We left Nairobi in a safari van with several other tourists. The driver who picked us up mentioned that today was Kenya’s Independence Day. On December 12, 1963, Kenya officially became independent from Britain. “That is Uhuru Park,” our driver said as he pointed it out, “and uhuru means ‘freedom’ in Kiswahili.”
“Isn’t Uhuru also the name of Jomo Kenyatta’s son?” I asked.
“Yes,” the driver confirmed.
I had one more important point to make. “And also on the TV show Star Trek,” I announced proudly, “Uhura is the name of the chief communications officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise.” Total silence. The driver furrowed his brow, and Zannah made the universal hand gesture for “crash and burn.”
Only thirty minutes from the city we stopped to take in our first panoramic view of the Great Rift Valley, a massive trench that runs all the way from Syria to Mozambique. It felt surreal to be standing there and I had to laugh. “Now this looks like Africa,” said Zannah.
“Do you think it’s good that some Masai still follow the old ways?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied immediately. “Because otherwise tourists would not want to see them.”
“Only because of the tourists?” asked Zannah.
“Yes,” answered Limeri, in a tone of voice that made it sound more like “Of course.”
Just past Narok the condition of the road deteriorated dramatically, and to avoid the massive potholes we often drove beside the road instead of on it. But the memorable scenes outside the window diverted my attention away from the bumpy ride. We began to see giraffe heads poking out of the treetops. A family of baboons played next to a wooden hut. Red-robed Masai herded goats and cows and waved at us as we drove past.
We arrived just outside the park’s Oloololo gate in the late afternoon, and the driver took Zannah and me to the small lodge we’d be staying at for the next two nights. We stopped just long enough to put our bags in our room – a semi-permanent tent with a zipper for an entrance – and then we hopped right back on the safari van for our first game drive.
The Masai Mara is truly incredible. Zannah began reciting a string of Lion King quotes, and I had to admit it felt as if we’d entered the movie. Herds of zebra, impala, and wildebeest grazed happily in the fading sunlight. Green hills rolled into the distance, their smooth lines broken only occasionally by the broad canopy of a solitary Acacia tree. The roof of our safari van popped open, allowing us to stand up for unobstructed views in every direction. We drove slowly along a dirt road and stopped frequently to watch nearby animals. Before long we spotted a group of elephants walking next to the road and drove up right next to them.