Safari

/Safari

Elephants in heels

2019-07-22T11:19:14+00:00

We’re driving through the Naboisho Conservancy; it’s one of the Masai Mara National Reserve’s calmer cousins. Naboisho’s profile may not be quite so famous as that of her mega-star neighbour, The Masai Mara, but nor are quite so many people fighting to take snap shots of her. And this is just one of the many advantages enjoyed by the fourteen or so conservancies that encircle the Reserve. Not only are they places of calm and retreat for humans and animals alike but they also offer a much more intimate game-viewing experience, a greener eco-lodge profile and an infinitely wider range of activities. You can, for instance, walk in the conservancies, horse ride, camel ride and bike ride too. You can also interact much more authentically with such ethnic groups as the Maasai, who offer village visits, craft markets and heritage displays. Typically, in the trans-Mara region, the conservancy land is Maasai-owned, which means that the Maasai community also benefits from the incoming tourism dollars. Finally, because vehicle numbers are limited and the ratio of beds to square kilometers is vastly reduced, you may rest assured of seeing the optimum species of wildlife and the minimum of your own. The conservancies, then, are to the Kenyan national parks and reserves what fringe theatre is to Broadway.

Right now we’re driving through one of Naboisho’s denser thickets. The track, seldom used, is tortuous and the safari vehicle is lurching from rut to rut like a ship in a storm. Its suspension, aggravated by dust, is complaining bitterly and so would we be: if we dared. But our driver/guide is not a man to be trifled with. He’s traditionally dressed in a scarlet Masai shuka, bandoliers of beads glitter across his chest and the dagger in his belt would make a rampaging lion think twice. Despite all this, however, our attention is wandering.

Why? Well, the sad fact of game-driving is that it is time sensitive. There is only so long you cling to the edge of your seat poised for imminent safari drama. Only so long you can keep your eyes peeled and your inner cave man primed for blood. And we’ve crossed the attention threshold. Mobiles are being fingered; cameras have been discarded. This is the moment beloved of safari guides. ‘Do you see him?’ ours asks. See what we wonder? We’re surrounded by thick undergrowth. A stream flows through a miniature valley, its banks are quilted with green moss and sprout tight-curling primordial ferns. It’s only as a large grey trunk snakes into view, gently winds itself around a fern and brutally rips it from the ground that we see the elephant. It’s a bull and he’s straddling the stream. It’s a tight fit – cork in a bottle – but he’s fern-harvesting with single-minded determination. Brilliant green fronds stick out from either side of his mouth. Up comes his trunk to push them more firmly between his masticating jaws. Down it goes again to wrench more greenery from the ravaged ground. His trunk is a formidable implement weighing around 400 pounds and containing around 100,000 different muscles. And at its end, or so we are told, are some finger-like appendages so delicate that he could pluck a single blade of grass.

‘He’s a leftie’, observes our guide. We stare at the back of the man’s head. It’s all we can see of him perched as we are on our raised seats. Is this a manifestation of the famous Maasai humour? Is he suggesting that elephants have political leanings? ‘Look at his tusks,’ the guide says ‘the left is shorter than the right’. We look: he’s right. Elephants, the guide explains are like humans in so much as they are either right or left tusked (‘lefties’ or ‘righties’ in safari-speak). And, because they use the same tusk to strip bark, tear leaves or fight other elephants – so it is that the more frequently used tusk grows gradually shorter over time.

We watch entranced as the elephant decimates the ferns. The sound effects are impressive – a ruthless tearing, a massive, mauling, mastication; and the odd blow-off of gas as profound as a Texan oil well. The guide has our attention now – and the facts come thick and fast. We learn that an elephant must feed for 12-18 hours a day, consume 200-600 pounds of vegetation, expel 250 pounds of manure a day whilst dealing with a digestive system so poor that it functions at only 50% efficiency. Despite all this volcanic internal activity, however, the elephant has an extremely slow pulse rate of around 27 beats per minute as compared to that of the average human being whose heart beats 80 times per minute (or the canary whose heart pounds at 1000 beats per minute). We learn that bulls can grow up to 13 feet in height, cover 30 feet from trunk to tail, and weigh up to 14,000 pounds. ‘Which is why’ continues our guide, ‘they are the only mammal that can’t jump’. As facts go, this one is slightly left-of-field and we’re temporarily silenced by the mental image of an elephant jumping. But the next fact bowls us over: African elephants, it appears, walk on their toes, as if they are wearing high heels.

The guide has to be kidding. And yet he’s not. Studies of elephant walking patterns (using pressure-sensing platforms to map the distribution of weight on elephantine feet) have revealed that elephants put the most pressure on the outer toes of their front feet and the least amount of pressure on their heels – they tip-toe.

This elephant is far too tightly wedged between the banks of the stream for us to judge whether or not he appears to be walking in heels. But as we return to our camp, we encounter a matriarchal herd. There are nine of them, graduated in size from impossibly tiny to dauntingly huge and they’re doing what elephants do best – tearing branches off trees and cramming them into their mouths. Spellbound, we stare at their feet.

Heels are not in evidence.

Elephantine facts

Elephants have highly developed brains, the largest in the entire animal kingdom (three to four times larger than a human brain.)

Though incapable of jumping, elephants can run at a speed of 25 miles (40 km) per hour. Yet even when they are moving at their fastest, they still keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.

Elephant eyelashes grow up to five inches in length.

Elephant skin is over an inch thick. But because it’s loaded with nerve endings, their skin is also highly sensitive.

Elephants from the same herd will often use touch to greet each other, either wrapping their trunks around each other or giving each other friendly taps on the body.

In addition to trumpeting, elephants purr much like cats do. Research has also shown that they can communicate over long distances using a sub-sonic rumble that travels over ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive these messages through their feet and trunks.

Elephants have large, thin ears that contain a complex network of blood vessels that help to regulate body temperature. The average ear of a male African elephant weighs over 100 pounds.

The tusk of a male elephant grows at a rate of around 7 inches per year.

Born Free

2019-05-29T05:33:40+00:00

In this issue, actress and activist, Virginia McKenna, who played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film, Born Free, tells us why she loves Kenya and how her time spent in Kenya whilst filming Born Free changed her life.

