Animal magic on Kenyan safari
On the list of surreal moments in my life, this one is right up there. It's a Saturday evening in late October and I'm up on a plateau, leaning on a jeep, watching the sun sink over nearby Mount Kenya. Surrounded by a herd of white rhino, I drink Gordon's gin and tonic while I discuss the fate of a recent poacher with Ole, my charismatic Masai warrior guide. "They shot him dead," he tells me coolly.
Accompanied by my animal-adoring teenage daughter Julia, we were on the Halloween holiday of a lifetime to Kenya and Tanzania for safari and surf.
For the first leg of the trip we were guests of the Safari Collection – a portfolio of stylish lodges – owned by fourth generation Kenyans Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley. (Indeed so authentically Kenyan is Mikey that as a child he appeared in films such as King Solomon's Mines and Mogambo which were shot on the family farm.)
Our journey was lengthy – from Killiney through Heathrow to Nairobi and thence to the small Wilson airport where we took a dinky plane ('your wings to the beach and bush') which dropped us on a tiny strip in the middle of a sun-bleached lunar landscape where our Samburu naturalist Gabriel and spotter Alex awaited us.
Our first billet was Sasaab: carved into a cliff above the Ewaso Niyaro River, the lodge had sublime views of Kenya's Northern Frontier District. Comprising a central dining and bar area, pool, spa and nine lodges, our accommodation was a giant sturdy tent secured into a stone structure with an airy outdoor bathroom, a sun deck overlooking the river and a plunge pool (the latter providing cool balm after dusty game drives.) The decor was both exotic – Morocco by way of Mongolia – and practical: our four poster beds were thoroughly draped with mosquito nets. Deep in the bush, the restful silence at night was broken only by the thump of a lizard scurrying over the roof of the tent. Truly this was glamping at its most glamazonian.
We were up and away by six the next morning and by the time we stopped for a cooked breakfast riverside three hours later, we'd seen water barks ("the animals Noah brought into the Ark," Gabriel informed us), elephants, antelope, dik dik, hornbill, Guinea fowl, sand grouse, Bateleur eagles, baboons, gerenuks, reticulated giraffe and zebra.
I pointed out to Gabriel it was as if he'd gone out the night before and whispered in all the animals' ears that they were to be sure to come out to play for us.
And the real stunners were still to come. A group of lions lying beneath an acacia tree, lazily eyeing up the dainty impala obliviously hopping to and fro. An exquisite leopard slinked past our jeep, inches away from us. "Looking for her lunch," remarked Gabriel. "So long as it's not Julia," added Mummy. And finally a cheetah balefully observing the world from a tree.
Evening at Sasaab was filled with drama and fun. A grizzled bush veteran, John, despatched a three-metre Black Mamba with eight pistol shots, after which a dozen of us sat down to a jolly dinner hosted by Sasaab's convivial managers Doug and Tanya Rundgren. And snake-killer John, seated beside my daughter, imparted the following: "A piece of advice, little lady, when you find the boy you want to marry, take him on safari and then you'll know."
Tucked between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains (where a young princess Elizabeth learned about the death of her father and became a queen), Solio was our next stop. It is a peaceful game lodge surrounded by a 20,000 acre reserve, home to the highest density of rhinos in eastern Africa and presided over by the charming South African Ava Paton.
Time for another safari, and our self-taught Masai guide Ole bade us perch on top of the jeep, which gave us commanding views of the reserve – and what wonders we saw: a baby oryx moments after its birth trying, and failing, to find its feet, a (very rare) black rhino running away with its calf, a trinity of vultures high up on bare branches, still and patient. And the most dramatic moment of all when Ole spotted a very tense jackal: the reasons for his tension apparent when a leopard emerged from nearby bushes. But dusk fell quickly so, despite Ole's best efforts, we didn't witness the grisly denouement (thankfully).
Ole was fascinating when talking about the psychology of the animals: how elephants can die of a broken heart and baby pachyderms will remember locations they've passed in utero – which is why a group of these most intelligent of all mammals is known as a memory of elephants. How wart hogs are so dense they'll forget why they've been running and stop, even if a lion is chasing them. And the most poignant of all: baboons love so much and so deeply that if their baby dies, unable to bear the loss, the mother will carry her dead infant in its arms till it rots.
After the exhilaration of our game drive, it was wonderful to sink into our drinks in front of a blazing log fire (though equatorial, it was significantly higher here and hence quite cool at night), with strange but satisfying hors d'ouevres of cocktail sausages with mustard, followed by superb Thai green chicken curry, delicately scented with kaffir lime leaves fresh from Ava's herb garden, finished with sublime mango mousse.
Back in our spacious, elegantly appointed bedroom, Purity, the girl assigned to look after us, had lit a fire and placed hot water bottles in our beds. I'd have been happy to tarry in this serene spot for a while but we had an important date lined up for the morrow: afternoon tea with the giraffes.
The Safari Collection: www.thesafaricollection.com
Tel: +254 (020) 502 0888
Sasaab Lodge and Solio Lodge: Rates start from approx €438 per adult per night, sharing, to include safari, guides, meals etc. Conservation and park fees approximately from €59 to €95 per day per adult
Offers: Solio Lodge – Naughty November Sale – 50 per cent off on bookings made before November 30 2013, must travel before December 15
Stay at any of The Safari Collection's properties for seven nights or more and enjoy free internal scheduled flights. Offer is valid on bookings for stays at any combination of The Safari Collection's properties (Giraffe Manor, Sasaab, Solio Lodge and Sala's Camp) until December 15 2014.