The waterbuck froze stock still in a pool carpeted in lily pads. Not six feet above her, two lionesses lounged nonchalantly on the overhanging bank. The waterbuck was petrified and you could see a gash along her left flank. Against the yawning straw-colored bowl of Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve, the lily pads, glowing a chartreuse neon, threw the scene out of kilter. Here was exactly the life-and-death struggle my nephew and I had come to Africa towitness and it was as unexpected as spying a killing in a Monet pond. We approached this rite of passage, 11-year-old Robert and I, as equals.
With the utmost indifference, like a dog shifting positions before a fire, one of the lionesses padded down to the waterline. She stared momentarily at the waterbuck, their eyes a yard apart, leaned forward once, twice, then lunged at her neck. Flailing briefly above the surface, the pair submerged for a long 10 seconds. The lioness came up sputtering and clawed desperately for solid ground. The waterbuck stood firm, winner of Round 1. "She's okay now, isn't she?" Robert asked me. I said I didn't know.
The lioness continued treading back and forth on the bank, making up her mind what to do. Once again, she locked eyes with the waterbuck, drawing even closer than before. With a snakelike thrust she was on her, and the two grappled out of sight underwater, longer this time. When they surfaced, the lioness held her prey in clenched teeth and dragged her ashore.
It had been a sobering, brutalspectacle and I was concerned how Robert had taken it. Like me, probably, with a mixture of wonderment, repulsion and acceptance. This drama of predator and victim and death was being played out daily; all around us, other lions were attacking other waterbuck, and by morning, hyenas and vultures would have picked the carcasses clean. Ruling this realm was a terrible and implacable inevitability. I had never witnessed anything like it, and I was certain Robert hadn't either.
My intention was to view an African safari through a child's eyes, so I had conveniently borrowed my nephew Robert. Over the course of two weeks of bumping along in our Toyota Land Cruiser, Robert and I would share a rare sighting of rhino at Amboseli National Park, come within touching distance of skittish bushbuck in the highland jungle of a treetop lodge and gasp at cheetah racing across the plain of the Masai Mara. Not to forget close encounters with hippos on Lake Naivasha and rubbing shoulders with Masai boys Robert's own age. It was an adventure without parallel.
This family safari was the brainstorm of Sven-Olof Lindblad as one of the trips offered by his company, Special Expeditions. He had dreamed up the idea after marveling how readily his son Justin, at age 4, had taken to the wilds and wildlife of Kenya. Talking to Sven is to be converted; a safari without a child in tow begins to seem a deprivation.
Before leaving, I stewed in the usual doubts: Was Robert too young for such a trip? Would Africa be so strange he'd want to race home immediately? But these doubts and more were swept away within 48 hours of our arrival in Nairobi. Africa equalizes adult and child. The first time you contemplate elephants lumbering across the plain -- in Isak Dinesen's phrase, "like they had an appointment at the end of the earth" -- you all become children of wonder.
Our safari (the word means journey in Swahili) started out from the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. The place crawls with khaki. Everyone is either on their way to, or just in from, the bush. We left the hotel early one Sunday morning in July, the Land Cruiser full with the Butlers, Fred and Marie-Claude, their daughter Julia (seven-and-an-important-half years old, please), Robert and me and our guide David Read. About Kenya, there was nothing David did not know, and his patience with the two children was inexhaustible.
We rolled into our camp in a cloud of dust, the inescapable dust of Amboseli Park. The blue-green foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro lay just out of reach across the border into Tanzania. "Jambo," the staff greeted us in Swahili, and the seven of them each took turns shaking our hands. Five or six Swahili expressions later and Robert and Julia were old pros, calling out rafiki (friend) and habari (how are you?) at the slightest provocation.
Camp consisted of separate sleeping tents, a dining tent, and kitchen and supply tent alongside the tent where the staff slept. Combination shower-latrines were set up behind our tents. Robert took one look around and pronounced judgment: "Hey, this is a lot nicer than I thought it was going to be." I liked his attitude.
On our first game drive, we were roused at 6:30, a routine that remained torture to Robert throughout the safari. But it was the gentlest of wakeup calls. In the predawn dark, I woke first to the flickering light of the kerosene lamp lit by one of the staff, then heard the splashing of hot water into our wash basins, then a whispered "Jambo" as he slipped away. After a groggy-eyed tea and cookies, we piled into the Land Cruiser and set out into the rising coral-colored sun.
