Feeding Vanessa the Kudu breakfast


One of the tribe

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I’ve heard for years and years and years about the crossing, and it had taken on for me epic, if not biblical, proportions. Not that I was counting near misses or close calls; those have always been plentiful in my life, but it was true that I’d narrowly escaped catching the migration of wildebeest across a river during the three times I’ve visited the Mara this past season.

Now at Kicheche Bush Camp, a luxury base of six tents nestled in the spare and stark landscape of a whistling thorn forest, we’ve come to visit for several days at the end of the migration season. The Mara, after plentiful rains, was still green, just beginning to turn gold. And while my friends from Alaska, dear friends with big eyes and open hearts and minds like fresh Greek sponges, weren’t prepared for all the wonder they would experience, I was waiting for something to happen. Something I’d never seen before. Cheetah with six cubs on a termite mound nestled underneath an acacia tree; three lion brothers playing bachelor out in the middle of the grasslands; giraffes necking and posing; a hyena chasing three eland and their calves across the horizon at a speed that defies logic. All breathtaking, all splendid, and still, I held back.

Yes, there was enough game to make the most jaded of safari camp travelers sit up and take pause. But it wasn’t until our third day out, way deep into the Mara wilderness, that I woke up.

We hit the Mara River at about noon that Saturday and already a few Land Rovers had gathered – just as hundreds of wildebeest and zebra and antelope had also arrived at the mouth of the river. And the river was as I’d never seen it before – filled with wildebeest carcasses, vultures riding them in the water, taking their pounds of flesh or standing still as storks on the torn backside haunches wedged against log limbs. Hippo snored and bellowed to one another in dark pools. Crocodile, fat and hapless from the thousands of animals who’d already tried to cross and were eaten by them, stretched lazily on the banks, making not a move. They slipped into the water as certain as death might sink, like a stone.

Then it happened, or looked as if it would happen. Two zebra, who’d been dancing along the opposite bank, began bleating and honking to their mates across the river. And they plunged, swimming like all get out, their hooves punishing the water, their legs pushing them through an evil-looking current, the foam cresting and swallowing. The crocodile didn’t budge, but we began to hoot and cheer them on. My three-year-old son Tiger shouted: “Go on, zebwas!” And they made it.

For the next hour and a half, there were several half starts for the hundreds of plains animals loitering with intent. The zebras kept calling across the water to one another, shore to shore; the wildebeest snorted and stamped their feet. An eland, large as a small truck, would tiptoe down the riverbank, stretch its head out over the water and sniff the air, and they appear to flip backwards out of harm’s way. But not one of these substantive creatures was ready to get their feet wet.

Suddenly the herds began shifting and moving along side of us, behind our trucks, to another steeper mouth into the river with stone banks on the opposite side that looked impassable. Four zebra pulled a faint, storming down to the shoreline and at the very last minute, they nearly fell over backwards, listing to the right up a small hippo shute trail back onto the precipice.

I blinked. Tiger sighed, and in that moment of release, my friends from Alaska shouted: “They’re going!” We shipped the Land Rover around and barreled towards the launch pad. I saw one, two, three, then five wildebeest leap, the ultimate leap of faith, into the mighty river as if they were some descendant of Pegasus, flying and landing with a whoosh. And then doing everything in their power to stay upright, afloat, gamely hoofing it towards the sheer cliff they would have to climb in any moment. The zebra not so much followed behind as held their own above the line of wildebeest, now several hundred strong, protected like a shield from any crocodiles who might still be nursing a thirst, or any hungry lions hiding in the thorny underbrush on the opposite shore.

The whole brigade took about seven minutes to make it to safety, or at least, closer to their destination in the Serengetti. Still, there were hundreds more plains animals still lagging behind on the original side of the crossing when one baby wildebeest, not to be left behind, leapt into the raging waters. We all started panting almost at once, Oh, let him make it. C’mon little fella. Fight harder. Go that way! Watch out! He narrowly missed being clobbered by an adult carcass rushing downriver which finally swirled, butt end first, into a pool that gave him footing to climb after his herdmates.

