MASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE, Kenya — When Westerners talk about Africa a question arises: How long do you think it will last?
By that is meant not how long will the continent last, or its troubles. But how many years can we put off going if we want to see the storybook Africa of wild animals, epic spaces and game safaris?
How long until it's too dangerous to go? Or until the animals are overwhelmed by human population growth, mismanagement, greed, poaching, political strife?
To these questions, I cannot venture a guess. Except to observe that today at places like Kenya's Masai Mara, the huge game preserve just north of the Serengeti, Africans have preserved their great wildlife heritage as well--and in some regards a good deal better--than Americans have theirs. For, where in America can you travel just 45 minutes from a big city (in this case, Nairobi) and have a comfortable lunch with a million wild animals?
This is not the \o7 real\f7 Africa any more than Alaska's national parks are the real America. And from my brief travels on the continent, my advice is that one should not necessarily begin here.
Better to plunge into the crowds in Nairobi, bounce over a few hundred kilometers of rural African roads, peer down a few army gun barrels at border checkpoints, sleep in a village or two, go dancing at a steaming all-night club, cover a refugee disaster, climb a mountain, pull a couple of weeks of satisfying volunteer work at a relief agency orphanage.
Then, weary, ask, as I did late last summer, where do you go to recharge? (I had been covering the Rwanda refugee crisis and had seen enough of that side of Africa.) Where does one find the storybook?
"Little Governor's Camp," suggested a Nairobi friend.
Knowing nothing else but the name, I went.
From Nairobi's small-plane Wilson Airport, Air Kenya flies a well-tended twin-engine Otter to the Masai Mara preserve, south and west of Nairobi, a land of green-brown savannah, lonely trees, sharp escarpments and a two-mile-wide ribbon of dense forest encasing the Mara River. As for the Masai people, this is their traditional land. They still ranch cattle on the preserve, and their villages can be visited. (They will charge for a walking tour of their encampment.)
Safari camps are sprinkled throughout the region. Our flight route is determined by which passengers are going where this day.
Of 18 visitors, I am landed last. A green Land Rover waits off the runway. I walk over and introduce myself to a safari-vested driver, Jacob Ngunjiri, who will take me to the camp, and, in the next two days, guide me through the wonders of the storybook.
Did I mention the seven elephants grazing on the other side of the runway as we arrive?
We jounce down a dirt road a few miles, and wind our way into the riverbank forest. I leave the car and walk a foot trail down to the muddy, fast-moving Mara. I notice two hippos stationed downstream. And the lack of a bridge across. Instead, we take a skiff, which is pulled by rope to the other bank.
Little Governor's Camp--as opposed to nearby Big Governor's or Governor's Paradise Camp--is arranged at the edge of trees on a crescent of mowed grass: 17 double-bed tents, a thatched-roof bar, cooking pit and dinner tent. In front of the privately run camp is a 200-acre swamp, and beyond that more forest.
I walk up the concrete steps to my porch. There is patio furniture and a sprawl of tautly guyed green canvas that covers 200 square feet. I chuckle at my friend's description of "tent camping." With a solid foundation, mats and carpet floors, a wood dressing table, tiled bathroom with bidet and oversized shower, outside patio and lawn furniture--all I can say is it's lucky no one has to pack up this tent and move it somewhere.
A soft 70-degree breeze blows through the netting windows. I hear munching. A troupe of wart hogs is down on its knees in front of my tent trimming the lawn. Large tusks, I notice, are useless at this task. I suspect I know what they are useful for.
Lunch is outdoors: creamed soup, cold cuts, salad, fruit, pasta and icy Tusker lager beer from Kenya. Nine elephants are grazing in the swamp. One of them scares up a hippo, which goes waddling and splashing into deeper water. A family of baboons emerges at the forest edge. A female wart hog with what I might describe as curvaceous tusks moves to my side and stands there like a Labrador retriever.
I lunch with a woman traveling from Boston with her 5-year-old son, who is sure to be spoiled for the rest of his life by this experience. A Vancouver, Canada, family joins us--the woman is a doctor and has been working for a month at a rural hospital. Some of the visitors seem interested in each other. I'm interested in solitude. You can have it either way.