On the darkest of nights, little before midnight, a rusty white old van in a cloud of dust stopped in front of a camp, somewhere in Amboseli National Park. A light was lit, a door opened and three Maasai young men came out with sleepy faces. One man and 5 women stepped off the white van, dusting off their clothes with slow tired gestures. Richard, our driver, three Chinese young women, a Spanish woman and myself. Our unplanned night safari was over and so was our last drop of energy. We made it to the camp and we were all safe. We briefly saluted our new hosts and then let silence fill back the space. Miriam, the Spanish woman and I followed one of the men and his light on a small alley drawn on the ground by of stones painted in white, among lines of dark large tents. It was a deep dark.
Since all around I couldn’t see anything, I looked up, with no expectation. I stopped. From one side to the other of the sky, a thick white line was cutting the dark in two like a rainbow of stars. The Milky Way itself in its complete beauty, the way I could never even imagine it.
The Maasai Village
5am, Maasai Mara.
Kenya was turning even myself into a morning person. For the best of reasons: that morning we went to visit our neighbours in the Maasai village nearby the camp. As I walked the dusty road in that chilly morning (yes, mornings in Africa are damn cold), I saw through the rays of the early sun three young women, covered in red shuka cloth, the “African blanket”, carrying on their heads large plastic barrels.
– They are lucky in this village, the river is just 2km away, don’t have to carry water for long distance, the guy leading us said. I continued to watch those women until they became smaller and smaller.
My unnecessary long warm shower in the camp the evening before felt like a waste I now felt ashamed of, while the low pressure water suddenly seemed a luxury. Just a few steps away from the village, our “urban” morning routines seemed here, in the savannah, bad habits from a different world, a world of too much waste.
I always knew water is precious. I read about it, watched tv about it. But never actually faced this reality.
Once at the gate, the welcoming ritual was performed by a group of men, singing and jumping high off the ground with their tall and slender silhouettes wrapped in traditional red blankets. The higher the jump, the better the prestige of the performer, we were told. After this we became their guests and we were invited inside. Small houses made of clay were built on the ground, all in the same shape, with round corners and tiny windows.
– We only stay in one place like this for 5 years. This is how long the termites need to destroy the houses. Then we move some other place and build another village like this from the ground. Women are the ones that build the houses…
Every one of us was after invited to enter the houses. I went alone and was privileged to have the son of the tribe’s chief as my host. I followed him through a small opening serving as an entrance, lowering my head to fit it. For the next few seconds I couldn’t see anything. It was completely dark inside. I followed his voice in the dark until I saw a glimpse of light in front. It was a fire made on the ground, in the middle of a room. A woman was busy cleaning a few pots gathered around that fire. She remained silent as we took a sit down, on small wooden chairs. I now started to see better around but the heavy smoke inside made it difficult to breathe and my eyes were hurting. I struggled to keep this for me and be a polite guest. The young woman seemed disturbed by my visit. I would have been the same in her place.
My host started talking, presenting the house, offering information about the way they live. I felt he was somehow uncomfortable with this situation of having a stranger curious about his way of living. For the money that the tourists bring, the locals have to perform this show but this doesn’t meat they feel comfortable doing it.
The woman remained quiet, ignoring my presence. I was feeling uncomfortable with this situation as well, while I was still struggling with that smoke.
– ….and the cow we keep it here… he smiled hesitant and showed me the door in the back.
– So we have fresh milk every morning, this is our fridge, he joked with a shy smile.
– Hmm, like my grandma, I said. My remark made him stop and look back with surprise. Suddenly we reached a common ground and we didn’t felt so different anymore.
I told him how my grandparents lived back in the days, having seven kids and keeping animals in the stable build close to the house. Next we spoke about how people process milk, conserve the meat without freezing it or use plants for medical purposes. We both knew that mint was good for stomach pains and we laughed abut this. It was interesting to exchange these information. His voice became different, relaxed and he was smiling.
I asked about the Maasai tradition involving men that turn 18 years old and need to have their initiation in life: they leave the community and go live for 3 years in the wild. They learn how to stay alive in the savannah and most of all to respect the greatest teacher: nature. The final exam is to hunt a lion and is performed the Maasai way, not waiting like a coward with a gun in a jeep to shoot the animal in the back, from a long distance. The skin of the lion is then part of the ceremony back in the village.
An ancient tradition that is rarely kept nowadays, after the cowards with guns have succeeded to reduce the lions population too close to extinction.
So the Maasai are finding themselves forced to adapt to the new reality.
I completely forgot about the smoke and the pain in my eyes and when we finally came out of the house, laughing and chatting, my Spanish friends from the camp looked fully surprised and as soon as we left the village they were curious to find out more about my visit inside the house.
