We were lost in the black ink of the Mara last night. We set out from camp like voyagers with the ebbing tide of the day, too late, and soon our car was engulfed by the shrouded plain of the Masai interior.
The Land Rover drifted up and down the flowing hills, brushed by the grass that rushed beneath us, leaving a wake when the clouds split for a moment and the moon revealed our trail behind us like a thin trickle of silver.
The Wrath of the Seas by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1886
Regularly, the car lights picked out startled shoals of gazelle emerging from the deep, and we in turn were startled by the red eyes of roaming hyena, loping and curling and menacing through the night like sharks.
Then, just when I thought I'd picked out a trail back to camp, the blackness of it all overcame us again, like the ink of squid billowing across our consciousness, wrenching back a brief purchase on orientation, and returning a vague and titillating sense of panic at being lost at sea.
What do you see? - Rainclouds over the Mara, Christmas 2021
I've been lost many times in nature, but each environment is it's own kind of terror.
In a snowstorm in Nepal at 20 and at altitude, I had no idea of the danger I was in until I learned days later of other deaths of travellers in gusts of avalanche and white blindness. Mountain people will shake their heads at how little the people of the lowlands understand how quickly fickle mountain weather will overcome a traveller.
Swimming across a winter bay against the grim current, and despite being a strong swimmer and surf lifesaver, I learned by doing how quickly the strokes of a man are depleted by cold, exhaustion, lack of sleep, manful ambition, and defiant folly.
A vulture surveys the Mara, Christmas 2021
In southern Spain, in searing heat during a harmless summer walk across the vast estates of olive latifundia, I felt how closely thirst grips the throat, swells the tongue, and shrivels the flesh. Then, I darted from tree to tree at the height of the sun, confused by my thirst but preserved by the spindly strips of shade that filtered – just enough – the scorching yellow plate that hung above me like a hissing blowtorch.
The apparent vastness of the #MasaiMara grasslands, and the contiguous Serengeti that flows into Kenya's best park from Tanzania's own wildlife expanse, is deceptive.
For we could never have been lost in any profound sense, despite the black depths of our spooked and mischievous imaginings. For this is an imagination that is slowly disappearing, throttled by humankind, and with it the world view of the ancient Masai people.
Hyena, rampant, on the Mara, 2021
In just the three years since I was last here, Kenya has become much more a land crisscrossed and sliced 'n' diced, by fences.
A Kenyan friend had remarked on it years ago, as we drove through the hinterland, but the difference was that this time I noticed it for myself, as clearly defined as the age rings of a tree.
As population has swollen in the past 50 years, land has become a precious commodity, measurable in a way it simply wasn't before in a thinly populated place when land - like the sea, the skies, soil, our air and forests – seemed endless, incalculable, and without value in the western and coarse neoliberal sense that reduces everything to a ledger sheet which takes no account of human imponderability, and of our own membranous vulnerability.
Migrating Wildebeest on the Mara, Christmas 2021
The new demography has imposed a new cosmography.
The notion of of a boundlessness, a sense that the plains were a cornucopia that would also flow with plenty, that herds would always have place to roam where the grass was most lush and all was shared, has been replaced by a narrow panic. With the increased claiming of land by private Masai landowners, Masai culture of common ownership is simply fading away to be replaced by something more familiar to a western sensibility.
On the way here, we pick up a hitchhiker, Patrick, the head wildlife guide of one of the great hotels of the park. Patrick is highly trained, not only by his formative Masai culture, but also with degrees in Naturalism and Wildlife Management.
The future is grim, and he knows it.
The migration routes of the great game herds are being strangled by fencing, and private ownership. In 20 years, the parks, already tapestries of hotels and camps and roadways, will resemble sad, tawdry little zoos.
A bull elephant gives me a little warning, Masai Mara, Christmas 2021
Of course, Europe experienced the same thing, and made all the same mistakes.
Simon Winchester's "Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World," traces the fact that, like passports, unknown little more than a century ago, the same was once true of the unbroken land ownership we now think of as ordinary and ordained as an eternal fact of our social DNA – the only way things can be.
It once was there for the taking... Errol Flynn and friend, 1938.
For the Romans, those great legislators, lakes and ponds, beaches, shorelines, and unfarmed ranges were res communes, the resources of the commons, available for all to use.
When King John was forced to sign the The Magna Carta in 1215, limiting the power of the throne, fisheries and forests (remember Robin Hood) were asserted once more as res communes. The right to enjoy common land and sip from its cup was enjoyed by all.
A cheetah observant on the Mara, Christmas 2021
Those who know a little history will know that the process of enclosing common European land over the course of several centuries – by threat, by violence, and by legislative theft devised by the powerful who populated parliamentary assemblies – ended shared pastureland, robbed peasants of their access to forests, brought famine, and, in the Scottish highlands, spurred mass migration of displaced crofters and small landholders.
And small landholders, as we know to our environmental cost, are integral to the good stewardship of land.
The trouble we are in - and I mean the climate crisis, in which we adults cannot promise our children that the Seasons, the metronome of our lives, the stuff of all our fairytales and parables, will chime reliably any longer – is because of the tragedy of our narrow temporal capacities. Beyond a few decades, we are lost, and our imaginations of what might be or not be is at sea.
Voyage over the Mara, Christmas 2021
It takes an Eric Hobsbawm, the late historian, or a David Attenborough, the great living naturalist and documentarian, those luminous spirits whose lives span a century or so, to narrate to us that we are in imminent danger of destroying ourselves (unless you are somebody who believes that the Metaverse, or virtual reality games, or new colonies on Mars are an adequate substitute for our relationship with the natural world).
So, Masai Mara and the other great game parks of Kenya and Tanzania through which I have voyaged give a great impression that they will go on forever, that surely they are too vast, like the public commons of the seas, the soil, the air, our forests, to be destroyed by humankind.
Pre-Raphaelite Masai cows, Masai Mara, Christmas 2021
I could even fool myself that I was lost in this apparent purple sea of great grassland and rain-soaked air. But that is not the case. They are doomed, they are dying, and will soon be dead, in the blink of an eye.
They will be Luna Parks, and we will be the lunatics who wander through them, blind to our own loss even as we think we see.
Life in a theme park... Masai mara, Christmas 2021