On the Ark in Kenya
The baby rhino is losing. I think.
It’s a little hard to figure the rules for sure, but the baby African buffalo does seem to have the upper hand. Hoof. The two stand a couple feet apart, staring at each other. Behind them, their mothers look on with the kind of indifference of mothers everywhere who see their kids playing a harmless game.
The baby rhino stares. The baby buffalo takes half a step forward and stares back. Maybe he’s winning the game, but he’s still losing on cute points—it’s hard to out-cute a baby rhino, all nose and stubby legs.
The alarm went off in my room about a half hour ago, the second time tonight. At the Ark, one bell means elephant, two, rhino, three, I really can’t remember what, because let’s face it, when you’re awoken by bells in the middle of the night, bells that sound like a parrot raised on a diet of tin cans, your first thought is not “yay.”
But as soon as I realized it was the rhino alarm, I was running for the stairs.
Yet I’m the only one watching the rhino/buffalo stare-down. Either nobody else died of a heart attack when the bells went off, or I’m the only one in the entire lodge who didn’t opt out by turning the alarm switch to off before going to bed.
The Ark—a hotel that is, yes, shaped like the biblical ark—lies in the highlands of Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, about 100 kilometers north of Nairobi.
At the Ark’s prow are huge windows overlooking a waterhole and salt lick. Earlier tonight, I’d watched a pack of hyenas stand at the water’s edge trying to taunt a couple of African buffalo onto shore; the buffalo were not cooperating at all, and the elephants, tinted red from tossing dirt over their shoulders, barely seemed to notice.
And now, at three or so in the morning, I’m down for the second round of rhino bells. The first time, a couple hours ago, it was a single black rhino, which came down, got a drink, and left, all in the span of about two minutes.
I’d have mourned the lost sleep—I’ve already arranged with a guide to take me out at sunrise for birdwatching, where we’ll get to see 30 species—the bronze sunbird, scaly francolin, white-eyed flycatcher, the elegant tail feathers of the speckled mouse bird—in under a half hour—but really, how many times in your life do you get to wake up and say, “Wow: Rhino”? Isn’t that the definition of a pretty good night?
So even if I’m the only person down here besides the night watchman, isn’t getting to wake up to rhinos twice in one night as good as it gets?
In the past week, we’ve gone from Uganda into Kenya. Before I left home, I thought I’d be happy with, say, ten elephants and five or six giraffes on the whole trip. I didn’t dare to dream rhino.
We’ve had a single morning with more than a hundred giraffes. At least a dozen elephants came down to the waterhole while we were eating dinner earlier tonight.
And a day or so ago, an entire pack of hyenas—20, 25—jumped out of a ditch like snakes flying from a trick can.
For everything the landscape offers, it hides infinitely more.
Which is why you get out of bed in the middle of the night for a rhino. To witness the magic that goes on, utterly indifferent to whether you see it or not.
The baby buffalo takes one more step. The baby rhino snorts, turns, and runs.
I don’t bother going back to bed. I’ll just watch the night for whatever else it decides to offer up.
Isn’t that what the baby rhino and buffalo were doing?
You watch. You try not to be the one who turns away from the magic.