A City Girl Goes on Safari

A lion roar in the wild doesn’t sound like the canned MGM announcement shown at the start of movies. The onscreen roar was a full-on, open mouth, crecsendo-ed announcement. With a little “take that, I’m a lion.” at the end.

In the Kenyan bush, lions emit a roar that is low in tone, a guttural rumble with some amplification that can be carried across a still bush night. I, not working or living in the Kenyan bush, would not know that this sound came from a lion unless a guide, who did work and live in the Kenyan bush, would tell me.

And this is where a nice piece of “ignorance is bliss” comes in. I was doing OK in the Kenyan bush on safari. By Ok, I mean that I was enjoying viewing wildlife from a distance – either standing on a Land Rover’s seat or feeling at peace watching giraffes and antelope drink from a lodge’s watering hole.

land rover on safari

When not on safari, I live in a city – a city where the only wild things are the occasional weirdo on the MUNI or a drunk millennial in the Mission neighborhood at 2 a.m. I’ve learned to deal by developing my own defense mechanisms – no eye contact, head down, and ear buds in. And then I heard the lion roar and all mechanisms scattered – their in-place parts fell to the sidewalk. I got scared of the wild that I couldn’t see and certainly couldn’t handle.

lion in kenya

In the Kenyan bush, specifically the Masai Mara, where yellow grasses grow taller than a lion’s shoulder and guides share that every acacia bush is a “good place for a lion to hide,” hearing a far-off grunt and then finding out it’s a lion, is scary. My city defenses are useless. Hell, my innate defenses are useless. I can’t do “fight” with a lion. Lions are hunting machines. And I can’t do “flight” because then they know I’m prey. (Note: Flight also prevented from too much pasta consumed in Italy, prior to safari).

I am not Meryl Streep playing Karon Blixen in Out of Africa.

I knew I was going to be skittish around wild animals the first night in Kenya. I was staying at the Emakoko Lodge located in Nairobi National Park. The camp owner told me that there was a year-old orphaned impala on premise. It was ADORABLE. This little guy seemed to have reign over the 20-foot long path between the lodge and my room, I never saw him anywhere else. My room attendant, Catherine, stopped to pet him as she led me to my room. On my ways back and forth, I just avoided him. He followed, finally taking an opportunity to head butt me in the leg. At dinner I shared what happened. The five other lodge guests all had passed and petted him and no one had been head butted. Just me. The adorable baby impala had smelled my fear and asserted his dominance. I would be food to any predator.
impala in Kenya

There are plenty of safeguards in place to protect safari guests from hunting lions. In the Kenyan lodges I visited, the guides and guards are all Masai tribesman. They had grown up learning about lions and defending their family’s cattle (their wealth) against lions. Every askari (a guard) carried a spear or a gun and knew how to use it. Every guide had been a guide for more than 10 years and knew everything about lions and the hundreds of other species on the conservancies. Despite being around these guards and guides, a few things kept me from feeling truly relaxed. Things that I blame on my urban vs. bush life (and perhaps on my inability to trust people I don’t know in environments I don’t understand).

safari guide

Every night I had to walk from the main lodge to my cabin or tent. The walks were short – no more than a city block. I had to make this walk at night after dinner with a full belly and a menagerie-filled imagination. An askari accompanied me, scanning his flashlight across the acacia-bush-and-high grass-full landscape looking for marble white eyes reflecting back. The guards are tall and their steps are long and fast. I trotted behind them praying for no attacks. I wanted to sprint past them, but running away is how a lion knows that you are prey.

There are “walking safaris” as lodge activities where I stayed. This means that a guide, a spotter, and myself would walk on a well-trod path through the conservancies. The path is not trodden by people, but by herds of elephants and giraffes and zebras on the move. In the city, I love a good morning walk. I walk to work and seek out hikes in Marin County on the weekends.

On one of these walks, the guide pointed out a lion paw print that was embedded clearly on top of a giraffe’s hoof impression. It was enough to freak me out. Every turn was a possible attack hidden in the golden grass or a thorn-covered bush. I asked the guide to turn back early. He replied, “I have a gun. The other guides radio me if they see a lion. We know where the lions are and they are not here.” “I know,” I replied, “can we go back? I can’t get over the fear.”

lion print

Perhaps there’s a bigger lesson here, one about overcoming fear of the unknown, trusting knowledgeable advisors, and believing everything will be Ok. I preach those lessons on this blog to get would-be travelers out on a big trip. Those fears about leaving a settled life to travel are intrinsic – they are generated from within. Out in the bush, the fears are extrinsic – lions are hunters looking for prey. Even though they are not man-eaters and I have guides as defenses, I couldn’t shake the fear. I’m now a city girl and couldn’t be comfortable in the raw presence of lions. Still, I was in the wild, with lions.

“When one writes, there’s the double horror of discovering not only what it is that one so fears but also the triviality of that fear.” —Deborah Eisenberg courtesy of the Paris Review.

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*Full disclosure: My trip is a “familiarization trip” that I am taking on behalf of my employer GeoEx, a high-end, adventure travel company. I am on a customized tour and experiencing the country through hotels, food, and activities as our guests would. These views on the blog are my own.

For some big and little cat adventures, check out my AFAR Wanderlist

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