That was my thrill for the trip, my good ride, my talisman.

Then at lunch, the river crossing continued. One of the conservancy’s managers, a distant relative of mine from Ireland, brought his wife over to meet us and talked about how zebra were smarter and shiftier when it came to migration. “They double up with the wildebeest because they know when to go but not where to go, while the zebras know where to go but not when.” Are you sure it’s not the other way around? I asked. “No, the zebras definitely have the edge,” continued Robert. “They often head for the water at breakneck speed as if they’re going to be the first brave mates to cross over, but then slip to the side at the very last moment. By then, the wildebeest are saying to themselves, ‘They’re ready! We’re going!’ And onward they plunge whether it’s safe or not.”

What I saw that afternoon was pure animal, leaping as people do with only faith in their hearts. A metaphor for what I’ve not been doing enough of since I moved to East Africa a year ago.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

THE RED RIBBON -- Evening 1

May the road rise up to meet you, the Irish say, and here in Tsavo West, it does, even as it runs away from you, up and up and up into the sky so that you feel the earth must end when the road does. Which is never. A red ribbon. At its very tip, a point or a dot as it appears to be, slips right into the horizon and you feel as if you’ve lost your way.

In my year of living here in East Africa, there’s been nothing like being out in the bush, being soaked and dipped and dyed by the wild and free, feeling the wind and the wilderness all around you. A savage and sultry sanctuary, it’s as close to heaven as I’ve ever been. You are swallowed alive by it.

And so the road pulls us along, N and I with our kids nestled in the back seat – the lovely Luisa, her friend Milly (who already appears to have caught some form of childhood distemper), and my Tiger. A rush crosses the trail, I miss it, but N has just caught sight of a leopard. “I haven’t seen one in 20 years!” she shouts. “Now this is an auspicious beginning.” We are to have many of them during our four-day visit to Ndolwa House, smack dab in the stark plainsland, gray and silver and red and orange, just outside of Tsavo West National Park.

“Hello, handsome, do you want a lift?” I query as we drive up to the lodge at sunset, just as MR steps out of the fast-drawing shadows to greet us.

“I’ll give you the ride of your life, you creature, you,” he pounces. Nothing like turning a girl on her head from the very first moment you’re introduced to her.

And so I meet the Professor or Professor Nugu Nutscratcher as he likes to call himself (we’re still trying to figure that one out). As N as shared with us earlier on in the journey, this long-legged bushman is a wizard of wonders, a miracle with children, and wild to the core with more adventures under his belt than a whole tribe of Maasai. And there he stands, as Irish or Irish as he may or may not be, but certainly, he’s got the look of it. Rugged and ruddy with a randy glint in his soft brown eyes.

I get the picture as the Professor sweeps our dusty party of eight up into Ndolwa House, a marvelous and homey wood and stone lounge, complete with dining area, a cosy sitting room, bar and the biggest fireplace I’ve ever seen (four men could play poker inside of it).

The night sallies forth with ease after our nine-hour drive. In five minutes flat we are plushed out and blissed out, sitting on deep white pillows that rest on the Professor’s horse-shoe circle of stone benches around a massive campfire, Tuskers in hand. And it turns out that our galpal M has seen leopard on the way in too.

“A leopard with a kill! Half a dik dik. Kyle spotted it in a riverbed, and once it saw us, the leopard pulled his supper into the brush, but we could still see him.”

“Wey,” says the Professor, “in a luger (riverbed), you say? I know that leopard. Oh, yeah. He lives right in there. I’ll show you pictures tomorrow and point him out. You can tell by the rosettes (spotting) which one is which.”

