It was 6 am and we were rubbing sunscreen all over our shoulders and faces. We knew the sun would be rising soon and scorching our faces as we drove through the desert to see lion cubs. Francis told us the best time of day to see lion cubs was right after the sun rose.
We piled into the safari van, hats and camera in hand, and sat quietly as we rode on the bumpy rode for about 40 minutes. The thing with “game drives” – what the Kenyans referred to when they would go out looking for wildlife – is that there is no guarantee of actually seeing any animals. It’s not like a zoo, where you know the elephants will be there and the rhinos are always basking in the sun. It’s a true gamble in the safari lands of Africa. So when we saw in the distance a group of about 10 other safari vans, we knew we got lucky.
Francis took off like a madman. He turned quickly and fiercely to get to the rest of the vehicles. As he got closer, he slowed and we all peered out the windows, anxious to see what all the fuss was about. And as we gathered in a circle with the other tourists, we saw seven lion cubs. They were running and wrestling in the tall grasses like it was a playground. I could imagine their laughter as they jumped and rolled all over. An infinite playground for these cubs…that is, until they aged and took on responsibilities.
There was no adult lion near them. Not a male lion or a female lioness. We inquired if they were abandoned, and learned from Francis that it was quite the opposite. He pointed out a slightly larger cub and told us that this specific cub was from a previous litter and was about nine months older than the rest. He was a male chosen to stay behind to “watch” the new cubs while the mother would find food. Like many species, males disappear as soon as they impregnate the female. Because of this, a special lion cub is chosen to fill the father-type role for a few months until the cycle is repeated over and over again.
We watched for about an hour, completely in awe at how these adorable little cubs would turn into the King of the Land in just a few short months. The cycle of life. It still ceases to amaze me.
We wanted to see some more animals, so we started driving down another dirt path, away from the rest of the safari vans. We saw all kinds of birds and other animals that I had never heard of. At one point, I saw a mangy looking dog walking with it’s head down, slowing picking its feet up as it trudged along. I asked Francis if there were a lot of dogs. “Oh no, that is no dog. That is a hyena. Very dangerous.”
Off in the distance, we again saw safari vans gathered around a tree. Francis rushed over like he did previously. This time it was a leopard. High in the tree, asleep on a branch. He wasn’t moving and didn’t seem to notice that he was being watched by dozens of tourists, cameras glued to all of their eyes. Everyone was hoping to see the leopard jump to life and leap from the tree, every muscle of his body rippling through his spotted coat. But he didn’t. He didn’t budge at all. And after an hour of waiting patiently in the sun, we decided to move on.
After a full day of watching for animals, we were exhausted. We had dinner at the resort and started packing up our things. We would be leaving for Nairobi in the morning. Our time in the desert was coming to an end.
Before we would get to the hotel in Nairobi though, we had a full day of driving and a stop at a giraffe national reserve. We spent hours on the same bumpy roads we had been on to get here. There were zebras and cattle blocking the roads at any given time. Francis would stop and honk his horn. But the cattle didn’t care. This was their land, not ours.
As we drove into Nairobi, billboards surrounded us – Huggies, Coca-Cola, KFC, and Pizza Hut. “Wow, America has really changed the world…” is all I kept thinking as we drove through a land that spoke Swahili but advertised in English. It just didn’t seem right that the native Kenyan culture was evaporating into thin air.
It was lunchtime as we finally reached downtown Nairobi. Francis brought us to food court with about a dozen restaurants. We found a place that had sandwiches and sat outside, around a square table with an umbrella. But the food or the company didn’t matter. We hadn’t been able to use Wi-Fi in five days, so we sat with our devices in our hands and heads bent over, not speaking a word to each other. It was sad. Instead of spending our final hours soaking up the moments, we gathered our best pictures to post on Facebook.
Our last stop was a national reserve where we would be feeding giraffes. We arrived at the stop and Matt helped me over the very rough terrain. It was a large uphill climb with large rocks protruding from the sand. We got to the top of the hill where there were about two dozen steps to get to the platform. We needed to be up high so the giraffes could easily reach our hands, where we would hold pellets of food for them.
Matt took off up the stairs before I even had time to ask what he was doing. Before I knew it, I was hollering up at him, “What are you doing? I need help up the stairs!”
“I’m tired of helping you. Have Julie do it.” And he took off.
I looked at Julie and she said, “Turn around. We’re going to do this.” I felt horrible knowing that she just didn’t have the strength like Matt did, but there was no point in arguing. We slowly made our way up, the whole time guilt eating me alive and tears ready to burst from behind my eyeballs. I hated not being able to do things alone.
We fed the giraffes and moments later we were back in the van, headed to the hotel for our very last night in Kenya. As I struggled with my bag and maneuvering from the parking lot to our room, wheeling down a narrow rock path, I felt a tear run down my cheek. I knew it was time to go home. I was sad that the trip was over, but more than anything, frustrated that I felt so trapped. I was ready for a cement sidewalk. And ramps. And doorways that were wide enough for my wheelchair. Soon enough I would be back in The States, where there were no baby lions rolling in the grasses, or elephants strolling with their young. Those things could only be seen in the zoo, the completely unnatural zoo, which I have come to dislike.
So, as I’ve learned in life, you can’t have it all. In Kenya I had gorgeous sunsets and quietness and beauty. In The States I had ramps and accessible bathrooms and freedom. I really can’t put a price on either. They are both priceless.