Safari, so good
Brian Jackman walks along the oldest roads in Africa and meets buffalo, rhinos, lions and a gathering of 40,000 sandgrouse along the way
'Watch out for Russell and Bromley," says Alex Hunter, the owner of Ol Pejeta Bush Camp. "Russell is usually okay, but Bromley has a mean glint in his eye."
It turns out that Russell and Bromley are a couple of grumpy old buffalo bulls who have taken up residence around the camp, but all I ever see of them are their footprints outside my tent.
Alex is the grandson of JA Hunter, a big-game hunter who arrived in East Africa in 1908 as a 21-year-old greenhorn with no worldly goods except his rifle.
He was a crack shot, a skill passed on to Alex's father and one that Alex himself has inherited, although he was never bitten by the hunting bug.
"I did some game-control work," he says, "shot one or two bad lions and was also very nearly nailed by a bull buffalo, which has left me with a profound respect for those dangerous old boys."
Instead, in 2004 he set up his own safari company, Insiders Africa, operating first in the Masai Mara and now in the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy on the Laikipia Plateau.
Besides providing a refuge for buffalo, Ol Pejeta boasts the largest sanctuary for the black rhino in East Africa.
Home to about 80 of these cantankerous beasts, it covers 350sqm of plains and woodlands straddling the Equator and is the closest place to Nairobi where one can see all the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard).
Ol Pejeta – the Place of Burning – is where Samburu pastoralists used to burn the grass to rid the plains of ticks. Back in the 1980s it was a millionaire's hideout, the home of the Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
Now, set against a distant backdrop of Mount Kenya, it is the last stronghold of the northern white rhino, the most endangered mammal on the planet.
Northern white rhinos have been wiped out by poachers in the wild; there are now only seven left, of which four are kept here.
More docile than their cranky black rhino cousins, they graze contentedly in their heavily protected 800-acre reserve, offering visitors a last chance to see these modern-day dinosaurs before they vanish forever.
In the afternoon, having given Russell and Bromley the slip, I set out with Alex on one of his 'birds and turds' walks, stopping from time to time to inspect fresh rhino middens and watch spoonbills feeding in a marsh.
Next morning, it is time to move on. A cold wind is blowing as we leave camp, but as the sky clears and the sun breaks through we come upon a cheetah and her five small cubs, romping through the grass with tails aloft like meerkats.
First stop is Nanyuki, an upcountry town slap-bang on the Equator, to pick up supplies. Then we drive north on the new blacktop highway built by the Chinese, through Isiolo and its sprawling Somali suburb, known to Kenya's expats as Little Mogadishu.
Beyond Archer's Post looms the flat-topped massif of Ololokwe, its soaring cliffs spattered with vulture droppings, and on the opposite side of the road stand the twin rock steeples called the Cat and Mouse, marking the gateway to the NFD, the lawless Northern Frontier District that extends all the way to Ethiopia.
Here until recently came the shifta (rebels), wild men armed with AK-47s hell-bent on poaching. Over the years they finished off the rhinos and decimated the elephant herds before the area was made secure.
An hour later we leave the tarmac and go bumping down a red murram track into a fathomless wilderness of commiphora scrub.
"Welcome to Sera," says Alex, who has been given exclusive rights to operate walking safaris in this roughest, toughest and most remote of all the wildlife conservancies established by the Northern Rangelands Trust.
At last we reach the sand river of Kauro Lugga. In 2006, the BBC's 'Mission Africa' team built two bandas (guesthouses) here in the deep shade of a doum palm grove, and this is to be my home for the next four days. My banda stands open to the elements with bare stone floors under a high thatched roof, but if this is roughing it in the bush then bring it on!
It comes with all essential creature comforts: a huge bed with pristine white sheets and mosquito nets, an en suite flush loo and open-air bathroom for showers under the stars.
All this plus magnificent feasts of steaks, curries, pasta and salads accompanied by excellent South African wines.
Every morning begins the same. With the first pale glow of dawn there comes a powerful dynamo hum of wild bees in the palms above the roof. Then, after a quick coffee beside the embers of last night's campfire, we are off on foot while the air is cool.