And then our fearless leader begins to spin a yarn about perhaps the most dangerous of all animals in Africa, the Cape buffalo. In this case, a big old brigadier bull who’d attacked and maimed eight trackers in one go, leaving the rifleman standing aghast. And so the Professor is on a hunt that leads him to another riverbed deep in the Mara with two guides and himself, and they’ve been tracking the bloody beast for near a day now and they know it’s winded but feeling safe, they believe it’s hiding behind a huge boulder, and they whisper and use hand signals to figure out exactly where the buffalo is, an angry old man who would kill them on sight. Then they hear a whoosh, a soft blur of sound in the evening light, and it is the old brigadier standing up in the sandy riverbed. And before they can barely even raise their guns, he’s come round the corner straight for them. The Professor’s friend is behind him and takes off for the hills; the tracker has tossed his gun aside and thrown himself at the feet of the Professor with his hands over his head. And our bushman has one shot to take and it’s a bull’s eye.

Here we are at Ndolwa House, not a light in sight, not an animal sound to be heard, unaware of any eyes peering at us through the dark, and we’re as entranced as our children around a fire that spits and crackles into the night as the Professor befriends us all.

Friday, October 22, 2010


One of the great revelations of parenthood is the alacrity and clarity with which your child begins to reveal him/herself through speech. Talking up a storm. Dialogue-ing with imaginary friends. Chattering as they beam up at you. And even if you don’t know quite what he or she may be saying, you beam too. The words may not come in clear as a bell, but the comical twist or inventiveness certainly does.

Tiger’s vocabulary seems to have taken off in a flash: Crocodawa for crocodile (added zing as dawa means medicine in Swahili); heliclopler for helicopter; panket for pancake; bouton for bottom; hippohohoh for hippopotamus; and chochit for chocolate. Not to mention endearing sentences and their executions: “I wanna wash my balls” (his one for soccer, ahem); “I make cutting with this spoon”; “I no want that juices”; “I need a chewing gums”; “I no want to do that”; and “I wanna brush my hairs.” Mixed in with a bit of Swahili: “I wanna lala (sleep) on your arm, just one minute” and “I need dawa, Mama, where’s my dawa!”

And then what comes your way, what’s shouted your way, is a sweet nothing which is truly a sweet something. This morning I was heading out to Que Pasa, a restaurant at the Karen dukas that’s my writing place of choice, and Tiger was bouncing high as a kangaroo on the neighbor’s trampoline. “Where are you going, Mama? Where are you going?” my three-year-old asks lustily. “Come, come, I need a hug. I want a hug, Mama.” “Big and tight. Bigger,” I ask him as Tiger leaps in a bounce into my arms. He pats my back, bouncing away with, “Thanks, Mama. See you later.”

Only three years old and he comes in loud and clear. That’s not just a conversation; it’s a song to make your heart sing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


It’s a name that settles on the lips like a kiss, or some kind of prayer, or a simple mantra that steadies the mind and eases the heart. Lamu. A whisper that belies the glamour meshed with the grittiness that is the island’s soul. And her birthright.

Old Town has been UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001. Exporting an exotic mix of ivory, mangrove, tortoisehell and spices, along with thousands of unfortunate African slaves, Arab settlers established a booming trading post here as early as the 14th century. Even today, the feeling of trade winds brushing your brow and an island ideal of a classic trade route are alive and well.

“A man without a donkey, is a donkey,” goes the Swahili proverb. True to form, donkeys weave like drunkards through the pencil-thin alleyways carrying basket loads of water, petrol, foodstuffs, sand and bricks. They collide with prehistoric wooden carts which hog the narrow streets, making passage nearly impossible, a pretzel twist of limbs. Rough burlap is tossed across donkey backs where they are ridden on the beachfront; they hurtle forward in a line or pack, egged on by the sticks of their riders. These donkeys – beige, grey, fudge brown with black, prisoner-like stripes wrapping around their ankles -- all offer up the same expression for owners and visitors alike: mournful. Mourning as if they’ve lost their way and will never find home. Their futile call to the wild is more of a honk than a bray, a kind of wailing that makes me believe that when the muzzein calls this Muslim world to prayer, it is really the braying of the muzzein and the calling of the donkeys.

Exquisite and elaborately-carved wooden doors to hidden homes keep the outside swell of Lamu days and nights at bay. Men push solemnly through the streets in full-length white robes called khanzus and kofia caps. Women, tucked away in the columnar secrets of their black burquas or purdah, flash their dark brown eyes, stepping assuredly through the press of the footpaths. Nervous tourists wade like buoys in a storm. An entire school of children spills forward.

