Lions in Masai Mara National Park
Pride of Lions, Masai Mara, Kenya

We need money, not sweets’, implored a village boy running beside us as we made our way back to the Land Rover. It’s a scene we’ve all seen lots of times on TV, but as familiar as it may be, nothing really prepares you for the moment you’re surrounded by groups of smiling African children in a village where grinding poverty is clearly the norm.

The popular wisdom suggests you give an adult some pens or sweets to share out to the children after the obligatory photocall, but your instinct is to give something more substantial. The situation perfectly sums up the extremes of emotions Africa provokes – the elation of meeting warm people in their traditional dwellings is tempered by the knowledge that their subsistence existence is back-breakingly hard.

My wife Gillian and I had escaped our hotel for the day to visit the village of Muyeye at the beginning of a two week Kenyan odyssey that would take in four different stops, ranging from beaches to game reserves, and more besides. Having travelled extensively before but never to Africa, Gillian and I had decided that Kenya might give us the ideal introduction to the continent, with its legendary wildlife, friendly people and colonial past – sort of like a ‘soft’ initiation to a continent known for its extremes.

Faded glory
It’s fair to say that our hotel in Kilifi Bay, an hour’s bumpy drive from Mombasa, had definitely seen better days, and while the beach provided a dramatic backdrop to our cabin set among palm trees with the waves relentlessly crashing in from the Indian Ocean, there are much better beaches in Kenya. Visiting a typical Kenyan village was high up on my list, and with our aforementioned visit to Muyeye ticking that particular box, I set my sights on a trip out to sea with the local Kilifi Bay fishermen.

So, getting up at the crack of dawn I headed down to the nearby creek and persuaded the captain of a small suhk to let me onboard for the first fishing trip of the day. We headed out to sea in the tiny boat, and as we were tossed around by the ever larger breakers, I wondered what I had got myself into. With the sun beating down, only my trusty Tilley hat saved me from a complete scorching, and it seemed like I was in for  a gruelling morning’s fishing. However, once we’d cast our rods a few times, the captain decided that the currents were too strong to catch anything of note, so we headed back to the creek and contented ourselves with catching tiddlers on hand-held fishing lines.

North of Kilifi is the beach resort of Malind, complete with a fascinating nature reserve. Mainly containing reptiles and birds, we spent a happy hour marvelling at some of Africa’s deadliest snakes, including black mambas (of ‘Kill Bill’ fame), green mambas (only slightly less lethal), spitting cobras and enormous pythons. There were also magnificent birds of prey and an adorable bush baby which virtually purred as we tickled its chin. Heading back down to Kilifi, we decided we were now suitably unwound, and ready for the next leg of our trip.

Home comforts
We’d heard about a beautiful ex-colonial residence that was now being run as a ‘homestead’ by a British couple near Mombasa, so before heading off on safari we thought we’d stop by for a couple of nights to get a different kind of Kenyan experience. Ali and Tony Allport have Africa in their blood, both having spent their childhoods here – Ali in Kenya itself and Tony in Nigeria – and they now live right on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Here they’ve entended their lovely home to include several very comfortable guest bedrooms. With a huge garden that runs right down to the sea, and its own little beach surrounded by rocks, the setting really is amazing, and watching the moon rise out of the ocean one evening while sipping wine on the verandah will be one of our abiding memories of our trip.

Ali is a very accomplished cook, and as well as serving up amazing seafood for guests, also offers cookery courses for those interested in Swahili and coastal cuisine. Tony, on the other hand, is a dive and sailing expert, and under the monicker Dive Safari Kenya runs cruises on their beautiful yacht Aristos to Pemba island, where the scuba diving is said to be superb. Deep sea fishing is also on the menu, and the first evening we tucked into a delicious meal of sailfish which was caught just the day before by Pepo Mingi’s previous guests.

The activities on offer from Pepo Mingi are numerous, from kayaking down the nearby Mtwapa Creek, to birdwatching, fishing, sailing, and visiting national parks. But there’s only so much you can do in two days, and as we moved on we felt like we had only scratched the surface of the area’s attractions.

Animal magic
With our batteries by now well and truly recharged, we headed back to Mombasa to pick up our flight out to the Mara. A couple of hours into the flight, our pilot tipped the aircraft’s wings and through the windows we had a stunning view of Mount Kilimanjaro in all its glory. Kili is so breathtaking because it stands alone, surrounded by hundreds of miles of flat terrain. Captivated by its snowy peaks, we resolve there and then to come back one day to attempt the climb up Kili and see the view from the ‘Roof of Africa’.

Landing at a small dusty airstrip on the Mara, we are met by our guide Dan, a Kenyan and a co-director of Juletabi African Adventures, and the man who would be at the wheel of the special safari-customised 4×4 for the next three days. As Dan drove us to the Fig Tree Camp on the banks of the Talek River, our base for the next three days, we immediately started coming across more animals that we could ever have imagined. Long ‘trains’ of wildebeest stretched as far as the eye could see, and everywhere we looked there were zebra, gazelle and buffalo.

“We’d expected to have to search for the animals,” we joked with Dan, who laughed and corrected us. “Right now the wildebeest are everywhere, and the other animals aren’t far behind.”

The excitement of seeing so much wildlife so close up and raw is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t safaried before. The lives, and sometimes deaths, of animals are played out right in front of you on a huge scale, and never more so than during the migration of the wildebeest from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. Lucky we’ve come at the right time then.

Once checked into the Fig Tree Camp, with the tented rooms providing an almost perfect balance between comfort and proximity to nature, we headed out again with Dan to search for the big five. We started seeing animals just a few hundred yards from the camp, and over the next couple of hours we were on the edge of our seats in awe. The first time we saw lions was certainly a highlight, and the manner in which they lie in the middle of the tracks, virtually unaware of the vehicles that gather around them, is just wonderful to watch.

