$600 round trip to Nairobi? Flight Deal advertised Nairobi as the launch pad for safari trips. I quickly asked my friends to see who would consider joining me. Silence. Kenya wasn’t on any of their radars. My work day became consumed with the thought of seeing lions, giraffes, and elephants up close. I’ve been fascinated with zoos all my life, until recently when I realized how inhumane they were. Yes, some animals benefit from the research, education, and preservation of dying species. But regardless of how I justified it, keeping magnificent wild, living beings confined to a cage was cruel. “If the fare is still there when I’m home…I’ll book it and go solo.”
At 11:20PM, I booked the trip.
Nearly half a year later, I still dream of the beautiful Big 5 and my three day “hunt” for all of the animals. On this August evening, I’m sitting at my favorite NYC bar, Marshall Stack, writing about that thrilling search for the Big 5. And yes, I found them all.
My grandmother loves elephants. And because of her love for these gigantic goofballs, they’re also a favorite of mine. Elephants carry a lot of emotion. They express joy, they’re familial, and they grieve. I knew without a doubt I was going to come across an elephant…because how could you possibly miss a 5 ton animal?
But I couldn’t predict the utter joy that would come sweeping over me when I came across a parade of elephants. The babies were clustered in the middle, clumsily walking with their trunks hanging effortlessly as their elders protected them. Mutume, my tour operator, drove up close to one that had wandered off from the parade. My eyes became locked with the elephant until it decided to end the staring competition by throwing grass at me with its trunk.
(Note: The first photo is right after it had finished its grass throwing escapades)
“They’re the most dangerous,” said Mutume. “This is the closest I can get.” He stopped the jeep much farther from the buffalo compared to the other animals. The lone buffalo bucked its head and stared intently. Its gaze was less comforting than the elephant. There was ferocity in its face and I wasn’t going to tempt fate. “That’s okay,” I said to Mutume, “I’ll use my bigger lense to take the photo”.
I had low expectations of seeing the rhino. It was day two, and Mutume mentioned he hadn’t seen one in awhile. There was a hint of disappointment in his tone. The tour operators prided themselves on being able to find all of the Big 5. It was as much of a game for the operators as it was for their clients. And the operators all had a spectacular amount of love for these animals. The network of operators had special nicknames, and each could recall in vivid detail the last time they had seen the mother with her newborn cubs, or the cheetah with the unique patten on her face.
“What are those two things moving in the grass,” I asked the hot air balloon operator. I had been grouped with Mandarin speaking Chinese tourists, and the Captain had placed me next to him because I was the only one that could understand his random tidbits. “Are those rhinos?” The Captain wrinkled his nose, squinted his eyes, and shook his head. “Oh, I guess it must be something…” I said while feeling a bit silly. My animal spotting skills were subpar. “Oh my word!” he exclaimed in his Australian accent. “We haven’t seen her in over three months! Look everyone, that’s the mother rhinoceros with her baby.” The Chinese tourists looked perplexed but took their cameras out none-the-less.
For large, bulky creatures, the rhinos walked with grace. Even high up in the air, I could see the gentle bounce in their walk. The mother rhino held its head up high, and the baby followed quickly, trying to emulate its mother. I hope to see them even closer one day.
I was exhausted from the 4am wake up call to make the hot air balloon ride. My driver, like the Captain, engaged in conversation with me because the Chinese tourists didn’t speak English. “I’ll be here till…” He suddenly interrupted me and turned up his radio. A smile filled his face. He made a sharp turn and stepped on the gas. “Lion,” he said.
The night before, Mutume and I had come across a mother and a few of her cubs but they were hidden in the grass. And while I loved big cats overall, I dreamed of seeing a male lion up close. There was such beauty in its mane. My heart was racing. I could see why it was called a “game drive”. The driver knew exactly where he was going in a land of no signs, roads, and GPS signals.
“Look! Lion!” shouted the driver to everyone in the Jeep. The toursists were confused. I shouted, ” Conan!” as I saw the lion to the left of me. The similarities between my house cat and this majestic lion were striking. But the Chinese tourists didn’t know who Conan was. The driver thought for a moment. “Simba!” he shouted. Suddenly, the tourists whipped out their camera and began searching for the lion. Other jeeps had begun to pull up, tailing the lion for their clients to get the perfect shot. I was in love. The lion had the intense stare of a sports player, but there was a playfulness to it at times (captured in the second photo).
Being only a few feet away from a lion was both awing and saddening. One should never leave their vehicle or attempt anything stupid in close proximity of a wild animal, but the lion was comfortable. He was unfazed by the jeeps surrounding it. He was the star of the show and knew it. For those that hunt these beautiful big cats, you deserve a special place in hell.
Day two was coming to a close, and all that was left was the leopard. Mutume was focused on finding the last of the five for me. “I haven’t seen the leopard in my last three drives. This will be hard.” My heart sank, but I was still ecstatic over the lion. That would be my silver lining.
“There’s a leopard!” he exclaimed with the most excitement I had ever heard in his monotone voice. He turned up the radio while speeding through the park. We reached a lone tree centered in the dry grass. There was no way of getting closer to the tree because it was illegal to venture off the dirt roads. “Look closely,” he said, “It’s there on the right.” I squinted but couldn’t see anything. I picked up my Nikon and stared through the lense. Forgetting binoculars was a rookie mistake. I made out the outline of the leopard next to a dark brown figure. It was the carcass of a fresh kill. We continued to stay in the area for half an hour. “It won’t leave,” said Mutume. “The kill is fresh and we can come back tomorrow for a better shot.”
The morning of my last game drive, Mutume met me my hotel. “Ready to find the leopard?” he said with a smile. Quite honestly, I had forgotten about the leopard, but I could tell this was his game now.
We drove back to the same spot from the evening before. The leopard had turned and was more visible beneath the tree. “The carcass is gone. He’s going to come down.” Mutume and I amused each other with stories of life back at our respective homes until without warning, the leopard began climbing down. “Go! Go! Go!” he shouted. I pulled my Nikon from my neck and began snapping away. With each shutter click, Mutume was cheering me on cheering, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” My Big 5 was complete.