Tourists learn along­side lo­cals on guide-train­ing sa­faris

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By CHARMAINENORONHA in­MaraNorth Con­ser­vancy, Kenya

It’s not just a sa­fari. It’s a mas­ter class in the un­tamed world, a be­hind-the-scenes ed­u­ca­tion with ex­perts who are the talk­ing Google gods of wildlife.

That’s what it’s like on sa­faris that let tourists learn along­side lo­cals who are train­ing to be guides.

The guides, mem­bers of Kenya’s Maa­sai tribe, spend three weeks on a train­ing mis­sion travers­ing East Africa’s Maa­saiMara re­gion un­der the tute­lage of se­nior guid­ing ex­perts. And­tourists can­come along for the Land Cruiser rides.

The three-week ex­pe­di­tion, called Pyra­mids of Life, moves fromKenya’sMaraNorth Con­ser­vancy, which bor­ders the coun­try’s fa­mous Masa Mara re­gion, to Tan­za­nia’s north­ern and south­ern Serengeti. But un­like other sa­faris I’ve been on, this one is not just about drive-by photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s about learn­ing to be­come at­tuned to the sights and sounds of na­ture so you’re able to pre­dict and iden­tify what may be mov­ing about in the plains.

On a typ­i­cal sa­fari, you’re rushed off from place to place tomake sure you bag photos of all the Big 5 game — lion, ele­phant, buf­falo, leop­ard and rhino. But on this trip, in­stead, you im­merse your­self for hours watch­ing in­cred­i­ble scenes un­fold.

As we wound our way through the plains each day un­der the heat of a pen­e­trat­ing sun, we saw lions mat­ing, im­palas gal­lop­ing by, hun­gry hip­pos and gi­raffes on the hunt for wa­ter. We wit­nessed a wilde­beest giv­ing birth and saw her new­born calf stum­ble to gain its foot­ing, falling and ris­ing sev­eral times in those first few mo­ments of life. Then, as the mother be­gan saun­ter­ing off to join thou­sands of other wilde­beests in a mi­grat­ing herd, we were stunned to see the new­born run­ning too.

We also saw a warthog torn to pieces by a lion. In the quiet of the night, the sound of the big cat’s teeth crush­ing the wild pig’s bones sent shiv­ers downmy spine.

Topi an­telopes stood guard on mounds of dirt to warn oth­ers of im­pend­ing dan­ger. Ze­bras used their tails to swish in­sects off their pals. We even learned about crea­tures I’d never heard of, like the hyrax, a small ro­dent-like an­i­mal that we were told is ac­tu­ally re­lated to ele­phants.

Pyra­mids of Life is of­fered by Alex Walker’s Se­rian tour com­pany. Walker says when he first started in the busi­ness 20 years ago, he used to con­duct 45-day sa­faris.

“Back in the day, you re­ally got to know the land­scape and un­der­stand the an­i­mals,” says Walker.

“Your news­pa­per was read­ing the sounds of an­i­mals and birds to in­di­cate what was hap­pen­ing in the bush. It was like a chess game, try­ing to work out where things were.”

Today, most game drives have been con­densed to one or two days out in the plains.

“The idea of sa­fari has been com­pacted into photos and sound­bites,” saysWalker.

The idea be­hind the Pyra­mids of Life tour is “to bring that real-life-con­nect-the-dots back. We want to teach you to read the plains”.

Se­rian’s Maa­sai guides know the bush, hav­ing grown up here, but they have “dif­fer­ing lev­els of knowl­edge”. The train­ing al­lows them to share what they­knowwith each other and with the guests, and pro­vide an over­lay of in­for­ma­tion about what they’re see­ing. “It’s about re­con­nect­ing with na­ture and al­low­ing for the time to take it all in”, says Walker.

We also watched as the guides and their train­ers de­vel­oped re­la­tion­ships, shar­ing in­for­ma­tion, gig­gling at mis­takes and pat­ting each other on the shoul­der when they learned some­thing new. And we par­took in a walk­ing sa­fari to learn the ways of the Maa­sai. We were shown plants used for heal­ing, oth­ers used as de­odor­ant. At one point, they showed us how to make fire with sticks and how they once hunted with a bow and ar­row.

Speak­ing about the train­ing, Maa­sai guide Mark Taga says: “I like be­ing a guide be­cause I can spend time in the bush, show­ing oth­ers my land. You’re an am­bas­sador to them. On this sa­fari you get to learn about ev­ery­thing by see­ing things hap­pen right in front of you. We share our knowl­edge with guests, while learn­ing at the same time. It’s great! I started in the kitchen as a cook but now, here I am, get­ting to tell oth­ers about things I’m in­ter­ested in, such as birds.”

Talk­ing about the new op­por­tu­nity, an­other guide, Judy Koya, says: “Be­ing a guide makes me so happy. I knewwhen I was a child that I wanted this to bemy of­fice.”

At night, we con­gre­gated around a fire, dis­cussing the won­ders of the day.

And shar­ing his view, co-sa­fari guide trainer Clint Schip­per says: “Imag­ine this was how field trips were con­ducted when you were a kid in school. “You’d never want to leave.” As he spoke, a bon­fire burned in front of me, a starry sky glit­tered above and my mind filled with im­ages of the hip­pos, croc­o­diles and chee­tahs we’d seen that day. The night sur­rounded us with a ca­coph­ony of sounds — in­sects buzzing, birds call­ing. Schip­per was right: This was the ul­ti­mate school field trip, and I didn’t ever want to leave.

AP PHOTOS

Left: Mem­bers of Kenya’s Maa­sai tribe on a train­ing mis­sion in Kenya’s Maa­sai Mara re­gion. They were par­tic­i­pat­ing in a pro­gram to brush up on their skills as sa­fari guides. Right: A chee­tah yawns as oth­ers lie down at sun­set in the Maa­sai Mara, Kenya.

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