-I want to offer you something special. It’s a good price, my host said, taking me aside, before leaving the village.
– Is it a…
– A lion fang, yes…
– You want to see me behind bars? I joked, with the beautiful piece in my hand. I knew that in Kenya, wearing, owning, buying or selling any piece of wildlife material is is strongly prohibited and punished. – Look, this is fantastic but I can’t have it, it belongs to only one owner – the lion. But thank you, I’m deeply honoured.
In reality I was shocked…
Before leaving the village, the Maasai taught us their main survival skill: how to make fire in the wild out of 2 pieces of wood and a little dry grass. Rubbing the dry wood until the ash comes out and then blow it on the dry grass till fire is born seemed easy but I know looking is not equal to doing and my chances of surviving in the wild are below 0.
– It’s marketing…
Richard, our driver and guide cut down my enthusiasm about the lion’s fang necklace. Maybe he was right. But one thing that I know for sure is that any other necklace bone I saw after, during the trip to Kenya, and I’ve seen many in a lot of places, didn’t even got closer to the one I hold in my hand in that village.
– Maybe, just marketing… I answered him, playing with the new copper bracelet on my hand and the new camel bone necklace on my neck. Souvenirs from the tribe’s chief son.
The Maasai market
In an improvised flea market outside the village, a bunch of women were selling hand made crafts: Maasai jewelries, small wooden sculptures and Maasai war masks. I bought a mask and two Maasai warriors chopped in ebony wood and painted in red and white. They will always remember me of the two unreal silhouettes of the Maasai warriors I first saw when we entered Maasai Mara, in the first day. Like two guardians of the wild, an unforgettable fantastic image!
The last time I touched the ground of Maara was in an improvised market. A few Maasai women were trying to sell their products to the tourists in the cars stopped in front of a gate, before exit. I liked a red bracelet and tried to negotiate the price…
– You are killing mama Maasai! the lady said. She was wearing all the colours of the world plus a beautiful smile. Who could resist such a seller. I left the car to see more of her products. I left with the red bracelet on my hand, bought for the priced she asked, waving my hand from the window as our van was leaving.
– The road took us through the Massai people territories, guarded by gates and barriers that opened each time Richard was paying a small tribute for our passing. And there were many of these on that dusty road crossing the savannah.
We drove for hours through the savannah until we finally reached the paved road again. We left behind all the wonders of Mara, its fantastic Maasai warriors, our tents in the camp, the village and all the wildlife and dreamy landscapes that not even dreams could project.
Maara is truly, madly, deeply unforgettable.
We’ve been driving since forever. The whole day…
The group in the van changed on the way, the American couple stayed in Maara for a day more, we said a long goodbye that morning as they were continuing their 7 months trip to Africa and after to Asia. Together with the Spanish couple and the two Chinese girls we were heading to Naivasha. On the way Martina joined us, a Swiss girl that has been working as a volunteer in Uganda for the last three years with an NGO involved in offering protection to abused children, from sex trafficking, child marriage, violence and even slavery.
At first she was silent. But with a Catalan guy and a Venezuelan woman in the van, no one can stay silent for too long. Marina started soon talking and just minutes after she had all of us silenced. She told us about what she saw in the last three years in Africa, about the kids in the centre, the terrible abuse cases, about Congo, the rebels there and the lava lake, the mountain gorillas in Uganda… We were charmed. This 20 smith years old woman has seen a lot, more than many in a lifetime.
– Ahhhhhaaahhhh, Ahhhhh, Ahhhhhhh
We heard out of the blue this scream that brought us all back to reality from the world where Marina’s stories have taken us for the last hours.
I was looking on the window and saw the pink line somewhere in front, far away, by the shores what seemed to be a large lake, but I didn’t realised what it was until I heard the same Chinese girl as loud as she could:
After all that we’ve seen together the last days, lions, leopard, giraffes, elephants, all the incredible wildlife and the views that made us express in all ways from tears to laughs or exclamations, in all that time the Chinese girls were quite reserved in reactions, as if they did safari their entire lives. In fact all of us in the group were first timers.
Well, this time Kenya had got them truly! They were going completely nuts seeing all that pink! We all turned back to them in surprise and the next second an explosion of laughs followed.
Truth is, we were now getting closer to the wide beach and understood what provoked their exuberant and hilarious reaction: all was pink in front of us. Thousands and thousands of pink flamingos were colouring the shores of Lake Naivasha in pink! A spectacular sight!
We all jumped off of the van as soon as we reached the beach. We tried to get closer but they seemed determined to maintain the distance. And then, something incredible happened: a few flamingos opened their wings and flew off, cutting the air meters above the shore. In a perfect synchronising, they were joined soon by hundreds of others until the point where whole sky turned pink and the sound of their beating wings replaced the silence.
