Masai Mara Safari: The man who knows Everything
It’s a fact of life. Nothing turns out quite as you expected. And safari game drives are no exception. We had set out on ours in the afternoon and were now centre stage to the majesty of the Masai Mara. The landscape was khakicoloured and rolled away to lap at the foot of the distant escarpment. In the foreground there was a smudge of low silver-green scrub: on the horizon a flat-topped acacia.
A secretary bird strode ahead of us, its grey-and-black feathered suit mimicking that of a Victorian secretary, his hands metaphorically clasped behind his back. A typical safari scene: just what we’d expected. But not exactly what we’d hoped for – no rollicking herds of wildebeest. No roaring lions. No hyenas. No kills.
Ah well. Never mind.
A little later, the safari vehicle draws to a halt and John, our driverguide gazes at the far hillside. ‘You wanted elephants?’ he says. Well, yes, we had said that we’d like to see elephants. But we hadn’t expected them to be available to order – off the safari menu as it were. ‘Over there,’ says John casually, and raises his binoculars.
We do likewise, but it still takes a lot of looking before we find the elephants. Amazingly, given their size, elephants make quite convincing bushes when seen from a distance. ‘There are more,’ observes John ‘if you look over the head of that cheetah.’ Cheetah? What cheetah? A stone’s throw from our vehicle, rolling on its back, its creamywhite belly exposed and fluffed out like a cushion, is a cheetah.
John surveys it. ‘Not pregnant,’ he says musingly, ‘just got a full belly. She ate about an hour ago.’ We gaze at the creature in awe: and then at John. How does he know these things?
The more time you spend with John, the more your faith in his ability to know everything grows. As the cheetah rubs itself back and forth on the harsh savannah grass, John casts a contemptuous glance at a cluster of vehicles on the horizon: all seemingly focused on one thing. ‘Why gather around one cheetah,’ he observes, ‘when you can have three hunting males all to yourself?’
He’s done it again.
From stage-left slink three haughty cats, their black-tipped tails waving with purpose. They throw us a glance and then, with one accord, hurl themselves on their backs, wriggle back and forth, and wave their legs in the air. ‘Tsetse flies’, says John, ‘they roll on them: to squash them.’ This man is omnipotent.
But we’ve seen nothing yet.
As we grind across the landscape, there’s a lone hyena sitting in a muddy puddle. It eyes us warily as we draw alongside but seems disinclined to leave. ‘Refrigerator,’ says John, ‘it’s got a kill in there.’ We look closer. One tiny hoof protrudes from the muddy water. ‘New born wildebeest,’ says John, ‘born around nine this morning.’ He can’t possibly know this. But of course he does. The wildebeest are all giving birth at the same time in the Masai Mara, as wildebeest do. And they’re all doing it mid-morning.
Later, we stop to observe the wildebeest herds. They’re now thick on the plains and the newborns run behind their mothers – nose to tail. Their gait is uncertain but determined. Suddenly we see that one is bolting alone across the plains, cut off from its mother. Behind it lopes an ominous spotted shadow. The hyena is taking it easy; the young wildebeest is but a bite away. ‘Will it kill it?’ we ask, horrified.
‘Better it does,’ observes John, ‘if it’s left alone it will starve to death slowly.’ He throws us a glance and tilts his head to one side: storing away our stricken faces.
The sun is beginning to drop. It’s a mango-red ball against a dovegrey sky. John halts the vehicle beneath the lone tree, to which we now realize he has been heading all along.
It provides the ideal setting for our sundowners, as he knew it would. He sets out chairs and unscrews the front grill of the vehicle so that it drops down to form an impromptu table. With a flourish he shakes out a red Maasai shuka and uses it as a tablecloth. On it he lays out stuffed quails eggs, miniature meatballs and thumbnail-sized omelettes.
We don’t tell him what we’d like to drink. Why bother? He already knows.
As we sip our drinks, every blade of grass seems to turn gold in the setting sun. The scene is magical, just as John had determined that it would be. We ask him how he got into the safari-guiding business. ‘I had just left school,’ he says, snapping the cap off a bottle of soda, ‘my cousin was a waiter at a safari lodge and he told me they wanted young men to train as guides.’ He smiles, ‘I didn’t want to go. I had never left the village.
All I had ever done was herd my father’s cows’. He pauses to refill the glasses we had not realized were empty. ‘When we got to the lodge,’ he continues, ‘the lights seemed so bright, because I had never experienced electricity, that I was blinded and my cousin had to lead me by the hand to the office.’ ‘But you got the job?’, we prompt.
‘Of course,’ says John, ‘I knew nothing about that world, but I’m a Maasai, and I know everything about this world.’ He nods to the wilderness, which is now laid out before us and bathed in golden light. Shafts of silver mark the place where the sun has finally sunk.
The next morning we’re game driving again with John. ‘I think I saw that young wildebeest when I was driving back from your camp,’ he says suddenly, ‘the one that was being chased by the hyena?’ We nod eagerly. ‘The mothers call out to them,’ he says, ‘and they run to the sound. That one was lucky.’ It’s a happy ending, and we’re grateful for it; but as to whether it’s true or not? Who knows? Probably just John doing what he does best: delivering the ultimate safari experience. And making us happy
Adopted from Why I Love Kenya Magazine.