Aug 4, 2009
Kenya in East Africa beckoned for a holiday with a difference- to witness for ourselves the amazing phenomena of Discovery and Nat Geo programs in a vibrant wildlife haven.
Indians have long been a driving force in the economic life of Kenya. A Kenyan friend spoke admiringly of the Swaminarayan temple in Nairobi, the first such temple outside the Indian sub-continent. Sculpted Jaisalmer sandstone houses the intricate interior of carved African mahogany and camphor wood. We felt proud to take in this impressive celebration of Indian culture and craftsmanship in a foreign land.
The landscape on our drive from Nairobi was picturesque and varied- arid plains and scrubby grasslands alternating with fertile fields and lush hills laden with tea and coffee plantations. After some five hours on the road, we reached the celebrated Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, the former home of the famous Hollywood actor William Holden and a favored haunt of the World’s Who’s Who. The spectacular natural monument Mount Kenya looms in the background- the highest mountain in the country, the second highest on the African continent. At the time of its discovery in the 19th century, it was considered a geographical oddity, being a physical body with snow and ice on the Equator. This was our first exposure to weather patterns encountered throughout the trip- of the daytime nip evolving into the night’s biting chill, the cozy comfort of hot water bags and blazing logs in the fireplace. The 100 acres of the Club and the 1000 acres of the William Holden Wildlife Conservancy Program enable a guest to commune intimately with nature- heading off to the verdant forests on horseback, biking and trekking up the mountain, teeing off on the golf course or strolling the sylvan expanse to feed marabou storks and wild geese. The animal orphanage is a touching interface with rehabilitated wild animals of different species.
Bidding a regretful farewell to this old world idyll, we made a brief detour to a roadside location of the Equator at Nanyuki. We witnessed experiments to demonstrate the behavior of wind and water in the northern and southern hemispheres, falling on either side of this imaginary twelve meter line. It was a worthwhile stopover at the little shops selling beautifully carved African curios of animals and tribal life in mahogany, ebony and other African wood.
Our destination was the Sweet Waters tented camp in the Ol Pajeta conservancy. This private reserve amidst Savanna grasslands and riverine forests hitherto belonged to the Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi. Arriving at lunchtime, we headed straight for the glass walled dining room overlooking scrub forest outside. Competing for attention with the wonderful food on the buffet tables were the wild animals wandering in for their afternoon drink - boar, zebra, deer… I practically dropped my passion fruit tart at the amazing sight of a giraffe ambling towards the waterhole with the awkward grace of a dinosaur, squatting and craning its long neck forward to drink.
The unique chimpanzee orphanage is a project of the famous conservationist Jane Goodall. These appealing creatures are not native to Kenya- they have been rescued from the crossfire of a civil war in Burundi or from distressing captivity. Their tales are heartrending, but it is heartwarming to watch the bonds that have been forged between these orphans in the sanctuary. At the time of our visit, many of them lovingly groomed one another. They respond to their names- Socrates, Jojo, Raponzee etc. Later on, our game drive took in the varied wildlife of the reserve- giraffes, zebra, black rhino, white rhino, Grant’s gazelles, impalas, otters, hornbills. Ol Pajeta has a unique Wildlife-Livestock integration program, using controlled cattle grazing as an ecological tool to rejuvenate the grasslands.
Lake Nakuru was next on our itinerary. What appeared to be pink rose garlands floating on the water translated into the exhilarating spectacle of fabulous flamingoes. Our eyes feasted on the marvellous pink hue of their feathers as they dotted the salt water lake in their hundred thousands for algae to eat. Fish eating pelicans entranced us with their graceful aerial ballet. Tiny colobus monkeys swung with acrobatic ease on the tall branches of trees- enchanting, endangered creatures whose exquisite fur makes them an unfortunate target for ceremonial tribal headgear. Dik-dik, charming miniature antelopes darted swiftly about the bushes. Bison herds lumbered around. Though not visually appealing, they are formidable adversaries of lions. Their fierce strength places them among the traditional Big Five of the Safari. From the vantage point of Baboon’s Cliff, where troops of sad eyed baboon mingle with picnickers, the view of the lake below was unforgettable. We were distressed to find some withered trees on the hills- hapless victims of arson from tribal conflict in the aftermath of an uncertain electoral verdict in 2007.