Virginia McKenna OBE, British stage and screen actress, author and wildlife campaigner is best known for such films as A Town Like Alice, Carve Her Name with Pride and Ring of Bright Water, but it was her role alongside her husband, Bill Travers, in the 1966 classic Born Free that was to change everything. The film was based on the book, Born Free, by Joy Adamson. A worldwide best-seller read by 50 million people and translated into 21 languages, Born Free told the true-life tale of game warden, George Adamson, who adopted an orphaned lioness cub, and Joy Adamson, who formed a unique relationship with her. Set in Meru National Park, in northern Kenya, it was the most successful animal story of modern times.
Born Free changed many lives, but especially those of Virginia and Bill who devoted their lives to campaigning for the right of all animals to be born free and live free and to the establishment of the Born Free Foundation. Today, the Born Free Foundation has 100,000 supporters worldwide and spends more than £2 million every year fighting animal exploitation, conserving endangered species, and rehoming animals from run down zoos to Born Free sponsored sanctuaries all over the world.

The film also brought huge publicity to Kenya as millions all over the world saw, for the first time, the glory of her wilderness and wildlife. Finally, the story of Elsa the lion cub served as a catalyst for the cause of animal conservation – it also earned Virginia the title, ‘the midwife of animal conservation’.
Q You first came to Kenya in 1964 with your husband, Bill Travers, to begin work on the film, Born Free. You then spent 9 months living in the bush, living alongside lions and preparing for your roles. What were your first impressions of Kenya and how did those impressions change during your stay?

A Where do I begin? It was a very long time ago – 55 years in fact – that Bill Travers and I sailed from London to Mombasa with our children to begin work on a film called Born Free, which was based on Joy Adamson’s famous book on her life with George Adamson. George was our ‘lion man’ and I have to say that without his quiet wisdom and sensitive guidance the film could never have been made. We had to work closely with six different lions after the two circus lions that had been selected to ‘play’ Elsa were deemed too unpredictable. This meant that we had to get to understand them – as individuals – and form relationships with every one of them. Our family home (and the base for the lions) was an old settlers’ house on a little river in the town of Naro Moru. My first memories of Kenya are of the great beauty of the land and the warmth and kindness of all the people we met. Also of the cloud-filled skies which, for some reason, never seem to obscure the sun. They’re memories that are echoed every time I return to Kenya.

Q You’ve been quoted as saying that making Born Free in Kenya had a tremendous impact on you and Bill – could you tell us more?

A It would have been impossible for anyone not to have been affected by the making of a film of Joy’s book. It was a love story; it was also the story of a relationship between a lioness and two extraordinary people and the unique and unpredictable journey they travelled together. For Bill and I, it was a leap into the unknown because we had to understand the different natures and traits of all the different lions who ‘played’ Elsa.

Q You’ve spoken about the fact that no matter how much you had read about lions, nothing had prepared you for the reality of meeting a lion, could you tell us a little more?

A Nothing can prepare you for the moment you actually meet a lion. How could it? Animals are all different – just like us – and you need, slowly but surely, to learn about their likes and dislikes; when they are bored or uninterested; whom they like or don’t like.

Q What are your abiding memories of your time in the Kenyan wilderness and what, if anything, evokes your strongest memories of Kenya?

During the months of filming in Naro Moru we had no time to travel and experience ‘the wild’ but once filming was over we took our two eldest children, Will and Louise, on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. It was an experience never to be forgotten: not only of seeing such iconic creatures as elephant, lion, rhino, cheetah, giraffe, but also of encountering the birds, herbivores and the miraculous dung beetle, which will always remain one of my very special creatures.

Q In your journals, you wrote about how leaving Africa was ‘agony’, as was saying goodbye to the many ‘Elsas’ who starred in the film. Could you tell us more?

A We worked with over 20 lions and had close and extraordinary relationships with a number of them so you can imagine our horror and disbelief when, at the end of filming, we were told that they had been sold to a series of zoos and safari parks. Joy and George shared our horror, but it was too late – the deals had been done. We did, however, manage to save two lions called Boy and Girl. Also a large male called Ugas who joined George’s little pride of lions. The other lions were not so lucky: our much-loved Mara and Little Elsa went to Whipsnade Zoo in England while fun-loving Henrietta was returned to Entebbe Zoo in Uganda. Our sense of having betrayed these creatures ran very deep. So deeply, that Bill decided to make a documentary about our visit to Mara and Little Elsa at Whipsnade Zoo. It was an experience I will never forget. It was also the inspiration for the many documentaries Bill would make over the coming years and which opened up a new path in life for him.

As for George, a friend for life, he set up a simple camp in Meru where he cared for the three lions we had saved. You can still see the site today. It lies just below the current lodge, Elsa’s Kopje, a beautiful place where I stay every time I visit Meru. You can also still see the rusting remains of George’s various vehicles as they lie in the bush – poignant reminders of the path that would ultimately lead to his tragic death.

Q You’ve said that every creature, human and non-human, deserves to be born free and stay free – could you tell us how you’ve translated this belief into the establishment of the Born Free Foundation?

A I have always found it challenging to accept that wild animals can be kept in captivity; that they can be removed from their mothers and sent to zoos in distant lands, that they can be subjected to living in cages or enclosures; and that they can be denied companions of their own kind and required to mate according to the dictates of man. Worse still that they should be sold to circuses, which are really travelling menageries where they are trained to perform tricks such as standing on tubs, jumping through hoops or riding horses with loud music blaring around them. Surely such spectacles belong to history. I also question how we can watch wildlife documentaries – in wonderment and amazement – and yet still approve of wild animals being kept in captivity?

Q Born Free was released in 1966, would you say that the understanding of wild animals – their natures, needs and desires – has improved dramatically since then?

A I think that a growing number of people do think very differently now – especially when they hear about the rescues that we, and other groups, have carried out; such as ensuring that wild animals be removed from concrete cages, circus trailers or private ‘ownership.’ But the horror stories still continue. And many of them are not only condoned but also compounded by the extraordinary indifference displayed by those in positions of authority.

