Crossing borders in Africa is never my favourite pastime, but I realise that, unless I wish to take an illegal route and risk arrest or worse, it is a necessary evil to add to an otherwise, generally speaking, wonderful adventure. The border at Tarime from Tanzania into Kenya is certainly no exception to the ‘never again’ list (unfortunately a la Brittany Spears, I did do it again but that is another story…). This is all part & parcel of a much bigger journey, driving through Eastern Africa with a friend.
We made it through the border in a few short hours and continued our journey towards the Maasai Mara. After the inevitable trauma of the border crossing I am more than looking forward to getting back into the ‘bush’ and as soon as we head off the tar road again I relax – but not for long…The road becomes less & less road-like and gives way once more to a mix of uneven gravel & rocks, deep mud and what can only be described as ‘quagmire’. Fortunately have Land Rover Will Travel prevails and we push, pull and chug forth until the ‘road’ dries out a little & reverts to bone-rattling, bosom-damaging gravel corrugations only. Somehow this is preferable as at least I know we can navigate this with ease, comfort – no, ease – yes. After more considerable hours we arrive at our destination, the incredibly welcoming & superbly luxurious Saruni Mara Lodge. We are greeted by Riccardo Orizio, a fascinating character, author & owner of this little paradise hidden in the cleft between two hills in the Mara North Conservancy and, after what can only be described as a truly scrumptious lunch, we retire to our new ‘home’ for the next few nights – a stunning tented room complete with veranda over-looking the valley below. This more than makes up for nights in the roof-top tent in a torrential rain storm and after yet more incredible Italian influenced dining we head to bed for an early night in anticipation of the coming days exploring the Maasai Mara.
I rise early to hot-chocolate brought to my door – oh I could get used to this – and what can only be described as a ‘sodding cold’, crisp Kenyan dawn. Despite wearing almost every item from my bag including matching Chipolopolo (the Zambian national football team) scarf & beanie, I am beyond excited, it’s Christmas morning and Santa has delivered the greater Mara reserves & conservancies down my chimney. Prancer is replaced by a tame eland that is, for some reason, loitering in the bushes by my door in the half light and I make my way to the open safari Land Rover and William, our guide for the duration while we are at Saruni. William was busy studying for his Gold Level KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) certificate while we were there. This is the highest level attainable and there are just a handful amongst the hundreds of guides in Kenya with this qualification… it takes years of training, experience and research to get here and we can immediately see how William has achieved it. He’s just brilliant.
A good guide knows their wildlife, ecology, environment, history & culture and can convey this to almost anyone with enthusiasm. A great guide knows instinctively what you want to know and how you want to know it, has all the skills of a good guide plus a natural rapport with guests, a great guide becomes your friend and William and I remain in touch to this day, years later.
So off we head into the dark, yes – it is so early that the sun has not yet bothered to get up and the moon is keeping us all very very cold as we skip over the ground, icy wind caressing our vulnerable ears & noses and making our eyes water. Not paying attention I am smacked in the face by an errant branch and the Christmas Morning feeling is wearing off. I begin to think that not even Rudolph his very self, glowing snout to boot, could enthuse me and just as I am drifting off into a frostbite induced coma the brakes are applied and I am jolted back to reality by a sharp connection of forehead & roll bar. ‘Lion’ whispers William. I am wide awake, I am alert and excited and stretching my neck every which way, meerkat-esque in search of Panthera leo, my first in Kenya. I cannot see a thing, it’s no longer pitch black but in the misty dawn light everything seems pixelated and my scrunched frown brings both giggles & direction from William and within a few moments I see her, padding elegantly through a gentle fog. She cares not a jot about our presence, I’m not even sure that we register on her periphery. We wait a good while, watching her from a distance just going about her business and it occurs to me that she is all ours, not another vehicle in sight, no ‘Mara traffic jam’, no ‘safari road rage’ just the three of us, a welcome flask of coffee – that magically made its way into my cold hands – and her, doing her thing, just being a lion. I like my first Kenyan lion. I like it a lot and after more coffee I am ready to like the rest of the day too.
We spend the whole day out with a packed lunch somewhere along the way, this first day is for exploring, getting a feel for where we are and the lay of the land and learning from William about Maasai culture, the Mara conservancies and the politics of protecting Kenyas wildlife & cultural heritage. It’s a great day, we see more lion, topi, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and the bird life is stunning too. We return to Saruni at dusk just in time for an outdoor shower before the sun retrieves her warm blanket from us and once again plunges us into another cold night. The evening is spent hugging the huge fire in the main lounge, drinking wine, eating more good food (a good safari lodge will have you gaining pounds in days!) and planning for tomorrow. We are after wild dog, African painted dog, hunting dog, Lycaon pictus. We know there is a healthy population regularly using this conservancy and better than this, we know that a large clan has been moving through the valley right below us and we know where their den was made the day before yesterday. It quickly becomes Christmas Eve again and that evening I drift off with huge eared hounds running through my dreams.
