Kenya is the best-known safari destination in the world. She is also the land where, in the early 1900s, the safari began. Safaris in those days were momentous undertakings requiring months of planning, covering hundreds of miles and lasting for many months. It is said that the cavalcade of American ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, which set off from Mombasa in 1909, stretched for over a mile, created a dust cloud that obliterated half the town and featured 250 porters carrying everything from a travelling library to four tons of preserving salt. On their travels, Roosevelt and his son Kermit, were horribly successful in finding fantastic beasts, killing seventeen lions, three leopards, eleven elephants, ten buffalos, eleven black rhinos and nine white – all in the name of scientific discovery for the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA.
Today’s safari hunters set out in much more modest style. They’re also, mercifully, after shots of rather than shots at the fantastic beasts their predecessors labelled the ‘Big Five’ (lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and elephant). Given that Kenya boasts over 56 national parks and reserves, however, finding such creatures on a safari that may last only a few days requires either supreme luck or inside knowledge.
And even then it’s not as easy as you may think. Look for an elephant in the vastness of Tsavo West National Park, one of the country’s most famous, and you might never find one. There are over 10,000 in residence, but you have to know where to look. Hang out for a leopard in any Kenyan national park and you might wait weeks for a glimpse of its celebrated spots, though its nose might have been inches from your own, had you but known it. Lions, for all their size, are past masters of the art of seeing without being seen. And as for rhinos, you’d be surprised at how quickly such a startlingly prehistoric creature can vanish into thin air. Finally, were you to find a buffalo in Hell’s Gate National Park, one of only two parks wherein you are permitted to walk unescorted, you might wish you hadn’t: buffalos are notoriously cantankerous and exceptionally dangerous, especially old lone bulls when disturbed mid-afternoon-nap.
Lurking with leopards
Enigmatic and elusive, it is said by those who know about leopards that you’ll only get to see one if it lets you. When you do, you may find its gaze strangely disconcerting as it looks, sphinx-like, straight through you. Notoriously difficult to tick the safari box on, leopards inhabit most of Kenya’s parks and conservancies but are best seen in the latter. Top spots include the Masai Mara National Reserve, where they tend to keep to the riverine edges waiting for the zebras and wildebeest to come down to drink, and the surrounding Mara conservancies. Also prime leopard country are the Aberdares and Kenya’s biggest park, Tsavo East and West where the perceived wisdom is that during the day your only chance of locating a leopard is to keep your gaze resolutely UP, with your eyes focussed on the forks of trees. Why? Because leopards like to use forked trees as game larders. Then you just have to look for the twitching of a tail.
Looking for lions
Lions get everywhere, or so the safari guides would have you believe. They’ll tell you tall tales of lions dropping through the pop-up tops of safari vehicles, wandering through camps to the consternation of the campers, and snoozing on the sun loungers of the lodges. And, while such things have happened, they don’t happen often because lions are none too keen on the company of man, their only predator. Lion spotting for the amateur, then, is best done under the guidance of a professional safari guide. These are the guys who always know where to find the resident prides; and who can produce them like large and particularly fearsome rabbits out of hats. In the lead for lion-location is Kenya’s most famous reserve, the Masai Mara, where around one thousand lions have been so thoroughly catalogued that they have their own database. So, when you’ve located your lion, all you need to do is to determine whether or not it has spots on its nose, chunks out of its ears or a particularly unusual placement of whiskers – and you can get to know its name, number and life history. For further information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
An even better bet in the lion stakes is to be had in the conservancies surrounding the Masai Mara where each pride holds fast to its own bitterly fought-for territory and where, though the visitor-numbers are low, the lions are so habituated to the presence of vehicles at close range that you might find yourself the only observer of an enchanting family scene of lion, lioness and cubs at play. And then there’s Tsavo West National Park, which lies equidistant between Nairobi and the coast, and is home to one-third of all the lions in Kenya – some 700 of the fantastic beasts. An evocative wilderness of volcanoes, crystal-clear pools and palm-fringed rivers, Tsavo was also home to Kenya’s most famous man-eating lions, which, in the late 19th century, devoured at least 35 Indian railway workers thus playing havoc with the building of the Uganda Railway. Finally, for lions from a different perspective, head for Lake Nakuru National Park where some 50 rare tree-climbing lions loll about in trees like formidably overgrown kittens.
Questing for elephants
Elephants, despite their size, can be elusive; amazingly, they can even be mistaken for bushes; while in dense undergrowth eight tons of elephant can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. One reserve that won’t disappoint you on the elephant front, however, is Amboseli, one of Kenya’s oldest and most-visited.
