My favorite animal is the giraffe. They can grow as tall as 20 feet. They eat leaves off the tops of trees, where no other animal can reach. If Africa were a supermarket, giraffes could reach the air conditioner filters on the top shelf. Giraffes are beautiful, tall and sleek, graceful and aloof. They’re above it all. The driver pointed to a shape in the distance and said it was a giraffe. It looked like a tree to me. We drove toward it, and sure enough, a giraffe. It’s hard to blend in when you’re 20 feet tall.
The lion, Simba in Swahili, is the national symbol of Kenya and clearly the King of the Jungle. There aren’t too many Broadway plays about warthogs. Warthog is such an unfortunate name for an animal. The name is ugly coming and going. Wart … hog. But while the lion sells theater tickets, the baddest dude in Africa really is a bull elephant. “Nobody, not even Simba, messes with an elephant,” Kennedy said. By the way, the warthog is a lovable creature. They’re scaredy-cats, though. They are one of the few animals that run when they see a Land Rover coming.
Sitting around a campfire at Ngerende Island Lodge, Kennedy explained how animals are predators and every animal is constantly nervous for its safety. I asked him, of the hundreds of different animals we saw that week, not counting newborns, how many could I beat up? He said maybe a gazelle, “if you caught it from behind.” Think, what are my chances of catching a gazelle from behind? They’re not called gazelles because a newspaper guy from Texas can chase them down.
There was a small moment, a gesture, that left its mark on me. During a game drive, Kennedy stopped the Land Rover, walked about 50 feet, picked up a stray paper cup, and put it in his pocket. He got back in and never said a word. Kenyans, especially those in the tourist trade, respect nature. Pretty neat.
Kennedy taught me a few Swahili words. “Jambo” is “hello.” “Hatari” means “danger.” You might want to say “asante” when somebody helps you. The locals appreciate that. It means “thank you.” And for dealing with roadside souvenir salespeople, absolutely say “duka,” which means “Can I have a discount?” Whatever the salesman asks for a carved elephant, you come back with half that amount. Then you start dickering.
Ngerende Island Lodge in Masai Mara is an incredible, over-the-top, luxury resort. Outside the main gate, a group of young Masai men welcomed us with a dance. One by one, they took turns jumping. They had some serious ups. A Masai teenager can impress a girl by jumping higher than the other guys. Since Masai are allowed to have many wives, jumping is important. They wore traditional Masai clothes, a red cloth wrapped around their torso and over one shoulder. I noticed one of the dancers wearing a belt. I looked closer. It said “Obama U.S.A.” President Obama’s father was from Kenya.
My cottage had three enclosed sides. The side overlooking the Mara River was open. Down below were hippos, sitting in water all day. At night, they’d leave for a few hours and search for food. But all day, I heard the hippos burping and splashing. I got used to it. They’re funny looking. And, I’m told, mean.