As our plane landed in the middle of the Serengeti, I wasn’t having the best of days. I was recovering from a bottle of Swiss Kirsch which I’d acquired at the Zurich duty free and finished off while talking Kenyan politics late into the night with a few Masai at the Emakoko Lodge in Nairobi National Park. I know nothing about Kenyan politics, but as it turns out, Swiss Kirsch makes me think that I do. So after the Kirsch and a spontaneous dip in the pool that the lodge owner had to call extra guards out for to ensure we did not share it with cape buffalo, I finally made my way off to bed – ready to capture a few hours rest before heading to the Serengeti.
Karen Blixen described this part of Africa as “distilled.” It’s the earth left to its most primordial roots. The trees are hardy, the water scarce and the animals all adapted to fight for their existence in a place where if they couldn’t or didn’t they were doomed to extinction. As our car bumped over the dirt roads mile after mile towards the southern tip of Serengeti, we passed everything that I came to know in my childhood as near mythological creatures that one only saw at a zoo: zebra became commonplace; the antelope were as numerous as the stars; ostrich, buffalo and the endless rolling hills of grass took us into a world which reminded me of those paintings on the back of the wild cat exhibits…. but here we were.
But then there were the lions. After a few hours of driving, we came upon a rock… Not a particularly impressive rock…. But this rock had lion resting on it. Nothing really prepares you to see a lion in the wild. Of course I’d seen them in a zoo. Lethargic, confined, looking out and yawning at all the visitors. But not this lion. He was an apex predator and you could see in his eyes that he knew it. He was proud… unafraid… the master of his domain. And it made me never want to see a lion in another place. We all stared transfixed at this first lion for several minutes. You in a way become more aware of your humanity when looking at a lion like this. Knowing you are no longer in control as you are in a zoo, or in the safety of your home. Of course we had cars – but they were open, and if for some reason this lion decided he’d like to have a go at one of us, I’d imagine he could have inflicted a fair bit of damage before we could make our escape. But this is the world to which we got accustomed if only for a few short days.
That night after we’d got to camp we were not too far off from this rock. And as it turns out even though we arrived near sundown with enough time to set our things down and enjoy the luxuries of camp life, we shared the valley with a group of lions who were hungry and very interested in a kill it seemed. At 2:05 AM that night (I know because I remember thinking that if this was the night that I was going to die, I may as well know what time that it was going to happen), I began to hear lions roaring not 50 yards from my tent. Hemingway, in his typical unvarnished and slightly crude manner, described the experience this way:
“You cannot describe a wild lion’s roar. You can only say that you listened and the lion roared. It is not at all like the noise the lion makes at the start of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures. When you hear it you at first feel it in your scrotum and it runs all the way up through your body”
To that, ill just say… yup. But I won’t be overdramatic here… these lions were not interested in a large canvas mass containing something which would have provided not even a days food if they were lucky enough to navigate the zippers and canvas and blowhorns which I would have frantically set off.. they were after cape buffalo… fat, vulnerable and worth a weeks hunting for an entire pride.
The lions did not make their kill that night, and the next morning we set out early to find them. Sure enough not more than a couple minutes drive from camp we were among them. Us still rubbing our eyes and barely awake, they just settling down for the day after a night of activity and being on the hunt. We watched as they walked just feet from the car, very uninterested in us, just going about their business as if we were not even there. I can remember thinking how terrifying it would have been to spend a night alone in the Serengeti. How everything blends to its surroundings and even when on your guard it would take just seconds to be overcome by this or that cat, hyena, Cape buffalo, (fill in the blank). But these lions owned the night. It was clear they weren’t scared of anything, and to be in their presence made all of the stereotypes and sayings about them make sense (fought like a lion, such-and-such the lionheart, the lion and the lamb, etc… )
It was fitting that we’d come on safari and to have this encounter be one of our firsts. It is of course, the most stereotypical and impressive beast one expects to find in the African plains… but over the coming days a bigger story began to come together, and I’d come to see that though impressive, he was just one small part of Serengeti.