Monday, October 21, 2002

Masai Mara, Kenya VI

As it is, rental cars and I already have a long and eventful history. A wheel flying off along Johannesburg's M-1. A windshield gone missing in Port-au-Prince. A little unpleasantness in Jerusalem regarding inexplicable rock damage. I've learned to say "Dude, it was like that when I picked it up" in seven languages. So it was with my usual brio that I picked up my designated safari vehicle, a sporty Toyota mini sport ute. After two weeks the muffler's been stove in, there's an alarming clattering every time I turn left and a fortnight's worth of spilled cookie crumbs have attracted a vigorous and rapidly expanding insect population.

Like I said, nothing new.

It wasn't until photographing a lion pride at dusk when I encountered an altogether new sound. I looked in the mirror in time to see an oversized tabbie lit blood red by the brake lights crunching on my bumper. I look at the holes she punched through the high impact plastic, look at my skinny, sunburned arm, and roll the windows up.

The insect life here has taken a liking to me as well. Assorted flies, ants and spiders have taken to calling my truck home. I thought the cookie crumbs would suffice, but one took an inexplicable liking to my foot. I felt a sharp sting, swatted, swerved and swore mightily, then went back to the never-ending business of disassembling my vehicle piece by piece. No matter how hard I ignored it though, the bite became a welt and kept right on swelling until achieving altogether elephantine proportions. I don't much care for doctors under any continent, but this seemed beyond the range of meager supply of Tylenol PM and Bactine.

Masai Mara, Kenya V

Every time I pack for East Africa, I take a look at the map; take note of the equator slicing through Kenya, and pack accordingly. But these plains lie more than a mile above sea level and the nights cool down fast. The autumn short rains have begun as well and each day starts clear and crisp, turning hot by noon until puffy cumulus clouds build into an eggplant-colored squall. It cuts loose without warning, a driving deluge that knocks the temperature down 30 degrees in as many minutes. Most nights it settles into a nagging cold drizzle that gives tent campers a head start on the chest cold season.

Somehow I managed to pack for a three-week camping safari without any excess baggage, but no matter how many times I dig through my duffel bags, all that cozy Patagonia fleece remains resolutely back home in Seattle. Instead, my desert weight sleeping bag and see-through tent have kept me on intimate terms with the elements here. If I sleep under a week's worth of dirty laundry, it's not really so bad.

I've driven more than a thousand miles so far, all of it in second gear and none of it on anything resembling a proper highway since leaving greate metropolitan Nairobi. Dust tracks wind through the bush, most no more than
tire tracks in the grass. When those give out, you can make your own. After a good afternoon soaking the black-cotton soil goes both icy slick and just about bottomless. The act of steering becomes less a command than wishful thinking as the car slithers and lurches about.

Masai Mara, Kenya IV

Cheetahs rely on stealth as much as their legendary speed to catch the gazelles that are the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast. One morning this mother stalked three different herds of gazelle with an entourage of three playful cubs and a dozen rumbling diesel trucks. The element of surprise is frequently in short supply, and in spite of hitting highway
speeds, she came back winded and hungry each time. I'd happily share my lunch, but I doubt Pringles and canned curry would settle any better in her stomach than mine.

I do help matters some by accidentally flushing a hiding gazelle fawn from the tall grass. All wobbly legged, she looks like Bambi but the cheetah is in an unsentimental mood,
and has it in her sights instantly. I ponder the ethical and karmic implications of all this as the cheetah walks, then trots and finally throws on a last minute burst of speed to grab the fleeing fawn.

Bambi doesn't stand a chance in hell, not even when mum lets her go. It's
sort of catch and release hunting; training for her cubs. They give chase, tackle and thoroughly maul the fawn before finally having it for lunch. I feel awful for the fawn, but a whole lot worse when my camera jams as I'm shooting her bleating demise. The cheetah cubs feast and grow strong, vast herds of gazelle still fill the plains and mum is already looking around for seconds.

Masai Mara, Kenya III

Sharing all this senseless beauty are an additional thousand-odd tourists each day, most with a serious Hemingway fashion thing happening, all done up like great white hunters piled into Land Rovers and minibuses and hot air balloons to check out the sites. A lion kill, cheetah cubs, dozing crocs and snorting hippos, it all in their eyes, onto the video cam and out of their heads in a matter of seconds. Spending up to 14 hours a day driving myself around the park, I have ample time to meditate on the wonder of this place and the odd nature of tourism in our attention deficit age.

One morning at dawn, I spotted a cheetah crying a bird-like call searching for her lost cubs. She scoured the bush for ten minutes before finding them playing along a eroded stream bed, and they leapt to her with a maternal love left that left me gasping on the verge of tears. Within minutes a dozen safari trucks roared up, the khaki clad hoard gawked down, took some snaps and were soon impatient to see something else. Like a kill. Like now. Christ we're going to miss lunch at the lodge. There is no reverence, no mystery, just show me the damn animals, get me close for the video and okay now show me something new.

Masai Mara, Kenya II

Kenya's Masai Mara remains one of Africa's premier wildlife destinations, and this year the BBC has returned with a crew two dozen strong to shoot another season of Big Cat Diary. I show up feeling like the none-too bright new kid on the first day of school, trying to photograph those same lions, cheetahs and leopards, as well as pretty much anything else that moves

The park here offers no maps, no signs and precious little in the way of adult supervision. It's one of the last parks in all Africa where you are free to be as stupid as you please, bashing through the brush and chasing the wildlife to your twisted heart's content. Its hell on the landscaping but the management seems content to turn a blind eye so long as the hard currency keep rolling in.

Masai Mara, Kenya I

As Orion's sword passes directly overhead, I know it's time to get up. Most nights I have ample opportunity to track the stars' progress. Malaria is endemic to these East African plains, but after a couple weeks of Larium induced dreams featuring iridescent game-show host piranha and a flying carpet song-and-dance routine, I wonder how the disease could be much more disconcerting than the cure. Most mornings I'm left awake, alert and questioning my sanity.

Sunrise is still more than an hour away when I crawl from the tent, look for the first glow to the east and put on the coffee. I've mastered a system where I can tear down and stow my tent and sleeping bag and have the truck packed just as the water boils. Three tablespoons of Blue Mountain ground, two cubes of sugar and a splash of milk and I'm off. In the gloom I run into a termite mound hidden in the grass, spilling the assembled scalding ingredients onto my lap.