The past is a foreign country

The famous opening phrase of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, came to mind when my photos app reminded me of where I was a year ago: Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The phrase was apparently first used by Hartley’s friend, David Cecil, in a lecture in 1949. We all plagiarize our past, and I am nostalgic enough about having lived in that foreign planet where travel was easy, to post this video today.

Tourism made up approximately 10% of Kenya’s GDP in the past decade, with some year-to-year variation. The shock that COVID-19 has had on travel however will have much wider impact than this number suggests. According to a study commissioned by the World Bank it’ll impact the net earning of the rural poor by almost 15%, of the government by about 10%, and of enterprises by a number more or less midway between these. These huge impacts are similar to what is happening across the world.

Thick-knees and Geese

We’d left the lodge when it was still dark, and now we’d spent about three hours on the drive. I was beginning to feel hungry. There was some trail mix and some fruits to keep us going for a while, so I didn’t mind when we stopped at a little pool of water to look for birds. There must be many such pools around, because this wasn’t thickly populated. The first one I spotted had noticeably long legs and knobby knees. A thick-knee clearly. It turned out to be the water thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus) We were lucky to see this nocturnal bird, perhaps it was half asleep, or just a little late in seeking cover. Little seems to be known about this bird except that we were in one of its breeding ranges.

A fixture at all water bodies in the Maasai Mara, at least in this season, is the Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca). We saw a pair here. This was the closest I ever got to one, and got to take this very satisfying photo which shows that little fleck of orange on its beak.

But the most intriguing sighting was this little bird, standing on what could be its nest. I haven’t yet managed to identify it, and any help would be highly appreciated. Could it be the Golden pipit? It has been seen before in the Mara triangle. But this one lacked a crest and the black neck markings of the male. The photos I have seen of the female are very drab, not the bright yellow that it looks here.

Another Safari Lodge

When we walked into our room in the lodge at Maasai Mara, I was simultaneously enchanted and mildly disappointed. Enchanted, because of the balcony which looked over a seemingly endless plain, with the Mara river faintly visible in the distance, and mildly disappointed at the size of the room, compared to the “tent” we had in Amboseli. Later, when we heard lions roaring at night, the sturdiness of the door which you see in the featured photo would become a major point of concern for The Family. As it turned out, we spent very little time in the room, and I thought I was quite satisfied with it.

I can’t say that experience of two safari lodges has given me any insight into the design of such facilities, but what I did notice was the effort that is made to blend in. This one sat on top of an escarpment, and was surrounded w=by giant masts for antennae. Someone had the interesting idea of disguising them as trees. It is laughable, because the masts were so much higher than trees, but at the same time, the idea was charming. The artificial lines of the lodge were almost hidden by the artfully placed trees around it. The disturbance to the local ecosystem was small enough that we could do a bit of bird-watching at breakfast.

I liked the colour scheme that had been chosen. The aesthetics of the earth colours was local, and the design elements of wavy lines and spots was also something I’d seen used by local artists many times. This skylight at the reception was eye-catching. This lodge was the closest to the equator that we’d spent: it was 1 degree, 24 minutes, and 9 seconds south of the equator, according to a board outside the lobby. The reason I was comfortable in a jacket after sundown was because we were also 1625 meters above mean sea level. Most of Kenya seems to have much more pleasant weather than India.

The Family and I agreed that the dining area was nice. The bright colour scheme and large doors made sure that there was always enough natural light during the day. If you wanted, you could take your food out into the balconies. The grasslands of Africa are not home to monkeys, so there was no chance that your food would be stolen, or worse, that you would be held hostage by a tribe of monkeys. Birds hopped on to the table as we ate, but they didn’t seem to be particularly interested in our food. This was a lodge we wouldn’t mind going back to.

The Mara Triangle

We were to spend a couple of days inside the Mara triangle. This is a part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve which lies across the Mara river. Our reasoning was that living close to Mara would give us a better chance of seeing wildebeest crossing the river. This western end of the reserve, between the Mara river and the Oloololo escarpment, has been managed by a non-profit called the Mara Conservancy since the beginning of this century.

The gate house at the entrance was geared to taking cash, but when I asked whether they would take card, a ranger unpacked a card scanner. The Mara Conservancy works with local villagers to create game and anti-poaching patrols. I saw no patrols in the next days, although it must be working, given the large number of animals we saw. Why so many skulls on display? Stephen, our guide, said that this is part of the conservancy measure. I suppose there must be some rules about the disposal of poached animals.

We were eager to pass through the gate. We got into the Landrover, and drove up to the gatekeepers. They raised the booms, and we were in, past the Mara river, rushing forward like an excited wildebeest.