I went on the most amazing safari EVER.
Guy needed to make a trip to Ewasso Nyiro to camp at a place that phonetically sounds like "El Kramatian" to begin working with a friend on his research with lions in that area. He decided it would be a treat for me to come along, and I agreed!
We took along his girlfriend Daisy, and her twin sister Alice to keep me company and just to make the trip double the fun. They are very sweet and adventurous girls who I get along very well with. I thought Guy might be nervous taking three girls on safari, but he insisted the ratio was just fine. :)
We packed up enough food to feed 12 guys for two weeks, a few pairs of clothes and sun screen and headed down the road. I was so anxious to get going, because we were going to meet up with Sam and Johann to watch their traditional Masai wedding that the people of the tribe insisted on throwing for the two of them! We went through Oligosailie, Ongatta Rongai, Kesselian, and then through to Magadi. There is a huge soda factory in the middle of Magadi that is surrounded by these huge black pools of alkaline waste water that reflect so well you can't tell where the sky ends and the earth begins. I would have never thought pools of acid would be so beautiful. There was this pink film on top of the pools and hundreds of light pink flamingos wading around in them. I took as many pictures as I could. It was so beautiful!
We made it half way up this rocky cliff that must have been a grade of about 70% and Guy announced we were stopping for tea. I have to tell you that these Kenyans are addicted to tea, and they will stop for tea no matter where they are or what the conditions may be. In Nairobi I liked having tea every ten minutes because it's not only delicious, but its really cold in Nairobi. In Magadi, it was about 90 degrees. I wasn't in the mood for piping hot chai, but...when in Rome! :) We took some pictures overlooking the salt flats and then continued on down the road to our camp destination.
Alice had this idea at the beginning of our drive that we play a game called "chicken." This game requires a camera and some pretty stupid passengers, but sounded like fun and a good way to get us all pumped for our adventure. Basically, you put the car in neutral and put the camera on the dash while everyone runs around the car a few times and takes their previous seats again. This isn't so dangerous if the car is going slow enough, but Alice was so excited that when we first attempted to play she jumped out at about 10mph and fell flat on her face in the dust. I was the only person who saw her fall, and thought we ran over her. I WAS TERRIFIED. Before I could even jump out to see if she was okay (or alive) she had already popped up and ran to the car holding her left arm and absolutely covered in dust. I thought she had a concussion, broken wrist, ribs, you name it! Turns out, Alice just had a sore shoulder and some scrapes on her arm, but only after we stopped for about 30 minutes so Guy could convince her she was okay and so she didn't throw up in the car. We didn't attempt to play this game again.
The next hour was acacia trees, rocks, and DUST. This stuff is a beautiful shade of autumn rusted red and is more fine than baby powder. It gets everywhere. By the time we reached Ewasso we were all absolutely covered, it's like a free sunless tan!
We decided to stop at the research camp where Sam, Johann and friends were getting married, but they were down at the river so we decided to find a good spot to camp and set up shop. We got as far as clearing a spot, tents up, and lunch and were interrupted by some Masai men who looked like they had a problem. Guy talked with them in Swahili for about 45 minutes and I knew there was an issue when about 10 more Masai showed up and Guy kept using mannerisms of reassurance. After about ten more minutes we had paid them 1000 shillings (ten bucks, more or less) for the "day use" and packed up our whole camp to find a new spot. He didn't explain much, except that they seemed to not want us there and were concerned about the three girls' safety. Good choice Guy! We drove back to the research camp to see if the bride and groom were back from the river and eventually find a new place to crash.
This is the part I am so sad I can't put into words, but will cherish as a memory for as long as I live: I got to witness a traditional Masai Wedding ceremony. These ceremonies are performed for tourists who pay them, but it's usually only a mock practice, they aren't in traditional dress, and they aren't doing it from the heart. Sam and Johann were woken up around 6am to begin every ritual part of a Masai wedding. We didn't get to see all of it, but we arrived right around the good part. :)
Sam was in a long beaded suede top with colorful beaded headdress and necklaces, bracelets, and a horse tail "whip" looking thing. Johann was in a matching pants and shirt beaded outfit with a walking stick that was beaded all the way from top to bottom. As we walked up the women (Nditos) were all in a huge circle with Sam in the middle singing and chanting. The men (Marans) were in a circle jumping about 15 feet in the air and making this beautiful guttural humming sounds and dipping their heads in and out of the circle. Johann came up to us and said, "isn't this incredible?!" It was about 95 degrees and he looked exhausted, but it WAS incredible. It almost brought me to tears to be able to see this dancing ritual. They were so happy and so filled with passion! This dance is hundreds of years old! It was being performed just as it would have been before there were separate continents! I couldn't believe my eyes, and everyone kept turning to me and saying, "You know, not just anyone gets to see this." I didn't need it to be said to know that I was the most privileged guest at this Masai wedding. They welcomed me as they would have welcomed their own, and were teaching everyone how to dance and chant as they did. It was magical. The discovery channel would have KILLED to be me at that moment. :) I can't even explain it, the most incredible cultural experience of my entire life. Johann and Sam got to eat fresh cow fat (still warm, ugh!) sit in a mud hut together, walk on fresh dung for good luck, get lectured by their Masai Mama and Papa, whipped with a horse's tail, take a trip to the river to be re-cleansed, among other special traditions. They had three pigs, one whole cow, and a sheep that were sacrificed for the occasion and it was truly a Masai celebration!
