Niamh Horan in Kenya: 'The single greatest mental detox I've ever had'
The circle of life
Niamh Horan dreaded leaving her busy life and connectivity behind, but says Kenya "made me want to stay".
Africa is known for its life-changing powers.
Writers have long spoken of its intoxicating influence over their emotional and mental state. AA Gill is drawn back every year because, he says, it is like looking at the world "with its lid off". Ernest Hemingway, of course, wrote some of his most iconic work after visiting its open plains.
And Karen Blixen, the most influential person to alert the world to the beauty of Kenya, spoke of its ability to transport you from "a rushed and noisy world, into a still country".
So lovely was the contemplation of it in itself, she said, it would be enough to make you happy all your life.
And there I was sitting on the edge of my bed, three hours before the flight, thinking of calling the organisers to say I couldn't go.
I didn't want stillness. Or to be cut off from the world, for that matter. My idea of peace and tranquillity can be compressed into an hour-long massage with Enya on surround sound.
I come from a different generation where smartphones are the security blanket of distraction. Rolling news, irrelevant updates, social media feeds are the natural backdrop of white noise to life.
If there were two things I had come to realise looking into a half-packed suitcase that morning was that I need to keep busy and I don't like time to think.
Commitment made me go. What I found in Kenya made me want to stay.
Think of it as the ultimate in mindfulness.
You're in the middle of an open plain. Thousands upon thousands of miles of wild open landscape. Your view is infinite, everything still. And then suddenly, it's not. You don't know what will happen from one moment to the next. Your guard is always up. Your mind, always in the moment.
For some insanely naive reason I thought we would sleep away from the wildlife. They would be in another part of conservancy, as I was safely tucked in my bed.
But as Jake Grieves-Cook says - that's not the real way to experience safari.
And he should know.
If Africa is on the map, you have two people to thank for it: David Attenborough and Jake. You may have never heard of him, but Jake has been personally involved in wildlife conservation projects with Maasai communities at Amboseli and the Mara for over 40 years. And he knows the only way to really experience the beauty of Kenya is to get into the thick of it.
He greets me at the airstrip before making our way to his Porini Mara Camp, the only safari camp set in Ol Kinyei Conservancy - an exclusive 18,700 acre wilderness set aside as a wildlife sanctuary.
Whereas in the big reserves, you are not allowed cut across the grass and can find yourself in a huddle with dozens of jeeps, with American tourists hanging out the windows playing 'my lens is bigger than yours' games, Jake's exclusive setting provides the ultimate in adventure in an unspoilt area, away from the maddening crowds.
Dressed in a leather waistcoat, khaki pants and safari hat, Jake is Africa's answer to crocodile Dundee.
And he chuckles when I ask if the lions and their friends will be kept away in a separate part of his land at night.
Hours later I'm wide awake in bed listening to a hippopotamus munch on the grass outside my tent. A Maasai warrior had walked me there armed with a bow and arrow and I was given strict instructions not to step outside unaccompanied during the night. The strange but now distinctive sound of a lion on the hunt could be heard in the nearby distance.
In the cocooned West we are brought up to believe the king of the jungle's roar is like what we see at the start of MGM Hollywood movies. But it's more of a deep breathy grunt.
In the daylight at Jake's other site, the Porini Lion Camp, we saw the beasts in all their glory - breaking into a sprint beside our jeep to chase hyenas off their wildebeest kill; among a pride ripping the flesh from the bones of a baby zebra. On another outing, a tiny lion cub, no more than two months old, dead with one bite. The mother had fought in vain to protect it but once a male lion comes across a new pride, he wants the old cubs gone, to start his own lineage.
The ruthlessness and beauty of the circle of life plays out here side by side.
At the Amboseli National Park (where we stayed at the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge), it hadn't rained in two weeks. And I don't think I have ever set eyes on a happier creature than a mother elephant as she lapped the marshy water up with her trunk, her new born baby trying to latch onto her tail behind her as they made their way through the swamp.
The poor little thing kept falling face down in the mud as he tried to keep apace. Every time his trunk reached out to grab the end of her tail, he missed it by a hair's breadth and ended up spluttering in the dirt before bounding forward to try again.
She was teaching it how to survive.
