Land of Giants

June 23, 2006

THE GLOBE LESS TRAVELED -- Kenya's land of giants


I was in a public bus, hurtling across the cracked black tarmac highway that cuts through eastern Kenya toward the Indian Ocean coast.

The sun was boiling the hunk of overcrowded, rusted metal in which my friends and I were traveling. We passed thatched mud huts and children in rags.

Troops of baboons scurried across the road. Before us lay a flat expanse of desert scrub-brush trees. Heat waves shimmered off a sea of scarlet soil.

Suddenly, people began pointing out the window. I scanned the horizon, squinting, following imaginary lines traced by a small phalanx of index fingers.

They were hard to see at first: two horselike figures with long tilted necks, silhouetted by the sunlight. Because they stood side by side, a great distance from us, they looked small. But these are the tallest animals on Earth, towering 18 feet and weighing 2,000 pounds.


Seeing them for the first time reminded me, still reminds me, of what it is like to be a kid again. Of dreams. Of a trip I took across America when I was young and the world was new.

For an adult, that's something to hold on to: the unfettered joy of seeing or doing something, anything, for the first time.


Kenya is a land of giants.

Giraffes may be the planet's tallest animals, but African elephants are five times heavier, weighing in at around 15,000 pounds. Hippos weigh up to 7,000 pounds and, despite their bulk, can run faster than humans on land. Horned rhinos resemble dinosaurs.

In Kenya, they all roam freely.

South of Nairobi, in Amboseli National Park, herds of elephants, zebra and wildebeest graze across a powdery moonscape.

Looming above is Africa's largest peak, snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro.

To the north, the Great Rift Valley splits the Earth, forming a wide valley dominated by a huge volcanic crater.

A road rises along the edge of the escarpment. Nearby, Lake Nakuru glows pink along its edges: colored by the hue of tens of thousands of flamingoes.

To the west is Masai Mara, the northern half of Tanzania's golden Serengeti National Park. This is Kenya's showcase reserve: some 600 square miles of rolling hills and grassy plains studded with lone acacia trees.

Its open spaces and mighty vistas offer perhaps the best place in the world to view wildlife.

I have traveled all over the world, and have never seen a place so scenic, so primordial. The animals that roam here existed before all the world's cities, before all its books, before all of recorded time.

I'd expected Kenya's parks to have fences. Most do not. The few that exist have one purpose: not to keep animals in, but to keep them out.

Around lodges, they keep large or dangerous animals at bay. Around Nairobi National Park, fences on three sides keep animals from wandering into the city. Lions, rhinos, zebras and buffalo graze here with the capital's skyscrapers in full view.

Elsewhere, they are few and far between. The lack of enclosures evokes a sense of boundless freedom.

Kenya's parks are natural, not zoos. There is no mistaking it.


When I was 11 years old, my father took my brother and I on a month-long trip across the United States, from the East Coast to the west and back.

We hiked along precarious edges of the Grand Canyon, wandered underground among the deep limestone caves of bat-filled Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

We drove past the dazzling lights of Las Vegas, walked among the behe
moth Sequoia trees of California, rafted down the Snake River in Wyoming. At Yellowstone National Park, we watched geysers spew and wondered at multicolored hot springs.

Seeing and doing all that for the first time was something I would not feel again until I went to Kenya at the age of 23 -- and what I feel every time I go back.

From a hot-air balloon, the Masai Mara unfolds spectacularly below. Moving through space in silence, you gaze down at giraffes and antelope grazing on golden hillsides.

These trips are pure luxury, endi
ng with a glasses of champagne and a five-star breakfast wherever you touch down.

The first time I went, I traveled in a white minivan with a group of tourists.

There were so many animals, and there was so much killing. I remember a lion's mouth red with the blood of a zebra he was devouring. Vultures waited patiently nearby. Hyenas lurked beyond.

We went out before dawn and watched the rising sun turn a cloudy sky orange and then flaming red. On the plain below tiny dik-diks -- miniature antelope -- hurtled through the grass.

Resting lions were surrounded by a photo-snapping minivans. But it's easy to find yourself alone.

I went back years later in my own vehicle, now able to stop where and when I wanted. This is the best way to see the park.

In the hippo-filled Mara river, we watched the eyes of submerged crocodiles hunting prey.

On the reserve's edge, we saw herdsmen with spears and bright red clothes hunting something; we couldn't tell what.

Later, we paused by the Mara River and watched a lion resting by the bank.

We drove along dirt tracks and watched two young elephants at play, clashing tusks.

The sky was infinitely wide, deep blue. The air was clear, pure, fresh.

We found a group of hippos bathing in a pond. They snorted loudly, and it began to pour rain. The sky suddenly darkened; night falls quickly in Africa. There were no lights to guide us. We got lost.

I thought we would spend the night beside the road, until another vehicle passed and we followed them.

Safely back in our lodge, hidden on a hilltop, we sipped hot tea, drank icy beer.

Troops of rock hyraxes -- they looked like giant gerbils -- bounded around the grounds, past a lighted blue pool. Some relaxed on top of each other in groups, a son perched on his parents' back.

From our room we looked down on the vista stretching across the horizon below.

Through the window, we spotted a tiny army of specks: a mighty herd of elephants making its way across the plain.

It is one of my last days in the Mara.

A sole acacia tree stands on a sea of grass. Dark skies swirl, propelling a cool pocket of crisp air and rain clouds across hot plains.

Through a gap in the clouds, a massive column of sunlight illuminates a broad circle of shining emerald grass.

Aside from the sound of the wind itself, it is quiet.

Aside from the person I've come here with, there is not another soul in sight.

In the distance, a herd of a dozen giraffes runs across the savanna. Their awkward gait, the time it takes for one step on a hoof to ripple up their long necks, makes it seem they're moving in slow motion.

This is the Mara at its grandest. No fences, no boundaries, no constraints.

This, I think, is what it is like to be young. This is life, unbound.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

All photos Copyright 2000 By Todd Pitman
. All rights reserved.