It is also true that fewer circuses use wild animals in the United Kingdom, though the same does not apply elsewhere in the world. There is also the fact that as the human population increases so the availability of land for the wildlife decreases, and this leads to conflict between man and wildlife and between the wildlife itself. Perhaps it’s time for the spirit of Elsa to be reborn; time for people to learn to respect and treasure our wildlife and wildernesses; and to conserve the natural world, whose beauty and seasonal change so enriches our souls. I may be an eternal optimist, but I am always encouraged by my visits to Kenya where I rejoice in the beauty of the land and its creatures. I’m also encouraged by my meetings with the school children who already care so deeply about wildlife – despite the fact that many of them have only encountered it in the form of pictures. I recall one particular young boy, who asked, ‘Please Miss, why do men kill lions?’

Now there lies our hope for the future.

Born Free country

Few places offer a more genuine wilderness ambience than the remote and rugged Meru and Kora National Parks. It was here that the real-life stars of Born Free, Joy and George Adamson released their famous lioness, Elsa, back in to the wild. Here too where she is buried. Located in northern Kenya these parks lie far off the usual tourist tracks and promise exclusive wildlife viewing, magnificent vistas and an unrivalled diversity of landscape. Brilliantly painted on a natural canvas of magnificent scale, these sister parks contrast luxuriant jungle with fast-flowing rivers and verdant swamps with mile upon mile of golden savannah.

A classic savannah landscape
A fine example of the classic savannah landscape, Meru’s character is defined by the rivers that form its perimeters: the mighty Tana to the south, the Ura to the south-west and the Rojeweru to the east. The Park is also scored by 15 permanent streams which drain off the nearby Nyambeni Hills.

A rich tapestry of habitats
Thanks to the huge diversity of its habitats, Meru is a unique game viewing destination. The northern plains offers one of the most rewarding areas for wildlife viewing, boasting elephant, lion and cheetah. Both species of zebra, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, impala, beisa oryx, kongoni and reticulated giraffe are also easily seen. The dense woodlands of the southern plains shelter gerenuk, common eland, Kirk’s dik-dik and warthog. They also make an ideal habitat for one of the Park’s highlights, the lesser kudu. The swampy grasslands are grazed by Defassa waterbuck and shifting herds of buffalo, whilst Hippo and Nile crocodile are common in the slower streams of the Tana River.

Meru is also renowned for its rocky outcrops (known as inselbergs or kopjes), where baboon cavort and leopard lurk among the boulders

A brilliance of birds
Meru’s birds are abundant and colourful; common river birds include ibis, heron and African fish eagle while the riverine acacia woodland shelters the smallest of the long-tailed sunbirds, the black-bellied sunbird. Flocks of glorious golden-breasted starling are also often encountered as well as loudly honking groups of hornbills.

Kora National Park
Meru’s sister Park, the adjoining Kora National Park (1,787 sq km) is famous as the former home of naturalist George Adamson. A vast area of acacia bushland from whose alluvial plains rise stark granite kopjes and low hills, it is bordered to the south-east by the Mwitamisyi River, which supports an abundance of lizards, snakes, tortoises and crocodiles.

Tripping

2019-05-29T05:34:20+00:00

There is a fine line between real and surreal. Right now it’s a skein of dawn-grey cloud. Below the line, the great beast of Nairobi is growling into wakefulness, above the line is an expanse of rain-sodden air. In the far distance rise the silver spires of Mount Kenya. And the snout of the plane is pointing straight at her.

We had left Nairobi in the half-light as strings of rush-hour headlights spun cobwebs across the city. Now the temperature in the cabin is plummeting and there’s a roar of rushing air. Someone has taken the back door off the plane and a square hole gapes where seats and windows should be. In the hole, lashed to the fuselage with a harness, a photographer wields a lens-heavy camera.

We’re doing the ‘scenic trip’.

The closer we get to the mountain, the higher we climb and the more the air thins until we’re breathing through oxygen masks. Fingers turn to ice. Our headphones twitter: Nairobi Air Traffic Control is uneasy. What are we doing at 17,000 feet they want to know? Gradually, the vastness of the mountain engulfs us until it fills the screen, the windows and the howling hole where the photographer hunches. We seem perilously close; it seems terrifyingly alien. Suddenly we swing east to circle the citadel of peaks. Below us, vast skirts of forest wash up the mountain’s flanks – they’re deeply striated by valleys and icy tarns as if clawed by a monstrous beast. It’s minus two degrees centigrade in the cabin now and the high peaks are dusted with snow. Despite the rushing roar of air within the plane, the mountain is wreathed in stillness and sanctity.

This is not the realm of man, but of God. And we’re in his airspace.

Abruptly, as if she has tired of us, the mountain releases us from her orbit and, as her enormity falls away behind us, a lone puff of pink cloud attaches itself to her highest peak. As we skim the sun-blazed plains of Laikipia, the ranch land below us is veined by slow moving chains of black, brown and white cattle; also visible are the circular cattle enclosures of the Maasai, scrawled across the landscape like the hieroglyphics of the Gods. There’s a sudden change in tempo as the plane is buffeted by hot blasts of air and, as if in response, the landscape begins to buckle and convulse. We’re heading down into the inferno of the Suguta Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. It’s 60 degrees centigrade in the shade here. But there is no shade, just bald, burning, baking earth. Eight thousand years ago this valley held a vast lake whose white crystalline shoreline is still painted on the landscape. Now it’s known as the Valley of Death.

As the shadow of the plane flits across the landscape, time flips and millions of years seem to concertina into a gigantic geological wince. It’s at this point that the scenic trip turns psychedelic and the earth goes mad. Huge calderas, the size of cities, give way to great outpourings of glutinous black lava so liquid as to appear as though still on the move. Lurid green crocodile pools mark the path of an ancient river; battalions of half-moon sand dunes march across a landscape eerily reminiscent of the roof of a giant’s mouth. A monstrous set of rocky teeth, high as skyscrapers, bite into the sky; great golden rock-castles rise out of a landscape that’s part Lord of the Rings, part Armageddon. Ahead of us lies a black barrier of volcanic cones, slithering and sifted-sugar soft. The beauty and majesty is becoming almost too much to bear. »

But the show’s not over yet. The plane skips gaily over the black satanic barrier and swoops down into a heat-shimmered heaven where Lake Logipi lies sweltering amid streaks of lilac, pink and gold. It’s a limpid mirror of cloud-shadowed water in which is reflected the ethereal stone steeples of Cathedral Rock. Across its surface, thousands of carmine flamingoes are blown as if by a giant breath and its shores are laced alternately grey, green and violet like floating petticoats. As the plane banks, sky, water, cloud, rock and birds merge into a kaleidoscopic blur: we’re heading for the final frontier.

