Friends, if you ever go to Kenya, there is one thing you should never do.
You should never get into an argument with a lion, leopard, hippo, or even a beetle. Even if the animals called your mother a prostitute and your dad a bastard, you’ll do well to walk by.
That’s because the Kenyan government takes sides with its animals.
You dare not snigger at these animals or insult them. And heavens forbid you step on a buffalo. It will hop on one foot and cry to the government. Then your goose is cooked. Which is another crime, a cooked goose.
Kenya’s wildlife enjoys exalted status. Unlike your penurious selves, General Lion and crew line the government’s pockets with over $5bn a year. In 2019 before Covid hit, it was $8.1bn. That’s more than the GDP of Burundi, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and thirteen other African countries. Travel and tourism account for 10% of Kenya’s GDP and employ some 1.6m odd Kenyans. It’s silly money not to be trifled with.
What these statistics mean is that you, my friend, are a liability.
Kenya’s animals are an asset.
You sapiens make demands: roads, hospitals, accountability, good governance. The wildlife gets on with it. They don’t protest against Covid vaccines. A leopard never identifies as a zebra. Nor do the animals complain about food prices. They eat one another and move on. They are the best citizens a country can have.
I gleaned the insight into the eminence of Kenya’s wildlife in a most disconcerting way.
I visited the Maasai Mara and camped in a tent.
Which if you are a black dude with any sense you know you shouldn’t do. Black people don’t camp in tents in the wild. White people do that. If a white dude gets eaten by a hyena, it’ll be on CNN, and might result in pressure on the Kenyan government to teach hyenas to love broccoli instead. But if you are a black dude in a tent and become venison to a hyena, well, it must be suicide. Because black people don’t tempt fate.
So, I went to the Maasai Mara or ‘The Mara’ to locals.
The Mara is humongous; 1, 510 sq. km of wildlife. It hosts one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of Africa’ – The Great Migration. Over a million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 97,000 topis and thousands of other animals migrate between the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Predators – crocs, leopards, lions, cheetahs, hyenas – ambush this migrant horde. It is a stunning spectacle.
My camp was on the bank of the craggy Talek River. The river separates the camp from The Mara. In January, the river is passable on foot in many places and it is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods.
Did you hear that?
It is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods.
Which was what happened while I was there.
When I checked into the camp, I opted to stay in a tent. I am on a safari and what is more safari-sh than bunking in a tent in the wild. It was, however, a comfortable tent. Two queen beds, two single sofas, a dining area, private showers, WiFi and electricity. My own Ritz Carlton in the wild.
But I’m never staying in a tent again. Ever.
On my first night in the tent, at around 01:30 am, I heard some animal sound.
I suppose if you sleep in the wild, you will hear animal sounds at night; leopards sneaking up on baboons, hyenas snacking on mongooses and warthogs snoring.
But the sound I heard wasn’t far off. It was right outside my tent. I couldn’t figure out what animal it was. But it was right outside my tent.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay motionless in bed. I feared that if I moved or made a sound, whatever beast was outside may decide to charge my tent.
The camp has Maasai guards stationed around to ward off animals. The Maasai stationed in my tent area was some nice guy called Simon. Seeing him perched outside my tent was always comforting. But on this night he was not about else there would not be a wild beast on my porch.
I’ve never prayed harder for daybreak.
The sound stopped at about 4 am. At 05:30 am, when I heard the heavy plod of human footsteps, I unzipped the tent a little and peered out. Simon was sitting in front of my tent.
I went out and enquired of him. His English was smattering but we communicate. I told him there was some animal in front of my tent all night. He asked me to describe the sound. I described the sound as best as I could.
He smiled and told me it was only a hippo.
Only a what now?
Only a hippo.
He said hippos sometimes wander close to the lodge. He said I had nothing to fear as the hippo couldn’t have been less than fifty meters away. The night only amplified the sound.
Fifty meters away.
Usually, when I hear the name ‘Simon’, I think of a saintly chap. Like Simon Peter who preached the Good News on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 folks got saved. But this Simon? I could throttle the guy! How dare he treat my life with such levity! What did he mean the night amplified the sound? That creature was right outside my tent!
Of course, I didn’t believe Simon. I couldn’t. Nobody likes to know the time and manner of their death.
Later I told another Maasai sentry about the sound I’d heard in front of my tent. He asked me to describe the sound. I did. He said, “Oh, it must be kiboko – a hippo.” He said it like it was a chicken.
