Sunday, May 15, 2011
Kenya Calling - Pensive at Porini Part 2
Mara Porini Camp – Ol Kinyei Conservancy
My next destination with Gamewatchers was their Mara Porini Camp in Ol Kinyei Conservancy. This happened during the latter half of January and by this time I had gained adequate experience for wildlife and all things wild to consider myself a little above ignorant in such matters. So I start off with some sense of efficacy as I ride with Mr. Pappu, the rotund good natured Indian origin Gamewatchers overall manager cum all-purpose man. Pappu loves driving, eating and music and is a Formula race fan; thankfully he drives like a normal person. In few hours and with our vehicle full of supplies and provisions for the camp, we arrive at Narok, the staging town for Mara. A brief halt to pop few samosas inside our growling stomachs and we speed off on the un-metaled road towards the conservancy. The sky is grey, air is breezy and Pappu is full of funny stories. At a point we leave the road and drive into a dip, through a stream and up on the other side. A wooden post claims the name Ol Kinyei.
Ol Kinyei is a 8500 acre conservancy and is located in one of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the Serengeti-Mara-eco-system. As we drive through and wildlife begins to spring out like fresh flowers in bloom, I gaze wondrously at the savannah plains, the thick lush riverine forest, gushing springs, streams and the delightful rolling hills. Giraffes, impalas, zebras trot alongside our vehicle as if they form a part of the welcoming party. Soon we reach the Porini Camp. The manager (whose name I have forgotten; perhaps it was David), came out with a smile broad and wide enough to fill up the entire conservancy. For the first time someone called me ‘bwana’ in Kenya. He led me into the dining tent and we completed the formalities to the accompaniment of excellent tea, cookies and more of ‘Porini’ hospitality. This camp has six tents all spread around the bending and gushing waters of Laetoli spring that even has a resident hippo. The spring is a favored site for animals and it is not unusual to see cheetahs and leopards and elephants come strolling for their morning and evening drinks. I learn that there’s only another British couple currently in the camp. Pappu gets down to work while I am shown into my tent. This accommodation is certainly more luxurious than the one at Amboseli.
Very soon Pappu and I leave on the evening game drive. Surprisingly, as Pappu reveals, he had never done a game drive before. The obvious bag of goodies for sundowner is conspicuous between the seats. We cross the stream and then over some savannah then towards a hill where a pride of resident lions reside. Suddenly to my left I see a curious bird, rather large, with massive wings and a white body. It hops in an odd manner on ground. We go close and it is my first ‘secretary’ bird in view. As we come near, it flies off the ground and perches like a helicopter on top of a tree. We stalk the bird for a while but he remains fixed and perched on one leg atop the tree. So we move on.
Abruptly I hear noises as if clashes of two wooden swords. And the noise is very high in frequency and force. What is going on, I seek my able guide. He quickly turns the vehicle and we go behind a clump of trees to reveal a pair of mail impalas rolling and pushing on ground against each other. A virtual impala wrestling is on. Two males fighting for the dominance of the females and the tribe. I look around and find nearly 30 odd females watching the spectacle from a distance. I am curious to find out who would win and what would happen thereafter. But even after fifteen minutes no clear cut winner emerges, they both seem to be panting but not giving in; even the females had lost interest and were busy grazing. Sun doesn’t stop so we leave the arena and go to the lion hill.
Lion hill proves deserted, no lions anywhere and my guide opines that the lions must still be inside somewhere and would come out later so we speed off in the opposite direction, towards a sizeable hill. We drive around through groups of grazing zebras, gazelles, waterbucks, impalas, kongonis and tiny Thomson’s scattering a few while others remain oblivious to our presence. The hill top gives us an all around panoramic view of the conservancy. A patch of grey cloud to our west shields the sun and the diffused light paints the trees and savannah below with a pale yellow-green brush. My guide trains his binoculars to the distant lion hill in search of lions as he is certain the predators would emerge soon from their resting places. The driver lays out sundowner goodies. Pappu has just bitten into a luscious piece of chicken leg and I have just sipped the glass of excellent wine, when our guide gestures excitedly, the lions are emerging, females and cubs. I borrow his binoculars but see nothing in the direction. It is too distant for my untrained eyes. Pappu too confirms that the lions are out, so we pack up everything post haste, and rush down and retrace our path back.
