It’s a quarter after ten in the morning. The African sun is already stifling. I’ve been sitting on this musty, stinky, dusty futon for an hour and forty-five minutes. Patricia, the guest house hostess keeps reassuring me the driver will come. If it weren’t for the Christian music playing throughout the house, I’d guess she was bull-shitting me. I’m starting to panic. I know I shouldn’t have booked this three-day Masai Mara safari with her. All of the other companies were charging upwards of $800 and she only charged me $390. Surely, it must not be a legit tour company.
I’m growing angry and losing patience. I’m terrible at being patient and I hate being sweaty before I even arrive. I’ve dreamt of going to the Masai Mara for years and now it’s looking like I won’t make it there this trip. I should have stayed in Cape Town a few more days.
The guesthouse’s dog, Snoopy, bolts down the driveway with a vicious snarl. The gate opens and a shitty white van pulls in and comes to an abrupt stop. The windows are splattered with mud. There are no rims on the tires. A cloud of black smoke is rising from the bumper. Kenyan reggae music is pouring out the windows. I can hardly see through the windows because it’s so densely packed with humans and their belongings. Inside is a father/daughter duo from Argentina, an older man with noticeably large hands from Germany, a light-skinned couple from Iceland, a sweet, gentle woman from Portugal, a strong, young girl from Korea and a tall, thin girl with the sexiest legs I’ve ever seen from the Canary Islands.
The driver, a young Kenyan guy with a youthful face named Zack reassures all of us that we can fit–“no pro-blame.” He’s right. There’s one seat left for me, except I’m regretting that I have a fifty-pound backpack, a daypack, a loose pair of hiking boots and a two-gallon jug of water. We all squeeze in. There’s no space in the back for my bags so I hold them on my sweaty lap, and we are finally on our way. I feel better. Patricia said we would be inside the Masai Mara National Reserve by lunchtime and now we are only a few hours away.
The roads are hardly roads and are nothing more than dirt paths with intermittent ditches deeper than the Nile River. With every bump, my boobs are popping further and further out of my bra and I’m wishing I hadn’t bought these pretty Victoria’s Secret bras. The wind is whipping through the windows and I am constantly peeling my hair from my chapstick-coated lips. I see the Argentinian man next to me repeatedly wiping my hair away from his face too. It’s really uncomfortable but still I’m distracted by my own excitement.
We pass through the Rift Valley which formed from the shifting of the Earth’s plates. The valley runs all the way from Israel to Mozambique. Across the enormous valley, the driver points to a towering mountain on the horizon. I have no idea what he says. His accent is really difficult to understand but I make out the words “Masai Mara.”
The van is driving along extremely slow. It’s a steep hill but I assume it’s normal to be driving that slow. Van after van passes us similar to ours–except newer and shinier. They’re carrying tourists seated comfortably in spacious fluffy cushioned seats. Many of them stare out the closed windows and smile as they pass us.
“No proh-blame,” says Zack with a nervous smile, “we drive here all the time.”
I’m not sure what he means. I’m not concerned one bit–yet.
“It’s too much weight,” he says, “Hun-jed pah-cent we make it to dee gate by four-a-clock. Hun-jed pah-cent.”
He seems worried. Now I’m beginning to worry. Are we going too slow to make it in time? Apparently, we have to pass through the Masai lands and they charge a small fee for tourists using their “roads” to access the park. If you arrive after four o’clock, you cannot pass the homemade gate made out of acacia tree branches. It’s a quarter past two and we are still driving up the first side of the mountain.
We are already late from the never-explained, two-hour delay from the morning, and now our van can barely carry the weight of eleven passengers and their bags. Donkey-pulled carts carrying barrels of water are passing us. My frustration and worry from the morning return and I’m concerned I will not get to see the Mara today. I knew I shouldn’t have booked a cheap, no-name, shitty-van safari company.
A motorcycle pulls alongside of us and is pointing at our van. He’s trying to say something. People on the side of the road are waving their arms at us and pointing. Zack pulls over to the side and immediately I can hear liquid pouring out of the bottom of the van. I stick my head out of the window and liquid is spewing out faster than Victoria Falls.
Without hesitation and seemingly not unprecedented, Zack says, “Ok everyone, please get out and start walking up the moun-tane. No proh-blame.”
