The Republican Presidential debate concluded recently – the questions were specific, but the response from the candidates was by and large – vague. Each candidate seemed to come to the podium with “We need to make American great again and only I know how to do it.”
In an era where fact checks happen in an instant and a bluff is called in real time, Presidential candidates need to have specific resolution plans for key issues being discussed. Debates need to be centered around specifics, not pie-in-the sky solutions.
So can the moderators guide debates in a direction where candidates are forced to talk specifics. Besides knowing their positions on key issues, we need to know if they have concrete resolution plans for these issues.
The final Presidential nominee should be a good blend of leadership, management and operational efficiency.
Leadership: The President must have a vision of where the country and the world needs to be at the end of their tenure. This would entail newer laws and agreements on the domestic and international front. On the domestic legislative front, the President has 5 frontline managers – the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate and the Speaker of the House. A strong leader will work very closely with these frontline managers to realize his/her vision for the country. This means he/she must be open to feedback from diverse viewpoints and not mind tweaking the implementation towards realization of the vision. Same scenario plays out in the international arena as well – the ability to get divergent viewpoints and personalities to come to an agreement.
So one of the key questions to the presidential candidate must be:
“What is your past record with getting legislation passed when the opposition is in majority?”
Management: The executive arm essentially entails management – management and maintenance of peace at home and abroad. And management of the local and global economy. Here, a strong candidate will have full awareness of the current issues and constraints coming in the way of resolution. Presidential candidates need to realize that once elected, they will face experts in various fields and any quick fixes they may have promised the electorate will need to withstand the intense scrutiny of ground reality. President Obama’s PRISM program is a great example of a promise that failed to withstand the onslaught of ground reality.
So another key question to be asked of a Presidential candidate with respect to a current domestic or foreign policy issue can be –
“What do you think are the key constraints facing the current administration towards resolving <this> issue and how would you overcome these constraints?”
Operational Efficiency: The President is the CEO of the Federal government. So every President must target leaving the government more efficient (less expensive and more nimble), than when they assumed office. So the President must have an operation efficiency goal. This could entail consolidating departments that have a similar charter, to obtain economies of scale OR systems integration between the DHS and DMV to drastically reduce cost of information sharing.
So a key question here could be:
“Do you have any plans to make government more efficient? If yes, what’s the plan?”
Based on these characteristics, one would expect Governors to better suited than their Senate counterparts to be the Head of State. But thinking outside the box, CEOs would be great Presidents. HP’s Carly Fiorina is one such candidate in the Republican fray and if Starbucks’ Howard Schultz joins on the Democratic side, a Schultz-Fiorina contest could be very interesting. Hopefully then, the focus would be on specifics!
90 minutes of intense soccer action in a world Cup game – a player is fouled, the team members are up in arms. One individual runs up to the center of the commotion – flashes a few yellow cards and directs the players back to their positions – the referee has just performed his job as a manager!
The house is short on groceries – the paycheck is still two days away. She pulls together a quick meal out of the frozen vegetables she has in the refrigerator for this kind of a contingency. The mother has just performed her job as a manager!
Managers – they thrive in execution. They make things happen. While leaders dream up a vision of the future, managers help realize the vision and build the new future.
Managers are accountable for results. Leaders thrive in disruption. They get us away from status quo; managers help stabilize the disruption to get us to a new status quo while maneuvering through constraints.
Successful management entails 3 key aspects:
- Understanding the environment/team – Understanding the environment provides an insight into the prevalent opportunities and risks. Understanding the team provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the team members individually and collectively. Managers have to tailor their implementation strategy to the environment and the available resources. Implementation plans and techniques cannot be cloned across teams and environments. Ferdinand De Lesseps successfully built the Suez Canal as an Ocean level canal, but failed miserably with Panama Canal when he tried using the same implementation approach. The Panama Canal was finally built as a combination of lake and ocean level by William Gorgas. (Read: Panama Canal Timeline)
- Communication: You can never communicate enough – Communication is key to a successful implementation. Managers work with teams and it is important that every member on the team understands their role towards achievement of the final goal. Managers have to continuously monitor and evaluate progress to ensure the team is on the right track for a successful implementation. Communication is a 2-way street. Managers have to communicate and also receive feedback from the team. Feedback ensures that the team has understood the goal and both the manager and the team are on the same page. A disconnect between the initiator and recipient of a communication can lead to massive consequences – the Berlin Wall apparently collapsed prematurely due to a massive miscommunication.