Lion hill is basically a wide mound of low height full of dry acacia trees and tall grass with dry mud patches in between. As we near the place, a low growl fills up the air. I see a lioness and two cubs walking away from us. The light is terribly low and I have to be careful shooting with high iso and slow shutter as my 300 mm lens is manual. The ground is bumpy and I jump up and down as if riding a frenzied buck. We drive parallel to a lioness who walks all by herself; regal and poised, sovereign of all she surveys. Then from behind another tree walks in three cubs, who roll on ground and paw at each other. We stop as now we are surrounded by lionesses and cubs. They are unbelievably close. The guide tells me not to make any move and certainly not to step out of the vehicle. I stop taking pictures and simply gaze at the wonder of nature. When it gets darker we return. The full moon by then has taken her place in the night sky. It sits on top of a tiny dark cloud and smiles down upon us.
When night falls the forest is both silent and at its most redolent. All human movements stop, birds sleep and then the true night sounds emerge out of the hush. After dinner I draw out a chair and sit in the darkness outside my tent; a distant camp guard saunters at his post and a low fire crackles somewhere. I look up at my lifelong companion in lonely nights where she is playing through the overhead canopies, spilling her laughter and mirth on me and I wave back at my old friend.
Next morning I wake up with the larks to discover the forest under siege of a pall of thick swirling mist. The place truly seems like the ‘lost world’. Shapes emerge out and then dissolve back into the mist. A cup of steaming hot tea and few cookies down and we are off for the early morning game drive. Once again I find myself in the illuminated company of Pappu. The morning is beautiful, mysterious and full of promise. Soon enough we chance upon a pair of lionesses and a dozen of the cutest and tiniest cubs. We could have watched them forever when our radio set crackles to tell us that in another part of the conservancy a stray mother cheetah has been sighted with two male cubs. We head for the direction. On reaching the sighting place we find nothing. My guide looks intently at the ground and tells the driver where to head for. I can see nothing but the guide knows where the cheetahs had walked and where did they go. I have no idea what signs he is reading on the moist dew laden dry grass. Around ten minutes later we sight them; two cubs on their haunches looking at their mother who is stalking a group of gazelles.
The cubs are nearly a year old and now it is time for them to head out on their own. My guide explains, these have come from other parts of the area and the mother has brought them here so that she can leave them and the cubs wouldn’t be able to trace her back or return to her. That’s how nature works. And before she leaves them, she is ensuring that they have learnt how to hunt and survive in the wild. Statistically half the cubs will not survive complete adulthood and will die for one reason or the other. We watch the drama from a distance, the entire gamut of the mother pushing her now grown up cubs to hunt, to hide, to chase, to look for water. Compared to the animals, we human cushion our young ones far too much. We stay with the trio for around 40 minutes and then it is time for us to return. On the way back we visit the stream to pay our respect to the resident hippo Simon (I think that’s his name), but Simon has gone for his morning jog and we don’t find him home. Breakfast is a merry affair and with a box of packed lunch I board the vehicle again and am off for my next stop in the Mara.
