Jambo! The all purpose greeting rings round Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the hub of East Africa. As ever, it’s a chaotic, bustling mass of transiting humanity, but our driver, Fred’s warm welcome and quick hands as he loads the bags into his high suspension, long wheelbase Toyota Landcruiser offer an instant touchstone of certainty: this is going to be great.
Dodging the Kenyan capital’s infamous rush hour logjam courtesy of a nexus of off-road shortcuts, we’re soon arcing northwest away from the city, sometimes shepherded by plantations of tall Tasmanian Blue Gum trees. Each town and village we pass through is a hive of rickety matatu action, the sometimes decorated but perpetually packed private minibuses that keep the population moving. There’s a certain freestyle frisson to the driving, with the occasional vertiginous pothole competing with random wandering wildlife to keep everyone on their toes.
Our destination on day one is Kiboko LuxuryCamp on the shores of Lake Naivasha where the animal life is said to be magnificent. However the journey has already taken on an exotic quality. Herds of cattle and zebra intermingle and graze nonchalantly along the roadside, like sheep in Connemara. And with the same apparent disregard for their own safety or that of oncoming vehicles. One or two unfortunate hyena haven’t crossed safely, but vultures will lead the clean-up crew.
We’ve been climbing steadily and as we round another bend, suddenly the land falls way sharply, cleaving a vast escarpment to the west. This is the Great Rift Valley, which cuts some 6,000 kilometres (3,700m) from Syria in the north to Mozambique to the south of this enormous continent. The panorama is truly stupendous. This is our planet’s dynamic, shifting geology played out on the grandest stage, as Africa is pulled asunder. The so-called Nubian and Somali tectonic plates are drifting apart by a couple of centimetres a year – if that isn’t too inconsequential a verb to describe a monumental, continent-breaking action.
One result of this geological divorce will eventually be a new sea. Or rather a new stretch of an ancient one. Shifting plates also mean sleeping volcanoes and active hot springs. From a human perspective, even more seismic events have been recorded here: this is where archaeological remains of some of our earliest ancestors have been discovered. We’re all children of Africa, born of the Great Rift Valley.
The tents of Kiboko Camp perch on stilts over Lake Naivasha’s shores, connected by a web of elevated wooden boardwalks. There’s a sound practicality to the rather romantic architectural expression: the freshwaters rise and subside year on year. Some 400 species of birds are said to live here and it looks like they’re all out to play when we arrive. From impassive Great Cormorants to circling Fish Eagles, brilliant Pied Kingfishers to the aloof Black Heron. It’s a squawking, honking, flapping, whistling, hooting ornithological paradise.
Across the lake is Crescent Island, the curved lip of a part-submerged, long-dormant volcano, still scattered with black shiny shards of obsidian. The abundant game here exists without the threat of big cat predators. So herds of waterbuck, zebra and giraffe wander the 8 sq. km unworried. Not quite tame, you can walk among them, getting oh-so-close. A baby giraffe skitters about after its mother, looking like it’s running in slow motion. Gazelle munch away unconcerned by the gaping interlopers.
On-board again, we float among a serene squadron (yes) of pelicans, their beaks a glorious Van Gogh yellow. A couple of flamingos stop over en route to nearby Lake Nakuru whose alkaline waters famously play host to a million of them each year to feed on the algae. We nudge through a wide bed of floating hyacinth as if travelling across land, like a sedate version of James Bond’s motorboat chase in Live and Let Die. Hippos wallow close to the jetty as we come in and later that night after we’ve enjoyed a great dinner, they come on shore to trundle beneath our tented platforms. It’s hard to imagine these rather benign looking creatures are among the most aggressive and dangerous animals in Africa.
Striking out for Samburu National Reserve the following day, there’s a brief detour to visit an inspiring community project close to Nakuru. Post-election violence in 2007 had displaced hundreds of thousands. Now families are being repatriated and given new homes with plots to farm. Supported by a local resort, it’s a way for visitors to get another view of Kenya in what Gillie Kipchuma, our excellent guide calls Community Tourism. It’s moving and uplifting.
Later we pass a number of small establishments which promote themselves as offering “Hotel & Butchery.” It doesn’t seem like a compelling selling point, but Gillie assures me the area is famous for its meat. Next stop is on the Equator. We actually cross it a couple of times as our road sashays along 0º latitude. We’re shown what purports to be a demonstration of the Coriolis effect (where the rotation of the earth affects the direction water spins.) SPOILER ALERT: a reasonably convincing show at the time, a doubting Thomas Google reveals it to be hokum, though I hang on to my “certificate” of having seen it. And straddle the equatorial line for photographs.
What a landscape Samburu National Reserve defines, with the low scrubland marshalled all around by distant mountains, receding in misty layers. Elephant Bedroom Camp is dotted along the sandy banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, the brown water. Again our tents are on stilts and the charming owners, Nagib Popat and his wife Nima relate how they’d recently to move and rebuild the whole camp after a tidal surge had swept up the river and swamped everything.
The name isn’t just a whimsy of evocative branding either: elephants roam all round the encampment and we’re under strict instruction not to leave our luxurious tents after dusk without an escort. Nagib’s men patrol the river all night. And given we find a crocodile lounging on the opposite bank the next day, we’re in no hurry to ignore the advice. Everything here is perfectly realised and feels in harmony with the environment. It’s wild, yet comfortable, our hosts are generous and there are stories to be exchanged late into the night.
Too late, as it’s another 6am start and we’re off on safari with Samburu guide, Julius, who frankly looks like he’s stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine, with a colourful wrap, combat sweater and ornate necklace. There’s a low buzz and he whips a smartphone out of the folds. He has the eyes of a hawk and we are soon gently bumping our way round herds of elephant. A dry river bed reveals a pair of snoozing lions – like teenagers, they sleep up to 22 hours a day. We come across a Gerenuk, sometimes called the giraffe-necked antelope with good reason. But even evolution hasn’t quite got it to where it likes to graze and they balance on tippy-toes to reach the higher branches.
On our way to a bush airstrip where a small plane will fly us the next leg, we strike safari gold not once, but twice. Firstly, finding a cheetah preciously guarding his recently killed gazelle (less than 20 minutes old Julius estimates) and then with a leopard up a tree, apparently indolently resting his foreleg on the branch. Closer inspection reveals though that it’s actually the remains of an impala he’d dragged up there. His gaze is unforgettable.
Still buzzing from this amazing natural theatre, arriving in Diani opens another gateway to Kenya. South of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, white sandy beaches link up for hundreds of miles and the thermometer goes up a notch. The Pinewood Beach Resort offers a welcome respite from the heat, with a cooling courtyard pond where Koi carp shimmer below, whilst above, weaver birds endlessly renovate their grass-ball nests. We’re soon snorkelling from a glass-bottomed boat among Diani’s shallow reefs of coral. The balmy sea is blazes with bursts of colour – fearsome-looking devil firefish, vivid star fish, pufferfish, black-needled sea urchins – it’s hard to know where to look.
Perhaps you could say that of Kenya as a whole. I’ve only skimmed through a couple of destinations and still seen so much. If Africa seduces, Kenya may be her temptress-in-chief. Every journey here is an adventure; every vista, a scene from David Attenborough. Does it grip us so powerfully because secreted away deep within our DNA is some strand of our far distant African memory? All it takes is a visit to spark it and wonder at it.