- Execution: Management is all about execution and results. A successful execution is built upon the foundation of a strong understanding of the environment/team and a clear and solid communication channel.In Soccer, a successful strike at the opponent’s goal is usually accomplished after a series of moves that entail a combination of forward push and retreat. The implementation cycle is where reality comes head to head with perception/assumptions. The manager needs to closely monitor progress and be ready to fine-tune the implementation to ensure achievement of the end-goal stays on track. Fine tuning can mean re-assigning team members based on the strengths and weaknesses they have exhibited or taking a detour to avoid an oncoming obstacle.
Gandhi – managing the implementation of India’s Independence:
Leaders design the future; managers implement it.
The vision of an independent India, free of British occupation was designed by Lokmanya Tilak in the early 1900s, but India had to wait for Gandhi the manager to take the vision through to implementation.
Gandhi excelled as a manager on all 3 fronts:
Understanding his team and environment: Soon after landing in India from South Africa, Gandhi undertook a tour of India to acclimatize himself with the social and economic structure of the country. He witnessed a huge population of 350 million – economically impoverished and socially suppressed (Watch: Gandhi tours India) under the British. Gandhi realized that the impoverishment was rife for a revolt, and the suppression could be channeled productively into non-cooperation.
Communicating the plan: In an era where the word of mouth was the most effective mode of communication, Gandhi was able to communicate his plan effectively across to about a quarter million Indians. His tactic? Shock and awe.His execution plan entailed non-cooperation and non-violence and he started his campaign for non-cooperation with a message of boycotting foreign goods. He mass communicated this via a dramatic burning of English garments under the very eyes of British cops. This set the tone for the non-cooperation movement. Word spread like wildfire and soon all of India was creating bonfires of English goods.
Executing the plan: Gandhi’s brilliant plan entailed having the entire population of India refuse to co-operate with the British. He indicated this in his TV interview with “100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if the Indians refuse to co-operate”
Gandhi monitored the progress of the movement closely and did not hesitate to pause and fine tune the execution. During the non-cooperation movement when a group of protestors turned violent and set a police station on fire killing 23 policemen (the Chauri Chaura incident), Gandhi immediately called off the non-co-operation movement and went on a five day fast to protest the bloodshed, holding himself personally responsible for not communicating the message of non-violence effectively. News of his fast and its impact on his health spread like wildfire and effectively delivered the message to his anxious followers about the importance of non-violence in the freedom movement.
A leader will lead the horse to water, but the manager will make it drink. Leaders inspire (and pull us out of our inertia of complacency) and managers motivate (to deliver results)
Pope Francis: Fixing a dream gone sour:
One of the most effective managers in recent times, Pope Francis has been busy reshaping the Vatican. Pope Francis too has excelled on all 3 fronts as a manager:
Understanding his team and environment: As an insider, Pope Francis had a head start on this front. He did not need time to understand his team and the environment. He was well aware of the politics within the Vatican and probably had a semi-operational game plan in mind to get the Vatican vibrant and functional. All he needed was a handover of the leadership baton.
Communicating change: “Who am I to judge?” – an opening remark that echoed across the globe. Like Gandhi, Pope Francis too is a follower of the shock and awe technique. However, instead of laying out a complete agenda for the change, he has shared his intentions one topic at a time – shaking the thinking of his followers, waiting for it to get absorbed and then moving over to a different topic to shaking it once again.
Implementing the change: Whereas Gandhi sought to empower 350 million Indians to drive the British away, Pope Francis has sought to empower his leadership team to influence change in the Vatican. And the first step in empowering the leadership was to change the leadership itself. Hence the election of a new set of cardinals – empowered with a fresh agenda, to enforce change.
