Thursday, June 7, 2012

Maasai Mara: Confusion and Clarity

It was 7 AM. Joe had just arrived to pick us up from the palatial Sarova PanAfric in Nairobi, the nicest hotel we had yet stayed in on our trip. We were awake early, despite having arrived late the night before from Kisumu. Although somewhat groggy, we were ready for the five hour trip to Maasai Mara. The next few days were our third, and final, planned tourist activity (Machu Picchu and Kruger National being the other two). We had anticipated using the long road trip time to catch up on sleep, but failed to take into consideration the road conditions. Joe had often driven this route, and did his best to avoid potholes, speed bumps and hazardous traffic conditions, but could do little when faced with the road (or off road) conditions for the last 125 km. Having suffered under the heavy rains recently, there were many sections where the road was intersected with gullies 2 feet deep, threatening to high center Joe's Toyota four-wheel drive van. But, undeterred, we bounced along for several hours learning to trust his seemingly innate ability to miss the worst of the large rocks, mud-filled potholes and water-made ravines, all the while passing any other vehicle in his way and traveling at speeds normally attempted only on smooth pavement. Preferring to die with our eyes wide open, we abandoned the idea of catching up on any sleep.

Sore from the ride, we arrived at the gates to the world famous Maasai Mara nature reserve only to encounter yet another irony in Kenyan culture. The entry fee was $70 per day per person, meaning a total of $280. Cash. US funds. Why would Kenya's premier tourist attraction charge in US dollars. This seemed to constitute a distinct lack of confidence in the country’s economy or currency. Despite having expected to pay in Kenyan shillings, Carson scraped up two $100 bills and I had enough smaller bills to satisfy the gate authorities. Joe then delivered us to our accommodations at the Sarova "Game Camp", inside the Reserve. The Game Camp was really a very well designed resort with a pool, mini golf, eating and drinking facilities, all snuggled in a densely treed area alongside a small creek. Our "rooms" were in fact tents. These are not ordinary tents, but ones with hardwood floors and attached fully functional bathrooms with all of the necessary amenities. But before we settled in, Joe returned in something of a panic. There was a problem with the $100 bills. With visions of our experience in Peru, we thought at first they were found to be counterfeit. Joe explained. Apparently, neither banks nor any businesses in Kenya accept US hundred dollar bills older than the year 2000. No one seemed to be able to explain why. Here we were with no US dollars, and a five hour drive away from the nearest bank in Nairobi where we might be able to get US funds (although it was Independence Day and they weren't open anyway). Fortunately, after another 24 hours of negotiating on our behalf, the Game Camp management and Joe reached agreement with the authorities at the entry gate. We were allowed to pay in Kenyan shillings at a slightly inflated conversion rate. Disaster was averted.

When we had booked Maasai Mara some months back I had had mixed feelings about going to a second game reserve, both in Africa. This concern had increased because Kruger National had been such an extraordinary experience. But I was told by reliable sources that it was worth the trip. I was still skeptical when we headed out with Joe on our first of three game drives. But I was immediately reassured when I noticed that the “feel” of Maasai Mara was totally different than Kruger. In Maasai Mara there were no paved roads, densely vegetated areas, or posted speed limits but rather unpredictable, off-road tracks traversing wild, wide-open hilly savanna grasslands, which Joe drove through as fast as possible (reaching speeds of over 90 kph/55 mph). You could see for miles around you and I wondered how we would ever get close to any animals. This was compounded by the fact that the rains had resulted in the grass growing to 3 or 4 feet high, easily hiding all but the elephants and giraffes.     
Although very different, the Maasai Mara proved to be the equivalent of our Kruger experience. Not only did we repeat seeing the Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros), we were actually close enough to touch several prides of lions. But even more rare and awe-inspiring, we were able to follow a pride of male lions on the hunt, watching them strategize, stealthily approach their quarry. They had observed the lone Cape Buffalo with its small calf from a distance of several kilometers, and began moving quickly but carefully through the deep grass. We followed at a respectful distance of twenty meters or so without the lions so much as glancing our way. They were intently focused on their prey and ignored us entirely. It was not until the lead lion was 50 m away that the adult buffalo realized its danger, or more precisely, the precarious situation of the young calf. At first they attempted to escape, but were quickly cut off by the four big cats that had surrounded them. The adult Cape Buffalo, protecting the young one who stayed as close as possible, turned to face the hunters as they each sprang in turn depending on which way the death-dealing horns were facing. Had it been a battle between the buffalo and one lion, or even two, it might've been a different story, but in this case, barring a miracle, the end was certain. Despite a valiant effort, the adult buffalo, facing down three of the lions, was soon separated from the young calf, which was then dragged down by the remaining lion. Seeing the young one disappears into the tall grass, the adult buffalo seemed to recognize the hopelessness of any defense and began running, chased by only one lion this time. It seemed that the pride were not keen on a bigger prize, but had somehow determined in advance that they would be satisfied with a small victory. We were only 10 meters away while we watched the consummation of the kill for a short while before turning to make our way back to the Game Camp. It had been a dramatic but sobering sight as we recognize that the reality of this world must include a victor and a vanquished.

As I fell asleep that night under the shelter of a canvas roof, protected by my mosquito net and otherwise feeling secure despite the innumerable noises of the night, I could not but contemplate how my reality was so different from much of the rest of the world. In some ways my own struggle with Parkinson's disease, supported as I have been by every medical privilege, is not much more than a small dose of reality. Yet PD is enough to demand an answer to a question that others in my Western culture may not yet have been directly asked: "By what principles will you contend with reality?"

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