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Well, Whatever By JOHN POTTER

MASAI MARA NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — OK, I promise, this is the LAST column about my safari, and my last column from Kenya. Not that there isn’t plenty that I could still tell you about, mind you. It's just that some of my experiences from these colorful expeditions don’t exactly fall neatly under the category of “all the gnus that’s fit to print,” if you catch my drift.

Right. No more talk of wild-animal flatulence. So, you’re probably asking yourself, “self, why is Potter even over there, anyway?”

Well, the answer to your self is obvious: the trip was free.

That, and because I’ve always WANTED to come here, ever since I was a little tyke. And believe me, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a little ANYTHING.

Yes, undaunted by the fact that there are no chocolate-chip cookies to be found in this God-forsaken country, I came, I saw, I ate.

I’ve always dreamed of coming to see this wild land and its wild animals. I wanted to see lions, cheetahs, elephants and giraffes. I wanted to see Masai warriors. I wanted to see these vast grasslands blackened with herds of wild gnus, zebra, gazelles and impala — sort of like the Northern Plains of America used to be — covered with millions of buffalo and other ungulates.

I also came to set up my easel and paint the exotic beauty of the African landscape. You know, back home, painting in the mountains, you have to worry about grizzlies and their attraction to the smell of oil paint. The good gnus, no bears to worry about here.

But most of all, I wanted to see the Serengeti before it was turned into one big wildlife theme park. Well, I saw it all.

I saw lions napping and nuzzling each other in the sparse shade offered by scattered acacia scrub. I watched a cheetah turn the Savannah into the Bonneville Raceway, and another one, with a fresh kill, hounded by about 50 anxious vultures, all looking like editors waiting hungrily for a column(!).

I saw savagery and predatory behavior like I’ve never seen before, except for a couple of ex-girlfriends back in Billings. Or maybe at a bingo game on the rez.

And, since the Mara is on traditional Masai tribal land, I saw many Masai people. Tall, proud and beautiful folk, they have somehow maintained a traditional lifestyle in the face of all odds, despite the efforts of African authorities actively seeking to make them join the modern world and get credit cards and enrollment numbers.

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They walk tall and carry a big stick — for snakes, that is. And spears — long, metal-tipped spears, just in case they happen upon a lion. Killing one brings a boy into the world of men. Then he can move on to the much more dangerous and life-threatening of all accomplishments — accumulating wives.

Getting a wife is no walk in the park, either. It’s a jump. Literally.

Well, actually, it’s a dance, with a heck of a lot of jumping involved. You see, Masai chicks really dig a guy that can jump the highest — who can really rise to the occasion — when they hold their version of a powwow. No wimpy “two-step” for these guys.

Yes, I saw it all, except for one thing. I failed to see the Serengeti before it was turned into another giant game park. It is anything but a zoo, mind you, for the animals are wild and completely unafraid of you and the dozens of other safari-vans buzzing all over their turf at all times. And that’s the biggest problem here. Try to imagine Yellowstone National Park with hundreds of miles of dusty, rutted roads criss-crossing throughout the back-country, all of them heavily patrolled by scores of big, smelly safari vehicles manned by overzealous drivers, all competing with each other to get their clients closest to any animal they see before the others do.

In one glance I saw dust billowing up behind 30 other vehicles racing each other across these fragile plains, just to get the best photo opportunities for their passengers.

Still, this is only the small and more accessible eastern section of a game reserve that covers over 1,000 square miles, and I have to remember that the rest of the Serengeti stretches many miles south, deep into Tanzania. Deep into territories still untouched by tourism. And, no lion, that’s good gnus to me.

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