Great managers like Gandhi and the Pope do not need to be far and apart. We come across great managers in our everyday lives – managers who have to be effective because their role demands. Some of these roles are:
- The mother – the mother performs the job of 3 managers simultaneously – the finance Manager, the inventory manager and the human resource manager. Most of the skills come naturally to the mom – and most of the execution is carried out without any tools. The most challenging piece being a majority of her team members (the children) are a huge management challenge. Among all professions/roles, the mother undoubtedly is the most unique example of an outstanding job as a manager.
- Sports referees/umpires – especially in fast games like Soccer and Basketball, the referees rely on manual and tech tools to deliver the right decision. They have to maintain order in chaos to ensure a fair game. During intense moments, tempers and egos run high and test the management skills of the referees to the fullest.
What other characteristics in your opinion are also key to successful management?
What other roles demand effective management skills?
When you land in Panama, a vast coastline greets you with an eager looking flotilla of sailboats vying for your attention. It feels like Southern California with lots of humidity.
A quick passage through immigration is a sign of less bureaucracy and when you find out that the current President of Panama is from the private sector, it begins to make sense.
It indeed is very humid in Panama – so much so that for the first time in my travels I have had to continuously wipe moisture off my camera lens. Panama City looks beautiful at night – well lit with lots of skyscrapers dotting the Pacific Ocean.
Panamanians are very proud of the Panama Canal – it is one of the primary sources of income and an engineering marvel. And when you go on a transit cruise through the Canal, you experience the engineering marvel first hand.
The Canal was built in 1914 to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and as a result, better integrate the West Coast of North and South America with the world economy. The Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. Ships passing through the canal pay a fee of approx. US $ 200,000, depending upon the size of the ship and the cargo – the highest so far being paid by a Disney cruise ship – US $ 330,000.
3 sets of locks – the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and the Gatun, lift and drop ships 85ft (26m) – to the level of Gatun Lake, to transport them between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is primarily this system of locks that makes the Panama Canal an engineering marvel. The size of the locks determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through the canal. A ship which equals the maximum size is called PANAMAX.
The lift and drop of the ships within the locks is an extremely fascinating experience and so is the passage through the Canal. The route of the cruise through the Canal is quite scenic and you pass through the Bridge to the America, the Centennial Bridge, the Gatun Lake and the Continental Divide. It takes ships about 8 to 12 hours to cross the canal, but there’s a partial cruise available for tourists that ends soon after the Pedro Miguel locks, close to the Soberania National Park Rainforest.
The Panama Canal Visitor Center next to the Miraflores Locks offers the visitor a closer look at the operation of the canal, along with a brief passage through the history of the Canal. However, the balcony is the top draw of the visitor center as it offers a bird eye view of ships passing through the adjacent Miraflores Locks.
The Gamboa Rainforest resort is in the vicinity of the Soberania National Park Rainforest – which is home to several colorful species of birds and butterflies. An early morning walk through the rainforest can take you into a colorful world of butterflies, the musical world of birds like the Flycatcher and the woodpecker, including the very shy Toucan and some primates as well. Don’t be surprised if you sight a crocodile relaxing in a swamp as you saunter through the rainforest.
Besides the Canal and the Rainforest, Panama has a lot of culture and scenery to offer. Old Panama City or Casco Viejo is a blend of old architecture, monuments like the Salon Bolivar and Plaza de Francia.
For a leisurely stroll in the evening, the Causeway Amador is just the right stretch to be in. You have a clear view of the Bridge to the Americas and a full view of the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the causeway.
The NSA had an intense surveillance program for the last 4 years. There seems to have been just one glitch – they forgot to include their own. Edward Snowden, a tech specialist contracting for the NSA leaked the details of a highly classified surveillance program called PRISM to the Guardian and Washington Post last week.
The leak raises 2 key issues and should force a re-think and retrospection:
– Safety and security around classified programs
– Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy
Safety and security around classified programs:
Thankfully, the information leak by Edward Snowden was less related to national security and more towards individual privacy. But what if one of the operatives on Operation Neptune Spear – the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, felt it was wrong and leaked it to the media before it was executed? How does the CIA or NSA ensure this does not happen?