Despite what’s gone before, Lake Turkana steals the show. The largest alkaline lake on earth, her jade green waters are wind-whipped into a million white horses. At her southern tip, lies the perfect volcanic cone known as Nabiyotum. Encircled by a filigree of peacock blue bays, it is otherworldly in its serenity. In the far distance lies the shimmering mirage of South Island where a million crocodiles bask. Much further north lie the petrified forests of the world famous Paleolithic site, Koobi Fora, home to our earliest ancestors. It’s hard to believe we’re still in Kenya; we might just as well be on the moon.

And here, in the madness of a moonscape, some maniacal genius has built a wind farm. Hundreds of whirling turbines stride across the landscape and harness the hot wind to supply 17% of Kenya’s annual energy requirement. Surreal blends into bizarre as the pilot turns in his seat to announce, ‘five minutes to landing.’ We drop out of the sky on to a baking stretch of rust-red gravel. Welcome to the airstrip at the end of the world.

‘Tea?’ says the pilot unscrewing a Thermos flask. We’ve flown way beyond fantastic and well into weird. There’s nothing here but a squat breezeblock arrival building. Inside is a circle of red plush sofas and six empty magazine racks. On the rough dirt track outside stands a lone traffic sign: T-junction. It’s slightly bent: somebody has driven into it. In the shadow of the plane, we stare into the reflections of each other’s sunglasses and sip our tea. Had we not believed in the existence of a God when we climbed out of Nairobi, we certainly do now.

The facts

Our incredible trip was organized by Boskovic Air Charters, a long established and much respected local company who provide a wide range of private charters throughout eastern and central Africa. They operate out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Our pilot was Andy Allen. For further information, visit:
www.boskovicaircharters.com

Our photographer was professional safari guide Sean Dundas (www.seandundassafaris.com) who leads his own safaris with Kenya’s original safari operator, Ker and Downey Safaris.

Our aircraft was a Cessna Grand Caravan EX and our round trip covered 800km.

Lake Turkana lies in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the world’s largest permanent desert and alkaline lake.

The Lake Turkana Wind Project was completed in 2018 and consists of 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW, and a high voltage substation connected to the Kenyan national grid.

Crocodiles and Hippos Abound

2019-05-29T05:35:07+00:00

We’re in a great iron diving bell. It smells damp and subterranean. Our voices echo hollowly. Tiny square windows are set into the structure’s cylindrical sides. Through them we can see hundreds of blue-grey fishes. They’ve got miniature shark-fins and translucent fangs and they’re all swimming around and around and around the diving bell in an anticlockwise direction. It’s dizzying to watch.

The water beyond the squared windows is crystal clear and shines an otherworldly blue-grey. In the shimmering distance we can just make out a set of short stubby legs. They’re paddling their way through the water with a vaguely pig-like submarine trot; and they’re attached to a vast chocolate-brown body with a raspberry-pink belly. It’s a hippopotamus. And it’s heading our way.

Are we hallucinating? Or about to wake from a nightmare? No. We’re in an underwater viewing-tank sunk below the waters of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park. The water, melt-water from the snows of Kilimanjaro, has flowed here through many kilometres of underground tunnels. The fish, known as barbels, are a type of fresh-water carp. The tank, or so the brass plate bolted to the wall informs us, was installed in 1969. The other brass plate reads: Do not stick fingers into water. Crocodiles abound. Instinctively, our fingers clench.

The entire scene is surreal. We’ve just driven for three hours through tinder-dry bush. We’ve traversed dry wadis where great rivers once swirled. We’ve seen huge herds of elephants mining for water with their tusks (and unearthing little more than muddy puddles). It’s been uniformly khaki, the only flashes of colour delivered spasmodically by the pink blooms of the bulbous-trunked Desert Rose. And by the sapphire-blue flashes of the lilac breasted rollers as they sweep down to snap up an insect, their wings as gorgeous as a pharaoh’s necklace.

This huge park, one of the world’s largest, is a vast arena of sleeping volcanoes and solidified lava flows. Coiled on the landscape like sleeping dragons, they lie simmering in the heat. And yet here we are in an enchanting oasis fringed by papyrus, dripping with luridly green ferns and punctuated by great orange spiky flowers the size of tennis balls – the aptly named fireball lilies. Jurassic Park.

Here in this magical bubble of an oasis, the air is filled with birdsong and the water bursts out of the ground literally gurgling with laughter. And so it might. It has been trapped underground for 25 years or more and now, finally freed from the underground chasms where it has achieved diamond-clarity, it will flash briefly through the pools of Mzima Springs before disappearing again into its subterranean prison.

For the hippos are locked in too. Marooned amid a vast sea of dry bush through which they cannot travel, they create their own food chain. Browsing the undergrowth by night, they return to the pools at dawn and spend the rest of the day wallowing. It is their dung that feeds the fish and nurtures the roots of the fruiting trees that halo the pools.

Below the water, invertebrates feed on the dung, fish feed on the invertebrates and huge, oily black cormorants feed on the fish.
Mzima Springs is a world unto itself.

It’s also one of Tsavo West’s greatest tourist attractions. In the carpark a stream of safari vehicles deposit their passengers. And while the visitors set off down the long narrow volcanic-cinder path that leads to the pools, the safari drivers gather to chat with the Kenya Wildlife Service guards. The drivers are frequent visitors so there’s plenty to discuss. Plenty of interest for the monkeys too. They swing down to peer into the vehicles in the hope of fruit; then set off for the picnic site. If the fruit is not in the safari vehicles then it must be about to hit the picnic tables. And they’re consummate fruit-snatchers.

