Best-Selling Author Paula McLain: Awestruck in Kenya

By Paula McLain November 9, 2016

I have a blue notebook that’s been halfway around the world with me—from Cleveland to Kenya, and back again. Deep within the creases of the spine there are fine granules of cinnamon-colored dust: a tiny portion of Africa, altogether priceless. Many of the journal entries are spidery and difficult to decipher, because the Land Cruiser was swaying back and forth on rutted roads as I tried to write, or because I was writing so fast to transcribe an image or thought while it still flickered and smoked before me that my hand couldn’t keep up. My mind couldn’t keep up either. There were moments, I confess, when I could scarcely breathe for the wonder.

Here is one. The morning of my fourth day in Kenya. Waking at Segera Retreat on the Laikipia Plateau. The morning is cool, the sun quivering like a newly cracked egg, and Mt. Kenya—which I have only seen in photographs and in my dreams—impossibly near and magnificent, pushing 17,000 feet and more into the sky. Awe is a word that comes to mind…maybe the only one with the right weight for this moment’s gift.

And then a game viewing drive—my first—when we come upon a family of elephants submerged in a lush watering hole, and then sit in stillness to watch them, how they heave from the water, their great hides darker with the wet that spills and streams in rivulets. I have high-powered binoculars but don’t need them. The animals pass so close to the vehicle I can hear the damp slapping of their ears, the slow drum of their massive feet. Even the sound of water rocking inside their bodies.

There are mornings of waking under the gauzy mosquito netting covering my bed to find hot strong coffee waiting on my doorstep, and dawn light coming through the spiky canopy of a thorn tree. Like the first morning of the world, I write in my notebook.

There are pistachio-colored fever trees. Flame trees. Jacarandas blazing purple. Every variety of thorn tree under the sun.

There are inky velvet nights, the sky like an overturned jewel box, sharp with stars.

There is the pure romance of the Maasai Mara…boundless golden plains thick with wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, eland, gazelle. Lion. In a spire of shade thrown from a dead tree, there are two cheetah brothers napping, panting. Their round bellies rise and fall in unison.

There are virtuostic sunsets, bonfires shooting cinders into a changing sky. Hippos snout deep in the Mara River, the curved chocolate-colored backs and the wet thwacking of their ears.

There are Maasai morani dressed in red shukas, their bearing regal and fine. The unforgettable thunder of their feet in the dust in the ngoma. The rising ululation of their voices in song.

And there is a morning when my safari director and driver take me not into a Maasai village, or on a game drive, or into a dazzling National Park, but into the sprawling Mukuru shantytowns in Nairobi for a first-hand understanding of the AmericaShare Program, one of Micato’s most far-reaching charitable arms, and their passion.

I have read the gorgeous Micato brochures, and felt moved by the Pinto family’s commitment to fund an education for a child in need for every safari sold. But nothing can prepare me for the poverty and need I see within the sprawling human maze that is Mukuru.

At one point, the road becomes blocked by a stuck vehicle, and I’m given a pair of gumboots and lead the rest of the way on foot to the Harambee Community Centre where children are waiting for their morning porridge. 60,000 children within Mukuru don’t attend school because their families—if they have families—can’t afford the fees. Yet these children have Micato on their side, and the aid of travelers like me who want to bridge the divide between themselves and this community in need. A divide not so great afterall.

I visit the factory where men and women sit over sewing machines making Huru kits, reusuable sanitary pad kits that free young women to attend school during their menstrual cycle, a revolutionary idea that has impacted the lives of over 120,000 young women, and counting.

And I visit the lending library, which is also a learning resource center for students that have been sponsored by AmericaShare patrons, many of which have or will be sent on to high school, and then university, their lives changed forever.

As I leave, walking back to the Land Cruiser in gum boots, through mud like wet cement, past feral dogs and paper-covered windows and cooking barrels and infants with eyes like saucers, I know why Micato wants all its guests to see this place, not to shock them into reaching guiltily for their checkbooks, but because this world and the world of the savannah, those lingering mornings hoping to spot lion or leopard, are the same world.

Thank you, Micato for waking all my senses to Kenya. I will never forget you.

The author, Paula McLain poses with a vintage Gipsy Moth at Segera Retreat, Laikipia Plateau. The plane was used in the filming of Out of Africa and is a perfect replica of the model Denys Finch Hatton crashed in, in 1931.

Best-Selling author, Paula McLain travelled with Micato Safaris in Kenya while researching her book, Circling the Sun in Spring, 2015.  To start planning your own African Safari, contact one of Micato’s Safari Specialists.

Up Next: Micato Safaris Photo Contest Winners, Spring 2016