The row over Cecil the lion, slain by an American dentist with a passion for killing beautiful beasts, rumbles on.
If he’d joined our super safari to Kenya he would have received his come-uppance. Poachers face summary execution by the rangers if caught.
We came to hunt too. But armed to shoot with cameras rather than bow and arrows. We came to admire not to annihilate magnificent animals on their home territory.
And poised on the aptly named Lion Rock in the fertile savannah of the Masai Mara near Sand River we spied our prey, a huge male, windswept mane framing glittering tawny eyes, was doing what potent lions need to do: mating. It’s exhausting – six times an hour for 24 hours of the day for four days. He had no time to eat or drink while doing his bit with his harem of lionesses to keep the lion population around the 300 mark.
Not all the Big Five obliged us with photo opportunities. The leopard remained elusive. We came, we heard, we smelled – but it was the leopard that conquered in our game of hide and seek.
There was the unmistakable huff-huffing of a leopard close, very close to our safari camp. The night was cool and dark, a vast expanse of sky, pulsating with a million pinpricks of starlight.
A guard escorting us to dinner, his torchlight puncturing the blackness, confirmed it was the leopardess that regularly prowled the camp. But no problem, he assured us. ‘She’ll be here but you are lucky to see her. Sometime you spot her lying on a rock at sunrise.’
That night, our ears strained to the animal’s breathy panting, rhythmic and throaty, announcing its right to the territory. By morning you could sniff its presence, a big gamey smell from its sweat glands. And there were tell-tale prints by the outside shower by the bedrooms.
Close encounters with the other Big Four more than made up for our lack of a sighting.
Watching that male mating atop Lion Rock; a cheetah cub climbing onto the bonnet of our Land Cruiser; dancing and praying with Masai Mara villagers; the silent march of sixty plus elephants, walking shoulder to shoulder, a black line on the horizon before their huge bulk engulfed our vehicles and passed in puffs of dust from soft footfalls.
Other highlights of a thousand safari experiences. included a chef in his whites preparing our bacon and scrambled eggs breakfast in the middle of the bush; sipping spine-stiffening sundowners in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, are all unforgettable.
I have never felt to spoilt. For this was no Spartan under-canvas safari, bouncing around for mile after dusty mile on journeys between our three camps: Tortilis in the salt plains of Amboseli National Park; Elsa’s Kopje, the arid desert wildlife gem in Meru National Park and the location of the movie Born Free, which celebrates its 60th anniversary next year (2016); and Sand River Mara, in the fertile savannah of the Masai Mara.
Ours was a five-star luxury safari where we were whisked through Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport to our personal transport: a Cessna Grand Caravan executive twin-engine plane with Peter the Pilot waiting to greet us.
This was a champagne start to our SkySafari jaunt, a just-launched (June 2015) hassle-free programme designed for those wanting to pack in as many animal sightings in different settings in the shortest time. And to enjoy all the creature comforts – soft pillows, swimming pools, hot and cold running water and beer, excellent fresh cuisine, massages, friendly service.
We sank back in our wide leather seats, revived with a flute of chilled bubbly as we soared over the capital’s notorious traffic jams and towards Mount Kenya, craning to spot elephants cooling off in swampland, a dazzle of startled zebra and grumpy-looking water buffalo.
This felt so Meryl Streep and Robert Redford from Out of Africa as we trundled along the dirt runway.
Sensory overload followed as our group were ferried to Tortilis Camp. We fired a fuselage of questions at our patient driver: how many of the 400 species of birds would we see, is that wart hog receiving wi-fi on his antenna of a tail, how big in that bachelor herd of wildebeest, is the tawny eagle feasting on a hare, when will those hippos emerge from their murky pool? I spied a dung beetle doing what dung beetles do: undertaking a Herculean task of rolling provisions uphill to the larder.
Our guide Eric was a more seasoned spotter, picking out a roll-call of giraffes, lilac-breasted roller bird, superb starlings, water buck, hippo with just their twitching ears visible above the water surface, baby elephants trundling behind their mother and aunties. He knew most of the adult elephants by names given by the research teams. Rangers are on constant patrol to guard against the scourge of poaching to feed the lucrative and insatiable market for rhino horn in China.
Even that 5.30 a.m. wake-up call for the first game drive arrived with a smile, a cup of green tea and home-baked shortbread (zip your tent carefully or the cheeky black faced vervet monkeys will steal them). And knowing there would be a lavish breakfast in the bush, full English with HP sauce bearing the royal crest, gave us heart. There was even an (unplumbed) lavatory discreetly shielded by a bush, with a shovel, in case we needed to mark our territory.
Eric treated us to an ‘African massage,’ his description of fording rivers and bouncing over volcanic rocks from Kilimanjaro’s last eruption three or four million years ago, as we headed back to base for a swim in our infinity pool, lazing on sun loungers before a Tusker beer, lunch and a doze before the evening game drive.
The refreshment highlight was sundowners, when barman Kibaki dispensed liberal measures of Gilbey’s Gin as we watched a dying apricot sun turn blood red against a bruise blue sky.
Emboldened by the second sundowner I asked Eric if we could walk back to the lodge, whose lights glowed amber in the distance. What animals would eat us, I enquired. ‘Lion and hyena. But with Eric you are safe,’ replied the scarlet-robed Masai senior tribesman armed with a spear. False courage deserted me and we opted for the Land Cruiser rather than a two hour scramble through clumps of spiky acacia bushes.
If the Masai men are strong warriors – they breakfast on milk mixed with cow blood collected from a nip in the animal’s neck – the women are equally formidable. On our visit to a Masai village they showed us round the huts they build from cow dung and hide in just three days.
And Phanice, the masseuse at our lodge, showed a similar fortitude, travelling 23 hours by bus every two months from her home to work, leaving her eight year old son and six year old daughter in the care of her mother to fund their education. She radiated good humour, saying: ‘You have more days if you smile and are happy and appreciate nature.’
Africa does things on such a big scale: big continent, big sky, big landscape, big game, big heart, big problems, big danger.
Kenya is but a part of that enormous continent, with a buoyant economy and looking forward to two historic visits.
American President Barack Obama made his first visit to Kenya, birthplace of his father, since taking office, in July. And Pope Francis has spoken of his hope to visit in November during his first trip to Africa since becoming pope.
Security is a key factor to both visits as Kenya has been a target for attacks by Islamist militants, Al Shabaab, who are based in neighbouring Somalia.
As for British tourists the Foreign Office last month (June 2015) relaxed its travel advice, thus opening up more of the Kenyan coast to holidaymakers – there were over 117,000 from the UK in 2014 – who want to combine beach with safari in the country’s 59 national parks.
Our visit to just three of these parks left me wanting more of the action – and determined to spot that elusive leopard.
Kenya Airways operates daily flights from London-Heathrow to Nairobi. Featuring new B787 – Dreamliners. Economy return ticket to Nairobi from £701.86 including tax. Reservations: 020 8283 1818 or www.kenya-airways.com.
UK and Irish travellers now benefit from the introduction of a new e-visa service. You can apply for their Kenya entry visas in advance of arrival in Kenya via the e-visa portal, www.ecitizen.go.ke.