They came at night. We sat in comfortable wooden chairs in the veranda of the bar after dinner, aware only of the silence surrounding us. But had we listened closely and talked less, we’d have heard the soft thuds and whisper-like rustle of the waterbucks and impalas as they jumped over the fence around our jungle lodge, and squatted in the grounds of the lodge where we stayed (I checked the next night—I was alone that night outside the complex where I stayed, and I did hear, and witness, that silent takeover).
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We stepped out of the bar, and saw them amble gracefully and settle in at their favourite spots—the hotel complex had kept muted lights on, and in the glow of the lodge’s light, their luminous hair looked golden. As we walked back to our rooms, the sky was full of stars.
The waterbucks were there again at dawn. They were tolerant: They had seen us arrive the previous day, and looked at us with wry amusement, as some of us desperately tried to fix telephoto lenses on our cameras, and others requested their friends to take their pictures on their cellphones, fearing that the waterbucks would run away.
On the wild side: Impalas seem to like posing for photographs.Photo by Thinkstock
But the animals liked being photographed, so they stayed; they sat quietly, continuing to look at us as our friends posed, conscious, some eyes facing the camera, others casting furtive glances at the waterbucks, lest they stealthily came anywhere near them. But the waterbucks sat impassive: They knew they could outrun us.
The next morning, we had woken up to the sounds of birds. Even though theirs was a vocabulary we could not understand, we knew it was a conversation, rapid and loud. It was just after 6, and Africa looked magical. We were along the lake Naivasha, Timothy guiding us towards the lake’s shore.
On one side we saw a few giraffes, walking away from the lake, their necks swaying. A few zebras ran towards the lake. The mild mist in the air, accentuated by the lake’s presence, made it look as though we were stepping into the pages of National Geographic magazine.
From the height of the watchtower, we saw the lake as it awoke—the still view of the calm water, the sound of the birds, and the light resting lightly on its surface. There were some hippos already in the lake—partly submerged, they lay content, convinced about the utter inconsequentiality of our presence. A few birds sat on their hides, exchanging gossip.
Suddenly, we saw a spring hare race past, as if in a great hurry, carrying an important message for his friends. A blacksmith plover circled us, chirping excitedly, as if warning us. Shoosh, Timothy said, asking us to be quiet.
Then he pointed out a tree, next to which I saw a massive rock. Besides the rock sat a hippopotamus, groaning. Timothy spoke in Swahili to two men passing by, who told him the hippo was hurt and in pain.
The hippo wanted to go back to the water, but was in no position to do so. I remembered what Timothy had told us before we started: Never stand between the hippo and water. The wise option seemed to be to follow Timothy, step by step.
The two men slowly went to the hippo, hoping to convince him to move, even if slowly, back to the water, to be with his mates. My friend Usha, who was with me, is a human rights lawyer, and she usually doesn’t like forced evictions. But this was eviction on compassionate grounds, so she let it pass. The giraffes and zebras went to the mist-covered lake, as if they had had their fill of watching people from outside Kenya who had come to see them.
The following morning we were at another lake, Nakuru. We reached the shore, facing hundreds of pink and white flamingos. They walked on the water like ballerinas, bending low to drink, then raising their heads, giving us a startled look when we came too near them, and then they scurried away from us, creating a delightful symmetry of ripples across the water.
We drove to the top of the hill and saw the flamingos again, now regrouped, oblivious of the rhinoceros that came alongside, drinking from a small pond. The birds stayed clustered together, their tall legs reflecting in the water, and with the mist layering the view with a thin film, the sight looked like a panoramic painting.
Then finally, we saw Thomson’s gazelle—spunky and cheerful, the gazelle had the body of a gymnast and her elegant horns looked like someone had crafted intricate jewellery on her head. The gazelle moved swiftly, vanishing in the grass, until she emerged moments later, much further from where I had seen her disappear, with a puzzled look on her face.
It was getting warmer, and the sun harsher. The gentle mist had begun to disappear, and the temperature had risen. Africa’s magic is at dawn, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in his posthumous novel, True at First Light: “In Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed fringed lake you see across the sun baked salt plane.” We were seeing enough of the lies in the cities we had left behind. At dawn, by the lake, the truth was simple, clear and pure.
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