In the morning I am once again clad like a crazy bag lady and have added additional socks and a pair of gloves to the get up. We meet William at our trusty Landy again before the skies even think about glowing and head out into the dark to begin our very own hunt for the hunting dogs, starting at the den where they were last seen. As the light begins to show us where we are (not that I recognise a thing) we arrive at the den and we, William and our tracker Porquei clamber out to investigate. There is spoor everywhere and all sizes, in the chaos of pawprints it’s not easy to estimate the group size, but it is certainly more than just a few and it would appear that there are all ages too, including some younger pups…Today is just getting better & better! While Porquei translates the messages left behind in the dirt we have breakfast on some nearby rocks.
A bush breakfast is a phenomena unique to safari lodges Africa-wide and is one of the most wonderful ways to start the day, in touch with the environment, a moment of quiet contemplation and the chance to just sit for a while and realise where you are, how lucky you are and to be humbled by it. On this particular morning it also proved to be the perfect opportunity to disrobe from at least one of our many layers as the sun began to warm the day. Stripped, fed and watered, we take direction from William and remount our steel clad team of horses to continue onwards. Our journey is halted sporadically for rollers, secretary birds, dik dik and goshawks. It’s impossible not to be distracted from your goal when surrounded by a new Eden with every kilometre passing but we persevere, pausing for lunch by wild dog evidence less than a few hours old. I feel a little like Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps Dr Watson, though in reality I may well be more Inspector Clouseau, stumbling clumsily through the ‘crime scene’. I’ve done a little basic guiding before, but my utter ineptitude at reading the land here astonishes me. I shouldn’t be shocked by it, but rather arrogantly I am. I silently vow to glean every bit of knowledge that I can while I am here and my thirst for a bush education is more than sated by William and his colleagues at the lodge. After a heart-breakingly long afternoon, pregnant with tense anticipation & excitement, we return to the lodge with memory cards empty of wild dog images. I’m surprisingly un-disappointed. The thrill of the day, the hunt, the chase, the feeling of continually getting closer and closer, the knowledge that these wild dogs outran and outwitted us filled me with a contented buoyancy and I slept incredibly well.
Our third day is started in a similar vein to the previous one, in the cold & dark and unbelievably early. We start where we left off and continue our search, another bush breakfast is followed by another bush lunch and alongside this a little moment of realisation. We are so intent on finding these wild dogs, who in turn appear wholly intent on not being found, that we are missing out on the everything else in the Mara area. This morning my eyes have been peeled, my ears pricked, I’ve been entirely alert and absorbed and found myself either not noticing or, worse, ignoring a beautiful tree, a hard working dung beetle, a colourful shrike. I have fallen foul of ‘big 5 syndrome’ though wild dog are not members of the big five, I have become a box ticker. I raise this with both my travelling companion and with William and the three of decide to surrender, happy in the knowledge that we lost to a far better trained, more coordinated team. The relief is palpable and the afternoon proves to be possible my most memorable ever on safari, certainly the most fun and definitely the most bizarre!
After lunch we pootle along in a post-Sunday roast style, snoozy & relaxed, taking in the minutiae, the subtle changes to landscapes, the everything. It’s a wonderful feeling and there is a happy, carefree banter amongst us as we stumble across a partially denuded wildebeest skeleton. ‘I wonder where the rest of him is’ I idly say, and so a new search begins. We disembark from our faithful metal steed and start footing around the immediate locality, watched over by Porquei, who is not entirely convinced that this is ‘normal’ safari behaviour, but goes along with it none the less. Between the three of us we gather an approximation of around 70% of the animal and decide collectively, cohesively, without a single utterance between us, to rebuild the wildebeest and this we do, right here in the Mara North Conservancy, placing bone next to bone and refolding desiccated leathery hide back over joints. It is at once quite fascinating, educational, filthy and utterly hilarious. We place ‘him’ out, this wildebeest, and wonder over his missing parts, who took what and where. We examine – I like to think CSI style – the bite & tear marks in the skin & bone and postulate as to what might have made them and how long ago, how many. It’s bloody marvellous and I strongly advocate that everyone should rebuild a wildebeest, perhaps we could write a Haynes Manual for it? But the Mara madness did not end here…
While on safari I never wear shoes (unless walking & hiking of course), my feets like to be naked, they are happy this way and if my feets are happy then I am happy too. I acquiesce to their need for freedom as soon as I land in Africa, or anywhere half warm enough for that matter, and so during our delicate ‘Operation Gnu’ I am padding around barefoot, flicking gnu poo away with my toes as I go. Now, I am not too sure how this happened, but somehow this poo-flicking became more targeted and before I know it my friend and I are giggling like pre-schoolers flicking little dried pellets at each other across the poor half-built wildebeest. In order to get a more accurate trajectory on these perfectly formed little missiles one needs an implement of aim, a racquet, a club, a bat…a gnu femur? And so the, now routine (for us at least), practice of Safari Gnu Poo Cricket was born. An all important game, a rite of passage for all safari-goers, a game-drive must do. I firmly and honestly believe that Gnu Poo Cricket is something that everyone should experience at some point in their lives…preferably in Kenya, even better in the Mara and best of all with William Santian, Safari Guide extraordinaire!