The International Writers Magazine
: Africa Travel

Of soul-homes, sky-temples and safaris
A young traveler’s unforgettable first encounter with Africa
Menel Ahmed
- Part Two

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.

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.

The 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 reserve’s management.

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 might’ve been a Zulu warrior if it weren’t 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 - "I’m 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 Kenya’s 32 million people are Christian, around 20% Muslim, and the rest followers of ancestral tribal beliefs, as well as some Hindus and Buddhists.

David, however, was more forthcoming when it came to talking about his people’s 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.
Zebras Crossing

It was most fascinating. We saw our share of Kenyan cows and goats too, shepherded by skinny-legged red-swathed kids who’d 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 wasn’t 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 you’d been put in a box and thrown down a mountain. A rocky mountain. Don’t think I’m complaining about the rather bad roads or about the bumpy van. It was the most fitting way to start a safari, I’d 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 to go.

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 couldn’t 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.

David 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 wouldn’t 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, Thomson’s and Grant’s, 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 they’d 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 we’d 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 don’t 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 isn’t really such a big deal, when you can see all the same animals, and many more, at any good zoo. Now I don’t 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 exhilarating experience.

So even though we didn’t see all of the Big Five (the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) it didn’t 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 the lions?

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 doesn’t matter to them, whether it’s 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 – he’d 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 cheetah’s 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 didn’t 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 I’ve 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 we’d 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 don’t know what you’d think, but I generally found the place too touristy for my liking. A great holiday spot for most people, I’m sure, but I’d 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 can’t tell you about them all here, but let’s 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 Universe.
Now get your bum off that sofa and go see the world!
Kwaheri, na safari njema! (Farewell, and bon voyage!)

Menel Ahmed December 2005

Writing (spiritually) from Kenya but (bodily) from Lahore, Pakistan

Back to part one

Menel stayed at the Mara Simba Lodge

More World Destinations


© Hackwriters 1999-2005 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.