Maasai Mara constituted the last and most important segment of our safari trail- the locale of the greatest animal migration on the planet. A lone stone marker, totally unmanned, delineates the border between Maasai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti in Tanzania. As the grass in Serengeti dries up, some 1.3 million wildebeest, bull like antelopes with shaggy beards, stream into the Mara. Their sheer numbers constitute an overwhelming spectacle, making July and August the ideal months to witness this natural epic of life and death. These heavy beasts, unlike the swifter gazelles are easy prey for predators. A mass of Nubian vultures and Ruppell’s gryphons alerted us to the likely proximity of lions. A further cue was a hyena in the vicinity- not only a known scavenger of leftovers, but a predator’s active assistant in singling out the young and weak as potential prey. Incredibly, within five minutes of our game drive, we struck gold with a pride of “Simba”. The lion ladies were fast asleep after a feast of wildebeest, paws hanging lazily in the air. It was a tender moment to witness a lioness wake briefly to hug her sister in a warm embrace. They are said to have strong family bonds, and freely suckle each other’s offspring. Two cubs emerged from the bushes below. One of them chased away a vulture pushing its luck with fairly fresh kill. We were just a few feet away in an open topped jeep, but the slumbering creatures didn’t move a muscle nor did the wakeful ones so much as bare their teeth. They seemed as cuddlesome as pussy cats! Further on, we spotted a lion couple nestled in the bushes in the intervals of mating.
Black backed golden jackals were a frequent sight. It was exciting to observe elephant herds - mothers with calves of different ages, the grandmother elephant being the herd’s matriarch. Lone males were spotted further on, somewhat disgruntled. The co-existence of hippopotami and crocodiles in the river was an interesting phenomenon. River crossings are vulnerable points for traveling wildebeest with crafty crocs waiting to grab a hapless migrant by the leg. Winged beauties of different species dazzled us with exotic plumage. The world’s largest and fastest running bird, the African Ostrich gave us good opportunities to view its size and speed across the Savanna.
The Mara teems with different species of deer- topis, elands, waterbucks…The most numerous are undoubtedly Thomson’s gazelles- with exquisitely wrought features and sturdy, compact bodies with distinctive markings. They have an interesting social life- we saw that a single dominant male controls anything between thirty to a hundred females. Bachelor herds comprise their displaced male offspring. These wanderers can be observed locking horns with each other, as they practice for future battle with aged patriarchs to control their own harems.
A trip to a traditional Maasai village rounded off this part of the trip as an exposure to a simple, semi-nomadic way of life, untouched by the march of time.
Mombasa is a port with an ancient and interesting history- a melting pot of Africa with cultural inputs from Arab, Portuguese and British rulers. It has its own marine wealth- coral reefs, dolphins, nesting Olive Ridley turtles… This resort town of stunning beaches, delightful people, foot tapping music and delectable seafood refreshed us before our homeward journey.
The Safari demands that one should be an involved and active tourist. Ventures into the jungle are charged with the adrenaline rush. Capturing a spontaneous moment of animal behavior is a rare moment of cosmic unity, that exultant sense of being in sync with nature. Typically, the ice breaks between strangers in the sharing of unique and varied wildlife encounters. The rugged Safari holiday is softened with the charm of quaint English customs like Afternoon Tea and the norm of formal dressing for dinner. Kenyan hotels and resorts are active partners in conservancy. Sustainable eco-tourism is aimed at saving dwindling animal populations from poachers with viable livelihood for the locals. For families with young children, a Safari is pleasurable education, the instilling of early sensitivity to conservation issues.
From baboons to forest rangers, spiced Mangalore cashewnuts were universally popular. Visitors to these parts can be overwhelmed with requests for gifts- even old clothes and toys. The heartfelt delight of the recipients will linger as a warm memory. The vacated space of a few extras carried along can later be filled with Africa’s unique artifacts.
Jambo - Hello. Karibu - Welcome. These words greeted us practically every time we came across a new face in this friendly land. So much so, we never got round to learning the word for goodbye. The tantalizing African continent invites yet more trysts with fantastic fauna and natural wonders.
Walking Tall- Reticulated Giraffes
With Orphaned Eeland
Stripes in the Grass - Zebras
Dainty Deer- Thomson's Gazelles
Rendezvous with Rhino
Simba- Sister Act
Butterfly in Spider's Web
Predator's Pal- Hyena
Pink Magnificos- Flamingoes