Home to one of the world’s most famous free-moving elephant populations, Amboseli National Reserve hosts some 1,200 elephants, which have been so extensively tracked, recorded and filmed that they’re almost household names. Nor does it take much effort to find them. Nine times out of ten you’ll come across a herd or two wallowing in their favourite spot – the Amboseli swamps. The last remnants of a once great lake, which flourished over one million years ago, the Amboseli swamps paint a broad brush-stroke of vivid emerald green across the centre of this otherwise stark park. Fed by underground streams flowing directly from Mount Kilimanjaro, the swamps are cool, unpolluted and deliciously (for elephants) muddy. They also offer the near-perfect photo opportunity for catching a herd of elephants, muddied up to their middles, dogged by white cattle egret and squelching happily through the papyrus while fetchingly posed against the backdrop of the famous snows of Kilimanjaro.
For those who’d like their elephants concentrated, against a less theatrical backdrop, Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary has it all. An elephant migration route as old as time, this reserve boasts 150 elephants wandering in only 24 square kilometres of rugged terrain – that’s a lot of bang for your elephant buck. The Sanctuary also has a shop where you can purchase your own supply of elephant-dung writing paper. What’s more, since the Shimba Hills National Reserve is right next door, so you can also drop in to catch its population of 200 elephants as they stroll picturesquely against gently rolling woodlands, which look as though they’ve been geographically misplaced and should be in Northern Europe, while below the hills crash the breakers of Kenya’s celebrated southern coast.
Browsing for buffalos
It’s been said that a buffalo resembles a cow on steroids, and it’s not far from the truth. Though usually docile and cow-like, the Cape buffalo is equipped with a particularly dangerous set of curling horns, which are responsible for killing more people in Africa than virtually any other creature (except the hippopotamus). Widespread throughout Kenya, buffalos are an accepted part of the scenery in most of the national parks. For a really close encounter with a buffalo, however, you should head for Hell’s Gate National Park, close to Lake Naivasha. Here you can run, walk or ride a bike past the buffalo herds, though you’d be well advised not to get too close.
Roaming for rhinos
Ruthlessly hunted for its horn, which is widely used in Chinese medicine and much prized as a dagger handle in the Middle East, the black rhino came close to extinction at the close of the last century and remains Africa’s most endangered large mammal. Kenya has around 600 eastern black rhinos, half of all those remaining on earth and 90% of those remaining in the wild. It also has around 350 white rhinos. What’s the difference between a black and a white rhino you might ask? Well, it’s not, as you might think, to do with their colour – because both are determinedly grey. In fact, the derivation of the name ‘white’ originates from the Afrikaans for ‘wide’ which is ‘weit’ and refers to the width of the white rhino’s lip, which is especially adapted to grazing. The black rhino, on the other hand, has a triangular, prehensile lip more adapted to browsing on leaves and shrubs. An easier method of telling them apart, however, is that white rhinos are considerably bigger than black rhinos.
But where to find them?
The quickest way to find a rhino, given that you are passing through Nairobi, is to head for Nairobi National Park, which can be reached in 15 minutes from the city centre. Known as the Rhino Ark, thanks to its success in rhino breeding, it shelters 50 black rhinos, which browse the plains and can even be spotted as your plane comes in to land at Nairobi airport.
Beyond Nairobi, Kenya’s largest population of rhinos lives in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy of central Kenya. Here over 100 black rhinos roam a very varied biosphere, while a number of trans-located white rhinos can be viewed at close quarters in their enclosure. This is particularly rewarding at feeding time when they munch their way through bucket-loads of carrots, celery and cabbage. Close by is Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of Kenya’s most famous rhino conservation strongholds which, in 2014, opened its borders to the neighbouring conservancy of Borana, to create one of the world’s most important rhino sanctuaries, with a combined black rhino population almost 90 strong. Other remarkable rhino spotting venues include Lake Nakuru, where you can snap a rhino set against the flamingo-fringed shores of the lake; and Meru National Park, where the dedicated rhino sanctuary hosts around 25 black and 55 white rhinos. Finally, for a place where it is impossible NOT to see a rhino, head for Solio Ranch, just north of Nyeri, which holds the title for hosting ‘the highest density of rhinos per square kilometre in Africa.’ Here, you can see concentrations of up to 50 rhinos at a time. In fact so prevalent are the rhinos on the landscape that it’s hard to take a photograph without one of them pausing obligingly to pose.
Easy when you know how…
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the title of a 2016 fantasy film directed by David Yates. A spin-off from the Harry Potter film series, it was produced and written by J.K Rowling and inspired by her book of the same name.