Special Interest

/Special Interest

The Lord of the Dance

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

If you’d come expecting to see a traditional Maasai dance performance you’d have been disappointed. Instead of the rhythmic chanting that typifies a Maasai dance, there’s a man in a cowboy hat playing an accordion: another holds a metal ring that he plays not unlike an orchestral triangle. It could be an American barn dance. And, instead of the gravity-defying jumps of the Maasai warriors, these dancers are paired into couples and follow a stately progression around the floor holding each other studiously at arm’s length. If you didn’t know better you might be tempted to say that they’re dancing a parody of a waltz. And you wouldn’t be far wrong because this performance at the Kenyan Cultural Centre known as The Bomas of Kenya is an authentic rendition of the Mwomboko dance of the Kikuyu people. And it’s actually a tongue-in-cheek copy of the fox trot, which shot to fame in America in 1910 and was danced to rag time music.

Surreal, elegant and quaintly romantic, the Mwomboko was born in the 1930s to 1940s era of colonial East Africa. Some say it was the result of the Kikuyu people having watched the British colonials dancing the waltz at their evening parties, many of which were rather colourfully decadent. Others say that the Kenyan foot soldiers of the First World War, the Carrier Corps and the Kings African Rifles, copied the dance from the waltzes, Scottish dances and fox trots that they watched their then colonial masters dance during the war.

Whatever its origins, the Mwomboko became an instant hit amongst the Kikuyu and remains one of their most popular dances to this day. Some say it owes its popularity to the fact that the couples are required to embrace each other as they dance, which is unusual in traditional Kenyan dance, and this makes it very popular with the young. Others say it’s the dance of choice at all community events because the older generation prefers the grave propriety of its perambulations (and the genteelly flirtatious nature of its ankle twirlings) to more modern forms of dance. But there’s a darker side to the history of Mwomboko, whose name evolved from the Kikuyu word for ‘eruption’. It seems that the Kikuyu were in the habit of weaving certain gestures into their traditional dances, such as the Murithingu dance, that spread anti-colonial messages of rebellion and insurrection. So, with sweeping finality, the British banned all such dances. It didn’t work.

In retaliation, the Kikuyu came up with the Mwomboko, which the British found hard to disapprove of. It was, after all, a seemingly innocent copy of their very own dance traditions. What the British didn’t know however was that the Kikuyu were not only using the Mwomboko to continue to pass on messages of rebellion but also to poke fun at the British. It’s a great story and the living embodiment of a fragment of history: it’s also just one of the many fascinating tales that lie behind the fifty or so dances preserved in the living archive of The Bomas of Kenya.

Established as a repository for the preservation of Kenyan tradition, The Bomas preserves not only Kenya’s dance traditions, but also her music, cuisine, cultural artefacts and life styles. But it does so with a dedication to detail that would do credit to the most exacting of museums. Every dance is researched in the region of its birth. Musical instruments are made according to ancient traditions using raw materials that are anthropologically correct and, when such things as colobus skins, kudu horns or monitor lizard hides are required, these are sustainably sourced from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Choreographers study the steps, musicians write down the music, designers replicate the costumes, local singers perform the songs, and very slowly the dance performance is moulded into a thing of ethnic perfection. And even that’s not good enough for the eagle-eyed culture vultures of The Bomas. Because, when they have finally perfected the dance to the best of their ability, a delegation of community elders is invited down to Nairobi to assess the finished performance for precision of footwork, costume, lyrical enunciation and style of playing. And the elders don’t hold back when it comes to correcting anything that is not absolutely true to their fiercely protected ethnic history.

