Saturday 25 February 2017

Kenya: Rhino, rest and romance

Kenya is a fantastic place to see wildlife, relax and fall in love ... even just with the country itself, says Anne Marie Scanlon

Anne Marie Scanlon

ONE glance at the night sky over Kenya is enough to make even the most hard-hearted cynic feel romantic. Sitting by the camp fire in Porini Rhino Camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 90,000 acre wildlife reserve, about 100 miles from Nairobi, staring up at the vast velvet-black sky, liberally sprinkled with twinkling stars, I wasn't a bit surprised that Prince William chose this country to (finally) pop the question to Kate.

Kenya is a popular destination for honeymooners and those in search of a romantic break, but even if you don't have someone to share it with, you can still fall in love with the country itself. It is spectacular -- the wide-open sky, the diversity of wildlife, the people, the smells, the sounds -- it is overwhelming, breath-taking and beyond marvellous.

I started my Kenyan odyssey in Nairobi, an approximate eight-hour flight from Heathrow. After an overnight stay at the fabulous Sankara Hotel, I travelled by light aircraft to Nanyuki airstrip (a journey of about one hour) and then by jeep to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the Laikipia District, crossing the equator en route -- which was ridiculously thrilling.

The first stop was Porini Rhino Camp, which consists of six spacious guest tents surrounding a central dining tent and camp fire. I'm not a fan of roughing it, and up until my arrival at the camp I'd never spent the night under canvas. I still haven't really. Our host Paul described the camp as "simple luxury", and it's a description I couldn't better.

Yes, it is a real camp -- if they were to dismantle it and move (as they eventually will) no permanent traces will remain. But this isn't hunkering down in a sleeping bag and hoping for the best; it's being able to sleep in an extremely comfortable bed with an en-suite bathroom.

The camp is not protected by any sort of barrier, and after dark,guests are accompanied by spear-wielding Maasai warriors (equally handy if you encounter a lion or had one too many sundowners).

The Maasai also lead the safaris out into the bush. Our guides were quite inspirational -- imparting their own passion for their land as well as informing us about the indigenous wildlife. The various Porini camps offer a range of jeep safaris, from the early morning (with a picnic breakfast served in the middle of the bush) to an afternoon ride and a night-time trip lit by a spotlight at the front of the truck.

Early morning was definitely my favourite. We spotted a lioness playing with her four cubs, two cheetah brothers who, unusually for the breed, hunt together. The guide would point towards an innocent-looking clump of trees and then like an optical illusion it would come to life, as a herd of elephants would start to emerge.

As the name of the camp suggests, there's no shortage of rhinos wandering around. However, poaching is a big problem, as rhino horn is much sought after on the black market, and the northern white rhino is now a critically endangered species. Ol Pejeta has four -- half of all those known to remain in the world. Because these animals are so rare, they are kept in a special fenced-off area to protect them.

When entering the white rhino sanctuary, the whole atmosphere of the safari changes; the area is patrolled by lots of men with guns and instead of travelling in a comfy jeep with a cooler of drinks, we're standing on the back of an open military-style truck holding on for dear life.

The truck stopped suddenly and there, mere feet in front of us, was a white rhino. When she turned and started to move slowly towards the truck, everybody tried to take a step backwards and a few of us said (in quite panicky, high-pitched voices): "She's coming." What we failed to notice was the bucket of feed the ranger had in his arms. Plus, Najin and the three other white rhino were bred in a Czech Republic zoo and so are well used to humans.

I've never had much time for rhinos, thinking of them as ugly, short-sighted and quite mad. But up close, I changed my opinion. Najin may be unusual looking, but I wouldn't call her ugly. She is also very fond of bananas and it's hard to dislike any creature with a weakness for bananas.

After seeing about one million zebras, giraffes, impalas and warthogs, I headed to the popular coastal town of Lamu for a rest -- and no better place for a bit of downtime than the luxury boutique hotel The Majlis on Manda Island, opposite the pretty seaside town of Shela (which is a must-see for all visitors to the area).

The port town of Lamu has been around for more than 1,000 years and is predominantly Muslim. There are about 25,000 residents, and it looked like every man, woman and child had turned out to celebrate Maulid (Muhammad's birthday). Despite the huge number of people and the warren of tiny streets, I didn't feel uncomfortable. In fact, it was far less stressful than the average Saturday afternoon on Henry Street; everyone from infants in arms to old men on sticks smiled and said, "Jambo," the Swahili word for welcome.

Indeed, in the whole week I spent in Kenya, I never felt anything but very welcome. The staff at both The Majlis and Porini Rhino Camp were very eager to share their wonderful country. My attempts at snorkelling, an activity offered by The Majlis, were a miserable failure, but instead of giving up, the instructor took me by the hand and guided me around the depths, which was well worth the effort. Apart from being very sweet, he was also stunningly handsome and all the girls (and indeed most of the boys) were wildly jealous.

After watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean, we had dinner on the beach. With the infinite inky black African sky glittering with thousands of stars, the sea lapping gently, and wonderfully fresh Swahili food on the table, I knew with certainty that single or settled, it does not get more romantic than this.

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