by Lang Whitaker
I’ve written bits and pieces here on The Links about the trip I took to Africa earlier this summer. I went for a vacation, but I also agreed to write a feature about my trip for Antenna, one of the coolest new mags around. My story is in the new issue of Antenna, on newsstands now. But as I do on every trip I take, I actually kept copious notes and wrote a much longer story for my own files, to remind me of everything years from now. Antenna wanted to run my longer story on their site, and I agreed as long as I could also post it here on The Links. This has nothing to do with basketball, but I thought it might make a good time-killer for ya.
A few days before Wifey and I jetted off on our journey to Kenya, I stopped by a sporting goods store in midtown Manhattan. I purchased two insect-repellant bandanas, a khaki pair of lightweight cargo pants and a wheat-colored camping shirt. (I was apparently planning on dressing like Jack Hanna as much as possible.)
The salesman helping me seemed pretty knowledgeable about camping equipment, as though he used it often despite working in the center of Manhattan. He was an older man, and I must have felt some sort of compassion for him, because even though I picked the stuff out myself, I let him put his tag on my clothes so he would get the commission.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Oh, wow,” he said. His eyes cut to the floor as he muttered, “That’s my dream trip.”
On the living room wall in our apartment, we have a huge framed map. This map used to belong to my grandfather and hung inside the house on his farm in central Alabama. His parents had immigrated from Sweden and settled in Alabama, which is where he lived his entire 95 years. But he had an incurable wanderlust. On a postman’s salary, he managed to visit all fifty States, Central America, Asia, South America and Europe. When I was old enough, he took me from New York to Seattle, from Los Angeles to Chicago. This is where I trace my wanderlust. I love seeing the world, thanks to my grandfather.
After every trip my grandfather took, he used a black marker and drew the route on the map hanging in his farmhouse. It hung there behind a door, out of the way. It wasn’t in your face, wasn’t ostentatious, yet he kept it because he was proud of all the places he’d been, the things he’d seen.
When he died last year, that map was the first thing from his house that I asked for. Seeing it every day not only reminds me of him, but it reinforces the importance he put on expanding horizons, seeing places you’ve never seen, of appreciating the diversity of the world we live in.
For me, Africa wasn’t the culmination of a lifelong dream, a place Wifey and I had been pining to visit forever. But in a way, it had been a long time coming. This summer, after experiencing the deaths of my grandfather, mother-in-law and brother-in-law all in 2008, Wifey and I really wanted to get away, far away. And we knew all three of them would have wanted us to take this trip. It helped that our friends own a company called Uncharted Outposts, which plans authentic adventure travel to Africa, among other places. They’d been urging us to visit Africa for years, so Wifey and I finally saved some money, took the time off work and underwent a series of inoculations: It was finally time to get to Africa.
When the salesman told me that Africa was his dream trip, this entire narrative flashed through my head in about one second.
Africa was his dream trip?
“Mine, too,” I said.
Wifey has been trying to convince me to take a long vacation for years now. I don’t like to be away from home for too long, plus I’m a city guy, so anything more than a week away from my world and I’m usually bored to tears.
We go on vacation when we need to vacate our lives. The last vacation for Wifey and me had been over New Year’s, a short three-day break at that, and since then we’d both been working non-stop. My first book is due in September, and I’d been putting in 3-4 hours a night on it, seven days a week. Africa was shaping up to be a great temporary forced divorce from our lives.
Before we were allowed to travel to Africa, we were required to submit to a battery of shots and inoculations. Typhoid, polio, yellow fever—you might think we were actually traveling back in time. This was my first vacation requiring such a sophisticated level of medical preparation. One of the doctors who shot me up asked me questions about my trip as she looked intently on the internet, reading the CDC’s recommendations for the places we were visiting.
“Will you be doing any relief work?” she asked.
“Not unless something goes horribly wrong,” I answered.
While I understood that Africa was a continent that had many countries dealing with crushing poverty and serious malnutrition, we were going to Africa to see the best the continent had to offer. For a nature lover like Wifey, being able to see the migration of animals on the Maasai Mara in person was a dream come true. Besides, this *was* a vacation. We were staying in two of most acclaimed bush camps in the world. We had an actual itinerary with our names printed on it. I was leaving my laptop behind, instead bringing two cameras, five books and two blank notebooks. Also, anti-malaria pills and cipro in case I caught a nasty stomach bug.
