Sometimes you wish your eyes were camera lenses – in Africa you make that wish several times.
I land at the Nanyuki airstrip within an hour of taking off from Nairobi. With 42 tribes, 2 national languages (English and Swahili) and several regional languages, Kenya already has me fascinated. I am looking forward to discovering Kenya. We are greeted by our guide, Peter at Nanyuki.
“Jambo! Habari Gani?”
And off we are on a safari through the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Laikipia.
The Ol Pejeta conservancy is on the Equator and on the foot of Mt Kenya. On our way we stop at a signpost indicating that we are on the 0° latitude. A young lad demonstrates to me the clockwise and anti-clockwise movement of water through a drain, north and south of the equator respectively. I am aware of this phenomenon, but I am surprised that it can be witnessed even a foot away from the equator – I develop a new fascination for the earth’s magnetic meridian.
As soon as we enter the Ol Pejeta conservancy, we see a flock of impalas following the male of their group. The impalas seem to be running in harmony with the wind blowing across the plain. The sound of the wind and the rhythmic trot of the impalas create a surreal vision.
We move towards a lake along the Equator. It is hot and we expect to find a few animals. When we get there, we see a huge African elephant advancing with cautious steps and then pausing to look at us. Clearly he wants to take the flatter terrain towards the lake and we seem to be in the way. Peter pulls the Jeep out of the way and now we see the elephant move confidently towards the lake and gulp in a few gallons to quench his thirst. I have seen several elephants growing up in India, but the African elephant seems twice the size of its Indian counterpart and definitely more menacing.
On our way back, we get an indication that the African Elephant is intelligent too – the coolest warning sign in all my travels greets us as we drive past a small bridge.
Wildlife seems to be everywhere. Kenya is home to the big 5 – Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant and Buffalo.
But zebras, giraffes and members of the antelope family seem to be the most visible. I am amazed at the various species of the antelope family that exist – Gazelle, Waterbuck, Impala, Oryx, Hartebeest. And there are sub species within them like the Thomson’s gazelle and the Grant’s gazelle. Initially it’s difficult for us to tell the difference between them, but by day 3, we begin to appreciate and recognize the subtle differences.
Back from lunch, we see a tower of half a dozen giraffes feeding themselves to lunch around a group of Acaia trees. They seem to be following a distinct rhythm around the trees as they clip away the leaves with a gardener’s dexterity – it’s time to for us to go camera happy!
At sundown we make our way towards the camp – we are welcomed with a glass of tomato juice with a hint of pomegranate – it has a unique taste and is a fitting start to some unique cuisine that we will experience over the next couple of weeks. Our campsite is around a lake, so we can expect enough wildlife for company at night. As a safety measure, we are escorted into our respective tents by the staff members with a flashlight. The tents are well equipped with shower and wash area, but we have to rely on a hot water bottle to keep the feet warm at night. The tents are spread out, so I am on my own and it’s hard to fall asleep amidst the sounds of the animals in the vicinity. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a lion or a gazelle that’s making its presence felt in the distance.
I am up at 6:00 for an early morning breakfast. I step out of my tent to feel the early morning chill and find a Waterbuck grazing a few feet away. I wonder if he was the one making all the noise the previous night. The Sun is gradually making its way up the horizon and the surrounding wildlife is gradually coming to life. Sir Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life’ is playing in my head and our curiosity is piqued when we see 5 gazelles lined up perfectly with their necks craned in the same direction. Peter suspects that a predator is on the prowl. We crane our necks in the same direction and see 3 lionesses looking straight at the gazelles. And this apparently is the origin of the phrase ‘heads up’ – a signal for a potential danger. The lion and the leopard like to surprise their prey, so a heads up stance where the potential prey is looking right at the predator eliminates the surprise element and ensures its safety.
We come across a huge herd of buffalos – it’s too huge to be called a herd – it’s almost a rally. The buffalos are alert and aware of our presence. Peter informs us that the buffalo skulls are strong enough to resist a bullet in the forehead from potential hunters. Hunters have to aim for the nostrils to get around the strong skull. Once again, the African buffalo seems stronger and larger than its Indian counterpart.
Towards sundown, we come across a Cheetah getting ready for dinner – we seemed to have narrowly missed the kill. His older brother who is less mobile due to an injury is calling out for him, but he is selfishly feeding himself first. Unlike the lions and leopards, cheetahs are not nocturnal – so they try to feed themselves before sundown. The cheetah seems to be an elegant animal – it’s feeding on its prey and not a spot of blood on its face while it eats.
The white Rhino conservancy in the area is something we’ve been looking forward to. On our way, we come across a crash of 5 white rhinos next to a swamp (a group of rhinos is called a crash). They seem to be enjoying the warm Sun, unmindful of our presence. And as soon as we drive past, we come across a crash of 3 black rhinos – the baby is in front while its mother is walking right behind it. Peter tells us that there are no territorial issues between the black and the white rhinos and rhinos mark their territory by dumping on it.
