Jungle stories

WILDLIFE

VISUAL SPECTACLE Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Photos by  authorLion safari in Laikipia plains. Hippos at Baringo. Flamingos at Nakuru. Chimpanzees in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Snorkeling in Diani. The elephant tusks in Mombasa. The ‘big five’ (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard) everywhere. I looked at my Kenyan itinerary and baulked. The to-do things looked perfect for the one called jungle kid; it sure was not penciled for me. “Was my itinerary swapped with that of Mowgli?” I wondered aloud. “But this is Kenya, and this is a simple itinerary,” Fiona Ngesa of Kenyan Tourism Board reassured. Simple? Rhinoceros as dinner companions certainly did not sound simple! But I acquiesced and packed for the equatorial country — buckets of sunscreen, beige outfits, straw hat and a thought tucked in the heart — what if I became breakfast for the lions? Scary thought.

The lions, however, had to wait. First, it was the turn of the mandatory yellow fever jab. The queue at a government hospital in New Delhi was long. I gingerly waited to register for the vaccine and regurgitated the old school geography lessons — archaeologists vouch that the first modern man appeared in Kenya (literally, place with ostriches) that borrows its name from Kirinyaga, Kirinyaa and Kiinyaa, all tribal names for Mt Kenya. From geography, I switched to literature, thinking of Danish Nobel Laureate Karen Blixen (pseudonym Isak Dinesen), who lived in Nairobi between 1914 and 1931. In the sprawling stone manor with misty Ngong Hills as a backdrop, she welcomed her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, so charmingly portrayed by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Oscar-sweeping Out of Africa.

A jab and a long flight later, I landed in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where storks had encroached trees flanking the wide streets, jalopies laden with essentials were honking raucously and the air was redolent with the aroma of ugali, a staple Kenyan corn porridge. And then the jungle story started unfolding in Nairobi National Park — albino zebras (white stripes on brown), pygmy hippos, panthers, emus, baboons and the ostrich — four-legged and the two — making Kenya such a favourite haunt of all wildlife lovers.

Not just nature enthusiasts, but even the gourmand, who picks his fork at the famed game meat joint, Carnivore Restaurant, not the mundane meat, mind it. Think chicken gizzards, ox heart, ostrich meat balls, camel meat, barbecued crocodile meat and rump steak. In the colossal Masai barbecue, game meat was basted on countless spits and attendants in animal stripes were walking by tables with meat skewered in Masai spears. I looked at the spit and the spears and grimaced. So, as a vegetarian, do I feed on grass? Thankfully, fried coconut with peri-peri sauce and a bowl of noodles was rustled specially for me. You see, in Kenya, being a vegetarian is absolute sacrilege. Often, spinach is the sole saviour. 

Bird watching

Full to the gill, I slumped in the jeep for a long drive to Lake Nakuru, which is home to millions of pelicans and flamingos. The road to Nakuru was long and rutted, endless ranches rimmed with barbed wires, men hawking sausages in casseroles, women hunched over sugarcane juicers, starlings perched lazily on hanging wires, little girls in pigtails walking miles to the nearest school and runners losing their breath at high altitudes (Kenya has a High Altitude Training Centre in Eldoret).
Sitting smug on one of the Rift Valley’s soda lakes, Nakuru translates into dust or dusty place in Masai language. Dusty, it sure was, but I forgot the dirt when I heard the crescendo of legions of flamingos babbling and honking. The lake’s swampy bank wore a lace of the flamingos’ distinctive fuschia pink, the pelicans added a dash of yellow and the cormorants lent their black. The huge congregation of flamingos is often called the greatest bird spectacle on earth; the adjective might seem an exaggeration, but it definitely is a spectacle. 

My boots caught the swamp’s mire but it was time to hop across hemispheres in the Fairmont Mt Kenya Golf Course. Literally. Situated on Mt Kenya, it is the equator that cuts through its belly. For the golfer, it is a hemispheric delight, for he can cross hemispheres in one fell swoop (read: tee). The first hole is in the northern hemisphere and the seventh hole in the southern hemisphere. Beyond being a geographical miracle, the course also has the glimmer of Hollywood. The club was once the retreat of Hollywood star William Holden, who set hearts aflutter in Sunset Boulevard, and boasts of footprints of the likes of Winston Churchill and Bing Crosby.  
From beasts to heartthrobs, Kenya seemed to have them all. I preferred the beasts and headed for another rendezvous to the 110,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy that sits on the Laikipia plains. Not only is Ol Pejeta home to the ‘big five’, it is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, the only chimpanzee orphanage in the country, and has the highest area to animal density ratio of all Kenyan national parks.

The air was frosty and the breeze ruthless. I tied my long hair in a tight bun and got ready for the night safari, a must-do in Kenya. The jeep rattled on a dirt track, but I stood on the seat for a glimpse of the mighty cat. As the jeep manoeuvred through savannahs, the snarl of the hyena and the whistle of the starlings melded with the squawks of raucous pelicans and the drumming sound of the ostrich; faraway, the peak of Mt Kenya served as a smoky curtain. That night, I saw the ‘big five’. I wanted nothing else. 

In Kenya, I did not see Blixen’s Limoges, the Victor gramophone on which she and Finch spun Mozart concertos, the lantern that she hung outside to let him know she was home. Instead, I settled for lions traipsing amidst acacia and cypress. But I know I would go to Kenya again. For Blixen, for Finch, and for the ‘big five’.   

Travel tips

*What to do: In Nairobi — Masai Market, Snake Park, bird’s eye view of Nairobi from the ICEA building, Nairobi National Museum, National Park.

Others: Masai Mara National Park, flamingos at Lake Nakuru, hippos and birds at Lake Baringo, game drive and chimpanzee orphanage at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Round off by playing golf at the Mt Kenya Safari Club Golf Course that lies at the equator. Visit the old town of Mombasa, Slave Cave in Diani and  Thomson Falls.   

*Where to eat: In Nairobi — Traditional Kenyan food at Ranola Foods and game meat at Carnivore is an absolute must. Try ugali, a maize porridge, dried seeds of baobab tree and fried coconut with peri peri chutney.     

*Visa: Visa on arrival for Indians. Yellow fever shots are mandatory. 

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