Nairobi is only eight hours away from London, but it seems like a world away. I flew with Kenya Airways, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The flight was extremely comfortable, the on-flight food was excellent, and, after a few crisp Tusker beers, I was able to relax.
When we touched down, it was only a short drive to Wilson Airport and from there I flew on to Saruni Samburu, the only holiday lodge in Kalama Conservancy. It lies immediately to the north of the Samburu National Park, which covers an enormous 950 sq km, and is famed for its elephants. It was the last few weeks of the dry season, and the rains had still to come. Our small propeller-driven plane flew over landscape that was arid and austere, but also beautiful in its own way, and, as we approached the runway, I noticed herds of elephants wandering about - presumably, in search of food and water.
We were greeted by members of the Samburu, a desert tribe of warrior nomads who have lived here for millennia. They were dressed in the traditional and vividly coloured costumes. Despite years of colonisation, the land is still owned by the local community and is of mixed use. Some areas are designated for wildlife, while others are used to graze domestic goats and cattle. A large part of this conservancy is rented by the Saruni, the resort company, and is reserved exclusively for wildlife. This mutually beneficial relationship is helping to guarantee the survival and sustainability of the wildlife, and illustrates how direct the connection between tourism and conservation can be.
The location of the lodge is extremely remote, and involves a hair-raising journey along narrow dirt roads. These twist and turn as they make their way up the slopes of a huge granite mountain. Its steep, sheer cliffs provide night shelter for hundreds of baboons. They also ensure their safety from attacks from leopards. As we approached the top, the road simply disappeared, and our vehicles were forced to drive across the bare rock until we eventually reached the summit.
Nothing had prepared me for what I saw there. It would be hard to overstate the sweep and majesty of this hilltop location. The lodge is perched on top of a gigantic red volcanic rock face, and offers phenomenal uninterrupted views over the plains, with the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya looming in the distance. The lodge is designed to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. It is full of small, but clever, design details. Not least of these is the way in which the building has been positioned to protect itself from the prevailing wind. The owners are clearly conscious of its impact on this unspoilt landscape, so rainwater is collected and recycled, and heated using solar panels.
The lodge is certainly luxurious, but it also has a laid-back, warm and inviting atmosphere. Each of the six spacious villas is furnished with its own outdoor showers and private deck which offer spectacular and unobstructed views. It was swelteringly hot while we were there, and I could not resist grabbing a pint of Tusker beer, and plunging into the larger of its two infinity swimming pools. Built into a rocky outcrop overlooking the lodge, it offered extraordinary 360-degree views of the surrounding plains and mountains. There are meandering paths that connect the communal areas with the rooms, and it is not unusual to see pairs of delightful miniature deer called dik-dik running around. However, at night you need to be careful, as the lodge even has its own resident leopard roaming the premises.
No matter how many wildlife documentaries you may have watched, nothing matches the real thing. It may have been the dry season, with a parched earth and bare trees, but there was an extraordinary abundance of life. Led by Samburu guides who were exceptionally knowledgeable, I was able to see a breathtaking assortment of wildlife including dozens of elephants, scores of stunning reticulated giraffes, imperial zebras, ostriches, wild dogs, onyx, resting lions and their adorable cubs.
We stopped by a dried-up river, and I enjoyed a delicious breakfast of bacon, Scotch eggs, pancakes and local fruits. While eating, we were also able to observe gazelles and giraffes lowering their necks down to drink. This idyllic scene was interrupted by a bellowing bull elephant, complete with his huge and magnificent tusks. He appeared enraged and spoiling for a fight, but our guide pointed to distinctive sweat marks behind his eyes which revealed he was in musth - the male elephant's rutting season.
Later that night, we were brought to another dried-up river nearer the lodge for a bush dinner of local lamb stew. Our Samburu guides performed traditional dances which largely consisted of leaping vertically from a standing position. We needed little encouragement to join in, and I tried to copy them, though with much less impressive results. The sky was free of every trace of light pollution, and the hundreds of stars seemed to radiate a celestial energy.
The next morning, we headed to Saruni Rhino which only opened in February this year. The camp only consists of two beautiful huts and a lodge, but there are already plans to expand it. It is found on the banks of a dried-up river, surrounded by palm trees and a short distance away from a watering hole which is regularly visited by elephants. Just 40 years ago, there were an estimated 70,000 black rhinos on the African continent. Since then, an epidemic of large-scale poaching has reduced that number by almost 96pc. Eleven of these critically endangered animals have been flown in to this customised preserve.
However, the threat from poachers is so extreme that they are now heavily monitored by a team of armed guards. Rhinos are understandably weary of humans, and as a result it is not possible to track them in a jeep. Each animal has a radio collar and the guides lead you on foot and in absolute silence through the bush, tracking their progress. We followed two rhinos and it was thrilling to approach so close to these magnificent beasts. A number of the female rhinos are already pregnant, so perhaps the reserve will be able to build a more viable population soon.
As we drove through the arid landscape, we became aware of the dull jangle of cowbells and the bleating of goats. We followed the steady stream of herds and people until we reached the so-called singing wells. Huge crowds from a variety of different groups had gathered there, each with their own distinct languages and dress. There are over 50 wells cut down deep into the limestone to reveal fresh clear water. Each of the herdsmen took turns bringing their livestock down to drink. To encourage them they repeat a steady, rhythmic, almost hypnotic singing - which is what gives the wells their name - serenading their flock, calling them to their wells to drink. It was a magical scene, timeless, almost biblical in feeling.
All this time in the desert was beginning to take its toll on me. I am used, after all, to rather different temperatures in Ireland. Luckily, it was only a short flight to Diani Beach on Kenya's southern coast. Alfajiri Beach Villa is fabulous and located right beside the Indian Ocean. It exudes rustic beach chic and the bedrooms of each villa are decorated along different themes. My room had an Indian feel with a spacious airy bathroom.
Aside from its own pool, it also had its own private veranda with a panoramic view of the horizon and the Indian Ocean. It was almost impossibly romantic.
Kenya was once famed as the best place for big game hunting. However, the latest international census on elephant numbers in Africa shows Kenya as one of very few countries where numbers are now stable.
Hopefully, elephant guns and trophy hunters are increasingly a thing of the past, and Kenya seems set to resume its place at the forefront of global eco-tourism.
The rock hyrax
They may not be as glamorous or famous as other animals — but it is hard not to fall for these little furry balls of fury. Their nearest living relative is the elephant.
The seas off Kenya are exceptionally rich in marine life, including large numbers of these majestic sharks. Unfortunately, they are hunted for their fins and livers. Volker Bassen seeks to raise awareness.
For more information on visiting Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourism Board on 020 7593 1731 or visit magicalkenya.com.
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) operates daily flights from Terminal 4, London Heathrow to Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Return flights from London to Nairobi are from £459 (approx. €542) return economy/ £1,891 (approx. €2,232) business class.
Safarilink (flysafarilink.com/ 00254 20 3916000)
Saruni Rhino (sarunirhinotracking.com)
Saruni Samburu (sarunisamburu.com)
Alfajiri Villas (alfajirivillas.com)
Sarova Stanley (sarovahotels.com/stanley-nairobi)
Whale Shark Adventures (whalesharkadventures.org)
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Nursery (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org)
Sunday Indo Living