Friday, March 20, 2009



The volume of zebra and wildebeest traffic and the sight of lions sleeping soundly lost to the world of gawking tourists are among the numerous firsts I witnessed in the Amboseli National Park, but the scene that will stay with me forever is something else: a long-shot of lumbering herd of elephants with young ones in tow cutting through the simmering heat of the dustbowl in search of water. These elephants would have to walk for miles to get to the receding water sources and they would have to do it as fast as the pace of the youngest calf. We, who simply reach out for bottled water to soothe our parched throats or a can of coke to wet our lips in the middle of nowhere, cannot even begin to imagine the elephants’ predicament. The poignancy of the scene lay in the realization of that harsh reality of life in the wild.

As the herd approached our vehicle the calf buckled under sheer exhaustion and lay down to rest: the clan simply stayed put in some sort of protective formation. They stood still and we waited with bated breath (our cameras whirring), for what seemed like an eternity, to see what would happen next. As my son interpreted the scenario, the calf that was resting was the unlikely king, and the family of adults, the servile subjects who had to wait it out. It felt as though the earth had stopped spinning and that instant was IT… for the elephants there was no past, no future; the essence of existence was the present pregnant moment.

The elephant herd would pause for as long as it would take the calf to regain its energy before resuming their long march. We, however, had to move on so as not to overstay safari propriety and had no way of knowing the fate of the calf or of the herd. But, possibly, the entire family would have had to go without water longer than their tolerance threshold, or perhaps I am underestimating their patience and endurance. 

The sight of an imposing lone tusker is worth more than a pride of lions and we were lucky to see one at a distance near the Olokenya swamp. The hulk, his tusks tending to ground, emerged out of a thicket like a chimera. Surprised or simply gauging our mood as we were trying to sense his, he stood there looking directly at us. Even from that distance we could feel his brute presence, a colossus striding the earth like royalty. Suddenly, contrary to its nature, it darted into nearby bushes and simply vanished before our eyes. It was as though the mask had been ripped off his face and the blinkers off mine as I realized how vulnerable that lone ranger was. No companion, no family, no herd – a persona non grata eking it out in an unfriendly world.


Despite the underpinning action of the predator and the prey, the savanna, paradoxically, is a quiet place. At the very outset, as you enter any park or the outskirts, you see little action or even little life making you impatient that you may not see any game at all. All you are greeted with is the dusty track, dry wispy grass, stones and bones littered about, the latter suggesting furtive and furious activity, but no sign of life – and no sound or sounds, whatsoever. ‘The dry savanna of summer resembling a desert is deserted’, you may be forgiven for thinking. And then… you see some game, a few zebras here, a few wildebeests there, and as your eyes get trained to pick up the tangible shapes you find them in ever-increasing density and in profusion as far as eye can reach. The savanna is a camouflage canvas where species blend in seamlessly as in a page of child’s puzzle of ‘spot the animals’ hidden in a painting.

As the afternoon sun winds down towards day close you come face to face with a legion of wildlife stretched end to end of the sprawling landscape. There are elephant herds mingling with browsing zebras and wild buffaloes with the hitch-hiking oxpeckers and cattle egrets. It is a mela without an accompanying background score. That is the thing that hits you hard about the savannas. Though bursting with life there is no murmur or a whisper. Two juvenile Thomson’s gazelles indulge in play fighting, locking horns, in silent mode. Elsewhere, a wildebeest baby is ambling along trying to keep pace with the mother without a whine or whimper. Even when alarmed the animals simply tend to buck and run but no frightened noises; there is dignity in every action and emotion.


Something brownish-grey moves in the grass of similar hue; someone says it’s a lion and everyone hopes that it is. Binoculars come out and even the telephoto of the camera is tweaked to ascertain the identity of the animal. As the tourist van pulls up closer three plump warthogs take to heels with their tiny tails upright in air! The scene provides comic relief and humbles all tourists whose single most aspiration is to spot the lions. You may see hyenas and an odd fox or jackal but it is the ‘biggest’ of the big five that everybody craves for.

Our first two trips, one to Tsavo, the biggest park in the whole of Africa, and the second one to Nakuru drew a blank where lions were concerned, but luck favoured us at Amboseli, most unexpectedly. After a morning’s safari of spotting all sorts of animals and birds wildlife fatigue was setting in. To add to the plight we were lulled into lethargy as there was no sign of life for a stretch and if it were not for a friend’s keen eye we would have missed the two supine figures camouflaged completely in the dry grass. Napping by the side of the tour track lay two full-bodied male lions dead to the world. We waited willing them to wake up and raise their head to get that perfect portrait, but they did not budge. The only movement was the gentle heaving of their breathing bodies and twitching of noses. The driver-guide got onto his walkie-talkie to convey the coordinates of the lion to others of his ilk as was the procedure in the parks and soon traffic began to build up and our turn was up.

Of the Big five we have seen four by now: the lions, buffaloes, elephants, rhinos (in our earlier trip to Nakuru) but the cheetahs or even the leopards were as elusive as ever. Leopards are the trickiest to spot for they camouflage very well and are quite shy. Of the five, the African wild buffalo is the easiest to spot as these animals roam in herds and mixed groups or singly. I found myself willy nilly comparing the wildlife here with that in India, as it is perhaps the only other country that can boast of such rich and varied wildlife, and a curious thought struck me. In India, over a century now, the elephant and the wild buffalo have been tamed and domesticated; not so in Africa. I am told that unlike the Asian water buffalo, the African variety is not docile, and is often unpredictable. It is, therefore, one of the most dangerous animals of the savanna.


At Amboseli, for the first time I saw birds the size of small mammals walking tall on the ground, even as we saw the usual arboreal ones such as the starlings, eagles and water fowls. From afar, the ostrich presents itself as a surreal vision of a charcoal black chunk wading in mid-air. The Maasai ostrich, called thus for its tall lean-mean look, is truly gigantic and can be spotted from a distance. The muscular legs of the ostrich that can carry it really far and fast are proof enough of its lethal kick; even a lion would not want to mess with them! The lifer moment came when we spotted the Secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). I learnt that this grey-black bird is named curiously (according to the guidebook) due to its unique head plumes, which look like “quill pens behind a secretary’s ear”. But the wag of a husband surmised that the tiny black number (more like bicycle shorts) it sports might have something to do with its nom de plume!

My day was made when I got the perfect photo opportunity as a crane couple (the Grey-crowned one) walking in step suddenly halted, faced each other and gave a beak-to-beak peck. I had heard of the crane's monogamous nature, but here I got to see a “couple very much in love”. One of the most striking birds of savannas, the grey-crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda and finds itself gracing the Ugandan flag.


The icing on the cake, literally and figuratively, of this visit was the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro with its famed snow-capped mantle. For the large part of the year, the peak remains mysteriously hidden behind a shroud of clouds and you have to be really lucky to get your eyeful of it. On the second day of our visit, as we set out of the lodge to embark on our safari, we saw the Kili with its flat-topped crater dripping rivulets of snow much like the creamy icing on a cake. Ernest Hemingway enshrined the legendary mountain through his work, the anthology of stories titled: “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. Much before that the early explorers were ridiculed when they simply suggested of snow on mountains in the African country straddling the equator! It is fascinating to note that Johann Rebmann, the first European missionary and explorer who saw Kilimanjaro with its snow cap and documented it, found himself scorned by scholars and scientists of the day! A hot air balloon scouring the topographic etchings and terrestrial life off Kilimanjaro would be an ideal safari indeed! Some day…

Spotted hyena

Egyptian Geese