On the narrow, winding cinder-path there are stone signs giving the names and medicinal uses of the trees. Sapphire-blue and orange agama lizards pose before an obliging whirr of cameras. Ten minutes later, there’s a collective gasp of wonderment. The visitors have reached the springs: the ultimate in surprise and delight features. Because no matter how prepared one is for Mzima, the emerald sparkle of its impossible lushness still delivers a knock-out punch. And there are more to follow. Because the further you travel the path, the better the show.
Dutifully the visitors wait in line until their turn comes to descend the three metal steps into the underwater viewing chamber. For a second or two the door of the chamber emits an eerie sci-fi glow as multiple cameras flash. Then the cavalcade emerges and snakes on down the path to the lower pool. This is Act II of the floor-show.

Some thirty hippos are wallowing against a Hollywood-perfect backdrop of trailing lianas and dense green jungle. There’s a general snorting and blowing as they rise briefly to the surface to survey their audience. And a resounding chortle as they sink once more beneath the surface. The water, transparent as glass, reveals hundreds of barbels threading their way amid the polished blue pebbles. From the crystal depths shoots a black cigar shape, deadly as an Exocet. It lands on a rock and extends its wings, batman-like, to dry. A cormorant.

From the murky shallows a long, brown snout protrudes. Slowly, silently, hardly breaking the surface of the water, it drifts out into the wider reaches of the hippo pool.

It looks like a log. But it has teeth. So do all the other logs.

Crocodiles abound.

Need to know

Tsavo West (9065 sq. km.), Kenya’s largest National Park, is home to all the members of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant). Together with Tsavo East it also plays host to the nation’s largest elephant population. Other wildlife includes: cheetah, giraffe, hippo, baboon, waterbuck, Coke’s hartebeest, gerenuk, gazelle, zebra, crocodile, mongoose, hyrax, dik-dik, porcupine, lesser kudu and oryx. The prolific birdlife features 600 recorded species.

An essentially volcanic landscape, punctuated by great chains of extinct volcanoes and solidified lava flows, Tsavo is so vast that one can often drive for hours without encountering another vehicle. A place of magnificent vistas it also offers the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary and the caves of the Shetani lava flow, a solidified tide of molten rock that flowed across the park only one hundred years ago.

Mzima Springs, one of the park’s main attractions, achieved fame thanks to wildlife film-makers Alan and Joan Root whose 1969 documentary Mzima: Portrait of a Spring, featured underwater footage of the hippos and crocodiles. They were also the subject of the 2003 Survival Special, Mzima: Haunt of the Riverhorse.

The Conservancy: wilderness revisited

2019-03-11T08:13:53+00:00

The conservancy is the new face of conservation; and the new face of tourism. It’s the ultimate compromise between mankind and wildlife; the only way in which humans and wildlife can live in a state of harmony; and in which both can prosper. In the past, tracts of land were set aside for the use of the wildlife alone: today land is at a premium and man is multiplying. The solution, elegant in its simplicity, is to set aside areas where wilderness and wildlife can be protected, where communities can benefit from the presence of wildlife; and where everyone can enjoy their birthright: the enjoyment of the glory of nature.

On Kenya’s conservancies visitors can experience the wilderness secure in the knowledge that its endangered species are protected, its biodiversity enshrined and its people prospering. They can also be accommodated in beautiful eco-lodges, horse-ride, camel-trek, walk, trek, bike and interact with the local communities whose past and future is woven into this land.

In the following pages, we’ll explore the many faces of the conservancy movement in Kenya… and learn how it works for wilderness, wildlife, working communities and the world alike.

National Park? National Reserve? Or Conservancy?

Visitors to Kenya can be forgiven for wondering what the difference is between a conservancy, a national reserve and a national park. We’ll try and make it simple. Broadly speaking, a national park is owned by the Kenyan government, managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service and exists for the sole use of the wildlife. A national reserve, however, is owned and managed by a local council and is an area where some human land use is permitted – such as cattle grazing. In both cases the tourism revenue is used to maintain and protect the wildlife and wilderness. A conservancy is an area of wilderness that might be owned by a community of landowners, such as a group of Maasai; or by a single landowner. Typically, this land is leased to professional tourism partners for the purpose of building a lodge or tented camp and creating a managed wilderness. Tourism revenue is then shared with the local community and ploughed back into conserving the wildlife and wilderness.

Happily, all three types of protected areas have their advantages and their combined reach, in terms of total land area under protection, has delivered immense benefits to Kenya’s wildlife and communities alike. Indeed it is estimated that over 70% of Kenya’s wildlife exists outside the boundaries of the national parks and reserves. Because many of the conservancies encircle the national parks, they effectively extend the reach of the park and this allows migratory corridors to function and wildlife to move according to the dictates of nature rather than man, which has also reduced human versus wildlife conflict. Additionally, what was once marginal land has now been regenerated thus enhancing the Kenyan ecosystem as a whole; and the inclusion of community in tourism and conservation has generated jobs, promoted national unity and preserved heritage.

The main advantage of a visit to a national park or reserve lies in the fact that the national portfolio includes some of the really ‘big’ safari names: the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu and Mount Kenya to name but five of the ‘must sees’. They also host some of the nation’s most iconic lodges and tented camps, and tend to offer more choice when it comes to style and cost of holidays.

The conservancies are a much more recent arrival on the scene. It was not until the 1990s that a number of Maasai communities were persuaded to lease their land to tourism operators. The results, however, were hugely successful and today some 150 conservancies dot the country. Conservancy models vary greatly but typically numbers of beds and vehicles are limited. This not only reduces congestion and pressure upon the wildlife but also delivers a much more exclusively privileged and intimate tourism experience. It also allows the local communities to work in tandem with the tourism operators; and the tourism revenue to be channelled into community education, sanitation, infrastructure, welfare, job creation and the preservation of culture and heritage. More importantly, the creation of conservancies has allowed for the development of new activities such as wilderness walking, camel trekking, horse-riding and night game-driving, none of which are permitted in the national parks and reserves. All these factors have contributed to the creation of an enhanced Kenyan tourism experience that is of benefit to the industry as a whole. The wise visitor, therefore, should aim to enjoy the best of both worlds by experiencing the high-profile thrill of the big national parks and the intimacy and greater range of activity on offer in the conservancies.

