kenya: tsavo east

Our 2 night stay in Keekorok brought our first safari to a close. As we exited the gates on our journey to Nairobi, waving to the tame warthog and bidding farewell to the lodge, our heavy hearts were lighter in the knowledge that a further safari followed in 2 days time. We were certainly looking forward to the R&R of Mombassa but were not quite ready to hang up our khakis just yet.

Two days, one indulgent room service request and 4 glasses of champagne later, ambitious, eager and excited, we were picked up early morning from our hotel to begin the journey to Tsavo. The choice of travelling companions for the 2 night safari was far from ideal - we found ourselves sandwiched between a couple and their 2 teenage boys and a girl from separate marriages. The last thing you want to do is entertain adolescents - or even put up with them - for 3 days, let alone fulfill their father's pathetic requests for us to tell the youngest boy what a fabulous animal spotter he was: "the best in the bus." Smiling a little too politely we firmly stated that the front of the bus would be our territory for the whole safari - to enable the family to 'be as one' AKA leave us in peace. This arrangement enabled us to pretty much ignore the family behind us and continue on safari as if we were the only inhabitants - a value we firmly put into practice at the hotels, refusing to dine with them but somehow ending up taking drinks with them. They were a bizarre family - the teenage girl was beyond obsession with her mother - both of them choosing to constantly walk hand in hand, pee together, sleep together and wear the exact same clothes. Some nights Ali and I would be more fascinated observing and commenting on their behaviours than that of the wildlife around us.

However, what they did teach us is just how lucky we had been in our sightings the previous week. Upon entering Tsavo East and the Ngutuni Reserve, the family became animated and excited about that most common of animal - the impala. We could not resist boasting and took the opportunity, somewhat childishly, to compete with the teenagers and brag about all the animals we'd seen and in what circumstances just 3 days ago. Hell, if you cannot beat (or kill) the teenagers - join them!

Upon entering the gates of the reserve, the journey to the lodge was short and Ngutuni lodge soon came into view.

The lodge is uniquely designed as three identical wooden stilted buildings three stories high. Situated in the middle of the reserve next to a watering hole, the reception and restaurant has no boundaries, doors or walls to speak of. It's a beautiful open area where you dine and take after dinner drinks in the gentle Kenyan evening breeze by candlelight. What set this lodge apart from all others was the table service for dinner. We'd become exhausted and over-faced by the endless mountain of sumptuous buffet food in lodges on the previous safari, so to take your seats and have delicious but simple meals of chicken curry brought to you was heaven. The waiters - one in particular; Paul, were fantastic. Never faltering and always attentive, they would top up your drink before you'd realized it was even empty, serve you plate upon plate of individually prepared meals and had the balance just right between providing you with intriguing conversation and recognizing when a romantic night was on the cards.

We were always eager to find out as much about them and Kenya as they were us and the UK. Just like the majority of other Africans working in the tourist industry, Paul worked hundreds of miles from his home, his wife and his children; being allowed to go home for a weekend every other month or so depending on the hotel bookings and season. The last summer he'd barely seen his wife and children for 6 months and couldn't of course communicate by email or telephone. Missing them terribly, he'd offer a few details such as their names and ages but modesty prevented him from divulging more.

After a hearty lunch we headed back into the minibus for an afternoon game drive through Ngutuni and into Tsavo East National Park and reserve. Almost immediately upon entering the reserve a herd of elephants and their young appeared, as if to greet us. Bright red in colour - a result of covering themselves in the Tsavo red soil - they wandered directly across our path and towards a small watering hole to our left where they all gathered to shower the young and bathe in the cooling waters, before rubbing themselves against a land bank to protect their skin from the penetrating African sun: their very own factor 50 sunscreen. It was an amazing sight; frolicking in the waters, the youngest was too small to withstand the pressure of the water spurting from the trunks of the adults, and would fall and frantically try to regain balance before being stood on by its sisters. The water glittered in the early evening sun and the elephants continued on their way as if we were not present.

With the herd taking the lead, we too continued on our journey through Tsavo East, climbing further into the hills where the setting changed from barren red soil to lush green foliage. It is here we almost literally bumped into a female lioness on her evening hunt. Stealthily making her way through the undergrowth, the female had spotted an impala in the distance and began to stalk her, progressing slowly and silently. Licking her lips as she passed, the lioness was immaculate, incredibly hungry but just not practiced enough to secure the impala for dinner. Undeterred, she continued towards the horizon in search of bigger and tastier prey to satisfy herself and her cubs.

