Thanks to her 50-plus national parks and reserves, sweeping plains, abundant wildlife – including the spectacular annual migration of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara – Kenya holds the title of the World’s Leading Safari Destination, winning the accolade at this winter’s World Travel Awards held in Qatar.
Gill Martin discovered why as she visited the magnificent savannah that captured Prince William’s heart during his gap year, drank in intoxicating African landscapes and sundowners, was wowed by teeming wildlife encountered on dawn game drives, trekked, swam and relaxed around campfires under the stars.
Our Land Cruiser bumped over the dirt track, slewing to a halt just in time for us to see a pride of lions pass in front of our bonnet. Six lions and lionesses padded noiselessly in the dwindling light.
Then the seventh, a huge male with magnificent mane, approached from the rear. Which side would he pass: the right side where Norman, our driver and guide from Lewa camp, sat quietly, behind his door, or the open-sided left where I sat wide-eyed and breathless? He chose my side, nonchalantly padding 10 ft. away as I pressed a shaky finger on my camera shutter.
He hardly gave us a glance as we let out a collective breath. He was more interested in keeping supper in his sights: a herd of buffalo up on the ridge.
Never did a sundowner seem more richly deserved as marvelled at what Africa does best: big landscape, big sky, big game and big heart.
As the sun prepared to dip behind the ridge in a blaze of blood orange and reds Norman laid out limes, juices, wines, spirits and nibbles on the bonnet. We toasted Kenyan prosperity and resilience, and an African safari that showed off elephant, endangered black and white rhino, buffalo, lion, cheetah, leopard, giraffe, common and the rare Grevy’s zebra with comical Mickey Mouse ears, wildebeest, baboon, ostrich, cheetah, impala, graceful Grant’s gazelle, jackal, jaunty warthog, gerunek, a long-necked antelope as slender as super-models and the most colourful birds and butterflies.
Lewa is where Prince William spent his gap year, nursing a broken heart during a break-up with Kate Middleton and where he eventually proposed to her in a romantic safari lodge to make her his Duchess of Cambridge.
His time on 62,000 acres of savannah under the gaze of Mt. Kenya also cemented his passion for conservation, the lifeblood for tourism, and in a recent TV documentary the patron of the conservation trust Tusk Trust spoke of his determination to bring their son Prince George here, saying: “I hope he’ll follow in my footsteps and will love the animals as much as I do.”
Lewa gives you the ultimate safari experience and a clear conscience. Their record in animal conservation and community development is second to none, and the template for many African wildlife parks. Rangers wage a ceaseless war against the scourge of poachers who target rhinos and elephants for valuable horns and tusks.
Lewa also gives you glamping. Glamorous camping means not having to rough it, unless you count bad hair days as power-guzzling hairdryers are banned. The furnishings are stylish, the beds comfortable, the plumbing more than adequate. And to be woken just before sunset for an early morning game drive was tempered by a cup of hot chocolate and cookies to avoid rumbling tummies before a proper cooked breakfast on our return journey.
Our second destination of Joy’s Camp, named after the naturalist Joy Adamson whose book, Born Free, chronicled her experiences raising a lion cub named Elsa. Here our prize sighting was of a leopard walking into the dusk just feet from where Joy’s memorial stone stood.
But it’s not all about box ticking as we drive over scrub, along dried out river beds and tinder dry grasses, dodging spiky acacia trees.
You have as much fun trekking on a trail to identify droppings and prints. It’s amazing what you can discover from scat: this hyena chewed bones as the droppings are white; that lion ate buffalo yesterday as the dung contains fur and hoof; another stalked along the same trail today as no sand or vegetation have fallen into the fresh prints; the elephants pass this way regularly, rubbing their sides against the trunk of a tree until it is as smooth as satin; the porcupine shed a quill here.
The most exciting trek was at Kitich, in the Matthews mountain range following the River Ngenge, fording it on logs and boulders, hacking our way into dense forest. Our briefing from Stefano Cheli, switching roles from host to guide, was explicit. We were in lion territory and we would be walking within feet of them, even if we couldn’t see them.
Our advance scout was Thomas, an elder from the semi-nomadic and pastoralist Samburu tribe and cousins of the Masai. Armed with a rifle he would be alert to any sight or sound of wild life that might present a danger – buffalo and elephants the biggest threat – and would signal for us to stop, crouch or retreat. Stefano was armed with his trusty 375 rifle, Leseman, another tribal elder with a spear, and me… with a walking stick. It was less a weapon and more an aid to scramble up steep, overgrown paths, under fallen trees and over boulders.
‘A bullet will stop a buffalo or elephant if the shooter knows what he is doing,’ said Stefano. ‘But I believe in never putting myself or others in a position of risk. If you need to move quickly watch where you put your feet. People often fall over in their panic to escape.’
The rear guard was Touson, a young warrior with colourful headdress and beaded neckwear. Stefano put him to the test by leaping from behind a bush with a fair approximation of a roaring lion. Touson immediately crouched in spear throwing mode. Stefano was lucky to escape without a puncture.
Hot, dusty and thirsty we settled on boulders by the river edge for a refreshing swim. Braver souls swung Tarzan-style on a rope to plunge into the water. I did an impression of a crocodile (there was none in this river) slithering down the bank to cool off.
A picnic lunch and a return to camp led to afternoon tea on the huge veranda overlooking the river. We watched a pied kingfisher hovering before diving like a turbo-charged dart for a fish supper.
The perfect end to a perfect day was eating Welsh rarebit and roasted nut ‘bities’ around a blazing camp fire at Kitich – Samburu word for Place of Peace – before our dinner as host Stefano shared his passion for wildlife conservation and preservation of endangered species.
That night nothing bar the gurgle of the river broke the night silence of our safari camp. Nothing until the sound of a large male lion roused me from my slumber.
It was near, very near. Not a roar, not even a growl, more a throaty call. The Samburu elders and warriors living on site heard it too – a low rumbling that established his territorial supremacy, maybe calling to a lioness or warning off other males.
I strained my ears in the blackness of my tent, safely zipped up for the night. Just brave enough to visit the bathroom, en-suite but with no roof between me and a canopy of indigo blue sky and a million stars, I tiptoed to the loo by the beam of my flashlight.
Then silence. Kitich returned to a Place of Peace.
Kenya Airways operates daily from London-Heathrow to Nairobi. Prices from £726.95 including tax. Reservations: 020 8283 1818.
Prices for Joy’s camp start from US$350 (approx. £215) per person per night including full board accommodation, game drives, guided bush walks & sundowners, bush breakfasts along Ewaso Nyiro river & gorge, Chaffa & Samburu airstrip transfers, transfers to a nomadic Borana village when in reach of the lodge, trips to Magado Crater and limited laundry.
Prices for Kitich Camp start from US$450 (approx. £275) per person per night including full board accommodation, soft drinks, beer, house wines & non-luxury spirits, guided bush walks & game tracking, river swimming, bird watching & bush picnics, Ngelai airstrip transfers and limited laundry.
Prices for Lewa Safari Camp start from US$380 (approx. £235) per person per night including full board accommodation, guided bush walks & game, drives, bush breakfasts and sundowners, Lewa airstrip transfers and taxes.