The streets were bathed in the steely snow of cloud filtered sun when we left Nairobi. It was one of those drizzly city days, a day that promised sleek, dark-grey pavement and an unending traffic jam but that didn’t matter because we were on our way to Nakuru. The difference between the Kenyan cities and the places its most famous for, it’s wildlife reserves and game parks is astounding. From jagged, toothy skyscraper skylines you got to places with horizons stretching out for miles ending in mist and mountain. As you leave the city something inside you changes too. You feel more free, more adventurous; there is more to look forward to and a bigger place in which to do it.
A baboon is half the size of a human being but it’s teeth can grow to 2.5 inches. Daniel Lieberman a professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Havard recently talked about how wimpish human beings can be compared to most animals. A chimpanzee can rip the arm right off of a human being. Rip through bone, muscle and tendon leaving you stumped. A baboon is stronger than a chimpanzee. There is even video evidence of one chasing a lion away. I must confess I didn’t know this at the time but instinct told me that standing there was not a good idea.
The first thing I saw when we go there was the abundance of space, miles and miles of open air with nothing dotting it, no interruption except trees which seemed like they had been designed for this place. They camouflaged perfectly, the leaves the right colour, the foliage the right shape, the trunks the right height. It looked like everything here had grown into itself like an athlete who had exercised his way to muscularity as opposed to the city’s steroid like growth that left one bunch of muscles overwhelmingly well-developed while another lagged behind wasted, emaciated and drooping. It had been raining so in the distance the forest was lush. Greens and greens bathed each other in a wash of even more green.
In 2003 two people had been mauled to death by a lioness in this very game park. I can’t imagine how it feels to be mauled by a lioness but I know there is a lot of fear entailed in it. They are stalkers as all cat hunters are graceful, quiet, patient and when the time to strike comes quick. Like all stalkers the weapons in their retinue are vast. Not just patience but also darkness, fear and paranoia. Most human beings have a well-developed instinct for danger, the same thing that lets you know something is watching you. You can feel when danger is close by, the air wafts it your way, the earth warns you and it does you good to listen. This kind of danger however works by inducing this mechanism. In fear you panic. In fear you stop walking to listen in. in fear you sweat more and the already sensitive nose of the lioness can pick you out that much faster. They are huge the lionesses, clocking in at 120 to 180 kilograms and can run at 50 kilometres per hour by contrast Usain Bolt’s top speed comes to less than 49 kilometres per hour. When a lioness jumps on you everything changes almost like a car accident. The world may slow down but not enough to save you because the second act in this salvo is a bite to the neck, the last hickie, and then she drags you off to share her pride in catching you. As a consequence we were warned not to walk around late at night by ourselves; two of these beautiful beasts had been spotted that very week. One night I met one of our party running, breathless at night,
“Wait,” I told him, “doesn’t running only bring more attention to you, wouldn’t it be better to walk quietly if you were scared of the cats”
“I know running isn’t the best option but it makes me feel better and sometimes it’s not about what it really does but about how it makes you feel.”
I was excited about the next morning because it was game drive day. Earlier that day some of the people we went with woke up in an attempt to see the sunrise. The sunrise in these parts can be a thing of beauty. On its way out the sun will touch off colours in the sky. Pinks and reds, flamingos and flames will shoot across the horizon and then majestically it will rise over the lake slowly lumbering, wiping the sleep from its red eye as finally it finds it spot and its purpose in lighting up the world. They were excited about the sun rise; they dutifully woke up and went to wait in the cold for it. They waited in the still dark of the night with only the chirping of insects for company. They waited as this slowly turned to the magnificent clash of colours over the lake. They saw the colours dance and change. And still they waited. Then they went to sleep. They hadn’t actually seen the sun rise. They had woken up for it, they had braved cold, sleep and insects for it, they had seen the preamble but couldn’t await the main event.
In contrast the game drive would be full of main events. I had never been on one in my life. Two reasons for this, the first is the crippling cost attached to such endeavours. They are priced so high that only very few Kenyans can afford to go on them, there are however modestly priced ones like the one we were going on and the reason I had never gone on one like this was because of my lack of interest in animals. I had never understood the touristic fascination with wild animals. With zebras and giraffes, with ostrich and snakes. I always considered that I was too enamoured of words to be blown away by something that did not take them into consideration. I was however willing to try this one and am glad I did.
We drove along and were shown the various animals, to your left is a … to your right a… and right there another… A zebra passed in front of our bus and I thought, don’t we have to stop for a zebra crossing. Then we came to a view point. A popular haunt for baboons am not sure which. Our bus came to stop alongside a male and a female baboon and the warden asked us not to leave the bus with any food or drink. The female had sat behind the male and was pleasuring it with its hands (hand job!) the male sat there looking red and angry, not an expression crossed his stern face(something else was red and angry you see). We embarked and they scattered off. A few moments later like it realised it had some unfinished business to attend to the male baboon jumped on top of the female. It’s phallus ready for action, quickly it found what it was looking for and one, two, three. In the time it took you to read that it was done. What I said about the baboons timeless finishing probably has nothing to do with what happened next but serves as a form of poetic instruction in keeping our mouth shut.
I was swirling a packet of yoghurt in my hand as I watched this display of baboonliness, I had barely time for a sip before it was over and I went on to make fun of the baboon’s prowess within its earshot. I talked about how this performance made me feel better about my personal best (see how I said best leaving room for it not to be a complete mockery of the animal’s abilities.) I went on in this vein longer than the baboon went on in the other. Then walked to the edge of the cliff. There is a railing there that baboons like to walk on but there were large crowds of tourists gathering along it so I joined them. Then the baboon from before came into view. He walked along the metal ledge engaging in the balancing it’s species are known for and it looked at me. It looked right at me and I couldn’t look away because even in this moment you feel sure the animal hasn’t marked you out. It stalked along the edge, the whole time its eyes on me and then it left the ledge and began bounding towards my position. Maybe the eyes of the baboon lock you in place because for moments I did not move. When finally I began to the crowd around me had dispersed. Everyone ran for dear life before I even realised there was anything we should be scared of. Most people have a fight or flight mechanism that kicks in at this time but I have always given an extra F so I have a fight, flight or fall mechanism. There was no time to turn around and run all I could do was backtrack and so I did and very promptly I fell down. Now I find myself on my elbows and this baboon is still coming toward me. It felt like a lot of time had passed when probably none had. All I knew was that no one had offered a word of encouragement. The wardens were consciously absent and there I was on my back, my packet of yoghurt still in my hands as I began to backpedal on my elbows scratching them on rock, thistle and thorn until the baboon left me alone. Only then was I told that I should definitely have left the yoghurt in the bus.