The border

The Serengeti plains dominate most pictures of Africa’s wilderness in our culture today, perhaps driven largely by the ease of making movies there. It is possible that Howard Hawkes’ movie, Hatari!, starring John Wayne has something to do with it. It was made almost exactly when Tanzania and Kenya became independent, and may have been seen as a template for earning precious foreign exchange. Having seen the iconic movie at an age when I was not sure whether I preferred to be human or rhino, it was only a matter of time before I came to the gates of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The district around the reserve is one of the last remnants of the Maasai expansion of the 19th century. As we approached the reserve we saw more and more of the Maasai, recognizable by their colourful shukas (the blanket worn around their shoulders). The Maasai are symbolic of the great changes that colonialism brought to Africa. In spite of their reputation as killers of lions, the Maasai beliefs in the sacredness of soil ensured that they lived in equilibrium with their new lands. The territorial expansion of a small population also made sure that their impact on the land remained small.

As at Njoro, my house looks over the Rongai Valley and, as at Njoro, the Mau Forest broods in resigned silence, close on the edges of fields fresh robbed of their ancient trees.
—West with the Night, Beryl Markham

They have not fared well since the beginning of the 20th century. The desperation with which the people around the gate of the reserve tried to sell us hand-crafted wood or beaded jewellery was an indicator of their marginal existence. The Maasai counted their wealth in cattle, and were completely dependent on it for food. Now, with land fenced off, and wealth having a different function, the Maasai are still having trouble reconciling their faith and traditions with the twenty first century.

The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the degradation of the human population.
—North of South, Shiva Naipaul

We paid our entrance fee to the park and passed easily through the gate into the reserve. But for the Maasai tribesmen, this barrier has become as impermeable as any international border since the area was declared a game reserve in 1961. I would rather have a sanctuary for wildlife than not. But as the border opened to us and we passed through into a dream of another century, I had enough knowledge of history to know that this refuge was made necessary by the colonial greed which cleared forests across the world and replaced them by tea and coffee plantations, and enough knowledge of animals to know that many antelopes, lions, elephants, and leopards can live in forests as well as in grassland.

The dust of Amboseli

I’d read that Amboseli was dusty. In anticipation I was carrying a breathing mask with a filter in my pockets and had left my camera in my backpack. The Family was prepared to breathe through a dupatta, that all-purpose face mask and head cover that she always has handy, either worn or in a bag. The Mother of Niece Tatu was similarly equipped, and FONT didn’t seem to have any dust allergies. Even with all this preparation, the last few kilometers of the road was something that was astounding. The road was a river of deep dust, blown by winds. As we passed over it, we found ourselves in the middle of our private dust cloud. Part of it entered the car, even with all windows and doors shut.

I took the featured photo with my phone, and The Family got a matching photo (above) on the other side of the car. The environment of this park has been studied very intensively. It is fed by melt-water from Mount Kilimanjaro, and its climate history over the last few thousand years is now known. Although the weather has cycled over wet and dry periods, it has been drying over the last 500 years or so. I found a study conducted over the 25 years ending in 2001 which recorded a huge increase in temperature (almost 7 degrees Celcius over this period, ten times that due to global warming) and an increasing variability in rainfall.

Amboseli is considered one of the jewels of wildlife conservation efforts in Kenya. But even here one finds man-animal conflict as the Masai turn from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. The growth of land ownership means that animals are excluded from certain patches of land. Combined with the long term local climate trends, this has resulted in a decrease of wildlife numbers (counted over something like half a century) and some local extinctions. We were outside the park when we took these photos, and it is clear that it is not the most hospitable of places. The park was dry, but not as dry as this. I could understand how man-animal conflict could rise, and how, unless the Masai see profit from tourism, the conservation effort may fail in the very long run.

After all this flying through dust when we reached the lodge it turned out that we had time for a shower and a nice lunch before leaving on our first safari. The prologue sounds scary, but our experience in Amboseli was wonderful, as you will see from my photos in the coming days.