Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my? Nope. More like elephants, and buffalo, and hippos. We have just completed ten days of safari around Kenya, hitting the big national parks Amboseli, Samburu and the Maasai Mara as well as Lake Nakuru. All were stunning and I’ll get into those details in a few blogs and a ton of photos.
It’s been all about animals so far on this trip, getting really close to stuff that was for me previously reserved for the zoo or Wild Kingdom and documentaries. For the most part this hasn’t been like my Galapagos cruise experience where animals stare blankly at you and don’t flee when you walk right up to them. Here they seem wilder, definitely bigger, and also far more savvy about the potential threat of a human. A vehicle serves as a sort of blind so the wildlife doesn’t always run right away. In fact, the big cats don’t even seem to notice us though we would qualify for an easy light snack.
But when we came upon a pride of fourteen (!) lions, when a leopard walked right up to us or gnawed on the gory remains of a wildebeest on the branch above our heads, we never felt threatened. (OK, see if I would make such a cavalier statement if I had been standing out in the open without that Toyota open-top van for cover! We half-closed the windows nervously any time one of them looked us in the eyes.) No, the real threat, I’m told, is where you may not have expected. Charlie, our American host, a resident here in Nairobi, told us about a tour guide/driver who confronted a bull elephant blocking the road and showing signs of getting surly. The guide revved the engine and honked the horn hoping to give the threatening animal something to think about. The elephant indeed thought about it, calmly strode up to the front window, and with precision, impaled the driver right through the glass and just walked away. Um. Mental note: don’t honk at the elephants.
We’d also been warned that a buffalo is more likely to attack you than a lion. And hippos? Those big lumbering Stay-Puff Marshmallowy gap-toothed water hogs with the tender feet? Frequently kill tourists who think they are just lumbering Stay-Puff Marshmallow water hogs with tender feet. They can run when necessary and that’s a freight train you don’t want to be in front of. Surprised? Remember Chris Farley busting moves as the Chippendale dancer on Saturday Night Live? Don’t “misunderestimate” one’s athletic ability by his girth.
In Amboseli National Park, our driver/guide Steve brought us up close to a big bull elephant for some photos. The elephant stopped and stared a moment then continued pulling grasses and shoving the loads into his mouth. We snapped photos, some with flash. He stopped again. We had his complete attention and he squared off with us from the side of the road. He took a slow step in our direction, no longer interested in the no doubt delicious dried up trampled weeds. Then suddenly he took two VERY deliberate steps with his head bowed. But Steve was at the ready and turned on the ignition and started down the road. The noise of it was enough to make an elephant do a turn on a dime and stand parallel to us with second thoughts. Whew.
Two nights ago, in Samburu National Park we were having a DIY game drive in Charlie’s Toyota Land Cruiser (a sort of elephant in itself, we thought) and it got dark before we made it back to Larsen’s Tented Camp (nice!). We took a turn down a two-rut path that touched the sandy bank of the river that makes the southern boundary of the park. We came around a clump of tall grasses and stopped face to face with a buffalo. He stood stock still staring at us. He took a step or two toward us and snorted. Charlie decided it wise to back up. It wasn’t until we were off his little beach that be returned to chewing his cud. We are pretty sure he was about to show the little bull on the grill a thing or two about horns.
But yesterday was the mother of all confrontations. In Samburu we have seen very few elephants, just three of them as we entered the park a couple days ago. Brown with the dust of Samburu unlike the more gray-colored herds in Amboseli and the Mara. But we found many across the river from our camp.
We have seen hundreds upon hundreds of them these last ten days, one or a few of them together or in a big herd. So we were coming along a two-rut path and passing close to a small herd of maybe a dozen. Most of them were to our left, but a few crossed ahead of us to the right so that now we were really driving right through them. Nothing we hadn’t done before. I looked to the left though and two big ones with tusks – one with a big wooden tracking collar on – were paying us a LOT of attention and in fact walking straight toward us. We had stopped in the road to watch them pass before, many times, and they always sort of ignored us and walked on by or adjusted their path a bit to go around. These two were aiming to walk through us. OK, no big deal, we were passing them slowly and thus would no longer annoy them. But then something happened. A baby elephant on the left broke into a crazy run up the road to get to an elephant on the right (the mom?). Right up the road before us.
Now to an elephant observing – or in fact to any reasonably intelligent being – it appeared that that big old Toyota was chasing a baby elephant. Not good. I really can’t tell you how the two behind us closing in on us reacted to this, because the large female that thundered toward us at a 45-degree angle from forward-right pretty much had all my attention, and I slid across the back seat away from my open window. Let’s just say she was upset. She did an initial fake charge. Charlie stopped the SUV. Then came a more sincere charge, and the elephant flattened her trunk tight into her face, tilted her massive forehead and lowered the tusks so that what was presented to us was Mother Nature’s most sincere and effective battering ram. She let loose with a deafening trumpet blast that left us all speechless and in need of a restroom. In a cartoon all our hair and clothing would have been flapping in the wind back and to the left.
I wanted to say, “Charlie! You need to…” But with the two behind us (god, are they about to skewer me?) and this darling right at the driver’s door, I had no bloody idea what he needed to do. Is there a panic button? Charlie was close enough to the angriest elephant as to require his reading glasses to see her clearly. I was moaning like Rain Man in the back seat hoping Charlie knew the way to a happy place. Peung was stammering something to the effect of Holy shit, Khun Charlie! (She has her English swears mastered and applies them appropriately.) All three of us were on the verge of needing a change of underwear. Charlie had no choice but to go forward on the path (which would actually bring us a bit CLOSER to it first) and I braced myself, totally certain that the tusks would at least graze the doors even if the elephant didn’t move toward us further. We slipped past, but no contact was made and we escaped up the road a bit to stop and gather our senses, all eyes watching the herd behind us. We were a bit slap happy for a few hours, giddy from the post-adrenaline rush, going over the whole thing again and again, amazed nothing happened. That big forehead would have rolled the SUV with little effort.
The next night I’ll be damned if that same herd wasn’t on our side of the river… congregated in the bushes around the driveway to our camp. Dusk was upon us as we rolled up and we saw the bull with the tracking collar. The little tyke that had panicked. Same number of beasts. One or two of them stared at us, one walked toward a little we thought. Elephants. Good grief, they remember, right? Never forget? We sat there unsure of how to go through them until they moved on past our driveway and we sneaked past. Respect, you know?
See some of my other photos and blogs from safari.
Go to the main site of The Mad Traveler for an Amboseli photo gallery and more!
(Read/see more about our Kenya safari accommodations.)