MASAI MARA, Kenya – Reaching the Masai tribe in the East African Rift Valley escarpment in Kenya is easy.
Just take a twin-engine commercial flight from Nairobi to the Kichwe Tembo landing strip, and 40 minutes later you're already in the heart of Masai land.
However, the stringent financial realities of the new media landscape demanded that we drive.
When Jeff Riggins, Kevin Monahan and I finally pulled to a halt at the game lodge, we could hardly stand.
My recurring back injury flared so violently I took two painkillers. Jeff's camera was so jolted that when we turned it on, we had to keep the microphone at least ten yards away to avoid its new piston-like whirring and grating sound. Kevin was all right: he's a lot younger than Jeff and I.
|The NBC team - Martin Fletcher, Kevin Monahan, and Jeff Riggins - with guide Albert Waweru on the Masai Mara shortly after witnessing a lion kill.|
We were met by astonished workers who took our bags and provided shoulders to lean on as we hobbled in. "The last time any guests drove here was, let me see, before the flood, that was in 1976," said one.
"I think those penniless students drove, too, in 1983," said another.
"Anyway, Jambo, welcome," said a third.
"You made good time," said a beaming Linda Friedman, who had arranged our drive but sensibly took the plane. "We thought it would take nine hours, you made it in eight and a half. How was the road?"
Dodging taxis to dodging zebras
How was the road? Hah. What road? It wasn't too bad leaving Nairobi, and our driver, Albert, a Kikuyu, was a skilled navigator between pollution-pouring, falling-apart makatu taxis and ferociously charging giant trucks driven by apparently drunken, unhappy men.
Places to sleep along the way are few and expensive, so truck drivers appear to prefer to sleep at the wheel. We passed numerous trucks laying on their sides in the grass; cars still locked in their collision embrace, causing hours-long traffic delays; and insane men on small motor scooters who wove in and out of the traffic like buzzing bees.
The road was tar for a good distance, but what with long traffic jams, stinking black smoke from almost every exhaust, and the nagging apprehension that the grim reaper was stalking us, we were drained and grimly silent before we even hit the dirt road.
Then it got worse. As darkness fell and visibility faded, we reached the edge of the Rift Valley, and the road plunged in snaking, narrow curves. Sometimes we pulled out and back again a dozen times before passing a weaving truck, only to face blinding lights rushing towards us.
|Jeff Riggins / NBC News|
|Sunsets on an acacia tree surrounded by wildebeest on the Masai Mara, Kenya.|
When we reached the valley floor and finally built up speed, crashing up and down over the dusty, rutted track, wildly hanging on to flying cameras and gear, Albert would suddenly push his foot through the brake pedal to avoid an impala or a zebra bounding across the road – a zebra crossing.
Dust flew and was sucked into the car and swirled around. Stones shot up, hitting the chassis, and then Albert accelerated hard again to make up some time on a straight bit.
Jeff, Kevin and I were reduced to staring numbly ahead. It was a vertebrae-crushing, retina-detaching drive. My neck is still stiff. Jeff's camera is, probably, buggered. As for Kevin, he's young, but a few more of these budget journeys and he'll be out to pasture with the rest of us.
"Actually, the road was all right," I said to Linda, "If you're an elephant." She had been astonished that the NBC News team had elected to drive. "A budget issue," Kevin gamely explained.
"We made bets," she said, "that after your drive, you'd fly back."
Read more about Martin Fletcher's trip to Kenya and his blog about the LifeStraw - a new water filter that may be a revolutionary way to create potable water in the developing world - in the Daily Nightly blog. His story from Kenya, part of NBC Nightly News' special series "Thirsty Planet," will air Wednesday night.