Thursday, 20 December 2007

”On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eight cheetahs eating . . .”

This morning we got up and were taken to a small airport where we flew to our next destination, the Masai Mara. I had transferred all the kids’ pocket knives at the last minute to our duffel, since I was worried about their backpacks going through security. I needn’t have bothered. We arrived to a dirt airstrip and boarded an eighteen-seater plane while our luggage was tossed into the side. No security to be seen, only a man selling bracelets and necklaces by the side of the airstrip from a card table.

The boys got a seat right up front so they had a good view of the cockpit and its assortment of dials, buttons, gauges and controls. Our first flight was 25 minutes, we landed and picked up some more passengers, then continued on for another 50 minutes. Then we were transferred to a bigger airplane that held maybe 30 people, and had two more flights. One was 7 minutes, the other was 5 minutes. The kids did just fine, none of them got airsick, and I was grateful.

We were met by two jeeps that shuttled us to our next lodge, with identical tents and identical instructions about how to close them to avoid monkeys in the luggage. The kids set to work behind the tents, constructing a bug habitat with their pocketknives and shower caps they had pilfered from the bathrooms. After lunch, they were overjoyed to join Johnson, a Masai man, who hosted the kids “Adventure Club” and helped them make bows and arrows which they shot without abandon into the forest. At no particular target, hopefully not at each other.

We went on a game drive at 4 that afternoon, and marveled at the differences in landscape. The Samburu area was hemmed in by thorny acacia trees and shrubs, and you had to poke your head out of the roof and peek above the bushes to try and glimpse something. We were always wondering what might be hiding out there, there were so many hiding places. The Masai Mara consists of large, open savannahs, you can see for miles. We could see buffalo and wildebeests grazing in big herds far off in the distance. Cosmos explained that this was largely because of the elephants, which come in and trample the trees so they can get to the leafy parts at the tops. In just fifty years, what was once a forest is now wide open grassland.

We saw our first wildebeests here, and located four cheetahs in the bushes. There were three males and one female, who wasn’t quite ready to mate with any of them just yet. The males hovered nearby, and if one came too close, the female made a strange, growling noise in her throat. Cheetahs can’t roar like lions, or I’m sure she would have been roaring. We continued traveling across the grassland, until we encountered our most exciting thing, yet. We got a call, and headed to where some jeeps were congregated around three cheetahs that were eating a young wildebeest they had just killed.

The stomach and intestines were in a pile next to the carcass, and while one cheetah would rest, his sides heaving and his stomach distended, the others would tear away at the carcass, trying to get to every little morsel. They would pick it up sometimes and stretch it between themselves, you could hear the flesh ripping as they got to some new piece of meat. Their teeth crunched the bones, we were close enough to see and hear it all. The vans we use here are open on the sides and top, no windows, and it was a little uncomfortable at first, to be so close to them. Every once in a while one of the cheetahs would raise its head and gaze at us, then return to its feast. Once one of the cheetahs got hold of the wildebeest’s leg, and it would shake its head and the leg would flop around like the wildebeest was doing a high-kick dance. Another time, one of them got the head in its mouth and one of the eyeballs flopped out onto the ground. The kids had fun looking at it with the binoculars.

Behind them a tree was full of vultures, just waiting for the cheetahs to be done so they could have a go at it. Cosmos told us the vultures would not approach until the cheetahs left their kill. Once they came, Cosmos said it would be crazy, we’d probably get splattered by intestines as they swarmed what was left. This was enough for the kids to decide they would wait as long as it took, they giggled at the thought of being in the “splash zone”. Now, I don’t like wildlife shows where animals are eating other animals, but this was fascinating to me. For awhile. But after an hour of waiting and watching, we were all ready for those cheetahs to get up and go.

“You’re full, now leave!” Nate would whisper. They took turns eating, then laying down like someone who’s just had a Thanksgiving Day lunch, then getting up again for more. The vultures were getting restless, but still they waited. It was getting dark and Cosmos said three more minutes, then we had to head back. Three minutes passed, the cheetahs were still eating, and we started the engine. By that time all the other cars had left other than ours and the other car in our group, which had Rachel and her parents in it.