Porini Lion Camp – Olare Orok Conservancy
Cutting across the Mara ecosystem heading due west it will take us nearly two hours to reach the Porini Lion Camp. This is a 20,000 acre conservancy bordering the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Though out of the main reserve this place is full of wildlife and abundance of lions, the hallmark of Mara. I remember reading in the Gamewatchers brochure that Porini Lion Camp is the highest revenue earner of all their camps and I soon discover the reason. The lovely winding drive through the savannah and low hills ends up suddenly across a river and we stop in front of the camp. Undoubtedly this is the most spectacularly located of all Porini camps I have visited so far. It has ten guest tents, all placed strategically along and around the bank of Ntiakatiak River that has permanent hippo pools nearby. Beyond the river a grassy dune—dotted with grazing wild life--rises like a giant tidal wave forming a startling backdrop to the camp while another hill stops its slopes barely few hundred feet away from the camp at the front and the river stream gurgles and winds around like a vagrant string of floating balloon. The tents are more modern in design, color and interiors. Simple elegance with clean cut furniture, both of wood and wrought metal, wide openings and awnings, ample room to spread around – I like the place immensely. The manager (I think he was called William) welcomed us with Porini signature hospitality, smile and briefing. William is different from the other camp managers I have met so far as he is a Gold Rated guide and has no hospitality background. I am shown into my personal tent that is again rather different from the other Porini Camps; reflects the layout and theme of the main dining tent. I am right next to the river where I am told elephants come to frolic in the early hours. Here too, I have only one couple for company.
While lunch is getting ready I find the outside too tempting to stay in. The manager had told us not to stray out of the camp area at night, but nothing specifically about the day; or so I had presumed. Dressed in my bright, eye-dazzling yellow T-shirt, I stroll down and out, cross the stream and a pair of mother and baby elephant at a distance, all the while whistling through my heart with the lovely breeze. As I come up across the stream, few of the grazers take to their heels while a pair of black-backed jackals slink away with an angry twitch to their eyes; I perhaps had disturbed their siesta. I stick to the dirt road and stand beneath a giant acacia. I can see the camp clearly and I don’t feel that I am in any kind of danger or conversely any danger to the animals.
I look around and feel the peace seeping through my pores when suddenly I hear the noise of an approaching vehicle. I turn around to find a vehicle right on top of me, with Pappu besides the driver asking me to get in urgently. I assure them I am not tired or suffering sun stroke and perfectly capable of walking back to the camp that is barely a km away. They insist I get inside the vehicle immediately as there’s danger lurking around. I spiral on my toe and come up with absolutely nothing. I have lived my life in wild places and I am trained in jungle warfare and have substantial experience in jungle survival, if there is danger I should be able to smell it out but I see and sense nothing at all. Still, I hop in, as the camp staff has final say on such matters and only then realization dawns as Pappu explains. The mother and baby elephants that I had crossed had now gone across my path and with the down-wind were getting my smell (human) that is alarming to elephants and the mother could any moment charge at me. I nod my head in comprehension but when we pass the elephants they seem totally harmless and peaceful.
With the afternoon game drive ahead of me I take a light lunch, fighting my palate all the way, which only wanted to hog and stuff all that is offered. I have no idea where Porini gets the chef and kitchen staff but their food is among the most delicious I ate anywhere in whole of Kenya. By now I have earned a reputation within the staff so the game drive begins with a stern caution to me for not alighting at any moment without prior approval of the guide. The drive begins along the edge of the river where fish eagles are fishing and warthogs are drinking, gazelles and impalas are grazing. The conservancy is beautiful beyond words. By now I am well versed about the animals, birds and need no commentary from the guide. We drive in silence as I watch a couple of hippos playing by the water, silent in the distance. A pack of spotted hyenas cross our path nonchalantly, with lazy and characteristic lop-sided scuffle. Everything seems peaceful and plentiful in Lord’s world and then I had to do something stupid.
The sky has been darkening for a while now and it would rain soon. The cool breeze ruffles the savannahs in alluring manner and I need to answer nature’s little call. I ask my guide to stop and let me out. They know that I am a veteran, so they stop by a mound and I get off sans my camera. I can already feel the scent of moist earth coming from the distant hills where rain fall has started. For some inexplicable reason, even when there’s plenty of room around me to accommodate an entire stadium of raving ranting football fans, I decide to walk into the grass to fulfill my intent. I am shielded by the back of the vehicle hence my movement goes unnoticed. The driver and the guide are deep in their own conversation. The amazing weather perhaps makes me a little less cautious than I usually am. I look up at the sky, fill my lungs with the fresh sweet rain drenched air and walk few steps into the knee high grass. Suddenly something totally uncanny tells me to look down.