In the case of Edward Snowden, an interesting issue that stands out is that a contractor had access to classified information. Contractors are temporary employees and are usually assigned to maintenance type work or short term projects. They complete their short assignment and move onto another assignment or another organization. So how did Edward Snowden get hired as a systems administrator? That alone gave him an extremely broad access to classified and non-classified data. That would be a huge security loophole. And he could’ve leaked the Bin Laden raid as well if he didn’t agree with it.
So, it maybe time to have an independent agency audit the processes followed by our intelligence agencies towards hiring and assignment to classified projects?
Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy:
Now 4 administrations have been accused of wiretapping individuals. So it is high time we go past the idealistic baloney and accept ground reality. Protection of its citizens is the highest priority of the government. In the past, especially during the cold war, this was reflected in high defense expenditures. After 9/11, terrorism has become the #1 threat to the United States and the recent Boston Marathon bombings prove that the originators can be right amongst us. In fact, weren’t we able to narrow down upon the suspects through public surveillance systems including cellphone images from bystanders? Then why are we upset when the government has taken it to the next level?
The key here is prevention of misuse of the data. As Snowden points out, there is so much data that at some point in time (watch: Edward Snowden speaks) it could be misused to implicate innocent individuals.
So how do we prevent this? The Legislators have to get together and come up with laws around governance of this data. Some of the areas they have to think about should include:
– Purging of data: The data related to wiretaps and internet access should have a finite life and once the intelligence agencies have analyzed it, it has to be purged. The data cannot be built up with time – that would be a complete violation of individual privacy
– Legal recourse in case of misuse: What if a rogue intelligence analyst stalks a private citizen? What if a rogue analyst sells data to commercial organizations to help understand consumer buying patterns – the list can go on. There needs to be a legal recourse against the intelligence organizations for this kind of an infringement upon individual privacy.
– Vetting of the data mining process: The intelligence agencies have to clearly define the process of data analysis of such kind of data. Who needs to have access to the data and for how long? Snowden was a contractor but he has systems administration responsibilities – that itself is a huge loophole in the process. As indicated under safety of classified programs above, the hiring and assignment process needs to be vetted by an independent group.
Once we have a legal framework around this kind of surveillance, the concerns of the average citizen should reduce drastically. But the administration, especially the President has to take accountability for continuing with this program after using this as a key election plank. Interestingly, this incident seems to draw a parallel with two of George Orwell’s bestselling novels – “1984” and “Animal Farm”. While “1984” is the story about government surveillance headed by Big Brother, “Animal Farm” is the story of an idealistic leadership getting corrupted by power. Both novels were written before 1950 and seeing the parallel in the 21st century – my respect for George Orwell suddenly quadrupled!
When I stepped into Balboa Park this Sunday (April 21st) to attend the Earth Fair in observance of Earth Day 2013, I was expecting to witness a commercial interpretation of the event. There was a commercial element – Toyota would not miss the opportunity for the world. But there was a bigger philosophical element. The sustainability of our planet in the long run was the underlying theme and it seemed to resonate well with the visitors – the density of crowds at Balboa Park proved the point.
The stalls were lined up on either side of the path. There was a lot to cover – I decided to sniff for anything that interested me. My first stop was at a “Label GMOs” stall – the theme was philosophical – educating the public about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food – as part of their display they had a few popular brands which have genetically modified ingredients, to drive home their point. And there was a non-GMO shopping guide available for pick up.
The “Coalition to Decommission San Onofre” stall had images from Fukushima and Chernobyl on display and warned against restarting the San Onofre nuclear plant. And they were encouraging the visitors to call Senator Boxer and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman to request against restarting the reactor. Their display also included a depiction of the range of impact of a nuclear disaster around San Onofre – evacuation of about 8.5 million people around a 50 mile radius.
The center of the square was laced with commercial elements – from Toyota to Car2Go. And talking of commutes, I found the Move San Diego stall very interesting. Move San Diego apparently advocates and promotes the funding of healthy transportation options like biking and a well linked public transit system.
It was impressive to see 2 stalls focused on the issue of world population. The “Population Connection” stall had a slogan – “protect earth, don’t give birth” whereas another stall sought to spread its message through quotes and cartoons.
