Monday, June 1, 2009

A Kenyan Field Journal: Simba

During a recent cleaning session in my house I stumbled upon my photo album from an educational trip to Kenya in 1995. I spent five weeks there with 31 other students studying wildlife management with the School for Field Studies. It changed my life.

Sometime after returning I wrote five essays on my experiences and stashed them in the photo album. I had forgotten about them until this past week. They are entitled The Rain, Bright Sun, Night, Simba, and The Rift in the Heart of Africa. Reading them brought back so many wonderful and thrilling memories. I'm posting them here mainly for the benefit of two friends I met there who have become friends for life: Dave and Agnes. Photos were taken by me during my adventure, clicking on them will enlarge them. Enjoy!


I will never forget the first time I saw a lion. The day is as fresh in my mind as if it were just this morning. It was the 22nd of July, 1995, two days after I arrived in Kenya. We were to leave the fenced-in, and usually big cat-free, confines of Jua Kali for the open plains of Nairobi National Park. NNP is probably the strangest of all national parks in Kenya because you can be gazing at wild creatures with the Nairobi skyline in the background. It's that close to the capital city. But, the animals don't seem to mind. Most of the big "charismatic megafauna" are there: lions, cheetahs, leopards, even rhinos. The only tourist attraction missing is the elephant.

Thirty-two students were divided up into four open-topped Land Cruisers and armed with 70-200 mm zoom lenses. That morning as we rode past the gates, onto the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and past the Ngong Hills (which Karen Blixen made so famous an upscale Nairobi suburb is named after her) I was full of anticipation. I knew we wouldn't see elephants, but I was really hoping to see a lion. I've always had a thing for big cats.

As we drove up to the gates of NNP we had to wait in a line of Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and jambo wagons. Jambo is the Swahili word for hello and usually the only word a tourist bothers to learn. Whenever you drive by a minivan full of tourists they always yell "jambo!" thinking they're being so clever.

Most of the natives, who see right through this, call these jambo wagons. That afternoon I quickly learned to despise jambo wagons, not because of the annoying jambos yelled from their roofs, but because of the need for them to get the perfect shot - with their camera of course.

The first animals we saw were hartebeest, or kongoni, as our intern Rob told the group. This immediately made me realize what I had had for lunch the previous day. David served this wonderfully lean meat stir-fry. When I asked him what kind of meat it was he said "kongoni!" with a big smile. I assumed it was the Swahili word for cow. Now I realized otherwise, it sure was tasty though.

We also saw ostriches, black rhino with enormous horns - being as they were on heavily guarded land - and zebras. Our group came upon the strangest birds I had ever seen. These enormous maribou storks would probably have come up to my chest if I stood next to one, and they actually nest in trees at night! Very strange. And there were gazelles, cape buffalo (that were scarier than the storks), waterbucks and many more exotic mammals and birds that I could count.

As we came up a hill we were on a road that was about to converge with a pack of jambo wagons. Our driver, Mboya, leaned out the window and asked one of the jambo wagon drivers something in Swahili and the simple reply was "simba". My heart soared! I had seen "The Lion King" enough times to know that simba meant lion. There was a lion nearby. Unfortunately, there were also five jambo wagons crowding the poor thing. From one of the vehicles a man whistled to get the lion to turn for a better picture. The lion glanced at him then lost interest. Luckily for us students tourists have short attention spans. Within five minutes they were badgering their drivers to move on: been there done that.

Once the jambo wagons cleared out we were able to approach the lion. My heart soared again: there was a second lion lying in the thick red oat grass. Males, probably brothers, recently expelled from the pride by their father. They still had faint brown spots on their legs that had darker when they were cubs. I had never seen a wild lion before. I had never seen a lion this close before. They seemed used to people gawking at them. The two were lounging in the oat grass at the top of the hill, lazy as only lions are allowed to be. But they always kept an eye on us. A golden, beautiful eye.

These were the eyes of kings, kings who only hunt when they're hungry and sleep twenty hours a day. The pair were obviously being disturbed from their mid-day snooze. Their manes were as golden as their eyes, tipped with the faintest of black. To this day I am still amazed at how massive their heads were. Their jaws must have been enormous. Their noses were larger than my fist.

We observed them quietly, jotted down Pantera leo like we were supposed to in our field journals, and took our leave. I'd like to say we left them in peace but as we started down the hill two more jambo wagons were making their way up. Poor creatures we are.


  1. Wow. I imagine you had a feeling of being overwhelmed with so many sights to take in, plus observations of such a different culture.

    It is sad though. We as in Americans should learn by observing these other cultures. Many times their simpler ways exceed all that we have spent millions of dollars trying to figure out. (Respecting nature and our environment) And we still don't have it right.

    And seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is awesome. I hate zoos and seeing bars placed around these wonderful creatures.
    Great material.

  2. Rae,
    I can tell you, when I came back I had complete reverse culture shock. I slept in my sleeping bag on the floor for a week, I couldn't take the luxury of my bed! And everything I ate seemed too rich and fatty, all I wanted was lean game meat that I knew spent its life happily grazing overlooking all those amazing sights. sigh.

    I hope it stays wild enough to show my children some day. thanks for reading!

  3. The photos look great! I am So jealous. Congrats on the award! Again jealous.

    What does it mean that my word verification was retard?

  4. I also want to add that climate change badge and line drying post to my site too. Will you come over soon and show me?

  5. Bev - sure thing! next time I need a little break from the spazosaurus I will cut and past the code in.

  6. Wow what an adventure! I have always wanted to go on a safari! I will someday... and probably in the not so far off future, so I may have to come back and pick your brain for suggestions!

    I imagine the culture shock both coming and going would be huge! The noise factor alone would have to be amazing! I live in a fairly urban area here in PA, so going to the middle of nowhere... well that would be very cool!

  7. Yes, I love the enormous felines, too. I've seen horrible videos of entertainment lions mauling their trainers. I've seen videos of lions in the wild. I'm sure neither of those can prepare one for the experience of seeing them in the wild. Frightening and exhilarating?


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