As we left the park to return for dinner, the sun was setting over the hills providing a stunning sunset backdrop for the moon to rise within. An idealized setting as silhouettes of elephants paraded the horizon and Zazu birds soared above our heads, surveying the scene from their vantage point.

It was this night that we'd got to know Paul (our waiter) quite well and talked extensively with him that evening by the watering hole. He was as amused as we were by the spectacle unfolding in front of our very eyes….

We'd just finished our desert and were raising our glasses in a toast when I glanced over Ali's shoulder towards the watering hole and as my glass fell out of my hands, I jumped up and sprinted onto the veranda of the hotel as silently thundering directly towards the restaurant was a herd of nineteen elephants. Startled by a predator elsewhere in the reserve, the herd sought safety by the watering hole, protectively crowding around their young and shielding the eldest members whilst the matriarch bravely paraded the perimeter of the water searching for any sign of danger. The herd was immensely unsettled and almost frantic in their actions. Transfixed I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and it was Paul, pulling up chairs for Ali and I to the edge of the veranda, each accompanied by a glass of port. As we sat under the stars barely feet from the wondrous animals, you had to wonder if life could get more perfect than that.

The herd stayed for a couple of hours and so did my we. Finding it difficult to retire to bed after such an adrenaline rush, we peeled ourselves away from the restaurant and towards the comfort of our room, stealing a glance out of the curtains every now and again just to double check that the herd had not returned. With our teddy bear on vigil at the balcony we drifted into a deep sleep, refreshed and ready to rise the next morning for our early game drive in Ngutuni.

The most remarkable sighting that day was that of the elusive leopard - a rare and beautiful sight. Presuming it to be a cheetah, another tour group had radioed through to us and, as we sped off towards their direction and the animal came into view we realized it was bulkier than the cheetah and had distinctive and very different markings. It was a young male - too young to know better than to stand in the centre of open bush. It was our first ever leopard sighting. We'd not been lucky enough to spot the leopard in South Africa - and we always seemed to be just 3 minutes late for the sighting in the Mara. Falling prey somewhat to the 'checklist of animals' culture of tourism, we were delighted and awed to finally spot our last desire in Kenya.

Leopards are beautiful animals, and the fleeting glance we saw of him was to be savoured. Small and almost round, the male certainly did not go hungry. He was a strapping young boy with a stunning mustard, black and white coat. You can immediately see why designers are inspired to create similar - often horrifically at the expense of the poor animals life, but it really is a silky, tactile, alluring coat to have. And yet how it seemingly blends into the greenest of grasses and the sparsest of trees will forever remain a mystery to me.

Upon finally seeing the leopard, what immediately struck me about Africa is how it's a game of chance. For every person on every holiday it offers no two experiences that can ever be compared. One elephant is one man's wonder and another's bore - if you forget where you are the tremendous amount of elephants in Kenya's reserves and parks could be as seemingly common as British sheep or domestic pets. Speaking to a colleague on my return she mentioned how, on her recent Kruger trip, she'd seen leopard upon leopard, frolicking by the side of the vehicle freely and openly throughout the day - even wandering through the lodge as night fell, yet they didn't see that not so elusive bush pig: the Warthog, nor did they travel across any herds of elephants, let alone hundreds as we did.

As we reflect on our experiences that evening alongside fellow travellers, what soon became apparent is that you can, to some degree, see what you want to. What beauty and awe is inspired by the "cat" rustling in the bushes as you begin your walking safari (which in fact transpires to be a lonely donkey) is another man's fear and terror. I don't for one minute pretend to have total control over my emotions, or claim I ever can have, but Africa does play with your mind and you can choose to enjoy and think c'est la vie, or cower in the safety of the lodge and risk missing out on possibly the greatest experience of your life. You never know what will happen next, when or how, in Africa and that's the way it should be. Consider life without knowing what you're eating, when, what you'll see, when you'll return, even (to the extreme) if you'll survive, and more to the point not caring about any of this, and you'll soon get used to, and enjoy, the lack of regime and the control that will result over your mind: you'll be free to experience life as it is supposed to. To be able to wander aimlessly, talk for hours about your dreams, sleep easy and soak up the atmosphere as an alien in a foreign land.