Learn more about Kenya’s conservancies

For an insight into the scope of Kenya’s many conservancies, visit the website of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association – www.kwcakenya.com

Alternatively visit the websites of the regional associations: Northern Rangelands Trust (nrt-kenya.org); Laikipia Wildlife Forum (laikipia.org); South Rift Association of Land Owners (soralo.org); Amboseli Ecosystem Trust (amboseliecosystemtrust.org); Rift Lakes Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com); Athi Kapiti Wildlife Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com); Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (maraconservancies.org); and the Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com).

Road Rage

2019-01-11T08:47:46+00:00

It doesn’t take long for the Tsavo Madness to set in. Within thirty minutes of entering Tsavo East National Park, we’ve become hypnotized by the road. Winding away into the distance, it’s the colour of red rust. Straight and wide, it skims over the bush to drop, almost without warning, over the edge of the blue horizon. Smoothed earth, it slips beneath the tyres soft as caramel.

The vibration arrives without warning; beginning with a gentle shudder, it climaxes to a crescendo of juddering that rattles the very teeth in your head. The car is shaken like a giant’s dice box. The transmission screams. The wheels thunder. You’ve hit what’s known as the wash boarding effect.
There are many views as to how to deal with the ridges caused by constant tyre pressure on loose grit or earth. Some, (they’re typically not owner-drivers), claim that attack is the best form of defence. Adopting a Kamikaze-styled charge, they drive headlong at the ridges, hoping to achieve a hovercraft effect. Hope, however, rarely triumphs over wash boarding. Maddened beyond endurance, they’ll find that their heads are jiggled virtually off their spines… and their wheels off their axles. Other drivers, more caring of their bearings, might slow to a compliant crawl. To no effect. Scientific research has revealed that the only way to win over wash boarding is to drive at less than three miles per hour. Thankfully, wash boarding comes in waves. One minute you’re being shaken to hell and back: the next you’re spinning along as if on wings.

It’s not the only thing to come in waves. The elephants do too. »

It’s estimated that there are around 15,000 elephants in Tsavo East National Park, perhaps one third of all the elephants in Kenya. Liberally coated in thick red dust, they wash across the landscape in rust-red waves. First comes a great bull; he’s wandering alone.
Then a matriarchal herd; they’re gathered in the shade of an acacia tree. Thereafter the great red shapes roll across the landscape in tidal waves. Behind every bush, or so it seems, is an elephant. Around every bend, a herd of mothers, sisters, aunts and cousins with babies frolicking in their wake. Finally, even the road signs, massive piles of red rock white-painted with directions, look like elephants. Indeed many of them ARE elephants. Within an hour’s drive of the gates, we’ve seen at least three hundred elephants. It’s a jumbo tsunami.

We’re impressed. The elephants are not. Some gaze at us with mild curiosity as we judder past, bouncing down the road like a kicked tin can. Others raise their great heads and seem to flap their ears in despair at the madness of mankind. One, a young bull, startled out of his peaceful lunchtime bark stripping, makes a mock charge at our vehicle. It’s a feint. He runs a few feet, raises his trunk, tosses his head, then dashes back beneath the sheltering skirts of the female herd.

Then, as suddenly as it came, the wave passes. And the elephants disappear as ethereally as they arrived. There’s only one problem: we’re all so used to discerning elephant shapes amid the wilderness that we can’t stop. Now we’re hallucinating elephants. They’re everywhere. Every anthill is moving, every bush has ears, every tree-trunk is waving. Great, red, hunched shapes rear and lumber wherever we look. And they’re all delusional.

There’s only one cure for elephant-conjuring and that’s the radical readjustment of your safari vision. Instead of looking for BIG, you must look for small. Luckily, Tsavo excels in miniature marvels. Pairs of dik-dik, the smallest of the antelopes, freeze like fairy tale fawns as we pass. Patient dung-beetles roll their balls of elephant dung through the red dust until the balls, no more than a couple of inches in diameter, appear like so many cocoa-coated truffles. Moving gradually up the size-scale, a kori bustard, the largest flying bird in Africa, strides his stately way through the grass. Hornbills swoop from tree to tree, brilliant green and yellow bee-eaters dive for insects. Ground squirrels, the size of a computer mouse, fly through the air with their feathered tails streaming. A leopard tortoise lumbers his lonely way through the dust, a giant monitor lizard waddles down the centre of the road his tail switching to and fro like a dwarf dinosaur.

But we’ve taken our eyes off the BIG ball. Rounding a bend, we’re confronted by a huge herd of elephants. They’re streaming through the bush, threading their way like so many monstrous dust-red bobbins. This is a mega-herd some several hundred strong; and in a few minutes they’ll be crossing the road in front of us. We brake fast. Though typically peaceable, elephants are more than capable of charging a car. And when it comes to confrontation, elephants always win.

We wait patiently until the great beasts, so elegant in their rolling gait, have crossed the road and headed off, trunk to tail, to the waterhole in the distance. Here they wallow and squirt, siphon and spray before coating themselves in the thick mud that serves as elephant sunscreen and body lotion alike. Eventually they move off, disappearing one by one into the khaki camouflage of the bush.

We start the engine and move off.

The wash boarding, absent for hours, returns with a vengeance. The road ahead is riddled with killer ridges and we’re sucked into a maelstrom of juddering so violent as to make every vertebrae vibrate in its socket.

It’s known as the African massage.

Welcome to Laikipia

2018-11-29T06:04:53+00:00

Noah’s Ark and Promised Land

Pristine wilderness, wildlife guardian, dynamic destination, eco-champion and catalyst for fusion between local community and global tourism

Lying in the embrace of Mount Kenya, the Aberdare Range and the Great Rift Valley, the magnificent Laikipia plateau is an almost mythical land of rolling plains, lilac-grey hills, infinite views, plummeting escarpments and classic African savannah. Once exclusively ranching country, Laikipia has evolved to become Kenya’s most innovative tourist destination. A contemporary Noah’s ark, Laikipia shelters some 7,000 elephants, significant numbers of big cats, half of Kenya’s black rhino population and the largest population left on earth of the endangered reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra.

