Searching for Kudu in the Green Hills of Africa

Konee grins and offers a fist bump. I return it. “Woowww,” he says, in disbelief. This jolts me. Over our past two days together in eastern Kenya, it’s become clear that Konee isn’t really a fist-bumping kind of guy.

His sudden enthusiasm is due to the fact that we—or rather he—had tracked down three kudu females and a lone male in the dusty ten-foot-tall bush, off road, and under a mid-day sun.

“Now that we know they’re here, it’s easier,” he says, pulling our Land Cruiser back onto the dirt road. “Maybe we take some coffee?”

I have come to Kenya’s Chyulu Hills National Park to see kudu because it’s not a household-name animal. Nor is it as common to come upon here as the seemingly ever-present giraffe, or zebra, or Thompson’s gazelle, even the elephant or lion.

Owing its name to the Khoekhoe click-tongue language of southern Africa, this horned antelope sports a silvery-gray coat with skinny white stripes that look like they’ve been applied by the paint-dipped fingertips of the tenderest giant. The kudu is gorgeous.

I also want to see a kudu, naturally, because of Ernest Fricking Hemingway.

Writers, particularly American ones, are prone to love him, and emulate him. I’m no exception.

Hemingway wrote about chasing (and killing) kudu in Green Hills of Africa, a nonfiction account of a hunting safari he took in Kenya in the early 1930s. The “green hills” of the title are said (by many) to be the Chyulu Hills. (He never names them, and staffers at the John F. Kennedy Library’s Hemingway Collection could neither confirm nor deny this assertion. But why quibble?)

After reading it, I’ve begun to view Hemingway’s now 80-year-old book as a stream-of-conscious meditation on writing itself.

Like writing, his hunt for kudu is personal, and requires some skill, some positioning, and ample luck. To me, Hemingway’s search for the kudu is a metaphor for his all-consuming quest to reach a “fourth and fifth dimension” in his prose—to write something true.

As I wrote in my first piece about Kenya, I’m on the hunt for the same in this African nation I know little to nothing about. And Hemingway’s lead isn’t the worst to follow.

Dust kicks up into the open windows of the van, coating me as I arrive from the west to the foot of the Chyulus surrounded by a golden dusk.

There I find the lone accommodation this side of the hills, the Ol Donyo Lodge. Located within the 275,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch, which abuts the hills’ namesake park, the lodge is owned and run by the local Maasai tribe.

Frankly, I’m giddy. The airy lobby looks out on a watering hole below, where giraffes and elephants queue up for drinks, and beyond to the purply, snow-topped specter of Mount Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania.

My suite has an open sitting room with a fireplace, vaulted thatch-roof ceilings, and an ample bedroom enclosed in glass. Up the hidden side steps from an outdoor “star shower” is a back-up “star bed.” I get a private pool (visited by a cruising hartebeest one morning).

I’m not worthy.

Konee, 32, will be my guide and driver for the length of my stay. He wears a gingham red-and-black Maasai robe and carries a skinny bamboo walking stick. He has a big mouth of teeth underscored by a down-facing grin that speaks more of his seriousness than any displeasure.

We begin with a walk across the flat savanna at dawn, before the sun heats it up. Konee’s feet, clad in rectangular sandals made from motorbike tires, make long, quick strides. The metal pendants that hang from his beaded necklace jingle softly, then suddenly stop when he does.

At one point, he pauses at a whistling acacia bush and taps its hollowed bulbs with his hand to demonstrate how “cocktail ants” pour out. Hundreds do, immediately. “It’s symbiotic,” he says. “Ants protect the tree from gazelles eating its leaves; the tree gives the ants a home.”

A couple guys on a tractor, out collecting dead wood for the lodge fireplaces, pull up to alert us to a cheetah kill nearby.

We cut our walk short and double back to the car, and Konee drives fast, free from roads. When we spy the vultures, it’s clear we’re too late. We see the mostly eaten gazelle, its organs neatly pushed to the side (cheetah are picky eaters). The well-fed cat is nowhere to be seen.

We ride into the mountains, whose landscapes get greener as we climb higher. The Chyulus are a volcanic range that experienced its last eruption about 150 years ago. A guard with a gun (a former poacher) is with us as a precaution. Lions and leopards are said to enjoy sleeping on lava rocks. And that’s where we’re going.

After a 45-minute drive, we park in a small clearing and walk slightly downhill in the high-noon heat toward a tower of red rock. The ground bottoms out suddenly and a wall of hardened lava surrounds us. “This used to be a poacher’s hangout. The smoke from their fire would hang in the trees and not expose them.”

Before dinner, we bike more than seven miles across the savanna. It’s nice, if a bit monotonous. At one point, we spot a group of wildebeest at a mostly dry watering hole. They rush away as we pass.

In front of us, and well before the purple wall of Kilimanjaro, is our target: a clump of meager red rocks. The clump grows slowly as we pedal closer. When we finally reach it, we meet an 18-year-old Maasai warrior wrapped in a red blanket and bearing a camouflage backpack and white scruff marks on his bare legs from encounters with bush grass.

“Leinkobei is a lion guardian,” Konee tells me, after a brief chat with him. “Warriors don’t hunt wildlife anymore, so he keeps track of where lions are. He walked 38 kilometers today. No water. Sleeps outside. He does this for weeks.” He adds, “These animals are creating job opportunities I didn’t have when I was a warrior.”

This amazes me, as does the walk up the rocks onto bald giant boulders that proffer a 360-degree view of the greatest sunset I’ve ever seen. To complete the “sundowner” experience, Konee has brought a gin-and-tonic kit. And so I sip from a steel goblet and look out over the savanna as an oversize orange sun dips below the horizon.

Kilimanjaro stands gloriously to the south. To the east, the line of green Chyulus are darkening by the minute.

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I wake in the morning with an appointment to ride a horse, but—on impulse—cancel it.

Konee, who has a habit of uttering a quick “yeah” in response to subjects that don’t particularly engage him, is nearly bouncing over my new plan: to search out a kudu on my last day.

Sharpened by the task, he drives us deep into the savanna, away from the hills, eyes scanning the roadsides for signs of the elusive antelopes.

“Fresh tracks!” After searching off road an hour or so—and having fully braced myself for disappointment—we follow the hoof prints and come upon a group of kudu, who stop to look at us before disappearing into the bush.

I’m surprised, thrilled. Unlike Hemingway, I’m not interested in shooting a kudu. Getting a photo doesn’t even seem that important. It’s enough that we tried to find one, and succeeded.

As we lean against the Land Cruiser toasting freshly made instant coffees, a still-jubilant, still-beaming Konee says, “this is the highlight of my time with you.”

“You know what my favorite part was?,” I say back, taking a bite on a cinnamon-orange biscuit the lodge packed for us. “Seeing how happy you got when we finally found the kudu.”

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, exploring the world with passion and purpose. Follow his adventures in #MakeItKenya on Twitter and Instagram.

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