Sunday, August 8, 2010
Into the wild...
I awarded myself the day off on Saturday in honour of Louis Leakey's birthday (What do you mean you didn't celebrate? Me neither...I just looked it up on Wikipedia now.) and went down to Nairobi National Park. Kenya's first national park, founded in 1946, has a slightly surreal air about it. It adjoins the city, you pass by Kibera to get there, and once in the park, there's no point from which you can't see the Nairobi skyline, villages on the park's other borders, and jets from Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson Airports coming in to land.
Back in the day, the park was quite controversial. Leopards moved into the Karen and Langata 'burbs, eating dogs and housecats. Lions raided the stock of neighbouring farmers, prompting complaints and calls for a compensation scheme. And a Mrs Lennox-Browne upbraided the park's trustees for not allowing the students of her riding school to take their horses into the lion-infested open ground...really, it's a small miracle that the British lasted as long as they did in some of these places (KNA. KW 13/31). The first director of the Kenya Royal National Parks was Colonel Mervyn Cowie, most certainly one of the old school, but possessed of a comparatively forward-looking vision for the future of wildlife in Kenya (then, of course, still a British colony). Cowie himself comes across from the archival evidence as a hail-well-met kind of fellow, and you can imagine him waffling over a memo, walrus moustache aflutter, calling to an aide, 'I say old boy, can't you call that farmer chappie over so we can discuss his dead cattle over a G & T like civilised human beings? No need for him to go blazing about with that bloody shotgun...jolly bad form, what! And tell that ghastly Lennox-Browne woman I've been eaten by crocodiles on the Mara'. (To be fair, I made up the moustache.)
Cowie and his trustees had any number of pressing issues to discuss as they got the park up and running. In November of 1946 they minuted that 'some discussion followed on the best kind of dress for native rangers and two types were favoured: a) tribal retainer's type with loin cloth and native headdress--as possibly adding interest for visitors, b) the askari type of uniform--as possibly carrying more authority' (KNA. KW 13/31). Needless to say, the 'askari type' prevailed--as unencumbering as it might have been, a loincloth would undoubtedly have made a ranger's fieldwork a prickly business.
On Saturday, giraffe, eland, impala, hartebeest, zebra, ostriches and warthogs were much in evidence. So, according to the driver of the open-topped van, was a large male lion hiding up in the bush. It looked very much like a tree stump to me, but I wasn't about to judge the quality of his vision through his coke-bottle glasses. There were two Indian men in the van, and one of them crawled out onto the back of the vehicle, sprawling across the narrow bar to get a better view of the stump, calling out heroically, 'If it is my time, and I'm meant to go in this place, there's nothing to be done!' I almost suggested that if he really believed that he could spread himself over with chicken fat and run behind the car, but the small part of my brain that trades in common sense, and the rather larger bit that deals with self-preservation escorted the thought out of the premises and quietly clubbed it to death.
We also saw Cape buffalo. Big, rough-looking customers, those. The beady, nasty little eyes beneath the wide-slung horns of one of the beasts reminded me of someone. It wasn't until we were leaving the park that I realised if you'd put glasses on the thing it was the spitting image of Dick Cheney. I wonder if anyone's ever informed him of the resemblance...I must remember to write the dear man in his hospital bed.
But the park is really a remarkable place, and provides heartening evidence that people and wildlife (even big, potentially dangerous wildlife) can coexist in relative proximity. And it was more than a little breathtaking to see miles of acacia-dotted savanna roll out from the city, and to admire giraffes silhouetted against skyscrapers. Most importantly, I added a Black-bellied sunbird, a Hunter's sunbird, some type of longclaw or other, and an Abyssinian roller to the Life List, so all in all, a thoroughly good day.