East Africa’s best kept secret
Today, as in Roosevelt and Charlie Cottar’s time, stories about dangerous animals are treated as badges of honour in the bush – but often it’s the less likely goings-on that catch the eye. I glimpse an African wildcat – a creature that looks like a domestic moggy that has mistakenly wandered from the suburbs into the savannah – scampering off into the distance. I spot a solitary wildebeest in the midst of a herd of bulky eland antelope. ‘A wildebeest with an identity crisis,’ Douglas nods sagely.
Everywhere there is some spectacle unfurling in the bush – part of some vast, never-ending drama of which safari-goers only ever catch the slightest snippet. Lumbering over a fold in the hillside comes a herd of elephants – their combined weight equalling that of an airliner – quietly and solemnly plodding past our vehicle. With their masses of crinkly skin, they seem like prehistoric impostors in the savannah – ‘some odd grim straggler from the Stone Age,’ as Churchill once put it during his travels aboard the Lunatic Express.
Our car climbs to the crest of one hill, where Douglas spies a lioness guarding a giraffe carcass from a mob of vultures. Having hunted the creature the previous night, her pride will return to dine out on their kill – but as she turns her back, the vultures shuffle forward and peck surreptitiously at the carcass. Suddenly, the lioness turns and lunges at the birds, swiping speculatively into a flurry of feathers, landing her paw right on top of one squawking vulture.
Seeing a big cat charging at such close range seems to trip some forgotten switch in your DNA – some reflex inherited from distant ancestors that quickens the pulse and sends a shiver down the spine. Primeval thrills like these are increasingly hard to come by in Kenya. In the century since the days of Roosevelt, big game populations have nosedived across the continent, and this region counts among the last wild pockets left in the country. Rhinos that would, in another time, have charged at the Lunatic Express are threatened with extinction; some predict that lions could disappear from Kenya in a few decades.
The role that the first safari expeditions have played in this tragedy is complicated. They were accomplices in colonialism, and helped engender the complacency that has brought destruction to big game populations across Africa. Yet the story of these expeditions remains a compelling one. These were some of the first times that outsiders witnessed the majesty of the continent’s wildlife. They would also be among the last times when humans were confronted by a land where creatures more powerful than themselves were sovereign.
We return to camp, where the earth takes on a rich caramel hue in the sunset. Soon the night air rings with the notes of swooning birds and the thuds of mammals plodding about nearby. Having heard stories of the Tsavo man-eaters, it’s difficult to lie in bed without calculating the odds of some claw slicing through the canvas of my tent, or to mentally rehearse jabbing at an intruding beast with the nearest available piece of furniture.
No claw arrives, but the soundtrack of the bush plays on outside the tent as it has done for time immemorial. Out of earshot nearby, lions will be grunting, baboons barking and elephants busy demolishing a tree. And somewhere far away from here, intermingled with this racket, is the whistle of the Lunatic Express, rattling on regardless into the night.