The pre-dawn sky is streaked lilac-pink and the river is chocolate-brown and fast flowing. We’re walking, still bleary-eyed, through the still-sleeping lodge. Shaba Sarova Game Lodge is built on a series of crystal clear springs, which flow from the rocky ranges that encircle it. There are little wooden bridges to be traversed and grey-blue pools where terrapin swim. And everywhere there is the sound of water.
It has rained profoundly overnight, a rarity in the arid north of Kenya, and the trees are dank and dripping. As for the mighty Ewaso Nyiro River, which dominates the lodge, it is mutinous and swollen: its waters so laden with mud that it flows with a sullen soup-like consistency. On its bank lies a large lump of driftwood, yellow-green and half-embedded in the slime. Closer inspection reveals four stubby feet and a long snout. ‘The Brown River’, as its name translates, is renowned for its crocodiles. But they’re not welcome in the lodge. This one has come ‘by invitation’ to the Crocodile Viewing Point. It’s a strongly fenced area lying far below the lawns of the lodge. It’s here that the great beasts come for scraps from the lodge’s kitchens. They have, or so we’re told, a predilection for chicken. A green-clad guard leans over the iron fence and observes the crocodile, ‘it’s one of ours,’ he says, ‘there’s a group of them. They own this place. If others come, they scare them away.’ The crocodile opens one eye as if to confirm his vigilance. Then he resumes his imitation of a log.
The safari vehicle is waiting. Our driver and his Samburu tracker are leaning against its long khaki bonnet. Wilson, the Samburu, is wrapped in a red, sky-blue and white toga, his chest crisscrossed with bandoliers of beads and his brow adorned by a crown of beads that terminates in a large pearl-white button. There’s a knife on his belt and a beaded knobkerrie in his hand.
We grind our way over the black lava flows that stretch rocky tentacles across the land. It’s a tough ride. Dawn is breaking and the air is heavy with a subtle perfume. Suddenly, out of the ghostly grey light glow a thousand starry-white shapes: they’re squat blossom-bushes wreathed in tiny bell-like flowers. And the further we drive into the magnificence of Shaba National Reserve, the more these ethereal white flowers crowd the landscape until, or so it seems, we’re driving through a vast enchanted garden.
Far below us snakes the great brown river, beyond it towers a range of sheer rock faces that are as ridged and striated as rotting teeth. One crag stands proud of the others. ‘The Flag,’ says Wilson. ‘Why The Flag?’ we ask. ‘There used to be a flagpole up there,’ he says. We gaze up at the vast grizzled peak. What kind of madman could have climbed up there to plant a flag?
‘Which flag?’ we ask. ‘British,’ says Wilson.
That explains it.
As the sun rises, so the animals arrive to populate this surreally beautiful land. Long-necked gerenuk trot amidst the white flowers, pausing now and then to stand on their back legs like shoppers reaching up to the highest shelves in the supermarket. One is stoically munching on white flowers. Beneath the doum palms, their untidy foliage ragged and grey, graze herds of Beisa oryx. Creatures of the arid north, their coats are as elegantly pale grey as bespoke Saville Row suits. Black spiralled horns, straight as tuning forks, rise above lugubrious black-and-white ‘war painted’ faces. Maddeningly photogenic, they decline to deliver a photo opportunity and disperse in cloud of skittishly flicking tails.
Striding imperiously onto his grassy stage, a statuesque Grevy’s zebra obliges us with a pose. With his satellite-dish ears and pin-striped pelt he presents a very different picture from his common cousin the Burchell’s zebra. He’s much larger, more muscled and infinitely more regal. As the camera clicks he stamps his foot as if to say, ‘enough’. And then gallops away.
Heading down to the river, the stands of doum palm thicken. The ground is strewn with their discarded fronds and our tyres crunch over the small brown fruit than rain down from above. Hornbills shriek in alarm and, amid the general cacophony, we don’t at first realize the presence of a herd of elephants. They appear, as if out of nowhere: a matriarch and her brood of seven – descending in size like Russian dolls. The smallest, his trunk wrapped firmly around his mother’s tale, is no more than four feet high. But they have no interest in us: they’re on a mission.
‘Heading for the river,’ says Wilson, ‘we’ll catch them later.’
And so we do.
But it’s much later and much has happened along the way. We’ve driven through glades where blue-necked Somali ostrich peck: and around vast rocky outcrops where lines of baboons sit as motionless as judges. We’ve startled grazing bushbucks and put nervous herds of antelopes to flight. Our passage has been watched by pairs of tiny dik-diks quivering in the undergrowth, and by roaming pairs of bat-eared foxes their fat tails streaming out behind them in the perfumed air. We’ve been peered at over bushes by the fabulously jig-saw patterned, Reticulated giraffe and stampeded by nervous waterbuck. But we haven’t seen another single vehicle. And now, returning to the lodge for breakfast, we’re grinding along a rocky track high above the coils of the river. The heat is rising and the white flowers are wilting. ‘Do you see the elephants?’ says Wilson casually.
And there they are. The herd has crossed to the far side and is wallowing in the shallows. We’re too late. We’ve missed the ‘money-shot’. Or have we? In the distance, ears flap, trunks wave and suddenly the cavalcade turns around and re-crosses the river. Shaba has delivered. And how.
Back at the lodge, the guardian crocodile has moved out into the fast-moving river. His snout is pointing up stream and his tail is waving lazily in the slipstream. ‘Fishing’ observes the guard. ‘He’s got his mouth open.’ And frankly, so have we: in wonder.
Shaba, the land of The Flag and the perfumed garden has ensnared us.
And we’re spellbound.