It was a vacation, sure, but there was still a good chance it wouldn’t be easy. But then, the great stuff never is.
From New York City, we flew overnight into London, missed our flight to Nairobi, had a daylong layover in Heathrow, and then connected onto another overnight flight into Nairobi. We then caught a ride from Paul, who works for Uncharted Outposts in Nairobi, over to a smaller airport for the final flight of this initial leg, aboard a tiny propeller plane that took us north into the center of Kenya, to a dirt airstrip in Loisaba, on the Laikipia Plateau.
As the plane taxied to a halt in Laikipia, I wondered who was supposed to be meeting us there. It was then I noticed three guys hanging around a Land Rover. They were the only people at the airstrip, so I guessed, correctly, that they were waiting for us. They were all wearing native clothing, shirtless, their bodies wrapped in bright, mismatched fabrics, accented with dozens of decorative bead bracelets and necklaces. Mex had long braids down to his elbows which were dyed a vibrant magenta, and a white covering over his head with two plastic carnations affixed atop. All three guys were warriors who’d grown up in rural villages and completed various rites of passage, from circumcision at age 13 to branding their stomachs to killing wild animals. I thought it best not to ask for many details about those things. For the next four days, it would be Wifey, me and a dozen Samburu warriors, alone in the African wilderness. Meeting these guys, I instantly felt completely safe.
We stepped out of the plane into the transparent sunlight. A vivid blue sky stretched over our heads in every direction. Because it was winter in Africa, the temperature hovered around a comfortable 75 degrees our entire trip, going down into the 60s at night. Because we were in the middle of such flat, arid land, a cool breeze seemed to be constantly at our backs.
The warriors descended upon us, all smiles, grabbed our bags and loaded us into the back of a Land Rover. Lemarti, Boniface and Mex, all spoke perfect English, and we drove the 90 minutes to Lemarti’s Camp, where we’d be spending the next three nights. Immediately, we started seeing animals — zebras, gazelles, even a camel here and there. Laikipia Maasai people herded their goats and cows around, looking for patches of green, which wasn’t easy; the landscape was mostly barren and red, like the surface of Mars or Tattoine. There were trees and bushes, all tangled and thorny and thirsty, but nothing over 10 feet tall. The air was fragrant with the acrid scent of soil. Actually, the smell kind of reminded me of being on my grandfather’s farm in Alabama.
Lemarti grew up in the region, a member of the Samburu tribe, before meeting and marrying Kenyan fashion designer Anna Trzebinski in 2002. The couple leased 7,500 acres of land from the Samburu people and decided to open Lemarti’s Camp in 2005. Set along a bend on the Ewaso River, in the shade of a gigantic fig tree, Lemarti’s Camp is really a series of tents, though calling these structures tents is like calling Buckingham Palace a house; they are tents in construction only. The main tent, located in the center of the camp, is the camp’s great room of sorts, with overstuffed couches, a dinner table, a bar, chairs, all of this atop a raised hardwood floor, all draped with luxe, comfy fabrics. A few yards away is a kitchen and prep area. Wifey and I stayed in a tent just past the kitchen. We had a king-sized bed, chairs, dressers, a deck that hung about 20 feet above the Ewaso. A toilet (with an elephant jawbone for a seat) and an outdoor shower were a few feet outside our tent. The camp had no electricity, but at night everything was illuminated with what seemed like hundreds of lanterns, creating a mystical glow throughout the camp.
The interesting duality of Lemarti’s Camp is that while you are roughing it in the African bush, you’re at a camp so comfortable that it tricks you into forgetting you’re camping in what’s basically a wild kingdom. I was reminded of this in the middle of one night when I woke to go to the bathroom. I unzipped our tent and climbed out to walk the few feet to the toilet. As I walked, I glanced over my shoulder toward the main tent, where a Samburu warrior maybe 100 yards away quickly flicked his flashlight on and off. Don’t sweat, our night watchman seemed to be saying. I’m here; you’re safe.
In the middle of the first night, around 3 in the morning, Wifey and I both woke to the sound of something splashing around in the river in front of our tent. It sounded like a person or large animal wading across. It was too dark to see anything, but we laid there for a good fifteen minutes holding our breaths, listening for it to happen again. Days later, we discovered that it had been an enormous catfish.
