Waiting for Leopards to Wake - John Robshaw Textiles
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11.10.2017 / Travel

Waiting for Leopards to Wake

One does not travel any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one's life.

- Evelyn Waugh


My Kenyan safari starts in Nairobi. Don’t miss the house of Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame, a modest bungalow surrounded by unruly gardens. Some of the clothes worn in the movie are on display and will help you get into the spirit of a safari.  

From Nairobi a small plane takes us to a dirt runway close to the camp. A pal recommended this place, called “Cottars,” set up by a feisty American in the 1920’s. I especially like that the camp operates in cooperation with the Masai tribes that own the land. In other parts of Kenya you might end up in a whole area full of camps and find yourself in a jeep surrounded by eight other jeeps, all staring at a single yawning lion. Our guide is a jovial Masai named Enoch. His tricked out Toyota Land cruiser has raised seats and a brief canvas roof so nothing obstructs your view of the animals. Of course the animals can also view you, which can be a bit unnerving at times.

We are on our way next morning at a brisk 5:30 am. A spotter pokes his binoculars through the roof of the jeep, looking for game. I have my own binoculars (highly recommended) but the spotter can tell that a small moving speck way off in the distance is a group of hyenas. I thought it was dust on my lenses.

We are instructed to walk single file, wear no bright colors or make any quick movements. Always watch the guide: he will tell you what to do if the situation gets sticky. Safaris mix the element of danger with heavy pampering by experienced guides. Lunches are set up in the park with near white glove service. Beyond infinite blue skies, the brush spreads over the red earth framed by mountains all around us.  The guide named Mara proudly points out the alternating grasslands and thickets, all part of the Masai reserve, 1500 km total.

The soft breezes and late afternoon sun relax us but the fearsome thorn bushes scare us awake.  Sand castle sized termite mounds surround perfectly flat-topped acacia trees, round nests of weaver birds hanging decoratively from their branches.

We spot rhinos, giraffes looking like moving streetlights, Thompson gazelle, Impala, wildebeests, vultures, elephants in the soft sandy earth. We watch mesmerized as two cheetahs hunt a baby zebra closely guarded by its mother. The cheetahs patiently wait for the baby to graze far enough away from the mother to catch it. Luckily the cheetah's’ sprint for dinner ends with a only few swift kicks from the mother zebra.

The guide explains more about how to stay out of the animals way—-now I am really paying attention: stay downwind of the animals so they can’t find you; elephants will chase you and step on you if they smell you; rhinos climb trees; fast jaguars will eat your brain first, but don’t worry about the hyenas, they are cowards.  

Our smiling guide breaks off into stories of his youth, camped out on the plains when his sleeping friend kicked a lion thinking it was a stray dog. Half the fun is just hanging out with the Masai, who elegantly straddle their tribal world and the worlds of modern Africa and of tourists from all over. We get glimpses of a disappearing way of life and they make their livelihood by preserving parts of it.

The day's end at the camp where waiters serve curries and other English favorites. As soon as we return we’re given a “sundowner” of gin and tonic. We have dinner with our guide and hear more about his fascinating life and stories of wildlife. We sleep in tents and the sound of elephants tramping down nearby trees occasionally wakes me.

We visit a nearby Maasai village and stop in to see the chief’s first wife in a small cool mud and thatch hut with a smoky fire burning to keep the flies out. This Masai village site lasts five years and then they move on. The men have multiple wives. The more livestock they have the more wives are needed to help tend the animals and children. Some men have twenty children and five wives. The Maasai are the only Kenyan tribe still in existence in Kenya.  

One morning we come upon a group of lions taking a nap with full stomachs, lounging about with blood on their paws. The female is in a cave but we can peer inside and see her newborn cubs. I’m amazed the animals don’t attack the jeeps as we creep by only five yards away, but the guide says they are used to the jeeps, they cause no trouble and the animals see it as another big animal, like an elephant, and don’t bother with it.

These elegant animals have me inspired for many new prints. Despite the long bumpy rides I am happy to have made the journey to this magical landscape and learned something about the Maasai way of life.