The same attention to detail is brought to bear with the representations of the ethnic villages that dot the extensive grounds of The Bomas of Kenya. Laid out in exact replica of a traditional village complete with grain stores, look-out posts and cattle enclosures, every hut has been hand-made by ethnically correct craftsmen and all the materials, even the mud, is regionally sourced. None of which makes for easy maintenance. A Rendille hut, for instance, is built to withstand immense heat and profound drought, and struggles to remain standing amid the periodic deluges and chill of Nairobi. And then there’s the baboons. Situated immediately adjacent to Nairobi National Park, The Bomas is a potent baboon draw, which is unfortunate because the baboons like nothing better than to methodically un-thatch the huts so carefully thatched by the cultural experts.
Back on the dance floor, beneath the vast vaulted ceiling of the central pavilion, which was itself inspired by the traditional African hut, the Mwomboko has been replaced by a Kisii dance called the Rigesa, which originates from Nyanza. Now the musician plays a traditional obokano or 8-stringed lyre and instead of parodying the British, the dance tells the story of the Kisii migration from Uganda. And, if you watch carefully, you’ll see that representations of all the fearful animals the people met on their perilous journey have been woven into the dance – lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos and more. Even the lyre tells an ancient tale of how the Kisii people lived for a long time alongside the Luo people, the originators of the ancient nyatiti lyre, which echoes far back in time to their own migration down the Nile from Sudan.

Next comes a display of Chuka drumming, which originated amongst the Embu people of Eastern Kenya. The dancers, all male, bare-legged and muscled of arm are clad in provocatively short swaying rope skirts and hold huge cylindrical drums between their legs. The phallic inference is inescapable and history recounts that originally the dance was performed only for unmarried women in order that they might choose a husband. ‘We had to tone it down a bit for some of the performances,’ confides the choreographer in the darkness, ‘especially when we get a school party.’

There’s a 50-strong group of small school children in the audience – they’re rapt. On the front row, a diminutive boy is head-banging with all the conviction of a heavy metal addict. Two other little boys are thrusting their hips back and forth at each other in time with the drumming. It seems that the toning-down has not been entirely successful.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Last Women Standing

2019-07-22T11:16:03+00:00

Catching a glimpse of imminent extinction is not easy. You have to book in advance, absorb the facts offered in a small lecture, climb into a safari vehicle, pass through various gates and fences and be surveyed by a number of armed guards. And, even then, the last northern white rhinos on the planet are not immediately visible.

Then, in the shade of a spreading acacia tree, you can just make out two large pale grey rumps. Mother and daughter, Najin and Fatu, are having an afternoon nap. Fortunately we have come equipped with a rhino keeper and a bucket of horse pellets. The ladies, it seems, are fond of both. The keeper rattles the bucket and, beneath the tree, one huge head lifts; then the second. Our presence has been noted but it takes a little longer for an audience to be granted.

Having eventually succumbed to enticement, both rhinos rise to their feet. It’s a struggle because they’ve made a cool dusty pit for themselves and now plumes of grey dust rise up around them like phantoms. Facing us head-on, the two huge creatures survey the safari vehicle with the rhino equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Their keeper throws an arc of horse pellets on to the sparse savannah grass. An ear, delicate as a large grey tulip, swivels. Then the rhinos amble towards us. There’s a lot of snuffling and munching as the pellets are consumed. But no unseemly rushing or bolting – this is a very dignified encounter.

The ladies are magnificence incarnate. Their sheer bulk is intimidating. Seemingly impenetrable, their grey skin is deeply scored by thousands of thorny encounters; and huge overhangs of flesh protect their joints like flanges on a medieval suit of armour. And the more you look at them, the more you are overcome by their grace and beauty; and the more in awe. As we watch, another rhino, a southern white, comes over to join them. ‘She’s a friend’ says our guide, ‘they like company.’

It wrings the heart to look at the last two members of a species that first evolved 55 million years ago. The rhinoceros has been one of this planet’s most enduring creatures. Arriving in the wake of the dinosaurs, it has endured the Ice Age, numerous bouts of climate change and the need to migrate across entire continents. In the course of its evolution it has sported single horns over a metre long, double horns growing side by side, horns in its lower jaw and an entire wardrobe of woolly coats. Fossil records also reveal that it has survived attack by giant crocodiles and prehistoric hyenas. But all this has meant nothing thanks to the arrival of the new boy on the planet, the 5 million-year-old up-start known as man. And thanks to his attentions a creature that once ranged over Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered extinct in the wild. And only two of its kind remain in captivity.