Aside from Anna, Wifey and I, the only other people in the camp were about a dozen Samburu warriors, who effectively ran the camp and did all the cooking and cleaning. They all wore African Kikoys, the sarong-type cloths many native people wrap around their bodies. They wear bright colors as a sign of bravery, a symbol that they’re not afraid to be spotted by a wild animal in the bush. One afternoon, Anna gave me a few Kikoys, and when the warriors saw me walking along carrying a Kikoy, they all got excited and ran over, grabbed a Kikoy and showed me how to tie it around my waist. They seemed very excited to see me wearing their native clothing. I wore one (over my shorts) the rest of the time we were there, and the warriors all took to calling me “American Warrior.”
The camp kitchen churned out all sorts of classic French and European meals; the food was tremendous. Interestingly, the camp chefs, two Samburu warriors, didn’t actually like to eat the food they cooked. When the camp was being staffed, these two particular guys had volunteered an interest in learning how to be chefs, so they’d taken a basic cooking class and, since then, had been learning to cook entirely from cookbooks. When I asked Lemarti for his three favorite foods, he said, “Beef, blood and honey.” When I asked Boniface for his three favorite foods, he responded, “Beef, blood and avocado.” Every meal we ate, Wifey, Anna and I ate regular meals, from salads to soups to steak or chicken; the warriors always ate beef and little else. Still, each guy was lean, strong and muscular.
One evening I conned my way into the kitchen and prepared a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and fresh herbs from their garden for a shell steak. These warriors didn’t speak English, but they watched intently, and nodded their understanding furiously whenever I gestured toward an ingredient or made a movement. An hour later I took my steak down to the grill and cooked it, then returned to the kitchen to slice it. The warriors crowded around as I doled out bites. The mixed look of joy and wonder on their faces as they chewed is something I will always remember.
Once we arrived and settled in, Boniface approached us and invited us to visit his manyatta, or home, that evening so we could see how people actually live in the bush. A few hours before dinner, Wifey and I piled in the open-air back of the truck with Boni and Mex, while Lemarti, Anna and their young daughter Tacha sat up front. Boni told us it was about a 45 minute drive. We bumped along through the sunburned land, spotting gazelles and dik-diks every few feet. (We did so much bouncing around, Boni joked we were getting “a Kenyan massage.”)
After about twenty minutes, the truck abruptly stopped. Lemarti, Mex and Boni whispered in Swahili, and then we turned off the trail and started weaving slowly through the dry bushes and trees. Mex hopped out of the truck and ran ahead of us, coming back occasionally to redirect us or to use his machete to chop a limb blocking our path. All of this was happening in silence. Boni leaned forward and quietly told us that there was a herd of wild elephants somewhere nearby that we were tracking. Mex was following their footprints and manure, and Lemarti was looking for snapped branches and limbs, indicating the elephant’s path.
A moment later, we squeezed between two bushes and discovered six or seven elephants eating leaves from trees. Lemarti killed the engine and the truck rolled to a halt, maybe 15 feet from the elephants. Nobody spoke. The only sound was that of elephants snapping off limbs and chewing them down. Swiftly, the biggest elephant, who must have stood at least 10 feet tall, turned its massive head toward us and stared at us. I felt like it was looking me in the eyes, and on the video I shot of the moment, I may or may not have whispered an expletive in fear. The wind inflated the elephant’s ears out like balloons, making it seem more menacing than it probably actually was. Wifey murmured that we were too close, and at that moment there was an electricity in the air, the excitement that comes from facing the unknown and uncontrollable. Maybe ten seconds later, the elephant lazily turned and went back to eating his dinner. And Wifey and I exhaled.
Boni told us that as long as we were able to stay downwind of the elephants, they probably wouldn’t even know we were there. He also said that if you were on foot and an elephant was chasing you, as long as you changed directions frequently and stayed downwind, you’d probably escape. I wondered: If I was being chased by an elephant if would I have the ability to run for my life while simultaneously judging the direction of the wind? I doubted it.
Half an hour later, we reached Boniface’s manyatta, just as the sun was setting in the distance. It was composed of about two or three mud huts with thatched roofs. Around the property, which was probably 30 square yards, sticks had been arranged into a makeshift fence. These were all pointed outward, a preliminary line of defense against attacking wild animals. Boni owned about 40 goats and maybe 25 cows, and they’d all been led inside the fence for the evening. Boniface lived here with his wife and kids, his mother, and several of his siblings and their families. I got the sense that Boni’s work in the tourism industry made him the family’s big earner; he seemed to be proud of this.
