As a British colony, Kenya had a romantic, raffish, even rather risqué history dating from the late 19th century. Tourists were until recently regaled with Isak Dinesen’s tales of the colonial past or lured by big game trophy hunting à la Ernest Hemingway. Safari accommodations consisted mainly of hunting lodges or fly camps. Guides doubled as hunters and often shot for the pot. Today the rough-and-ready safari tents are gone, replaced by luxury camps, lodges and world-class resorts on the Indian Ocean, and the hunting is sustainable, with cameras substituting for rifles and the wildlife living to be photographed another day.
Kenya is a developing country that chose to skip the 20th century, going straight from the 19th century to the 21st. Bypassing telephone lines, Kenya leaped right to satellite. The bush camps have better cell phone reception than parts of Marin. Solar power runs laptops, cell phones and digital cameras. The solar-heated water at Il Ngwesi Lodge was so hot I had to wait until the water cooled down enough to shower.
Kenya’s land conservancy solutions function as a six-way win—for the country, the land, the animals, the citizens, the outfitters and visitors. Tribal peoples lease their land to outfitters, allowing people to retain ownership and have a reliable income. Outfitters enjoy exclusive access to the wildlife on the conservancy territory. Visitors can witness more varieties of wildlife in greater numbers. The wildlife has vast stretches of land available for habitat. Kenya’s ecosystems and native vegetation flourish.
Done properly, safaris aren’t restful. They are grippingly exciting, deeply absorbing and steeped in adventure. Knowing this, I found the itinerary for this particular safari intriguing. It offered a 50-50 split between big game watching and serenely exotic resorts—Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy, Larsens Camp at Samburu, Porini Lion Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy in the Maasai Mara, the elegant Mfangano Island Camp on Lake Victoria, the sexy Sands at Nomad on the South Coast’s Diani Beach, and the kicked-back Kipungani Explorer in a secluded cove on Lamu Island.
Lewa Downs: Protecting Wildlife
A small charter plane took me from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to the dirt landing strip at Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy. Ian Craig, a Kenyan born and bred, has partnered with the local tribal communities in dedicating his family’s 45,000 acres to wildlife preservation. Lewa Downs now sports one of the largest populations of both white and black rhino to be found anywhere in Africa, as well as 61 different mammals and 440 species of birds.
Just bouncing along the track from the airstrip to the luxurious Il Ngwesi Lodge, I saw more game than most people see in a week in Africa, from reticulated giraffes to endangered Grevy’s zebra to crowned cranes and hadada ibis. In the 12 years since the conservancy was established, poaching has been nearly eradicated and the wildlife has thrived so well that some species are sent to restock other reserves.
Each guest at Il Ngwesi Lodge stays in a freestanding thatched banda with a spacious sleeping area, the bed romantically draped in white mosquito netting, a beautiful en suite bathroom (with a flush toilet), a luxurious outdoor shower of natural stone, and a huge terrace overlooking a game trail below.
Lunch on the stone terrace by the swimming pool was delightful—it featured a memorable dessert finished with a bright yellow passion fruit coulis—but by the end of the meal I wanted only to sleep off my jet lag with an afternoon nap. A new airstrip, much closer to Il Ngwesi, is in the works, but I loved the drive in. It felt like falling into Africa headfirst. Only moments after stepping off the plane I spotted several of the rare animals I’d most hoped to see.
Larsens Camp: A Taste of the Past
Located just outside the Samburu Game Reserve, Larsens Camp is an upscale version of the old-style tented camps. The Uaso Nyiro River runs through the camp and vervet monkeys scamper about everywhere. I was given strict instructions that when the hot coffee, tea and biscuits were delivered to my tent in the morning, I was to zip up the tent door instantly lest the monkeys get in and wreak havoc.
The first drive into Samburu yielded views of a magnificent leopard in a tree, lions mating, red-billed hornbills courting, and a long-necked gerenuk stretching to nibble leaves off a tree.
Porini Lion Camp: The Conservancy Game
Animals are either diurnal or nocturnal, with their paths intersecting at dawn and dusk. That’s when game watching is at its best, so game drives at the Porini Lion Camp in the Maasai Mara begin early. Morning light also makes for wonderful photography, so at 5:30 a.m. the staff delivered a tray of hot tea and biscuits, along with a reminder that the game drive left in 30 minutes. At Porini I saw more varieties of wildlife in greater numbers than I have ever seen anywhere in Africa: huge herds of Cape buffalo, wildebeest and zebra; Thomson’s gazelles, impala and topi; giraffes, elephants and hippos; lions and cheetah, even a bat-eared fox. Riding into the camp, I watched two topi newborns scramble to their feet. Both wobbled uncertainly, then turned to nurse as their mothers licked them clean. A herd of more than 50 elephants with yearlings and babies snacked their way along a stream, ambling down the bank to drink. A half dozen hippos played hide-and-seek from the camera, leaving me with photos of nothing but bubbles as they disappeared underwater.
