another type of adventure is discovered more subtly, by looking for a rip in the seam of the ordinary that helps you learn something about a place and see your own world differently. That this is possible on safari makes it worth the trip. A few weeks in Kenya is just enough time for a run with gazelle and a glimpse of olamayio, reason enough for a return trip. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go somewhere where I can hunt next time. Watch your ass, wildebeest.