Sera, I discover, is a place where you can drop out of the 21st century and hide in 300,000 acres of nothing but thorn trees, lizards and echoing silence broken only by the insane clucking of yellow-billed hornbills.
The landscape is mostly low-lying, rising in places to form lava ridges known as merti, veined with luggas (seasonal rivers) and scattered with red rocky kopjes (little hills) in which leopards have their lairs.
In every direction rise gaunt blue shapes of faraway mountains, like icebergs adrift in a sea of thorns. One by one I learn the names of these enigmatic tombstones: Longtopi, Ol Kanjau, Ol Doinyo Lenkiyo and Warges, the highest peak in the Mathews Range. They are the signposts we steer by.
Laetato, a Laikipiak Ndorobo with beanpole legs and pierced earlobes, leads the way. Then comes Hunter, cradling his rifle, then me. "I never walk without my rifle," he says. "It's when you haven't got it that you're going to need it most."
The paths we follow are elephant trails – the oldest roads in Africa – flushing coveys of quails as we cross blond meadows of crowsfoot grass.
Sightings of animals are few, mostly dik-dik, an antelope no bigger than a rabbit, and gerenuk, another dry-country antelope with a long, thin neck and big brown eyes.
But tracks in the sand tell a different story. Here we see where lions and leopards have been prowling during the night, their pugmarks mingled with fresh signs of giraffe and the dustbin-lid footprints of elephants.
By mid-morning it is too hot to walk. The horizon dissolves in a heat-hazy dazzle of fierce wind and equatorial sunlight, painting the land in the parched desert colours of the wild north – ochre, terracotta and burning bronze – and we return to camp to shower and relax until the golden hour before sundown when all time is distilled into one pure moment of euphoric beauty.
On my second morning I walk down the Lenkoli Lugga – "the first visitor to do so", Alex tells me – past tumbledown piles of granite boulders and rushy pools that echo to the rattle of frogs.
Elsewhere are deep pits where elephants have tusked in the sand for water. Their dung is everywhere among the mingled hoof prints of kudu antelopes and Grevy's zebras.
In these harsh semi-deserts water is the key to life, and the most precious oasis for miles around is a place called Kisima Hamsini. Its Swahili name means Fifty Wells and here the local pastoralists have dug deep holes through the calcrete surface rock to reach the natural reservoir beneath.
When the dry season peaks, Samburu, Rendille and Boran tribesmen coexist here in an uneasy equilibrium with the wildlife. By day the herdsmen bring their cows to water, but the nights belong to the elephants.
For as long as anyone can remember, Kisima Hamsini has also been home to one of the great, unsung spectacles of the avian world, when upwards of 40,000 sandgrouse fly in from the surrounding deserts to drink.
Alex is keen to show me this miraculous gathering, which happens every morning during the long dry season.
So off I go to spend the night fly-camping in what Hunter calls his "meat safe" – a flimsy rectangle of mosquito net with a sewn-in groundsheet and enough room inside for a bed and a few personal belongings.
The first thing we see on arrival is a large male lion that bursts out of a thicket and trots off down the lugga, leaving me thinking that perhaps I am to be the meat in the safe.
I turn in early and lie on my back looking up at the stars that shine overhead with unbelievable brilliance in the pure desert air.
But the night passes uneventfully and, in the morning, I wake early and climb the granite whaleback in whose shelter I have slept, to see Sera's mysterious Gong Rock, a boulder pitted with cup-shaped depressions.
When struck with a rock it bongs like a bell and may be one of the world's oldest instruments.
An hour after sunrise, the first sandgrouse appear. Most are black-faced sandgrouse with strange, guttural cries, like someone muttering, "Six o'clock, six o'clock".
Soon their numbers swell as they hurtle in from all directions, a thousand a minute, pouring overhead like an arrow storm.
Imagine an airborne version of the Serengeti wildebeest migration and you get some idea of what it is like, complete with attendant predators – not lions and hyenas but goshawks, peregrines and scavenging ravens.
Each bird remains for no more than seven seconds, in which time the males, their breast feathers more absorbent than a sponge, soak up the water and fly back with it to their thirsty chicks in the desert.
Forty-five minutes later, the show is over. The wells are silent and the birds won't drink again until the same time tomorrow.