kenya: samburu

In South Africa, our encounters with elephants were surprisingly slim. It may have been to do with the time of year, or just the route we took. Safaris, of course, are like this. You get what you are given, and this will almost always be more than you expected. Many native Kenyans asked us throughout our tour whether we had lions or elephants or leopards in Scotland, and were quite honestly stunned to find we had no wildlife at all that could be considered a reliable threat. And to be honest, so was I. We do live in a bubble, a self-service/ultra-service bubble which guarantees certain things, and ensures everything will work in a certain way. And when you live day in / day out in a culture which requires extra working hours and extreme opportunism, having these small things makes it all easier.

Try driving into six or seven herds - 40-50 in number - of elephants drinking from the river, after a male elephant has stared at you from the edge of the road five minutes earlier, and say that what you have back home is meaningful. It may be enjoyable, sure. But when you are faced with these behemoths who are so gentle and intrinsically familial, who care about every member of their family (apart from teenage boys - surprise!), you are suddenly shocked into considering where we are, who we are, and why we are. As far as we were concerned, this was a minefield of nature. John, the guide, admitted it was rare to see that many herds in the river at the same time, but it was clear that this was far from abnormal - these strange animals, which people visit one at a time in zoos or safari parks, were suddenly all over our vision. And they were behaving in their own fashion - falling over, drinking, eating, bathing, preening; as they are.

As they are. Right then and there I vowed not to go to a zoo or UK safari park again. That isn't to demean their purpose; in terms of education, I still feel they're invaluable. But only if people continue the ideal in their minds, that they go and explore, that they feed back into these countries which are being slammed by all sorts of crises. These are wonderful animals and should not be lost. Currently it is almost amusing that the Dodo is our most publicised extinct animal; just imagine that being the rhino or elephant. That our culture as a whole - not just the individuals, because all consumerism drives trade - would result in the death of entire species.

Based on our experience in Samburu, which was of 2 nights and 4 game drives, the elephants are not waning. They are everywhere, and eternally enjoyable; they behave such like humans would - protecting children by surrounding in groups, helping invalid elephants, fighting as teenagers will, and so on. We were quite stunned as to the extent of them, given previous experience of only one or two in South Africa - in total, around 200-300 elephant must have been sighted, and each was as important as the other.

This was emphasised by an experience on the first day there - I was taking my siesta while Marie showered, only to have her come out and peer through the window: on the banks of the river that our lodge overlooked, a huge bull elephant had ventured across and started eating the trees and foliage surrounding. Quickly a gathering evolved around the elephant, no more than 10 feet from it, without any obvious fear. It is only an animal, but it is such an immense and peaceful beast, that there is a sense of harmony and keen spirit amongst some of us. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the lodge owners were forced to break up the relationship due to obvious danger; an ideology we were discouraged by, but eventually came to realise was necessary and a valued part of the ecosystem.

An extraordinary example of this was nearly driving through a pregnant lioness in Samburu - suddenly out of nowhere, she prowled, unfearing, in front of the van. Battle-scarred and weary, she still provoked a devastating reaction amongst mortal humans, and that should be why we go on safari; to realise and rationalise our place in the ecosystem. Not to destroy it unnecessarily, but to equate and factor in our purpose. There are those who think otherwise, but the chances are they haven't been to Samburu.

A semi-resident crocodile dozes three feet away as you sup your pre-dinner cocktails. Occasionally it will toss the hunk of meat further back into its jaws and crunch down unpleasantly. Otherwise it is docile and calm, unphased by the camera flashes and humans leaning precariously over the half-hearted attempt of a fence. Following dinner, we return to the lodge accompanied by an armed guard; the monkeys are everywhere in Kenya, and are not cute - a bite or scratch and you're off to hospital for your rabies jab at very least. One couple bumped into a buffalo intent on travelling the other way along the footpath - they conceded right of way.

The typical itinerary for this safari was travel to each lodge in early morning, arriving for lunch followed by an afternoon game drive. If it was a two night stay, the full day would consist of an early morning (7am) game drive, and then an afternoon (4pm) drive. The time between was free to do whatever one chose.

An interesting bird walk was had on our first morning, proving that even with the aid of up to 20x zoom binoculars, we (i.e. Marie) are pretty awful at birdspotting. But the intensity, variety, and oddness of some of the birds in Kenya made this an appealing sojourn from the big game safaris - the introduction to different parts of a somewhat fragile ecosystem was beneficial and helped set us up for more involved and thoughtful 'proper' experiences out in the parks.

Drives generally last from two and a half to four hours, and never feel long enough. Despite the constant rattling around and endemic sleepiness that ensues after standing up for hours against a balmy breeze, the journey back to the lodge inevitably ends up having more exciting sightings for which there isn't the time to sit back and enjoy. If only there was somewhere we could sit out all day and night and wait…