Here, there are no roads. A neighbor tells me that there is one police car (who would it chase and where?), but I see two vehicles, a dusty red tractor and a sea-bitten ambulance full of slight young men smoking. Throngs of cats – beach cats! – haunt the port in search of fishermen’s bounty. They lurk in the doorways of shops like guard dogs, licking their paws and chewing their tails.

I’ve never stayed in Lamu proper before, only out around the bend about a 10-minute speed-boat ride away at Shela. Its 12-kilometer beach is one of the most celebrated in the world -- creamy sand, tawny dunes, camels trailing along its endlessness. The Peponi Hotel there has been hailed as one of the 10,000 Places to See Before You Die and I believe it. The hotel practically spills into the water, a causeway in the Indian Ocean between Manda and Lamu islands. The white terraced rooms overlook smidges of green, aching lawns and majestic palms; their Old Pals, a signature drink, are the mainstay of any happy hour; and the clientele ranges from the ultra famous (Princess Caroline lives two doors down) and the infamous (a widow alleged to have had her husband killed several years ago), to lively local color (assorted beach boys looking for handouts from lonely European ladies and Clementine, the head of a turtle sanctuary on one of the outer islands).

Barbara, a designer friend of mine who is as feisty as she is fine of heart, is our impetus. Along with her three kids under six, she has whisked Tiger and me away from Nairobi for a few days’ escape. She and her husband have a gorgeous, old-style Swahili townhouse complete with coral walls, limestone, wooden accents from old dhows, a plunge pool and rooftop terrace. In short, a tall slice of heaven. And it feels like just the right place for spending time in town.

On a fine yet misty day, we share stories about being Irish; she is a Belfast girl whereas my family is from Tipperary. “We could be in Ireland now,” Barbara confides, gesturing to the moody skies, her eyes flashing as green as the countryside from which we both hail. “You look this way and it’s Ireland on a bad day, or the other way, on a good day.” And she is so right as the peninsulas of the Lamu archipelago jut into the sea, clouds low, rain thundering on our hatless heads, sun brewing. The kids squeal and splash in the emerald sea, oblivious as only children can be.

We do all the things you’re supposed to do at the beach, especially in Lamu. Visit the old fort where bats hang from the ceiling in the middle of the day. Take pictures of our children sprawled across canons along the beachfront. We savor flavors of all kinds; Mohammed, the cook, makes us ginger and garlic crab that’s silky-smooth on the tongue. We sip Old Pals at Peponi after a long, blazing day on Diamond Beach. Eat too much pizza, drink too much wine, laugh too much over silly old Disney cartoons that the kids can’t get enough of (“Laaaambert, the sheepish lion, Laaaambert, he’s always trying…”, a ditty concocted for a cub who’s accidentally dropped into a herd of sheep by a stork and strives to become one of them). Out at the rock pools – charcoal-black, unforgiving volcanic formations from the ancient past – we watch small, slick, oily-looking crabs skitter and scoot across their terrain, impossible to capture as they slide in a blink into their hidey-holes.

We hang out at a coolly elegant boutique hotel next to one of the old stone jettys, run by an effortlessly warm-hearted couple from Belgium. The husband is a chef of note whose jumbo prawns (the size of small lobsters), sauteed in olive oil and garlic, is one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted. The side order of Belgian twice-fried chips served with aioli stops my heart. Twice.

Lamu nights are my favorite nights I’ve had for a long, long time. The swell of Swahili song and Arabic voices and exotic music ping pong along the rooftops; televisions sizzle. Two blocks away, the boats signal their to and fro; the cats cradling in doorways call excitedly to their neighbors; breezes tussle long hair and canopies and mosquito netting. Goats bleat and the donkeys hoof it through town. Our children sleep like the dead, while Barbara and I are alive with something only the night can bring, darkness and enlightening.

