The International Writers Magazine: Africa Travel
soul-homes, sky-temples and safaris
A young travelers unforgettable first encounter with Africa
- Part Two
Masai Mara National Game Reserve is situated 270 kilometers west
of Nairobi, a distance you can cover by car or plane. The Masai,
a nomadic pastoral tribe indigenous to East Africa, have inhabited
the plains of southwestern Kenya and northern Tanzania since 1500
During the colonial
period, thousands of Masai people were pushed off their ancestral lands
for the expansion of cities and railways, and resorted to extreme poaching
(in collusion with white hunters) when their traditional means of subsistence
(i.e., cattle-rearing) was denied to them.
The Masai Mara National Game Reserve is situated 270 kilometers west
of Nairobi, a distance you can cover by car or plane. The Masai, a nomadic
pastoral tribe indigenous to East Africa, have inhabited the plains
of southwestern Kenya and northern Tanzania since 1500 A.D. During the
colonial period, thousands of Masai people were pushed off their ancestral
lands for the expansion of cities and railways, and resorted to extreme
poaching (in collusion with white hunters) when their traditional means
of subsistence (i.e., cattle-rearing) was denied to them.
Masai Mara game reserve was inaugurated in 1961 to protect the animals
in the deserted and wild country in which wildlife had become increasingly
sparse by this indiscriminate poaching. The protection of this area
favored re-population of the territory by the Masai, who were then
incorporated into the economic picture and put in charge of the
Though land conflicts
are still about, the chosen formula for preserving this natural space
attempts to render some reward to the Masai by means of trade with tourists,
both through campsite management, handicraft selling and visits to villages.
All of it provides a permanent income source, albeit scarce and fluctuating,
for these people who fight for preserving their traditions against progress.
We rented a jeep from the "Discover Kenya" safari agency to
take us from Nairobi to Masai Mara, a large white 8-seater with a convertible
roof and absolutely no shocks whatsoever! Our driver was very tall and
lean, he had close-cropped curly hair, yellow cheetah-eyes, and mightve
been a Zulu warrior if it werent for his ordinary pants-n-shirt
ensemble, the fact that his name was David, and that he drove a Toyota
Hi-Ace. Another fact I learnt was the majority of Kenyans do not practice
voodoo or any other primitive religion. I remember one of my friends
asking me very excitedly to get him some "crazy voodoo beads"
from Kenya. I was curious myself about the kind of beliefs they practiced,
and wanted to learn all about their ancient myths and gods and goddesses.
But it came as a short surprise when our Nairobi driver Agre looked
positively offended when we innocuously asked him what religion he practiced
- "Im a Protestant, of course!" forgetting that, when
the British came, they not only brought a system of government, but
a religion. "Before the white man came, we had the land and they
had the Bible. Now we have the Bible and they have the land." 66%
of Kenyas 32 million people are Christian, around 20% Muslim,
and the rest followers of ancestral tribal beliefs, as well as some
Hindus and Buddhists.
however, was more forthcoming when it came to talking about his
peoples past, and we learnt many interesting things from him
on the 5-hour journey to Masai Mara. This was a journey I shall
never forget! For one, we passed through some of the most beautiful
countryside I have ever seen, rolling pastures, woody valleys, sweeping
plateaus, every bit of land incredibly green. You see, zebras and
gazelles roam around as freely in the Kenyan countryside as cows
and goats do in Pakistan.
It was most fascinating.
We saw our share of Kenyan cows and goats too, shepherded by skinny-legged
red-swathed kids whod wave at us rather violently with the toothiest
of grins each time we passed. These were Masai children, David told
us, recognizable by their distinct red clothing. The Masai wear only
a single sheet of hand-woven woolen red cloth wrapped like an ehraam
(the dress Muslim men wear for pilgrimage) around their bodies - be
it rain or storm, sun or snow, they wear nothing else. We were facinated
at their bare arms and legs teasing the wind as if it were high summer.
How wonderful the human body is, how terrifically adaptable!
Traveling through that wide, beautiful country, through its bustling
towns and villages, its farms, it wildernesses, past the unmistakably
African acacia trees, the laughing, shiny-faced people, I felt no longer
like a foreigner. I wasnt really a foreigner for beyond
race, beyond the shade of our skins and the mould of our features, we
were all just children of one man and one woman. They were neither black,
nor white, nor red, nor yellow - they were, simply, human.