We decided to set up camp and come back later, but after preparing our spot for a second time and taking a quick dip in the river we decided just to go to bed. (The most fun part of picking a camp site in this part of Kenya is that they are ALL good sites, and you get to use a machete to clear the grasses for your own tents! It was my job to clear all the spots, and it was dirty work, but very fun!) We had a delicious curry dinner that was previously prepared and frozen, drank some wine, and went to our tents around 10pm to sleep.
I didn't sleep at all the first night. There are so many animal noises you hear on safari at night, and they all sound like they are right next to you! Aside from that, I would wake myself up after dreaming of crazy baboons using their dexterity to unzip my tent and drag me into the bush! Maybe it was the curry dinner but I had the weirdest dreams that night. It seems funny that my biggest concern was the baboons considering the leopard calls Guy heard in the night, and the lion tracks we found just yards from our tents!
I got up with the sun and realized the true beauty of the spot we had picked to camp: right on the edge of a sand cliff overlooking a bend in the Ewasso River lined with fig trees and looking at the Nguru Man Plateau and the Loiter Hills in the distance. Stunning. As soon as the sun hits you on the equator it get hot, so we quickly ate breakfast and went swimming. The river in this area has no hippo in it (otherwise we wouldn't have been able to swim) or crocodile, so we just explored and threw figs at one another. A few Masai came up to check out what the crazy Mzungus were doing and told Guy he must be a very happy man to have three lovely wives. He referred to us from that point on as wife#1, #2, and #3 (that was me). We met up with everyone at the research camp to discuss plans for lion research and possibly go for an evening tracking drive. While Guy spoke with the others about the logistics, we the twins and I sat under an acacia tree to read.
This was the first time I asked Alice to pinch me. I kept saying, "how did I get this lucky?" and they couldn't give me an explanation. :)
After going for another swim we piled into a Land Rover and headed off to show Guy the tracking equipment and a little about the perimeter. One of the other research assistants hadn't yet been out, so this was a "getting our feet wet" kind of game drive. There were eight going out, including a few of the girlfriends of the lion trackers and us. I grabbed a seat sitting on the roof of the truck next to Alice, and Daisy sat on a tire in the back with one of the girlfriends named Christine. Paul drove, and Guy sat in the car with the rest. Everyone kept saying we probably wouldn't see anything except zebra and giraffe, but I was SO excited to see them that I couldn't contain myself. I had the biggest smile on my face, even after the tenth time trying to dodge the thorns of the acacia trees from smacking me in the face (even though they are as sharp as razors and had gotten a few of my fingers pretty bad).
The sun was setting, and we drove for about an hour showing Guy how the frequency of the collars work, and how we could hear the two collared female lions by the beeps that come from the radio signal. We drove around and heard nothing for a while, but I was busy taking pictures of all the other wildlife. There were zebra, giraffe, warthog, impala, buffalo, toucan, guinea fowl, and all so beautiful! The sun began to set when we first heard a "beep" and decided we might get lucky after all! Paul the driver announced we were coming up on Gate 1 into Chompole Conservation Center and wouldn't be allowed through, but decided to just go to the gate anyway to follow the frequency. We were in luck! No one was at the gate! We drove through and continued our trek until the beeps came closer together and very loud. After reconsidering my seat choice, I started thinking I might actually get to see a lion! A few minutes later we were stopped dead in our tracks watching two female lions just resting and staring at us. They were so beautiful. When they got up and moved on, we would start our engine and follow them. When it got dark, we decided to turn around and go back through the gate, and see if we couldn't pick up the frequency again.
Using a GPS tracking system, we noted the points at which each lion was seen, what they were doing, their general condition, etc. It was really cool seeing the systematic way they were doing this research, and I felt like I got to share in the pioneering effort to learn about this endangered species! How cool!
We went back through the gate and amazingly started picking up the signal again. We found the female again and she was with about three other females! We would stop, watch, observe, shine the spotlights here, there...it was work, but it was so awesome! I was in charge of a spotlight because I wanted to see in the dark, plus it made me feel better having this huge thing I could maybe throw at any large animals curious as to how I taste. Holding on to the side of the car for dear life with one hand and trying to follow a female lion with a spotlight through the bush was more excitement than I could handle. I kept squeaking with laughter at how amazing it was that I was participating in this!
