It is dusk. We are in an underground bunker (reached by a short tunnel) peeking out through narrow openings overlooking the water hole. The parade of animals looks like a warm-up for Noah's ark. Many are old friends from my zoo-going days. Some I have never heard of - much less seen.
I am caged. They are free. We are all in Kenya, in the heart of Africa.Suddenly, the cape buffalo stop drinking, eyes alert, their menacing horns still as rocks. They sense a much larger presence. A huge elephant (overwhelming from our ground-level view) bursts from the forest. No lumbering, slow-moving pachyderm, this ones strides purposely for the water hole, ears waving briskly like giant, grey butterfly wings in flight.
I have stopped breathing. Another elephant strides close on the heels of the first. Another. Then another. Single file. All moving quickly. Born not only free but big. Awefully big.
Dead ahead now, they stop not 10 feet away and eye the bunker suspiciously. They are obviously agitated.
Fortunately, I no longer need oxygen. If I breathe, they will find us out, stomp in the roof and squash us like a couple of cigarette butts.
My husband is not similarly afflicted. The motor drive of his camera whirs - the deafening sound slicing the stillness and giving away our secret hiding place.
These mighty beasts begin to rummage about in the dirt with magnificent tusks. Priceless ivory powerfully tosses earth about, backhoe-style. One especially regal specimen brandishes tusks so long they cross in front like curved swords.
We listen to heavy elephant breathing, absorbing the primordial scene from front row center.
Surprisingly, I hear a low quavery moan. It is me, and I am breathing again.
"Don't hyperventilate," comes the command from my left. This is one of those moments a photographer waits for all his life. A fainting wife would hardly be an asset.
I suck air cautiously, determined not to miss a moment. For once, this is not a movie or a National Geographic Special. This is wide-screen, stereophonic, heart-gripping, real life.
Best of all, we are still in the first day of our much-anticipated African safari.
Even our extravagant expectations were far outstripped by the reality of Kenya. Animals were not just here and there but everywhere.
Our safari minibus was parked in the midst of an out-of-control stampede officially billed as a wildebeest migration. We saw lions - walking about as if they owned the place, lounging about in cozy family groups and ripping apart the remains of a wildebeest. Giraffes were part of the landscape, not just on game drives but across the vast plains we traversed en route to our next tented lodge. Great herds of zebras and elephants ignored our swiveled heads under our pop-up roof.
On one side of the vehicle a lively ostrich parade hurried by, single file. On the other, an impala with an injured leg was watched nervously by other impalas. Ahead, baboons arrogantly blocked the road like toll takers expecting a pay-off bribe. At Lake Nakuru more than a million flamingoes turned the shoreline into a pink blur.
We learned to tell the difference between a waterbuck, an oryx, a Grant's gazelle, a Thomson's gazelle, a dik-dik, a topi, a hartebeest and a gerenuk. We saw bush pig families, the little ones scurrying after their mother's tail raised like a flag, and a community of hippos cooling their heels in the River Mara. We watched a clean-up squad of hyenas arguing over a skull and witnessed the powerful grace of a cheetah running down its prey.
Fully as fascinating as the wildlife were the people of the African bush. In a Samburu village, we were invited into tiny mud huts. "What do they eat?" I asked, keenly aware of the sparseness of the landscape. "Blood, milk and meat," our guide answered. So much for the basic seven food groups.
The Samburu people we saw were lean and healthy looking, and I'd wager they could out-jump anyone in the NBA. At Buffalo Springs Tented Lodge, we watched them jump. And jump. And jump. They called it dancing, but it looked more like a contest to see who could get closest to the sky. One at a time, these human pogo sticks showed off their prowess while the women chanted and rhythmically bobbed back and forth, setting layer upon layer of their colorful beaded collars into hypnotic motion.
The Maasai Village we visited on the Masai Mara game reserve was surrounded by thorn bushes to keep out marauding lions. The chief showed off the women's bead work and asked for sweets for the children. I thought momentarily about a steady diet of blood, milk and meat and contributed a roll of lifesavers to the cause.
The Maasai are tall, proud, spear-carrying herdsmen who have, according to our knowledgeable guide, an understanding with the lions. This understanding enables small boys to protect herds of cattle without fear of the King of the Beasts. In a strange land of high-jumping men and improbably designed animals, it was as believable as anything else.
The beauty of our safari was that in the midst of such wildness, we found civilized comforts at day's end. (We, alas, require more of life than a swig of blood and a mud hut.) Mountain Lodge, in the shadow of Mount Kenya (second highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro), provided comfortable rooms, each with private bath and a balcony overlooking the water hole. The dining room provided an excellent view of the surrounding rain forest complete with the antics of aggressive monkeys scaling the lodge walls.
At Buffalo Springs Tented Lodge, we each had our own tent with shower, toilet, dressing room and shaded verandah facing the water hole. From the open-air restaurant and cocktail lounge we could see some lethargic crocodiles and a couple of hyenas slinking around the edges of the flood-lit area.
At Sarova Mara tented camp, the swimming pool and Panorama Bar overlook the vast grasslands of the game reserve, and, for those who crave a closer look at the local wildlife, baboons drop from the trees and roam the lawns.
Sarova Lion Hill featured small cottages perched amid exotically-scented moon flower bushes on a steep hill overlooking Lake Nakuru and its million-plus flamingoes. Mara Serena Lodge, an imaginative recreation of two Maasai villages (according to its brochure), resembles a fortress made of a series of pill boxes. At 3 a.m. when a cape buffalo annihilated the tree under my window, I was greatly relieved to be behind its secure walls.
I've been on a lot of journeys (safari is the Swahili word for journey), but none that remotely resembled the high adventure of our Kenya experience. If it's animals you want to see, this is the place!
Want to go?
An 11-day safari includes round-trip from New York, transfers, full-board on safari, full American breakfasts in Nairobi, sight-seeing and game-viewing. This includes a guaranteed window seat in specially constructed safari vehicles with English-speaking guide.
The cost is $1,989 per person, double occupancy. For information contact African Safari Trails, 50 Water St., South Norwalk, Connecticut, 06854, phone (203) 866-0565.