SHOMPOLE, Kenya—The airport is not an airport. It is a vast, dry lake bed, an earthen canvas of deep sienna, patterned with a delicate white filigree of salt. In one small corner, a line of rocks indicates where we’ll land. “There’s the terminal,” says the pilot over the noise of the propeller. We’re 500 feet above the Great Rift Valley, and the morning sun is casting western shadows. Nairobi is just 60 miles behind us, but it is long out of sight. Through the cockpit windows are the volcanoes of Tanzania. Between them are soda lakes filled with flamingos.
Many millions of words have been written about Africa. Many of those words describe the landscape, the colors, the light. “I speak of Africa, and golden joys,” declares Pistol in Henry V. But not even Shakespeare can properly prepare you for the psycho-geographic transition from leaving a Virgin Atlantic Airbus at Kenyatta International Airport and 30 minutes later finding yourself coming in low over scattered Maasai villages that are ringed with thorns to protect the cattle from lions.
We circle, slow, land, and disembark into immediate sensory overload. The landscape, the colors, the light. The golden joys. And the smell: a pervasive rich, musky, zoological perfume. A few feet away, we see our first zebra. Beyond him, a herd of dozens. Beyond them, impalas. Greeting us at the Land Rovers is Anderi Lekalailie, a Samburu warrior who got the nickname James when he briefly attended school. James is ornamented in vibrant beadwork, from his bracelets, belt, and scabbard to the headdress that covers his long, tight braids. That hair is tinted red with ferrous dust and sheep’s fat and wrapped up in a net that is capped with flowers and a 2-foot ostrich feather. This is the customary dress of a Samburu warrior, James will later explain; when he becomes an elder, the decoration all comes off. “And I do not look forward to that day,” he says. James once met Liv Tyler. But he also fought off a lion by hand on a moonless night. It’s all so strange. We are in Africa. And tomorrow we will be married.
This is also strange. My girlfriend, Ronni, and I have been engaged for a year and a half, and we dated for 12 years before that. For various reasons, Ronni and I decided to elope. But then we never did. My friend Melissa had organized a small, private safari for her family and friends, and one day she suggested that we join them. And, come to think of it, she mused, why not get married along the way? “You’ll find out how the Maasai do it,” she said. Three weeks later, here we all are: me, Ronni, Melissa, her daughter Georgia, her old friend Jimmy, and several others, nine in all.
We are still in a daze as the Land Rovers get moving. It’s a daze very familiar to Peter and Julianna Silvester of Royal African Safaris, the organizers, guides, and hosts of our trip.
“Will it wear off?” Melissa asks.
“It hasn’t yet for me,” Peter says, “and I’ve been out here 25 years.”
As native Kenyans, Peter and Julianna look the part: khakis, rugged pants, boots, jaunty bandanas round the necks. We bounce along toward a place called Shompole, the nuptial staging area. “This is a unique opportunity,” Peter says. “Most people don’t get the chance to jump into African culture feet first with a wedding, least of all their own.”
Just then, James stops the car. “Look!” he says, and he points at the fine volcanic ash that covers the valley floor. A print comes into focus: a big paw, four toes, and claws. “Lion,” James says. “Today. Maybe they have come for your wedding.”
Shompole is a small luxury camp perched on the Nguruman Escarpment, which forms the western flank of the Great Rift Valley. The 12 rooms have open floor plans, with enormous, peaked thatched roofs supported by exposed timber architecture, providing a spatial complement to the wide, overlapping decks that are punctuated by small pools, outdoor showers, and several small tables where you might want to take your tea service. There are no walls facing the valley, and the elevation gives a near 180-degree view: creased volcanic ridges; flowering sanseverias; and a fig forest just below. It feels like the dawn of time, as seen from sky boxes.
