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In the heart of wilderness

india Updated: Jan 12, 2007 23:39 IST
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I have an uncanny feeling that I’ve been caught slap bang in a B-grade Hollywood film. This is Out of Africa II, or should the title be Stuck in Africa? Consider the scene. I am waiting, bags on tarmac on the tiny airstrip in Masai Mara waiting for the Safarilink aeroplane that will fly us back to Nairobi. We’ve managed to arrive in time to catch our 11 am flight, despite having to push our jeep through slush and dealing with a tyre that flew off.

Now that that drama is over, our plane lands, the pilot hops off, looks at his passenger list and declares solemnly that our names are not on it. “The next plane will arrive in 10 minutes. That’s the one you are on,” he says and flies off.

We believe him. Six hours later, there is no sight of the plane. We’re still on the airstrip having polished off the last of our potato chips. I’ve long stopped telling my daughters Teesta and Ananya, “Africa is all about adventure!” I’ve even stopped hollering at my husband to ‘call the travel agent right now’. Our cheerful Masai guide, Mika, tells me that after 5.30 pm no planes can land or take-off and I have a desperate vision of stripping off his ceremonial red robe to wave at passing planes (but there are none) to rescue us. That’s when our ‘10 minutes’ later plane arrives. The pilot hops off, looks at his passenger list and declares solemnly that our names are not on it. Déjà vu? Not a bloody chance. Declaring that I will board the plane come what may, we’re finally off 15 minutes later.

Hullabaloo in the olive grove

I hope my children are reading this because, I am right. Africa is all about adventure. At least our brief vacation has been. Unseasonal rains mean that we’ve been covered in slush for the better part of our stay. Our jeep has unfailingly got stuck at least once a day, every day. A scheduled hot air balloon ride from Governor’s camp, a two-hour bumpy ride from our own camp Kicheche at 4 am is cancelled (after we’ve woken up at 3.15 am and made the journey) because of the weather. But there have been compensations. And how.

Nothing has prepared us for the sheer beauty of Masai Mara. Being stuck in the slush waiting for a rescue jeep to tow us out has been exceptionally lucky for us. On one occasion a herd of giraffe pass us by, gently navigating their way through mouthfuls of leaves. Driving back early in the morning from our aborted hot air balloon ride, we pass a family of elephants, the youngest, a two-day-old baby safely trotting along between his mother’s legs.

Camp Kicheche is an unfenced bush camp in a thicket of olive trees. The camp can take a maximum of 22 guests, meals are al fresco (unless it’s raining) and there’s a comfy, intimate air about being here. We are warned though. No walking around at night. If you do need to get out of your tent, shout out to one of the night watchmen (askaris) armed with spears and they’ll escort you. They’re not joking. On our first night, we hear hyenas and elephants. We sleep well, despite the hullabaloo in the olive grove.

The camp organisers seem determined to compensate us for the rain. Mika packs picnic breakfasts fit for Masai kings: boiled eggs, bacon, sausages, fruit, fruit juice, cereal, cheese, homemade marmalade, bread rolls, coffee. And for our evening game drive, he springs a real surprise. Watching the sun go down over the bush, he hands me a gin-tonic — wsith ice.

The ‘exotic’

Back in Nairobi we negotiate our way to Carnivore, the city’s famed prize-winning restaurant. The sight of a few locals eating there reassures us that it’s not a complete tourist trap. With an ‘all the meat you can eat’ menu, the restaurant is centred around a large open fire pit on which massive skewers of all manner of meat — beef, chicken, pork and lamb plus a selection of more ‘exotic’ game, crocodile, camel and ostrich — is roasted.

Apart from the badge value of  “Wow! I ate crocodile!” I’d say, stick to the usual. The ostrich is minced, and while there are undoubtedly greater palates that can tell the difference between minced lamb and minced ostrich, I couldn’t.

Still, Carnivore is great for greedies if not foodies. As you enter, the waiter places a little white flag on your table. When you’re ready to eat, you place the flag up and the waiters begin their assault, skewer by bloody skewer (actually they use what they claim are Masai swords). When you’re done, you put the flag down and the dessert menu arrives.

The other Nairobi landmark, the Norfolk hotel claims a history that predates World War I.  Ah, historical like apro Taj Mahal in Mumbai. Don’t expect Taj-style hospitality, though. The front desk staff makes our own bureaucracy look positively spiffy and I nearly miss my flight (not again) arguing for 30 minutes over a laundry bill that is not mine. But our driver makes up for lost time. Despite being stopped by a traffic policeman for jumping a red light, we make it well in time after a cheerful exchange of 200 shillings. Now I know why it’s called speed money.

Email Namita Bhandare: nbhandare @hindustantimes.com

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