Everyone came and greeted us, smiling and shaking our hands. Boni’s wife invited us inside their hut so we could see what it was like inside. We ducked our heads and stepped inside, where it was dark and smoky. A fire burned in one corner, where Boni’s wife was boiling water to cook something. (I secretly prayed she wouldn’t offer me any, and she didn’t. I knew the water was boiled, but still.)
She invited us to sit on a log by the fire, so we did, all jammed together knee to knee in the smoky room. In the back of the hut, somewhere in the charcoal darkness, someone was snoring very loudly. Boni told us it was his brother who had just returned from a long journey. Without warning, the snoring stopped and was replaced by a scream; simultaneously, a hand reached out of the darkness and grabbed my shoulder. Wifey yelled and leapt to her feet. I grabbed the hand and shoved back, just as Boni started laughing hard. From the darkness, Lemarti sat up and clapped me on the back, laughing as well. I think I passed their hazing ritual with flying colors.
As remote and primitive as these guy’s lives seemed, they were still aware of the world going on around them. Lemarti had been to London and New York City, and Boni and Lemarti recently inked a deal to host a show for the National Geographic channel, in which they’ll travel around the globe and explore cultural differences. When I mentioned the way they lived in Africa reminded me of a show called “Man vs. Wild,” Lemarti said, “Oh, with Bear Grylls?” Later, I saw one of the warriors holding a cell phone.
The next morning we woke at sunrise to meet Lemarti, Mex, Boni and a few other warriors for a hike. There were fresh thermoses of chai tea masala, a French press loaded with Kenyan coffee and a plate of fresh pastries waiting for us on our porch. I had my coffee sitting on our front deck, watching a family of gazelles playing on the hill across the river.
By 7:00 a.m., we were off, hiking along the bank of the Ewaso. Every few minutes we’d stop and the warriors would point out an elephant footprint or an anteater den. They carried with them only their spears, but I felt confident they could handle themselves if any animal rolled up on us. We learned about the behavior of bees, the history of ranching on these lands, how elephants climb down hills. It was really a gorgeous hike, as well as an incredible learning experience.
We spent our days at Lemarti’s reading and relaxing. I staked out one of the couches in the big tent and stretched out, alternating sleeping off jetlag and catching up on my books and magazines. A birdfeeder hung off the side of the tent, and hundreds of brightly colored birds chirped and pecked at the seed left for them. Vervet monkeys, which were about three feet tall, gray with black faces, tried to get close enough to steal the food, but the birds would chase them away. One day a group of women from a nearby village came through to see if we wanted to buy any bracelets or necklaces, which we did. The warriors were omnipresent, sweeping out the tents, constantly asking if we needed anything.
On our final afternoon, Boni, Wifey and I walked up the Ewaso to go fishing. The warriors don’t eat fish; hence, they weren’t very good fishermen. We didn’t have rods and reels, just rolls of fishing line and hooks. We hiked down to the water and stood in the river atop a series of enormous rocks. Boni attached a ball of flour dough to the hooks, and we started fishing. Almost immediately, I caught a tilapia that must’ve weighed about 4 pounds. I pulled it in, Boni grabbed it, unhooked it and promised to take it back to a Samburu elder to eat. The fish then immediately flopped away from us and back into the river, where it swam away, a big hole in his lower lip. Not ten minutes later, Wifey caught the same tilapia. This time we kept it, and the warriors were thrilled when we returned with our kill.
Before dinner on our last evening at Lemarti’s, we hiked about a quarter of a mile up to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunset. The warriors had seen me fix a Jack Daniels and Coke the first night before dinner, so they surprised me and brought the Jack and a Coke to the top of the hill for me. They built a small fire to keep us warm as the sun dropped, and then they sat and sang native songs, loudly, while Wifey and I sat in the midst of them, arm in arm, not believing where we were or what we were experiencing.
Our final morning at Lemarti’s, Wifey and I woke up, had some pastries and chai masala (which may as well be the national drink of Kenya), then packed and ambled over to the main tent for breakfast. As we sat down at the breakfast table, we were told that Lemarti wasn’t around, because overnight there had been a gunshot heard from somewhere across the river, from someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. The guys suspected it had come from a Maasai rancher trying to scare a predator away from his herd. At sun-up, Lemarti and a few of the guys dressed and started tracking this person, to make sure he knew he that he was on their land and he was not welcome.
