by Liz Fleming
Kenya - Jocrebbin/iStock
Where lions feast, giraffes gallop and Masai warriors leap…
Strong limbs draped carelessly, she reclined under a shady tree, yawned a flash of perfect white teeth then closed her dark eyes. In complete control, she knew great beauty and great power were a heady combination.
Lean, tan and lovely, she took our breath away as, like crazed paparazzi, we leaned out of our vehicle, snapping photo after photo.
She yawned again, mouth stretching wide as she threw her head back and brushed delicately at her nose. It was only then that we noticed her one imperfection – a few careless smears of dried blood at the corners of her mouth.
Well…a girl has to eat, after all, and this particular girl – a lioness we’d found on the plains of Kenya’s Masai Mara in Nayok County – had just dined very well.
A few hundred yards away lay the hulking corpse of a cape buffalo, killed the night before and now serving as an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch for our lioness and her cubs. Well-fed and sleepy, they were lolling in the mid-day sun, digesting.
Batting each other with lazy paws, the cubs nuzzled close to their mother, then slowly began to take notice of our jeep. For a moment, our hearts stopped - no windows separated us from the lions, just a dozen yards away. Slowly, the cubs began padding towards us, their mother watching each step.
“Don’t worry,” whispered our driver. “They don’t see us.”
I thought they did, actually, and am pretty sure one of those oh-so-adorable-but-oh-so-carnivorous cubs looked me straight in the eye. Why didn’t he jump in and feast? How could he and his siblings not realize the jeep was a giant lunch box?
Apparently, when lions in the protected game reserves of Kenya see a jeep, they don’t register the presence of humans inside but instead regard it as a larger creature - too big to attack but able to cast convenient shade. That tantalizing shade lured the cubs and soon half a dozen baby lions were snoozing and play-wrestling under our jeep. In that moment, we were as much a part of the wild as the trees and the savannah grass.
Lioness - WLDavies/iStock
Generations of bans on hunting have removed the fear of humans from the creatures of Kenya’s plains, making possible mind-bogglingly intimate experiences.
We saddled up horses at daybreak and rode into the rising sun with long dew-damp grass brushing against our legs as we followed our guide. The first stand of trees hid a cluster of wildebeest who stared, then dropped their heads to graze, unconcerned by the oddly tall horses wandering by.
“They see us as part of the animals we’re riding,” the guide explained, “and horses aren’t predators.”
As the sun began to burn off the morning chill, a small herd of giraffes galloped into view, their impossibly long legs dancing across the savannah until they stopped, just in front of our line of horses. Babies nuzzled under their mother’s bellies, then, like the wildebeest, the giraffes stared placidly at the tall horses.
Giraffes in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro
Our horses sauntered so close it seemed we could have stroked the giraffes’ fur as we began to feel the rhythm of their breathing in our chests. In that moment, a barrier dropped, human identities slid away, and we joined the endless herd of animals on the Kenyan plains. If there are moments when you feel your understanding of life shift, this was one.
Later as we sat under shady trees, feasting on a brunch laid on by our safari lodge hosts, we tried to describe the emotions of the morning but were lost for words. Kenya had opened her arms and folded us in a wild embrace that left us breathless.
One night, at the elegant and isolated Ol Donyo Wuas Lodge on the Chyulo Hills in Mount Kilimanjaro’s shadow, we slept in a rooftop ‘star bed’. Swathed in yards of mosquito netting, our four-poster bed was as luxurious as anything inside the lodge, but it put us in the heart of the African night, surrounded by the heavens above and the animals below. As we lay under soft white sheets, listening to every sound, we knew the quiet lapping we heard was quite likely the local jaguar popping by for a sip of the swimming pool directly below. Safe in our aerie, we shivered a little as we heard him padding softly away.
Photo Courtesy Ol Donyo Lodge
The people of the Kenyan plains are even more approachable than the wildlife, we discovered, when a Masai chieftain in full red plaid regalia welcomed us to his village. Red plaid? The chief explained that the now traditional wraps are a funny left-over from the early efforts of Scottish missionaries to clothe the people they’d come to convert. Initially, bolts of white cloth were supplied, which the Masai promptly died red with animal blood – not what the missionaries had in mind, but very useful. Nomadic people who survive to this day by raising cattle, the Masai cowherds used the red sashes like wearable flags, to identify themselves across vast expanses of land. No doubt sighing in grim Christian frustration, the missionaries gave up the battle and provided the less gruesome red plaid fabric that is now a Masai wardrobe staple.
As I walked alongside the chief on his way to the village, he asked about my life in Canada.
“How many wives does your husband have?” (A Masai warrior’s status is measured by the size of his family.)
“One,” I answered.
“Oh,” he said, embarrassed by my husband’s abject poverty. “How many cows does he have?” (To acquire additional wives, a Masai man must give 15 cows to the father of each bride.)
“None,” I said. “Just two cats.”
There was a deeply pitying silence.
“Well,” he said sternly, “then you had better give him lots of strong sons.”
The chief himself had many wives and a veritable army of strong sons, all of whom were waiting to welcome us to the village. They smiled, they sang, and then, powered seemingly by pure joy, they began to jump high into the air, again and again, and again, putting any NBA player to shame.
Warriors, we learned, give each wife her own dung hut and we visited them all, met every child and admired the beaded bracelets and necklaces they’d made. We were shown all their treasures - from the baby calves in their enormous herd to the tiny kittens that climbed into our laps. We felt enveloped by their kindness and generosity.
That evening as the sun sank into the hills, the air cooled, and the wind rustled the dry leaves on the trees, we leaned against the still-warm jeep, sipped sundowners and wondered…how we could ever leave this place? How could we trade vast plains for city streets, horses for subways and safari camps for apartment walls?
We needn’t have worried. Kenya seeps into your blood and your brain and I know now that parts of my mind and my heart have never left her.
If you go…
Three of the most iconic safari lodges in Kenya are the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club , the Fairmont Mara Safari Club and the Ol Donyo Wuas Lodge. The stately Mount Kenya Safari Lodge, has long been the safari retreat of the rich and famous including such notables as Winston Churchill and Bing Crosby, the elegant, largely open-air Ol Donyo Wuas Lodge is a part of the Great Plains Foundation, dedicated to ‘conserving and expanding wild spaces’, and the Fairmont Mara Safari is a traditional, though luxurious, safari lodge with canvas-walled suites that make you feel that you’ve stepped into “Out of Africa.”
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyle Fall/Winter 2016 issue.