Maasai men are known for the striking red cloth they wear around their waists and over one shoulder. I was disappointed when our group decided to go to the nearest town in order to buy some of the fabric because it meant giving up a game drive, but halfway there the guide remembered that it was market day so the town would be crowded with people. It suddenly sounded a lot more interesting.
The Maasai Mara is the Kenyan portion of the famed Serengeti plain, divided by the Mara River and inhabited by the Maasai tribe. It’s mostly open grasslands with rolling hills, not unlike some parts of Marin. As in Marin, the grasses turn green after the seasonal rains, then dry to pale brown. The contrast between the sere landscape and the bright colors of the market made for a visual feast. Women were dressed in brilliant reds, yellows and blues and pinks. Their elaborately beaded collars, necklaces, bracelets and intricate foot-long earrings were equally colorful. Returning to camp, I sat rapt in the fading light as a male lion and five lionesses challenged a Cape buffalo. The buffalo responded with a false charge that brought it within a few yards of the lion. The lion roared, then backed away. The buffalo shambled off. Nobody got hurt.
Kenya’s spectacular sunsets have given rise to “sundowners,” the immensely civilized practice of enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres while watching the sun slip below the horizon. A lovely way to end the day.
Porini saved the best for last. On our last day, we left very early in order to get in some game watching on the way to the landing strip. We stopped to photograph a huge herd of Cape buffalo, which slowly edged nearer until they surrounded the game vehicle. We managed to back out without incident. Wildebeest by the hundreds covered the savanna. We spotted a hyena, trotting along with a huge chunk of fresh kill clamped in its jaws. A herd of zebras watched the hyena approach, seemingly unconcerned. Suddenly, the zebras stampeded, and with them, dozens of wildebeest. Need I say that we were late getting to the plane? Fortunately, it was a charter; it waited.
Barely a 40-minute flight from the Maasai Mara is another world: Mfangano Island Camp on Lake Victoria. The food is superb, the gardens lush, the only sound birdsong. A boat trip out to the Bird Islands was remarkable for the sheer numbers of snowy egrets and long-necked cormorants, which nest there by the thousands. During my breakfast on the camp’s dock, a particularly bold fish eagle dived down to snatch a piece of bacon right off my plate. That took birding to a whole new level.
Rested and relaxed, we headed to Kenya’s South Coast, specifically Diani Beach. The Sands at Nomad is everything a world-class beach resort hotel should be: mile after mile of clean, uncrowded beaches and warm, clear ocean.
Convinced that we could hardly get more laid-back, we flew to Lamu, an island off Kenya’s North Coast. Lamu has no cars; donkeys and dhows are the preferred forms of transportation. Tucked into a sandy cove, Kipungani Explorer offers private thatched beach chalets. I wandered on the beaches picking up architect’s sundials and cowries. Lamu is a Swahili-Arab city with a thousand years of history. Women veiled and unveiled walk the narrow lanes, past intricately carved wooden doors; young boys duck into shops with metal signs declaring “Internet Cafe” or “Cell Phones” in English and Arabic. The past and the future coexist in the present.
Any trip has three parts: the anticipation, the reality and the memories. On this trip, I eagerly anticipated seeing how safaris in Kenya have changed: they’re better than ever. I reveled in every moment of the trip, both the places I’d been before, like Samburu and the Maasai Mara, and the places that were new to me, like Diani Beach and Lamu. I’d go back to Kenya in a minute. And the memories? They’ll last me the rest of my life.
Image 2: Brilliant colors characterize the bustling native market at Talek, just outside the Olare Orok Conservancy.
Image 3: Leopards frequently hang out in trees and sometimes drag their kill into trees to protect it from lions and hyenas.
Image 4: The writer's quarters at Larsens Tented Camp just outside the Samburu Gam Reserve.
Image 5: Zebra pause to drink water at a stream near the Porini Lion Camp in the Maasa Mara.
If You Go
Editor’s note: In response to the recent unrest in Kenya, the State Department has issued a travel alert for the country. Get the latest security information at http://travel.state.gov or call 888.407.4747.