Jul 08

Staying at Sarara

by in Africa, Kenya

The last stop on our safari journey was Sarara, a gorgeous lodge tucked away in the heart of the Matthews Range north of Mount Kenya.  We had six full nights here, plenty of time to view the abundant wildlife and to learn about the Samburu people to whom these lands belong.  The camp is the only establishment within almost one million acres; to say it is remote is an understatement.

We were warmly welcomed by our hosts Katie and Jeremy, and their dog Saiwa, and then led to our home-away-from home.  It was a beautiful cottage set apart from the lodge and other guest tents.  It took me a few moments to register that it had absolutely no walls; it was completely open to the great outdoors and all that lives there.  I tried to seem nonchalant as I casually enquired if anything ever made its way inside.  “Nothing much beyond the occasional rock hyrax and fruit bat,” apologized our hosts.  They sounded genuinely sorry that nothing larger or more interesting could be promised.   However, they rapidly assured us that we had a very good chance of spotting dik diks (the tiniest species of antelope), elephants, and the occasional African buffalo on the front lawn.

The front lawn was close enough, thank you very much.

So, I should not have been surprised when three nights later Russ woke me with a start:  “Do you hear that?” he whispered.   I sure did.  It sounded as if someone—or something—were ripping up great swaths of grass and then chomping in my ear.  I swear I could distinctly hear each and every grind of tooth upon blade, but then again, I’ve always had a super-sensitive ear when it comes to rude mouth noises.  “What do you think it is?” I asked, sitting up and squinting into the ink-black night. “It’s eating grass; that means it’s an herbivore, right?”  He wasn’t sure what it was but decided to find a light switch to investigate further.  He made his way out from under the mosquito net canopy and stumbled into the bathroom.  By the time he flipped the switch, the noise—and the creature that made it—were gone.  We decided it must have been a buffalo.  The tracks we saw the next morning confirmed our hunch.

    

Yet those tracks were nothing compared to the ones we saw just two days later.  Mark, our fantastic guide, came excitedly toward the house:  “Did you see?  Did you see?”  We had no idea what he was talking about.  It was barely 7:00 am and we had not had our first cup of coffee yet.  As I poured the mugs, he expounded:  “The leopard came right through the house, look!”  I nearly dropped the pot.  “What did you just say?”  “The leopard prints, look, they are very clear.  They come right up the path, turn here into the house, where it must have crossed, and then they pick up again here outside the kids’ room.”  At his last words I darted into the kids’ room to be sure they were still indeed there and intact.  They were.  “Seriously?!” we asked.  “It just came right in?!”  I was incredulous and slightly indignant.  Mark just smiled.  “The leopard will never, never, ever bother a human unless it is provoked.  You were not in danger.”  “Well, that’s a relief,” I said as I gave him a wobbly smile. 

As if that close encounter with the natural world were not enough, Jeremy and Katie encouraged us to camp out one night.  “I’m not much of a camper,” I confessed.  No problem, they assured us, every detail would be taken care of; all we needed was a sense of adventure.  Ooooh—kaaaaay, we said.  We’d give it a try.  What was the worst that could happen?

We tried not to answer that question as we left for the Great Outdoors.  We drove for about an hour, spotting elephant, giraffe, antelope, and dik diks all along the way.  Then Mark proposed we get out and walk the last little stretch.  Justin, the park ranger assigned to us, was armed and would escort us and it wasn’t really very far to the camp site.  Mind you, it was now dusk—the precise time when predators emerge and everything else goes into hiding.  All of my senses were tingling as we hopped out of the Rover and began to stroll down the middle of the empty riverbed.  Just two nights earlier we had seen a leopard walking this precise path.  Were we crazy?

    

 I thought so until we rounded the bend and I could make out a blazing fire and half a dozen figures.  Camp had been set up and it was stunning.  Robert was there to greet us with his huge signature smile and a glass of wine.  We investigated our “rooms” for the night:  three transparent pup tents stood on tarpaulins with side tables and little wash basins on campaign stands.  This was so cool—you could actually see through the tent, which meant that the constellations were never going to look better.

We pulled our chairs close to the fire and began to chat with Mark and Robert while we waited for dinner.  Mark, the older of the two, was an Elder while Robert held the position of Warrior.  For the Samburu, these social roles hold clear and crucial meaning:  the elders are older and wiser and help to guide and govern the village, the warriors’ sole job is to protect it.  Both men are extremely knowledgeable, fluent in English, and kind, kind, kind to our family.  We asked them, “So, are there any special traditions around birth and death for the Samburu?”  And that single question led to more than an hour of conversation and more learning than we could ever have dreamt:  there we were sitting around the fire, shadows of the flames flickering over our faces, as Mark drew images in the sand with a stick—illustrating his explanations of the traditions of his ancestors precisely the way his ancestors always had.  We learned about sacred rituals and age-old beliefs, and then ate a fabulous dinner.  We fell asleep under the stars listening to the sounds of hyena and monkey howling.  I made a mental note to thank Jeremy and Katie profusely for one of the most magical evenings of all our 365.


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