“It’s getting so late,” I mutter anxiously, the first hints of dusk beginning to settle on the savannah. “What time is it? After five?”
“It’s five now,” Gene murmurs, white-knuckled hands gripping the wheel of the rented right-hand drive Suzuki Four by Four, foot tromping on the gas. “Hope the gate is still open and they let us in. We have to be at the lodge before dark.”
“Hope so, too,” I mutter more anxious than before. I bite my lip, do not want to blurt the truth of what I know. The safari lodge where we have reservations is an hour or so beyond the gate.
The kids in the back, thirteen and nine, are alert, but say nothing. No one dares to say aloud what we are all wondering. “What if they won’t let us in?”
Eyes stare, wide, intense. Backs straighten. Hands check door locks, grasp handles. The car surges, blasts ahead. We all know this was not the plan. Did not expect to find ourselves arriving at the Oloololo Gate of Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Park with less than an hour before sunset. Before a thick curtain of blackness drops, drapes itself over the vast plains of the Rift Valley. Before vehicles and the people they carry are forbidden to move about the Park. Fifty-five minutes until the nocturnal animals, sleek and wild, come out to stalk, and the stars, diamond-bright, blaze in the canopy above.
The day began just fine. Breakfast, packing, hotel check-out. Everything on schedule for what was supposed to be a six-hour trip. We wound our way through Nairobi’s crowded streets, finally made it to the outskirts where we stopped for gas, “petrol,” as they say. The girls and I tried for a bathroom break knowing this was the last stop until lunch, but were unsuccessful as the hole in the floor was already overflowing. We bought some cold Cokes for the car, and wondered why several Kenyans surrounded us, smiling, eyes fixed on the glass bottles in our hands. We smiled back, not sure what else to do. One very earnest young man pointed and asked if he could have the empties. At last we understood. The glass was worth more than the Coke, and thus prized by these enterprising young men. We chugged, drained the bottles, they nodded their thanks, and we were off. Headed for the B3, the escarpment road that would take us from Nairobi’s 5500-foot plateau down several thousand feet to the floor of the Rift Valley below.
Gene and I had traveled to Kenya eleven years earlier with our then two-year old to visit his parents who, at the time, were posted at the American Embassy. We packed into their Landrover with a carseat and potty chair and they whisked us off to the Mara, a spectacular safari we now hoped to repeat with our two daughters (both old enough now to remember the experience).
Our Suzuki started down the B3, and excited now, Gene and I shared our memories with the kids. “It’s narrow, a road carved out of the rock cliff walls of the escarpment,” we tell them. “Sheer cliff face rising on the right, and on the left, huge wide views of the flat plains stretching to the horizon broken only by an occasional acacia tree and the silhouettes of majestic giraffes in the distance.” The girls’ eyes grow huge, they turn their heads to the left “And that’s not all,” Gene and I say, brimming with enthusiasm. “We’ll have to look for the stalls lining the road. Vendors selling sheepskins and souvenirs all the way down.” I turn to Gene. “Remember the giant beer trucks hauling the Kenyan brand, Tusker, isn’t it?” Gene nods, rolls his eyes. “The candelabra tree,” I burst out. “Hope it’s still here. Remember how magnificent, standing so full, perfectly-shaped just off the edge of the road?” Gene grins now, says, “We’ll have to look for it.” “And the tiny stone chapel built for the Italian work crew hewing the road from the rock wall, remember that?” he adds.
The girls look around, their faces confused. Gene and I, too, feel confused, even disconcerted. How could this be the same road? The stalls were still lining the edge of the road, but they had been taken over by baboons. Completely overrun with them. The Italian chapel was overgrown, almost unrecognizeable, the candelabra tree also obscured by the brush grown up around it. And there was a Tusker’s truck, not lumbering along, but disappearing now into a deep crater. A giant pothole swallowing it whole. There was no other traffic, and no wonder. The car-swallowing craters were everywhere. We dipped down inside, way down, and crawled our way back up the other side. Plunging, climbing, we roller-coastered down the escarpment road, each of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Later we would learn that the Israelis had built a new, smooth four-lane highway from Nairobi to the Rift Valley floor.
It was after two by the time we pulled into Narok, the first city where we could find a restaurant willing to serve lunch that late. No time for a real break. Gobble the food, gas up, get back in the car. A dirt road now.
Three hours tick by. Gene slows the car and we come to a stop at the gate. Two Kenyans in tan uniforms come out of the guard house and look at us quizzically. “Jambo,” Gene says and hands one our pass, and the other takes off his cap, runs his hand over his head. The two look at each other, then ask where we are staying.
“The Mara Serena Lodge,” Gene says.
The guards look at each other again, and one shakes his head. “Hurry,” he says. “Hurry, hurry,” and waves us through.
The road is only a track now now, sometimes smooth enough, sometimes deeply rutted, and often blemished with huge mudholes where detours around them had been worn into the bush. The huge sky is gray, and quite hazy. “Smoke,” we say. “Fire,” we shout. The vast plumes dominate the sky and the car races on. So does the fire, the orange flames visible now, much closer to the road. It is eerie to race the fire and the gathering darkness. None of us can breathe. The fire licks through the brush, is so close to the edge of the road. Gene drives. We are all spellbound.
“What was that?” we say. “”Did you see it? Looked like a cat… too small to be a leopard, but same kind of spots. Beautiful… Look there, in the bush, see it’s face, the light shining on its eyes?”
We take a deep breath, feel the grace of the moment. Witnesses to a beautiful animal, a serval running from the fire.
We blast past the fire and realize how black the sky is now. “The stars,” the girls say in amazement. “Look how bright.”
“There’s the Southern Cross,” I say excited. “You can only see it in the Southern Hemisphere.”
It is pitch black and we are alone out in the bush. “There, a sign for the Mara Serena,” we say. We turn off, head for the “car park,” and see a light inside an open doorway. We run toward the light, toward the office to check-in. It is 1990 and Gene and I chuckle in spite of ourselves at the unmistakeable sound of a 1970s IBM Selectric typewriter coming from inside. We burst through the door and a hotel clerk looks up calmly.
“Mr. Gene?” he asks.
“Yes, yes,” we say, exhaling for the first time. He takes our credit card and clacks it through the hand reader. He hands it back and grins. We’re in.