The second reason why I shall never forget that 5-hour journey to Masai
Mara, is because I realized, on that journey, how many bones there actually
were in my body. It sounds strange, but trust me, you would discover
the same thing if youd been put in a box and thrown down a mountain.
A rocky mountain. Dont think Im complaining about the rather
bad roads or about the bumpy van. It was the most fitting way to start
a safari, Id say but 5 hours of nonstop bouncing rattles
up your insides. David tried ignoring our yelps and shrieks of tearful
laughter, but I swear I saw him chuckle more than once in the rearview
mirror. It was, altogether, a thoroughly insane trip, and we reached
the Mara Simba lodge thoroughly battered and blue, but giddy with excitement.
We were about to discover every second of the trip was worth it.
The Mara Simba lodge is a pretty, misty, quiet woody place nestled
deep in jungle brush on the banks of the Talek River. Mobile phones
dont work here, and the lodge landline is usually out of order.
It was like being time-warped into another dimension, a world where
we became different people, new people, our minds cleared of past memories,
knowing that here, we were truly away, unreachable, untraceable, undiscoverable
free. It was a strange, liberating experience, forgetting who
you were and just being. It stirred my soul, made me grow, I felt there
wasnt a happier, serener person than me in the world that day.
We checked into our rooms, had some lunch on the lovely patio-restaurant,
witnessed a mongoose family-quarrel under the terrace, saw two monster
crocodiles sunbathing on the shore of the river, and then, we were ready
David was waiting for us outside, with the homely old white van transformed
into an intrepid top-open safari jeep. We were suddenly rather grave
this was it, this was the moment, the reason why people from
all times and ages came to Africa. And here we were! I couldnt
believe I was actually there. Every part of me was trembling with excitement
what would I see? What would I find? What would I feel? Would
I be disappointed, or would it be something beyond my wildest expectations?
And as David revved up the jeep and we slowly climbed onto the track
heading to the simple wood-posted entrance of the Masai Mara game reserve.
What happened next, is almost inexpressible. You may go crazy taking
photographs and videos, but when they come out and you see them back
at home sitting in your living room, you realize that they are utterly
soulless. Only in your imagination can you recreate the vision that
really was, the one you saw. So excuse me if this does not live up to
the pictures in my mind.
The wind rips past your face, screaming in your ears, your hair flapping
madly behind you, your cheeks are white with cold - and all of a sudden
there unfurls above you. A picture so wide it fills every corner of
your vision, overwhelming you and absorbing you in its depth, it its
sheer vastness. And at that moment, you feel there is nothing and no
one in the world between you and your God, but that great, rolling,
timeless blue sky.
I cannot even begin to describe that sky to you. It took my breath away.
That sky, I beheld at Masai Mara in Kenya, that sky was my temple, my
soul-temple. You cannot appreciate sky living in a city, or in a forest,
or even in the mountains. But there, aboard that rattling jeep in the
middle of the wild gold African savannah, there, I understood. I understood
why the steppe peoples of Central Asia worshipped Tengri, and the Native
Americans of North America worshipped Manitou - how could you not venerate,
how could you not adore something so pristine and ineffably beautiful?
It looked like God had just re-painted the roof of the earth with the
freshest, purest of colors, and if you reached out a bit in front you
could actually grab a tuft of cloud in your hands, or brush against
the sky with your fingertips. That sky was something that could make
believers out of atheists.
had warned us not to expect to see anything, apart from droves of
gazelles and zebras, he said that since the animals wandered about
the savannah completely at will, sometimes in Masai Mara, sometimes
crossing over to the Serengeti, it was near impossible to predict
where any of the animals would be at any particular time. But I
knew in my heart that I wouldnt be disappointed.
We romped about
in the jeep for an hour, zigzagging through ubiquitous dirt tracks and
drinking in some spectacular scenery. How David knew where to take us
in that limitless unmarked expanse of savannah is beyond me but
soon enough the gazelles appeared, Thomsons and Grants,
grazing prettily on the sides, skipping along in front of us, occasionally
casting curious glances in our direction with their wide dark eyes.