As we drove away, we got a call on the CB from the other car. The vultures had moved in! It had been about three minutes, so we turned around and high-tailed it back. When we arrived, all the stomach and intestines were entirely gone, and the rib cage was picked clean. The place was swarming with vultures and a few eagles, there must have been at least fifty birds. They would hiss at each other and spread their wings while they all picked away. It would have been an awesome sight to see them descend, but this was still pretty cool. It was amazing to me that in just five or six minutes, it was pretty much gone.

The cheetahs had settled behind us in the middle of the road, watching the vultures from a distance. Suddenly, coming across the plain, we saw a hyena, limping but heading straight towards the carcass. The vultures scattered. Then the hyena seemed to veer towards the cheetahs, which suddenly looked very uneasy and hopped up. They started walking quickly away, on the other side of the car.

Cosmos had told us that a hyena will take a kill away from a cheetah, that’s one reason they eat so fast. So they can eat it all before someone comes and takes it from them. But this seemed strange. Why wasn’t the hyena headed towards the kill, and why were the cheetahs so afraid of the hyena now? They could surely outrun it. We looked behind us and saw two jackals coming our way. This was turning into quite the party, and then behind the jackals, a female lion came into view. She made a beeline for the kill, while the cheetahs headed off in earnest, and the hyena took off as well. He suddenly wasn’t limping anymore, I guess the lion inspired him to get a move on.

Then behind the female lion, a young male lion approached. It wasn’t old enough to have a full mane, but was decidedly bigger than the female. The jackals trotted behind the male, and after a quick inspection of the kill, which smelled like vulture, the lion left it to the jackals, and walked towards the hyena, growling a warning. The hyena didn’t turn back, it was out of there. Cosmos said a lion won’t touch a carcass once the vultures have been at it, it takes on a different smell that they don’t like. We couldn’t believe our good fortune, we had seen all these cool animals in one place, and our waiting had paid off. This was so different than our experience at the lion parade the day before. It was still baffling to me that all this happens while we are less than twenty feet away, spectators to the nature game.

The sun was setting as we headed back to the lodge, turning the sky pink and orange and lighting up the clouds. An early moon had risen, and Clay spotted a serval cat, another rare animal, as we neared the lodge. Nate kept saying, “This was the best game drive ever!” And still we look forward to another day, another chance to see something amazing. Who knows what the morning will bring! As we were getting ready for bed, we noticed a bush baby on the kids’ balcony. Alayna had left a trail of bread crumbs along the rail, and the bush baby snuffled them all up and leapt into the night. It is a cool monkey-like creature, with a bushy tail and bulging eyes, and I wondered as I walk back to my tent after tucking the kids into theirs, what else is lurking just beyond the circles of light, watching me. I walked a little faster.


Friday, 21 December 2007

“On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, nine leopards leaping . . .”

Last night it rained, I woke to the sounds of raindrops on the canvas roof and cuddled deeper into the blankets, loving that I was warm and dry. This morning we had a “late” game drive, not setting out until 8. After leaving the gate of the lodge, we headed across a small open area and into some bushes. I figured we were on the lookout for lions, hiding in the shadows, or maybe a leopard. Cosmo was riding in the other car, we were in the lead. Our driver drove over small trees and bushes in our way, and drove deeper into the thicket. Benji giggled as trees poked through the windows and showered leaves onto the seat of the car. It reminded me of jeep rides my Grandma used to give when we were kids. “Duck your heads and close your eyes!” she’d holler, as she drove under low-hanging trees.

Suddenly, our driver stopped and pointed deep into the bushes. “There, a leopard,” he whispered. “That’s the kill, in the shadows.” Benji and I saw nothing, Clay and Nate saw the dead impala but no leopard. The driver drove over more trees, getting closer, and then we saw it. The leopard. It was big, bigger than the cheetahs had been. It was tearing at the kill and then we saw more spots. There were cubs, two baby leopards, “Maybe six months old,” our driver said. This was amazing. It is rare to see a leopard, and when you do it’s either in the shadows of the bushes or up in the trees. They are shy animals. We were seeing three of them. We stuck around for over half an hour, driving around their little cluster of bushes, seeing the cubs play with each other and take turns at the carcass. The mother would bury bits of it, to hide the smell from other predators that may come along and snag it. Our driver explained that leopards are slow eaters and so they hide their kill.

