Maddy, aged eight, is keen on elephants. She gets off the aeroplane in Nairobi and glances around in excitement. “When will we see the elephants?” Not too long ago that was a valid question on the outskirts of the city, but these days you get ribbon-housing developments and traffic.
We are on what is billed as an inexpensive safari, staying in conservation areas just outside two of Kenya’s most famous national parks: Amboseli and Masai Mara. Inexpensive is not a word normally associated with safaris. In fact, the modern tourist safari developed from the big-game hunter experience, all vast numbers of staff and acres of canvas.
This promises to be rather different, a safari to match the changing mood in a country now confidently emerging from a postcolonial period: practical, egalitarian and without the hint of condescension that hangs over much of the luxury end of the market. It is still hardly budget, though. Will it be worth it?
I had another worry too: Would “inexpensive” mean reduced wildlife? Would we be shown a few tame gazelles, then treated to the “Aren’t ants fascinating?” lecture, a sure-fire sign of the scarcity of bigger game. I need not have worried. When we turn off the highway and start on the dirt roads, Maddy wakes up and immediately spots something. “Look! Funny cows with two legs!” We get closer and she sees her mistake. “Ostriches!”
They are followed by a small herd of impala, a dik-dik and a giraffe. Her excitement is reaching unsustainable levels, but shows no sign of dropping as we begin to labour through some muddy patches. The forest here is thicker and in one particularly thick clump we come to the camp — a group of tents surrounded by a stout thorn bush fence.
This is the end of the tourist season in Kenya, the start of the rains, and we are the only guests in a camp that normally takes 18. Hence we have acres of canvas and vast numbers of friendly staff, including Emmanuel Mpararia, a Maasai man of such awesome charm, intelligence and towering good looks that Maddy decides, sensibly, to stick close and ply him with an endless series of questions. “If an elephant gets stuck in brambles, can it get out?” “What is a Maasai warrior?”
This is interrupted by the chef, who has come running over to tell us that elephants are approaching. There is a flurry of scarlet cloaks as the staff, all local Maasai warriors, dash to grab their spears, but Maddy remains calm in the imperturbable presence of Mpararia. He leads us slowly through the back gate and there, casually removing a 15m tree from its path, is a massive male elephant. We watch for a while, then the elephant ambles away and we return to camp for lunch and a chance to meet the man behind the Selenkay Conservancy, Jake Grieves-Cook.
Restoring the balance
Grieves-Cook is a white Kenyan who has spent his life in the tourist business. “This all started in 1995,” he says. “I was visiting Amboseli National Park just a few miles away and got talking to Jacob Leyian, who was a cook at a tourist lodge.”
Leyian happened to be head of a nearby Maasai community land area that was exhausted from over-grazing. Wild animals had deserted it too. The two men hatched an idea to manage the land, encourage wildlife to return and then bring tourists in.
It was the plan for jobs, however, that was really ground-breaking. Previously, the tourist business had been largely controlled by Nairobi people, mostly white or Asian, whereas locals were in menial positions. Now the Maasai would have a chance.
In 1999 Selenkay, Kenya’s first “conservancy”, welcomed its first tourist and kick-started a movement that is sweeping across the country. All the staff are locals, including camp manager Mpararia.
“You know this used to be a hunting area,” Grieves-Cook tells me. “Hemingway came and shot here. But now we’ve got the animals coming back and it’s sustainable. We’ve got two prides of lions, 200 giraffe and 21 cheetahs. And we’ve employed 60 local people.”
One of Grieves-Cook’s ideas is that the safari does not have to be a grand and ostentatious affair with four-poster beds draped in silk nets. We are sleeping in standard dome tents that have a small outdoor shower and toilet behind them. All the meals — and they are exceptional — are taken in a separate area under the shade of the acacias. Birds swoop in as well as the occasional monkey, but the traditional thorn-bush fence keeps most of the wildlife out. At night we hear it: a hyena yowling, an impala’s alarm call and, distantly, the deep roar of a male lion.
The next day we are up early. A kingfisher, its wings a scorching blue, cackles in the tree above my tent. We are going to walk a few kilometres to a nearby Maasai village and say hello. One of the guards starts to make a bow as we stroll. Another chops out a few arrows. Before too long everyone is armed and the arrows start flying. My hat is commandeered and put on a stick, and it is peppered with arrows to cries of laughter.
An hour passes and Maddy has lost any shyness with this gang of warriors: they are all playing and she is learning a few words of Maasai. Next thing they are teaching her spear-throwing techniques and I can see Maddy is thinking that becoming a Maasai might be a good idea.
