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Publication Date : 19-09-2012
The sound of pounding hoofs stop me in my tracks. I drop my backpack to the ground and gape as zebras gallop across the grass mere metres from my tent.
It’s impossible not to grin while looking at the wild animals that resemble a striped hybrid of a horse and a donkey. Although zebras look identical, their stripes are as distinctive as human fingerprints.
Camera in hand, I run towards the ditch between the Sweetwaters Tented Camp and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy at Nanyuki on the plains of Mount Kenya.
Startled by my presence, the zebras gallop away in a cloud of dust. I’d been too hasty. As I squat by the long dewy grass for several minutes, 12 zebras come by, followed by a herd of gazelles.
This is just the first of my numerous encounters with wild animals in Kenya. It is July when thousands of tourists pack the country’s renowned Masai Mara National Reserve to catch the spectacular wildebeest migration. I decide to give the famous park a miss and check out Kenya’s other places instead.
I’m rewarded by the discovery of a magical destination with an astounding wealth of wildlife that is among Africa’s best, not to mention a spectrum of landscapes ranging from vast savannahs, windswept moors and palm-lined beaches to barren deserts and turquoise lakes in the north. Centuries-old coastal towns provide a stark contrast to chaotic cities where the chasm between the poor and the wealthy is glaring.
Few countries can conjure up such powerful images. Aside from its rich traditions with over 40 ethnic tribes, Kenya is also a contemporary multicultural nation. Warm and friendly local folks are always ready to welcome me with a loud jambo (“hello” in Kiswahili).
Lying astride the equator on Africa’s eastern coast, Kenya sprawls across 586,600 square kilometres. Inland water bodies cover 10,700sqkm, the bulk of it in Lakes Victoria and Turkana.
Kenya is bordered by Somalia and the Indian Ocean to the east, Ethiopia to the north, Sudan to the northwest, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south. The coastline, about 550km-long, faces the Indian Ocean. As such, it has tremendous topographical diversity.
My first stop is at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a mosaic of grass plains, wooded grassland, acacia woodland and evergreen thicket sprawling over 350sqkm. Early one morning at the Sweetwaters Tented Camp, roaring lions and trumpeting elephants jerk me awake. I sit in the dark with my heart thumping.
A lion’s roar has a paralysing effect. The cats sound like they are prowling right outside my flimsy tent! I expect at any moment to see claws ripping across the canvas or a silhouette skulking outside my tent like something out of bad B-grade film.
Earlier in the evening, I’d chanced upon gazelles that had skipped across the ditch to graze on grass on the resort grounds, so a lion could easily do the same!
However, the sounds retreat and I hear tweeting birds. Daylight is breaking. I can’t fall sleep, so I call my mother back home, who upon hearing my voice promptly reports that our old family dog is unable to pee...
Home certainly sounds mundane compared to what’s in Africa!
Later in the day, the park ranger tells me that a lioness that had taken her three cubs for a hunting exercise had intruded upon a herd of elephants, leading to the unearthly morning call.
“Didn’t you see our flashlights?” he asks.
“Of course, I did, but it was too cold for me to come outside!” I reply, too embarrassed to tell him I’d been hiding under the bedcovers.
On an early morning safari drive the next day, I am thrilled to glimpse graceful giraffes striding across the acacia woodlands and the funny way they would splay their long legs to drink from a watering hole, a position that leaves them vulnerable to lions. I also see herds of elephants, endangered black Rhinos, lion cubs playing in the long grass and African buffaloes with birds perched on their heavy, splayed horns.
It’s great fun to spot other animals in the wild like baboons, genets, jackals, hyenas and the ever-present warthog (stout, hairless grey swine).
Driving north from Nairobi at dawn, we find the view of the Great Rift Valley breathtaking as the sun rises over the horizon. As my Rover careens around the escarpment where the city was built upon, the earth fractures into a valley hundreds of metres below. The East African Rift is a part of the great tectonic chasm that splits the earth from the Red Sea all the way to the Zambezi River.
The arid savannah and scrub bush on the valley floor is home to Kenya’s richest wildlife especially the famed Masai Mara Game Reserve. The valley also hosts a quintet of spectacular alkaline lakes that are rich in algae and attract unrivalled birdlife, making the area an ornithologist’s paradise.
The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley is home to 13 globally-threatened bird species and has among the highest birdlife diversities in the world. It is the single most important foraging site for the lesser flamingo, with well over two million birds.
At the Lake Nakuru National Park, a flotilla of floating white pelicans commands a section of the waters. Alas, the rising waters have sent the fabulous flamingoes migrating to Lake Bogoria, two hour’s drive north. The 107sqkm national reserve is growing in prominence as more flamingoes have arrived here en masse.
I set off for the park with its semi-arid acacia scrub landscape known for its bubbling geysers from deep within the earth. Even from afar, the flocks of rose pink flamingoes are seen skirting the shores of the algae-rich lake. Resembling ballerinas in pink tutus and tights, the birds are an enchanting sight, especially when they take flight in a flurry of hazy pinks.
Unfortunately these birds are difficult to photograph as they rustle away from the shores at the slightest approach.
Lake Bogoria sports a strange odour of sulphur that erupts in jets from the 18 boiling geysers on the western shores. It’s a constant reminder of the tectonic movements that have shaped the Rift Valley.
My guide, James Murage, says many local folks enjoy coming for picnics. They would cook eggs over the boiling water.
Closer to dusk, as my Rover rattles along the dirt tracks, a deer with slender white stripes on its back and intelligent eyes stares at me from the dense thicket.
Murage halts to a stop.
“It’s a Kudu bull!” he utters excitedly, shifting into reverse. “They are very rare; I’ve only seen them once. And they are right here!”
Once fully grown, the Greater Kudu bull is recognisable by its long spiralled horns. Alas, the handsome antelope has already disappeared into the thick bush.
Up north, a vastly different landscape greets me at the Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba National Reserves. Fed by the Ewaso Nyiro River, the arid scrubland stretches as far as the eye can see. Dry thornbush scrubs and acacia trees “adorned” with weaverbird nests punctuate the harsh red earth.
The austere plains are rich with dry country species such as the beautiful cobalt-chested vulturine guineafowl.
I am delighted to spot unusual desert-acclimatised animals like the oryx and the gerenuk standing on hind legs to feed on a thorn tree. It is surely one of the oddest creatures around, described as an antelope that wants to be a giraffe!
These northern lands are home to the semi-nomadic Samburu with their striking robes and beaded jewellery, and often seen tending to their livestock.
Back in the capital city, I could also enjoy wildlife, as Nairobi is the gateway to safari, after all. The 117sqkm Nairobi National Park is characterised by grassy plains with over 80 species of animals, including the big cats, hippos, zebras and buffaloes.
Like most visitors, I join the crowds at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre. The sanctuary started in 1983 with just 130 Rothschild’s giraffe, but today the number has doubled. A wooden viewing platform allows visitors to feed pellets to the giraffes that would amble over to feed.
It’s hard to part ways with Kenya after this wonderful experience.
As one of Africa’s most stable countries with an English speaking population, Kenya offers an unforgettable adventure for travellers. Many fears about the country are unwarranted. I cannot wait to return to explore its sultry coastal towns, the otherworldly landscapes of the northern region, and of course, there’s always the Masai Mara with its wildlife.