And we’re looking at them.

It was in 2009 that four of the planet’s last surviving seven northern white rhinos were brought to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy from a zoo in the Czech Republic. It was hoped that back in Africa they might breed. But they didn’t. Soon there were only three northern white rhinos on the planet: Najin, Fatu and their father/grandfather Sudan. Then it was discovered that neither Najin nor Fatu could breed. Frantic efforts were made to find a mate for Sudan.

But it was too late. In 2019, at the age of 45, Sudan breathed his last. And, while hopes exist for the creation of a hybrid by means of assisted reproduction using eggs from Fatu and Najin, the genetically purest form of the northern white rhino is about to bid us goodbye.

At the end of the visit, which lasts little more than half an hour in all, we are driven out of the specially constructed enclosure that protects rhino royalty and on to the rolling savannah. There’s a lone tree and beneath it a series of humps. As we draw closer, we see that they are gravestones. All commemorate rhinos and the inscriptions make hard reading. At the front, larger than the rest, is a stone that reads, SUDAN. After 55 million years, he was the last man standing.

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

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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).

Black Magic

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Creatures don’t come much more magical than the black leopard. Creatures of myth and legend, rumours as to their existence in the Laikipia region of Kenya have swirled down the years for over a century. But actual sightings and photos have been virtually non-existant.

All this changed in January when wildlife photographer, Will Burrard-Lucas, got wind of a number of black leopard sightings around the Laikipia Wilderness Camp. He was instantly entranced. ‘For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful,’ he said in his blog, ‘for many years, they remained the stuff of dreams … nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either.’

Will set off for the Camp immediately and set up his Camtraptions Camera Trap on the path where the leopard had supposedly been seen. The next day he checked his camera – no leopard. And so it continued until the fourth night. Then his luck changed. ‘As I scrolled through the images on the back of the camera,’ he reports, ‘I paused and peered at the photograph in awe…a pair of eyes surrounded by inky darkness… a black leopard!’

‘We had always heard about black leopard living in this region, but the stories were absent of high-quality footage that could confirm their existence,’ said Nicholas Pilford, scientist at San Diego Zoo Global and lead researcher for a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County. ‘This is what Will’s photos and videos on our remote cameras now prove.’

About Image: © Will Burrard-Lucas

This black or melanistic leopard is thought to be (approximately) two years old and male. Close examination of his coat reveals the leopard’s typical markings to still be present, but in this case they are hidden by the excess of black pigment, melanin. The effect is that of the finest printed black silk.

Charge!

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It thunders across the landscape, testy, truculent and typically enveloped in a cloud of dust. The Rhino Charge, like its namesake, puts its foot down first, and asks questions later. You hear it before you see it: a grinding, gear-screaming, metal-wrenching roar. Nothing stops it. Bends are crunched, inclines munched, rivers slurped; and the few kilometres of straight road that do exist are careered down with all the intent of an incensed rhino. Mud, dust-red and crusty, coats the cars, flies off the wheels, sprays the spectators and creates huge gushing chocolate brown tunnels through which the cars barrel like bats into hell. Mud and the Rhino Charge are synonymous, and everyone eats dust. This is a vehicular stampede with serious attitude. It’s hot and heavy and in your face. It’s also a high-octane spectator sport.

The actual route the ‘Charge’ takes is kept secret, for competitors and spectators alike, until the night before the event. But once the word is out people flock to watch the monster roar by. Picnics are packed, beers are cooled and cameras are primed. Goats are herded in the direction of the dust cloud. Patient herds of cattle are parked under trees whilst their guardians seek out the ultimate vantage point. Everybody wants to see the beast bolt by. Fathers hoist their young sons on to their shoulders, youths watch with car-hungry eyes, small boys caper in delight; pretty maidens marvel. Maasai warriors, red-cloaked and wearing sandals made from discarded tyres, lean on their spears and grin.

It’s a spectacle and a half.