The leopards look different, while a cheetah has a black “teardrop” coming from each eye, the leopard does not. Its spots are different too, they are black rings with brown in the middle. We got up close and personal with the binoculars, and while they didn’t really like our presence, they stuck around. It was only our jeep and the one Cosmos and the others were in, so we had them all to ourselves.

We finally tore ourselves away, and encountered some ostrich and hippos before lunch. The hippos made a strange, hissing noise, like air leaking from a balloon, as they submerged and resurfaced, blowing mist into the air from their giant nostrils. We saw baboons perched on termite mounds in the distance, and we came upon a pride of female lions sleeping near some trees. They had several cubs amongst them, and while they were very lazy and didn’t move much, we got a glimpse of some of the groggy babies as they got up to nurse or re-settle after being startled by our car engine.

When we got back the kids continued their work on the bug habitat, rejoicing when they found a millipede that could inhabit it. After lunch they joined Johnson again, this time for an obstacle course and javelin throwing. Clay took a nap and sulked over his lost book. Yesterday he was reading an Agatha Christie mystery, he was right in the middle of it, when he got up to go to lunch. He was reading on the porch, and that’s the last time he remembers seeing it. He’s convinced a monkey stole it, he may be right. I sat on the back porch, with the sun on my toes, flicking ants off the keyboard while I typed up the journal, finally catching up again.

We went on a game drive again at 4, and after seeing more of the same, except for a pair of tortoises which we hadn’t encountered yet (another check in our wildlife book!), we came upon a shocking scene. We passed a male lion sleeping under a bush, another just a few feet further on sleeping under a different bush, and then a little further, a male and female lion, also sleeping, side by side. We learned that in that area there is a pride of lions with eight females and three males. When a new dominant male comes in, he kills all the cubs, and then immediately tries to impregnate the females to start his own litter of cubs. The problem is, the mothers are still nursing and aren’t in season, the male must induce ovulation. To do this, he mounts the female every FIFTEEN MINUTES for up to a week, making sure she ovulates and gets pregnant.

We witnessed this after waiting about ten minutes, the female rolled over, the male woke up, and there we had the birds and the bees in full view. The female was obviously tired of it all, she growled and the male snarled back and bit her on the neck. Benji asked, “Was that a burp?”  I think all the kids understood what was going on to some degree, Alayna was disgusted and the boys thought it was hilarious. Clay captured the whole thing on video, I told him we needed to give it a rating.

Once again, Cosmos said we had witnessed something most people never see. He’s not sure how he’s going to top this one. We even saw a takedown while we were waiting on the lions. A kingfisher bird dove off a branch and captured an insect in mid-air. I don’t think this counts in Nate’s vision of a take down, we remain hopeful each time we get in the car that this will be our time. Clay would love to see a cheetah racing across the savannah, their bodies look so powerful and it would be a beautiful thing to see them in action. We’ve got two more game drives before we move to a new place.

Tonight some Masai warriors came during dinner and did a dance, something they called a “blessing” or “prayer” dance. They all hummed in low voices, one man sang in a high voice, and a few of the kids joined in, including Nate. We could tell he wanted to, but weren’t sure he would get up the nerve to actually step up. When he saw two other kids joining the dance, and the warriors began leaping into the air, he walked right up and joined the line. Alayna and Benji opted to be spectators. In addition to the kids and the men dressed in their traditional Masai clothes, two men that work on staff at the lodge joined the line to jump. Cosmos said they wanted to be a part of it since they are also Masai, when they see their fellow tribe members they want to join them. It reminds me of a fraternity, or A&M fans. When they get together, they have such a good time, they share a culture and experiences that binds them together.

Back in Samburu we spotted one of the young men, dressed in his traditional dress, sitting in a chair with a laptop on his lap. It was such a funny thing, to see the old and new come together like that, but it made it all seem real. This is no Disney-fied version of Africa, this is the real world, traditions co-exist with the modern world, they are alive and well here in the Masai Mara.


Saturday, 22 December 2007

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, ten spears a’throwing . . .”

