Lions, Rhinos and Hippos oh my!

I have never really understood the appeal of going on safari. I guess that I imagined the experience as sitting out in a car for hours in the baking sun and every once in a while catching sight of a zebra, antelope or, if you are lucky, a lion. But there is obviously something to it, as these excursions draw tens of thousands of tourists each year to Kenya, which has set aside 10% of its land as protected reserves.  Our trusty Lonely Planet also seems to encourage these trips, as at least 80% of the book is devoted to visiting various national parks around the country.

Knowing therefore that we could not leave Kenya without going on some expedition out on the savannah, we decided to take the cheap tourist option and visit the Nairobi National Park. A short 45-minute drive took us to the entrance of the park, whose 117 square kilometers is amazingly located just beside downtown Nairobi.

With life-sized animal statues everywhere and baboons roaming freely about the premises, we seemed to have come to the right place. We boarded the large green bus and set off, our two guides introducing us to the park, which is divided up into several ecosystems and has over 100 species of animals and 400 species of birds (more than the total variety of birds in the UK)!

Throughout the three-hour trip, the guides were bursting with information, some normal and relevant and some decidedly not. For example, while they always told us the usual size, weight and running speed of all the animals that we saw, they also included the gestation period and seemed particularly fond of pointing out which animals “practiced polygamous” and detailing all the resulting drama.

The first animal we came across as we rumbled down the dirt road was a hippo, which was almost completely submerged in a small pond on the left of the bus. It turns out that these are the most dangerous animals in Africa and apparently enjoy destroying the farms of anyone who encroaches upon their bathing grounds. They also apparently have very delicate skin, which is why they spend most of their day under water. I am surprised they have yet to be used as a mascot for a moisturizing lotion – “skin so soft to make a hippo happy.”

We next spotted a herd of zebras, which are actually surprisingly stout creatures, unlike their more majestic horse cousins. Perhaps due to their stature, they also cannot run terribly fast, making it necessary to group up and use their stripes to confuse predators, as they are certainly not winning a 100 meter dash against a lion.

The antelopes were our first example of animals that “practiced polygamous” and their herd dynamics were fascinating. We quickly spotted the alpha male, who controls and protects the herd from challenges both foreign and domestic. This includes forcing the younger males out when they grow to a threatening age. Normally this leads to a number of young males wandering around the savannah forced to find their own heard or live as perpetual bachelors, but at times the females will decided that they really liked that young male and will instead leave the alpha male to fend for himself!

At first, many of these behaviors seemed odd, but it is not as though human behavior, especially as it relates to mating, is any less strange. I could not imagine explaining the dynamics of picking up a date at a bar to a lion or describing mother in-law relationships to a gazelle.

Perhaps our most exciting sighting was the lions. With only 25 in the park, it seems that spotting one is incredibly lucky and we saw five! Although the male lion is the most famous and known as the “King of the Jungle” (perhaps because he is louder than any other animal as his roar can be heard for over five miles) it is actually the female who does 90% of the hunting! Despite their fearsome reputation, our guide also told us that they are the laziest of the cats, sleeping between 14-18 hours a day. That certainly seemed to be the case, as the ones we saw weren’t moving much, only getting up to walk a few paces and slump down again in the shade. The Lion King must have conveniently skipped over that fact or it would have been a much less exciting, and significantly longer, movie.

The giraffes however, win the prize for being the oddest creatures that roam the grasslands. Having seen them both up close at a giraffe center (being licked in the process) and now in their natural habitat, we have grown quite fond of these funny animals. Their incredible height and long necks mean that they have massive hearts, (up to two feet wide and weighing 22 pounds!), and a blood pressure so high that its skin has to be extra thick just to keep the blood in! They also cannot kneel or sit down in order to drink and instead must comically spread out their front legs wide to either side and dip their head down into the water.

Being unable to sit also presents some problems with giving birth, as baby giraffes drop six feet to the ground when they are born, giving the human baby no grounds to complain about getting spanked. Despite being brought into this world in a pretty traumatic way, the baby giraffes can run as quickly as their parents after only thirty minutes! Giraffe mothers can even delay giving birth, at times waiting days until they have found a safe location. To top it all off, giraffes only sleep 15-30 minutes a day, making the lion seem comatose in comparison.

Most of these sightings were done from a well-traveled dirt road that runs around the park but occasionally our driver wanted to get closer. Our massive bus was certainly not built for four-wheeling but that did not stop us from taking very bumpy detours off the main road if it meant we could get closer to a buffalo herd or one of the rare black rhinos (which are oddly not actually black). We also went up and down rock-strewn hills that were steep enough to make us wish that we were in a Land Rover and not a fifty-foot bus that seats sixty.

When we returned to the park center, our guide told us that we were a very lucky group and we had to agree. The incredible number and diversity of animals we saw on our three-hour trip was amazing and certainly helped me to understand the appeal of going on safari. I had the feeling of having gone inside a National Geographic special and certainly came away with a profound respect and appreciation for the natural beauty that is now such a small part of our daily lives. While this might not mean that we are dropping our current plans to go and live in the bush, it will certainly be hard going back to Cairo. Luckily, people watching can be entertaining too. :)

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