At Amboseli, the terrain shifted rapidly -- you could never tell what you'd run into next. One minute, we'd be in a marsh searching out crested cranes and submerged hippopotamuses. The next we'd be rattling across blasted volcanic scrub scattering zebra and Cape buffalo. As we split their ranks, David reassured us, "Don't worry, they'll sort one another out."
After three days at Amboseli, the dust was getting to us all. It was a relief to set off in our Land Cruiser for the cooler highland jungle of the Aberdare Mountains. After climbing 7,000 feet we arrived at Treetops Lodge, a sort of treehouse-hotel built high in the branches of several banyan trees.
At Treetops, the animals come to you. From the open-air balcony 30 feet up, or a glass-enclosed bar below, you watch as mongoose, waterbuck, Cape buffalo and bushpig circulate warily around two watering holes. From another viewing room at ground level, I watched as timid bushbuck came six feet away from the portholes. I could see the mud dripping off the horns of one of them from a recent fight. Eyeball to eyeball, this was the closest I would come to any of the wild creatures on the safari.
One night in Treetops and we were off again, this time into the Great Rift Valley.
Coming into Lawa Downs ranch was like driving into Wyoming. On a rise of rolling savannah, our camp faced the jagged teeth of Mount Kenya's twin peaks. Fred set out jogging with Robert and Julia in tow. A Masai gunbearer trailed along for protection; his pendulous, stretched earlobes flapped as he ran, elephant gun held at his side.
By this stage in the safari, days had settled into a rhythm: early-morning game drive; breakfast; writing and reading; lunch; more W & R; late afternoon game drive; dinner and bed. If Robert weren't dragooning us into card games, he and I would go over his Boy Scout merit badge in environmental science. The Kenyan plain, no less.
There is something about a safari that reduces relationships to elementals. You feel in more direct connection with other people, the animals, the land. Days seem more concentrated. I had time to pay full attention to Robert, to answer his questions, gauge his reactions. Without myriad distractions and choices, I had the expansiveness to let a protective, more patient side unfold.
Strict disciplinarian I was not. One evening, in the course of one of his steamrolling monologues, Robert stuffed down more bread than I thought humanly possible. The next morning, he was too sick to go out on the game drive.
"Did I miss anything?" he asked anxiously, after we rode back into camp.
"Oh, just some eland," I replied offhandedly.
"Eland?" he repeated, stunned. "Our first eland and I missed them? What else?"
"Well, and some gerenuk, a kongoni and some birds, hoopoe and horabills, I think."
"Gerenuk? Kongoni?" Robert said dully. "I don't believe it." His face fell. By afternoon, he'd undergone a miraculous recovery and didn't miss a beat the rest of the safari.
A six-hour drive in the Land Cruiser took us from high savannah to the fertile farmland surrounding Lake Naivasha. We stayed at Elsamere, Joy Adamson's former estate, located on the lake. Except for the colobus monkeys with their silky black-and-white fur swinging about the trees, we could have been in the lake district of England. Elsamere is the kind of place where the guests linger over high tea while the children play croquet.
Robert and I set out on a hippo hunt, armed with Nikons. Our host, John Carver, told us where we'd find them, but his advice, as I was cranking up the 3 1/2-horsepower motor on the rowboat, wasn't exactly heartening. "Don't worry," he said, smiling wickedly, "hippos won't go after people ... but they will go after boats." I ruminated over this as we sought them out, lolling away the afternoon just where John had said they'd be. I was a good 50 yards away when Robert piped up, "You're not going to come any closer, are you?" "It'll be all right," I reassured him, as I edged in another 10 yards or so.
Suddenly, three of the lazing behemoths blew spume like whales and went under. They might look slow on land, I thought, but who knew how fast they could swim? I backed off. Robert gave a relieved grin and turned to face homeward.
Returning to Elsamere in the setting sun, we watched a lone crested crane catapult out of the papyrus and across the water. "This is my favorite part of the trip," my nephew confided. "It's like the lake back home." It dawned on me how relentlessly strange Africa must have seemed to him. This was as close to homesickness as Robert ever came, not counting the rare bout of fast-food deprivation.
