(July 1999) Squinting into the African sun, I am looking across the tips of miles of tall grasses interrupted by lone trees and clusters of bush, dark spots in a golden sea. A gentle breeze sweeps past, adding a shimmer to the rolling expanse and forcing the eagles and vultures to dip and roll while soaring in the sky above. On the distant plains, co-mingling masses of zebra and wildebeest stamp and snort, half buried in the high grasses of the early migration season. Gazelles skip and hop in and out of view, and somewhere in the distance, giraffes are silhouetted against the sky. I am scanning hopefully for dark shadows in the grass, cheetah prowling for a meal, or lions yawning behind a bush. Closing my eyes, I can hear in the breeze a hint of the African song… Maasai cowbells knock out a tin rhythm to the whisper of the Savannah trees and grasses; the hum of distant beasts and birds is punctuated by the occasional percussion of horns clashing. Even the silence of lions and leopards is palpable, perhaps if only in a sense of apprehension.
We have come to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya from Nairobi for an impromptu four-day safari while we wait for the Silver Queen Vickers Vimy airplane to arrive. From an educational perspective, this expedition is precious, offering us the opportunity to see and learn about both the multitude of wildlife in the Reserve and the culture of the Maasai people. We are traveling by mini bus outfitted with a pop-top, allowing us to remain in the bus while having an unobstructed view of the game. Standing, with our heads and shoulders craning out the top of the van, we have been able to spot a huge number of birds and game, including rare sightings of cheetah and leopard. Our guide, Wan Jau has been a fountain of knowledge about the animals, birds, and people, and throughout the four days the students eagerly press him for details. “Mara” means “spotted”, like the spots of the leopard, and describes perfectly the landscape, with wide expanses of grasslands sprinkled with lone trees and bush.
I turn back to face the group clustered around a remarkable lonely tree, miles of shimmering golden grasses in all directions. We are parked beneath the tree for a mid-afternoon lunch break, several students are enjoying the sun, while others are talking with Wan Jau. During the days we drive throughout this massive reserve on dirt tracks and sometimes through the grass, searching for beasts, noticing birds and butterflies as we go. Anton, our South African student, is sharp as a hawk at spotting the birds and beasts, and together with Matt Bresler they are a wealth of important information about the wildlife. Colin is keeping a catalogue and recording the salient facts, while Dennis and Miriam discuss the Maasai lifestyle with Wan Jau. I have organized the team into three groups to manage all the information- Richard will write a travel essay, Dennis and Miriam will describe the Maasai people, Colin, Anton and Matt will address the wildlife. I will be editing and revising their work before sending it posthaste to the Web.
At night we stay in the camp maintained by our tour company, Savuka tours. There are Maasai staying there who keep watch in shifts throughout the night by campfire, protecting us from lions or hyenas. We can hear the baboons screeching in the trees around camp, and hyenas cackling in the distance. Other travelers are staying at the camp as well, Germans, Dutch, British and Americans. We are all treated to a wonderfully dynamic Maasai warrior dance by the bonfire light; bright, red-clothed warriors jump higher and higher in ritual dances to the delight of the group. Sounds of the Maasai, throaty rhythmic grunts and repeated wailing chants, fill the air, swirling about our circle with the sparks from the fire. Our accommodation is in permanent hut-tents lined up in a row, with lovely bushes, flowers and landscaping marking the path, and when driving off on the dirt roads leading away from camp, we can look down on our small, isolated cluster of huts in the bush. A bell rings to wake us up for breakfast and to call us for dinner. The meals, including a packed lunch for midday are delicious and filling, with coffee and tea at breakfast and dinner.