In the sunset light this was a view to remember!
I was the last to leave the beach and brought with me incredible photos and the promise to share them with the rest of the group after. I was wearing pink flamingo feathers earrings bought from a seller on the beach. I felt nothing but pure happiness.
We spent the night in Naivasha, in a hotel. After sleeping in a tent for so many nights, a hotel room seemed like a long forgotten comfort from another life.
Safari in Niavasha
We completed the famous BIG 5 during that morning safari in Naivasha park. The missing one was the rhino, after we’ve already seen in Maara lion, lepard, water buffalo and elephant. The feeling was of the purest happiness.
We then took a boat ride, saw hipos from very close, quite too close at one point where about ten of them started pop up at the surface and our guide made a sudden manoeuvre to get us far from there fast. They are not necessarily violent but getting too close to them drivers them mad and if so, yes, they have what they need to kill a human with little effort if they want so.
After a few tries in vain to tempt an eagle that was too full for that day for another easy meal, he finally offered the much desired show: left its brunch and cut the air in high speed to catch the fish thrown by our guide.
– Maybe he couldn’t see the fish we threw…was my silly conclusion coming from a too tired brain
– He’s an eagle…
Olga and I started laughing loud in the boat at her very correct remark. After the Spanish couple and Marina left the group that morning, Olga, a Russian woman that I’ve already seen around in the camp in Maara, joined us, as her trip plan through Kenya was at that point the same as mine. She was living in Chicago after graduating in US and was initially traveling with her brother and his wife and kids in Kenya. After the safari in Maara, she left them and was heading back to Nairobi. On her way she was sent by the tours agency to our group.
We started talking and got close during that day. I found out that she has joined the American couple in their extra safari day in Maara. That day they went again to the river in Maara, the place were the great migration crossings happen and they saw a crossing that very day. Hundreds of wildebeests rushed out of the blue towards the muddy waters. It was a life and death battle as crocodiles are waiting there a whole year for the feast. I saw the photos she took, the event I too wanted so badly to whiteness. But no wildebeest was willing to die when I was there.
Amboseli Park and the night safari
My eyelids were heavy, my mind filled with images of safari, lakes, flamingoes, too dusty roads, colourful dressed people in front of colourful stores, endless roads, crowded markets… And everywhere the red soil of mama Africa. From our initial group the only ones left were the two Chinese girls with whom I wasn’t talking much anyway. The trip through Kenya was continuing towards Amboseli.
Another Chinese young woman, a teacher, traveling alone and a Spanish woman, Miriam, also traveling alone before her 3 weeks of volunteering in an orphanage in Kenya, have joined us. We were now 5 women, 3 of us solo travellers. I wasn’t in a friendly mode anymore, I felt like I had enough new friends for the last days. The two women were just starting their trip to Kenya and were excited to have their first safari in Amboseli. I realised how lucky I was to have joined such a cool group from day one: all pretty close as age, coming from different countries but all had travelled to enough places to have nice stories to tell and most important: all coming to fulfil a lifetime dream: the first safari in Africa. So we shared all the happiness, intensity and excitement of each moment. And this truly made the trip more exciting for everyone.
We made a stop in a small town where Richard, our driver had something to do. A few kids were playing around and as we waited, I had the idea to call two of them and give them some candies. I had a one kg bag of caramel candies that I had in mind to share with some kids at one point, as a friendly gesture. The next second I found myself pushed agains the van by a tsunami of small bodies and a sea of little hands grabbing my hands in a me, me, me, me, me noise that immediately attracted all eyes around. I tried to organise them, to give an equal number of candies to each, but i was fulling myself. They calmed down when the last candy I had was in the hands of one of them. I wished I had 10 kg more candies… With cute candid smiles and mouths full, next second they spread all around, continuing their play from where they left it.
The Chinese teacher was apparently inspired by this and she went to buy something from a store nearby. For my surprise, minutes later, she came back with a big bag full of pens.
– Didn’t they have candies?
– Yes, but I want to give them something they useful for school.
I smiled and wanted to see where this goes… She waves the kids that rushed again towards the van, ready for another round of candies. Her authoritarian air stopped them from repeating the episode they had with me. After a well prepared and full of motivation two minutes speech about the importance of education and the benefits of a pen in the life of a student, she starts sharing a pen to every kid. Well this time the interest was that low that some of them didn’t even wanted the pen and those that did took it were having long disappointed faces.
– Now you can also make drawings if you want, she tried to advertise the pens to the kids that were already leaving.
A few hours later, on the road, I realised that my cooper bracelet bought from the village, from the chief’s son, was gone. This made me sad and I remained silent for the rest of the drive.
