On our safari drives through Amboseli and the Masai Mara, it seemed as if we were in a beautifully tended wild-life park. In the Mara, fields of tall grass ripple into the hills and umbrella-shaped acacia trees dot the horizon, and in Amboseli, on a clear day, the snowy tip of Kilimanjaro creates a postcard-perfect background for grazing elephants. We frequently felt like we were roaming through some artist’s rendering of “Africa,” rather than a real place. This sense of being in a sanitized preserve, rather than in the wild, was heightened by the fact that the animals don’t even blink at the safari jeeps puttering along, as quietly as a jeep in low gear can go.

At one point, however, when Caleb looked as if he were going to climb out of the jeep to get a closer look (probably at poop), the guide warned him back in by saying that in the jeep we were safe, but if we were to climb out? We’d be…meat.

That put a different spin on things.

Meat. The entire ecosystem revolves around food: looking for it, finding it, trying not to be it. We weren’t in a sanitized, idealized wildlife park at all; we were voyeurs at the table, watching the literal enactment of eat-or-be-eaten (in contrast to the metaphoric version of this struggle, which I lived through in high school, usually at the bottom of the food chain).

Liam and Caleb loved the thought that they’d become “lion sausage” if they fell out of the jeep; it thrilled their blood-thirsty little souls, which had been fed, inadvertently, by watching back-to-back episodes of “Planet Earth” in preparation for our trip. A word to the wise: remember that the money shots of those programs–the leopard taking down an antelope, a crocodile feeding frenzy–take days, weeks, months, even years to capture on film. Liam and Caleb, with visions of National Geographic specials dancing in their heads, were waiting for the Big Kill.

Safari brochures don’t talk about carnage; they talk about seeing “the Big Five” – elephant, rhino, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard – but the Big Five got this title during the days when you went on walking safari to kill things, and these five creatures were the ones you’d better drop with one shot, or suffer mortal consequences. Ironically, of course, of these five, only two are carnivores, but any of them could kill you with one well-placed swipe of a paw, foot, or horn.

Looks just like ol’Bessie down on the farm, doesn’t she? Just your standard, 2000lb Cape buffalo. Our guide turned off the jeep and we sat in silence, listening to them whuffle and chew – utterly peaceful, as if we were in a cow pasture in Wisconsin.

But unlike the Bessies of the animal world, buffalo are so big and so mean that they have very few natural predators, although if several lionesses team up, they might be able to bring down an infirm buffalo. Lions, of course, have no natural predators either, but I learned that the whole King of the Jungle thing is, like so many things having to do with men, more style than substance.  Adult male lions are crappy hunters (too slow and those huge heads, with all that flashy David Lee Roth-esque hair, makes it impossible for them to leap after their prey); they steal food from other hunters; they spend most of the day asleep in the bushes. Basically, they’re just glamorous scavengers.

But they start out as just the cutest little things you’ve seen this side of a youtube kitten video:

Watching this lion cub frolic in the grass with its plaything added to my sense of being in some sort of Disneyfied nature preserve, and then I realized that the “toy” this cub was tossing around was…meat. A hunk of meat, probably from a warthog, judging from the skin still attached to the bloody chunk.  (Warthogs, said our guide, are the original lion sausage: a dead adult warthog will provide a nice lunch for a lioness and her cubs.)  This cub kept its hunkahunka bloody meat all to itself, fending off its siblings with growls and bites.

Hippos aren’t listed in the Big Five but they should be: according to our guides, hippos are the most dangerous creatures in the jungle.If a hippo decides to chase you, you’re pretty much toast: they move astonishingly quickly despite their bulk.  Hippos spend the day in the river, clustered in their familial herds, and each family has its own section of the river. Woe betide the hippo who wanders into the wrong section of the river:

This hippo was killed by the equivalent of friendly fire: other hippos. And yes, that is a vulture on its back. Lunch al fresco. Or al hippo, actually.

Eat or be eaten, right? It’s the basic dialectic of life.  It always seems a bit unfair, though, when the eater is a carnivore and the eaten is not. Like apples and oranges, or, in this instance, gazelles and cheetahs.

Thomson’s gazelle:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it leaps along through the grass and usually grazes alongside zebras, topis, elands, and all the other grass-eaters–all of which are bigger than the Tommies.

Consider also, the cheetah:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it slides through the grass and tries to kill the Tommies.  One amazing day in the Mara, we pulled alongside this cheetah and sat in the jeep almost not breathing for fear of disturbing whatever plan the cheetah had. Perched on an abandoned termite hill, the cheetah’s tiny head swiveled this way, that way, this way…and then it glided into the tall grass and almost disappeared (that dramatic coat becomes nothing more than sun-dappled grass, once the cheetah gets low to the ground).  For about twenty minutes, we watched in amazement as the cheetah moved through the grass, ever closer to an unsuspecting herd of topi and Tommies. It got closer and closer, moving so slowly that it almost didn’t disturb the tall grass. And then? It literally streaked through the grass towards the Tommie it had singled out from the crowd:

That little Tommie leaping with all its might?

Cheetah lunch.

At the end of the cheetah’s hunt, I almost wanted to applaud. The odds against the cat bringing down the gazelle seemed impossible: for almost a half-hour, it had stalked the herd, which at any moment might have gotten a whiff of eau de cheetah and bolted, or might have decided that it was time to head to the river for a drink.  Pure random luck had allowed that cheetah to catch that gazelle.

And then I felt bad for the gazelle.

Our guide said, “you know, photographers wait for days to see a hunt like this. You’re very lucky.”

“That was awesome,” said my darling eight-year-old lion sausage. “Now can we see a crocodile bring down a zebra?”

See what I mean? The animals are never sated. It’s not a park at all. It’s a jungle out there, people, a jungle.