But this is much more than a cross-country scramble. It’s a Kenyan icon, one that’s risen from a small-scale gathering to become one of the most daring 4×4 off-road events on the planet. It’s an endurance test for man and machine and a triumph of faith over fear. The navigator, hurled around the cab like a coffee bean in a grinder, must work with accurate orientation to determine the route. The driver, wrestling with the wheel like a cowboy with a steer, must follow his navigator’s instructions with implicit trust. And both must have blind belief in their runners and their primped and pampered darling, the snorting, slithering, beast of a vehicle. More importantly, the Rhino Charge is a conservation crusade in pursuit of a global eco-grail during which the competitors are doing much more than using their skill and judgement to navigate their way around 13 checkpoints in ten hours: they’re also raising money to save some of the planet’s most precious commodities: forests and water.

Life depends on water: water depends on forests. But forests now only cover around 7% of Kenya’s total land area, which is 3% less than that recommended by the United Nations and as provided for by the Kenyan Constitution. In recent years, however, the Kenyan government has worked hard to increase forest cover and by 2022 they hope to have raised it from around 7% to 10%. It’s a big ask and one that is going to put heavy pressure on the national engine. But the course demands it.

Forests are not only the lungs of the planet, but also the guardians of our future. In Kenya, the forests are estimated to harbour around half of the indigenous tree and shrub species, 40% of large mammals, 70% of threatened mammals, 30% of birds and 35% of butterflies. They also produce timber, fruit, medicine, fodder, domestic fuel and a livelihood for many thousands of forest-dependent people while laying down fossil fuels for the future, promoting rainfall, preventing drought, enriching the soil and preventing erosion. On a spiritual level, they nurture the national soul – ethnic groups depend on them for traditional medicines and places of reverence, and city dwellers rely on them for sport and recreation. Finally, in global terms, the planet’s forests help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus the rate of global warming.

And as if all this were not daunting enough, accelerating forest cover is not Kenya’s only conservational challenge; there is also that of lessening the instance of human versus wildlife conflict that inevitably results from the close proximity of wildlife and human habitation. But the Rhino Charge is man enough for this job too. By using the funds it raises to throw a cordon of electric fencing around mountains and forests alike, it has helped ensure that man and the elephant remain apart. And by providing underpasses beneath busy roads, and erecting fenced corridors through communities, it has allowed the elephants to pursue their ancestral migratory corridors. This uniquely far-reaching fencing project has also ensured the protection of Kenya’s precious population of black rhinos while allowing creatures great and small to prosper in all the nation’s key forest ecosystems. Finally, funds from the Rhino Charge have been instrumental in the provision of schools, health centres, community programmes and jobs. All of which promote community harmony and prosperity and create hope for a better tomorrow.

So you could say that the Rhino Charge is the ultimate application of ‘pedal to the metal’ in Kenyan conservation. And a fine illustration of how a little fossil fuel can be burned in the interests of preserving the treasures of today for the planet of tomorrow.

Need to know

WHAT: Kenya’s annual Rhino Charge is an off-road competition during which around fifty 4×4 vehicles are allocated ten hours to ‘charge’ around 13 pre-set guard posts scattered over an approximate 100 km² area of rough terrain. The drivers are supplied only with a starting position, a 1:50,000 scale map, and the co-ordinates of the 13 guard posts. The winner will be the team that visits the most guard posts in the shortest distance, the straight line route being the toughest. So speed is not the be all and end all of the Rhino Charge. Most vehicles have the backing of a dedicated team who help push, winch, scout ahead and clear the bush. This year’s event will take place between May 31 and June 2 and feature 58 vehicles.