There were antelope too, great curvy-horned bucks, and innocent-looking
impalas, then wildebeest, with their unmistakable shaggy gray beards,
and the unimpressive topi. We saw them, sometimes lounging around in
intimate little groups, sometimes in enormous herds, all swishing their
tails, twitching their ears, and ruminating over supper, quite oblivious
of our presence. Sometimes theyd be seen hanging out with crowned
cranes, Marabou storks and blue quails.
Soon the zebras also showed up, but they were never seen by themselves,
or even in pairs. Zebras are fully aware of their own desirableness
in the eyes of a lion, and sticking together in big bunches is the only
defense mechanism they have to save themselves from becoming cat food.
So when a lion sees a flock of zebra, he actually just sees an indistinct
muddle of stripes, and while that can even confuse us at times, it is
positively bewildering for the lion, who is also color-blind.
While David was telling us all these things, I was thinking how exciting
it would be to actually see a lion making a kill. Not that wed
seen any lions yet. In fact, there was no sign of them anywhere. The
zebras and all the other creatures were in quite a placid mood - there
seemed to be no cause for alarm in the near future. David observed this,
and after pondering a moment, abruptly swerved the jeep onto another
track heading in the opposite direction. "This way," he intoned
under his breath, and we silently wondered where he was taking us.
I dont know where we were, but for the first time since the beginning
of the safari, we saw a sign of other human beings a speck of
white parked about thirty miles ahead, with ant-sized heads popping
out from on top, looking with great interest at something in the grass.
We made our way there. And as we approached the other jeep, we saw with
our own eyes what it was that those people were gaping at. Lions. Six
lions. Lolling about in the grass, barely a 100 yards away from us.
Ripping the flesh off what looked like a wildebeest carcass. It was
unbelievable. Nobody spoke, nobody even breathed. All you could hear
was the sound of wind rustling through the grass, and the grunts and
chomps of the lions as they devoured the wildebeest.
I was transfixed. It was possibly the most thrilling moment of my life.
They were terrifying, merciless, wild, beautiful. I was hypnotized watching
them gnaw hungrily at the mangled carcass, their mouths crimson with
blood. It was a fresh kill the lionesses had pounced upon this
wildebeest perhaps only minutes before our arrival. There were three
lionesses, two cubs, and one male, young and maneless, dominating the
meal. He was a budding chauvinist, grabbing the meatiest morsels and
snarling nastily at any one who tried to sneak a better bite. It was
macabre, and gruesome, and fascinating.
We had seen the first of the African Big Five.
Some people would think that a safari isnt really such a big deal,
when you can see all the same animals, and many more, at any good zoo.
Now I dont approve of zoos, or any kind of captivity for wild
animals, especially predators. But admittedly, zoos are fun, and comfortable,
and convenient, and safe. Not until this trip, however, did I realize
how incredible it is to see the animals in their natural habitat, their
territory, their domain. Man becomes insignificant in that world
nothing more than an odd, harmless-looking creature occasionally seen
roaming aimlessly about the savannah. Not even worth noticing really.
Of course, if you do something silly, like catcalling a lion or scowling
back at a buffalo, or heckling at a hyena then you are asking for it.
We have to remember that in the savannah, we are essentially powerless,
at the mercy of the animals, as it were. It is that risk, that unpredictability,
that very chance of anything happening, that makes the safari such an
even though we didnt see all of the Big Five (the lion, leopard,
elephant, buffalo and rhino) it didnt matter so much
I just made up my mind that I would keep coming back here, again
and again, until I did see them. And, in all fairness to the Masai
Mara, we saw so many other things in that one afternoon, that even
David was impressed, deciding that we were definitely a providential
lot. For what do you think happened our way right after we crossed
We saw a long, lean,
strapping young cheetah, elegantly lunching on some juicy antelope.
Compared to lions, cheetahs are rather sophisticated, civilized animals
- a bit standoffish maybe but not half as vicious and bloodthirsty.
That may have to do with the fact that cheetahs are not man-eaters,
and, at least in my opinion, the real joy for a cheetah is the hunt,
not the kill itself. As far as lions go, I imagine that they will attack
anything even remotely edible. It doesnt matter to them, whether
its young, or sick, or defenseless, or even one of their own kind
they just want to feel powerful and get meat to gnash their teeth
through. At least in my view.
