Just after sundown the first night of safari in Kenya’s Naboisho Conservancy near the Masai Mara, six lionesses corner a group of water buffalo. The water buffalo moo and clumsily stumble around the boulders that separate them from the lions. Myself, a Dutch couple and two Masai guides follow the lions with an infrared light from the safari Jeep, which is opened on all sides. The infrared light is a compromise for the lions, who are less disturbed by the infrared light than by a flashlight, and the voyeuristic humans.
“To your right!” I tap Dan, the Dutchman in front of me. He jumps as a lioness creeps past him. She’s close enough to touch. I am tempted. In some ways, cancer has made me ever more reckless than before.
“Get back, get back!” His wife says.
We have followed the lions since 5 p.m., watching them from the truck as they played, groomed and then picked up the scent of the water buffalo. On the hunt, the pride is complete but for the two lazy males who are waiting back beneath the Kirumbasi bush where we left them.
“Typical males,” the Dutch woman says. “Letting the women do all of the work.” She is an IP lawyer. Her husband is a project manager for a large yacht manufacturer. Every human here is wealthy, highly educated and impossibly far from their hunter/gatherer roots.
For an hour, we watch the dance between the water buffalo and the lions. Each time the lionesses advance, three of the buffalo break far enough from the herd to make the lionesses retreat but stay close enough that they can protect the weaker animals behind them.
“They’re playing with each other,” our guide says. “The younger female lions need practice. They are learning to hunt. If they are not careful, the buffalo will kill them.”
The lions know this, of course. After a while, the lions lose interest in the buffalo. Our guide starts the engine and our adrenaline relaxes as we drive to the open field. The trip is bumpy, the sway of the Jeep as violent as a boat crossing stormy seas.
“G and T?” Our guide asks as we pull to a stop on the savannah.
“Yes,” we say.
From under an acacia tree umbrellaed by an expansive starry sky, we drink a gin and tonic and eat from two tins of snacks prepared by Asilia’s Naboisho Camp chef. We are tired, thirsty and hungry. Chasing prey is hard work. As we munch, our guide checks off species with his infrared light—spotted hyena, dick dicks, wildebeest, gazelles, zebra and topes. Our snacks devoured, we head back to camp on a dusty road for a dinner of pea soup, red snapper, potatoes, sautéed veggies, profiteroles and bottomless wine. But first, a cocktail by the camp fire and a glimpse into the nocturnal habits of bush babies, adorable lemurs that kangaroo-hop into trees and elicit the desire to domesticate in all humans watching.
This is the routine of the safari night drive, which starts at 4:30 p.m. following tea and cake at 4 p.m., and ends between 7:30 and 9 depending on what’s happening out there, in the wild. After dinner, a Masai guard walks each of us to one of the ten tents on the property. Camp doesn’t have a game fence. In the event that we happen upon a lone male water buffalo, elephant, or lion, the brave Masai will pierce the beast with the arrow loosely slung over his shoulder.
I’m in tent three, which is a short walk from the fire meeting place sign camouflaged against a fallen tree. My tent has a sitting room, a king bed, both an indoor and an outdoor shower and three items I’ve been instructed to use in the event of an animal emergency. A flashlight, which I am to streak across the sky when it is dark out so that a Masai guard knows to come and escort me to wherever I may need to go. A hand horn which I am to blow if I feel endangered and a radio, which will connect me to the camp in the event of a serious event.
After dinner each night, the turndown fairy nestles a water bottle at the bottom of my sheets. I mistake if for a black mamba every single night and snuggle into bed wondering if I might have a heart attack. One evening in particular, I ate some marijuana chocolate hoping it would cease the pounding of my stomach, and hallucinated with fear as soon as my toes touched the bottle. For the record, I do NOT recommend eating marijuana while in a virtually unprotected tent surrounded by unfamiliar animal sounds no matter how bougie the experience.
Morning drives start at 6, although wake up calls, which include coffee/tea and biscuits in bed, start at 5:30. Morning drives follow a similar pattern to night drives. We look for animals, see what we can see and take a food break between sightings only this time, the spread is a continental breakfast on steroids. I have never eaten more, or felt obligated to eat more in my entire life.
Morning drives are still in the same way the outdoors is still after a night of excessive partying or terrible insomnia. As the sun comes up, a gentle yet sinister movement descents upon the landscape. The stillness hides the activity of the night lending to a pervasive feeling that something lurks beneath. This is confirmed by the bloody faces of the predators who have had a successful night.
Morning safari ends at about 11:30 a.m., again depending on what nature offers. Lunch is taken at 1 p.m. under the shade of a tree. I chat with other safari goers until about three, return to the tent for a minute and head back out at four for tea and cake that I rarely eat.
Safari is a fascinating petri dish of two kingdoms whose co-dependent divorce has taken years to finalize. It’s ridiculous and decadent, but it’s also the coolest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve done a lot of cool shit. Among the fascinating things I witnessed, here are a few favs:
- A lioness carousing with her three cubs
- A baby elephant learning to use its trunk
- A leopard chomping a kill. She wasn’t able to drag it into a tree before the hyenas got it. The crunching of bones was intense. The triumphant removal of the antelope’s head was otherworldly
- A family of cheetahs bloody and relaxing with stuffed bellies after a kill
- A minutes-old gazelle lying in a gelatinous heap by the side of the road
- A killing filed on a walking safari (more on this later)
As amazing as this first safari was, my next trip will be a week-long camping trip followed by a climb up Mt. Kenya. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine choosing to go on lengthy trips outside of Africa. First I fell in love with South America. Now I’ve fallen for Africa.
“If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it.”