“Aren’t we a bit close?” I whisper tensely to John. “What if the lion suddenly ...” And it does. In a split second a full-grown, almost 400kg male lion springs from lazing in the shade of the tree to standing upright and staring right at me, just a few feet away in an open Land Cruiser. Still as a stone, I watch, while head ranger John whispers back, “He’d be more afraid of you than you are of him.” I don’t think so. Then, he adds, “If you stepped out of the vehicle it would run off.” Well, that’s a theory I’m not going to test and just take his word for it.
For nine days, I’ve been up close and practically personal with some of the planet’s most incredible and diversified wildlife – and where they belong – in the wild. And Kenya has a range of animals and birds not found anywhere else in Africa.
The safari experience is enhanced by staying at three stunning luxury lodges run by Cheli & Peacock, one of Kenya’s leading and longest-established safari operators. Providing personalised itineraries around a guest’s interests and time frame, each elegant camp and lodge, with its own character and style, is set in animal-filled national reserves and parks.
The trip begins with a conveniently timed, eight-hour overnight flight on Kenya Airways from Bangkok, landing me in Nairobi about 5am, where I’m met by the company’s handler. From there, a short drive to a small airport for a two-hour, 350-kilometre flight to my first lodge, Elsa’s Kopje.
The Cessna Caravan flies over small villages, farms, mountain ranges and rolling hills. There are flat, hard-earthed plains with scattered bush, sometimes empty of any visible life except a single tree, stuck like a green pin in the middle of an unmarked map. Then it breaks into densely packed broccoli-green trees and the geography changes from empty flatlands to lush landscapes with sunlight flashing on winding rivers.
We land on a red-dirt runway on the outskirts of the town of Meru, and then a half-hour jeep ride to Elsa’s Kopje, smack in the middle of Meru National Park’s 870 square kilometres of rugged and relatively undisturbed wilderness: thorny bush, dry valleys, acacia woodlands, khaki grasslands, dense thickets, criss-crossing rivers and streams, and dry terrain flanked by rich vegetation, massive-leafed raphia palms, and towering, forked doum trees.
With the reserve all to itself, Elsa’s Kopje is perched on top of a rocky kopje (small hill). The lodge is named after the orphaned lioness raised in this park by George and Joy Adamson and then returned to the wild, whose story was told in the movie Born Free. Below the lodge is the site of George’s original camp where he raised and released orphan lions, long before conservation made it fashionable.
The setting offers spectacular views across the plain from every room, each uniquely designed, incorporating the natural features of the rocky hillside. There’s also an open bar, dining room and inviting infinity pool. At night, weather permitting, dinner is served outdoors under a chandelier of stars in a brilliant night sky.
There are just 12 cottages, whose thatched palm roofs and stone walls blend naturally into the rocky hillside, so they’re hardly visible from the plains below. I’m in a 1,200-square-foot cottage with heavy wood tables, leather-back chairs, and a stone chess set with African-motif pieces set on a table between two rattan planter chairs with armrests that swing open to rest your feet. Sand-coloured cement walls are framed in thick logs with the sides of rocks protruding. But the best part is the open-fronted verandah facing a panoramic view of the park. At night through the zipped-close net, you fall asleep seeing occasional shooting stars.
And you wake up to the chatter of vervet monkeys and the distinct rising hoot of a hornbill in the tangled branches of a baobab tree before it takes off with a heavy flap of its black-and-white wings. A hawk eagle soars by. A couple of chubby hyrax hop and scurry rabbit-like across the verandah. It’s like the first day in a beginning world.
Mornings are also the ideal time for safaris. Just before daybreak we start out. There’s the dark silhouette of a lone giraffe against orange-yellowing light. The sun rises from behind misty hills and then, suddenly, everything is splashed in sunshine. The experience is as breathtaking as it’s humbling; you feel small surrounded by plain’s vastness. This is nature as God designed it – untouched, undisturbed, filled with a sense of grandeur. But not to be too reverent about it, I can’t help thinking of the envy-inducing photos I’ll be posting.
We go early to a river to see a group of hippos poking their bulging eyes from the water and then disappear below the surface (hippos can hold their breath for six minutes). Despite their bulky, lumbering appearance – weighing up to 2,000kg or more – they’re among the most dangerous animals, able easily to topple a canoe and run a startling 50km/h on land. Extremely aggressive, they won’t hesitate to charge when threatened.
