The area of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya is Masai area. We cycle through it for several days. Along the road we see many shepherds with their herds: goats, sheep, but mostly cattle. They are typical African cattle; varying from beige to almost black, but most of them are light brown. All of them have a hump on their neck and especially the bulls have impressive horns, sometimes several decimetres long. Being a shepherd is a male profession. They walk in typical Masai clothing: red plaid canvases that they have wrapped around them. In addition, they all have a homemade walking stick that also serves to keep the cattle on the right track. Almost all of the shepherds walk on flip flops made of car tires. At some distance from the road we see small Masia villages: about ten round huts together, made of mud walls and roofs of palm leaves. The village is separated from its surroundings by faggots. Around the villages we also see the women at work. They get water or are on their way to the market. They are dressed even more colorful than the men with different canvases on top of each other. Usually they are also heavily decorated with jewellery. Often about 15 necklaces and in their earlobes, which are so stretched that I can easily put my hand through them, hang a lot of earrings and other decorations. Around their waist they often have a belt with all kinds of metal decorations on it.
To make the image even more surreal, we see a herd of giraffes eating from the acacia trees between two villages less than 50 meters away from us.
‘Bizarre, isn't it, that this is also part of our world' Kathleen shouts to me from behind. She is right; it seems as if we are driving through another world, as if we will wake up tomorrow and it turns out to have been a special dream.
In the town that evening a Masai boy walks towards us when we're looking for the only hotel in town. You seem tired and lost; can I help you?' he asks in perfect English. He takes us to the hotel and helps us carry our luggage to our room. Do you like to have a drink together tonight? I'm curious about your world and I can tell you something about our culture. Of course we have ears for that. That night he tells us about the Masaic culture. About the age groups you belong to and the respect for the older age groups. About the stages of life you have to go through per age group: looking after the cattle, the youngest on the goats and sheep and the age group on top of that on the cattle, finding a wife, getting married, having children, etc. He is about to move on to the next phase of his life with a big ceremony and would then marry his girlfriend. He also tells about the battle that took place between two Masai groups about landborders. The two groups literally stood each other to life. In 1992 the peace was signed. In order to maintain this peace, newborn babies from the two camps were exchanged. I don't dare ask about it, but realise that he could have just been one of those babies.
But tell me about your country,' he continues. We tell him what we do and how we live. ‘And between your cities, do you have farmers there?'. ‘Yes, we have many farmers who keep cows for milk', I tell him. As if he had heard our discussion that afternoon, he concludes: 'Nice to experience that we are exactly the same!’ Kathleen and I look at each other. It is typical of what we experience here. While we emphasize the big differences, the Africans we've met so far are mainly looking for similarities.
Animals on the road
During our journey, the animal world also changes constantly. In the northern European countries we mainly see storks, roe deer, birds of prey and a single fox. The further south we drive, the bigger the insects become. In the course of time we also hear crickets, we see salamanders and we also meet small snake skins on the road. From Albania on there are also tortoises. The most dangerous animal we meet is the one closest to home: the oak processionary caterpillar.
But the real animal life starts for us in Africa of course. That's one of the reasons we want to cycle here. The first few days we have some special birds, but on day four there is a group of monkeys on the road, in the middle of the road, and they seem to be having a great time there, because even though they have seen us, they just stay where they are. Especially the males are impressively large and especially muscular. There are many small ones in the group. We stop and look at each other. How little do we know about this animal life. Do we have to watch out or can we just cycle past it? Is there a chance that they will attack us or will they just move aside at some point? What are the signals they give if they are not happy with us? At a certain moment a car arrives; the monkeys automatically dive into the verge and we can move on as well. The people here know exactly how to deal with the animals and what they can expect, but we... What do we have to do when the animals get a little bigger?
And then we really come across 'them'!
That morning we arrive early at the gate of Hell's Gate National Park. It is the only national park in Kenya that you are allowed to cycle through, so we have planned our route in such a way that we have to go through it. It's a bit exciting, a few days earlier we were told that a lioness had been spotted in the park, so it was temporarily forbidden to cycle through the park. At the gate we explain our route. The two men who are blocking the road look at each other. A lioness has indeed been spotted, but that was some time ago. You can cycle through it, but a ranger will join you'. We both know what the other person is thinking. Of course we agree with that condition! That gives some extra safety, I think, until I hear from the ranger that he is unarmed. ‘There is a law here that no one should harm the animals, so it makes no sense to be armed...'. Well, when we meet a hungry lioness, the chance is 1 in 3 instead of 1 in 2, I'm telling myself to legitimize the presence of the ranger.
Soon we see zebras, quietly grazing at a short distance from the road. They eat undisturbed when we stop to take pictures. That's different with the gazelles we meet a bit further down the road. They have long since noticed us before we see them. They stand still and all heads have turned towards us, waiting for what we are going to do. I stop to take my camera out of my bag, but apparently that is a sign to put it on a run. It's impressive to see how fast they disappear into the distance by leaps and bounds; I have to postpone my picture until the next meeting. The warthogs that have their holes directly along the road, are a lot more relaxed and rooting with their backside our way, quietly on; not really photogenic. After half an hour of cycling we see a group of buffaloes, our first species of the 'big 5'! They are quite far away, but Kathleen and I can't help but take our cameras. Later it turns out that our ranger has been paying attention to the lonely buffalo that stands under a tree on the other side of the road. ‘Buffalo standing alone are the most dangerous' he tells us later. ‘They may feel cut off from the rest of the herd when we are in between and then they are unpredictable, but this one didn't seem to find it a problem'. Maybe it's a good thing that the ranger is there, I think to myself.
When we see all these animals, I have some different feelings. First of all, surprise and amazement that all these animals are there at the same time. The national parks are not fenced, so in fact they can go anywhere, but they choose en masse to graze 'in the park'. In addition, a feeling of surrealism. At a certain moment Kathleen is cycling in front of me and on one side I see giraffes eating the leaves of the acacias, while on the other side of the road zebras continue to graze imperturbably. We only know these animals from behind large fences in the zoo and now we just cycle past them at a short distance.
The next day we cycle around Lake Navaisha where we see the same animals outside the national park, often even closer than in the park. All feelings of surprise, amazement and surrealism are exchanged by just one more feeling: that it feels very natural to cycle there and to share the road with these animals. It's just right; the animals should be part of this landscape. Without these animals, this landscape would not be complete.
Rugby with a special rule
We spend two nights at Niels, a Dutch expat who is a ‘warmshower’ and who offers shelter to (world)cyclists. He works in Kenya for a Dutch firm. The last night we are with him is his usual rugby night and he asks if we feel like accompanying him. It is a very special location, so I can certainly recommend it to you,' he adds. Although rugby is not our first choice when it comes to sports, we get in his car. When we arrive at our destination, we soon understand him. Zebras and giraffes are grazing on the rugby field. At the edge we also see wildebeest and waterbucks scratching their evening meal together. A little further on a group of gazelles is walking and in the distance are several buffaloes. We get a rule explained before the game starts: 'Don't kick the ball too far away. At dusk hyenas from the forest and hippos from the water come to this place. I nod as if it is the most normal thing in the world. The final signal is given by nature itself; the match is over when the buffalo start to get too close. I'm of little use to them on the rugby field this evening.