by Lisa Alpine
Waking early our first full day at Little Governors’ Camp in the Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya, we were startled to see elephant, hippo, and warthog tracks circling close to the edges of our canvas tent. Was that also a lion’s paw print inches from the tent flap?
The camp was unfenced with the guest tents and dining hall situated around a large, popular waterhole. The freshly made tracks around our tent were evidence that the wildlife came and went through camp at all hours of the day and night. Andy, my husband, and I were warned not to walk anywhere unescorted and to zip our tent up tight every time we departed so that the proprietarytroop of baboons would not enter and steal stuff. They were partial to toothpaste and film canisters, judging from their raid of the tent next to us the day before.
As we left the tent, shivering in the pre-dawn chill, whistling announced we had company. A tall young Maasai warrior bedecked in bold primary-colored beaded necklaces and shirtless with only a red cloth, called a matavuvale, wrapped around his narrow hips, was waiting outside our tent. A vintage silver coffee service was balanced on one palm, and slung over his shoulder was an antique Winchester rifle. He announced in an oddly soft voice, “My name is Nchaama. I am here to guard you.” Galen, our four-year-old son, stared with saucer eyes as Nchaama towered over him, pouring coffee and hot chocolate into bone-white porcelain cups. Faint music emanated from his body. Walkman wires wound through his plaited hair and looped around his extended earlobes that grazed his shoulders. The song keening from the headphones was a classic: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
While we savored our steaming drinks, Nchaama stood silently nearby, balanced on one foot. The other rested against his inner thigh. His smallish head bobbed to the Stones. Then, in a deep melodic voice he stated, “You are not allowed to go anywhere without an armed escort—that is me. Even from your tent to the dining hall.” Andy raised his eyebrows as I felt my heart beat faster. We had picked this walk-in safari camp because of its unique isolation, accessible only by small plane, jeep, then a boat ride to the trail that led to the camp. Andy and I did not expect a private armed guard and wild animals right outside our tent!
Nchaama looked off into the distance, the entire time not wavering, even though he was still standing with only one foot planted on the ground. Slowly, he looked down at us in our canvas camp chairs, shook his head at our naïveté, and said, “Two weeks before you arrived, a woman was gored by a cape buffalo who was peevedthat she was on his trail.” He continued the litany of dangers, saying, “Never, never stand on the river bank close to the water’s edge. A tourist disappeared down there. We think a Nile crocodile lunged out of the water, knocked him over with its giant tail, and pulled him into the river. He is now stuffed under a log rotting somewhere. And the crocodile is eating him. They have very bad breath!”
This regal, slip-thin man who had been so animated, who smelled faintly of blood-rich game meat and sour milk, withdrew into silence again. As we continued to chew on freshly baked buttery scones, we were also digesting the myriad of dangers that could befall us on our family vacation. Disneyland this was not!
Suddenly, Nchaama sprung into action and collected our dishes, which would have been annoying, as we hadn’t finished breakfast, but didn’t matter since we had lost our appetites. With one bony, hooked finger he beckoned us to gather our gear and follow him. With no small amount of trepidation we fell into step, trying to keep up with his long-limbed stride. Like most tourists on safari we were loaded down with video gear, decked out in tan-colored jackets with row upon row of pockets crammed with film canisters, candy bars, water, and sunscreen. I felt like a walking Walgreens in a Banana Republic safari outfit.
The footpath wound through camp and skirted the waterhole where hippos floated, submerged, with nostrils poking above the waterline like rubbery periscopes. We tiptoed and whispered because hippos have a reputation of being easily annoyed and a cantankerous lot with a mean bite when they decide to sink their thick teeth into you. Plus, they can run really fast—like an out-of-control linebacker on stubby legs. Something I did not want to witness this early in the morning.
We got past the watering hole in one piece and headed into the dense bush. White-bellied Go-away-birds and Lilac-breasted Rollers heralded the rising sun. The cool air quickly evaporated as the sun glinted higher and the light grew sharper.
Galen held my hand and chirped questions in a singsong happy trill. “Where are the giraffes?” he asked. It thrilled him that his stuffed toys at home in California had morphed into super-sized, real-life African animals. When we had flown into Little Governors’ Camp from Nairobi the day before in a Cessna, a large herd of giraffes dramatically draped in caramel-colored spots were startled by the plane’s engine thrum and galloped, legs akimbo, down the dirt runway. They moved like mechanical toys.
Nchaama and Andy walked ahead of us on the trail. A trumpeting from deep within the canopy broke the morning avian cacophony. The bushes rattled just a few yards away from us on the side of the trail. Then, another loud trumpet blast blew the branches apart like a theater curtain and an African savanna elephant poked his head from the green wall, flapped his sail-sized ears in our direction, and raised his trunk in yet another and even more urgent warning. He stood defiantly a stone’s throw distance away on the left side of the trail.
“Run, run!” Nchaama shouted.
Maasai, who have very long legs, are known for their Olympic track medals. Much to my surprise, Andy was on his heels, having dropped the video equipment to bolt forward after Nchaama in a champion sprint. They both disappeared down the trail, leaving Galen and me to fend for ourselves.