We woke up at 6 this morning so we could do an early morning game drive. We were on the lookout for cheetahs, hoping to watch a takedown. We soon found a cheetah sitting in the grass, all by her lonesome. It was the same one that was being surrounded by males two mornings ago, they must have gone off to hunt and left her alone for a while. We watched her intently, hoping she would catch the scent of an antelope or wildebeest and spring into action, but she did nothing of the sort. She lay down and began cleaning herself. After waiting maybe fifteen minutes, our driver decided she was not interested in hunting and we moved on.

We had noticed some wildebeest running on the horizon when we first saw our cheetah, so we headed that direction. We came upon another kill, those three male cheetahs had found themselves some breakfast. As we got closer we realized the wildebeest wasn’t quite dead, its chest was heaving while one of the cats held its throat closed and the other two were already taking bites. It was really gross. This one bothered me more than the one the other day, the sounds of crunching bones and the meat dripping off the cheetah’s chin as it raised its head, making sure no lion was on the way. We actually did hear a lion, growling low and throaty, but it was too far away to smell the kill and never appeared.

No vultures appeared, no hyena or jackal or lion, the scene we witnessed two days ago was truly unique. We left after a while, in search for the racing cheetah or take down, but found neither. We returned to camp, and after breakfast Nate sat down to play the game mancala on a big wooden set under the central pavilion. He beat several kids, and made a friend named Max. Max hails from Switzerland but his mother’s family all lives in Kenya. She is a stately woman, very tall, with a copy of Anna Karenina tucked under her arm. I was impressed and joked that she needed some lighter reading for her vacation. She and her daughter went for a game drive while Max opted to stay behind and play Nate a few more games. They played a while, then found some sticks and had a sword fight.

We all settled on the bed, Alayna, Nate, Max, Benji and Rachel, to watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Clay had downloaded it on his computer, and we thoroughly enjoyed putting ourselves in the holiday spirit by watching that well-worn classic. That Grinch is a nasty old thing, with “garlic for a soul”. Love that line. It had a great line at the end, “Welcome Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

The kids all joined in Adventure Club that afternoon, crafting spears out of sticks with Johnson and Dixon, the guys who take the kids for two hours in the afternoon and run around in the heat and wear them out well. They all ran back with their spears, with all sorts of ideas about how we could ship them home, but there’s just no way. They are a foot longer than our duffels. We tried to convince them they could make their own back home, but Nate insisted they would need a machete to do this properly. We aren’t getting a machete.

Late afternoon we went for our last game drive in the Masai Mara, this place that has shown us so many wonderful things. This time we encountered another serval cat, a rare sight. If seen, these animals usually dart into the bush, they are very shy. Cosmos said he hadn’t seen one for four years, and then this month he’s seen three. This time we watched as the cat slinked around, looking as if he wanted to catch a bird. The patterns on it were stunning, and we could tell it could be very fast if it wanted to be. We also saw some baby ostriches, so cute running after their mama and daddy, their baby legs pumping hard. We saw hyenas and a baby zebra, nothing spectacular but amazing just the same.

Christmas has arrived in Kenya. We started seeing signs a few days ago, boxes came out with tinsel and tiny trees, lights began to be hung. Today we noticed two acacia trees, these are thorny beasts of trees that we see all over the place, decorated near the hotel entrance and in the restaurant. Instead of ornaments, they are hung with Christmas cards, and lights blink among the branches. Upon closer inspection, you can see ants climbing among some of the black berries.

I will remember Masai Mara with many fond memories, but there is one thing that will give me nightmares in years to come. If I were a hunter, I know which animal I would shoot. The tree hyrax. It lurks outside our cabin, and when it’s night, it begins to wail and scream, really loud at first, gradually dying down and fading away. I would drift back to sleep, and then SCREAM! It would start again. I dislike the tree hyrax intensely. But I will miss Cosmos, he has been a great guide but we say goodbye tomorrow when we head to Tanzania. We will miss all the amazing animals, though we hope to see many of them again in Tanzania, and more. We will miss Johnson and Dixon and the bush baby that lingered in the rafters of the dining hall with its big yellow eyes staring. We call some new people rafiki (friend) after the last few days, but it’s time to move on. Is it okay? “Sawa, Sawa.” (Okay, let’s go.)