The van has overheated and cannot carry all of us up to the top of the mountain. I think he is joking. We all think he is joking, but he’s not. One by one we step out into the hot sun and begin walking up the mountain. The roads are still merely a dirt path and the dust from passing cars is coating our sweaty skin like Shake & Bake. The locals pass us and stare. Some even beep their horns at us. Other passing tourists in fancy vans, the kind with air conditioning, look at us and laugh even harder. I can hardly believe what is happening, and now I’m no longer expecting to see the Masai Mara. I’m wondering if I can be refunded. I realize I don’t even know the tour company name. I’m not sure it even has one. Patricia at the guest house said it was her “friend.” Still, I keep walking, focusing on my breath. It’s hot and I left my jug of water in the van.
Just as we reach the top of the road, Zack pulls up alongside of us and yells, “Jump in! We must hurry!” Relieved, dehydrated, and happy to see him, we do. My water jug is empty. Zack used it to pour into the engine.
We’re now moving in light speed down the dirt, gravelly roads. Every few minutes we come upon a small stream of water or ditch where the rain washed out the road. One would expect the driver to reduce speed at these obstacles but he doesn’t seem to be worried. The condition of the roads is worsening significantly as we get deeper and deeper into the land of the Masai people. I had heard there was a lot of rain in recent days and that’s clearly evident from the small rivers that have swallowed the Earth. With every ditch, the van bottoms out and it’s a miracle we haven’t stopped yet for a flat tire.
I spoke too soon. We’re now severely stuck in the mud. The Earth has tried to swallow our van too! Zack tries and tries to break free but with every rotation of the wheel, the tires dig deeper and deeper into the sloppy mess. I’m beginning to think there may be a hidden camera somewhere and we are starring in the television show “Punked.” I can hardly believe what is happening.
I start to work on my own disappointment. The let-down process has begun. I even reach a moment of acceptance that I will not see the Masai Mara and likely not my $390 either.
“Everyone, please get out and push!” shouts Zack. He is knee-deep in mud.
We step out and realize that we are not immune to the chocolate milkshake called a road and it’s difficult to walk without sinking. Just minutes ago, we were driving through a part of the Earth it seemed had never seen another human being and now suddenly we are surrounded by tall, dark, skinny black men wearing blankets and carrying spears and clubs. These Masai men seem to have appeared out of nowhere and I’m still not sure how they just appeared.
All together–My fellow passengers, the mysterious Masai men, Zack and I gather around the van and push with all of our might. With one good push, the van is freed from the Earth’s grip. We cheer and high-five the Masai. On my way back to the van, the Earth decides it isn’t done with us yet. My right foot landed in a soft spot of terrain and my entire shin is engulfed in mud. A Masai man retrieves my flip flop with his club. I rinse it and my foot in a puddle and again, we are on our way. We reach the gate at two minutes past four o’clock.
Before long, we are driving across the wide open plains of the Masai Mara. Immediately, we are greeted by herds of zebra, warthogs, Cape buffalo, impala and gazelles. The horizon is alive with layers and layers of rolling hills, acacia trees, mountains and herds of antelope. Occasionally, we spot an elephant or a giraffe in the distance peacefully dining on foliage.
The sun is beginning its descent for the evening and a golden glow blankets the Earth. There’s a sense of mystery and eeriness in the air because although I haven’t spotted any predators, I know they are all around us.
The tall blades of grass are blowing in the wind and I imagine they are waving in excitement for our arrival. Tiny, little white and yellow butterflies are fluttering everywhere and even they seem to be dancing in celebration of sharing their beautiful home with us. If I had a hammock, I could dwell here forever, merely watching and waiting for the world to go by.
Over the next two days, we do witness this piece of the world going by. While beautiful and intriguing, the Masai Mara is both impressive and frightening. We watch as three male cheetahs stage a hunt, strategically stalking a lone impala grazing. Patiently, we watch their every move until suddenly the first one launches the attack and a brief chase ensues. The impala hears the commotion with merely a second to spare. A suspenseful chase has us biting our lips and while I’m normally routing for the prey when I watch these things on NatGeo, I’m now secretly pulling for the predator. But not today. The impala has just a bit more endurance than the cheetahs and a meal is not meant to be. The impala continues his sprint over the horizon until he is out of sight, while the three thin, exhausted cheetahs do their walk of shame back through the line of safari vans. We can see their ribs a bit through their beautifully spotted coats. Panting and defeated, they lay back down in the grass and wait until the next opportunity arises. The entire plain is on alert now. Every animal in the vicinity is staring at the cheetahs. I’m in awe of the intelligence, the stealth, the intuition and the incredible challenge that I just witnessed. A good meal is not always guaranteed and neither is life.