WHY: established in 1989, the event aims to raise funds to support the activities of the Rhino Ark Kenya Charitable Trust, a non-government organization committed to the conservation of the rhino population of the Aberdare National Park against the wider backdrop of conserving Kenya’s mountain range ecosystems, protecting her water catchment areas, reducing human versus wildlife conflict and promoting community harmony and prosperity. Since its inception in 1989, the event has raised 15 million US dollars and built the world’s longest stretch of conservation fence. For further information:
www.rhinoark.org

Rock Star

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It’s not easy to reach. But the road to triumph is always tough, especially in the world of Walt Disney where many a frog must be kissed to reveal a prince. In this case, we’re in the wilderness lands of Laikipia, Kenya’s heartland, following a tortuous path through thick khaki-coloured grass. It’s wide enough only to put one foot in front of another; and it winds down into a dry riverbed where we must slither and scramble over outcrops of quartz rock glinting gold in the fading light. From here it’s a steep uphill climb to the great crag of rock that rears up against the darkening sky. We’re at altitude, breath is short and we keep our eyes on the heels of the person in front.

Suddenly, or so it seems, we’ve arrived at the great grey rock. It’s hunched on the landscape like a gigantic frog about to leap. Just one short jump across the mouth of a deep crevice and we’re on its broad, flat surface. A vast apron of rock, it’s scarred by cracks and dimpled by puddles of water. Above us the darkening sky is pinpricked with the first diamond scatter of stars. Below us, the bush rolls away in great waves of gunmetal grey. In the far distance rise the massive shoulders of Mount Kenya, her jagged central turrets silhouetted against the sky. There’s a howling wind blowing up here; and it’s pushing us towards the edge of the rock from which it’s a murderous free fall to the ground below. It’s a very famous edge; and a very famous fall; because this is Pride Rock, the inspiration for the Walt Disney Epic, The Lion King.

This is a rock that’s familiar, in cartoon form at least, to literally millions around the world. It was for this rock that Simba the lion cub fought his battles. From this rock, that his father, King Mufasa, ruled the Pride Lands until he was murdered by his wicked brother, Scar. Atop this rock that was enacted the famous fight scene between Simba and Scar. And from this rock that Scar fell to his death in the jaws of the hyenas below.

It was in 1991 that the Walt Disney production team first came here. In Hells Gate National Park, Kenya’s dramatic geothermal park, they’d found the inspiration for their characters: the Pride lions, Pumbaa the warthog, Rafiki the monkey, Zazu the hornbill and the three wicked hyenas. But it was only here, in Borana, that they finally found the stage upon which their great drama, loosely modeled on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, would be enacted. It was an epic choice: The Lion King was to become the most successful traditionally animated film of all time.

Released in 1994, The Lion King won two Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride came out in 1998. The musical stage-play, The Lion King debuted in 1997 and is now the fifth longest running Broadway show. A photorealistic animated remake of the film will be released on July 19, 2019, which marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the original film.

Today, Pride Rock is famous for quite a different reason: it’s the most popular sundowner spot on the Borana Conservancy, in the heart of Laikipia, northern Kenya. In fact it’s so popular that it has its own Facebook page and must be booked in advance. We’ve been lucky. Tonight Pride Rock is vacant and we have its rocky stage all to ourselves. Now it is time to enact the famous Kenyan sundowner tradition, which dates back to the early days of the colonial era hunting safaris. The canvas bags are unpacked, an impromptu bar is set up. There’s a tray of canapés still warm from the kitchens of Borana Lodge and warm wraps, scarlet Maasai shukas, are handed out as we sit on a ledge to watch the sun go down over the wilderness lands of Laikipia.

Tomorrow, at dawn, others will come to Pride Rock to practice yoga as the great ball of the sun rises in the sky. Later, horse-riders might gather in its shade when their safari ride is over. In the late afternoon, walkers will gather here at the end of their guided walk. And as the curtain falls on another day, others will sit on Simba’s rock to look out over the Pride Lands.

Overhead shines a vast arc of stars. The crescent moon hangs like a bauble on the last vestiges of cloud. It’s time to pick our way back down the darkening path to the safari vehicle. Reluctantly, we turn our back on the Pride Lands. Suddenly there’s an eerie whoop, whoop, WHOOP in the night.
The hyenas are coming.

