In search of the lion (part one)

We rose before the sun, our mission for the day–wildlife. The early bird might catch the worm, but the early risers on safari day might catch sight of a big cat, an iconic image of Africa.

Our hands put together sandwiches and other lunch fixings for the day, even if our eyes weren’t totally open or our minds fully awake. We boarded two vans that would drive us the nearly two hours to Lake Nakuru National Park. It was Tuesday, the second to last day of our trip. Our hearts were full of feelings, our minds full of memories and our bodies full of aches and pains from painting and hiking.

By the time we left, darkness was not far from lifting. Still, some of us slept on the way there. The time for seeing would come later. Sleep was necessary now.

We pulled into the game park, eyes open wide now, alert and expectant because this was not a zoo and animals could be anywhere.

First, we encountered ostriches.

I forget how big animals are in the wild

I forget how big animals are in the wild

And then baboons. Monkeys ran rampant at the park. It’s a bit terrifying at times.

Honk if you love monkeys

Honk if you love monkeys

And fascinating. They’re not exactly scared of vehicles, so they’re just going about their business. We would see large groups of baboons  sitting or traveling along the roads. We all fell a little in love with the mamas and babies, but baboons are a nuisance, generally, so best not to coo too much.

I’m not sure I can forget the sight of zebra on the side of the road, both in the park and on the way there. Like we would see horses or cows grazing in fields, Kenya’s fields are full of zebra.

Why did the zebra cross the road?

Why did the zebra cross the road?

A safari like this is not a passive experience, even though someone else is driving. We traveled in pop-top vans so that we could stand up and see out without ever leaving the vehicle. I can’t lie. This was my favorite part of the trip. Outside. Nature. Wildlife. A cool breeze in my face. I soaked up every minute of it and didn’t want it to end.

I promise you, I'm having a good time. I'm just terrible at selfies.

I promise you, I’m having a good time. I’m just terrible at selfies.

Our missionary friends told us where to look to spot a cat in a tree. Low, horizontal branches are ideal for leopards, they said, so our eyes searched the trees on either side of us, desperate for a beautiful and terrifying glimpse of a cat in a tree.

It’s hard work, your eyes ever searching the land around you for a chance to see something that doesn’t necessarily want to be seen. My eyes grew tired of squinting. I didn’t have a pair of sunglasses on me during the entire trip to Kenya. The gentle hum and lull of the van nearly put me to sleep. My eyes were inches from closing when we happened upon a tower of giraffes. (I looked that up–that’s really what a group of giraffes are called!)

No words

No words

They were so close to the vans.

Beautiful

Beautiful

Magnificent. Graceful. Amazing. Whatever word you come up with to describe them, it’s not enough.

We stayed in the giraffe grove for a while, sighing and taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Were we really seeing this? Gorgeous.

It was a turning point in the safari, I think. We had been seeing some amazing sights along the way, but there was an undercurrent of anticipation. We wanted to see some of the good stuff. (As if it all wasn’t good. I personally need a lesson in gratitude and appreciation.)

I’m a big fan of water, looking at it, at least, and I was not expecting Kenya to have so much of it. Africa, in general, brings to mind heat and sand and desert. But central Africa is lush and rich in natural beauty, water included. In fact, the lake for which this park is named, Lake Nakuru, is currently flooded, which has affected the migration of flamingoes and has diverted the roads throughout the park. Flooding. In Africa. Who’d have thought?

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

We lunched with the flamingoes as if this was an ordinary day in the park by the lake.

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It’s not as though we found animals around every bend, but every turn, every dirt road led us somewhere that was brimming with possibility. Would it be around the next turn that we saw a lion? What about a rhinoceros? My eyes roamed the fields and the trees, unwilling to miss any possibility, even if the chances were slim.

Each time we passed another touring van, the drivers would stop and exchange a few words, pointing each other in the right direction because no grouping of animals stays in the same place all the time.

This was how we found the rhinos.

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We received a tip from another tour group who told our drivers where a group had been spotted. (Google tells me a group of rhinos is called a “crash.” Seriously? Oh, my word.)

As the day wore on, our chances of seeing a big cat dwindled. No cats had been seen by any group in the park that day. Early mornings are often when the big cats feast on a kill, and while we saw vultures hovering, there was no way for us to get to that spot to see if perhaps a lion was eating a carcass.

We stopped at the lodge in the park, an expensive resort-like place, to use bathrooms and take a break. Our drivers, remember, had been driving constantly all day. Bless them. They were doing a paid job, but still, it was a demanding job. And they both did it well.

At the lodge, they told us they had heard the roar of a lion they day before. I cannot even imagine what that sounds like. The vultures were almost certainly circling over a kill, but it was inaccessible to us.

It was likely our search for the lion would turn up empty.

To be continued…