The Great Rift Valley, Masai Mara, Kakamega, and Lake Victoria – all these names spurred images of gambling giraffes, crocodiles in wait as thousands of wildebeest poured down a bank, and elephants trudging across grasslands marked by red dirt and green acacia. Despite, and perhaps because of these brochure-ready pictures, I bought my ticket to Kenya, ready for a proper adventure.
When I was little, I remember receiving stock cards in the mail, each card with a picture of a different animal and accompanying facts about their habitat, diet, and behavior. I collected them like baseball cards, studying them and doubtlessly annoying my parents with useless factoids (did you know a group of cheetahs is called a coalition?). A few years later, I went to a summer camp at the zoo where I held Capuchin monkeys and pet snakes. When Steve Irwin died, it was the hardest loss I had encountered up to that point. Coming to Kenya was, in a way, a homecoming.
The day after I arrived I hopped on a bus to the Masai Mara, where southern Kenya and Tanzania’s Serengeti meet, and fertile land provides habitats for ostriches, warthogs, and many more. As we hugged a tight curve, the Great Rift Valley opened, spreading down and across, miles of grass and thorny trees jutting up to a high plateau that stretches across Kenya, from Lebanon to Mozambique. We reached the Mara later that day. The sun fused my pants to my legs despite my best attempts to siphon the air rushing through the open window.
I was hoping I’d arrived in time for an afternoon game drive. Geoffrey, my guide in Masai red, acted as driver and local encyclopedia, teaching me Swahili and Masai words, and answering every one of the countless questions I threw his way.
Upon entering the Mara, we bumped and lurched our way to a flowering tree brimming with life and death. I watched as an impala carcass fell at least four feet landing on a lower branch of the tree. A leopard panted as she gazed down, not quite ready to drag her meal back out of reach. Before the other vehicles arrived, it was just Nzuri the leopard, Geoffrey, and I, plus the dead impala.
Soon the clouds became grey and the wind quickened. I lay the neon green Masai blanket across my lap as the pressure dropped and rain began to fall. The animals took cover as well, hiding under trees and thorny bushes But, at a certain point, the trees became saturated. The rain dripped onto a cheetah’s feline head, trickling down before he quickly blinked it away. His four brothers sat and waited, and when the sun’s rays edged beyond the clouds, the Fast Five stood up to gaze in every direction, one thing on their mind.
Moving toward the herd of impala and antelope beyond, the cheetahs sauntered past, reminding me of models on a catwalk. They passed within feet of the car, almost close enough to touch. Though they looked fluffy, I decided not to test it.
Upon arriving back at the camp, I was convinced that I’d seen enough to fill an episode of Planet Earth, David Attenborough’s voice narrating my thoughts as I drifted to sleep.
The next day I joined a friend and his classmates as we set off at sunrise, once more into the Mara. After only minutes of driving, we stopped. A full-grown black rhinoceros was browsing – a term used to describe the eating of leaves rather than grass. His ears twitted back and forth to ward off flies, reminding me of the funny protrusions sprouting from Shrek’s greener head.
We spent the whole day outside in the grassland our guide explaining everything from how lions mate (quickly and often) to the territorial nature of male hippos (they will attack and kill baby hippos). I lay resting after lunch staring up at the outreached arms of a giant fig tree. She offered me shade and ease; I left her cookie crumbs and gratitude.
A few days later, after a joyously uneventful trip west to Kisumu, I went on a hike in the Kakamega Rainforest, the eastern-most reach of the Guineo-Congolian rainforest which begins at West Africa’s Atlantic coast. I met Abraham who took me through Kakamega, pointing out myriad plants and trees, rattling off the medicinal qualities of each, and how to use them. We saw rare birds that exist only there, and memorably, a fight between two groups of red-tailed monkeys. Their screeching was loud enough to be heard far into the dense thickets of ferns, bushes, and trees.
We walked twelve and a half miles up hills with panoramic vistas, through caves with bats covered in soft fuzz, and past fig trees 650 years old. The immensity of it all struck me as I bounced back to Kisumu on a motorbike later that day. In one comparably small corner of the world, I saw all the animals you long to see on safari. I saw the black marble eyes of a hippopotamus peeping above the waterline, ready to attack. I smelled the heady aroma of a rainforest, that life-giving decay filling me with ease. I heard a pair of lions roaring post-coitus and the thudding hooves of a moving herd. I felt the breeze and the rain, the sun and my sweat, nature at her sweetest and trickiest. I’d like to say I walked away from the trip wiser, with renewed purpose. But, as the motorbike jumped over potholes and zoomed past running children, I didn’t philosophize. I was too awestruck.