Nick Smith’s feature on travelling in northern Kenya – ‘A New Take on Africa’ – as published in the Daily Telegraph 27th February 2010

A new take on Africa

Beloved by honeymooners in the Seventies, Kenya is back and it’s better than ever. But if you want to beat the crowds it’s best to head north, says Nick Smith

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s easy to get a bit blasé about Kenya. But for many of us it will have been our first brush with Big Africa, an unforgettable leap into the glamorous, romantic world of the safari. Ask anyone about Kenya and they’ve either ‘been there, done that’ or don’t intend to, because it’s no longer fashionable, having tailed off in popularity since its heyday as a honeymoon destination in the 1970s.

Back then it was all about the wildlife, chasing around the bush in safari minivans ticking off the ‘Big Five’. Then it was watching the sunset silhouetted through an acacia tree, with an unopened copy of ‘Out of Africa’ to hand, sloshing down G&Ts. But Kenya’s back with a bang and has reinvented itself, providing so much more than lions, leopards and white-gloved colonial ambience.

Today’s Kenyan safari lodge is much more of an all-round experience, with many supporting their local indigenous communities with craft and health projects. This so-called ethical approach aims to redistribute income from your visit to the people who need it most. As the droughts become more frequent and prolonged, responsible tourism of this kind has never been needed more.

My trip to Northern Kenya was arranged for me by Imagine Africa, a London-based independent specialising in off-the-beaten-track trips to less well-known parts. Managing Director Ben Morison knows Kenya well. He says that for those who’ve been there before, or think they know what it’s like, there are big surprises on offer. ‘Up North you’ll meet the Samburu tribe – if you’re lucky they might even take you for to see where they live.’ The message is, go up-country.

By ‘north’ Morison means north of the Equator, where the landscape is more rugged, with fewer humans and isolated lodges brimming with character. My adventure started with a short hop in a ‘Caravan’ light aircraft past Mount Kenya to the evocative Saruni lodge on the fringe of the Samburu Park. ‘Nowhere gives you a better sense of space than Saruni, arguably the best view in Kenya,’ says Morison.

As we drive from the bumpy earthen airstrip to Saruni lodge we pass through sweeping grassland that’s littered with giant igneous outcrops that form the dramatic skyline. With its diaphanous blue and red plumage, the aptly named superb starling is a constant companion as we spot impala, oryx and gerenuk on the plains. Late in the afternoon we encounter a herd of thirty-six elephants silently ambling up to the waterhole at the base of the kopje on which Saruni sits. In the Samburu language ‘Saruni’ means sanctuary.

When the dirt track runs out my guide selects the low-ratio gearbox and we head straight up a steep rock face and climb steadily. With its tubular steel and sailcloth construction, Saruni seems a touch modernistic for such a landscape, and yet it blends in so well it’s almost invisible. After dark we descend to the foot of the outcrop for a bush dinner where the Samburu people gather to entertain us, singing and dancing in the light of the stars and some old hurricane lanterns.

Leaving Saruni, I’m met at the airstrip by Andrew Francombe of Ol Malo lodge in his 6-seater Cessna. As we fly west along a brown muddy river he tells me that Ol Malo is about as remote as it gets. The nearest lodge is more than 20km away. ‘Down South,’ he says, ‘you can see the animals. But up north you see Africa.’

In Ol Malo – ‘the place of the greater Kudu’ in Samburu – I spend less time in a Land Rover and more walking through the bush. This is a better way to learn about the landscape, with my guides explaining the whistling thorns and baboon spiders, and pointing out tawny eagles building nests. When the sun gets too hot to go on foot you can trek by camel. But not until you’ve sampled a ‘Bush Cappuccino’ – hot, frothy milk straight from the camel, mixed with a spoonful of coffee granules.

As the sun reaches its zenith I dismount, and while my guides sit in the shade of a flat-top acacia I walk slowly up to a herd of reticulated giraffe, a rare specimen that’s not seen in the wild down south. Often thought of as the most handsome of all giraffes, its patches are rich red in colour, interspersed with a mesh of white lines from which it gets its name. Then it’s lunch by the river, and a quick dip while elegant citrus swallowtail butterflies flit in the hot breeze.

But it’s not all about the animals. While at Ol Malo I visit a local manyatta or village where the semi-nomadic Samburu people set up camp. Here I see young warriors dancing in their traditional red and white costumes, hair braided and dripping with beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets. As the sun sets, the men continue dancing and are still to be heard way into the night.

I say goodbye to my hosts at the airstrip and head back to Nairobi on the caravan, where I can’t resist visiting the farm where Karen Blixen lived almost a century ago. Here the old colonial ‘Out of Africa’ Kenya will always be a popular literary fossil. But the magic of Kenya remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Way to go

Imagine Africa has 7-day tailor-made safaris to Northern Kenya from £2,695 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinks and safari activities. Call 0207 622 5114, or visit www.ImagineAfrica.co.uk

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