My feet were frozen to the ground and I gripped Galen’s hand tightly. He was preoccupied with a glossy horned rhinoceros beetle crawling on the trail in front of him, completely unconcerned about the elephant’s threatening attitude or proximity. I glanced surreptitiously at the elephant, avoiding eye contact. He glowered directly at me. His great bulk seethed as he stomped his large padded feet, put his head down, and charged at us. I scooped up my son and the camera gear bag and flew helter-skelter down the path. The pachyderm’s thunderous pounding grew louder as he gained speed and closed the gap between us.
Galen giggled and pointed back at the elephant in glee as he jostled up and down on my hip with every stride. He thought this was a game of chase. Just as I was about to drop the gear in order to run faster and keep a tight grip on my squirming son, the trail turned a bend and there was the riverbank. Nchaama and my husband were already perched in the skiff, ready to shove off. They waved me on with encouraging cheers. “Come on, you can do it! Watch out for the crocodiles!” They yelled and slapped their thighs. Did they think this was some kind of circus relay?
I plopped Galen and myself into the boat with no help from either of the men. My heart pounded. My face was red. I was a sweaty mess pumped up on adrenaline. And I was really pissed off.
The bull elephant had stopped his chase and stood a ways off looking at us, slowly flapping his ears. Then, he nonchalantly sauntered back into the bushes. “He is heading to the garbage cans now,” Nchaama said in a casual tone that insinuated this survival race was a daily occurrence.
I swiveled around and took a good, long, and reassessing look at Andy. He was chatting with Nchaama as if nothing had happened. Doubts about his parental instincts swirled around my mind. I vowed not to talk to him for the rest of the day.
Nachaama maneuvered the skiff past a few floating hippos and we were dropped off on the other side of the Mara River where a jeep idled. Nchaama (who I was also not speaking to) introduced us to our personal guide and driver for the next five days of our safari. He was short and round with very different features than the Maasai. He seemed aloof as he introduced himself. “My name is Josef. I am Kikuyu.” The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group and rivals of the Maasai.
We had specifically requested Josef because his reputation was unsurpassed. What Josef lacked in personality and charm he made up for in an uncanny ability to pinpoint the location of the game animals on any given day. This was crucial. A typical safari could take hours and hours of driving over the savanna with nary a critter in sight.
The Maasai Mara Reserve is the size of Rhode Island and the animals roam freely throughout. It was obvious each night during dinner which guests had had sightings that day. Their conversations were animated as they chittered and chattered excitedly about lions and cheetahs, zebras, hyenas, even rhinos. Then there were the sullen, quiet tables—guests who’d endured the all-day dusty jeep treks with little wildlife. It was hard to witness their postured disappointment in the candlelit dining hall as their somber, elongated shadows wavered on the taupe fabric tent walls.
Josef also turned out to be the driver for the stars and had just spent a week with Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, and their kids. Mick hadn’t cared about seeing the wildlife. He had requested Josef to drive them far away from people and even lions, park under a shade tree, mix martinis, and lay out picnics while the family played card games undisturbed.
Josef emanated a keen dislike for tourists, but took a shine to Galen and invited him to sit in the front of the jeep, leaving Andy and me bumping along the rutted tracks on the springless back seat. Fortunately, our son was oblivious to my simmering unhappiness as I mulled over the elephant incident. He joyfully sang ditties he made up about the animals—the highlight being when we encountered a pride of lions lying about like a plush wildcat carpet, sultans and sultanas sated after a kill. Galen stood on the seat, holding onto the lowered window, leaned out, and crooned an improvised lullaby to the lions in an angelic, unselfconscious child’s voice. The lions swiveled their heads toward us in the shimmering midday heat, perked up their ears and…grinned. Josef shook his head in disbelief and said with unusual zest, “I have never seen the lions smile or had anybody sing to them. Even Mick Jagger!” From that moment on, Galen sat on Josef’s lap and steered the jeep across the vast savanna plain, both of them humming and crooning away as if Andy and I weren’t in the vehicle with them.
The ornery bull elephant never made another appearance during our daily half-mile tromp on the trail from the camp to the river, but his trumpeted warnings continued to ring in my head.
By our last day, I was almost used to the snuffling and snorting of animals milling about, checking out our tent at night, though their inquisitive noises invaded my sleep. Giant animals paraded through my dreamscape bellowing and roaring.
Our five-day safari was over. Nchaama, who I continued to view as a coward, escorted us one last time to the riverbank and waved goodbye. The dinghy floated us across the river, avoiding the floating rumps and heads of the hippos, where Josef waited in the jeep to drive us to the airstrip. He lingered with us in the shade of a lone Shepherd’s Tree while he and Galen drew animals in the red dust with a crooked stick as we waited for the plane to appear on the horizon. A bruised silence hung between Andy and me in the stiflingly hot, dry air.
As we boarded the plane, Josef hugged Galen and said, “You must return. I will show you how to be a safari guide and you will teach me the animal songs.” He then lifted Galen up to me before the pilot closed the door. I sat a few seats away from Andy. The Cessna’s propellers spun faster and faster as we lofted into the relentless blue sky. From the tiny plane window the landscape shimmered and undulated in the heat. Below us, the awkward-legged giraffes scattered in all directions.
Lisa Alpine is the author of Exotic Life: Laughing Rivers, Dancing Drums and Tangled Hearts (Best Women’s Adventure Memoir in the BAIPA Book Awards). When not wrestling with words, exploring the ecstatic realms of dance, swimming with sea creatures, or waiting for a flight, Lisa is tending her orchards. Her gardens of vivid flowers and abundant fruit remind her that the future is always ripe with possibilities.