Star Gazing

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The destiny of mankind is painted in the stars. Or so they say. But this is not news to the people of Loisaba. They’ve known it all along. In this part of the world, the local Samburu warriors have always lain beneath the stars. They use them to divine the nature of the coming seasons. They watch them for omens: some good, some bad. Indeed, should you get into conversation with one of these young men, he’ll probably tell you that, although he watches cable TV most nights, he learns more about current affairs from the stars than he’ll ever glean from CNN. He may also express surprise at the fact that those ‘who live close to the stars, in tall buildings that nearly touch the sky’, have only recently become aware of the phenomenon of global warming. The local Samburu seers predicted it decades ago.

Loisaba, a wilderness conservancy in northern Kenya, is a star-gazers Nirvana. Its name, translated from the Samburu, means ‘the Seven Sisters’. Also known as the Pleiades, this is a particularly brilliant star cluster lying some 440 light-years from earth. But it’s only when you’re lying flat on your back beneath it that you can fully appreciate the fact that the Pleiades is one of the closest star clusters to earth. The local Samburu already know this. But then Samburu mythology claims that their original home was on the so-called ‘Morning Star’ of Venus. So they’re more star-savvy than most.

Samburu warriors, of course, don’t mind lying flat on their backs amid the velvet blackness of a lion-stalked night in order to catch up on the latest star news. Visiting space cadets, however, need beds, supper, chilled wine, and hot and cold running water.

Enter the Elewana Loisaba Star Beds.

Anchored in a sea of acacia bush punctuated by ambling herds of fudge-grey elephants, is a small flotilla of wooden arks. Single-storey platforms constructed from the contorted limbs of elephant-felled wildwood, each has a stair-ladder leading to a partially thatched wooden deck, which houses a cosy living area, shower and WC.

Out-thrust from this tree house is an apron of a deck. This is the stage upon which the star bed performs. A four-poster bed fashioned entirely from wildwood, bolted to a gargantuan chassis, and closely swathed in thick green net curtains, it resembles some ponderous medieval chariot. Pushed by a posse of warriors, it lumbers forth from its lair as the Seven Sisters rise in the sky. And waits for its star-gazers to climb aboard.

First, though, comes supper, which is staged in the quaintly elegant, stone-flagged, reception area, which lies below the star bed platform. Later you may sip your drink by the fire and chat with the star bed’s warriors. Gently diffident, impeccably polite, yet eager to converse, most of them sport a jaunty red and yellow plastic tulip, wired to their traditional Samburu headbands. Should you ask why they wear a tulip on the top of their heads, they will tell you that it should really be a blossom of indigo-blue ‘morning glory’ picked dew-fresh from the bush, and worn in celebration of the glory of the ‘Morning Star’ from which they came. But that plastic flowers are more reliable.

Night falls with conviction in Loisaba. The blackness is profound. The nearest city is hundreds of kilometers away, but the acoustics deliver all the glitter you need. There’s the gurgle of the river, the whoop of the nightjars, the rumbling of the elephants and the distant cough of a lion on the prowl. You climb the stairway to the stars, lamp in hand. The warriors depart softly to their sentry posts; you heave yourself up into a cocoon of netting, pillows, quilts, blankets and hot water bottles. And then you look up. And eternity shines down upon you. The infinite glory of the constellations rains like showers of diamonds around you. And your soul flies out to meet the Seven Sisters.

Where we stayed

The Loisaba Conservancy, 226 sq km of privately-managed wildlife conservancy, lies in the picturesque Laikipia region of Kenya, some 100 kilometres north of Nairobi. A prime example of the successful collaboration between conservation, communities and tourism, this pristine wilderness promises 250 species of birds and 50 species of mammal (including elephant, buffalo, Grevy’s zebra, greater kudu, reticulated giraffe and wild dog).

Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp offers 12 uniquely luxurious tents, two infinity pools and a central social area. Activities include: game drives, night drives, bird walks, horse-riding, camel-trekking, mountain biking, fishing, visits to the renowned anti-poaching sniffer dogs and a range of colourful cultural interactions. And, of course, the chance of a night beneath the stars at the Elewana Loisaba Star Beds. Visit: www.elewanacollection.com

Our trip was organised by Cheli and Peacock Safaris: www.chelipeacock.com