Feeding Vanessa the Kudu breakfast


One of the tribe

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SAVAGE GRACE, Part 1: Catch a Tiger (or Leopard) By the Tail

Having always been interested in wild things, I asked a dear friend, a doctor in Seattle, why he’d dubbed me Savage back in our college days. “All the Irish were savages until the Danes came and civilized them, and built all their cities for them,” he emails. “Some remain so.” (I take heavily into consideration that this fellow hails from Denmark, a country known only for its pasty and porno, as he has often been teased.)

I guess he doesn’t call me Savage for nothing. For here I am a few years ago, hurtling down the A2 or Nanyuki Road to Corey & Jo’s Camp in the Samburu National Reserve. Liesl is driving and she drives like a trucker. Well, we are in a truck, so that figures, but it feels like we’re riding a mechanical bull going at full throttle. (Liesl and I have enjoyed a fast and lasting friendship for the past two decades, thanks to many an escapade in Manhattan and beyond. A ten-year veteran of East Africa, she co-owns VirginBush Safaris with her closest pal, Cindi, and they’ve made a great success of it.)

We buck, careen, skittle and soar along the ruts and ridges, heading north and narrowly missing a roadside collision course of farmers, donkeys, trinkets spread out on red blankets, pop stands, gas canisters and acacia trees. “Keep your eyes out for guys with AK 47s,” Liesl cautions me as I rattle and roll in the Land Rover. Huh? “Somalis.” Apparently, warlords and vagabonds are looking for some action across the Kenyan border.

The camp is worth the ride, mostly for its setting along the Isiolo River where marabou storks idle and for the weathered family affair that it is. Everything is a bit musty and dusty, including us. Everything except for Corey and Jo, the husband-and-wife team who run the show.

The British-born, plummy-voiced Jo strikes a pose in a floppy hat and flowery silk tea dress, calling to mind a garden party with the royal family at Windsor Castle. Tall, dark and quick on his feet, Corey is picture-and-pitch perfect as the rugged safari guide who knows about every bird, bush and wildebeest in the area. The couple home-school their son and daughter, both sandy-haired, tawny-skinned, blue-eyed and eager to show off their pet goat, Nigella. Nearly every night, intriguing visitors from the neighboring Elephant Watch and Intrepids Club swing by for sundowners (happy hour), so Corey & Jo’s is alive with personal color.

Yes, we soon find, everything in the camp is a bit raggedy around the edges, especially the surprise that awaits me in my bed (and we’ll get to that shortly). But that feeling of being in the bush, unadulterated wind, river, sky, flora, fauna, everything so close to how God made it is the relief Liesl and I have been looking for. And roughing it a bit is all part of the parcel.

At the heart of this very parcel is Ndgewe, a smooth operator if I've ever met one. He is Corey and Jo’s Jack-of-All-Trades, a stately African man who makes a mean martini and knows everything there is to know about wildlife and, I dare say, the wild life. Ndegwe’s got a knack for making us feel at home and for plying us with sensational stories around the campfire.

Nothing gets me going like well-spun yarns about what to do in the wilds of Africa, especially when facing natives of the four-legged variety. My friend, Anthony, a one-time big-game hunter turned safari guide and conservationist, speaks the law of the land: “If you get hurt by a wild animal, it’s your fault, not the animal’s.” Yet aren’t we all perversely preoccupied with such peril? Think of that exhilarating scene in the film version of OUT OF AFRICA where Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are out hunting only to encounter a hungry lioness.

“Okay,” I corner Ndegwe in the care-worn lounge with faded Persian rugs, a dusty chandelier and a bamboo, tropically-themed horseshoe bar. He is mixing up a batch of Jo’s Juice, not a whisper of fruit in it. “A tiger is coming at you,” I blurt, “a big, fat tiger.”

“First, madame, no tigers here in Kenya.” He smiles indulgently and Liesl let’s out a hearty roar, safari veteran that she is. “But a leopard. Now, there is a beast, you need to show him exactly who you are!” I edge closer to Ndgewe, as bewitched as a five-year-old. “You get behind him, and then you grab his tail like this, swing him around and around until he is so dizzy, he can’t see you!”

Rolling my eyes cartoonishly, I am captivated nonetheless.

“And an elephant, she charges towards you, you must run between her front legs and dive out from under her belly.” For some reason Ndegwe is wearing a turban and its gold tassel is shaking with mirth. “Stop it, I can’t take it,” I sigh. “No, no, the buffalo, he’s the most dangerous of all, madame! I can say, you cannot be too brave with the buffalo.”

I have already heard tall-but-true tales about Cape buffalo, considered by many of those in the know to be the most lethal of the Big Five (game that’s the most dangerous to hunt and also includes lion, leopard, elephant and rhino). My friend Moeller tells a riveting account of a bull buffalo goring him in the side, yet he managed to beat it away with the butt of his rifle while diving into a thorny bush that ripped him further asunder.

Narrow escapes – they set our imaginations on fire and our hearts thundering. Still, all this time I’ve been going to Kenya, more than ten years now, nothing has settled in my being so vividly as Ndegwe’s tall tales of rules to live or die by when encountering Mother Earth’s wildest of natures.

Meanwhile, after a particularly loud night with residents from nearby Buffalo Springs, Ndegwe escorts me to the tent with a flashlight as our only weapon. I toodle off to bed only to be attacked in the night by an extremely dangerous and damaging creature. Chiggers. Chiggers in my mattress have surfaced to cover my legs with bright red, welt-like bites.

Those wee little savages.

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