I understand this sounds a little crazy, but upon being told this news, I just nodded and had another bite of cereal.
I thought back and realized that I actually *had* heard a loud bang in the middle of the night, but I’d somehow managed not to be alarmed and had gone right back to sleep. I never thought I’d be at a point in my life where I’d sleep through gunshots, but here I was in the African bush, sleeping through gunshots. There’s a certain unpredictability to life in Africa, but particularly out in the bush, and we had no choice but to embrace it.
Hanging around with Lemarti and Boni all week, I was impressed by their relentless fearlessness. It was part of them, something innate. We here in the States spend so much time afraid of the future, fearful of things we may or may not even need to face. But these guys just go. They don’t seem to be afraid, ever, not just of life but of anything.
Which seems like a lesson we could all stand to absorb.
Later that afternoon, our small plane touched down in the Southwest corner of Kenya on the Maasai Mara, where we’d be spending the second half of our trip. The difference from Loisaba was immediate and drastic—surrounding us were verdant fields of waist-high grass, lush forests, dramatic mountains.
We were met at the airport by Douglas Nagi, the lead guide at Cottar’s 1920’s Camp. The Cottar family moved from Iowa to Kenya in 1911, and the family has been in the safari tourism business since 1919. Which means they know what they’re doing. When Calvin Cottar, the fourth-generation safari leader, established the 1920’s camp, he began by negotiating a concession on 250,000 acres of Maasai land. The land belongs to the Maasai, but guests at Cottar’s are the only tourist allowed on the land. Which means that while thousands of tourists zigzag across the public areas of the Mara in identical white vans, the maybe dozen guests at Cottar’s can spend an entire day on the Mara surrounded by a zoo’s worth of wild animals, without seeing another soul, other than the random Maasai farmer here or there.
The 1920’s Camp is built on a hill on the edge of the Mara. Like Lemarti’s, it’s all tents, but Cottar’s tents are ripped from Lawrence of Arabia—strong, luxurious, imposing. The main tent features North African carpets, furniture from the 1920’s, actual relics from the Cottar family and feels as though it stresses civility and decorum, though it was actually quite laid back. The tent we slept in was about 100 yards away and actually had several rooms, along with a four-poster bed and a porch with an epic view of the hills of Tanzania.
Douglas helped load us into the open-topped SUV along with Matura, a Maasai warrior who had been working with Douglas going on five years. While Douglas wore western clothing and spoke English with a British lilt, Matura was draped with brightly-patterned clothes and his ears seemed to have had identical large chunks haphazardly removed from each, leaving his earlobes dangling like small necklaces. (Occasionally, I suppose to keep them out of the way, Matura would loop his earlobes up and over his ears.)
About ten minutes from the airport, we rounded a bend in the dirt highway, and Douglas slowed the SUV and killed the engine. After the car’s rumble died down, we heard what sounded like an attacking army of asthmatic people. The ground shook slightly. I glanced to my right and saw maybe 3,000 or 4,000 wildebeest, all running full speed. My estimate might be off, because I have never seen that many wildebeest in my life. Migration was underway, and the wildebeest, all loudly grunting, huffing and puffing, were leading the charge up from the Serengeti and across the Mara. They ran in single-file rows, thundering along, single-minded in their goal, following the instinctual urge inside each of them to get north as quickly as possible. We sat in silence for several minutes, marveling at the awesome spectacle.
We finally moved on and, just moments later, happened across a group of cheetahs lounging around a watering hole. We stayed safely back from them, observing as Douglas gave a thumbnail sketch of everything you might want to know about a cheetah. We later found out Douglas was both an ethnobotanist and entomologist, plus a lecturer on animal life at the University of Nairobi. So he knew a lot about animals.
It was twilight when we finally arrived at Cottar’s, and Wifey and I were both wiped out from the day of travel. Our tent was maybe 50 yards from the main tent, and we were escorted to the tent by a young Maasai warrior carrying a spear and a lantern. We were told not to go anywhere after dark without our Maasai. When we reached our tent, he walked us to the front and then disappeared into the darkness. Half an hour later, after we’d cleaned up and dressed for dinner, I unzipped the front of the tent and stepped onto the porch, and seconds later our Maasai warrior emerged from the darkness to walk us to dinner.
