WEIGA, KENYA – Brrriiinnnggg!
Wha? Huh? . . . My head bobs from the pillow, gonging like a belfry. Where’s the fire? Brrr-iiinnnggg!
There it goes again: the alarm bell. My watch says 3 a.m. A groggy rendition of an ancient lyric – “It’s 3 o’clock in the morning . . . we’ve danced the whole night through” – fox-trots across my neural mush. No, no, no. No more brain-dancing, please. Must doze this one out.
Not a chance. “Come on,” urges a voice in the darkness, my friend, Aurelio, from the nearby pallet. “Get up! Let’s go see what’s happening. Just throw on a blanket.”
Once more with feeling, the jangling brrriiinnngggg! resounds, along with the opening and closing of doors and footsteps along the lodge’s corridors. Like a punched-out boxer reluctantly answering the bell, I lurch from my corner, careen down the hall toward the viewing balcony above the wilds, heavy bush, and a salt lick. We pass George, the night watchman at this inn, the Ark, who has done his duty by pushing the alarm button. George gets his kicks by signaling that significant wild visitors have shown up to get their licks and other post-midnight snacks.
Ian Hardy had warned everybody. Hardy, for 28 years a resident naturalist here at Aberdare National Park, a game preserve in the Central Highlands of Kenya, informed us at dinner that the electric bell might jingle throughout the night, an alert whenever George spots noteworthy creatures noshing on salt and vegetation, or tanking up at the water hole. Attendance is, of course, optional.
Well, maybe not in all cases. Does game watching have to be a night game, I wonder?
“You didn’t come to Africa to sleep,” says Aurelio as we shiver on the second-floor porch. “Plenty of time for that when we get home.”
Show time. Floodlights, illuminating their movements, reveal two huge, double-pronged rhinoceroses, a skulking lioness hoping to refresh the menu for her cubs, a few mongooses, and a big antelope known as a bush buck.
“Our first rhinos,” gushes Aurelio of the plodding creatures that have horned in on my slumber. Dusted red from earthy rolling around, they seem, shaking their crowns of horns, to acknowledge us unkempt spectators in blankets, curlers, shorts, pajamas. Then the cameo ends as they waddle off into the brush where the lioness, too, has disappeared.
And so to bed. Again. Not for long. The bell tolls for lost sleep at about 4. OK, now I know the stylish sartorially-draped-in-blanket drill. This time the stars beneath the stars are teenage male elephants, 2 1/2 tons or so, involved in personal hygiene as well as chowing down. One, a bather and heavy-breather, is equipped with his own plumbing fixture: the trunk as shower. Crooking the elongated schnozzola like a question mark, jumbo sprays himself contentedly.
His colleague isn’t as happy. Rubbing his rump against a boulder in an elephantine version of the Chubby Checker-ing twist, he seems to have a serious itch.
“Poor baby,” sympathizes an onlooker, Anne Furgal. “I bet he needs Preparation H.”
“No commercials, please. Not at this hour,” rasps her husband, Steve.
Hardy, the house expert who recognizes these two pachyderms, says they’re fairly gentle types. “It is the females you have to watch out for. Not long ago, one turned up here in a foul mood – who knows why? She thought a rhino was infringing on her salt patch and killed it. That’s hard to do, kill a rhino. But you never want to muck with an angry lady. Anywhere.”
“Amen,” nods Steve. “Can we go back to bed now?” The elephants are exiting stage left to a chirpy chorus of peep-peep-peeping frogs.
“That show rang the bell all right,” Steve says to George, the man with the beastly buzzer, as we trundle back to our cubicles in the four-story Ark, an oddly-angular frame structure where Noah would have felt at home. “When’s the next show?”
George shrugs, “Never know. But you’ll probably hear from me.”
Without fail. Dawn is breaking, and George’s brrriiinnnggg! is breaking in on a dream of, I think, Shirley Temple singing, “Animal crackers in my soup.”
“You weren’t really dreaming that . . . come on,” says Aurelio. Blanketing-up once more, trying to look even more chic by adding a scarf, I reply, “Well . . . I’m sure one more ring will drive me crackers. Might as well see what animal act George has for us now.”
“Dog and pony show, maybe?” says Kim Kodl, encountered in the hall.
This time it’s a parade that Ernest Hemingway might have called a movable beast: a menacing-looking herd of buffalo. Somber, big-shouldered, all in black with wide parenthetical horns that part down the middle of their heads like a pompadour, they appear – and are – dangerous. Not, however, for their winged intimates, the ox-peckers. The tiny birds sit down on them to dine, cordially delousing the burly hosts as an entree.
“Aha,” says a newcomer to the gallery, Bill Evans, in bedroom slippers. Having resisted the previous alarms, he feels sufficiently rested. “I’ve never been to buffalo before. Well worth arising.”
Right. It’s a Kenyan version of “Shuffle off to Buffalo,” I say, humming the 1930s’ tune of the same name.
“Ugh,” says Aurelio. “You should have stayed in bed. Next you’ll probably tell me it was dedicated to Buffalo Bill.”
Hardy interjects, “Wrong buffalo, my dear. Very different. These are African buffalo, a much heftier and meaner crowd than your American bison that William Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, slew so relentlessly.”
Can be mean, all right, perhaps the most feared of Africa’s big five, rounded out by lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino. Their abrasive tongues reputedly can tear off a man’s skin. Looking into their cold eyes, with binoculars, I recall Hemingway’s story (later a movie) about a doomed tourist on a buffalo hunt, “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
I had thought about it previously years ago while covering a hunting safari in Tanzania. That journey featured a renowned Boston physician, the delightful, protean Dr. John Merrill, since deceased. One day Hamisi, an extraordinary tracker, led us on an eight-hour pursuit of a gang of buffalo. Trekking over hills, wading waist-deep through the Great Kiteti Swamp, penetrating a forest, and arriving on a grassy plain, we finally caught up with them, screened only by a couple of scrawny trees to which we crawled.
No bell hailed the buffs materializing up close. Merrill, made prominent by his skill in devising kidney transplant surgery, picked out a trophy and felled it with a good shot at about 40 yards.
Puzzled, the herd turned and took a long, malevolent (so it seemed) look at us. As they paused, so did our hearts. Our leader, who happened to be Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, Greg, quietly advised, “If they charge, get up these trees – if you can. They’re damned fast, and fierce.”
What if looks could kill? We imagined ourselves as candidates for the Macomber Memorial Award (probably over-dramatically). That character hadn’t been able to elude one buff. Now here was the prospect of being avalanched by several tons of coal on the hoof. But, happily, we didn’t interest them. They hustled away from their dead comrade and into the woods.
Today I’m just as glad to monitor the buffs from the upper deck rather than their playing field. As the sun begins its warming climb they will seek shade away from the water hole. No use returning to the sack. It’s too light. Day’s upon us. George, the local Quasimodo, has deserted his bell. The ox-peckers are having breakfast, courtesy of the buffaloes, and so should we.