Thursday, November 5, 2009


Click! Click! Click!! The Mara can make a photographer out of a blind man. My last frame of the African Savannah was taken from the back of a Safari van as it sped north. It was an image that seared itself in my mind even as a dust cloud from the tyres shrouded it from view, like a magic portal closing the gates to a secret world. I looked at the image I had captured … On the screen, hemmed in by the frame, stretched a cloudless blue sky on top and an infinite plain of golden grass at the bottom. On the left hand corner, lay a large and lonely boulder. On it stood a tall and wiry man. His long and sinewy limbs seemed to have been forged by the very earth that he now stood on. A short tunic, that seemed to have been dipped and dyed in a vat of blood struggled to cover his large ebony frame and one end of it fl uttered in the wind like a proud red flag. He was a Masai – fearless lion hunters and cattle herders who live on the Mara. I flipped through the other fragments of the Masai Mara that I had gathered in my camera over the last three days. As the van sped away towards our next destination, Lake Naivasha, the straight roads and the barren landscape dulled the senses and I drifted in and out of slumber till we reached the hills. There, round a bend on the slope, I got yet another glimpse of paradise… a blue sheet of still water stretched over a soda pan – Lake Nakuru. As the soft warm light of a setting sun melted into the waters, the whole lake seemed to go up in flames of bright burning pink… flamingoes! Hundreds and thousands of them! The shallow waters were thick with these pink birds trawling the lake bed for algae… I stayed and watched the flamingoes and other wildlife till the sun slipped off the horizon and I headed for my shelter for the night – a resort at the edge of a freshwater lake nearby, Lake Naivasha.

It was a leisurely evening at the restaurant at the resort. Here it’s pertinent to mention the layout of the property. Lake Naivasha has a surface area that extends beyond 100 sq. kms and near the bank grows a thick swamp of papyrus reeds. Beyond that lies a grass bank on which sits the resort. About 50 metres from the swamp, home to crocodiles, water buffalo, waterbuck, water-birds and hippopotami, is a wire fence that keeps out the wildlife.

We were sitting in the restaurant. Outside, through the large French windows, we could see a manicured garden with a paved path illuminated with torches running past the pool and disappearing into the darkness. Further away past the dark shadows of the swamps, we could see the waters of the lake, reflecting the last retreating rays of a set sun. It was rather quiet, but for the occasional clutter of stainless steel scraping china and the gentle jabber of tired tourists.

Then I noticed that the Spaniard sitting across my table was looking rather odd. He had his mouth open and his hand had brought a forkful of spaghetti right up to his lips but his hand and his mouth had frozen, his gaze transfixed on something behind me. I turned to follow his gaze. And I kid you not, I blinked twice before I could believe what I was seeing… In the lawn, metres away from the entrance to the restaurant, was a gigantic hippopotamus. A Japanese couple, hand in hand, had just walked out of the door for an evening stroll and right before my eyes almost bumped into the behemoth. The woman screamed and the man froze… expressions straight out of the Godzilla movies. Then the two of them stumbled and turned and ran back inside, screaming… hearing their screams, attendants ran out and even before they’d reached the door, spied the beast and stopped short. Hurriedly, they closed the door that opened onto the lawns and asked guests to leave from the other side and head for their rooms. Some of us stayed back and followed the security staff that had been called in to try and shoo the monster away.

Before I proceed with the story, here’s a perspective for those who might wonder why people were running scared of what looks like an overgrown pig and is basically a harmless vegetarian. Well, this ‘harmless vegetarian’ is in fact labeled ‘the most dangerous animal in Africa’, responsible for far more human casualties than lions, leopards or elephants. Weighing more than 4000 kgs (that’s two Hummers placed on top of each other… and with khukris for teeth), and with jaws that can snap a man in two, hippos seem to topple boats and bite off human limbs with the sort of casual disdain with which we stomp on cockroaches. And they are most aggressive when they find a man between them and the water…

There was mayhem all around. “Kiboko (hippo in swahili)! Kiboko (hippo)!!” screamed the hotel staff. Guests would run a short distance, start clicking and when the hippo trundled towards them, run and scream some more before stopping to shoot again. Meanwhile, the hotel employees didn’t know who to shoo away first – the wayward kiboko or their wayward guests. After a lot of “ha-ing” and ‘hoo-ing’, they managed to herd the hippo away from the lawns and declared the way to the cottages ‘safe’.

I was hurrying towards my cottage when a great grey shadow, like a ghost, glided past the bushes on my right and emerged on the pathway, less than two metres away and right in front. Cold sweat trickled down the nape of my neck as the hippo blocked the path to the cottage, looking at me with its tiny beady eyes and spinning its tail like a fan as it sprayed the pathway with dung. Done with dumping, it moved off the path and into the shadows again. I didn’t move. I couldn’t see in the dark and didn’t want to bump into to the beast. After a while, I heard someone drop a tray and scream, followed by loud voices. So the hippo had moved away… I jogged off towards the cottage.

Tucked in bed, I ruminated over the evening’s adventure and shuddered at the thought of what might have been. I turned off the lights and went off to sleep. Sometime later in the night, I woke up. The cottage had a frameless glass double-door that opened onto the lawn. I had left the curtains open. From my bed, in the soft white light of a full moon, I could see the lawns extending into the shadows of the swamp and a light mist gathering along the grass, like a cotton carpet. I got up to draw the curtains. As I neared the glass pane, I pressed my nose against it and stared into the night. The hippo was out there somewhere. They said it had never happened before; that it was an old male, driven out of the lake by a younger male. I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that no would run into the surly old fellow in the dark. Having drawn the curtains, as I turned towards the bed I heard something rustling outside. Instinctively, I sat down and peered through the curtains…

Whoa! Staring right in my face, mere inches away, separated by a glass door no more than an inch thick, was the enormous head of Africa’s greatest killer. I could hear those lips chomping grass and see the vapour escape from his nostrils. I exhaled with a shudder. The hippo stopped grazing from the edge of my threshold and looked into my eyes. I held my breath; his ears twitched and for an eternal moment we stared into each other’s eyes, trying to read the other’s mind. My head was racing… even if the hippo was to belch into the door, I suspected the glass door would come crashing down. For some reason, the hotel had the good sense to provide a sturdy wooden door to the bathroom and I started calculating if I would have the time to make it to the bath in time if the glass-door came down. The hippo must have been doing its own calculations. It kept staring. I stopped thinking, losing myself in this intimate moment with a wild animal. I was close enough to count its long eye lashes. I wanted to touch its muzzle and wondered how the hippo might react… I was scared, I was excited, I was enthralled! The hippo stood there, as if waiting for me to make the next move; to remove that barrier and make contact. I gently opened the latch… but I couldn’t muster the courage to open the door. The hippo kept looking, waiting… and then it blinked, wiggled its ears and slowly walked away towards a bush under my window. The spell was broken. I slowly opened the door. A cool breeze wafted in and I could smell the hippo… I sat down ever so slowly on the floor. The hippo threw a sideways glance but kept on grazing, just a few feet away… and that’s how we remained, long into the night….


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