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Sleepy Time in Samburu

Day breaks over the Samburu National Park in an auburn glow that seeps up over the mountain tops and warms the dry earth. We mix powdered coffee and grill bread over the fire, clear the dishes, and set off to experience life in the African scrubland desert. From under the bushes baboons creep stealthily towards the campsite to see if we've left them anything interesting. The day previous a baboon on commando raid crept among us over to the steel food box, lifted the lid, and ran off with a full loaf of bread before we could react. We found him later tearing off the crusts and stuffing slice after slice in his mouth, looking around furtively and probably wishing he had a glass of milk.

Samburu is dry and dusty, a broad lumpy landscape the colors of fire. Shortly after we begin the temperature soars and the grass crackles in the dry equatorial sunlight. The dry grasslands are punctuated only by the occasional green spot of shrubbery under which we find the game resting or nibbling on the softer leaves. The tiny dik-dik are the most sensitive to our presence, scampering away on tiny legs, almost rabbit-like. We circle around herds of proud Oryx, Impalas, and Thompsons Gazelles, all grazing quietly. The Impalas are gorgeous and sleek - all the animals look well fed - and number 20 females per male.

Most intriguing of all are the Gerenuk, ungulates with soft brown hides and slender long necks. We watch them stand on their hind legs under the bushes and stretch upwards, giraffe-like, in the direction of the softer shoots, pawing at the greenery to bring it down within reach.

The stars of course are the big cats. By mid-morning we have come across a group of female lions hunting. Their silence and their rippling muscles are terrifying; they pad by us silently, acutely aware of our presence but intensely uninterested. As they look up to assess us through silent, golden eyes, their immensely present gaze makes me suddenly all too aware how soft and defenseless my body is against such a carnivore.

Later that afternoon we find another pair of lionesses; the males are nowhere to be found. The one closest to us enthralls us with a big, toothy yawn. Naptime indeed: the plains are sweltering. We leave the packs of foraging elephants and the svelte giraffes ambling in twos and threes, and return to camp to wait out the afternoon heat.

That evening just before the sun falls between the shadows lengthening on our western flank we are thrilled to find the most elusive of all the big cats, a spotted leopard, who glides past us and down into a ravine to where some dik-dik are grazing. They flee, the leopard behind them at some distance before she decides to abandon the chase, but by that time we've lost sight of her, and continue our travels in the fading light.

East Africa's game parks are astonishing in their own right, but I enjoy them more having just read Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. Dawkins offers a compelling view of the intricate adaptations and adaptive mechanisms that led to the creation and distribution of the phenomenal species we have come to see. I highly recommend it, having thought about Dawkins' words the entire time we explored Kenya.

That evening, as we extinguish the kerosene lanterns in our campsite the sky fills with stars. The third quarter moon has yet to rise and the sky is opaque but resonant with the light of more stars than I can remember seeing in years. Scorpio sits high over the equatorial horizon, Jupiter is at its shoulder, and the world is silent. Even the baboons are asleep high in their tree tops, awaiting morning and a bit of our breakfast.

Lala salama (swahili: "good night").


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