Day Two: Tuesday 1 March 2016
At 6.00am this morning, one of the Masai night guards called out my name in the darkness and I woke up in what is technically a tent, although it sits on a stilted wooden platform under a thatched roof, has a double-bed, an en suite bathroom, and a terrace overlooking the river. Eco-friendly comfort, I thought. I’m glad it’s not one of those 5 Star Luxury Lodges I’d seen from the air.
Steve the guide had suggested an early morning game drive today, so I got out of bed – just as a small frog dropped from somewhere onto the pillow – and got dressed by the light of the kerosene lamp on the terrace, shining in through the mesh windows. I crossed the rickety footbridge over the river and climbed into Steve’s battered Toyota Landcruiser.
“Is there anything you especially want to see?” he asked.
“I don’t mind,” I said. “Whatever you like, it’s all amazing.”
So I sat beside Steve for two hours while he drove slowly, following some internal compass that I could not fathom, along tracks and through grassland and scrub, pointing out animals in the distance and occasionally stopping to admire the view.
At about 8.30, the radio crackled into life and there was an animated (and to me incomprehensible) conversation in Swahili. Steve replaced the handset and the Toyota picked up speed. He turned to me and said one word: “Simba.” He drove with immense skill, cutting a swathe through tall grass, weaving between potholes, and crossing deep gullies, until we came to a ditch, lush with grass and bushy trees. He drove very slowly along the line of the ditch and then stopped.
How my unaccustomed, nearly colour blind eyes saw it, I don’t know. A sinuous flash of tawny fur almost invisible among the undergrowth, about five metres away. It was a mature male lion, retreating deeper into the bushes. Steve reversed the Toyota to give us a better line of sight.
The male now lay beside a female, half-hidden in the shadows. I stared open-mouthed. My heart beat faster. Such immense dignity and power. They looked back at us with unswerving gaze, each of us holding the other rooted to the spot. It would have taken very little effort and even less time for them to have attacked. “They seem very calm,” I whispered to Steve.
“Yes,” he said. “But we shouldn’t stay long. I know this pride, there’ll be more of them close by.” He started the engine and drove forward 10 metres. “There,” he said. “Another female.” A lioness poked her head above the ditch very close to the side of the vehicle. “The cubs will be nearby,” he said, turning off the engine again.
As he spoke, a fluffy spotted cub climbed out of the far side of the ditch. The lioness turned and followed, as if to keep a close eye on her offspring. We watched them disappear, as they merged into the background. We waited respectfully for a few moments then drove back to Basecamp for breakfast.
Just me, Steve and Godoi (one of the Masai night guards who had come along for the ride) in an open-sided vehicle, so close to a pride of healthy lions that we might almost have reached out and touched them. It was magical, thrilling and an initiation of sorts into the way of the wild.
Those lions exist in this landscape, I thought, because we humans have managed, for the time being, not to destroy it. We were privileged to be present with them for those few minutes because they permitted us to be there. Not such a bad arrangement.
If Steve asks me tomorrow if there’s anything I especially want to see, I shall say again, “I don’t mind. It’s all amazing.”
And I’ll mean it.