But it isn’t difficult to impress a new visitor to East Africa. On our first day we ooh’d and ahh’d at every animal that crossed our path. Our enthusiastic rush to the opposite window of the overland truck could have tipped it up had there been a few more people on board (luckily it stayed upright as being stranded outside a broken truck with a pride of lions nearby isn’t my idea of fun).
We were disproportionately excited by the sight of two rhinos far in the distance. Without binoculars you’d be forgiven for thinking they were large rocks, but still, we were captivated. The truck stopped for every Thomson’s gazelle – a sight that would soon seem commonplace – and we all tried desperately, but in vain, to zoom in for a perfect giraffe shot in the dying light. We were even impressed by the birdlife, but in this case it was not just a case of first-day fascination.
Lake Nakuru National Park is famous for the hundreds of thousands of flamingos that grace the lake’s shore feeding on algae. It’s a noisy spectacle as the pink-and-white birds flap around in the shallow water. The shoreline blushes with their presence as far as we can see, but it’s not just the flamingos that come here to enjoy the water sports. Groups of pelicans swim past us, ducking their heads under the water in unison.
Marabou storks tower by the water’s edge and white egrets perch on the backs of grazing buffalo – I’m even excited to spot a sea gull, despite growing up in a coastal town. The sun begins to set as we gaze across this spectacle, impressed with our first day on safari. But soon another day dawns and the inevitable questions are asked: ‘Do you think we’ll get a shot of a crocodile eating a wildebeest?’ ‘When will we see an elephant?’ ‘Are there lions here?’ We don’t ask for much.
But, amazingly, we aren’t disappointed (although we never see a croc attack, which is perhaps a good thing). Lions aren’t abundant at Lake Nakuru but soon a young female saunters across the road in front of our truck and has a mid-hunt nap right beside the dirt track. It’s as though she’s on the payroll. We are similarly impressed to see a female white rhino and her two-week-old baby metres from our window. We all frantically delete blurred ‘rock or rhino?’ images from our memory cards to make room for the ever-increasing spectacles of nature.
After a more than satisfying couple of days near Lake Nakuru we move camp to Lake Naivasha, 86km from Nairobi. Here we’re given the freedom to roam through the park on foot (albeit accompanied by a gun-toting ranger). We stray incredibly close to the park’s many antelopes, zebras and giraffes and watch as the long-necked wonders awkwardly climb up from a sitting position – I didn’t even know they could sit. The only hint of danger comes via the sound of a rifle being cocked.
Our ranger escort has prepared for an attack as an angry and unpredictable mother buffalo stares us down. We timidly tip-toe backwards, away from her and her new baby. The second, and last, time I feel scared on this trip happens later in the day. There are six of us onboard a tiny boat (just bigger than a canoe really) and we’re trying to spot hippos – the animal with the dubious honour of killing more people in Africa each year than any other. When one of them pops up next to our now-seemingly inadequate boat, with a loud gasp of breath and an accompanying spray of water, we all recoil in fear. The next time he lowers himself into the dark waters of Lake Naivasha we ask our guide very appropriate questions such as ‘how long can hippos stay underwater?’ and ‘how far can they travel down there in that time?’ The answers are ‘five to eight minutes’ and ‘far enough’. Scary.
So far, we’d seen plenty of buffalo, we’d got close to a rhino and had stared at a barely moving lion for what seemed like hours, but it wasn’t until we travelled into the Masai Mara, Kenya’s most famous national reserve, that we could tick off our ‘big five’, a term coined for the animals deemed most difficult to hunt.
It seems lions are everywhere in the Masai Mara. We watch a bearded male roar instructions to his obedient woman, and not far down the road a pregnant lioness, with poor table manners, walks lazily past our truck, blood dripping from her mouth and down her front paw. Elephants are also not uncommon here and we’re treated to an up-close view of an entire family (including cute baby calves) as they busily pass us by.
But a well-camouflaged leopard draped across branches high up in a tree is by far the best spot (geddit?) of the trip. We watch, we zoom in, we photograph. Even our guide is impressed. This sure beats a bare-assed monkey with a banana.
Wildlife in Nairobi
Feeding it …
An adult giraffe’s tongue is about 50cm long, which means there are few sensations weirder than having one lick the palm of your hand.This is bound to happen if you visit The Giraffe Centre, in Nairobi’s Lang’ata suburb (make sure you bring antiseptic gel). Workers dish out two handfuls of tasty food pellets per person and the hungry Rothschild giraffes lap it up (or catch it in their mouths from a small distance away, as was the case before I worked up the nerve to get close enough). See .
Eating it …
If feeding the animals is a little bit too ‘petting zoo’ for you, perhaps you’d prefer to eat them. Hugely popular Nairobi restaurant Carnivore is a meat-eaters’ paradise where you can chow down on ostrich and crocodile (better that than the other way around!) among other more ‘normal’ meaty delights (chicken, pork, beef and lamb). And the food doesn’t just taste good either, it looks amazing as it roasts slowly on traditional Maasai swords over a large charcoal pit at the restaurant’s entrance. But perhaps the best thing about Carnivore is that the food doesn’t stop coming until you admit defeat. An army of carvers move from table to table carrying the meat-laden Maasai swords, carving portions onto your plates until you lower the small flag in the middle of your table.
It’s true, white men can’t jump. But to be fair to the guys from our tour group, who all gave it a red-hot go, they were competing against some of the world’s best. The Maasai warriors, draped in their distinctive red cloth and decorated with beads (or in the case of one man, a green plastic hand mirror tied around his neck) made each giant leap seem effortless as they performed their traditional dance – an impressive show of strength and ability. If they were a foot or three taller, I’m certain NBA scouts would be offering them as many cows as it took to get them on the basketball court.
The Maasai, one of the most recognisable of the Kenyan tribes, judge wealth in terms of cattle and believe all the bovines in the world belong to them. When one member of our group admitted to owning 2000 head of cattle on a property in Australia, our local guide looked somewhat impressed before telling him: “We are coming to get them”. Scary. But the cattle aren’t just their savings accounts – the Maasai rely on almost every part of the beast. They drink the milk and the blood as well as use the dung for fuel and to render their homes (small tardis-like huts which surprisingly don’t smell). The cow’s urine has medicinal and cleansing properties and the hide is used to make weapon sheaths, clothes, mats and mattresses – which we were told were comfortable to sleep on, although we all happily took their word for it and returned to the familiar confines of our Western tents.
- Rebecca Galton travelled to Kenya with Intrepid Travel (020-3147 7777) and Kenya Airways (01784-888 222).
An eight-day Kenya Wildlife Safari starts at £385 plus a local payment
of US$305 and return flights from London to Nairobi start at £450.