Luxury in the Kenyan wild
Aspen Times Weekly
KENYA ” It was the trip of a lifetime ” we were, after all, on safari in Kenya.
But this particular day was a challenge for even the heartiest among us ” a never-ending drive across some 250 miles of Kenyan countryside, bumping over tracks that don’t even resemble a road. Dust everywhere, inside and out of the vehicle, made breathing a challenge and created a carload of six extremely grumpy passengers.
Tolerance had faded hours before. Our friend and guide, Lander (pronounced “Landa”), who grew up on the Maasai Mara, had never been to this particular camp before. It was located just outside the boundaries of what is now a National Reserve. We suspected we might be lost and we could see why; there were no landmarks that we could define, but just endless miles of bush.
Lander made a cell phone call and then, unexpectedly in the vast bleakness through the scrub brush, we spied a lone figure ahead, standing in the red dirt by the road. He had been sent to direct us to our new camp. We were so beaten up by the trip that we barely contemplated the improbability of this encounter. But he and Lander “lived the language” of their homeland, and they had been able to find each other using clues that were invisible to us.
What lay before us upon our arrival was more than we could have imagined ” Serian Camp, meaning “place of peace” in the language of the Maasai, was an oasis of luxury in the African wild.
A short ride from our encounter on the main road took us to the river. In order to reach camp, the six of us had to cross a footbridge that spanned the crocodile- and hippo-infested Mara River, leading us to wonder if we were about to experience Outward Bound, African-style. After a wobbly walk across the footbridge, we were welcomed with a hearty “Karibu!” by the staff, who brought cold juice and warm towels to wipe away the dust of our journey. White overstuffed chairs on the deck overlooking the river invited us to sit down while our bags were ferried across the river by the young Maasai staff in a row boat tied to a permanent tether.
Slowly, this luxurious reality sunk in and prevailed over our bone-tired fatigue. “Sweet,” we thought, “this isn’t your average, same-old, tired and worn tourist camp.”
Maasai askari (guards) escorted us through the riverine brush to our tents to get settled before dinner. We felt the wildness of the Mara, the so-called spotted plains, lurking on both sides of the trail, as if the flaming torch carried by our askari was the only barrier between us and great unknown danger. But we were pulled from our imaginary flirtation with danger as we rounded a bend and discovered swaths of white canvas with three sides open, and enormous mesh panels to keep out unwanted insects. Erected on a magnificent hardwood platform, our tent was outfitted with a deep bathtub and shower on a deck overlooking the grassy banks of the Mara River. There was hot and cold running water and ” the luxury of all luxuries in the bush ” indoor plumbing.
Our delight was interrupted by an extremely loud snort ” close enough to cause a start.
Looking out on the darkening day over the river, we could pick out the shapes of a large family of hippos, not 30 yards off our deck. They were leaving the river for a night of grazing on the savanna grasses across the river.
After a refreshing shower, we headed back to cocktail hour by the campfire and dinner with our host, camp-owner Alex Walker. Alex is a fourth-generation Kenyan of Scottish descent, the last in a long line of hunters and adventurers from a different era. Alex learned about the area alongside his father but later laid down his gun in favor of a camera. He is actively involved in protecting his country from poachers and other ravages of greed.
Helping Alex while we visited were two young interns from Argentina, Nicco and Paoli. They were training in the fine art of eco-tourism at this deluxe boutique private bush-camp.
Over dinner we enjoyed reliving the trials of our journey now that it was over. We shared stories about our mutual friend, Eli Weiss of Woody Creek, founder of Wildize Foundation. Eli and Alex have worked together on several Mara projects. And we were excited to learn that the wildlife was abundant on this, the Kenyan side of the greater Mara Triangle ecosystem.
We were literally surrounded by hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra following the seasonal rains to and from the Serengeti in Tanzania. We were camped at the epicenter of this year’s great migration. It was happening all around us, and a “life-list” goal was within reach.
Dinner was exquisite, with abundant fresh vegetables grown on site. The camp goes to great lengths to be self-sufficient and sustainable in every way possible. The usual East African fare on safari is a bland European-style buffet, but Serian Camp food was superb with great attention to taste, balance and detail. We were stunned when the homemade ice cream arrived for dessert. After one more cautious trip to our tent with our guide, we all bunked down gladly. We slept in many beds while touring Kenya and Tanzania, but no lodging experience remotely approached the beauty, peace and intimacy of this magical abode.