My last evening, I am on my own and decide to stop at Peponi for one final Old Pal. Ndegwe, Barbara’s houseman, has taken the children home for supper and a bath after a brief beach outing; the tide had come in and there was little room to sit unless we climbed the dunes. Across from me, a backpacker sits down, orders a Dawa, and asks my name. He is so impossibly young and smiling, with tufty blonde hair, dark teepee-shaped brows, and an excitable manner. A photographer who’s been shooting stills for different camps around Kenya, he plans to go to law school in a year. Why? It’s the family business. I want to go take care of what my family has built. Why? Why don’t you tell me about that drink you’re having? We conclude it’s vodka, lime juice and grenadine with a soda water topper, but we can’t be sure of Peponi’s secret recipe.

He’s eager and enthusiastic about taking a dhow back to Lamu town where he’s also staying, so we hop into the one that’s come back for me. I find him to be serious, funny, unguarded and think, how refreshing and surprising the night can be. At one point, he tries to sit down next to me on the boat and we nearly tip over. “But you have the best view!” he exclaims. And he is right. For lights are spilling from the terraces along the whole way station as we go, boats lit as well with fires and torches, and Venus hangs in the sky like a crystal eye. The evening star, my companion points out.

And still, despite the music and the glow of the Lamu nights, my favorite memory comes from yesterday afternoon. Our children, mine and Barbara’s, taking in the reach of the beach like so many starfish, their arms striving to capture air and water, tide and time as they run from the surge of surf pulled like taffy between sun and moon. My son Tiger runs across the shallow waters towards a rock pool, running naked across the shifting sands of Manda Island as if his happiness depended on it, running butt naked save for his electric lime green Crocs that splash and splash in a rhythm that belongs to Lamu at large.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


There once was a piggy named Ziggy...and one of Tiger's favorite pets in the whole wide world. For when Ziggy was the youngest of piggys, the two-and-a-half-year old used to visit him often in his huge, five-acre garden off of Windy Ridge Lane. But that's when Ziggy was a little piggy. And now he's the size of a baby elephant and likes to head butt little boys from Kazakhstan. Enough of that piggy! For now.

Ziggy's human parents, Frankie and Donny, are away for several weeks with their three children, so it’s their landlord Roger who gets the call. Someone at the dukas (shops) in Karen has rung him and is in a desperate state. “Those dogs, those big dogs of Donny’s got out and the pig is with them and they’re holding up traffic!” Suddenly, a spate of calls follows as more and more people in the neighborhood spot the foursome (three dogs, one Ziggy) tumbling around the parking lot. Indeed, when Roger rushes to his Land Rover – his wife takes the Golf – a small crowd has gathered at the gate to their home. How in the world, he wonders, how in the world do they know already?

He and Lilly zip down in their separate cars to fetch the interlopers and it is truly a scene at the dukas. Ziggy’s zig-zagging after Brutus, Charlie and Tulula as if they are his spirit guides in the great unknown; shoppers are squeaking and yelping; and other drivers are yelling at the security guards to open the gates to the lot, the only thing which is keeping the pets from becoming roadkill on the crossroads.

The dogs welcome Lilly with thumping tails and lolling tongues, but as they hop into the back of her Golf, Ziggy has a fit. He’s having none of it; he won’t go ANYWHERE without them, his brothers in deed and misdeed. Much squealing ensues. Roger and his friend Patrick have a devil of a time loading the porcine giant (who won’t stop grunting, coughing and screeching menacingly the whole time) into the Land Cruiser. It is a sweaty, arduous affair for all three, and Ziggy, as leader of the pack, is bereft at losing his three stooges. He’s a dog after all, why isn’t he traveling with the other dogs?!

Roger is distraught over the whole damn thing, what an undertaking, what a zoo. Meanwhile, the squealing continues at a high, feverish pitch in the back of his car. He turns to Ziggy and says, as kindly as he can,” If you don’t stop that now, I’m taking you to the butcher.” And off they go.


My friend Casey James – she of the reddish-brown, curly long hair cut hippie-style; pert freckled face; and warm, toffee-colored eyes – is as straight a shooter as they come. Direct manner, honest humor, lively and encompassing personality, no frills, no fuss. Nothing delicate about Casey, but she’s very feminine as well, wearing flowered skirts and see-through, nip-and-tuck blouses that accent her slim frame.

