The Masai and I
29 May 2007

Mention Kenya’s Masai Mara, and the most striking image forthcoming is that of one million wildebeest heroically charging through the Masai river thrashing white with crocodiles. (And why they don’t just take the bridge like all the safari vehicles is beyond me.)


For the five of us who visited the Mara in late June, the most striking image of the Mara will be that of a six-foot-four redhead dressed as a zebra crawling on all fours eating grass and bucking his legs somewhere around the Tanzanian border, much to the bemusement of a baboon troop, and bewilderment of a safari guide.


We were on a two-day safari in Kenya’s premier tourist destination, and, aside from wanting to marvel at the animals, each one of us had at least one other reason to be there.


Parisian beauty Laurine wanted to compare notes with African man-eaters, especially the lions. Rob, an American, wanted to see something defenceless get killed - though without the use of an automatic weapon, while Alejandro the Mexican/American wanted to see whether wild animals also needed to eat their food with Tabasco sauce (he even eats it on fruit!)


As for me, I wanted to see what the animals would make of Nick, who wanted to experience what it feels like to be a large herbaceous animal on an African plain. He was thus spending the duration of his safari dressed as a zebra. I had agreed to spend the two days in a patchwork pants, vest and headband, in a sign of solidarity with idiot-dom.


It was a week before the wildebeest migration was due to arrive in the park, coming up from their annual vacation in Tanzania’s adjoining Serengeti park – (when a Danish friend referred to seeing the wildebeest ‘immigration’ she was technically correct).


But the fact the wildebeest were missing did not matter much. Such is the plethora of animals in the Mara that by lunchtime on the first day, we’d seen most of those we wanted to see, save for the elusive leopard.


And therein lay the problem, because there’s only so many herds of enormous elephants, prides of reclining lionesses, landscapes of giraffes eating acacias and cheetahs yawning and stretching you can see before even the most ardent animal watcher gets bored.


Being low-season, there wasn’t even the usual hordes of pudgy tourists jostling for space to fit their enormous lenses – which can be so long they must only capture an animal in its entirety from 300 metres away – to keep me amused.


I dozed off, the afternoon sun turning white cheeks red. At US$85 per day for the safari it was an expensive afternoon nap. I woke up to find us stationary by an enormous solitary bull elephant. It was contentedly eating grass.


“Their such noble creatures,” I ventured.

“Shut up. They eat and they shit,” said Nick, spitting out a mouthful of grass.


There are about five stages of threat levels that guides are taught to look for when observing elephants. This might be a subtle as flapping of the ears, or lifting a front leg.

And guides need to know what to look for, for while elephants seem gentle they are also immensely strong and can be aggressive. They can reach nine tonnes and one had last year charged and overturned a safari truck similar to our own. We were in a 4WD which could seat nine passengers and had a pop-up roof, but it was still only half the size of this elephant, which by now had stopped eating grass and was looking directly at us.


It flapped its ears – was it fanning itself in the afternoon sun?


The guide checked the key in the ignition, but left the engine off. We took photos and admired how an animal with balls the size of sulo bins didn’t walk with more of a gait – as it strolled towards the back of the vehicle.


It lifted its long front leg, and a puff of dust kicked up when it placed it tenderly down again. Forget a wastepaper basket, a foot that size could make a fully-fledged bottle recycling bin.


Just then, Nick came to the back of the bus, angling for some video footage. His costume consisted a large Rambo-style zebra bandanna, and a striped zebra vest over his bare skin. The vest was trimmed with a stripe of leopard.


I’m not sure what relationship zebras and elephants usually enjoy in the wild, but the sight of this red-maned zebra seemed to make the bull uncomfortable, if not irritable.


And that was all it took. A threshold had been crossed. With a triumphant nod of its head, it began to charge.


Now I can’t remember the exact order of threat levels, but being charged was definitely up there. The driver fumbled for the keys. The elephant picked up speed. Eight metres quickly became six, and soon five. I didn’t pray, I just hoped that if my body was trampled into pancake people would think it was Nutella on my undies. 


The engine roared to life and we accelerated out of danger.


Thirty metres later we stopped, the driver turned off the ignition again. The elephant stopped too. The risk of chaffing around the inner leg probably outweighed the fun of overturning our vehicle.


Seeing the threat apparently diminished, the guide turned the key and backed up the truck to the elephant. Blatant intimidation. Again it lowered its head, metre long tusks skimming above the road as it started towards us, and again we accelerated just out of immediate danger. This went on for a number of minutes, before the elephant finally got jack and wandered off to eat some more grass.


Our guide, having been granted his relief from what must be the grinding drudgery of being among wild animals on a daily basis continued on in search of more animals to molester. We went off trail, and while we looked at a three-metre-long male lion and two amiable cheetahs, our guide looked for green ranger vehicles which would have meant a heavy fine for breaching park rules.


