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Beauty and the Beast

  • Kenya

    The sky is a mass of flaming orange as I step off the airplane onto the tarmac. Kenya was going to be my getaway into the wilds of Africa. Nairobi, however, was a delightful shock. Kenya’s majesty may lie in her game reserves but the star of the show is Nairobi, its capital.

    Nairobi is happening, cool and hep. Looks nothing like a third-world country. There are nightclubs, bars, discos, trams, imported cars, beautifully laid-out roads, a gleaming skyline, a huge duty free port, and cuisines from across the globe.

    I was booked with a slick tour operator so on arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta airport I was whisked off in a limousine, no less--to my charming hotel. Most hotels in Kenya have an old world charm to them, very European in service and feel. A left over from the colonial masters, it lends a feeling of eternity to the columns and arches in our bayside room.

    The first stop in the evening is the exclusive Safari Club that has a ‘Cat Dance’ every night because it’s the first watering hole any tourist hits in Nairobi. An exotic dance on drumbeats and bells, lithe women spar with their men on stage. It is said that the music moves to their fluted bodies, not the other way round. All this while we sit under the star-lit sky, on our small, terraced alcove drinking everything from cocktails to champagne to the humble Kenyan beer. The buffet is spread out on live coals; the night is blue and hungry for both the taste of delicious meats and curries and the sound of love.

    From small beginnings, Nairobi (in Masai it means ‘ Place of cold water’) grew from being a pitstop on the slave route between Mombassa and East Africa to the world’s largest duty free port.

    Every Tuesday, which is market day, the city is full of tribesmen, craftsmen and artisans who come from as far as Serengeti (which could take days of travel). They bring handmade bamboo, ebony and marble, coral, wood, beads and glass handicrafts, play on the drums and sing in their bass voices to attract the passers-by.

    The Indians -- mostly Sindhis and South Indians – that one meets at the malls in Nairobi or at the umpteen social eventsare in the big league. With their old money, you see chauffeurs, uniformed matrons, house cleaners, ayahs clucking behind baby strollers, and a fleet of cars (mostly Mercedes).

    The next night we go to sharpen our fangs at The Carnivore, an unbelievable restaurant, where every type of meat you can imagine is served the way you like it. Venison, zebra, eland (a type of antelope) alligator and crocodile meat -- you name it, they have it. No self-respecting meat-eating tourist can afford to miss eating steaks here.

    Passing through the vast Kikuyu farms, on the slopes of Mount Kenya, we arrive at the luxurious Mount Kenya Safari Club, known as the legendary sanctuary of the millionaires of the world. It is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. The service is incredible: hot water bottles between the sheets every night when you come back from your stupendous meal of sorbets interspersed with continental and French food, a roaring fire in the living room of the suite, cool wine buckets laid out in the evening, and wild fawns and antelopes pecking at your lawn each morning as you view the rising sun from behind Mt. Kilimanjaro.

    One night is reserved for a formal seven-course meal complete with serenading; your partner had better be wearing his dinner jacket. In the list of what to bring it has been suggested that a tux and an evening gown are mandatory at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. It was for this very night. The children are packed off to the nursery for their entertainment and meals with a babysitter, and you were left to live it up for that one night.

    Hollywood’s William Holden created this property for kings, queens and the czars of Hollywood so they could party away from the paparazzi. Just experiencing the linen on your chaise logue, the porcelain on the table, and the cookies on tea trays makes the illusion complete: You are royalty!

    Holden also created a private zoo, comparable to any international public zoo, called The Orphanage, which houses the most exquisite creatures that are amazingly user friendly. Extinct Bongo, an animal I’ve never seen or heard of before, a 100-year old tortoise, which is so big my son rode on it, are housed here. Zebroids (zebras crossed with horses), rhinos you can actually pat without becoming a part of history, baboons, apes, chimps, llamas you can feed, and gambol roam around at The Orphanage. These are either orphans found in the wild or are especially bred because they are found nowhere else in the world.

    The places to visit for a safari are innumerable. Our trip inwards takes us through the Kikuyu Farms to the Sweet Waters Camp where we live in 5-star tents, each tent complete with running water, commodes, dressing rooms, lights and lavish bunk beds. And then there’s the most awesome view of animals coming to drink at the watering hole.

    The Aberdare Forests and Lake Nakuru, where you see pink flamingoes and 400 other species of birds, are for game drives.

    Then there is the Masai Mara National Reserve, one of the best-known and most popular reserves in Africa. Seasoned safari travelers often admit that the Masai Mara is one of their favorite places. The annual migration of millions of wildebeest, tope (pronounced ‘topi’), and zebra from the Masai Mara in Kenya to Tanzania’s Serengeti is the greatest wildlife show on earth. The “Big 5” – the lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard -- have survived in this wilderness, and one drives around in open-roofed vehicles catching sight of the beasts, as well as ostrich, impalas, deer, giraffes, vultures, eagles, and an occasional rare sight of the Servo cat. Millions and millions of wildebeest and zebra cross the Masai Mara by wading through a river, which is so rocky and infested with crocodiles that it was a task watching them reach the other side.

    The zebras are swift-footed so they clamber over the rocks and swim through the narrow borage. Crocodiles avoid them for they could land themselves some vicious kicks from the zebras. It is the wildebeest that are slow and fleshy and are unable to swim who get caught in the jaws of the crocodiles or slip on the rocks and drown in the swirling waters.

    The Masai Mara lies in the Great Rift Valley, which is a fault line some 3,500 miles long, from Ethiopia's Red Sea through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and into Mozambique. Here the valley is wide and a towering escarpment can be seen in the hazy distance. Most of the game-viewing activities occur on the valley floor, but some lodges conduct walking tours outside the park boundaries in the hills of the Oloololo Escarpment.

    The animals are also at liberty to move outside the park into huge areas known as 'dispersal areas'. There can be as much wildlife roaming outside the park as inside. Many Masai villages are located in the 'dispersal areas' and they have, over centuries, developed a synergetic relationship with the wildlife.

    There are four main types of topography in the Mara: the Ngama Hills to the east with sandy soil and leafy bushes liked by black rhino; the Oloololo Escarpment forming the western boundary and rising to a magnificent plateau; Mara Triangle bordering the Mara River with lush grassland and acacia woodlands supporting masses of game especially migrating wildebeest; and the Central Plains forming the largest part of the reserve, with scattered bushes and boulders on rolling grasslands favored by the plains game.

    The Masai Mara and its variegated experiences are a powerful reminder of why channels like Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic thrive. It’s beauty at its majesty and brilliance. Watching lions mate, crocodiles eating wildebeest, zebras running in a swarm across the grasslands, giraffes running so slow you are scared for them. It’s a land that brings you the glamour of power and the sensitivity of the weak in one package deal.

    You are just glad you are alive, here and now!

    - Courtesy India Life and Style


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