I wake up in a luxurious white bed, silky sheets against my cheek, completely cocooned inside a white mosquito net. I put my feet down on the wood floor, so highly polished that my socks slide as I stand up, and then - just slightly - duck down so as to not hit my head on the ceiling. The canvas top of the tent reinforces what I am already all too aware of. This 5:30 wake up call is because I'm in the Masai Mara, headed to my early morning game drive. We have heard over and over again that this is the best time to see the big cats, and we refuse to miss the action.
The simple "Jambo" we greet our driver with is heavy with subtext. What we're really saying is "get on the radio and find us something amazing." He smiles and says, "Jambo" back. This suffices to reassure us, as if he had just given us a very solid and confident "I've got this."
We leave behind the gates of the lodge, and immediately the savannah grasses stretch in every direction further than the eye can see. Our Jeep trundles along the dirt roads which have been carved out by thousands and thousands of visitors just like us, anxiously careening their necks as they twist this way and that in an attempt to take it all in. We pass zebra, antelope, gazelle, buffalo - all amazing in their own rite, but not the focus this morning.
Eventually Peter, a 10-year veteran of the Mara, begins to speed up. The air crackles with urgency and anticipation. Layne and I begin to move through the Jeep, evaluating the sea of yellow grasses and green shrubs, looking anywhere for movement or a sign of what's to come. Unsurprisingly, we can't see anything. Our untrained eyes are no match for Peter's, or maybe he heard something on the Jeep's radio. The voices coming across the airway are completely incomprehensible, seeing as our Swahili is so incredibly limited. We keep our eyes peeled, faces pressed to the window instead of sticking out the roof to avoid the biting cold morning wind.
Suddenly, to the left, we see a swarm of vultures. There must be 30, dancing around the remains of a buffalo. It's a cloud of white and black feathers, and we think at first this is the destination. But Peter takes a hard left off the road before we reach the birds, and as the road gets rougher Layne and I stand, sensing that whatever we have sped across the savannah for is within arms reach. We curve around the brush and there before us...
Is a feast. While we missed the kill, the buffalo before us has not been dead long. The lions are viciously tearing into their breakfast, ripping flesh from the animal, blood dripping from their chins as they consume the organs. At least 5 lions clamor around the body like kids around a new puppy, jockeying for better positions.
It is clear even to us which one gets the best spot; though the lion's mane is still short, he is visibly a young king dining with his peers. The lionesses that have already satiated themselves lay nearby, cleaning their coats in the casual way you or I may wash our hands after eating a particularly messy hamburger.
I didn't expect the eating to be so rough. Maybe it was silly of me to picture clean bites, but I assumed the razor sharp teeth of a lion would tear the meat with ease. But after all the tough beef I have had in Kenya, my taste accustomed to the fattened cows in America, I should have predicted that this animal would be no easier. The lion digs his teeth in, and pushes the resting body with his front paw, pulling hard enough to drag the buffalo and the other eating lions several feet.
The lions made quick work of their meal. When we first arrived, most of the buffalo was still discernible, but by the time we drove a slow circle around the activity, the lions had decimated the beast. One overeager lion cub pushed himself fully into the emptied body cavity, scrambling after every little piece of meat.
Watching these animals tear a formidable opponent to shreds in a matter of minutes is indescribable. Though their power is evident every time you see them, it was still vastly different to see their sharp claws and even sharper teeth in action. They watched us coolly in a completely detached manner, even as they savagely devoured the buffalo. I'm so grateful we got to see this on our trip to Masai Mara! It afforded us a whole new, deeper appreciation of lions.