My right feet is poised in mid-air, barely six inches off ground and right where it is supposed to land in the next micro second, lies a thick tail. I don’t need to be a gold star guide to know that I am staring down at the thick tail of a full grown lion / lioness. If the tail is right beneath my feet then the rest of it cannot be far away. My feet freezes, my breathing stops, I turn into stone. Africa is full of stories of straying tourists being mauled and killed by lions. I am about to join the legend. A light rustle through the dried grass makes me look to my left and I see 4 cubs playing within touching distance and right beside them lies, their mother, softly snoring. It seems impossible that she and her cubs are unaware of my presence. Strangely I feel no fear, only the urge to do what needs to be done and my instincts tell me, since I have not been briefed about such a situation by anyone, to stay deathly quiet and retreat from the area as quickly as I can.
Adrenalin courses through my veins and my body wants to sprint. I use my mind to take control of my body and I take my still airborne right feet back and follow it with my left and thus, never turning my back to the lioness and cubs, emerge back on the dirt road from where I had entered. I count till fifty to get all the chemicals in my blood back to normal and then accomplish my original objective and then return to the vehicle and we drive away. I do not have the heart to tell my companions what had happened or could have happened only moments before. After a distance we come across a lioness with four cubs meaning to cross the river. They look identical to the ones who ideally should have had me for lunch. We stop and watch the near human behavior of the mother and the cubs. She first wades and determines the shallowest point of the river to cross and then goes to the other side. She turns back and urges her cubs to follow her path. Two cubs follow her obediently but the next one is the playful one and he tries to jump across the gap and falls plonk right in the middle of the stream. The mother pulls him out by his neck. He shivers a little and dries himself by shaking his entire body like a roller. The last cub is scared and hesitates next to the water. The mother returns and carries him across holding him in her mouth and puts him down on the other side. And then the sky opens up and lashes us with severe thunder storm. We roll down our shades and head off in another direction.
At a distance we come across another pride of lion, complete with parents and two cubs. They seem to be stalking some gazelles. We sit and watch. The rain becomes to wane and we roll up our shades at the front. I have my laptop with me and the USB data card and for some reason want to do something that perhaps no one has ever done on a game drive in Mara. I switch it on and skype to video-chat with a friend from a faraway land. She is a total wild life and nature lover like me and has never been to Africa and she is thrilled to see the lions as my companions find the whole thing utterly comical as I make them talk to my friend.
This is followed by sighting of two more prides and my guide tells me that now I had seen all of them found in the conservancy. Masaai Mara has the reputation of some of the best wild life sightings in the world as well as of crowding tourists and vehicles that swarm around any kills or animals. It’s nearly impossible to find an animal all by yourself in the Game Reserve due to the presence of so many tourists, camp sites and vehicles. While here, right at the edge of the Reserve, I feel I am in a domain of my own and the sightings are equally spectacular and abundant. Sunset is too wet so we abandon sundowner and return to camp with our vehicle thoroughly blotched up in mud.
The morning shakes me up early with a loud growl right outside my tent. I wake up with a bolt and grabbing my camera exit the tent to capture the lions in action and realize how little indeed I know about bush life. Hoping to find lions I am faced with a large elephant bull and his younger brother perhaps. I freeze instantly as they seem in a real foul mood, though I can’t be blamed for that. I am well within the trunk-sweeping range of the hulking bull that towers almost till the surrounding tree tops. I never knew that elephants can growl like lions. And now it seems that this knowledge comes too late to come to my rescue. I can see they are upset and readying to charge, the bull is already pawing at his feet on ground and swaying his head and trunk wildly. Again I am in a situation within the span of few hours of which I have never been briefed. The day seems my day of ignorance, and if I judge it correctly then it won’t lead to bliss. Sprinting back inside my tent didn’t seem wise, since the elephants could easily squash and take it down and it didn’t have any emergency exit besides the one through which I had emerged. Running was out of question since I could only run in the direction of the animals, in any other direction lay the river and in any way if they want, they could cut or stamp me down within seconds.