At one point we lost the females we were following, and we stopped in a field to readjust the signal. Behind us from about 100 meters away came the loudest, most blood-curdling scream anyone has ever heard. Our eyes all widened a bit, and Paul threw the car in reverse and we drove straight toward the screaming (at this point I was like, "Um, guys? Is this REALLY a great idea? I mean, I'm sitting on the roof!" but of course kept that to myself and pointed the spotlight in whatever direction they told me to). We drove up on six female lions ripping apart a warthog. There were glowing eyes all lining the clearing of animals waiting for their turn, and Paul and Guy began counting lions, seeing the two collared females and recording what they saw into voice-recorders. Erica, one of the girlfriends, got out a video camera to catch everything, and I just sat in shock holding the spotlight on this incredibly raw scene in front of me. We parked only about 45 feet away from where they were feasting, so of course I wasn't going to take my eyes off of it! There was this immense mixture of pure fear and excitement, and we were all glued to these lions just tearing and crunching bones and fighting over pieces of flesh. I swear it was exactly like a Planet Earth episode, except I hadn't waited for three years to get the footage, I was just in the right place at the right time. Unbelievable.
Daisy and Christine were still in the back of the truck looking on when we heard a very loud, very close "ROAR" come from the back of the truck. The seventh female had been scouring the perimeter of the clearing to keep other animals away when we had swooped in to get a glimpse of the action. We were right between her and the kill, and she decided to attack our car! Christine jumped straight up to the roof with one motion, and Daisy froze with fear. I looked for room to jump in the cab but Alice and Erica and Guy were all in the way, so I braced myself to get ripped apart by this lion as I reached back for Daisy. The lion quickly ran around us and up to the dead pig to begin her feast, and Paul explained that "We must have been in her way, but sometimes they attack cars just for intimidation" Um...does anyone need a new pair of pants?! Holy Crap! We almost got eaten by a lion! Poor Daisy was alone in the back, but Paul insisted we were safe so long as we stayed inside the car, so we continued watching.
Now I have to apologize to my mom because I told her we were getting out of Nairobi because of the Referendum and it might be dangerous being near city centers, so I would just go on this quiet safari/camping thing. Instead, I went out on a night game-drive and held a spotlight for researchers and almost got eaten by a lion. My bad.
You can imagine how steady I held the spotlight after that, and between picking bird-sized beatles and moths out of my shirt and shorts I was high on adrenaline and glued to this scene. The hyenas were trying to steal the carcass, the jackals gave it a good attempt, but these lions weren't going to stop until every last drop of blood was cleared from the elephant grass. We were there until around 10pm, and I was recorded a few times on Erica's video as saying, "oh, my parents are going to kill me!" :) It was one of the most rare things anyone gets to see, and most Kenyans spend years in the bush without ever witnessing lions hunt, kill, or even feed. Guy was upset that I kept having such great luck, and made a point of reminding me every five minutes that this sort of thing doesn't just happen and that they could have spent years out there doing research and not seen anything like what we saw on NIGHT ONE!
Wow. Wow. Wow. So many indescribable things happened that night. I still can't believe I was blessed enough to witness it all, to be with those people, and to have survived a much-too-close-encounter!
We had pasta and leftovers and went to bed. For some reason I slept like a rock that night, and woke up at 8am happier than I've been in a long time. We ate breakfast, intertubed down a bit of the river, said goodbye to everyone at the research camp, and drove back to Nairobi. In two and a half days, I experienced what I can only describe as the fabric and frequency of the heartbeat of life. I found an emotion that is a mixture of pure joy, adrenaline, excitement, and wonder. It's so much more than these words and just thinking about it brings me to tears.
We got home and learned that the Referendum had passed (great news) and that I am going to get to work at a Five Star Lodge for ten days with some family friends of Guys as a sort of hostess (also great news!). Seriously, I couldn't be more blessed or happy for all these opportunities. I feel like life doesn't get any better than this, and instead of wondering when someone's going to wake me up from this dream I'm just going to keep on enjoying it. I hope that everyone in their lifetime gets an opportunity to experience some of these amazing things, and I want everyone to feel the joy that I am so lucky to be experiencing here.
I hope I described enough for everyone to get an idea of how incredible those few days were. Kenya will forever be a part of my soul after all that. If I haven't described something to your liking, please email me and I'll do my best to give more details. I probably left a lot of things out just trying to get the sequence of events down correctly.
Mom and Dad, please don't be mad at me they said there was a very low chance we would actually see any lions and things just escalated from there. I mean, I couldn't exactly just hop out of the car and say okay I'm walking back then, you know? :)