Last year my work took me around the world, from Auckland in February, to Rhode Island and Boston in October, with several European countries in between. I vowed to try and slow down in 2019, my seventieth year. It hasn’t quite worked out.
I’m writing this en route for Seattle where I’m running our first West Coast Dark Angels course with our US associate Richard Pelletier, a gifted writer and good friend. We’re holding the three-day workshop on board a 65-foot motor yacht, De Anza. It belongs to creativity guru Ted Leonhardt, who came on our last US course and liked it so much he offered to host the next one. It promises to be an extraordinary experience for all concerned.
But here I want to write about a different trip, to a continent I hadn’t visited for more than 30 years. At the invitation of my old and generous friend Pramod Bhasin, whom I’ve mentioned here before, Sarah and I travelled in May to Nairobi and from there to the Maasai Mara for a six-day private safari (photographic, I hasten to add). We were eight in the party: the two of us, Pramod and his partner Malavika, two friends of theirs, Rajat and Anita Gupta, and two guides, James Robertson, chairman of Ker & Downey, the safari company, and Paolo Parazzi, his young associate.
The Maasai Mara is a scene from the dawn of the world. Punctuated only by lone acacias and occasional stands of other trees, a cropped green lawn rolls away as far as the eye can see in every direction, and in every direction there is nothing but wildlife. These creatures are in their natural, untamed state. The reserves are so vast, hundreds or even thousands of square miles in area, that there is no sense of enclosure. In fact, we were not in the reserve proper, but a neighbouring ‘conservancy’ area. Here local farmers are encouraged to engage with conservation and are compensated by the government for limiting the amount of grazing they permit their cattle and goats within the area’s boundaries.
Within a few minutes of touching down on the bush landing strip, we had spotted a pair of cheetahs, brothers, lying in the sun grooming one another. Later that afternoon we watched a leopard dragging her kill up into a tree. Over the next three days we saw a pack of hyenas crunching their way through the bones of an eland, freshly killed by lions; lionesses and their cubs strolling out in the soft dawn light; giraffes sailing stiff-legged through the bush; the dark, irascible figures of Cape buffalo; legions of skittish gazelles and everywhere humpbacked wildebeest. In all that time we saw just one other vehicle. It carried a glum-looking honeymoon couple, the only other people staying in our camp.
From Maasai Mara we flew to East Tsavo, taking the scenic route across the Rift Valley and past Kilimanjaro, its summit shrouded in cloud. A few miles short of the camp we came upon the winding muddy Galana River. The pilot swooped down and for a thrilling ten minutes we followed its course, flying below the level of the tops of the trees lining the banks, our wheels almost brushing the water in which hippos and crocodiles basked.
We were the first visitors to the luxurious, newly refurbished camp, perched on the riverbank. At night we heard the deep, reverberating grunts of the hippos as they sploshed their way back into the water after grazing along the banks. By day we could see them half submerged, brown boulders breaking the muddy surface.
In Tsavo the volcanic soil is red as rust. So are the elephants, their skin powdered from bathing in the dust. Over the next three days we saw several hundred, sometimes at close quarters: solitary young browsing bulls, small family groups making their way through the bush, and larger congregations drinking at water holes.
Aged eighteen and in Kenya on my gap year I had been involved in an incident with elephants that had left me shaken. Now I felt apprehensive about such close encounters. But safe in our vehicles, and in the expert hands of our guides, I need not have worried. This time it was elephants more than any other animal in whose presence I felt humbled and connected.
Elephants move with slow, purposeful grace. They care for one another. They are at one with their surroundings. They speak to something that I am not alone in finding deeply touching and restorative; something about community and kindness and respect that I can understand as a human being. In their presence I have never had a stronger sense that we are all one with the fragile planet we inhabit. The idea that they might one day be gone, at our hands, is a stark reminder of everything we need to put right about our stewardship of it.