Towards the outer perimeter a few stalls were focused on more general topics like protecting marine life and simple ways to sustain the planet – conserve energy, buy organic, buy local, etc.
Towards the center of the plaza was a completely futuristic concept – a resource based economy – The Venus Project. It believes that in future machines will take over from man and be able to plan resource distribution more mathematically, leading to a balance between production, need and consumption – very fascinating and way into the future. However, their concept of vertical farms is a precursor – a first step towards planning for the future.
As I left the park I wondered if all the ideas I had witnessed were inter-related. A growing world population certainly was the basis of the Venus Project as well as the Move San Diego project. The theme was sustainability – staying as close to nature as possible, either by being GMO-free or nuclear-free or emissions-free. The awareness was there and the steps though very small, seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Masai Mara stands for the land of the Masai, but when you land at the Mara, you see an ocean of land and hordes of wildebeest grazing across it. And as you drive your way across the wide expanse, you see a very well-run kingdom of the Lion King – complete with the departments of defense, immigration and the media.
Chuyi is my guide at the Mara and I am back in a tent setting. There’s no lake in the vicinity, but the camp seems to be deeper in the wild – this time I am excited about the prospect.
Chuyi is a Silver level guide – Safari Guide is a sought after trade in Africa and there are strict standards and stiff competition. Chuyi is a Masai and an idol within the community. The Mara is lush green and the great migration has just completed – you can see the wildebeest all over the Mara. Chuyi tells me that the pruned grass we see across the plain is courtesy the wildebeest. The wildebeest is supposed to be a cross between the cow, the locust (yes – a locust) and the horse. To me it looks like a cow with a beard.
Towards evening we hear a jackal’s continuous squeal. Chuyi suspects a predator on the prowl and we end up spotting a leopard. The leopard seems well fed and resting on a rock. The jackal is howling consistently at it. That translates to – I see you, so you can’t do anything to me. The leopard takes a look at the jackal and turns its head away. A few hyenas rush towards the spot hoping that the jackal is having dinner, but the sight of the leopard makes them change their course.
We spot a Topi – essentially a gazelle in blue jeans and a blue mask – it looks at us for a while and prefers to move away from us with her young one. Most of the young ones seem to be with the mother – the father is missing from the picture. Chuyi points out though that the Lion is one exception to this trend – he is an integral part of breeding the cubs. But Lions do not like cubs that are not theirs and don’t hesitate to feast upon them. Chuyi tells me a story of two lionesses who defended their cubs fiercely against two jealous Lions. Chuyi has witnessed several such stories in the Mara – “each day is a new experience.”
Early next morning we hear a few monkeys getting restless – there is a predator on the prowl and wow! Out of nowhere, 3 lionesses emerge from the nearby bushes – the Mara lionesses look fierce. One of them gives me a fierce look and I am frozen for a moment – frozen enough to click the pic. The monkeys represent the media in the Lion King’s kingdom – their aerial view of the predators’ route ensures the potential prey is well-warned.
The light is still soft and we settle down in an open area for breakfast. I’ve just had the first sip into my cup of tea when Chuyi points out a male ostrich in the distance – it is spreading its wings and dancing before a female ostrich – it is a proposal dance. The female is impressed and I am camera happy. But as soon as he is done, the Ostrich spots another female and the proposal dance starts again – wow! My camera seems very busy today.
Land of the Masai
After the camera pleasing show at breakfast it is time to get a taste of the local culture – we are off to a local school and this will be followed by a trip to a Masai village.
The school is an interesting insight into the Kenyan mindset – make the best out of the available resources. Not enough seats in classrooms and not enough beds in the boarding – but both teachers and students display an element of enthusiasm in imparting and receiving education. The teachers are on strike, but the students are still in, preparing for the upcoming exams. It is heartening to know that the local girls are enrolling voluntarily to escape getting married in their teens.
The visit to the village is insightful into the local culture. There are 3 entrances to the set of huts we are visiting and Chuyi tells us that this means that 3 brothers live in this set of huts. Cattle are the main assets of the Masai and we see a well-built enclosure to house the cattle and protect them from any predator attacks at night. The sheep are housed in a less secure enclosure. It is common for the Masai kids to accompany cattle and sheep during the day and Chuyi tells us that it is also normal for the kids to be attacked by beasts like the buffalo. Chuyi himself has been attacked by a buffalo as a kid.
