The Great Rift Valley, home to earliest man, runs from Mozambique to Lebanon. Sometime in the future, the underlying tectonic plate will fracture the continent of Africa and produce another island like Madagascar.
As we stood on an overlook, the fertile U-shaped valley (which used to be V-shaped) extended far into the horizon, and I wondered which side of the fracture we stood on now.
From the San Francisco Bay area, it is twenty hours on plane (plus layovers) to Nairobi, Kenya. Africa is too far away to visit for a week. Since we could not decide on which national parks to visit, we planned to sample them all in a two-week period.
We booked our two-week safari through Brayogo Safaris, a local Kenyan company. Our guide Okeno, was the owner of the company. We also had the convenience of a driver – Steven – who we called ‘binocular eyes’, due to his ability to spot animals no one else would notice.
Torrential rains welcomed us to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya, and home to Nakuru National Park. When we stopped in town to get more cash, Okeno said the park was only five minutes away. How is it possible to have a park that contains every game animal except the elephant right next to a big town?
It is possible through extensive fencing. Nakuru National Park is famous for pink flamingos, but it contains much more. The pink flamingos get their color from algae that grow in the saline lake. Recent rains had diluted the salinity of the lake, and now there were thousands, instead of hundreds of thousands lining the shores.
The park is heavily patrolled, and boasts a large rhino population that would be poached in larger parks. The Chinese, claiming some aphrodisiac quality, will pay up to $60,000 for a single rhino horn. What is wrong with these people – can we buy them some Viagra and save the rhinos?
Because of its small size, elephants are not brought into the park. They require substantial daily food, and would soon knock down trees to get at the overhanging vegetation.
After checking in at the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, we begin our first game drive. Less than fifteen minutes later, we spot a safari van stopped on the side of the road. Twenty feet away, sleeping on an overturned tree, is a magnificent lion. Because of the wet conditions in the park, lions, and leopards climb trees to stay dry. This was a beast, with gigantic paws, heavily muscled hindquarters, and a thick neck, elegantly festooned with a ginger mane.
Clicking away, we must have disturbed his slumber, as he stretched around, gave us a stare, and bellowed a half-hearted roar, before turning back around and continuing to nap.
We continue around the lake, spotting baboon, gazelle, monkeys that look like skunks (Colerus), and a spotted eagle. Passing from heavy woods to open plains, we stand in the van and scan the underbrush. Steven stops and backs up. ‘A lioness up there’ he says, pointing uphill. Grabbing binoculars, we scan the brush. Sure enough, there she sits, her head just above the grass line. How did he see that?
On the other side of the lake, we see our first white rhinos. Okeno explains the difference between a black rhino (very rare) and a white rhino. Besides a difference in the shape of their mouths, a baby white rhino follows her mother while a baby black rhino leads, and its mother follows. Or was it the other way around?
The CB radio crackles to life (all safari vans have one to communicate animal spottings). A leopard has been spotted! Steven speeds to the location, but by the time we arrive, the leopard is long gone. We move slowly, just maybe we will pick up its trail and catch a glimpse. We work our way up a hill, and arrive at a lookout point that presents a stunning panorama of Lake Nakuru below. The glassy surface reflects the puffy cumulus clouds, as a necklace of pink flamingos outline the shoreline.
A group of school kids in pink uniforms are on a field trip. We comment that they match the flamingos and take a group portrait. We offer to send them the picture, and ask their teacher what his email is. He is a little embarrassed and admits that he does not have a computer, much less email. In fact, their school has no pens – the kids share stubby pencils. We get his address and promise to send pictures and pens when we get home.
That evening we go on another game drive and there is a report of a black rhino spotting. Okeno is excited and says it would be a rare opportunity. Six vans are already parked when we arrive at the location. Everyone is looking at a mother and her baby. After a while, Okeno says it is a white rhino, and that the person who called it a black rhino is wrong, and should be disqualified as a guide. And I was just trying to figure out if the baby was following her mother or if she was following her baby.
The next day we start out a little later. Fog hangs over the park, and faint images of rhinos and zebras move through the haze. As the sun breaks through, we spot two lions on the side of the road – Okeno says they are likely brothers. One limps off into the bush – it looks like his paw is damaged – and his brother tenderly follows. We drive on and start the two-hour circuit of the lake.
As we drive through a flat, grassy area, there is a glint of white in the corner of my eye. I turn and cannot believe my eyes. A leopard, there to the side is a leopard! How did Steven miss him?
As I shout ‘look, leopard, a leopard, stop, stop’, it climbs to the other side of the fallen tree. We are thrown forward as Steven brakes hard.
Steven jams it into reverse, executes a perfect safari Y-turn, and drives to the other side of the tree. The leopard again slithers away. Okeno is now shouting instructions, like the commander on a battleship. Again, we back up and get into position. The leopard again outflanks our position, and then sneaks into the tall grass. Okeno silently debates whether to follow. Going off the road incurs a heavy fine and possible banishment from the park if caught.
Each of us has a competing agenda – Okeno wants the perfect photograph, Steven does not want to damage the van on hidden rocks, I don’t want to get caught by the ranger, while my wife is worried that the van will start the dry grass on fire. There is a moment of confusion and paralysis.
Okeno shouts something in Swahili – a decision is made. Off road we go, as we follow the crushed grass trail of the leopard. My camera is ready. His head pops up – a picture is snapped. We roll forward and the trail suddenly stops. Where did he go? We scan the grass with binoculars and see nothing. The leopard has disappeared into thin air.
We tell Okeno to get back on the road before we are caught – we have our photos. As we back up, I flip the replay on the camera, and there it is – the elusive leopard, head peeking above the grass searching for an escape route. We are fortunate – most visitors do not see this sleek animal.
Steven and Okeno are thrilled they found a leopard for their clients. As we return to the lodge, we kid back and forth, as I remind them who really found the leopard. We tease Steven – that he must have been daydreaming as he drove right past the leopard. We have a good laugh.
Nakuru National Park has it all – easy access to big game animals, four hundred varieties of birds, thousands of pink flamingos, and a monkey that looks like a skunk.
Not to mention, an elegant and elusive leopard that disappeared into thin air – splendor in the grass.