A few years back, I had the great privilege of being guided through the African bush. In honor of World AIDS Day, December 1, and all of those loved and lost.
"Thou were my guide, philosopher, and friend." Alexander Pope
After breakfast, Jeffrey and I prepare for a bushwalk. Jeffrey, my guide while at the science/research camp, and the askari (guard), Epateti, will take me for my first safari on foot. This is my third trip to Africa, second to Kenya, and I have only witnessed the bush, the wild, from Landrover or jeep. I am beyond excited – both exhilarated and frightened.
Epateti is a retired ranger and anti-poaching guard for the Kenyan Wildlife Service. He worked for them for nearly forty years, training as a young boy. I say young boy, but they age differently here, in Africa. By age twelve or so, a boy may be considered more a man than boy, and responsibilities are often much greater than what one experiences in the States. He had killed fifteen poachers during his time with the KWS and some of those killed had not only poached wildlife but had attempted to kill KWS rangers as well.
Epateti has a wonderful smile. His skin is very dark, like black coffee, and the whites of his eyes are the color of weak tea. When he smiles, his eyes shine. He is lean and wiry. He is an older Turkana. I don't know his age, but he looks very old to me. Initially I wonder if someone “this old” is capable of guiding me through the bush, protecting me from possible danger. After all, I’ll be on foot, on equal ground with elephant, buffalo and lion. But that concern quickly fades as I realize that he would not be in charge of this safari if not extremely capable and respected. Forty years with the Kenyan Wildlife Service have honed his senses of the bush, of everything wild, and like no one else. I am told he should be addressed as “Mzee Epateti.” Mzee roughly means “old man” but is truly an address of respect. Unlike most Americans, Africans have great respect for their elders.
Jeffrey, a highly experienced Bronze Metal Guide does all the translating between Epateti and me. Jeffrey and Epateti communicate in Ki-Swahili. I am reminded that if we are encountered, especially by an aggressive, lone male buffalo, not to make a sound, not to run, but to quickly scout out my surroundings, and then, fast, drop to the ground! More times than not I am told not to run, dependent upon what animal poses threat. I understand this. I know if I run I will be chased. I will be seen as prey. But how does one turn off instinct coupled with adrenaline (not to mention abject fear!) and stay put, dropping flat to the ground? I hope I don’t have the opportunity to find out. Epateti will always be in the lead with his expert knowledge of the bush, and rifle. Jeffrey will be close behind. I will follow, closer still.
These two men, strangers to me, are leading me deep into the bush. I have signed an indemnity form saying that I understand I’m in the wilds of Africa and hold no responsibility toward the reserve/research center should anything happen to me. This is wild territory, the Laikipia region of Northern Kenya, not a theme park. Accidents happen and although rare, people are killed on this land. It is the way of life when you live in the bush. You share your home with the wild (better yet, the wild shares its home with you) and you learn to respect and appreciate what lives alongside you. And so, I am entrusting my safety to these men, these strangers until two days ago. Oddly enough, I have rarely felt safer.
Both men are experts on spoor and within minutes of our bushwalk they spot fresh buffalo and elephant prints. These are two animals you don’t necessarily want to disturb in the wild. A lone bull buffalo is extremely dangerous and alarmingly cunning, and elephants with baby or babies in tow do not tolerate close proximity. For all their girth and lumberous looks, they are fast and will run down a human in no time flat. There are only a few pockets of trees, mostly low dense scrub, which provides excellent cover for myriad smaller animals. Epateti stops and points a long, weathered finger towards the dusty earth. A leopard has been tracking here, fairly recently, and from the spoor just ahead of the leopard's, it appears to be tracking a baboon.
During the course of our bushwalk, I am educated on dung and spoor, blossoms, leaves and bark. We eat handfuls of wild berries along the way. I am shown plants which are used as natural insect repellents for animals, and made into chai (tea) and used as an anti-malarial remedy by the Turkana. While Jeffrey tells me about this plant, Epateti suddenly motions to halt and be silent. He has spotted fresh buffalo spoor followed by a flock of alarmed oxpecker birds taking flight. He points to a dense clump of bush ahead. Hidden in the thicket, a buffalo lurks. This is not a spot to linger. Quietly and on guard, we leave the area.
It is surprisingly hot this afternoon. Following a cool, damp morning, the sun, after hiding behind dense cloud cover, has pushed through hotter and brighter than expected. This stretch of bush has gotten flatter and more arid, the ground parched and dry. Epateti stops, looks skyward and squints towards the sun. He is animated and smiling broadly. He is talking rapidly to Jeffrey, to the sky, hands motioning to the sun, grinning and shaking his head. “What is he saying?” I ask. “Ah, ah,” Jeffrey nods. “Epateti is amazed,” he says, “that the same sun overhead now, this very sun, and the same sun with him every day, is the very same sun that you see and feel in America, many ocean’s away.” Epateti smiles, his eyes dancing, while Jeffrey translates his words.
These words and his excitement seem to have stemmed from a profound wonderment and appreciation of life, the planet, the universe, a higher spirit, and is evident on his expressive face. Suddenly, the dark, wrinkled face that looked so old and worn to me just hours before, appears young and smooth and vibrant. I smile at Epateti and ask Jeffrey to translate. “Please tell him that I am often amazed by the same thing. Just before I left for Kenya, I stood on my deck one evening and gazed up at a full moon and thought to myself, this is the very same moon being gazed upon by people in Africa.” Epateti nods and laughs, walking forward in the dust and sun, with his rifle, leading.
The three hours on foot pass quickly. We have covered over fifteen miles under a relentless midday sun and tired, we head back to camp. At the center, exhausted and sunburned, I join Jeffrey for a lunch of homemade samosas and pizza, fresh green beans and salad from the organic garden, and large juicy slices of melon.
Next morning, I rise early after a fairly decent night’s sleep. Only the sounds of distant lions, a few hyena roaming the camp, and snorting buffalo near my cottage disturb my otherwise peaceful sleep. Today, Jeffrey and I prepare for my second and more ambitious bushwalk. We join a smiling Epateti and once again, head into the wild. Jeffrey warns that this safari will lead much deeper into the bush than before and we must remain extremely quiet and vigilant. The area we will trek today has a denser animal population and yields more abundant vegetation for animals to hide behind or within.
With Epateti upfront, rifle poised and ready, we head into the deep thicket of thorn and scrub. We say little: pointing or a hushed whisper is our means of communication. More buffalo and rhino prints, herds of impala, a handful of zebra, an occasional warthog and other smaller mammals become part of our journey. I am constantly on the lookout for snakes and it serves me well to remember to look down from time to time. What can crawl or slither on the ground can be as lovely or as dangerous as what lies beside and above.
It is amazingly quiet in the bush. The dominant sounds are our breaths and the snapping of twigs and leaves beneath our weight. We are making way through deeper brush and bramble and Jeffrey is kind enough to hold back the larger branches that block our path. Constantly, the landscape changes, some areas so thick with vegetation it is more reflective of dense forest than bush or plain. Dark, smelling of damp, fecund earth, and soft underfoot, the forest pockets are suddenly a play of light and ominous shadow, dancing through limbs, lurking behind trunks, then out again into full, bright sunlight and open ground, arid, cracked and solid.