Throughout the safari, David had made every blessed breathtaking sight we witnessed sound inferior to those we would see at the Masai Mara Game Reserve. When we finally arrived, after a long day's drive from Naivasha, we found that everything he had said was true.
First there was the space, the illimitable tableland that widened your eyes to take it all in. The dominant impression of the Mara was of a lone acacia reaching out horizontally against sere yellow veld and cerulean sky bisected by a horizon line as neat as an architectural drawing. Where the light at Amboseli had been nacreous and indistinct, here it was buttery, as if everything were lightly dusted with gold.
Then there were the animals. If we'd seen four lions in a day before, here we'd grow blase' after sighting 20. The land seemed strung end to end with wildebeest, moving slowly in serried, single-file lines. Here we first encountered leopard, rock hyrax, topi and saddleback storks. Lumbering meribou storks, undertakers in tuxedoes, nosed for position over carrion, with inestimably repulsive snake-necked vultures. Here too were our old standbys: elephant, Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, Masai giraffe, zebra, Cape buffalo and impala, sunning crocodiles and slinking hyenas.
Our camp was pitched beneath enveloping fig trees and in the distance you could make out a Masai manyatta (mud-and-wattle) village and, well beyond, the Mau Escarpment rising sheer up from the plain like a wall. "Stick close in," David advised us, chuckling. "Last time we were here, I believe there were some elephants stomping about."
There was still plenty of space for Robert to practice throws with his newly acquired Masai spear, longer than he was tall by several feet. David demonstrated. His throws arced up, then slid into earth with a whistling phfft; mine clattered flat on the ground with a thud. Robert got the hang of it in a few tries. The Masai who patrolled our camp at night hefted the spear approvingly and offhandedly flipped it 50 feet into the dirt.
Early one morning, we approached a male lion so intent on a female coming into heat, it didn't care how close we approached in the Land Cruiser. I thought of our hippos on Naivasha.
"Don't they ever get mad?" Robert asked David.
"As long as the eyes stay yellow, you're fine," he said. "When they turn red, that's when you'd better leave. Quickly."
"But if you're close enough for that, isn't it too late?" asked Robert.
"Good point," David replied.
For sheer adrenalin, the most arresting spectacle of the entire safari was witnessing a cheetah kill. Just after dawn, not a half-mile from camp, we spied a lone cheetah stretching and yawning. It was totally ignoring a wounded wildebeest close by and the vultures hovering obscenely around it. All of a sudden, the cheetah's gaze locked on a pair of wildebeest 200 yards away. It started out at a lope and accelerated flat-out to top speed, 65 miles an hour. We were racing to catch up when the cheetah split the two in a turn so fast you could hardly see it. The cheetah leapt on the inside animal, bringing it down by the neck in a cloud of dust. By the time we got there, its prey was still and the cheetah was gnawing away, not even bothering to look up at us.
But the experience that best evoked the spirit of Africa took place late one afternoon when, on the trail of a leopard, we made a wrong turn and found ourselves heading smack into the Rift Wall. Massive tumbled boulders lay strewn among high termite hills; the landscape looked like something out of the Paleozoic. We doubled back onto the rockless, treeless plain and on the overheated land scattered drops began to fall, then full-fledged rain. Ahead, frontlit by the sun, arched the grandest, widest rainbow I'd ever seen -- a double one at that. It must have risen a half-mile high and two miles end to end.
The leopard had surely taken cover so we headed back to camp. On the way, a family of elephants crossed in front of us, setting a magisterial pace. Beyond, a band of light the color of bronze wedged between leaden clouds and the long, low ridge of the Doinya Loongarya Escarpment. Here was the Africa we'd come for, the Africa of awe and silence and majestic indifference, holding us in thrall as the world seemed to hold its breath.
Afterward, there would be more animals to view, anecdotes to be exaggerated, long drinks and bad jokes to be savored and, ultimately, goodbyes to muddle through. But in that single concentrated tableau, I could sense how deeply Africa had seeped into my spirit -- and into Robert's, I have no doubt.
Richard Covington is a New York-based writer specializing in travel and art.