A breathtaking safari to the heart of Africa, where close encounters with elephants and leopards stir the soul, writes Christabel Milbanke
‘You may at times fly low enough to see the animals on the plains and to feel towards them as God did when he had just created them, and before he commissioned Adam to give them names.’ That was Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame, on the sublimity of flying across then British East Africa with her lover Denys Finch-Hatton. Nearly a century on, her words still beautifully describe the sensation of soaring over Kenya’s landscape on Scenic Air Safaris nine-day Endangered Species tour.
This transports seekers of adventure to key conservation lodges across Kenya via breathtaking bespoke flightpaths. Its specially outfitted, 11-seater Cessna Caravan, with a reduced carbon footprint (of 40.2 per cent in comparison with travel by Land Cruiser), is an exciting, meaningful and relatively eco-friendly way to explore some of the most remote areas of this former British colony, including Saruni Samburu, where you can track endangered black rhino by foot, and Laikipia, where you can track wild dogs with experts Rosie Woodroffe and Simon Kenyon.
Since you depart from and return to Nairobi, the designer hotel One Forty Eight Nairobi makes for the perfect base from which to visit the famous Giraffe Sanctuary and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where you can adopt orphaned baby elephants.
During our inaugural flight from Nairobi time seemed immaterial as we flew above the verdant Loita Hills of the Great Rift Valley. Each morning flight would be imbued with an almost religious power: the sublime aerial views of sacred Mount Ololokwe rising 2,000 metres above the Samburu Plains, the majestic Mount Kenya and the extraordinary Nkado Murto rock-formations — said to resemble the ‘five fingers’ of God — proved to be near to overwhelming.
Then there was the thrill of landing: zooming past monochrome blurs of zebra, just 100 metres above the yellow levelled land, we saw a herd of impala or wildebeest fleeing our small plane as we rushed towards a rusty airstrip.
It was at the Masai Mara National Reserve that we were greeted by the first of a great ensemble of safari experts to whom we were given exclusive access: expatriates Justin McCarthy, the owner of Spirit of the Masai Mara and an endearing Kenyan cowboy-type whose enthusiasm for wildlife is evocative of Nigel Thornberry; and David ‘The Lion’s Man’ Mascall, the creator of Lights for Life, which uses flashlights to keep lions away from farming areas. Despite nearly being mauled to death by a lion he had reared from a cub, Mascall remains passionate about the prevention of human-wildlife conflict.
Accompanied by guide Dominic, an English speaking Maasai Warrior robed in red tribal tartan, we drove through the Mara. What ensued was a surreal series of rapid imprints upon my memory. A vacant-looking African buffalo with a small party of yellowbilled oxpeckers perched on his back, oddly entwined in symbiosis. A lone lioness, eyes and mouth the only points of definition, dematerialised in a flaxen field. For a while we even joined a large family of elephants on their journey, their clumsy young charmingly clinging trunk to tail.
At lunch, eaten off the bonnet of a Land Cruiser parked next to a troupe of bully-boy baboons, we were joined for the afternoon by Dr Elena Chelysheva, an expert in cheetah identification and behaviour and the founder of the Mara-Meru Project. Elena identifies cheetahs by photographing and studying the spots on their legs, using specially developed software to match them to photographs of them as cubs. After 30 years dedicated to watching cheetahs in the Mara, she recognises them like family, and is known as ‘Mama Duma’: the cheetah mother.
With Elena we experienced a rare honour. Within spitting distance, a coalition of five wild and healthy male cheetahs lounged contentedly in the sun. We observed their innocent panting and purring, the rhythm of their stomachs rising and falling. Then one long, jaw-stretching yawn exposes shiny sharp teeth — and you experience a flash of adrenaline.
Action-packed gamedrives aside, at the heart of every endeavour is the desire to preserve what makes Kenya so captivating. Spirit of the Masai Mara is one of three lodges with WWF funding operating in the stunning 35,000-acre Siana Conservancy on the edge of the Mara. Lodge profits fund ranger units which protect the animals, flora and fauna. This enables guests to witness scenes of frolicsome wildlife uninterrupted by other vehicles. McCarthy has also installed an ingenious waste water management system to purify all water at the lodge. This water is reused for irrigation, or to top-up Siana’s waterholes.
