THE FATHER-SON ADVENTURE: BRANDON IN AFRICA
Before we left home, I had explained to him where we were going. We spread a world map across the kitchen table, and talked about why it wasn’t real because the map is flat while the world is round – so places look bigger and bigger than they are the more north and south you go.
I pointed to Greenland in the Arctic. “Looks huge, doesn’t it?” He nodded. I pointed to Saudi Arabia, looking so much smaller. “Would you believe they are both the same size?” He shook his head. “They are.” His eyes widened.
I pointed to the Soviet Union (it still existed in 1988). “Here’s the biggest country in the world – bigger or smaller than Africa?” I asked. “Bigger,” he decided. “It isn’t – it’s much smaller.” He frowned. “How much smaller?” he wanted to know. I pointed to Australia. “Africa is as big as the Soviet Union and Australia put together.”
”Dad!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “It’s true.” I pointed to the US. “Here’s where we live, in America. Below us is Mexico, above us Canada, and Alaska, and Greenland. All of that is way smaller than Africa.” Again an exclamation of doubt. “But how?”
“Because the world is round and the map is flat.” I pointed to the lines of longitude. “See these lines? They go almost straight up and down. But they don’t really – they curve a lot until they all come together at a point, the North Pole at the top, the South Pole at the bottom…. Look, you know I take people to the North Pole, right? Well, I’m planning to take you to the North Pole when you’re six – you’ll be old enough then, and you’ll understand this by being there.”
That got me a hug as tight as a little boy could squeeze. A few days later, we both hugged his mother goodbye and boarded Brandon’s first international flight – for Nairobi, Kenya via London. We arrived on the most auspicious day of the century for the Chinese, who revere the number “8” – 8/8/88, August 8, 1988. His 5th birthday party had been just five days before.
The Masai guide quietly stopped our Land Rover at the edge of a line of acacia trees. We cautiously stuck our heads out of the roof to watch the scene in front of us unfold.
A draw of dry grass about a hundred feet wide with another line of acacia trees on the other side. A trio of tawny lionesses crouching so deep in the grass you could barely see them. To the left, a small herd of wildebeest were warily making their way up the draw, being herded by a male lion behind them. All you could see of him was the end of his tail with a black tuft of fur sticking straight up above the grass.
The wind was right, a slight breeze wafting up the draw, so in addition to their seeing the tip of the male’s tail, the wildebeest could smell him – but not his female partners in the hunt waiting for them to get closer. A half dozen wildebeest slowly and cautiously moved ahead of the rest until they were less than 20 yards away. The lionesses charged in unison.
It was over in seconds, each bringing down one of their prey. One wildebeest broke free, running in panic right toward us. In an instant the lioness caught him a second time to fasten her fangs upon his throat, right below our left front bumper. Brandon had witnessed three lion kills take place within yards of him on his first day on safari. The lioness below us eagerly began eating her kill, while the male munched in on another kill nearby.
We hastily took a few photo shots for soon the rest of the pride would be here to feast. It was time to go.
On the way back to our camp, I told him, “You know, buddy, a lion kill like that is not something you see very often. In fact, lots of people go on a safari, even several, and have never seen what you just have right in front you. That was a very rare experience – I hope you’ll always remember it.” To this day, Brandon always has.
The Masai Mara is the part of the Serengeti that’s in Kenya. It’s the northern terminus of the Great Migration of African wildlife that goes in a circular migration route following seasonal rains.
The animals don’t obey imaginary country border lines on a map. The Great Migration starts in Tanzania’s southern Serengeti in April-May, moves north to cross the dreaded Mara River full of hungry crocodiles and into Kenya by July, then returns starting in October.
So Brandon and I crossed back and forth along the Kenya-Tanzania unmarked/unfenced border. He saw more elephants, zebras, giraffes, gazelles of all kinds, and wildebeest than we could count – plus the lions, cheetahs, and crocs hunting them
In early August, most of the migration herds had passed into Kenya, with the banks of the Mara piled high with countless carcasses of wildebeest killed or drowned in the crossing which the crocs were too gorged to eat.
It was another sight of life and death reality in African nature that Brandon has never forgotten.
In Africa, however, it’s not just what he saw that he remembers, but what he heard – especially at night. We slept on cots in a tent out in the bush, and going to sleep he’d ask what a sound was. That groaning or coughing out in the distance? Lions. (Yes, lions groan, rarely roar.) That whooping? Hyenas.
“What’s that barking, Dad? Sounds like dogs.”
“Impalas – warning calls to the herd about dangers.”
“Something else is barking really loud.”
“That’s a troop of baboons – maybe they think a leopard’s around.”
“Now something’s crying.”
“Jackals – they’re not sad, just the way they talk to each other.”
We had the most restful night’s sleep lulled by these sounds – and others: the incessant yapping of zebras, the bellowing of Cape buffalo, the stomach rumblings of elephants, the flutter of Guinea fowl roosting in the trees, and the soft chirp of the tiny Scopes owl. The Moonlight Symphony of the Serengeti.
