MAASAI MARA, Kenya - One of the Maasai people, 27-year-old Ole Soit carries a spear and wears traditional Masaai garb, including a tartan blanket tied around his left shoulder, a bejeweled vest and beads in his hair. The son of a warrior with 10 wives and 60 siblings, he also speaks passable English, wears a digital watch and works as a guide at the Sarova Mara Game Camp in Kenya.
"Maasais don't have passports or cell phones," he explains, leading me down a forested trail to show me the African Greenheart leaf that his people chew on to treat malaria. "Our bank account is our cows."
Cows are used for milk and leather, and their blood is leached and consumed by Maasai, who only slaughter cattle on special occasions. Primarily, cows are used as a symbol of wealth and security -- four-legged, grass-munching investment-grade bonds.
The wages Soit earns from the hotel does go into a bank account, but that money buys, you guessed it, cows. Despite their brushes with modern life, the Maasai people remain a part of the ecosystem that has barely changed for centuries on the Masai Mara. This 1,510-square kilometre savannah region in Kenya is one of the world's top safari destinations--a meet-and-greet with Animal Kingdom cast.
Although big-game hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, the region is stuffed with dozens of lodges offering safari-inspired accommodations with mounted game heads and pictures of Ernest Hemingway, but with every modern convenience added. At the Sarova Mara Game Camp, guests stay in canvas tents that are tricked out with hardwood floors, four-poster beds and indoor plumbing. At night, housekeeping even throws a hot-water bottle under your covers to keep the dark continent's chill at bay.
During the day, safari companies ferry tourists in open-topped vans along the game reserve roads searching for sightings in the yellow-green, low-slung landscape, pimpled by parasol-shaped acacia trees. On my first drive around the reserve, we find zebras grazing outside the hotel grounds like horses in the pasture, two giraffes rubbing necks in the distance and wildebeests running up a crest in yellow plains.
Sightings of the "Big Five" animals (elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, African cape buffalo) remain elusive until our next drive, shortly after sunrise. First, we watch a family of elephants munching grass around a solitary acacia tree. Then we see a white rhino hiding in a grove and a more elusive black rhino lingering by the road.
The most amazing moment of the trip--the memory that makes travelling across the world and popping malaria pills like Chiclets worthwhile--is our encounter with a pride of lions, only a few feet from the road, noshing on a Maasai cow.
It plays out less like a nature documentary, and more like a sitcom. The gruff papa lion, a majestic Ralph Kramden, eats first while the long-suffering mama, who prepared the meal by initiating the kill, watches from the sideline. When the lioness tries to take her share, the unappreciative male lion snaps at her.
And, then, growing tired of the gawking tourists and their clicking zoom lenses, he drags the carcass in his mouth into a shrub where his trouble-making, tow-headed cubs scamper about. Later in the afternoon, after running into hyenas and hippo, we return to the scene of the feeding. The groggy papa lion sits by the shrub with a smear of blood on his mouth like lipstick. Inside the shrub, a cub suckles on the teat of its mama lion. Another lioness takes interest in one of the surrounding safari vans circling the van before sitting in its shade.
Of course, the source of our safari highlight happens because the lion makes an unauthorized withdrawal from a Maasai warrior's bank account. In spite of the ban against killing game and efforts to compensate cattle eaten by lions, the Maasai, who steadfastly hold onto frowned-on cultural practices like female circumcision, are still the lion's chief threat.
Soit, who owns 20 head of cattle, says he once killed a lion that ate three of his cows. He shows me the sword and spear he used, before taking me along a path where he keeps the forearm bone of a large feline. "The Maasai are very connected with wild animals," Soit insists as he leads me back to the reception area of the plushy resort. "We are all survivors. The lions are our friends. But when a lion attacks a cow, we have to fight."