We could learn a lot from the wildlife here. In fact their behaviour isn't too different to ours. Sex, food and survival are their main concerns. The animals at the top of the chain are cool as a breeze; their movements slow and sure. Like the beautiful cheetah slinking through the trees. Those at the bottom, tails wagging wildly, always moving, always nervous. They put you on edge, no comfort to be around. Always scared of what's coming next.
As we headed out at dawn each morning, the sense of relief in the air was palpable. Another sunrise, another day, they were simply glad to be alive.
As I say, we could learn a lot.
During our time here the Maasai tribe took good care of us and provided fascinating insights into how they live. These guys in the middle of nowhere don't know about the pressures of materialism. Body image is a foreign concept. Getting the local girl all comes down to how high they can jump.
If only the dating game was so simple back home. I ask them what they know of Ireland. Bono? Never heard of him. Bob Geldof? Not a clue. Roy Keane? And the place erupts. In these parts, the man is a legend.
They have honed their vision and listening skills to be as in tune as the animals. They can see the slightest movement 2km away and hear a stir in the bushes with the sharpness of an owl.
Accompanied by the tribe, we enjoy picnics during the day overlooking rivers full of hippos, while crocodiles sunbathe on the banks. Nights are finished off sipping gin and tonics on the open plains under an atomic yellow and red sky that slowly turned to a million twinkly stars. Forks of lightning struck the horizon as we listened to the call of the wild.
This, you can't capture in a photograph.
You just have to stand still and take it all in and be glad you were blessed enough to have the opportunity and are smart enough to opt for a safari over the packed beaches of Europe or the monotony of the typical tourist getaway.
This is the stuff that bucket lists are made of.
As for my phone and the internet and fears of too much thinking time? Try as I might, my mind was too spaced out.
I don't know if it was the thousands of miles of distance, or if it was simply trundling along with our heads sticking out of the roof of a safari jeep in the fresh open air or if it was even thanks to getting back to nature, but Africa was the single greatest mental detox I've ever had.
I've come home walking on air and the calmness has stayed with me. It put the sheer scale of the world and my little worries in perspective. It made me realise how fleeting life is. How you are only guaranteed the moment you are in.
And how all this stuff that has been thrust upon us since our development in the Western world - the possessions, the traffic jams on the M50 and the madness approaching Christmas, has all brought us a million miles from who we are, and what we started out as.
It's no wonder then on the flight home a man seated beside me asked when I'll be back - as if it was the most natural question in the world.
Gamewatchers Safaris (gamewatchers.com) offers an 11 nights/12 days safari and beach package with the first night at Nairobi Tented Camp, two nights at Porini Mara Camp, two nights at Porini Lion Camp (porini.com), two nights at Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge (serenahotels.com) and four nights at Msambweni Beach House (msambweni-beach-house.com) from £3,050/€4,220pp in 2016 on a full-board basis, based on two sharing.
Price includes domestic flights on Safarilink (flysafarilink.com) Nairobi-Mara-Amboseli-Diani-Nairobi, safari activities, park/conservation fees, all airport transfers, meals and non-premium alcoholic drinks and taxes.
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) operates daily flights from Terminal 4 London Heathrow to Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International airport from £722.45/€999 including taxes.
For more on, see the Kenya Tourism Board's website on magicalkenya.com.
This is my single hottest tip for a Kenyian safari: Jake Grieves-Cook's two conservation camps are an absolute must. Five-star luxury in tents, bathrooms and dining while in the midst of the action. Honeymooners take note. A group of Maasai warriors, dressed in full red and bejewelled traditional attire are on hand to make the experience all the more special. The friendliest people I've ever met. Ask for their traditional dance as a treat.
Msambweni Beach House
My second hottest tip is the Msambweni Beach House. Three days of safari is just enough, and rest and recuperation afterwards is a must before your homeward flight. These luxury private beach villas do just the trick. Have drinks around a roaring fire on the beach, dinner under the stars, handmade wood-fired pizzas from the oven by the pool, and wake up to monkeys playing on your roof. The ocean views will stay with me forever.
The only place in Kenya you can see Sable Antelope. You can also take forest walks up to the beautiful Sheldrick Falls. Known for its herds of elephants, the Shimba Hills and the Mwaluganje Forest Reserve is worth a visit for the sheer beauty of the landscape alone. A picnic overlooking the forest as warm African rain fell down on the green valley below naturally resulted in an impromptu dance and rendition of Toto's famous anthem.