By the time we actually saw the lion, I had given up hoping for it. Nairobi National Park is small by comparison to the other game parks in Kenya, but forty-five square miles is big enough that spotting a lion is not at all guaranteed. “It depends on your fortune,” said Wilberforce. I guess he meant luck. Like fishing, you have to get up early to see a lion. I get that. “You need to come when the lions are angry,” said Wilberforce. He must have forgotten that I had asked, days ago, if we could leave at 7:00 but that he’d insisted on 8:00, so that he could go to church.
In any case, we got to the park not twenty minutes after leaving the hotel, a Sunday morning miracle, I guess. You usually can’t get to the end of the block in twenty minutes in Nairobi. Twenty minutes. Think of it: a wilderness, lying along the flank of the just waking city of four million.
Anyway, about giving up on the lion. Like fishing, you have to remember that the real joy of the experience is not about catching the big one. It’s about the pleasurable anticipation of the catch, about being in the moment and more deeply aware of being alive. Right? It’s about being up early; it’s about bird music, the sweetness of the grass, the greenness of everything. Yes, okay. Sure. In hardly any time, we saw ostriches, giraffes, wildebeasts; it’s not as if the day wasn’t already far from ordinary. But there is always that hope, isn’t there: the big one: the king of this incredible kingdom.
Once I asked Wilberforce to stop just so that I could listen. That required also turning off the church service he had on the radio. (I wonder what Handel would have made of ululation? I bet he’d have loved it.)
It’s all right if we don’t see a lion, I told myself. I had made my peace with the day. We stopped at a picnic area. A picnic area, just on the edge of “Lion’s Valley.” Whose idea was this? Gary Larson came to mind: I pictured some enterprising lion learning his alphabet and scoring some paint and a brush.
We stopped at the Hippo bath site and I walked into the woods with an armed Wildlife officer and ten other hopeful souls. We looked where the hippos were supposed to be and where the crocodiles were supposed to be, but nobody was home. Probably at church, I thought, gloomily. There were two huge tortoises sitting on the muddy bank. They probably don’t bother with church, I thought; by the time they got there the service would be over.
The warden showed us lion prints in the mud and an imposing lion turd. Very impressive, but… you know…
Then we learned in the parking lot by the Hippo Bath that someone had seen a lion, just up the road a piece — that one, to the right. We headed off.
And there they were — not one, but two — deep in shadow, one Sphinx-like, the other lolling on the ground. If they had woken up angry a few hours earlier, they seemed fine now. Sated, I supposed, and having a nice sit down in the shade to digest.
It was about two kilometers further along that we saw the boy.
With the sun behind him, I assumed he was a ranger. He seemed to have a rifle. What else could he be in this place? But as we slowly passed him by we saw he was a lanky teenager with nothing in his eyes. What I had taken for a rifle was a jacket slung over one shoulder. He didn’t look at us as we passed.
Was he naïve? Was there a car just over the rise and he was walking ahead filled with teenage bravado? Was it a dare?
This is a game preserve. There are not only lions, but leopards and cheetahs as well. There are signs commanding you not to step out of your car, but really, who would need to be told? I wasn’t sure what to do. Wilberforce didn’t suggest we pick him up. Was that my call? I mean I was the paying customer; what was the protocol here?
A little further on we met up with another car. Wilberforce stopped and chatted with the driver. Apparently, the gate towards which we were heading was closed. We doubled back. I was so glad. The road was rutted and rocky but soon enough we caught up with the boy. The driver of the car who had informed us of the gate closure was talking to him, already. Good. We crept up behind them our windows wide open. We stopped and listened. They were speaking in Kiswahili, so I had no idea what the driver was saying, although I could guess. The boy replied, and Wilberforce made a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “This boy, there is not much of him upstairs,” he said.
“Yes,” he said, but it sounded like “Yayse.”
Then he put the car in gear and we carefully rolled past the other car and headed back the way we had come. When I looked back, the other car was pulling away from the boy, as well. No! This can’t be right! But the thing was, the boy had pulled away from the car. Away from the road.
When we got to the place where we’d seen the two lions, they were gone.
“They have probably gone out for lunch,” said Wilberforce, in a voice filled with implication. “Yayse?”
“Yes,” I said and we drove on.
Wait. Isn’t this where all the stops are pulled out? Why didn’t my driver phone the front gate? Why didn’t I even think to tell him to phone the front gate? Why did we not hurry back to the Hippo Bath, where there were armed rangers? And why is it only now as I write this that these questions are even occurring to me. When we got to the gate I did alert the man on guard. He was astonished and asked where this had happened. We gave him as precise information as we could considering the roads are unmarked. He said he would get in touch with the rangers, immediately. He thanked me. Right.
The thing is — and it is disturbing to admit this — all I could think of at the time was how the whole weird, tense scenario seemed to me to be an urgent metaphor of what it is like to be a teenager.