Day two commenced early. Rob was still most keen to see a ‘kill’ (though we all harboured secret ambitions to see one), and early morning before the sun hits was good hunting time for predators, so we were up at the crack of dawn – I was up beforehand mind, since the crack of Sam had taken offence at something ‘gourmet’ the cook had prepared last night.


The park was open from 6.30am, and we were there about an hour later. It was soon after arriving that I realised I was rapidly using up my camera memory, and had to be more prudent in my selection of animals to photograph. I therefore limited myself to just shooting animals which were poohing or had erections.  


After pausing at (yawn!) another elephant we continued through the park to a tree-lined gully renowned for leopards. Leopards are solitary animals which stalk their prey at night – preferably impalas – and then haul them into trees to avoid losing their kill to lions and hyenas.


And this morning we were in luck. Hanging across the tree boughs like carcasses in a meatworks were the discernible hind legs of an antelope. On the other side of the trunk hung its forelegs, and tucking into it with the ferocity of a cat to Whiskas, was a sleek and beautiful leopard.


I deleted a few photos from the sequence I had just taken of an elephant dispatching an enormous turd and began taking photos. Unfortunately most of these leopard turned out blurry, so it was lucky I didn’t erase all of the faecal photos or I’d have nothing to show my parents.


Elephant turds by the way led to one of archaeology’s greatest discoveries, that of human footprints from 3.6 million years ago preserved in rock in Kenya. Two archaeologists had been on their way to a known fossil site, and one picked up some elephant dung to throw at the other. Trying to avoid the flung dung, the archaeologist fell, only to now discover the ground he lay on was rich in fossil prints. 


I digress. The sun was rising, and our chances of seeing a kill were diminishing rapidly. We had been too late to see the leopard maim the impala, and short of draping chicken carcasses from the windows and playing a tape of animal distress sounds, it was highly unlikely we’d see anything else.


Still, in the next half day we saw many more animals. I found out that while zebras are white with black stripes their penises are entirely black, and we visited the Mara’s first tourist lodge, where you can sleep for USD$360 per night, and buy Pringles for USD$9.


That evening we spent in a Masai village. It seems I’d managed to contract diarrhoea just in time to sleep in a village where there was no toilets – just “outside, and watch out for lions”.


Since we hadn’t seen any animals killing other animals during the day, in the evening twilight a villager took us bow and arrow hunting for birds and dik diks – small scrub-dwelling antelope.


Masai men spend about four years from the age of 15 living in the bush learning to hunt, and together they must kill a male lion before they can return. I reflected; when I was 15 I got sent to my school’s city campus to learn how to read a train timetable and that teenage schoolgirls shouldn’t eat McDonalds. At any rate, our Masai warrior could have done with a few more years – if he couldn’t even kill a bird, I doubt he’d killed a lion.


(The distinctive red Masai blanket is meant to deter wild animals, and, we were told, were patterned in family colours. This myth was put to rest by Rob a few days later who, upon seeing a random Masai wearing a familiar pattern said “Huh!  I recognise that patter, you’re from the LeMain family, aren’t you!”

“No, what are you talking about? I just like these colours.”


After dinner (for which Alejandro had organised a small bottle of Tabasco from someone in the village) and a delicious cup of warm milk – the Masai traditionally drink only milk and cow blood, I took out some photos of my travels to show the assembled crowd, most of whom had rarely ventured three hours to Nairobi.


They were amazed.


On seeing a photo of a Laotian hill tribe village: “It’s the same as an African village!”

On seeing a Guatemalan chicken bus: “Look at the size of that matatu!”

On a 15-year-old girl in Borneo drinking rice wine: “It looks just like our lethal moonshine alcohol!”


The respective traditional and modern skylines of Paris and Shanghai contrasted to those of grass huts, and a picture of a whale had to be explained as “like a 15-metre long fish”.


Alejandro, a lecturer on Hispanic studies, explained about the wonders of the Palenque ruins in Mexico, and I showed them the wonders of fat Americans in Mexico; passing off  an enormous elderly American lady wearing a black bikini and bending over in front of Mexico’s Agua Azur waterfall as my girlfriend. They nodded in approval – buxom women are revered in some African circles.


The next day we returned to Nairobi, entirely satisfied. Even though I now had spent seven days on various safaris, I still look upon elephants as ‘noble creatures’ – even if they do look scary when charging, and ridiculous when they’re defecating.


And Rob, well bless him, rumour has it he did get to see that kill after all: The next day he was walking the resident German Shepherd at Nairobi Backpackers, Rocky, when they passed the neighbour’s small kitten. Unable to contain his excitement, Rocky bounded towards the kitten and mauled it to death.