Sometimes we’d be awakened by the grunting and snorting of really large animals so close they’d almost brush up against our tent. “Hippos,” I reassured Brandon, “going back to where they sleep after feeding out in the bush.”
We had Masai shikaris (guides and trackers) who took turns guarding our camp at night. One morning they were kidding and poking fun at the fellow who guarded us that night. Brandon asked what was so funny. “Little bwana,” they answered, “a hippo chased him and he ran up a tree to hide.”
Brandon ran to tell me and I explained. “Masai love to laugh and kid each other, but they all know hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa – they kill more natives than anything else. Especially when someone gets between mama hippo and her baby calf. Maybe that’s what happened.”
On safari, your schedule is the same while you always see something different. The animals get up at first light and so do you. You’re awakened with a gentle “Jambo, jambo, bwanas” (hello, hello, sirs) by one of the camp staff bringing tea, coffee, and juice. You dress quickly, grab your camera gear bag and soon you’re off in the Land Rover. What will you see this morning? Who knows – all you know is you’ll learn something interesting about African wildlife you didn’t know before.
For Brandon at age five, that meant everything was new. He loved elephants, of course, especially how the mommy was always so protective of her baby.
He knew that a group of lions was called a pride – but what are leopards called, Dad, and when do we get to see one?
“A leap of leopards – but you almost never see many together as they are solitary. In fact, you have to be lucky to see one at all.” Early one morning, we did get lucky.
He thought it was funny that it’s a bloat of hippos –
But it was cool that it’s a tower of giraffes –
Although he thought it was weird that it’s a zeal of zebras.
The early morning game drive would end mid-morning for return to camp and a nice breakfast. Most everyone then took the time to chill with a book or nap – but Brandon would go off to talk with the camp staff and the Masai shikaris.
After lunch, it would be time for the afternoon game drive. In the front of the Land Rover would be a driver and a spotter. They soon had Brandon sit between them to make sure he would see what they saw. Like the prettiest bird in all Africa, a lilac-breasted roller.
As we were departing for one of our early morning game drives, one of the Masai approached me. “Bwana Jack, would Little Bwana like to visit our village?” “We’d be honored,” came my quick reply.
Brandon could hardly wait. I told him a bit about the Masai.
“They are cattle herders. Here in the Serengeti-Mara with all these lions and hyenas that love to eat cattle. How do the Masai protect them? With spears – and with their ironwood rungu clubs weighted with a large knob on the end.
“Every Masai boy from the age of 12 or so begins his training on how to kill a lion with a spear, by planting his spear in the ground, angling it at 45 degrees, impaling the lion when it charges, then cracking its skull with the rungu. If a lion kills a cow, a group of Masai will track him down and fill him full of spears.
“You’ve noticed that Masai wear robes of bright colors. That’s to make sure lions can see them – for whenever a lion spots one single Masai warrior, he runs away. The lions are afraid of the Masai, not the other way around. And thus the Masai are left alone. These men are warriors – they have to be to survive.
“Their village is called a boma – a compound enclosed by a circle of piled up thorn bushes the lions and hyenas can’t get through. Inside the boma are huts where the families live, and another thorn bush enclosure where their cattle sleep at night. You’re going to see real Africa here – how an ancient African people have lived for many centuries.”
We were welcomed with smiles and warmth. They doted on Brandon…
And invited us into one of the huts. All Masai family huts are divided by a slat barrier into men and boy’s half, and women, girls and young children’s half. I had brought a cooler of beer for the Masai guys, and while we were talking and downing them, Brandon explored the hut.
It wasn’t until we left the village that Brandon told me what he had seen. He had been very quiet and I wondered why. “You okay, buddy?” I asked. After a moment, he looked up at me very solemnly. “Dad, I saw a baby being born in that hut.” That was a jaw-dropper, I just looked down and him and stared.
“I heard these noises, so I lifted up one of those wood pieces into the women’s part, and these women were around this woman having a baby. Dad, I saw the baby come out of her between her legs…”
The way he said this I could see he was still in shock. I got down on my knees to be at his height, put my hands on his little shoulders, and said, “That’s the way we all come into this world, buddy – you, me, Mom, all the kids you play with and their parents, every Masai, everyone in the world. Now you know what an amazing thing it is to be born. Now you know what your mother did to have you.” I hugged him tight.
Over thirty years later, Brandon remembers this like it was yesterday.
This was Brandon’s first adventure – and he handled it like a champ. We had such a great time together. Our favorite picture of the two of us was by a vehicle bridge with a sign that showed the sense of humor of the Masai Mara game wardens.
Yet my favorite is here, with a small kid’s painted cowhide shield the Masai gave him held up high. He has a confidence, a fearless sense of ease so far beyond his years – at barely age five in Africa. OMG, I realized, this is my son and I really can keep my promise to him when I heard those four words of his. So I did.