Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not Just Another Safari

Tsavo National Park

Sometimes, it is not what you see in a place, but what the place has seen that makes it special. Tsavo country is predominantly elephant territory, also notorious for its real-life legend of man-eater lions, but it is possible that tourists on safari may not see either. Tsavo National Park in South Kenya is sprawling, the size of Israel as the entrance sign-board declares. Perhaps, for this reason, it is not very popular with the camera-toting tourists who seek to count their lions and tick off the Big Five.

The convolvulus has swamped the sward, their white bells trailing the shape of the trees, shrubs, bushes that are tucked underneath. And though the tableau is mesmerizing to our touristy eyes, these are invasive ipomeas (better known as morning glory) that have taken over the bush! White petals cleave from the carpet – it seems - as butterflies legion as flowers flit about the low ground. The noon-time hushed bush is soundlessly alive. Not to be outdone, birds – hornbills and spurfowls, weavers and shrikes - fill the airspace and verge, but thankfully, these are of Tsavo nativity.

The trails we follow throw up leopard pugs and elephant hooves, intermittently, but not their owners. Bare boles stripped of leaves and twigs show signs of elephant ravages, but the perpetrators of carnage are nowhere in sight. That is how it is in Tsavo country, the excitement lies more in the suggestion than in the spotting. After hours of following the red dirt tracks through the acacia-commiphora woodlands all we see is a herd of elephants walking into the horizon. Should a small herd of elephants walking away into distance - a pastiche at once of mundanity and mystery - be any less thrilling than an elephant at close quarters posing for a photograph? For me, this is a more intimate impression, almost as if the elephants were leading me into their private domain, if only I exerted my imagination and followed them there. The lions, too, are elusive just as they were, more than a century ago, when the “Uganda Railway” was under construction and when they attacked nearly hundred labourers by the bridge on river Tsavo.

In 1900, this peaceful haven was torn asunder, rivened into two halves – east and west - by the Lunatic Line (as it came to be called by some who did not believe in the project), the blatant transgression bringing the wrath of two lions upon the railway party. Even after being aware and alerted, the spectre of the lions haunted the labourer camp claiming lives, prominent among them Superintendent Charles Ryall who had set up a trap to entice the beasts. This episode of the man-eating lions has been documented by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson in his classic account “The Man-eaters of Tsavo”. In a riveting tale much like Jim Corbett’s escapade in the Indian jungles, Col. Patterson documents how two maneless lions had held Tsavo in a “state of siege” for nearly 10 months, before he ultimately gunned them down. Incidentally, the movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness” based on the incidents takes cinematic liberty in showing two nomadic lions, perhaps because lions with luxuriant manes can strike fear in the hearts as no hairless feline can.

But it is what Richie, the lodge naturalist, told me later that caught my fancy more. Researchers believe that the ‘man-eating’ genes of that notorious duo still survives having been passed down over the years! Is it any less thrilling to go to bed in the darkness of the cabin and step in the shoes of the labourers in their camp and ‘live’ their experience, even if you have not seen a lion stride by in the bush during the day? Is it any less thrilling to hear the wardens, some of them women, recount their tales of wildlife encounter as they go about their duty of patrolling the woodlands, sometimes even on foot? Listening to them and Richie’s stories of being caught between two rival herds of aggressive elephants or witnessing night hunts is enough to bring Tsavo alive in my mind’s eye.

Subsequently, we do spot more of Tsavo’s famous “red elephants”, particularly in the East. Elephants indulge in mudbath to keep them cool and the soil of Tsavo being ochre, they take on a brick-red hue. A silver-backed jackal comes in a cameo and slinks away into the undergrowth while gazelles – kudus and impalas – make guest appearances, periodically. The hum of life subtly unfolds like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, here.

The lodge we were staying in, Kilaguni, is the first lodge to be established in any of the national parks of Kenya. A bare bones structure of logs, the sit-out allows the luxury of taking in the panoramic sweep of the volcanic Chyulu Hills as though one were out in the open. After dark, we sit, underneath the stars - well almost, watching the impalas by the watering hole. Suddenly, they are alert perking their ears even as the staff alerts us of a leopard heading here. We learn that this is a “resident” leopard that the hotel staff has been feeding to lure it for the tourists. While that took the edge out of the encounter, watching the elusive predator in real form still held awe and shock. Even as the panther was watching us - the gawking tourists, in the instant that he returned my gaze, I averted mine with alacrity not wanting to send wrong vibes. In retrospect, I realized that the brief locking of our eyes mirrored our minds, both revealing fear – of each other!

At the base of the Chyulu Hills is the hardened lava floor, charcoal-black, called Shetani lava flows. Shetani is Kiswahili for “devil”, the guide informs, and it is obvious that the moniker derives from “shaitan”. It is not difficult to imagine that more than 200 years back when fire must have spewed from the belly of the earth, people must have thought it the handiwork of the Devil. At Shetani, we get down and explore the cindered floor which can sustain no plant life, but we have to be wary of fauna that might saunter around. I pick up some lava rocks as souvenir to add to my collection of “precious stones”.

Tsavo habitat hides many a sting. Mzima Springs framed by bamboo and bulrush is certainly one of them. The crystal clear waters of the spring are said to be fed by the melting snows of Kilimanjaro - that seep from underneath the Chyulu Hills -  and which in turn feed the entire city of Mombasa! Once again, we set on foot and the tranquility tricks us into believing that we are at a recreation zone. But the guide is quick to rid us of our false comfort. He narrates an incident where an errant tourist went too close to the pool to take a photograph despite warnings and became the meal of a Nile crocodile that lunged out of the water. Back in the lodge, Richie insisted on showing us the documentary, “Haunt of the Riverhorse” on Mzima Springs; it may well have been some other place, surely not the one we saw! The film takes you under water into a unique ecosystem where thickly populated hippopotami form the pivot, their dung serving as the organic substratum sustaining fish and other submarine life! We did not see the hippos or the crocs at the spring that day like we have, time and again, on various safaris at other parks. Despite that Mzima Springs was certainly special because of what it hid in its bosom, because of what we witnessed virtually, through the film.

We can’t boast of ample game spotting or great wildlife encounters, first hand, in Tsavo, but seeing the place through “expert” eyes and being aware of what is brewing beneath the surface, behind the scenes, makes this safari incomparable. Unlike Maasai Mara, where species outdo each other in “sightings”, Tsavo’s riches scattered that they are throughout its existence, need to be mined like gold.