The lioness pauses to look regally back over her shoulder. She is cautious but apparently confident in her position as Queen of the Savannah. She’s leading three stumbling cubs on what is almost certainly their first exhausting journey from the den where she gave birth.
“It’s a risky time for the cubs,” says guide Mzee Letur. “She’s probably heading up to introduce them to the pride, but they’re extremely vulnerable at this stage.” Sitting in the doorway of an open Land Rover just a few metres away from this most powerful of mother figures, I’m feeling slightly vulnerable myself. I wish we could help the staggering little balls of tawny fluff on their weary way, but this would clearly not be a good idea. We’re in a remote valley in Samburu National Reserve, and I’ve realised once again that there’s no substitute for a first-class guide on safari. Mzee Letur, most often known as Chris, is an experienced tracker, and his traditional red robes and beaded jewellery of a Samburu warrior are testament to his fearlessness.
Kenya is often described as the best country in the world for wildlife watching and, even among old safari hands, the Northern Frontier District is considered to be an adventure in its own right. The great Masai Mara, in the south, is world famous thanks to its incredible big cat country and the unforgettable spectacle of the migrations when almost two million wilde beest and zebra gallop more than 900 miles between Kenya and the Serengeti savannah in neighbouring Tanzania. Nearby Amboseli is almost as popular for its vast herds of elephants, and Aberdare attracts visitors simply because of the sheer beauty of its mountainous landscape and the pleasant climate on the slopes of Mount Kenya.Yet relatively few visitors ever come to the brutally arid regions that cover most of Kenya’s north. The sheer density of big cats is perhaps not quite on a par with the unparalleled Mara (where you can often see cheetahs and lions in a single glance across the plains), but already this morning Chris has successfully tracked a big male leopard as it stalked a nervous, but ultimately lucky, kudu.
By the time we parked on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River for a coffee break we’d had great sightings of the so-called Samburu Special 5: the reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx, Grévy’s zebra, Somali ostrichand the elegant gerenuk gazelle, which don’t exist further south. Chris followed a set of zigzagging tracks that led us into a dusty luggah (valley) and to the resting place of a pack of 13 African wild dogs. Sometimes known more picturesquely as painted wolves, these rare predators are (along with the leopard) the sighting that safari buffs yearn to see. Yet in the whole morning we’d passed only one other vehicle. Two days later I’m walking through the mist-shrouded, jungle-clad peaks of the Matthews Range, which rises in what’s known as a ‘sky island’ over the arid plains. A Samburu warrior by the name of Moran Loretu squats nearby, reading the tangled hieroglyphics of animal tracks with the ease with which most of us scan the morning newspaper: “Chui kubwa,” he says, tracing a finger across what is apparently headline news. “Chui kubwa sana.”
The news that a ‘very big leopard’ passed this way just an hour or two ago is enough to catch my attention, and I notice that even unshakable Kenyan bushman Willem Dolleman (manager of the famous Joy’s Camp) flexes his fingers on the stock of his powerful hunting rifle. Kitich Camp in the Matthews Range is one of the few places in Africa where you can walk through dense forest among large populations of leopard, lion, buffalo and elephant. A trek in the Matthews Range is a uniquely intense experience and there are strict safety guidelines (in which Dolleman’s rifle plays a part) on how to walk safely in this area. I decide to stick very close to Dolleman and the spear-carrying Samburu trackers.
Kenya is world famous for its luxurious tented camps, and the best lodges have taken luxury living to another level even while you sleep under canvas and eat around a campfire. The spacious tents at Kitich Camp, with their hardwood furniture, four-poster beds, private terraces and en-suite bathrooms, offer greater comfort than many 5-star hotel rooms. An armed guard escorts you to your room because this is untamed, unfenced wilderness, and there’s the added thrill of occasional unexpected guests: we’d seen the huge pugmarks of a prowling lion not far from our tents and, just uphill from camp, we’d tiptoed along a trail between a herd of grazing buffalo and a family of browsing elephants. The animals remained almost entirely out of sight – it’s incredible how well such huge beasts can hide themselves – adding to the tension as we had to rely on our primordial senses of hearing and smell to discern where they were.
The Matthews Range is also famous as the domain of one of the world’s rarest big cats. Because of the dense forest here, a melanistic (darker) version of the leopard is unusually common; Moran Loretu had a feeling that this ‘very big leopard’ might very well turn out to be the black panther I was hoping to see. But there are no guarantees on safari and the creature that the Samburu call the Prince of Darkness never showed himself. The unforgettable Kenyan wilderness is not a zoo where the animals are expected to perform according to visiting hours. This is Africa at its wildest, and the sheer unexpectedness of a Kenyan safari is what makes it an unforgettable experience.
5 Senses – Sight
NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK
Twenty minutes from the baggage carousels at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and you’re already listening to the roar of lions echoing across the savannah. Nairobi National Park – 117km2, teeming with buffalo, zebra, antelope, rhino and big cats – now offers accommodation that makes it possible to start your safari on arrival. The Emakoko offers wonderful bungalow accommodation, while the Nairobi Tented Camp proves that unabashed luxury is indeed possible under canvas. www.emakoko.com, ww.nairobitentedcamp.com
5 Senses – Scent
Catch the scent of spice and jasmine among the beaches and bazaars of the Swahili Coast. Beautiful Lamu is possibly the most enchanting town in all Africa and offers wonderful luxury accommodation (www.fatumastower. com is highly recommended). In the far south, Kaya Kinondo Sacred Forest is a protected reserve that, during old slave-trading days, was the hiding place of the Digo tribe and is now one of Kenya’s most spiritual spots. Nearby Kinondo Kwetu is probably Kenya’s most spectacular beach-resort hideaway. www.kinondo-kwetu.com.