As we ease into summer, I've been recalling a two-week safari to East Africa that I took six summers ago, a life-changing experience that widened my heart and inspired my mind. Below is the fourth in a series of dispatches I wrote on that trip.
MOUNT KENYA SAFARI CLUB – It’s 10:40 pm on our second night at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. I’m sitting on my verandah, staring into the light-less night and up at the star-spattered sky, more full of stars – in this high-altitude African blackness -- than I have ever seen before.
Yesterday morning we rose early and drove back to the Amboseli airstrip, where we caught a flight to Nairobi. In Nairobi we transferred planes and flew north to Nanyuki, gateway to Mount Kenya National Park and the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
On the drive from the airstrip to the Safari Club, we crossed the equator, and at that point our van pulled into a dusty strip of souvenir shacks so that we could witness the Grand Equator-Crossing Ritual. An officious man with a funnel, a bucket, and a jar full of water took us to the line marking the equator, then had us walk with him twenty paces to the north. With a flourish he positioned the funnel over the bucket and poured the water into the funnel. “See how it is moving clockwise as it drains?” he said, pointing to the water.
Then we walked back to the equator and stepped off 20 paces to the south. Again he flourished his funnel, and this time – “See, now it is draining counterclockwise because we are south of the equator!”
“Now,” he continued, “what do you think will happen if we pour the water down the funnel right at the equator?”
“It’ll go straight down?” Benjie offered.
“Let us see, my friend!”
We stepped back to the equator and after a suitably dramatic pause, the man brandished his bucket, positioned his funnel and with a quick flick of his wrist poured the water into the funnel. Guess what? It shot straight down into the bucket without even a hint of movement clockwise or counter. Impressive!
We thanked him with a small funnel of dollar bills, then tore Jill away from the carved giraffes, lions, jewelry and other souvenirs, and sped on to the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
The Safari Club is a storied place, founded by the late actor William Holden in 1959. Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten were members, and guests have included Clark Gable, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Redford, Sean Connery and Catherine Deneuve. The lush, rambling lawns and gracious buildings lend it a colonial atmosphere, and you still half-expect to see Hemingway and Holden drinking port in the plush sitting room.
Our stay here is something of a lull in the itinerary. After the bouncing and jouncing of our Amboseli game drives, it has been rejuvenating to take a leisurely dip in the pool, amble along the fairways of the deserted golf course and sit on the verandah reading, pausing now and again to gaze at the snow-capped crag of Mount Kenya.
We did make one relatively sedate game drive today at nearby Sweetwaters Game Reserve, where we spotted two massive white rhinoceros. “The rhinoceros is one animal we are always careful to stay well away from,” Lewela said. “They have excellent senses of smell and hearing, but their eyesight is extremely poor, so they will charge almost anything that gets too close and poses a threat.” As he talked, they walked slowly through the grass and toward our vehicle. We waited, watching, wondering exactly when “close” becomes “too close.” Then, when they were about 30 feet away, they veered to the right and walked slowly, placidly, over the track we’d driven in on.
This morning began with another kind of treat: a private breakfast on the grounds of the club, beside the pond, with two white-toqued chefs cooking eggs to order in the shade of the trees. This is the kind of unexpected extravagance that has set this safari apart from day one, with a multitude of thoughtful touches and delightful surprises.
One other fundamental factor that has set the trip apart has been Lewela, our safari director. He has proved to be an astonishing fount of information on just about everything, from the intricacies of the wildlife, plant life, and bird life to the history and political situations of Kenya, surrounding countries and the larger world outside them. He is an incredible encyclopedia – and best of all, a human encyclopedia, which gives us a human connection to the countries and the cultures that we just wouldn’t have if we were traveling on our own. In addition to all that knowledge, Lewela is invariably smiling, efficient, and sensitive to the idiosyncracies of the group; it’s a privilege to be able to see Kenya and learn about Africa with him.
At dinner tonight, talking with Benjie, Jennifer, Jill and Lewela -- and fueled by four truly splendid gin and tonics -- the other thing I re-realized is how travel makes the world local. We were talking about Somali politics and the Somali warlords, and how chaotic the situation in the country is now. I knew this vaguely from headlines I’d seen in the States, but being here on the ground in Kenya, which has a long border with Somalia, brings that situation so much more vividly to life, gives it a personal presence and connection that it wouldn’t have for me otherwise.
And that’s one of the great gifts of travel: It localizes the world, so that wherever you are becomes of intense interest and palpable presence by your being there. For us, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, Africa as a whole, have suddenly taken on a vivid, vibrant reality. They’re a part of our world, with a presence and importance they never otherwise would have. This is how travel makes world citizens of us all.
I know I won’t come away from this trip understanding Kenya’s complicated, rich history in depth, just as I won’t understand in any depth all of the wildlife we see. But I also know that when I leave, they will be a part of me.
Tomorrow we rise early and fly to Maasai Mara. Once more, into the bush!