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.