The next morning we met up with Douglas and Matura for an early morning game drive. Within five minutes of leaving Cottar’s, we rounded a bend and drove into a family of giraffes plucking their breakfast from the tree tops. They glanced at us indolently and continued eating. Douglas told us that most of the animals we’d be seeing on the Mara were used to seeing the Cottar’s SUVs and would generally ignore them. To them, the SUVs were just another animal, one they trusted would leave them alone. As long we stayed in the truck, Douglas assured us, we would be totally safe.
An hour or so later, as we were bounding across the open green carpet of the Mara, Matura spotted something to our left. He and Douglas spoke briefly in Swahili. We turned, drove a few hundred yards and rolled up on a male lion. He was sitting amid a thicket of tall grass, his long mane blowing in the wind. Douglas pulled within 15 feet of the lion, and he seemed completely nonplussed by our appearance. He was massive, from the size of his head to paws. His face had a few small sores that looked relatively fresh, as though he’d been in a scrap or two recently. Because Cottar’s has exclusivity on the land we were on, Douglas and the three other Cottar’s guides keep track of the prides of lions on the property; they knew where they hung out and took turns checking in on them every day, making sure they were all safe and healthy.
We drove for a few hours, saw vultures eviscerating a wildebeest carcass, quietly observed two impalas fighting for dominance over a herd of females. Around 10 a.m., we came to a stop on the banks of a gorgeous rushing river. We were surrounded by rolling emerald fields and tall mountains. Maybe 400 yards away, a family of zebras alternately played around and grazed for breakfast. Maybe a mile behind us, across a long field, was the Tanzanian border. Douglas and Matura set up a couple of collapsible tables and folding stools, then pulled out an ornate boxed breakfast that included everything from fresh fruit to cereal to sausage and bacon. Talk about a breakfast to remember.
That evening, after returning to camp for lunch and a nap, we returned to the Mara. Douglas took us back to where we’d seen the lion earlier, but now there were no lions visible at all. Douglas suspected they were napping in the tall grass, waiting for nightfall, so we parked and waited for darkness to envelop us. Douglas and I sipped Tusker beers and argued about soccer until the sun finally departed.
When it was sufficiently dark, Douglas pulled out a large spotlight, plugged it into the cigarette lighter, and boom: while we were hanging out, about a dozen lions had emerged just a few feet from us and surrounded us. Several of them had distended bellies; Douglas noted that with migration in full swing, the Mara had basically turned into a buffet for these predators. The lions were waking up, stretching. A lioness walked up to the side of the truck—when Wifey hissed, “Start the car!,” Douglas just smiled—and harmlessly walked past. Several baby lions stumbled out of the tall grass and walked to their mothers, who licked the babies and nuzzled them.
The animals on the Mara might be used to seeing people, but for people, seeing animals never gets old. It was startling and heartwarming to see these beasts acting so naturally, completely unconcerned by our presence.
The next morning we again woke early, with plans to spend the entire day on the Mara. It was our last full day in Kenya, and we didn’t want to waste a minute. As our crew piled into the SUV and set out, I tore a page from my notebook and resolved to write down each species of animal that we saw that day: Baboons; Dik-Diks; Thompson’s Gazelles; Mongoose; Topi; Jackals; Grant’s Gazelles; Warthogs; Guinea fowl; Vultures; Bush babies; Lions; Wildebeest; Hippopotamus; Crocodiles; Elephants; Hyenas; Springboks. That’s my list from the first two hours, before I got tired of keeping track.
That morning we saw a herd of gazelle sprinting along ahead of us, and Wifey noticed that two jackals were running with them, attacking one of the baby gazelles in the back of the pack. (Wifey was very proud that she spotted this before Matura.) The jackals, who weren’t much bigger than the little gazelle, circled it and separated it from the herd. They chased it until it tired, then pounced, finally biting the back of the gazelle’s neck to break the spine and kill it.
Not long after and maybe a mile away, Matura spotted a patch of blood-stained grass. We drove near, and Douglas followed a trail of blood maybe 50 feet away to the edge of a forest, where the thick vegetation provided excellent cover. Right there, under the shade of the trees, a large lioness was gnawing her way through a wildebeest carcass. Her face was smeared with blood, and the wildebeest’s stomach was completely gone. The lion stuffed her face into the cavity, pulling out guts and bits of raw meat.