But it’s more than just a nice place. Shompole was founded by guide and conservationist Anthony Russell in 2000 in partnership with the local Maasai population. “After years of sitting down beneath a tree with the elders,” Peter explains, “Anthony convinced the Maasai to create a voluntary 35,000-acre conservation area.” The Maasai are pastoralists, and Russell’s idea was to set aside an area where they would not graze their herds. Without competition from livestock, the game would thrive and attract visitors, whose fees would go back to the community. It worked as planned. The Maasai own the lodge cooperatively with Russell, and they also serve as guides and rangers. “There is solar power and all the trappings of an eco lodge,” Peter says. “But Shompole is self-sustaining on a broader scale, effectively combining conservation and community.”
Members of that community, it turns out, are going to be our wedding guests. “You don’t need to invite Maasai to a wedding,” James explains. “If there is one nearby, word gets around, and everyone shows up.”
When you don’t plan your own wedding, you are released from the terrible burden of event-production anxiety. You don’t have to worry about where to put the DJ, whether Uncle Harry is drinking again, or, in our case, how many live goats to offer your guests. Everything is a surprise, making the wait for the wedding remarkably pleasant. Even more soothing is spending those pre-ceremonial hours roaming the floor of the Great Rift Valley, communing with wildlife. “Let’s see the morning news,” Peter says, kneeling down to examine hundreds of overlapping tracks alongside a watering hole. “Looks like a busy day.”
James’ feather flutters in the wind as we maneuver through the acacias and tall, columnar termite chimneys. Soon the animals start appearing. We see Grant’s gazelles and their mascara-brushed haunches. We see elands, hartebeests, reedbucks, and marauding hyenas. We watch the oddly strutting secretary bird. The warthogs are surprisingly cute. Even cuter are the infant baboons clinging to their mothers as the troop is on the move. We see a herd of bachelor impala, locking their spiral horns for fun.
About all this, we have a million questions. And luckily, Peter and James have a million answers: anatomy, social behavior, mating habits, comparative morphology—they know it all. They also tell us how the pastoralist Maasai get all their nutrition and livelihood from their livestock, which is why they have never been systematic hunters. “For Maasai,” Peter says, “the animals are ‘God’s cattle.’ The Maasai have always understood having a shared ecology. And that’s why Maasai areas have the world’s richest concentrations of wildlife.”
It is easy to understand why explorer Sir John Barrow believed Africa to be the home of the unicorn when he arrived in 1797. To see the wildlife, wrote the famed aviator Beryl Markham in 1932, is finally to understand “what you had always been told—that the world once lived and grew … without brick-walled streets and the tyranny of the clocks.”
Markham’s flight maps marked this area “UNSURVEYED.” Now we can pinpoint how far we are from any city by GPS. But it is still a shock to confront the reality behind accounts like Barrow’s and Markham’s. The Western visitor simply can’t escape the accumulated cultural references: Tarzan, The Jungle Book, and Out of Africa. At first, this seems tragic—here is the doomed postmodern mind, unable to experience authenticity, even in the wild. Then it occurs to me that a culturally mediated Africa offers an unexpected benefit. Because we have received images of Africa in such grandiose form—through the explorations of Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, the adventure stories of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, and the safari literature of Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, even the animations of Disney—the place takes on mythical proportions. And to see it first hand gives just that impression: of a myth, materialized. Rather than confirm something that we know exists, Africa feels like fiction converted to reality. Barrow never found his unicorn, but it was a matter of perception. The unicorns were all around him. As they are around us now.
The car rolls through a herd of zebras. They ignore us, as does the female ostrich that wanders through with a big male in tow. Desperate for love, the male stops occasionally and performs a bizarre semaphore to attract the female’s attention. Later, James stops the car. “There, in the bushes,” he whispers. We see two tiny Bambi-eyed antelopes, one with a pair of short-pronged horns. “Dik-diks,” James says. A fitting sight, because dik-diks mate for life. “Once they bond, you never see the dik-dik alone.” They catch sight of us and disappear together.