The village of Noonkulak, however, will soon sort that out. Like our camp, the village is ringed by a thorn-bush fence, but inside it is a very different place indeed — a set of rectangular mud huts around a central pile of cow dung where the herds spend the night. Children come forward to have their heads touched, the traditional greeting, but Maddy being so big for her age causes some confusion.
Flies settle with gentle familiarity around our eyes. The children are in rags and barefoot, the women say they have to fetch water from a long distance and Maddy tests the weight of a full jerrycan and winces.
Game park realpolitik
The revolution that conservancy status was meant to bring might appear not to have touched this place. But our guides, locals themselves, are adamant that all 100 villages within the conservancy are benefiting from the jobs and the regeneration of their land.
The second part of our trip is to Ol Kinyei Conservancy, 7 000 hectares of land close to the Masai Mara National Reserve, through which we must pass. This short cut is about to give us a lesson in the realpolitik of game parks in Africa.
Our guide, Jimmy Lemara, has got us plastic swipe cards that have prepaid entry fees. The charge is $80 each. But at the gate the officers refuse to let us in. At the side of the building I can see a seated party of local men whose body language tells me they have some importance — and are angry.
One man explains the situation. The swipe cards have been introduced by the government and that has stopped all payments in cash at the gate. This cash was usually diverted into the pockets of local politicians. The men are protesting that the swipe cards mean the central government will take all the receipts and no local person will see the money. “These men employed many people in this area,” explains the guard. “They spent a lot of money.” He pauses, then grins. “Mostly on big houses for themselves.”
I walk over to the seated men and ask to be let into the park. They refuse at first, but after a little cajoling we are allowed in. Our camp is under tall trees where purple-fronted sunbirds are flitting through sprays of yellow orchids lit by post-pluvial sunshine. The ground is silver with the fallen wings of flying ants. The next day we climb White-necked Hill with our good-humoured gang of Maasai warriors-cum-camp workers and spot animals: a klipspringer, a giraffe, elephants, bat-eared foxes and jackals.
Our memory of the real world with its man-made problems of money and greed is falling away. We learn how to use a tree for deodorant and how to track the elusive caracal cat and the obtrusive hippo.
We extract chewing gum from a tree, then honey, and we practise throwing a rungu — the lethal Maasai hunting stick. One night I open the tent and catch in my torch beam a genet, a spotted cat of such exquisite beauty that I cannot believe I saw it for only half a second, so indelible is the mark in my memory.
Then one day, skirting a broad area of long grass, Lemara stops and points. “Cheetahs.” For a long time we cannot make them out, but then the cheetahs oblige by breaking cover and walking towards us. There is a mother with two cubs.
The following day we drive to the far side of the conservancy and see mongooses, baboons, hippos and crocodiles. We are far into our bubble now. All Africa is ours: the outside world is no more.
We are driving parallel to a small wooded stream when I spot a figure, a man running with a spear. It is only a glimpse, then he is hidden by a thicket. We drive the 4×4 around the thicket and find a group of excited men brandishing spears.
“A lion just killed our cow!” they shout. Sure enough, there is a dead cow in a tangle of thorn bushes, a single devastating tooth mark on its neck. They are pointing at the thicket. “It happened one minute ago. He’s in there! Let’s go in and get him!” Maddy gets out of the car and pulls a wad of lion’s mane from a thorn. “It’s from one of the Ol Kinyei lions,” says Lemara, inspecting it. We drive away, leaving the men building a fire. They are going to have a barbecue right there and then. There is no sign of the lion, which seems to have made a clean getaway.
Our bubble has gone. The reality of life in an area with dangerous animals has made itself clear, as have the challenges of conservation. As we drive back to camp to collect our luggage and leave, I remember what Maddy did. That little bit of observation — the hair on the thorn — and the sense to grab it.
There were many benefits to her children’s safari, and becoming alert and attentive to her surroundings was one. She learned to read the signs and react. The presence of lions would, I suppose, have a sharpening effect on the senses.
A week had not been long, but we did feel we had been immersed in the wilderness and seen Maasai life at close quarters. And “inexpensive”? Not exactly, but there is a satisfaction in knowing that your money goes to the community, not the fat cat.
Back home, there is further proof that Maddy was paying attention. “Would you like to be a Maasai?” I ask. “I’d like to see Emmanuel and Jimmy again,” she says, “but I wouldn’t like to be a Maasai. The girls have to walk a long way to get water.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012