Snorts woke us up. Our hippo neighbors were back in the water for the day. They are mammals so they must come up for air but seem to be underwater most of the time. They float, fall asleep, sink to the bottom, are jolted awake, and then rise to the surface to snort in some air. They then fall asleep again and sink. The only time they don’t bob between naps is when an interloper tries to move in on the group. Fights are a regular event, and the sound is deafening. Hippos, for that matter, are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa and have astonishing speed, outrunning humans easily. We were often lulled into a false sense of security with the giant creatures.
As we stepped off our deck on that first morning we noticed huge hippo footprints that had appeared during the night. It gave us pause, even though the lanterns on our deck, the small fires spread around the campsite and the vigilant camp guards ensured our safety.
At dawn a young Maasai man delivered fresh coffee and biscuits. After a quick hello to the hippos, we departed on a game drive to check out our wild neighbors around the camp.
Serian provides an SUV, a guide and a driver as part of the package, so Lander joined us as a guest. After another jiggly trip across the rope bridge, we joined our guides and drove through more wildebeest than the eye could count and a scattering of impala, topi and Thompson gazelles. Then a circle of safari vehicles on the horizon signaled that we were about to get our first glimpse of one of the “big five” animal species ” lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes. Indeed, a lion and lioness were lazing together on the side of the road. On safari these days the most efficient way to track predators is to look for van assemblies that gather around them, a downside of the growth in tourism.
The lions were looking with interest toward a lone cow we had passed earlier ” a cow obviously lost from a local Maasai herd. They didn’t seem hungry and they weren’t on the hunt, but they were acutely aware of every move the cow made. This situation posed a problem for our group, which included the driver, John, the young Maasai guide, Jonathon, and our friend and “elder statesman,” Lander. It was intriguing to watch the three interact, and rewarding to see the respect the two “locals” showed for the older Maasai, Lander. Speaking in their own language (Maa) the three determined to do something about this cow, lest it be lost to the predator’s pounce. Cows are revered by the traditional Maasai and are considered the only source of wealth
We left the sleepy lions and drove over to the cow. Young and agile ” likely a herder himself until recently ” Jonathon jumped out of the Land Cruiser and proceeded to herd the cow roughly three kilometers back to the nearby Maasai village. We followed in the vehicle, getting a conservation lesson from our driver, John. If the cow had fallen prey to the predators, then the fragile balance between old and new ways would have been threatened.
A compensation scheme set up by the local tribal councils requires that a killed cow be paid for, and wildlife officials estimate the cow would be worth $200-300. But if the Maasai went after the lion because of an attack on a cow, the lion has an estimated value to the tourism industry of $ 30,000. Local camp owners and guide services (including Alex) often pony up the cost of a cow in order to protect the lions! Sometimes also it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening: Has a herder left an old cow out on purpose for the lions, in order to get a payment? Or is the cow genuinely lost? Whether we rescued a cow or foiled a plot, we made sure this creature wasn’t on the bush-buffet!
We returned to camp for a welcome breakfast and some down time. Early in the afternoon several of us went on a walking safari up the river, to discover some of the hidden treasures outside our doorsteps. We encountered a plethora of hippos, several crocs and the tracks of a dik-dik, the world’s second-smallest antelope. Jonathon told us many stories on that walk, including a wonderful legend about why the dik-dik leaves his scat in one place for years: Not only is the dik-dik territorial, but he wants his pile of scat to grow huge so others will think he’s as big as a hippo and thus run away! In reality, the dik-dik is no bigger than a grown-up toy poodle.
Jonathon then showed us the location of his own circumcision initiation in a grove of trees ” the site where he spent 35 days by himself. His ceremony happened long before the Serian camp came to this region and it gave us a sense of history and time. Walking safaris are possible only on private land and not allowed within the Maasai Mara Reserve itself, another unexpected bonus.
Later that afternoon we went on a long game drive down to the edge of the Maasai Mara preserve. We saw droves of wildebeest, zebra, cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, Thompson’s gazelle, topi, impala, Grant’s gazelle, baboon, vervet monkeys, zebra and the predators lion and hyena. The bird watchers in our group were not disappointed either, sighting secretary bird, Maribou stork, weaver birds, a tawny eagle, helmeted guinea fowl, ostrich and the ever-present varieties of vultures.