Now cheetahs cheetahs are just cool. This one was sitting there,
calmly forking through his meal when we approached. He glanced up for
a moment at the sound of the jeeps, saw nothing of any interest, and
nonchalantly resumed his lunch. He was a rather handsome fellow, but
I think he knew it hed stand up now and again, stretch
his legs, pirouette, and then curl back up on the ground, making sure
he was photographed from all angles. But the funniest was the cheetahs
12-membered vulture entourage, positioned in a semi-circle at a respectful
distance. This scavenger-convoy accompanies cheetahs everywhere, dutifully
clearing away leftovers while the cheetah catnaps for a few days. And
so we left the cheetah, snoozing contentedly in the cozy winter sun,
the birds already at work, and the rhythm of nature uninterrupted ever
since the world began.
We saw families of elephants, complete with moms, dads, babies, and
various friends and cousins, strolling right up to our jeep without
a fear in the world. We passed through a sea of enormous black buffalo
(probably the scariest part of the whole safari), staring at us glassy-eyed
like they needed no encouragement whatsoever to attack (in fact, David
told us, when it comes to humans, buffaloes have a history of being
even more aggressive than lions!) We saw a sweet giraffe couple happily
sharing a leafy branch, and we saw a few stupid-looking spotted hyenas
pretending to be lions. We didnt get a chance to drive up to the
Mara River to see the rhinos and hippos, and it was still too early
for the great river-crossing but that again is something Ive saved
for next time.
We had to turn back for the Lodge when evening fell, and were seen off
at the gates of the game reserve by a baboon sentinel perched on top
of an umbrella-thorn acacia. The night was very cold, we filled ourselves
up with hot soup at the buffet, pulled on all the clothes wed
brought, snuggled under the dark green covers of our beds, and slept
soundly to the symphonies of the jungle night.
I was sad to leave. Masai Mara had been truly breathtaking. I had never
before known the beauty of sheer expanse, the trees were beautiful,
forests were beautiful, and mountains, and lakes. The beauty of the
desert, the beauty of the savannah, of the prairie, of a faultless,
sparkling, everlasting blue sky, immeasurable and truly sublime.
There are few places in the world where one feels genuinely happy, happy
within. Mecca was one of those places; Saif-ul-Malook in Pakistan, and
Masai Mara were others. Mombasa, though very lovely, was not - at least
not for me. The beach was idyllic powdery-white sands, balmy
blue waters, plush green palm trees and the White Sands
hotel was honeymoon-heaven, with its spas and saunas and bars and nightclubs
and white-curtained bay-windows. Mombasa was, overall, a rather merry
little place, as all port-towns are apt to be. The old Muslim quarter
was just charming - it reminded me very much of the Walled City back
in Lahore. Arab traders founded the island-city in the 11th century,
and in 1698 Muslims from Oman won it back from the Portuguese after
two centuries of abrasive Portuguese rule. The area was taken over by
the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1840, and finally came under the control of
the British in 1898, who made it the capital of their East Africa protectorate.
70% of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and it was here that I heard
the azaan after a very long time.
I dont know what youd think, but I generally found the place
too touristy for my liking. A great holiday spot for most people, Im
sure, but Id much rather live two weeks in a tree-house in Samburu,
or camp out at Fig Tree and see the leopards by night.
My mother dreamt of the trip to Kenya, originally, when she was just
12 years old and it happened. I dreamt of many other things for
this trip, and they all, eventually came true. I cant tell you
about them all here, but lets just say, Paulo Coehlo hit upon
an elemental law when he said, "If you want something passionately,
the whole of the Universe conspires to help you achieve it".
If you want to get out, you will, if you want to be free, you will,
if you want to hear, smell, feel, touch, understand, see the jungles
for yourself you will!
You just have to want it passionately enough. Leave the rest to the
Now get your bum off that sofa and go see the world!
Kwaheri, na safari njema! (Farewell, and bon voyage!)
from Kenya but (bodily) from Lahore, Pakistan
Back to part one
stayed at the Mara Simba Lodge http://www.marasimba.com/
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