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  • Writer's pictureJenny Carless

Herds, not Hordes

Away from the zebra-striped vans, visitors walk on the wild side…

“If an elephant charges you, roll up in a ball next to a bush or shrub–they have poor eyesight,” explained Graham, the guide for our walking safari. “If it’s a lion, climb a tree. If it’s a Cape buffalo, well … just pray.”

A little stunned by the ‘what to do if you get charged’ pep talk, I’m not sure I remember his words precisely. But that’s more or less how it went. There were just seven of us – and hundreds of miles of dry, wheat-hued savanna dotted with acacias and doum palms as far as I could see. We dutifully tucked our pant legs into our socks (to avoid scratches, ticks and other annoying critters), loaded our backpacks with water and fell in line behind Graham.

As we set off on foot across the plains, beads of sweat were already trickling down my back, even in the early morning. Graham led the way with rifle in hand; a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger brought up the rear – also with a rifle. Having wanted, for as long as I could remember, to see all the African animals I could, I found myself secretly hoping, after Graham’s introduction, that we wouldn’t come across any at all.

This was one of the ways I found to break free from the binocular-toting crowds in Kenya’s magnificent game parks. Among some safari aficionados, the East African nation has a reputation like Yogi Berra’s classic line about a restaurant: It’s so crowded no one goes there anymore. In the most popular national parks and reserves, the Land Rover paparazzi and the zebra-striped safari vans can sometimes outnumber the wildlife and all but eliminate any hope of a quiet, undisturbed moment or two with a cheetah and her cubs, a troop of baboons or a herd of Maasai giraffes. That’s why many hardcore game viewers have moved to Botswana, Zambia and other less-visited African nations.

But with a little planning, some expert advice and the best guides, I discovered, it’s possible to leave behind the hordes and find untrampled terrain and unpestered animals–to find your own private Kenya.

Elsa’s Kopje, Meru National Park

I started with Meru National Park, about 175 miles northeast of Nairobi, because it’s one of the few national parks or reserves where visitors can get out of a vehicle for a walking safari.

I was also intrigued because it’s one of Kenya’s least visited parks. Meru’s wildlife fell victim to poachers in the 1980s, and although the numbers are now healthy again, that outdated reputation still keeps visitors away. All the better, in my mind: in two visits, I’ve yet to see another vehicle while out on a game drive or a walk in Meru.

Meru is the driest park in Kenya, yet it is ribboned with lush green strips of vegetation along the 13 rivers that traverse its 335 square miles. Its boundaries encompass everything from open plains with doum palms and baobab trees to lush riverine habitat. This extreme diversity provides a home for a wider range of animals than in most other Kenyan parks. Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, lesser kudus, lions, cheetahs, leopards and a multitude of birds are regular inhabitants.

In some places, the tall grasses make it more difficult to see animals – but this tends to keep life interesting: It’s not uncommon to drive around a curve and almost literally run into a herd of elephants or a group of giraffes.

To my relief, the first few hours of our walk were uneventful. We learned to identify the droppings and hoofprints of giraffes and gerenuks (long-necked antelope that stand on their hind legs to browse from trees and the tops of bushes), and we discovered decaying zebra carcasses and the picked-clean bones of many other animals.

An extremely knowledgeable veteran of many years working in the wilds of Africa, our guide, Graham, was soft-spoken and reflective, with intense, dark eyes set in a round face. Years spent under the hot African sun have lightly bronzed his skin. This morning, as every day, he wore his signature khaki-colored shorts and short-sleeved shirt with a worn, brown leather Indiana Jones hat.

Our adrenaline moment came about four hours later. We’d been crouching behind some low bushes for about 20 minutes–my knees were showing their age–watching several hundred Cape buffalo that were grazing about 100 yards away. The herd’s sentries had sensed us, and the group began to tighten up, with the sentries trotting briskly back and forth, parallel to us, along the edge of the herd.

Suddenly, one of the buffalo sentries took off quickly – to the east, away from us. This was lucky for us, because we had to meet our jeep off to the west. The thundering of the 1,200 or so hooves that followed mirrored the dull pounding in my chest and throat as the enormous creatures charged off into the distance.

We stayed huddled until Graham gave the all clear and we were able to stretch our legs. I kept a concerned eye out for the buffalo as we headed off to meet our driver at the designated pick-up spot, but we didn’t catch another glimpse of the herd that day.

Once the immediate danger was over, the thrill of our walk on the wild side far outweighed the scare of finding myself with less than a football field’s distance between me and such a large number of East Africa’s most unpredictable animals.

The other thing that keeps me returning to Meru is Elsa’s Kopje (pronounced “copy” – it means “little hill” in Dutch), on Mughwango Hill inside the park. And yes, it’s that Elsa. The lodge, named after the Born Freelioness, buried nearby, sits on the location of George Adamson’s original camp.

The lodge is one of a very few places to stay around Meru, and its a gem. The location, character, service and food are well worth the steep price.