Finally it was time to head back to camp for a hot shower amid the tunes of the evening ” the hippos frolicking and positioning, fighting for territory in the river.
The next day we spent the entire day in the Reserve, hoping to see the famed herds of wildebeest and zebra trying to cross the river while escaping the crocodiles that wait in the water. On the way to one of these crossings, we saw a cheetah with two teenage cubs lazing under a tree ” all three sated into lethargy with full stomachs. A short distance farther, vultures were dining on the carcass that first had fed the cheetahs.
Later there was the giraffe, perhaps our favorite animal, gracefully loping along the plains with a majesty that can only be experienced firsthand. Jonathon pointed out that the giraffe can kick in any direction when attacked by predators, thus making it a worthy adversary and very dangerous. Only the young are really vulnerable to attack.
After a two-hour wait at the river for some kind of wild crossing, we decided it was not to be. We watched as zebras and wildebeest tested the waters ” approaching the edge, circling, backing up, and approaching again. “I think I can, I think I can ” nope, I can’t.”
The major crossings on the migration route stretch from July to October (we were there in mid-September). We were told that the droves of wildebeest collect until the group is so large it must “burst at the seams,” at which point a crossing takes place. Generally there are several days between major crossings. According to local “guide gossip,” we missed a big crossing by a day; still, carcasses remained on the shore from a recent crossing and a croc that must have been 18 feet long basked in the sun. And the antics of the restless wildebeests kept us entertained. Lander told us that the Maasai call the wildebeest “spare parts”: The face of a locust, horns of a water buffalo, legs of the topi, flat back of the cow, beard of a goat and neck of the zebra ” goofy and very stupid.
Giving up on the “action,” we took an afternoon drive to a quiet grove of trees where we stopped for a delicious picnic lunch catered out of the back of our Land Cruiser, accompanied by stories from John and Jonathon.
On our way back to camp we came upon a herd of about 18 grazing elephants. We spent a silent 20 minutes taking pictures and watching the youngsters teasing, hiding, poking each other and ducking behind mom. Then we returned to camp. The elephants seemed to be on the same route we were and at sunset they were directly across the river from our tent. We settled in with hippos providing sound effects in the foreground and “eles” on the river’s edge behind them. Life was good.
On our last morning ” after another great night in quilted splendor , falling asleep to the now familiar and restorative sounds of hippo ” we awoke to more coffee and more hippo music. We did not want to leave, but we had to catch a small plane back to Nairobi at noon.
After another lush breakfast, we took a leisurely game drive while making our way to the airfield. In a place called Leopard Gulch we hoped to spy the shy leopard that thus far had eluded us, but found only lion. Someone had installed a poorly planned and illegal camp on top of a nearby ridge and, for a couple of years, the leopard had made only rare appearances, demonstrating the importance of camp placement.
Alex Walker’s Serian Camp (www.serian.net) has a great location right on the river, thereby not affecting territory or the free roaming of the area animals. And it is a manageable camp size, with five tents on one side of the river and eight tents on the other. Alex has used all of the wisdom accumulated over a lifetime in Kenya to balance impacts and to honor native customs and peoples.
After buzzing the airstrip to get the zebras off the tarmac, our plane landed predictably late. As we flew away, we looked down on the territory and marveled that “a whole lot is going on down there”. Seeing the impacts from the air ” the interaction of the Maasai on the land, the yearly migration of the wildebeest, the tourist facilities ” really highlighted the need for this wild place to be respected and protected for the sake of the local people, the animals and the tourists. Despite tourism’s overwhelming impact, it is an economic necessity and the small boutique camp seems the best way possible to enjoy all that an African safari has to offer.
We learned some things on this venture. When we go again we will fly in and fly out – savoring our time on the Mara. We’ll cover less territory and spend more time in places like Serian. But we won’t fly exclusively, because driving is the only way to experience the countryside. It is how you get a sense of lifestyle and the open generosity of the Kenyan people.
Andy and Georgia Hanson love Africa because every visit further enchants. The dignity and grace of the African people is truly something to be witnessed and shared. Andy began his infatuation in 1962 as a member of the Liberia One Peace Corps unit. Georgia’s exposure began early this century. She is happy and privileged to be able to tag along.
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