The rhino conservancy has several white rhinos. We board another Jeep and are taken inside the conservancy. Besides rhinos there other animals like zebras and gazelles within the conservancy, and this creates a natural environment around the rhinos. I am fascinated by the way rhinos react to our presence. As soon as our Jeep comes close, they get up and stand back to back covering a 360° field of view. And with this mannerism, I like to call the rhino, the James Bond of wildlife. The rhinos in this conservancy have had their horns chopped off to make them unattractive to poachers.
Later in the evening, we come across a female cheetah and we pause to admire the scene and suddenly out of nowhere her cub sprints towards her – I am in a trance – this is the first time I witness elegance, speed and rhythm all at once. And this is one of the times I wish my eyes were camera lenses.
Besides the animals, several birds like the blue roller, the yellow billed kite and the kingfisher have added to the diversity during our drives.
I am now getting used to the nocturnal sounds outside my tent – in fact I have started guessing the animal based on the sound. But I am still scared to peep through my tent to verify.
It is farewell time – I am headed to Borana – about 100 miles northeast of Laikipia, while the rest of my fellow travelers are headed to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, along the border with Kenya.
The hour and half drive through Nanyuki onto Borana is busy and lush green. It looks very pristine and occasionally we see cattle and sheep rearers along the road. As we near Borana, the first thoughts that cross my mind are hills, valley and lots of elephants. Here I will be staying at a lodge which is on a hilltop and provides a scenic view of the valley. My welcome drink is passion fruit juice – there’s something about welcome drinks in Kenya that piques the imagination of your taste buds.
In the afternoon, I am off to a game drive through the hills of Borana. My guide in Borana is Murunga – a Masai warrior who has grappled a lion once – and looking at him you can tell that the word fear has never crossed his mind. And I soon come face to face with fear on our first drive through Borana. I am videoing a baby elephant and its mother – but the mother doesn’t appreciate it and after trying to get away from us, it goes right after us. Murunga presses the gas hard and we are able to make it well away from her in the nick of time – phew!!
As we move into the plains, the beautiful Acacia trees present an elegant sight – the Acacia tree is also known as the Yellow Fever tree since it was thought to be the cause of yellow fever. As we meander our way past several grooves of the tall Acacias, we come across a group of the very rare Patas Monkeys. They are a shy clan and we keep a safe enough distance to prevent them from feeling intimidated in our presence.
The following morning I am off to a horseback ride across the plain. We stop at the Pride Rock for pics. The Pride Rock in Borana is supposed to have inspired Mufasa’s Rock in the movie “Lion King.” The horse ride feels very royal as I have another rider and two well trained dogs as company. We are in the company of zebras and giraffes who look at us initially with fascination and then with fear. I am all alert and focused at maneuvering my horse past the thorny acacias.
In the afternoon, I am off mountain biking across the hills. The scenery is beautiful, but the continuous uphill tests my resilience. I egg myself on and soon the blissful slope beckons. I spot a few cattle rearers in the vicinity and stop lend them a helping hand.
As we are rounding off another productive day, we chance upon 2 lions relaxing around a bush – they take turns in taking a nap. One of them looks much older than the other and I am told, can really use dentures.
I am excited about my visit to the Lewa Downs Conservancy, the following day. It is a rhino abode and that is clear at the gate itself – a sign on the gate reads – “all rights reserved for rhinos.”
We find a crash of 5 white rhinos relaxing in the sun and as soon as they spot us approaching, they get up into the James Bond stance – back to back covering the entire a view of 360° around them. They stay alert as long as we stay in their vicinity. Murunga spots 2 lionesses in the distance and we promptly drive in that direction. In broad daylight it’s difficult for lions to hunt without being spotted by their potential prey. And to top it all, some monkeys use their aerial vantage points to warn other animals of the lionesses’ approach route. The lionesses give up and relax under a groove of Acacia trees. We spot several Oryx as we get ready to sit in the open and have lunch.
Murunga finds a safe spot in the open and lays out two mats at opposite ends. I ask why not side by side and he cracks me up – “We need to be like rhinos now – you watch my back and I watch yours.” And he is right – about 10 minutes into the meal, he spots the lionesses back on prowl, about 300 feet away from us. But they don’t seem to be a danger to us – they are more interested in a group of gazelles and zebras in their vicinity. We finish our lunch quickly and drive closer to them to witness a potential kill. By now, several giraffes have joined the group. There is a lone buffalo on the opposite side with her back towards them, but the lionesses ignore her. Murunga tells me that they wouldn’t have a chance against the buffalo. The lionesses continue on their prowl but are unable to maintain the element of surprise – they get spotted in time by their potential target.
On our way back we chance upon a crocodile relaxing next to the lake – it is very still and looks well camoflaged. But when it spots us, it makes its way back into the lake.
I am excited about my trip to the Masai Mara reserve the following day. I will miss the greenery of Borana – but Masai Mara promises to be a unique experience.