From 7,000ft above sea level, the valley below looked red, the soil as fresh as though it had just been dug. The terrain was flat, with patches of trees and huts; herds of animals moved briskly and emitted dust, creating a blurred layer, like a photograph slightly off-focus. We stood there, silent, staring at that vast stillness. This is where the earth parted once, creating two different plates. I was in the Rift Valley in Kenya, the centre of that vast, long stretch running across Africa, where everything began.
We resumed; further down the road we saw monkeys who feared nobody, who ran across roads as though they owned them. They looked intently at us, and if there were a piece of dead wood lying nearby, I’d have expected one of them to pick up that piece and fling it high, letting it soar, as though I was watching, in real time, the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only the monolith was missing. And also Sprach Zarathustra, the rousing Richard Strauss piece, lifting you to another dimension.
The monkeys were there first; we were newcomers to this part of Africa. They owned the place; we were tenants. We come, take pictures; they are the landscape. We watch, they live.
We were headed for a town called Kericho, at the edge of Mau forest, which has a square named after chai—for tea is grown in plenty in the highlands near this town. In Kericho, we woke up to the sounds of birds, the breeze shaking the curtains of our colonial guest house. With the conversation among birds as our constant companion, we walked along a clear path. At dusk, if you were lucky, you could spot an elephant; at night, the sky was full of stars.
The weather was crisp when we left the tea garden, looking like miles of neatly manicured green carpet. A handful of men and women plucked leaves which would later get sorted, air would get blown through the leaves, they’d get ground, allowed to turn the right shade of brown and black, and after being processed further, to be tasted—and tested—and packed at the factory in Jamji. The tea garden was evenly laid out, not a single leaf out of place, and it rose and fell with the landscape, looking like waves caught still.
Hills have eyes: On one side of the Masai Mara in Kenya are villages with domesticated animals. Sandipan Das/Mint
Two days later, we passed through the valley again. This time, the sun was bright. As we descended into the valley, the sun disappeared behind white clouds, its harsh light managing to penetrate through the layers. It was afternoon and the thick haze cast a pall over the red earth, now looking yellow and brown, and the solitary trees, the remote huts and the Masai herdsmen, looked like crayon drawings, all granular. The crystalline clarity of that dawn belonged to another time, when the air was cold and the light gentle.
Also Read | Salil’s previous Lounge columns
Throughout our ride from Jamji to Nairobi that day, we were chasing a mirage, glistening a mile ahead of us. It would quake and tremble as our car got closer. It would then disappear, only to emerge nearer the horizon, like quicksilver enjoying teasing us, shifting quickly as soon as our chasing fingers got any closer. On one side we saw wheat fields looking golden, on the other, a resplendent African bazaar. Women in bright reds and yellows sold corn and chicken, young boys ran with carrots and peas in plastic bags, a hawker had spread out an array of shining shoes, another sold plastic buckets, and in a corner you saw a billboard advertising an evangelical priest offering instant salvation, placed above a hair-dressing salon that promised to straighten your hair and lighten your skin.
The hills stood oblivious of this. They were green, but today, they seemed to change colours, as the sun shifted its position. Now they were blue, at times grey, sometimes they’d darken, seeming black, and once, they even looked like a white apparition, so faint, as haze settled firmly in the valley.
How green were those hills, and how red the valley, even as the film of haze covered much of the landscape. On one side was Masai Mara, the national park where the animals ruled. To the left was the saltwater lake Nakuru, where the pink blanket of flamingos covered a part of the lake. But on the highway, as we passed through another market town, the animals we encountered were all domesticated, following their masters’ orders—the sheep, head down, following the boy with the stick; the cows, marching quickly through the field, obeying the tall man.
The human triumph over nature was complete by the time we entered a Nairobi suburb. The animals were caged, or in enclosed areas, in a safe, child-friendly national park. The wild abandon of the valley had been tamed. The gulmohar shone from the branches; the jacaranda soothed the streets with its purple gaze; and there was laburnum itself, drooping like yellow necklaces. Meanwhile, the Ngong Hills filled the horizon, the five peaks clustered together, like a clenched fist, the knuckles visible.
Write to Salil at email@example.com