Achingly beautiful, largely unexplored, enchantingly varied, Laikipia is unique. There are no national parks here, just wilderness conservancies that showcase a unique fusion of commerce and conservation, community and culture. Trail blazer and explorer, Laikipia reveals a whole new aspect to Kenyan tourism. Here tourism is inclusive of the needs of the local community; it enshrines age-old culture, celebrates precious heritage and capitalizes on the generosity of its acres, the density of its wildlife and the careful management of its visitor numbers to provide an unprecedented intimacy of game-viewing experience and warmth of human welcome.

Here sustainable land management works for the good of people and wildlife alike. Here, the adoption of the latest concepts in recycling, organic gardening and the use of natural materials and age-old local craftsmanship has created a blue-print for pan-African eco-tourism. Here there are no rules: you can ride, drive and walk the wilderness unfettered; and engage with an utterly authentic ethnic tapestry that is replicated nowhere else on earth.

We are delighted to credit our superbly orchestrated visit to Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp, Karisia Walking Safaris and El Karama Lodge to the team at Cheli & Peacock Safaris. For further information on their bespoke tours please contact: www.chelipeacock.com

Mud Slinging

2018-11-29T06:00:31+00:00

We’re in Samburu land. Dusk is falling. The elephant herds are on the move. They’re heading for the river. A man strides across the landscape. He’s clad in the traditional Samburu costume, red and yellow, lots of beaded bandoliers. His hair is ochre-red and intricately plaited. He’s a long way away from the elephants; hardly seems to notice their presence. He stoops to pick up a handful of dust and throws it in their general direction. The elephants continue tranquilly on their way.

It’s as a simple cameo, and yet an ancient rite of passage has just been enacted.

According to tradition, if a man from the Samburu ‘elephant clan’ meets an elephant whilst walking in the bush he must throw dust in its direction. The mud poses a question: ‘Is it safe for me to pass?’ Only when the elephant responds by throwing dust in the general direction of the man is the question answered: he may pass without fear.

The ritual dates back to a time when the Samburu believe man and elephant lived side by side in the village. At this time, the elephants had a great affinity with the women and helped them with their household chores. It was a happy relationship until one day a bad-tempered woman accused an elephant of not collecting enough firewood for her hut. Enraged, all the elephants marched out of the village. As they left, they issued a warning, ‘be careful when passing an elephant in the bush,’ they said. ‘Be careful when passing a person in the bush,’ responded the villagers. And so began the age of conflict between man and elephant.

It’s been a long and bitter conflict. Many elephants have been killed: many humans too. And in times of drought it becomes particularly fierce.
This is the time when both man and elephant must dig wells in the sandy floor of the Ewaso Ng’iro River: the time when nomadic herders and elephants must share the land. And yet… though conflicts do occur, observers say they don’t happen as frequently as they might. Elephant-human relations, it seems, are different in the lands of the Samburu. Why? ‘The elephant are our ancient relatives, we must respect their rites’, they say.

Intrigued, researchers from the organization, Save the Elephants, orchestrated a series of community meetings. Everyone was invited: warriors, youth, elders and women, and they were invited to simply sit down and talk about elephants. The results were astounding. There was a generally held belief that man and elephants can live side by side and help each other. People spoke of how elephants create paths to the water that humans can use. How elephants dig dams in the river that humans can share. They told of how the elephants break branches that the women can use for firewood. So… it seemed that the links to the ancient legend were already resonating. And they were about to resonate even more strongly. »

Ballet of the wild

2018-08-31T07:18:59+00:00

It’s the classic image: the Masai Mara at dawn.
Poised in anticipation but empty of wildlife. Faintly veiled in a gossamer of silver mist. In the foreground is a wash of bone-beige savannah. On the horizon is a scribble of trees. Centre-stage is a single flat-topped acacia tree stuck like a parasol into the wilderness beach. The sky retains the last pink streaks of dawn; the clouds their last delicate filigree of gold. All is silent and still.

And then the dance begins.

From stage-left floats a vast parchment-coloured globe. Like a giant light bulb it flickers ON and OFF with lightening filaments of red-hot flame. And, as it drifts serenely over the acacia, there’s a sudden WHOOSH. The burners are belching hot air into the belly of the balloon. Down it swoops, almost touching the trees lining the river. Briefly, a barrage of camera flashes flare, and then the balloon and its cargo of photographers is gone. In its wake drifts another balloon. And then another: and another… until the entire sky is filled with floating candle-yellow orbs. This is the dawn parade of hot-air balloons, their square baskets filled with sleepy-eyed people who’ve tumbled from their beds at first-light to experience this, the most mesmeric of safaris. From their silent vantage point they’ll look down on the drama of the chase and kill; the skirmish of the plains game, the black tide of the wildebeest and the stately march of the elephants. Later, as the morning winds subside, they’ll drift down to a bump, bump, BUMP landing on the plains. And a champagne breakfast will be served. Here in camp, however, we’ve already breakfasted. Now we’re off for the morning game-drive. And our own ballet of the wild is about to begin.

It’s the time of rain in the Mara and the grass is waist-high. So all is concealed. A herd of buffalo floats across the waving swathes, seemingly leg-less. A flurry of antelopes leap briefly out of it, temporarily suspended like horses on a merry-go-round, and then disappears. A pair of antlers rears: eerily disembodied. The great grey-gleaming mass of a hippo looms briefly into view. He is blundering his way back to the river.

Perched high on a termite mound a plum-coloured topi, his rumps denim blue, keeps watch for danger. He’s the savannah dwellers’ early-warning system. If trouble arrives, creeping unseen through the golden sheaves of grass, it will be he who sounds the alarm. Zick zick.

A herd of zebra is passing through the grass now, their haunches engulfed, only their heads visible. They’re nervous; and with good reason. Behind them there’s a momentary prick of ears.
They’re round and golden. Lion.

Our vehicle pulls up and we survey the scene. ‘There she is,’ says the guide and points away into the distance. Binoculars are raised. ‘She’ is a magnificent lioness and she’s padding swiftly through the grass – now visible – now concealed. ‘She’s calling,’ the guide says, ‘can you hear her?’