You people need help!
I’m a Yoruba boy, not Maasai. I didn’t grow up walking to school through a coalition of cheetahs!
Having shaken off my nerves, I asked the workers in the lodge what would happen if a guest was being mauled by an animal. They said the default action would be to chase the animal away and not kill it. Killing is the last resort. Animals have protected status in Kenya.
There you have it. A giraffe’s life matters more than mine.
Rangers at the Ol Kiombo airstrip confirmed the protected status of the animals. If a plane was approaching landing, and there was, say a ngiri (warthog) chilling on the runway, the pilot would circle till the sun-tanning hog went away. Or till the rangers were able to plead with it to leave.
You know those dumb questions some HR folks like to ask at interviews? Like “if you could be one animal, what animal would you be”? Well, I’ll tell you: I’d love to be any animal in Kenya. Because then you won’t have to ask me stupid questions. I’ll report you to the government.
The lodge personnel always advised me to zip my tent anytime I went out. For right across my tent and the river was a troop of cacophonous baboons. Simon told me these baboons sometimes enter unzipped tents and pillage them.
You thieving irreligious primates!
The thought of a baboon stealing my travel passport filled me with dread. I could imagine a baboon presenting itself at immigration with my passport.
Throughout my stay, these baboons scrutinized me. I’m convinced they were casing my tent. On the day I checked in, heard them complaining.
Baboon 1: Oh man, not a black guy!
Baboon 2: Yea, black people never have things to steal.
Baboon 3: This one even looks like he can steal from us.
Baboon 1: Mustafa needs to be more discriminatory on who he accepts into this camp.
Mustafa, by the way, runs Talek Bush Camp. A very helpful and nice guy. On my first day, he advised me not to walk alone to the Talek Town Center when it was dark. Last November, three lions were spotted around the path.
Jide Alade, shebi you have finished eating and now looking for bekun-bekun.
But if you love nature and animals, you’ve got to visit the Maasai Mara. The Big Five are resident, it has the most number of lodges (from a $1,200-a-night accommodation to a $100-a-night camp like mine) and it offers hot air ballooning and all-day game drives (6 am – 6:45 pm). There are also several airstrips to fly to and fro Nairobi.
Hot Air Balloon
I’ve jumped out of a perfectly good plane before. But I have never been in a hot air balloon. So, I looked forward to being in one in The Mara. For $480, you get a 1-hour balloon ride, breakfast in the wilderness, a brief game drive and pick up and return to your camp. It’s not cheap but I’ll tell the missus it was only $120.
A driver picked me up at my camp at 05:30 am. We drove into The Mara. You could see glints in the dark. Animal eyes. I wondered if there was a lion amongst them rousing: ‘Man, I feel like some Nigerian meat and egusi this morning.’ But I am not going to be lamb chops for some lion. My LORD shuts the mouths of lions.
Just in case you are wondering, I’m the handsome dude in black
Getting to The Mara
Safari in Kenya is not cheap. It is not like hitting Burlington with $300. It will cost you. But if you are a savvy backpacker, you can reduce your costs with shrewd planning and research. In my case, I was in Nairobi on company business. That cut the cost of my safari by a lot. I didn’t have to pay for a flight ticket from Lagos to Nairobi. Business Class ticket on Kenya Airways was N1.4m!
Your safari starts with transportation. You can fly to The Mara via a single-prop aircraft from Nairobi, or you can go by road. The former is a 45-minute jump. The latter, over 6 hours. The former will set you back some $200 one-way. The latter is $65. As an unabashed cheapskate and backpacker, I chose the latter.
Now, there was another reason why I chose to go to The Mara by road: the Great Rift Valley escarpment at Mai Mahui. The plains roll out before you and cover much of East Africa. It was magnificent. Standing on the escarpment and viewing the Rift Valley, I felt like Moses on Mt Pisgah looking at the Promise Land.
I hired a taxi from Nairobi to Narok, a small city about a three-hour drive from Nairobi. It cost me 6,000Ksh (N22,000 or $52). I could have gone via a matatu – Kenya’s danfo – for $15. But the matatus don’t stop for pictures at the Rift Valley escarpment. And they don’t chit-chat. Plus, Omicron is still around.