We had another lion encounter a bit later, when Douglas and Matura spotted a pride sunning on a hillside. We drove near them and found maybe 15 lions basking in the morning sun, bellies full, all looking totally content. They were all lying on top of each other, arms and legs draped over tails and necks. It was a nice reminder that the circle doesn’t always have to have an unhappy ending.
When we returned to camp it was almost dark. We went back to our tent to rest before dinner, and I realized I’d gotten some sun while out on the Mara—the left side of my face and neck was a little burned, but nothing worse than I’ve had from going to a baseball game or playing golf. We showered, changed and went to dinner, which was a cookout around an open fire. I had two glasses of wine, and settled into a long argument with Douglas and Isaac, another of the guides, about the best football player to hail from Africa. (They both insisted it was either Adebi Pele or George Weah. I suggested Zinadine Zidane, who was actually born in Algeria. Eventually, they reluctantly agreed that they would at least consider Zidane.) The Maasai danced and sang around the fire. Matura was in there dancing with them, and he spotted me, ran over and pulled me into the line. I’d tried to be friendly with him but the language barrier was difficult. I think this was his attempt to bridge that, so I went for it. We would be flying back to Nairobi in the morning and then heading back home to the States, so we couldn’t stay up too late. Our warrior escorted us back to our tent, and I crashed into bed.
I woke with a start around 5:00 a.m. and immediately realized I was going to throw up, violently. I made it to the toilet and spent a good 10 minutes there hunched over, as my body rid itself of pretty much all its contents. Wifey heard my distress—I’m pretty sure the entire Mara heard it—and she got a cool cloth for my forehead. It happened again about two hours later, and this time Wifey reached into her bag and produced a digital thermometer—she was nothing if not prepared. My temperature was nearly 102, and though I don’t recall this, Wifey said my entire body was bright red, as though the sunburn had somehow spread.
One hour later we were supposed to wake up and start heading out to the airstrip to fly back to Nairobi. I told Wifey there was no way I was missing the flight home, so I sucked it up, got out of bed to get dressed and found myself so weak that I immediately collapsed right back onto the bed. I could barely move, so I crawled back under the covers. Even though it was nearing 70 degrees, I was freezing cold.
Wifey went up the main tent and informed everyone what was going on. The staff was amazing; the camp director immediately managed to get us switched to an afternoon flight that would still get us into Nairobi in plenty of time for our flight out that evening. Just from Wifey’s description of my symptoms, William, one of the Maasai, was able to diagnose me as having sunstroke. He mixed up some sort of drink made from lemon, honey, salt and water, and told Wifey it was imperative I drink as much of it as possible. (William also thought I should go to the hospital in Nairobi to be given several IVs of fluid, but that wasn’t happening.) William said that even though we were mostly in the shade the previous day and the temperature wasn’t hot, because of the elevation (we were well over a mile high) and our proximity to the equator, the sun was infinitely more powerful in Kenya than it was back in the States.
I spent the next five hours sleeping and choking down that devil liquid, which tasted horribly. By 2:00 p.m., I had made a spirited comeback, and I felt rejuvenated enough to get up, shower, get dressed and pack. On our way to the SUV that would take us to the airstrip, we bumped into Douglas and Matura in their SUV. We said our goodbyes, and Matura actually jumped out of the SUV and ran over to give me a hug, which was kind of sweet, actually.
We got to Nairobi with six or seven hours to kill before our flight to London (and then another flight back to NYC). Paul, our trusty driver, took us to Giraffe Manor, a lovely boutique hotel that reserved us a room where we could relax before our flights. My stomach was still cramping and my fever wouldn’t completely abate, so I went straight to bed and napped on and off. At some point near dinnertime, I awoke and didn’t see Wifey around. Still a little hazy from my illness, I stumbled downstairs to the front of the hotel and found Wifey and the hotel manager standing just outside the front door, calmly feeding a 20-foot-tall giraffe by hand.
I wasn’t seeing things.
Hey, it’s Africa. Anything can happen.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT AFRICA OR TRAVELING TO ANY OF THESE PLACES, GO TO WWW.UNCHARTEDOUTPOSTS.COM.