As much as we were amazed by the number of animals, we were also disappointed to see so many vehicles around us, and by the way they all race to a location once something interesting is spotted. Watching a lioness play in the long grass with her cubs was undoubtedly a very special moment, but the magic was slightly diminished by the huddle of vehicles stuffed full of chattering and camcorder-wielding tourists that had descended upon the scene.

But that’s not to diminish the experience too much, because if you come to places like the Mara and the Serengeti then you know what you are getting – lots of animals, but lots of other people too. It’s a good introduction to African wildlife, while a more ‘hardcore’ safari experience is for another day, and probably another country.

The next day we’re heading for the Mara River, famous for the crocodiles that snap at the heels of the wildebeest herds that cross here in their thousands. The drive takes a few hours during which our eyes are peeled for signs of lions, giraffe, and buffalo. Every now again Dan slows down and picks up his binoculars. “See the bull elephant over there,” and as we scan the landscape our eyes finally settle on the magnificent animal.

It’s amazing how guides like Dan can spot animals while driving, including a cheetah, surely one of the most beautiful animals you’ll ever see. The female is sitting motionless behind a bush on a hill, watching a heard of gazelle in the valley below. All that’s visible is her head, and she is so still we can’t believe Dan has managed to spot her. We watch alone for a while before the inevitable crowd of vehicles gather.

Crocs and hippos
Reaching the Mara River, we are given a guided tour along its banks by one of the armed wardens that are hired to keep visitors safe. The river is home to not only enormous crocodiles, but families of hippo, who constantly ruck with each other to protect their part of the river. “The hippos are extremely territorial – if you fall into the river, they will kill you,” explained our warden, adding that the hippos massive jaws will crush a man’s skull in an instant.

The knowledge of the guides and wardens out here make the experience so much more fulfilling. Dan, for instance, tells us that the zebra and wildebeest herds mix together because the zebra have a great sense of smell, while the wildebeest have great eyesight (or is it the other way round?), so between them they have a great chance of spotting potential danger from predators. Or that buffalo sit with half the group facing one way and half the group facing the other way, so they can smell the wind in both directions. We also find out why the Big Five are called the Big Five. “They have no natural predators,” explains Dan. “The lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino can’t kill each other, only if they are injured or infants, so they are all top of the food chain.”

On the way back we come across another cheetah lying lazily on top of a big mound of earth, and we feel privileged as this normally shy creature seems to pose for our pictures while it yawns and stretches.

Another top moment was when Dan spotted a couple of lionesses stalking a herd of gazelles. The predators pass literally feet away from our vehicle, and as they melt into the long grass in front of us, it looks certain that at least one unlucky gazelle is unlikely to see the day out. We follow slowly behind the lionesses, and while it’s easy to believe that safari vehicles can disrupt the hunting patterns of lions and other predators, it’s also fascinating to find out that they sometimes actually use the vehicles themselves as cover when creeping up on their intended victims. Just when we think the lionesses are about to start their sprint at the gazelles, they change their mind and decide to take an afternoon nap instead. The male lion joins them, and within minutes they are all fast asleep in the afternoon sun!

No trip to the Mara is complete without a visit to a Masai village, and we spent an hour with these colourful and friendly tribespeople in their traditional dwellings. Playing host to tourists is an important part of the Masai’s living nowadays, but while we are aware of their well-practised routine of greeting you, dancing for you, then selling you their wares, you can only admire their desire to retain their traditional way of life while also adapting to the times.

Lap of luxury
To round off our Kenyan experience, Gillian and I had decided we wanted a few days of out and out indulgence before heading home, so off we went to the Shimba Hills in search of the ultimate in luxury. On arrival at the Kutazama lodge, we were met by owners Garry and Gill Richardson who showed us around their stunning residence.  Words alone cannot do justice to the setting of Kutazama, which has panaromic views for literally hundreds of kilometres across lush green hills to Mount Kilimajaro. Perched up in the hills with a river meandering along the valley beneath, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the view, with the light changing minute by minute, and with families of elephants roaming through the Mwaluganje Sanctuary that stretches for miles around.

As the only guests here (there’s one suite only), we have sole access to the chef, our own butler and exclusive use of the facilities which include a stunning dual-deck swimming pool set against the backdrop of a 30ft cliff face. The design and construction of the place is just exemplary, with each room built around the natural features the property is built on – with the branches of trees come right into the main living areas.

Gill and Garry have worked in Africa for many years with various charities, and their passion for the people, culture and wildlife is utterly infectious. “We bought this land as a place to come and unwind at weekends,” says Gill, “but we loved it so much that in the end we had to come and live here permanently.”

The area is home to some of the wealthiest people in Kenya, attracted by the stunning, unspoilt landscape and with its close proximity to Kenya’s finest beach, Diani. Even the wealthy though would be hard-pressed to ignore the local communities, and Gill and Garry themselves are very much involved with various teaching and conservation projects in the area.

One last treat before we headed home was an early morning trek down to a waterfall in deep jungle near Kutazama. With the danger posed by a close encounter with a bull elephant in the deep vegetation, Garry led the way with gun at ready. But with only baboons for company we came across an almost Tarzan-eque scene of cascading waterfalls, rockfaces, thick vines, and a cave where legend has it a monster python has its lair. This magical place is still used by locals to make sacrifices when times are tough, and indeed we spot the remains of a chicken on one of the huge rocks.

Kenya had definitely proved to be an ideal introduction to Africa, and the perfect prelude to further forays into this amazing continent. And just like with Tony and Ali and Garry and Gill, Africa will get under your skin like no other place. And once it does, you’ll want to scratch that itch again and again.

For more information on Kenya click here

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