You can count how many seeds are in the apple,
but not how many apples are in the seed.
Ben, our Maasai driver and guide for our two-day safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve
We are finally on day-one of our first safari! No matter how slow we go, fine reddish dust blows behind and insidiously within our vehicle as we admire the incredible scenery and look for the famous Big Fives: Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros.I had never heard of the term Big Fives before, probably a publicity stunt to attract more attention from tourism. They are so-called Big Fives because they are the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. Anyone still hunting on foot? Not that we are here to hunt; only to admire and enjoy. Not that we are here only to see the Big Fives as there are so many more interesting animals to appreciate as well. Not that we are here only for animals; the human equation is also very fascinating, varied and significant.
The following day brings us inside a different world; we hesitantly cross rushing streams, carefully dodge holes full of mud and surprisingly weave in and out of slippery tracks without getting stuck. The locals are perpetually tinged reddish-brown from the sneaky dust, it will take us a couple of weeks to eventually wash all of it off…
Going from desert-dry to lush-wet, seeing two different versions of the same Reserve in less than 24 hours. An accidental bonus. Either way, our green Jeep Land Rover driven by Ben is easily steered in the right direction to see many animals in a beautiful landscape of thirsty grass land, shaggy bushes along a wide river, and a few skinny lone sentinel trees on rolling hills. Animals went from a little lethargic the previous day to full of vigor, water being a vital force for all.
I sit in the front, next to our guide and driver Ben Letura, a local Maasai. Most people don’t seem inclined to interact with the driver (there are 10 of us in each jeep) but I like to ask questions, I am curious, I am interested in his life, in his knowledge of nature and animals. Be inquisitive and aware and soon enough, you’ll become amazed and astonished, a motto I borrowed from Australia.
Ben is missing his two middle bottom incisor teeth, which he says, signifies he is a true Maasai. Many think that these teeth were taken out in case of locked jaw (tetanus), allowing a straw to be inserted in the gap left by the missing teeth to assure survival through liquid nourishment. It is not the case according to Ben, it is a traditional practice that shows you are part of the Maasai tribe. It is a form of initiation to adulthood. If it were to help in case of locked jaw, why did some tribes take out four or six teeth when only one or two suffice? If it were to help in case of locked jaw, why did some tribes only do it to women or only to men, not both genders? If it were to help in case of locked jaw, why do they still do it when locked jaw now mostly affects newborn babies?
The main constant discovered while examining hundreds of skeletons was the presence of a lip plug with missing teeth. Was it to help differentiate each tribe? How about simply a question of aesthetics? We’ll probably never know for certain since many people today simply answer, when asked about this, that this is the way it has always been done.
Long hair of the warrior/hunter often colored with ochre
Burnt skin (right upper arm) as tribe identification
Most have shaved heads. Women shave their heads out of respect just before getting married, men shave their heads when they are no longer hunters, becoming elders. Hair is a sign of assertiveness, mostly warriors/hunters have long hair.
Ben is single because he is still taking care of two sisters and one brother, parents dead long ago, mother dying in childbirth, dad of cirrhosis, a typical story in today’s Africa if one is not killed by HIV/AIDS first. After 2-3 years of studies, he has been a guide for seven years and recounts some of his most famous sightings of animals in the Reserve. His favorite animal being the lion. He takes taking care of his siblings, over following his own preferred path in life, very seriously. He could have easily been married and with his own kids, several years ago.
Ben wrapped in his red shuka cloak and wearing beaded necklace
As we wander around the village, we are introduced to more Maasai traditions, customs and rituals. We watch a fire-making demonstration that is similar in technique to the Australian aborigines and the native Americans – a stick of soft wood (generally red cedar) rapidly turned between two hands onto a piece of hard wood (sandpaper tree) until smoke and then a flame is produced atop a small bunch of very small pieces of something that burns easily.
|Village women came to sing for us. It was obvious some wanted to be there, others not|
We learn that the kudu horn is equivalent to a ‘phone’ used to call warriors together. Today, on each mud hut, we see the tiniest of solar panel, each one used to charge a cell phone. A small part of modernity has made it this far. Electric lines are seen in the background, but they only reach the fancy resorts of the Reserve, none of the villages have electricity.
|Small kid playing near acacia fencing|
We hear of women’s chores: build the homes, take care of crops, collect firewood, milk cows, fetch water, cook, and raise kids. Men take care of the hunt, the herd, and safety of the kraal. They make the acacia fence around each compound. Acacia has very sharp needles which help keep predators away from people and herd sleeping there each night.
|Leaning on his stick, the other behind his back in the crook of his elbows|
Shoes made of old tires. They last forever.
The village is at the outskirt of the Reserve where we are finally heading. As we drive leisurely through it, we first see a male impala with his many females (up to 20 at times), he seems to be looking one way, all the females, the other, on guard, but used to the daily travels of 4x4’s. Nearby another impala is with many other males – such a grouping is called a ‘bachelor’ group. You either see one male with many females or many males together.
Topi in the savannah, rolling hills behind.
We then see the larger topis sporting eminent purplish patches of fur on their muscular haunches allowing them the nickname ‘blue jeans’ antelope. They are poised but known to go up to 50 miles (80 km) per hour when needed.
|Surrounding five cheetahs in the shade of one lone tree|
Nearby are the nimble Thomson gazelles quickly scattering about, a lioness breastfeeding four, possibly five babies, hidden in the darkness of thick low protective bushes, five full grown cheetahs lazing in the shade of a lone tall tree, ungainly wildebeests, never domesticated yet playful zebras, large mongoose family with small ones in tow running up the hill in the golden grasses undulating like brown furry waves, curious ostriches, skittish warthogs, powerful hyena sleeping by the side of the road in a ditch, others roaming in the tall grasses, buffalos, hartebeests, giraffes, hippos, elephants, pullover birds, king fishers as well as king crown, long crested eagles, Sebastian birds, Kory busters, lilac breasted rollers (a bird not seen near humans yet beautiful and the national bird of Kenya) and many more I do not know.
