I don't like to travel alone. That surprises people because I've traveled so much – 71 countries and counting. I don't mind getting to and from places on my own, but once I'm there, I like to experience them with someone beside me – my husband, a colleague, a friend. There's one kind of trip, though, when my discomfort evaporates: any excursion into the wild to be among animals.
Last May, I was working in Kenya and had a weekend free – and alone – that I hadn't planned on. Fortunately, I could get out to the famous Masai Mara game reserve for a safari. I would have just one full day there at the Karen Blixen Camp, beside the Mara River where hippos love to hang out. My "tent" had canvas walls, a raised wooden floor, electric lights, a huge bed, and an outside shower with plenty of hot water. All through the night, the hippos honked, chuffed, moaned.
Our day began before dawn, the morning cool enough for a jacket and scarf. Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the unfamiliar landscape as I searched everywhere for wildlife. For 11 hours we searched, holding onto the metal roof supports as our truck swung from side to side. Simon Kabiru, our soft-spoken guide and expert tracker, knew where to find the animals that thrill.
Baboons, birds, giraffes, hyenas ... we observed them in their homes. Many were used to the vehicles and paid scant attention to us – but not the zebras, which ran away. The elephants appeared alone and in herds, chomping on trees, grasses, bushes. Simon would find the animals, then let us sit and watch until we were ready to move on.
Toward the close of day, a group of male lions – seven of them! – still lazed in the sun, lifting their heads with unconcerned stares when our jeep approached and parked only five yards away. Some lay with their bellies up, legs akimbo, heads resting on a neighbor just as my house cats do at home. They were saving up their energy for night hunts, when they would work as a pack. But we had to leave them before they swung into action, arriving back at camp after dark to a several-course dinner.
Being alone feels different on a day like that. Maybe it's the communion that happens in a world where the animals are masters and know the way. They let us into a conversation with them, even if wordless. The thrill, to me, is obvious. But maybe it's the comfort I feel that's astonishing. Can the world feel more right in some places than others? Of course it can. And when it does, alone is the last thing I feel, even if I'm by myself.