The safari drives are all improvised, depending on signs of life. One morning we go to a rocky slope of hills sometimes favoured by leopards, but not today. Another morning John veers off the dirt path and cuts through some underbrush to a shallow watering hole where two rhinos are having a relaxing mud bath, which homo sapiens will pay a spa US$100 or more to enjoy. But then rhinos have been around for millions of years to work out how to do it for free.
Their future, however, is less certain. Poaching rates have shown no signs of slowing down across Africa. They’re being killed for their horn, which, conservationists say, is destined for markets in Southeast Asia and China where the illegally harvested horns are sold for medicinal properties, of which there are none.
But there are grounds for optimism. Meru Park’s 48-square-kilometre rhino sanctuary is good news for black and white rhino populations. Among its 72 animals, we see several babies with their mothers – no mean feat, since rhinos, like most large mammals, give birth to just one calf at a time after a long gestation period of 15 to 16 months. They then will only reproduce every two-and-a-half to five years. The story is repeated at Lewa Safari Camp, where the rhino population has seen an annual growth rate of approximately 6 percent annually.
And in all the reserves I visit, there are herds of elephants with babies; another rare sign of a conservation success against the gruesome slaughter for their ivory, with Asia – and especially China – again the main black-market buyer.
We continue on in the steadily rising heat, spotting some large Somali ostrich, a vast herd of gazelle with big soft eyes, and a dazzle of Grévy’s zebra, unique to this area. More mule-like, they have larger heads and thicker manes than other zebras.
The guides have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the wildlife – it’s like being with David Attenborough. I learn to spot the difference between common and Grévy’s zebra: the former have thicker stripes that run under their belly, and no two zebras have identical stripes, much like our fingerprints. Or the difference between reticulated and Masai giraffes; the former has much whiter and smoother lines between its brownish patches.
Afternoons are time for rest. Beneath a hot overhead sun, there’s an enormous quiet; nothing stirs. Silence spreads over the plain. A breeze rustles some leaves; a faraway bird calls; a dragonfly darts – it’s as if even the Earth is resting.
During one early evening safari, we stop in the open park for a traditional sundowner. A tablecloth is spread over the bonnet of the Land Cruiser, and John puts out small plates of olives and chips. As I enjoy a glass of Chianti, nearby gazelle and giraffes graze on grasslands studded with acacia trees and tiny white butterflies like flickering snowflakes. A tawny eagle soars above, while a hooded vulture on a lonely treetop waits for a kill. Is this not the most perfect bar?
As we drive back to the lodge, thousands of quelea birds suddenly pass in front of us, like a weird undulating black river in flight. But these nomadic super-colonies of tiny avians are hated by farmers, John tells me. Although they prefer the seeds of wild grasses, their huge numbers make them a constant threat to fields of sorghum, wheat, barley, millet and rice.
But then John sees something and veers the vehicle off the path to a line of acacia trees. I only now see why: a large family of elephants makes its way to a nearby river. John slowly drives to where he figures they’ll make the crossing and shuts off the engine. Then they come, led by a giant bull that must weigh, John figures, close to 6,000kg. We’re so close the elephant turns toward us, taking an aggressive stand, holding its head high and spreading his ears in an exaggerated manner. Having made his macho point to the onlooking family, he turns away and leads them to the river to drink.
During my entire trip to three reserves, I see enough animals and birds to fill two Noah’s Arks: spiral-horned kudu, long-necked gerenuk, water buck, impala, bohor reedbuck, lynx-like caracal, tiny, graceful dik dik, hyper baboons, large hartebeest, oryx with long spear-like horns, gazelle, and an amazing selection of birdlife. And though I don’t see a cheetah and only hear near my cottage one night a leopard’s distinct breathing – like slow sawing through wood – there is that lion.
It’s a heart-stopping experience. But then, on my last safari drive, we see two males who start to roar and fight just a few feet from our vehicle. Territorial dispute, the guide says, as they attack each other before separating into the bush. Another once-in-a-lifetime experience; I can’t wait to return for more.
Prestige travelled as a guest of Country Holidays. For bookings, contact Country Holidays at countryholidays.com.hk
More comfortable camps from which to scour the savannah
Not far from Elsa’s Kopje is Joy’s Camp in the dry wilds of Shaba National Reserve. Its 10 spacious luxury tents are set overlooking a large, natural spring that attracts endless game to the area.
LEWA SAFARI CAMP
Located at a stunning spot within Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the Lewa Safari Camp has outstanding game viewing and views of Mt Kenya from the tents. The 25,000-hectare wildlife conservancy is home to 10 percent of Kenya’s black rhino population, and the single largest population of Grévy’s zebra in the world.