Saddle bill stork
Beautiful zebras, each with a unique design like our fingerprints
Hyena by the road, in ditch
Most animals ignore us. On several occasions our driver revs up the engine trying, unsuccessfully, to get a reaction from our wild hosts. Not even a twitch of the ear, a turn of the head or a look up. They know we are no threat to them. Should one of us, however, step outside the vehicle, they all go for cover. They have learned that two legged beings are dangerous.
Leopard resting in tree – outline of a zebra leg to its right
The piece de resistance, a leopard in a tree with what is left of a zebra’s hind leg, sleeping off his large meal. He is far above us, so picture is difficult to take but memory of this will stay with me a long time. Most animals are territorial and predictable, our guide knows where to find them. On our own it would take us days to see what we can see in a few hours here. Knowing where the animals normally sleep, eat, drink, hunt and at what time of day and seasonally are all things these guides have come to know over several decades. They make it look so easy but trust me it isn’t. Later, on one of our walking safaris we found out just how hard it is to find animals in the wild when on our own. There is also the idea that the animals are used to our guides, their look, smell, movements are not foreign to them. A new person brings suspicion with wishes to hide or escape.
The next day, our new adventure started very early in the morning. Not sure how far we can make it with the previous night’s heavy rain. From washboards to potholes and ruts to flowing streams we forge-on rattled by what they call African massage – bad roads that shake your teeth out and make everything uncomfortable. I am astonished vehicles stay in one piece with such road conditions. With the constant bouncing, someone loses their cellphone as we cross one of the muddy stream. We turn back and, remarkably, find it, unscathed!
Lioness overlooking her domain
This time around we are lucky enough to see a lioness perusing her domain perched high on a rock as the mist from last night’s rain slowly lifts to give us a clearer picture. She doesn’t seem to mind that we are there. More hyenas just walking around in broad day light. I had always assumed they live in pack but all we ever see are solo animals. Asking the guide, he tells me they are in pack when hunting. Buffalos have birds on their back, a symbiotic relationship called mutualism where both gain from the interaction. The oxpecker eats ticks and alerts the buffalo when rare predators are near, the buffalo provides the ticks/food.
Giraffe in the morning light
The tallness of the giraffes is impressive. It is one thing to see images but having one meters from you eating tree leaves gives you a very different perspective. What is even more striking however is how easily and quickly they disappear through the trees as if they were never there. You barely have time to point one out to a co-traveler and already it has gone missing.
|Hippo (middle right with mouth open) cannot go upriver to resting place, water too rough|
Looking for another way to calmer water
The river is raging, and huge hippos are trying to go upstream for their day’s rest in the water away from the sun, but they are not successful, the current being too strong. They end up back on land looking for shade or another calmer access to the river. They cannot be in the sun for long, their skin too fragile, mud and water being their only friend on a sunny day.
Ostriches with gnus (wildebeests)
I particularly appreciate seeing the mixing of animals: zebras with guinea hens, antelopes, ostriches, and warthogs – all getting along, all having food to eat and water to drink without much competition among them. They look well fed and healthy. It is peaceful.
|Hot air balloons adding color but noise which animals distrust|
Hot air balloons fly up on the horizon. Another way to see the Maasai Mara National Reserve. They add color to the greenish grassland and blue sky. Animals however are weary of the sound of the fire needed to warm up the air in the balloon. Things must be timed just right to see them before they flee at the sound of the next batch of fire needed to stay afloat.
|Thank you, National Geographic|
The visitors in the balloons must be enjoying the unusual spectacle below. One of the Jeep Land Rovers got stuck in the mud trying to cross a small stream. They were right behind us. Thankfully another jeep from National Geographic offered help. After much pulling and wiggling they finally are freed up. As we continue further heading towards the river to sight some hippos, two jeeps collide as everything is very slippery, no one is hurt but their pride.
Along the way I am getting better at making out and finding the animals that were there all along. Some blend well with rocks, others with grasses or mud. It can be learned. After a while some of our various guides get a bit annoyed with me for seeing animals before they do. It’s hard to contain my delight when I spot such beautiful creatures, staying quiet and expressionless would be very difficult.
On our way back to camp we see a dead zebra in the river below the bridge. The high waters carried the carcass down, a victim of the deluge. A reminder of the powers of nature.
New meets old
Ben answers all questions about the various animals. The fate of the Maasais and of the Reserve go hand in hand. The Maasai still follow their old traditions much more than many other African tribes but it doesn’t mean they don’t embrace part of this contemporary world. They have a foot in both worlds, the old and the new. They confront the wild daily while exploring the new horizons of today.
Some tourists lament the growth of modernity in Africa. They want to see and experience this ancient culture, denying these people the chance to experience what we have. Is that fair? I want to treat them as people, not villagers dancing or singing for us, not children taught to sell us bangles and hides with a shy smile.
I believe it is a big mistake to simply relegate these people to their beads, necklaces, shuka, missing teeth, beautiful smiles, hair, mud huts, etc. They are giving, living, knowledgeable human beings who love to share stories and want the best for their family, as we do. In such a short visit however, it is difficult to dig deeper.
Mere descriptions cannot portray the grandeur and beauty of the land, the animals, and the people. I wish I could’ve stayed longer to truly appreciate all aspects of these beautiful people in this amazing landscape.
Confronting the wild of modernity and tourism is probably harder than what they’ve ever had to face before.
Cheetah not perturbing giraffes by Paul Goldstein