And somebody – she’s not sure who – has killed her euphorbia. Baby euphorbia. But instead of being on a rampage, she’s laughing as she tells me what happened over the weekend.

“We were away, just Mick and me, at the coast for three days and couldn’t wait to get home to the girls. As we come up the gravel drive, I’m looking and looking and thinking, ‘What’s wrong?’ Something’s off. Have we been robbed?!’”

Indeed they had been. A party unbeknownst to her and her husband had raided the euphorbia bed in their side garden. Beautiful, candelabra succulents they’d been growing for several years to plant around the new house they are building up near the Ngong Hills.

“Baby candelabras I’d raised from pea shoots BY HAND,” Casey pronounces. “And I was SO proud of them, coming along as they did, looking SO beautiful. But the worst offense? WHOEVER STOLE THEM OR KILLED THEM OR ATE THEM (“Are they edible?” I interject, “I think they could be poisonous”, but she laughs right over me) planted CORN instead. MAIZE,” she’s spluttering and we both guffaw simultaneously.

“Can you imagine? If I’d wanted CORN stalks to adorn my new garden, I would have planted them. Hundreds of them. Not just some PATCH. And what did they do with my babies??!!”

“So Mick and I are standing looking at the CORN, completely flummoxed, and I turn to him and say, ‘Why? Why, why, why?"

Only in Kenya.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


This morning, Tiger and I are driving down one of the most rutted byways in Karen to Stepping Stones, his little school off Langata Road. I spot a monkey crossing over to perch on a stone fence, banana in hand, and get as excited as my son about seeing him. “Taidghie (diminutive for his Irish name, Taidgh), look, there’s a monkey!” “Monkey, monkey, my monkey. And he has a ‘nana!” my son squeals.

I stop the car so we can watch him. Oh yes, our Vervet is slowly peeling his breakfast and acting as if he has not a care in the world. This sort of monkey, with his miniature black gorilla face, white face fringe and grizzled grey body, is infamous for bright blue balls which flash iridescently in and out of the sun. But except for his banana, Mr. Vervet is keeping his treasures to himself this morning.

(My first encounter with Vervets was many, many years ago at Intrepids safari camp in Samburu. We were warned to hide our cosmetics and precious items from them. For these monkeys are particularly fond of stealing lipsticks – whether Chanel or Penney's -- and coloring their faces in brazen reds, peaches and hot pinks.)

As we carry on to Stepping Stones, I take further notice of a place Tiger and I’ve not yet visited: Mamba Village. While I find it startling that a theme park for man-eating crocodiles is situated next to a pre-school, I’m fascinated by Mamba’s offerings. It dawns on me that this is the place my talented fashionista/clothes designer, Barbara, a Northern Irish girl with a wise and wicked tongue, had suggested we bring the boys last Sunday.

“You go about four in the afternoon and, ach, they put on quite a show. The wee ones go crazy for it. The keepers bonk the sleeping crocs on their heads and yell, ‘Wake up!’” We are giggling already; Barb licks her lips. “Then they bring out these MINGIN’ (Irish slang for ungodly, dirty, irredeemable) chickens, must have been lying around for years, true carcasses and, ach, they toss them to these lazy beasts who suddenly go into a frenzy. And that,” she adds, “is Charlie’s favorite part.”

Boys will be boys, and I’ve no doubt that Tiger will join his two-and-a-half-year-old buddy Charlie in rejoicing over the chicken feed. But there’s more to Mamba than meets my drive-by eye. “Oh,” continues Barb on Sunday afternoon, “they’ve got these rides from like the 1920s that you wouldn’t, ach, put your dog on! Talk about health and safety, none of them really works and they’re blast-out dangerous. There’s an old wooden car without a motor, or maybe it’s broken, and this old fella pushes it around with your kid inside without looking where he’s going!”

Wherever that old fella is going, we’re still going, and I’ll let you know soon about our own Mamba episode.