We watch as lion cubs play innocently on the rocky terrain. Completely oblivious of their vulnerability and their power. The mothers of the pride rest in the sun, likely in preparation for their next hunt. They’re strong and healthy. Two males in the pride sleep in the grass just at the bottom of the rocks. One is missing an eye, but still I’m terrified of his strength. Our van pulls up alongside some tall grass and I look down out of the van. I’m merely five feet away from this massive beast. He’s staring up at me with his one eye and for a brief second we share a moment. Our eyes meet (well his right eye and both of mine). It’s insanely magical but quickly my mind takes me back to fear and I retreat behind my camera.
Later, we are fortunate enough to witness the awesome intelligence of a large elephant group. There are elephants of all sizes gracing quietly, including tiny little babies that linger close to their moms. Suddenly, the Earth seems to shake and we hear a frightening crash. A rogue male had wandered into the group and now the alpha bull male elephant is defending his group. The two enormous beasts are charging one another and with each moment of contact, I clench my teeth and brace myself. Surely, it seems the entire world is feeling the power of their clashes. While the two are locked in a twisted mess of trunks and tusks, the rest of the group quickly runs off forming a very tight circle around the babies. The struggle ensues for a few minutes and we’re watching as this gray entanglement rolls around. Finally, the slightly larger of the two males retreats and runs away quickly. The defending male struts back toward his family with a prowess that is enviable. In true male fashion, he declares his masculinity by displaying a giant, enormous erection like I’ve never seen and then begins leaving poo everywhere. I’m amazed–but not surprised.
We witness this struggle for life, power, “love” and food many times. Impala antler-wrestling for dominance. Hippos wrestling in mud for territory. Zebras kicking each other for grassland. A crested crane dancing enamorously to win over the affection of his female counterpart. Lion cub siblings vying for their mother’s affection. Even marabou storks gracefully pecking at each other for trash can scraps.
The Masai Mara is a beautiful snapshot of this masterpiece called Earth. It’s a clear display of the delicate balance of life and death. Safety and danger. Health and starvation. Strength and weakness. I’m in awe that I’m witnessing this incredible balance, a well-preserved piece of life exactly as it was intended by its creator. At times, I close my eyes and whisper a grateful thank you to my sister or I smile at the sun. I know this moment is a gift and I’m so grateful to be here.
We are cruising out of the park and the cool breeze balances out the unforgiving heat of the African sun. The dust in my face is merely sparkles of pixie dust at this point. My heart is full and I feel an incredible sense of peace and bliss.
In Africa you can never predict what will come next. My moment is hijacked once again. The fancy, high-end safari truck with air conditioning in front of us has now been swallowed up by the Earth–perhaps worse than we were the day before. Zack jumps out to lend a hand, completely unaffected by the very strong possibility that the lion pride we admired earlier may be just steps away. He and the “fancy” van’s driver try for a while to free the truck, but clearly they are in the severest of grips of the mud. Nothing seems to work and soon a dark green pick up truck carrying dozens of armed park rangers arrive. The men and women with large automatic rifles surround the van while the others attempt to dig, push and pull the van from the strength of the thick mud.
The name of the safari company on the side of the stranded van is familiar to me. I received a brochure once from them but quickly discarded it when I saw the five-digit prices. I can see the two passengers inside. They stick their heads out the window a few times and I can see that their faces seem heavy with anger, frustration and disappointment. After an hour, Zack decides he has helped enough and we will have to take another route to get back to camp. I feel bad leaving the young couple behind in their fancy, air conditioned van half submerged in mud. An escape from the mud didn’t seem likely without the heaviest of vehicles to pull them out and by the remoteness of where we are I’m not sure if or when that might happen. Soon they’re so far away that their trapped vehicle disappears out of sight. We pass several other vans along the way that are trapped in mud. Occasionally we stop to help.
I’m relieved to be on the way back to Nairobi in a shitty van with no air conditioning. I’ve got a camera full of magical photos and a heart overflowing with gratitude. Three hundred and ninety dollars and a jug of water seem a nominal price for such a blessing and a dream that became truth.
Things I Learned in the Masai Mara:
1. Life really is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride. It’s cliche but true.
2. At any moment we can slip from life to death…feast to famine. Make each moment count. Every day is a gift. Every meal is a gift.
3. Let life happen. It will reveal itself in time. Hold on during struggle and challenges.
4. A fancy, name-brand, air-conditioned van gets you to the same place a shitty, white van will. Both are vulnerable to the clutches of the Earth. The view from the windows is the same. It doesn’t matter how you get there. As long as you do.
5. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.
6. Dreams do come true and I have the power to make them come true.
7. Fight. Fight for your mother-f-ing life, even when the odds are stacked against you or when there’s three cheetahs on your trail. There’s always hope. 8. This world we live in really is a Lovely Little World.
Check out more pics from my Masai Mara adventure at www.facebook.com/thislovelylittleworld