The game drive continued, I was shaken and as soon as the episode was over I was the butt of every joke involving baboon and man that you can come up with. The story morphed on the spot as all stories do and in the end it became a stirring account of the bond between man and ape. We drove on and on and then we came to a stop and to our right was a rhino. Now I have seen pictures of rhino before. The most popular matchsticks in Nairobi are the rhino brand and I can definitely recognise it when I see it but nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming sight of a rhino in the wild. There were three of them a couple and their child grazing, enjoying family time.
A rhino is about 4 metres long and has a shoulder height of 1.5 metres. The weight of a fully grown rhino is 3,600 kilograms and they are surrounded by silence. As soon as you lay an eye on a rhino a respectful hush falls over you. They seem completely unconcerned by human beings going about their lives like we are nothing. In a game of chicken between our bus and the rhino I hope our driver would have the good sense to turn around before collision. Because what was arrayed before us were not animals but gods. Everyone at one time or another has met a person who just oozes menace. A cold sweat comes over you when in their presence even though with most of them they don’t seem to see you. You could matter less to them than a speck of dust. This is how the rhino regarded the bus full of human beings.
It’s skin looked tough. Not leather tough but stone tough, like it was made out of the same material that military tanks are made out of. They kept their eyes down busy on the grazing looking to untrained eyes as if they were sculpted out of the fear of all the other animals. Quietly the father rhino raises his head and looks at us. The head alone looked like it weighed a tonne( which as it turns out it can); it was sharp and angular with ivory towers sticking out of its snout. It regarded us and went back to its meal. It knew who the threat was in these particular parts.
And soon the game drive was over. There was a tree near the dormitory we were sleeping in that I didn’t noticed till the last day we were there. It was a haven for birds of the umm... flying variety. There were dozens of them there. They had nested and this was their home away from their first home. I feel sure that if you can fly the sky is always your first home, an endless expanse of beauty and freedom, a backdrop of blue and white, sun and rain, where all you need to do to survive is wing it. Anyway the birds when they came back here chirped incessantly. There is a certain romanticism that city dwellers attach to the sounds of birds. We imagine them as harmonious and soothing, in our minds they are always chirping in unison and unity. Pouring out a song of unending melody to the sky and to the earth their penance for having the gift of flight. That is a romanticism that is quickly dashed after listening to this particular bird species. What it put it me in mind of was twitter, not twitter as it can be, a repository of quick wit and information condensed to such small sound bites that every word serves as a stand in for a sentence, but twitter as its critics see it. An endless clamour of voices struggling to be heard, shouting down all the others to the point where what could be a symphony is actually a cacophony. A mess of sounds so insistent and incessant that sanity is tried by just giving it a listen. The birds chirped and chirruped. They may have been gossiping or imparting that eternal wisdom that the earth tries to bequeath to its human children but either way it was impossible to hear anything more than the noise they gave out.
The city was encroaching on us. The world a lot of times feels like a single organism. If you can take a stem cell or a hair follicle you can grow the whole thing again. This is the reason metaphors always seem to work so well and why everything can stand in to represent something else, why there always seem to be deeper underlying truths in the words of babes and fools and why even there in a sanctuary far, far away from human’s stamp on ecology you could almost see an all too human invention.
I was in a black mood on the last day. The ups and downs of human emotions are familiar to us all. And if you look around all you see is what’s inside you. In the most pristine environments you can transpose destruction. You can imagine the worst on the best. I looked out over the forest that I had fallen in love with on the first day. It looked the same. The trees still stood, sentinel like in the distance, guarding the lake that I hadn’t yet visited. But it didn’t feel the same. A friend of mine lit a cigarette and all I could see now was the fire. Through the prism of the small flame I observed the forest and I couldn’t help imagining the forest on fire.
There were reds and yellows running across the canopies. They rushed past the leaves whispering from one to another the secret of knowledge of good and evil that had consigned so many of us humans to a fiery existence. The smoke rose, white and clear and black and impenetrable. The astonishingly fresh air of that place was replaced in my mind by the fumes running out of the forest. Particles of leaves and wood turned to ash and were carried along in the wind settling here and there creating a different kind of beauty. A clash, a riot, a civil war of colours that would rival and put to shame the sunrise that nobody saw. Greens and yellows, reds and pinks, whites and greys, browns and muds. The smells of smoke and charred flesh, of burning woods and water too hot to remain as water.
In nature and in everything we can catch reflections of ourselves, of us at our worst and of us at our best. We can see the lush green paradise, the eternal tranquillity that can be the thread of human existence and at the same time there is the rioting anger, the eternal conflict that can be its unravelling. Like almost everywhere in the world we can see what makes us human in the nature we struggled so much to escape. It’s not what it really is but how it makes us feel. Those words rang in my mind yet again. On this trip I had caught glimpses of humanity, of myself at every turn. Feelings of expectation and realities of disappointment. The truth that waiting for something is half of the pleasure in receiving it and can even be all of the pleasure. Hostility and majesty and tranquillity fighting their eternal battle with light heartedness and cowardice and the shrieks of violence. As we left I realised that we can never really escape the things we try to, we carry too much of them in us and in moments of peace and exhaustion they will pounce like a lioness in the dark.