Fun and philanthropy in Kenya
Exotic animals and golden plains? Of course. But a mother and daughter on a trip in Kenya find the heart of a nation in its people.
Ngasakwe "Gus" Kipise, a Samburu warrior and guide, keeps watch for wildlife on a walking safari in Kenya. (Amanda Jones / For The Times / November 8, 2013)
Having danced with the women and narrowly escaped the ownership of a baby goat, we said farewell. It was, as all village visits in Africa have been for me, the happiest of human encounters.
Elsa's Kopje, Meru National Park
Elsa's Kopje is a lodge built on the former site of George and Joy Adamson's camp, the setting for the 1966 film "Born Free." Far from the Adamsons' rough canvas tent camp, Elsa's Kopje is now an elegant retreat perched atop a hill with a 360-degree view.
The 340-square-mile Meru park, recognized for its lions and a rhino sanctuary, remains one of the wildest and least visited of Kenya's parks. Unlike the flaxen plains of the south, the landscape here was green and lush, dotted with doum palms — a tall, graceful, bifurcated tree. There were lions everywhere, hunting, eating, playing, mating and observing us closely.
It was in Meru that Elsa became the first lion to be released successfully into the wild. The release went well, but life for the Adamsons was full of tragedy. They divorced, George's brother was killed by one of the "pet" lions, and later Joy and George were slain, she by a former employee and he by poachers.
None of that specter hung over our house on the kopje (hill). It was so lovely, with such expansive views of the plains below and a family of rock hyrax (imagine a corpulent guinea pig) living in the rocks outside that we skipped a couple of game drives just to swim in the pool and observe the droll hyrax.
Basecamp, Masai Mara
In these days of blatant greenwashing, it's refreshing to stay at a place that really is eco — so eco, in fact, you wish they'd consider using more chemicals in the composting loo in your tent.
Set outside the southern end of the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Basecamp has 12 basic safari tent-rooms. The power is solar, and everything that can be recycled or composted is. The camp also employs the local Masai and has a women's cooperative making stylish beaded accessories that sell globally. It's not the most luxurious place on the Mara, but it feels good to stay here.
The Masai Mara, on the southern border with Tanzania, is the most visited park in Kenya, probably because it has plentiful game and the archetypal "Lion King" golden grass and flat-topped tree landscape.
One night, Patrick shepherded us into our vehicle and would not tell us where we were going. It was dark, and the bush looked empty and daunting. Eventually, we rounded a corner and saw a campfire in a clearing, flanked by the shadowy figures of Masai askaris leaning on spears. Off to one side was a dining table illuminated by hurricane lamps. Beneath a tree a chef prepared dinner on a camp stove. I laughed, thinking perhaps I knew how charmed author Karen Blixen ("Out of Africa") must have been when Denys Finch Hatton brought her to the Mara.
Indigo and I sat at the table with Patrick and Amos Ole Tininah, a young Masai and the head naturalist at Basecamp. When I first started coming to East Africa 16 years ago, I rarely had the chance to dine with Africans so I had missed hearing the stories about what it was like to grow up in Africa.
On our final morning, we woke at 4:30 to take a dawn hot-air balloon ride. As the balloon rose, the new sun cast the world purple, then yellow. The air was still and silent but for our blasts of hot air. Below us wildebeest, antelope, kudu and giraffe fled from our shadow, a lion pride looked up annoyed, jackals disappeared into holes and outraged ostriches ran in circles flapping their wings.
Later that day we were back in Nairobi eating lunch at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden Restaurant, a historic house near her farm. We sat in the garden under 100-year-old trees, and I peppered Patrick with final questions.
"So what does your father think of you now?" I asked.
He paused and smiled, "Well, I suppose he's proud. But he still has cows and still needs help herding them. That is the old Kenya, and I am the new."