Small towns, villages, markets, the live colourful movie of Kenya was developing on the screen of my window. In a small town we made a stop and I got off the van to stretch my legs a bit. I bought the most perfect mangos from a lady. I could feel their delicious scent from the stall. I had in mind to eat them in the camp, once we arrive in Amboseli.
I was amused when the Chinese girls, after all those days when they had separate food from the rest of us, prepared for them only and never touched the food or fruits we had served at the points where we stopped on the way for lunch, this time they totally broke the no 1 rule of food safety when traveling: “if you can’t peel it, don’t eat it” and they bought from a vendor on the street two packs of assorted fresh pre-cut fruits. I then was waiting for them to ask Richard to pull over so they can run into a bush… it didn’t happen.
After hours and hours of driving when we all couldn’t wait to finally reach the camp, we stopped. The road was blocked by a long line of vehicles. After about 30min we realised no wheel has moved so something was going on. The cause of all this was far away, in the front, but no one knew what it was, not even the local kids that came to see why so many cars were blocked on the road. The sunset signalled that the last hour of daylight was going to end soon. We were blocked. From one person to the other the information finally reached us: the Maasai tribes that were owning that land had a dispute with the authorities and in conclusion they blocked the road. Police came and a rock fight started. I saw Richard was becoming worried and keep talking to other drivers. Some cars were turning back.
As the last rays of sun were disappearing behind the horizon, Richard came to us and said we’re going to follow another road, through the savannah since we were not far from the camp. We left the road and minutes later the road was gone behind our van in a cloud of dust. The bonus safari at sunset made us very happy. For Miriam it was a first and she got very exited to see the first wildebeest.
– You’ll see thousands, I said and the Chinese girls and I started laughing.
We drove by groups of wildebeests, impala, zebras. The night was conquering the day and soon all I could see were little lights disappearing in the dark: the eyes of different animals.
We were driving for an hour already. Sometimes I could see in the lights of the van, in the front, groups of wildebeests or zebras turning heads and looking at the van surprised as if they were saying: what the hell you do here at night? We didn’t knew either… Richard was driving fast and was very silent. Every few minutes the van was jumping in the air and landing back. I had to use both hands to hold myself and avoid being thrown and get hurt. My hands were so tight it hurt. I couldn’t see it but I smell dust. Tones of dust, the whole dust in the world. I feared that we got lost and had no freaking idea where we were. No one was saying anything and the Chinese girls have stopped asking questions long ago.
The night was so black and the sky was turned into a curtain of stars. I didn’t know which feeling was stronger, fatigue or worry or both in a hard to bare mix. I was waiting for the moment when the van will either break in two or crush in the middle of no where since there was no road around, not even upon savannah standards.
Out of the dark a gate appeared in front. Upon it I could read Amboseli. Richard got off the van and I saw a light cutting the dark and then a small window. Richard talked to the man for a minute. The gate opened, we entered and after who knows how many minutes we reached another gate, the one to the camp. Our mighty van bit the dusty road and the breaks hold in still, finally. When the tones of dust in the air around started to lay back to the ground, I saw a light was lit, a door opened and three Maasai young men came out with sleepy faces. Richard opened the door for me and the 5 of us stepped off the white van, dusting off our clothes with slow tired gestures. The night safari was over! When I saw Richard I was shocked: his face was now all read not black, his t-shirt all wet and lines of sweat were pouring down its face. I then understood how worry he was not for us but only for our safety. But he got back his smile and we joked about our adventurous night safari. We thanked him. We’ve reached Amboseli safe and I was relieved, even though my Maasai mask arrived broken in two and the mangos I bought from that nice lady were turned into mashed mangos and ruined.
I shared the tent with Miriam since the last thing I would have been able to do at that point, after that day and that evening, was sleeping alone. That’s the last memory of that night:
– Miriam, I think we have mice inside the tent….
– Yes, there’s mice shit everywhere…
– Do you think mice can climb up the bed?
– In the bed… no, they can’t.
– Ok. Good then.
And I feel asleep feeling safe.
P.S. It’s been a year and three months since I wrote here… I feelt like couldn’t do it anymore in all this time. A lot has happened. With every day of this last two years we all got more and more far away from what we used to call normality before March 2020. Too many “it can’t be” from the past defines the present reality. The only constant and anchor that remains is nature. The healer, the comfort, the hope.
With the Spanish couple, Miriam and Martina I’m still in contact, as Instagram friends. I was in contact with Olga as well, until last week when I saw she unfollowed me on Instagram. Probably due to my anti war in Ukraine stories. Though she was also posting same thing, it seems it was just pretending. I unliked her posts and blocked her account.
The next morning, opening the tent to this: Killimanjaro, before the last day of Kenyan safari. This time: Amboseli
Next: safari on land in Amboseli and safari on the Indian Ocean, Diani Beach