Anthony picked a perfect spot, under a lone tree, surrounded by grassland, and laid a blanket. There were no animals in the vicinity, obviously.
He handed us our lunch boxes and we opened them eagerly, unable to wait to devour the contents.
All the while, I imagined a cheetah emerging from behind the veil of grass or a hungry lion approaching us, following the trail of our scent. Would I have the courage to raise alarm and propel my husband and our chaperone into safety? Or would I jump up instinctively and run for my life?
We finished our lunch, clicked some photos and hopped into the vehicle, hoping to catch the remaining two animals.
The radio crackled to life and they spoke, what I assumed to be Swahili but I understood just one word that sent up a rush of thrill up my spine—leopard.
He drove us through the grass, into the marshes where the vehicle got stuck for a few moments before roaring back to life and took us to a place where there was a colony of evenly spaced trees. But just one tree was under the spotlight, girdled by land cruisers and jeeps.
As we crept nearer, I examined the tree for any signs of spots. Before I could resign, Anthony directed us to the topmost branch, where we found the kitty curled against the piece of wood that was as thin as a rake. I wondered how it sustained the weight of the animal.
The little rosettes strewn over its body stood out under the bright sunlight and its skin glowed as if it were coated in gold.
There was no movement at all, except for its ears twitching occasionally, probably registering the mild sounds of vehicles disturbing its sleep.
If the tree branch were a few feet lower, I would’ve been able to touch the leopard’s tail hanging like a rope. I would’ve even gone as far as giving it a tug to wake it up.
After waiting for about ten minutes, we concluded that the leopard was playing possum, putting aside the fact that leopards are nocturnal. We clicked a few uninteresting pictures (you can’t get much out of a sleeping animal unless it’s a cuddly baby) and drove off in our next pursuit.
We watched some more scavenging vultures and more zebras and more buffaloes until we came to a stop near the Masai river to view hippopotami and crocodiles.
A Kenyan ranger took the reins from there and we walked alongside him towards the river. On the opposite side, spread across the muddy bank was a large colony of hippos. They were living like one happy joint family. Well, joint and happy don’t go together in human lives but I hope at least the hippos are living in peaceful harmony.
They certainly don’t fight about who gets to do the dishes. They definitely don’t try to find faults with each other. And most importantly, they respect each other and value their presence in the family.
Oh god, I’m watching too many Indian soap operas.
Anyway, the ranger says that every hippo family that consists of about thirty members (Whoa!!!) will have one male dominant.
The feminist in me raises like the hood of a cobra and hisses in my mind, ‘Here too???’
Dear, Feminist Me, let’s get real. Males are stronger. So obviously, they dominate. Would a preggy cow hippo fight enemies if it’s given the leadership? It can’t, right. For practical reasons, the bulls are given the lordship. So, let’s not drag the animal kingdom into this dispute. Jeez! If it makes you feel any better, elephants are matriarchal.
Alright, so the ranger was saying that although hippos come across as flabby, cute creatures, they could be more dangerous than any animal given their surprising agility despite their enormous sizes.
I watched the stout animals wallow in the water as if they were on a beach vacation. The calves did nothing but follow their mothers’ every movement and learn how to be proper hippopotami.
A few feet further, another hippo rested on the mud just inches away from a crocodile. They both were facing each other. It looked as if the hippo had welcomed the croc into its jumbo family and was instructing it to stay away from the kids.
‘If the crocodile tries to attack the calf, the hippo will crush it into a paste. Crocodiles know very well that they don’t stand a chance with hippos and hence they try not to mess with them,’ the ranger explains.
We walked further along the bank and watched more crocodiles lying like carcasses. Ugh, they’re so darn boring.
Our next pursuit was the elusive rhinoceros. Apparently, they are shy animals and run into the woods when they hear a vehicle. Hence, we had a hard time arriving at a spot where there was a somewhat clear sighting of the rhino.
It was slowly marching behind the dense curtain of trees and we were able to catch a few glimpses through the leaves and branches. There were two of them.
They stopped walking suddenly and looked at each other. They looked like they were discussing something and after arriving at a decision, they turned and started strolling towards us. We were about a kilometer away.
As they ambled like two lovers, one of them came to a halt. The other gave it an introspective glance and both of them swivelled back, once again finding their way back into the woods. It didn’t charge at our vehicle like I had expected/hoped to.
Satisfaction was writ large upon our faces as we had a superb day, catching all the big 5 in one day. It was an accomplishment of sorts.
We resigned for the day and were relieved that the next day was going to be short as we had a visit to the Masai village instead of a game drive in the evening.
The following day, we saw more lions, elephants, giraffes, and buffaloes. We also saw some naughty baboons and monkeys running into the bushes the moment I raised the camera as if they were all being camera conscious.
Anthony drove us to the Tanzania border and a few miles into the Serengeti Park. After an hour-long joyride, he dropped us at the lodge. We weren’t that disappointed at the lack of activity as we saw almost all animals, including the cheetahs, once again, except for the leopard and rhino. We also got to catch the last batch of migrating wildebeest, near the Sun River, probably readying themselves to cross and enter the grasslands of Tanzania.
We actually waited for about twenty minutes to see if they would make a move towards the river because earlier we saw a pride of lions resting in the riverbank. If only the feeble animals lift their heads from the grass and move into the water, we might get to see some action. But, nope. They kept on eating, eating, eating. And we threw our hands in.
In the evening, Anthony introduced us to a Masai villager, who was about seven feet high and would be showing us around.
It was a ten-minute hike over a rough terrain, until we reached the village. But the man, whose name was Joel, kept us engaged by describing the medicinal properties of the plants we came across on the way. He plucked out a leaf from one of the plants and handed it to me. It looked like any other leaf except for the texture, which was rough. It was apparently used as a nail file.
We arrived at the village where we were greeted with a welcome dance performed by the young red-haired Masai warriors. The dance consisted of a series of feet pounding, thrusts and jumping all to the music of their guttural grunts. It was strangely foot tapping.
Then we were escorted into the fenced village that had tree branches for a barricade. The huts inside the village were made with mud and cow dung. There were stray dogs playing chase and mud-caked children, using everything from scrap papers to polythene bags as toys.
Joel took us into a hut to show us their way of living. The inside of the hut was shrouded in darkness, except for a shaft of sunlight from the tiny square window and a small kerosene lamp directly below it. That tiny shack had four rooms—one for the baby cows, a living room where cooking’s done, a bedroom and a guest room.
Tea was brewing in a large vessel in front of us and three children sat on the benches as if they were writing an exam.
I enquired Joel about their diet and he said that their staple food includes cow blood, rice and occasionally meat.
Their attires were unseen as every one of them, mostly men, covered their bodies up to thighs with a dark chequered shawl. And both men and women sported shaven heads. They wore sandals made with tyres and I was impressed by their resourcefulness.
We shook hands with Joel on departure and took some time to take in the surroundings one last time before leaving the country the next day.
Strangely, mild sadness crept into me as the trip came to an end but I wiped it off with a tranquil smile as I bid goodbye to the host country, vowing to return some day when the great migration is midway so that at least then I would get to catch some macabre killings. Mwahahaha…!