The Paris Hiltons of the Masai Mara

The good traveler doesn’t know where he’s going. The great traveler doesn’t know where he’s been. –Chuang Tzu

Every evening before retiring to our tents, Calvin says, “What would you boys like to do tomorrow?” and then before we can answer, he says, “I thought perhaps we’d…” and then he maps out an extremely appealing itinerary that we all enthusiastically agree to although we’ve learned by now that almost nothing that is proposed in the evening ever comes to pass the next day, which is just as well because what does happen is always superior to the original plan.

I was kidding Calvin about this at dinner last night and he said, “A safari is a journey. I don’t like to plan too much. Just let it unfold.”

So none of us were too surprised this morning when, just as the sun came up, we headed off in a Land Cruiser in search of Cape buffalos and instead spent several hours with a family of cheetahs who were out hunting. Calvin had stopped the vehicle on a bit of high ground overlooking a wide donga. The hills were brown with grass three or four feet high. Below that was a long stand of acacias and thick green shrub—a likely spot for feeding buffalos. Calvin was scanning the area around the donga when something caught his eye, high up on the grassy hill across from us.

“Cheetahs,” he said. “Three of them.”

He handed me the glasses and told me where to look, just above an outcropping of boulders at least a mile away, but I saw nothing.

“They’re there,” he said, putting the Land Cruiser into gear. “Let’s see if we can sneak up on them.”

Cautious zebra waiting to see what we're up to. Photos by David Lansing.

We cut through the high grass, moving slowly, keeping to the right of where Calvin had seen the cheetahs, crashing through thorny bushes and sinking into the occasional unseen warthog hole. The sun had just come up over the hills and that lovely cool feeling from the morning was gone, replaced by the still heat of the sun rising up over the Rift Valley. There was no breeze, which made it easier to move through the high grass without disturbing the herds of zebra and wildbeest feeding all around us. Sometimes we’d catch the notice of some zebra but at best they’d just stop their feeding, turn to face us, their heads up, ears alert, waiting for us to slowly pass on before going back to their grazing.

Wildebeest just waiting for someone to come by and eat them.

The ones you had to worry about spooking were the wildebeest. Because they are senseless creatures. If you believe in reincarnation and think that it is possible you might come back as an animal, pray that it is not as a wildbeest for they are the Paris Hiltons of the plains. It is as if they all have mad cow disease or are manic-depressive. They’ll swing their hips around and chase their tails, bucking crazily like an untamed horse and scatter to the four winds for no reason other than they momentarily felt giddy or perhaps a fly was on their shoulder.

The next minute, they’ll look dumbly on, staying stock still, as a pride of lions slouches towards them. They have powerful hind legs that, with a kick, could easily kill just about any beast, and curled horns sharper than knives that could shred raw flesh like a sushi chef yet it’s not unusual for them to stand idly by, looking almost bored, while a lion or some other beast eviscerates them, their guts and life spilling out from them with no fight at all until they simply fall over, already dead. It’s like they are the walking buffet meal of the African plains and they know it. Their primary defensive strategy, when being stalked, is to move to the center of the herd. But, of course, not everyone can move to the center of the herd. Or there would be no center. But they haven’t quite figured that out yet. Maybe in another three million years.