Women are in-charge of building the huts. The design is fascinating – the huts are dark inside, but have air holes to let in light and air. The man of the house has the master bedroom, with the smaller room opposite it, for the woman.
In the evening, a few locals perform the traditional folk dance for us – the theme is a victorious return from the jungle. I get back to the tent with an element of excitement since the following morning we are headed to the site of the great migration – the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Around 1 AM I hear a roar close to my tent – I am excited and I take a peep through the mesh in my tent – it could be a leopard, but it’s too dark to tell for sure. I will need to check with the guards in the morning.
The guards confirm that there was a leopard on the prowl at night and they are sure that he was quite a distance from my tent. I am happy that I was able to recognize the roar, but disappointed that it was not in proximity.
Kingdom of the Lion King
We are off to a long drive through the Mara that will culminate near the crossing point into Tanzania’s Serengeti National forest. This is the day I’ll see the kingdom of the Lion King unfold before me – across the plains of the Mara. We leave at 5:00 AM – it’s still dark and we see some amazing colors in the sky as the Sun slowly ambles its way up the horizon. This is also the time when predators like the Lion and the Leopard start going into hiding after an active night. Still into the wee hours of the morning, we catch a rare sight – A lion is at a lake to quench his thirst, probably after a satisfying meal. He is aware of all the attention around him, but he ignores us and displays a fearless regal air as he sips water from the lake and then moves towards a bushy area. He is joined by another very elegant looking Lion – more majestic and more regal. We call him the Masai Mufasa.
The kingdom is unfolding before our eyes – today, the theme seems to be the family – a herd of elephants with their babies, lionesses with their cubs and a cheetah with her cub. The young ones of all animals look cute, but the lion cubs are super playful and a complete treat to watch. You can sense an element of royalty in their playfulness. One of the cubs has us in peals of laughter with his fascination with his mom’s tail. As the lioness moves her tail around, he finds it and bites into it. Finally she gets up and lifts her tail up – now he’s looking along the ground – confused why the tail has suddenly vanished.
The cheetah and her cub are resting under a shady groove – on the lookout for unsuspecting prey. Contrary to the King and his deputy (Lion and the Leopard), the cheetah hunts during the day – it’s strength is its speed and that makes it ideal to be among the cops of the kingdom.
No trip to Africa can be complete without a brush with adventure. We try to take a short cut towards a huge herd of buffalos and ignore the marshy track we are driving over. Our Jeep gets stuck and shows no intention of getting out of it. After an hour or so, our valiant efforts pay off and we are back on the road again.
We make it to the site of the great migration towards late afternoon – the border of the lion kingdom. A huge herd of wildebeests and zebras is already lined up to cross over to Serengeti and a lazy looking lot of crocodiles – the immigration officials is lined up on either side of the river, in anticipation of the crossing. The crocs appear deceptively quiet and asleep and that could induce complacency into the migrants.
The zebras and wildebeests choose not to cross, but we enjoy the sights along the river – a ton of hippos wade in, have small territorial skirmishes and then step out to dry themselves on the bank. And we end up having lunch just a few feet away from a crocodile – we are hidden from his view and we are on the alert.
On the drive back we pause to look at the exquisite Mara landscape – the land seems to be a limitless expanse – like an ocean and well dotted with wildlife. It is lush green, dry at places, dotted with wildebeests, zebras and buffalos, frequented by lions, leopards and cheetahs and the ubiquitous masai giraffe along with some amazing views at sunrise and sunset. Every now and then a flock of sheep and cattle in the company of their rearer, add to the color of the landscape.
I am at the conclusion of my trip and I go for a walk around the camp area to get oriented with the flora and fauna of the Mara – I have an armed ranger in company along with my guide Peter.
As I board my flight back to Nairobi, I am in a trance. I’ve just experienced the animal kingdom at its prime. In a world of 7 billion people, spread all across the globe, the animals have annexed this part of the world for themselves. And it is no irony that a poor, agrarian economy has ensured their long term survival.
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.