The only direction I should ideally move is Superman’s domain and just as I am thinking of calling his personal mobile number, I hear patter of human feet behind my tent and materializes the camp manager with couple of rangers, armed to the teeth. Either they chanted voodoo magic or know the elephants well, since at their sight, the elephants lower trunks and leave quietly as if nothing untowardly had ever been intended.
My bags and breakfast box has been packed and we drive off into the growing dawn streaked with clouds from last night’s thunder across the rising sun. My guide takes me on a roundabout route; he wishes to show me one last glimpse of their version of the famous Mara lions. We stop at a place to sight one of the lions just waking up but I look to my left where a bee-eater is perched on a bush that is almost touching my elbow. It’s a sweet little colored bird, common, but striking nevertheless. This morning I am being bundled off for Kechwa Temba where I would be hosted by Anne Kent Taylor, the fierce conservationist. I would be dropped off at one of the border gates of the Reserve where another vehicle would pick me for the latter half of the journey.
Meanwhile, we head for a rising hill and get stuck in a ditch. It takes all the driver’s skills, guide’s guidance and my prayers to extract us from the grave. We lurch forward like a bull released for the fight and climb up the hill where only one solitary acacia tree stands like a forlorn warrior in the middle of nowhere. It couldn’t have been deforestation or deliberate planting, yet it seems odd that within that vast area there would only be one acacia tree and nothing else except grass. Two tables, three chairs and breakfast is laid out with a conjurer’s flourish.
The food is delicious, the fruits in particular. Sitting within the middle of Mara surrounded by gentle grazing animals and no predators or hippos or elephants, in the company of two brave Maasai warriors, eating papaya and mangoes beneath a literally outstanding acacia tree is indeed a dream come true and I am living it with my eyes open wide. Some people are born lucky, I feel I am born-again lucky in addition. Post breakfast I get myself photographed beneath the tree wearing the T-shirt gifted by a friend who had specially drawn on it an acacia tree sprouting out of a jumping dolphin. We start off soon, sooner than it really was, as time simply flees in such places and no amount of gazing and pondering seems adequate.
My two friends drop me at the gate. We shake hands and hug warmly; they ask me to return one day, to which I nod my accord. With a final wave they turn around as my other car arrives, and with a trailing cloud of dust the Porini Camp vehicle merges into the horizon. With concludes my camp experience with Gamewatchers Porini Camps.
It has been an unforgettable experience to say the least. At each camp I have been treated like royalty, with hospitality and courtesy that one extends to ones nearest and dearest ones. Not once did I feel away from home or any less cared for. The staffs were exemplary, thoroughly professional and not the least inhibited to accept their ignorance if in the rarest of rare cases they didn’t have ready answer to the query, to which they would respond within minimum time possible. The food was as best as one can get and in as much quantity as one can handle. My weight gain in Kenya can be largely contributed to the Porini Camps.
I interviewed the staff at every camp and learned that both Jakes and Mohanjeet are hugely respected and no one ever thinks of quitting Gamewatchers or shifting to a competitive company. They earn much more than average Kenyans and the lease money that flows into the local communities are way much more than what they were making before. Overall health, school, water, etc projects that Gamewatchers have funded from the earnings of the camp has significantly improved the communities lifestyle and many of them have returned to their roots. The land, environment, and wild life have rejuvenated and sprung back to life through the model on which Gamewatchers work. It may not be the only model viable for such a complete synergy and solution to the problems but it certainly is one of the best.