We can’t. But we take his word for it. It doesn’t occur to any of us to question who or what she’s calling to. As breathless visitors to the theatre of the wild, we’re timorous; and the driver-guide is king.
The lioness is moving swiftly towards us now, prescribing a vast arc across the plain. Towards her gallop the zebra. It’s a trap. Behind the zebras the ears are moving swiftly now. And there are lots of them. Suddenly the lioness emerges from the long grass and crosses the track in front of us. She’s on a mission: and even we can hear her calling now. It’s a dry hacking grunt of a call. ‘She’s telling them which way to go,’ says the guide. Who? We wonder.

Now the ballet whirls into life and all the dancers are on stage. The herd of zebra, now well and truly ‘spooked’ plunges out of the wings and careers across the track in front of us.

Behind them comes a lion cub.
And then another.
And another.
But they’re too late. The zebras hurtle down the track, hooves flailing. They’re not going to risk the treachery of the long grass again. »
As we watch, they blend into an amorphous mass of stripes that grows gradually smaller and eventually disappears around a bend.

In the middle of the track, his long tail waving, the first lion cub watches his would-be kill disappear.
Mmmm. Bungled.
Better luck next time.

Disconsolate, he turns back to his fellows. But they’re already running away. At the foot of a leaning acacia tree, the lioness is sprawled. And she’s still calling. One by one, sixteen golden spotted cubs break cover and leap upon her in play. Their black-tipped tails whirl and interlock into patterns. ‘There are two lionesses,’ says our guide, ‘they take turns in teaching their cubs how to hunt.’ ‘And what about the male lions?’ we ask, round-eyed, ‘where are they?’ ‘Around,’ says the guide, ‘near by.’
Unwittingly we all look over our shoulders.
Near by?
How near?
When we look back, the grass has swallowed up the lions as if they were never there. But we know better. We know what’s waiting in the wings.

Back in camp the ballooners return triumphant. ‘We saw two lions,’ they say. ‘We saw seventeen,’ we say.

But they don’t believe us.

Wilderness Calling

2018-08-31T07:19:38+00:00

Humans, when released into the wild, behave much like any other previously caged creature: initially over-awed, they soon shed their timidity in the wild rush of excitement, exploration and discovery. They dash about gasping, wide-eyed and marvelling. Then comes a moment of mystic realisation: which is that the wilderness is our birthright, where we came from: where we belong. As with most realisations, however, it’s fleeting. All too soon the siren-call of the wild is drowned in the carping of the wallet and the cacophony of social media.

And back we tumble into the cage of reality.

Since our encounter with the primordial plains is so brief, however, it makes sense to select our escape venue with care. In Kenya, this poses a problem, because the choice of escapes is almost as overwhelming as the experience they promise.

Kenya hosts over 60 national parks and reserves. Many are world-famous, such as the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Reserves. Others are UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Mount Kenya, Lake Turkana and the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Others are so far-flung, vast and unexplored that they are visited by no more than a handful of determined intrepids every year. And then, to further complicate matters, there’s the rapidly growing band of community-owned conservancies to choose from. And they shelter a startling 65% of Kenya’s wildlife.

Which to choose? Here follows just a few of the considerations.

Hunting for the big beasts

If it’s the big beasts you’re after: head to the Masai Mara: it’s world-famous with good reason. Here you can see a lion-kill in the morning, be ring-fenced by elephants in the afternoon, catch carousing rhinos over tea and spot a leopard at play with her cubs at dusk. You can also, if you time it right, catch the quite extraordinary spectacle of millions of wildebeest careering madly across the plains to plunge headlong into the crocodile snapping waters of the Mara River. Scenes don’t get much wilder, or more popular, than this.

Treading the road less-travelled

For those who like their wilderness raw, vehicle-free and human-unencumbered, the conservancies win hands down. Occupying land once owned by the Maasai or the last of the colonial landowners, these are virgin lands, pristine and largely undiscovered. They also promise unrivalled intimacy of game viewing, a uniqueness of accommodation and an infinitely more sustainable model for the preservation of community and heritage alike.

Which conservancy?

Top choices include those of Laikipia, the vast tract of land that lies below Mount Kenya; or those that border the Masai Mara National Reserve. The more unsociable escapists will also enjoy Kenya’s national lone giants: Marsabit with its montane lakes and great herds of elephants, Mount Elgon with its salt-mining elephant caves or Sibiloi with its three-million-year-old, Koobi Fora paleontological site.

Lured by the lens

If ‘photo-ops’ tempt there are a number of ‘must shoots’. Latter-day elephant hunters should head for Amboseli National Park where great droves of elephants pose obligingly against Mount Kilimanjaro. Scenery buffs should consider heading north to the ethereal landscapes and elusive creatures of the Samburu. They might also dive into the rolling volcanic reaches of Tsavos East and West, which combined remain one of the largest national parks in the world. Those with a penchant for drama, meanwhile, should seek out Lakes Bogoria and Nakuru where the blue-green waters are often sugar-pink encrusted with millions of flamingoes.

Boots (or bikes) on the ground

For ultimate wilderness engagement, boots have to hit ground. Only two national parks allow unescorted walking: Saiwa Swamp, last bastion of the sitatunga aquatic antelope, and the aptly named Hells Gate, land of whirling canyons, towering cliffs and spouting geysers. If walking seems tame, the vast breadth of conservancies offers hiking, trekking, rock-climbing, riding and more. And for the truly intrepid there’s always the high-octane haul up to the glaciers and ice spires of Kenya’s highest mountain, Mount Kenya.

Blue planet

Finally, in the wake of the 2001 BBC block-buster documentary, The Blue Planet, which prompted the world to fall in love with the underwater wilderness, Kenya offers a lustrous selection of marine parks. Some lie just off the famous beaches of Watamu, Diani and Mombasa; others, such as the Kiunga National Reserve, enclose the lyrical archipelago of Lamu. All promise dolphins, whales, turtles, rainbow curtains of fish and shimmering coral gardens: some even echo with the ultimate siren call of all – that of the dugong, the mythical mermaid of old.