The lodge itself feels like a family home that combines traditional African homewares with Western minimalism and mod-cons. Each luxurious air-conditioned suite has floor-to-ceiling glass windows that invite the overwhelming nature of the reserve, without actually letting it in. For example, while soaking in a steamy bath I watched zebra approach my veranda and elephants drink fresh water from the stunning infinity pool. Kenya’s sunsets were captured in traditional ‘sundowners’, where lodges invite you to their favourite lofty haunts for sweeping panoramic views and ice-cold cocktails.
In the evening we were invited to McCarthy’s favourite sundowners spot to take in a panorama of the conservancy, and view the lodge from afar against the sunset. Fireside drink in hand, I had just got settled when the Masai warriors staged a surprise ‘attack’, yelling and shrieking. Once my shock had subsided, I needed little encouragement to join them in dancing, singing and howling round the fire.
Touching down in the 62,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, I was struck by the great responsibility and importance of the work carried out there as they fight to save the endangered Grevy’s zebra (population 2,600) and black rhinoceros (around 5,000) from extinction.
Scenic Air Safari’s relationship with the conservationists grants access to the highly secure and sophisticated technological HQ from which they monitor the conservancy’s armed anti-poaching brigade. Geoffrey Chege, Lewa’s chief conservation officer, schools us in the serious military operations that rely on the community for intelligence, utilising a digital communication system to get the edge over the criminals. Sophisticated technology is also used to map collared matriarch and rogue elephants. We stayed at the stunning Lewa Safari Camp, which organised incredible sundowners complete with a fully-fledged bar. On our return, a little hazy after Amarula on the rocks, a shock encounter in the dark with two leopards had us grappling for our torches. Motionless, we watched in awe as they silently slinked away from the vehicle, allowing us to proceed.
Elephant Watch Camp
Over the northern frontier we flew to the land of the Samburu, a related but distinct tribe to the Masai, and our next stop: eco-lodge Elephant Watch Camp, run by documentary filmmaker Saba Douglas-Hamilton, daughter of Save The Elephants’ founder, Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Set in a woodland overlooking the dry Ewaso Ng’iro River in the Samburu Game Reserve, Elephant Watch appears all at once like a mirage hidden in a luxuriant maze of animals and acacia trees.
In the bohemian heart of the camp, brightly coloured cotton cloths billow cloaking the inside of a thatched structure created entirely from locally sourced natural materials, including trees felled and stripped by the elephants. Guides to the mammals, birds, reptiles and insects of Africa fill bookcases artfully strewn with family photos, trinkets, African art, and animal skulls. The effect is meditative and homely.
Family is important here, not just Douglas-Hamilton’s three daughters, or the long-limbed Samburu warriors, who welcome you into their rich culture; but also that of the elephant, whose families are fondly named, their stories recorded in meticulous documentation going back 30 years. Matriarchal elephants are said to hold a vast store of social and familial knowledge.
Elephant Watch Camp is a place where people tell life-stories, let go of regret and reunite with their inner child. While listening to Saba describe the different tribes and the symbology, religion and rituals, I found myself covering my feet with the red earth. In this place, where wise elephants wander and mocking monkeys spy on you from the trees, I could hear my true thoughts.
Douglas-Hamilton explains their ethos thus: ‘At Elephant Watch Camp we created a gentle and simple yet luxurious environment to draw people here so that they too could fall in love with the elephants and spread the message of our work.’ I certainly fell in love with them, and I would defy you not to do so as well.
The Explorations Company (www.explorationscompany.com /01367 850566) offer a nine day Endangered Species Flying Safari with Scenic Air Safaris, from £7,928.00 per person, based on a group of 10 people travelling together. Includes full board accommodation, services of a specialist wildlife expert at each location, all regular and specialist activities and transfer by luxury private plane charter.