Elsa’s nine secluded timber and thatch bungalows blend inconspicuously into the side of the kopje, giving each one complete privacy and a stunning view across miles of Meru’s diverse landscape.

Elsa’s also boasts bathrooms with world-class wildlife viewing. Let’s just say that if you’re going to spend some time there, you won’t need any reading material.

At an elevation of 2,400 feet, just 7 miles north of the equator, Meru is usually very warm and doesn’t get the much cooler nights and mornings that some higher-elevation parks and reserves do. So the small, stone swimming pool – also built into the side of the kopje – is a welcome respite after hot, dusty game drives. With a good pair of binoculars, you can continue scanning the savanna for distant elephants, giraffes and antelopes from the comfort of the cool water.

Kicheche Camp, Masai Mara

Another place to enjoy East Africa’s charismatic wildlife without a herd of vans all around you is Kicheche Camp – a luxury bush camp just outside the borders of the famous Masai Mara Reserve. Away from other lodges and camps, it’s tucked in unobtrusively among olive trees on the Aitong Plains in the northern Koiyaki Lemek region of the Mara.

Because Kicheche is unfenced, it’s not uncommon for wildlife to wander through the camp at night. On the second night of my most recent stay, I awoke once, groggily, to hear a lion groaning nearby. Later the same night, the rumbling sound of an elephant told me the small herd that had visited us earlier around the campfire had returned. The next morning, dung on the pathway next to my tent assured me I hadn’t been dreaming.

Like Elsa’s Kopje, Kicheche offers a personalized safari experience with friendly, knowledgeable driver/guides, all members of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association). The camp managers, Sonja and Andy Webb, provide everything from delicious meals to specialized bird-watching walks.

A maximum of 22 guests (there are just 11 tents) gather around the campfire each evening before dinner, and meals are enjoyed at communal tables with the hosts and guides.

Daily game drives from Kicheche might visit the nearby Kilorti Plain, go farther afield to the Musiara Marsh or extend to a full day’s drive to the Mara River – where, in the fall, it’s possible to witness the drama of thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing the river as part of their annual Serengeti-Mara migration.

The camp also organizes guided walks, overnight ‘fly-camps’ and birding expeditions. (Andy Webb is sought out for his East African birding expertise.)

One chilly morning on my first visit to Kicheche, we headed out from camp in the gray light of dawn. Julius, our knowledgeable and ever-enthusiastic Samburu guide, wanted to show us a young mother cheetah and her cubs who frequented the plains not far from Kicheche.

So far on the trip we’d had good “big cat luck,” chancing upon two leopards–they’re normally elusive–plus a maned lion and a family with four very young lion cubs. And we’d witnessed a cheetah stalking and taking down a gazelle. On this  morning, our luck held out, and before we reached our planned destination, Julius spotted the mother.

He parked the Land Cruiser a considerable distance away so as not to disturb her or the cubs, who we knew must be nearby. Soon, we discerned through our binoculars three fuzzy, four-legged youngsters. While the characteristic black cheetah spots aren’t quite so obvious under a layer of fluffy fur, cubs do have the pronounced black “tear drop,” just like their parents.

For the next hour, we sat entranced as the three romped around and jumped all over their long-suffering mother, eventually coming within about 15 feet of the vehicle.

Porini Camp, north Amboseli

Amboseli National Park is home to the classic photo-op: elephants with snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. The views of Kili are deservedly famous, and the park’s lush green swamps – full of elephants, buffaloes, hippos, egrets, white pelicans, crowned cranes and much more – don’t disappoint. Alas, you’ve usually got to share them with lots of other visitors.

But just outside the park, I found it’s possible to enjoy this tableau and avoid most of the crowds. Porini (wilderness in Kiswahili) Camp, less than an hour’s drive to the north of Amboseli, offers a peaceful alternative to the large lodges in the park.

The six-tent luxury camp is in the Eselenkei Conservation Area, a reserve leased from the lanky, spear-carrying local Maasai. Game drives took us into less visited corners of Amboseli and the conservation area, providing private viewing of the abundant wildlife.

Porini offers night game drives in the conservation area, and on my second night we came across a mother lion and four playful cubs who were out exploring. With an infrared light we could park at a distance and watch the cubs tumble and tussle in the grass without disturbing them. We also spotted smaller nocturnal mammals, including a dwarf mongoose, genet cat and bat-eared fox.

Because Porini is on Maasai land and not in a national park or reserve, it’s another place where visitors can get out of a vehicle and take a walk. Local Maasai morani (warriors) act as guides on short, two-hour walks along a nearby river bed in the dry seasons.

Like Kicheche, the camp offers very comfortable tents (regular beds, en-suite bathrooms with flush toilets and running sink, bucket showers). Guests gather under the stars or in the dining tent for dinner. With a maximum of 12 visitors, it feels very much like your own private Kenya.

(This story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle travel section, a number of years ago.)

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