Narok is a small Maasai city. I like to see it as the last post of civilisation before The Mara. I equipped myself with last-minute provisions; water, juice, biscuit, crisps, the odd bits and bob. For after Narok, perish all thought of finding a bank, filling station, ATM or a supermarket.
From Narok, I then took a shared taxi headed for Talek. The Talek region is a pastoralist settlement that borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The taxis take six passengers; four at the back, two in the front. It was 700Ksh per passenger. I opted to pay 1,400Ksh so I could sit in the front alone. So, that’s another $12 or N5,000.
The drive from Narok to Talek was two and a half hours long. But what amazing scenery! The best way to see a country is always by road or rail.
Now, let me warn you. At some point during the journey, the taxi will turn off the bitumen road into some Savannah bush. It is not a ride for the faint-hearted. No humans. No other vehicles. Only shrubbery. Eery. Quiet. Insurgent-ish. All the travel accounts to the Talek Bush Camp I had read said nothing about this foreboding leg of the journey. It was about 45 minutes long.
Then out of nowhere, we burst into the Talek Town Center.
I’m alive. The wild’s got nothing on me.
The Talek ‘Town Center’ is perhaps more appropriately a village center. But let it be known that I am very happy to see many people and a settlement. If these fine folks decide to call it the Talek Metropolis, a metropolis it is!
From the Talek Town Center, I then took a ‘boda’ (okada) to my camp. It’s a distance of about 300m. I was stiffed 100Ksh for the ride. 100Ksh is not going to bankrupt me. I’m still happy seeing people.
There are six gates to Maasai Mara: Sekenani Gate, Talek Gate, Sand River Gate, Oloololo Gate, Musiara Gate and Ololamutia Gate. The gate by which you enter depends on where you book your camp. The closest gate to me was the Talek Gate. Drive distance between the gates can be up to thirty minutes.
You pay $70 at any of the gates to get into the reserve per day per individual. So, if you want to visit the reserve for four days, you’ll have to shell out $280 in total. That is excluding the cost of your game drive. That’s anywhere between $120 to $150 per day. Hot air ballooning is between $450 and $500. Then there are the flights, the accommodation and the tips. Yea, safari in The Mara is not cheap.
I decided to return to Nairobi by air. The nearest airstrip to me was the Ol Kiombo airstrip. Once again, you have to drive through The Mara to the airstrip. More topis, gazelles, buffaloes and warthogs. A single-prop plane was my chariot. Gosh, I hate single-prop planes! Buffeted by turbulence, they feel like they could drop out of the sky anytime.
Trip to Mombasa
So, after The Mara, where else is there to go? I’ll tell you where. The Indian Ocean oasis of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city. Laid-back. Historical. Fusion of cultures and food. And I like food.
I went by rail. The new and ultra-modern Madaraka Express. Five hours either way.
It could have been worse. Not long ago – till 2017 – the journey could have taken anywhere between 18 and 24 hours. The single-gauge line broke down often. You didn’t know when you’ll arrive in Mombasa, or at the turn of the 20th century if you will arrive. There were reports of lions savaging builders at night, even climbing into the cabins. Remember the movie The Ghost and The Darkness starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? About the ‘Lions of Tsavo’ killing rail builders? It is a true story and was about the Lunatic Express, the moniker for the line. It was so named because of the anguish it caused the builders and travelers.
But now the Lunatic Express has given way to the ultra-modern Madaraka Express. It zips to Mombasa like a gazelle. It is a standard-gauge rail built by the Chinese. It commenced operation in 2017.
One fun fact about the Madaraka Express? It’s never been late! And that was my experience. It departed Nairobi for Mombasa at exactly 3 pm, its published time. It was the same coming back to Nairobi. Left the Mombasa Terminus at 3 pm on the dot.
In your face, ‘African Time’!
The train passed through the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. We saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, gazelles and other animals. The announcement on the train’s speakers assured us that carnivores were also residents in the park. It was a scenic journey. You could see Mt Kilimanjaro in the distance.
I stayed at the Bahari Beach Hotel. Really nice place. My window overlooked the ocean. I will live long with views like that.
There are a lot more interesting places to see in Kenya but I had only four days of leisure. I would have loved to go to Lake Naivasha and visit Iten, the legendary home of Kenya marathoners. Maybe they could give me a few tips on how to lose weight. But any tip must include bacon and sausage. You know what they say: if eating only greens and salad made you lose weight, hippos won’t be fat.
But I did run into Burna Boy in Nairobi. Stoked.