kenya: samburu

Regardless of your age, class or gender, pulling up to the gates of your first national park evokes a childlike delight as you leap up, fumble with camera lens' and binoculars and eagerly stick your head out of the windows - despite knowing that, as of yet, there's nothing to see. Your delight only mounts as traditional Samburu tribeswomen try to place necklaces over your head and sell you goats. Not wanting to be the first in the group to give in (or purchase an unwanted animal), I demonstrate a restraint to purchasing which is soon to be short-lived, as we wave the locals farewell.

Part childish anticipation and part impatience, Ali and I had discussed in great depth what the first animal sighting would be inside the parks. Wanting to avoid predictability I resisted opting for the easy guess of impala and vouched we'd see a giraffe before anything else. Logic after all would dictate that a 15 foot high animal would be easier to spot then a meek antelope. But this is Africa, an unknown world refusing to be tamed.

Fresh from the victory of his impala sighting, Ali and I entered into light banter, pausing only to notice the elephant standing just a metre from the vehicle. As we all leapt to our feet, simultaneously banging heads off the roof, I resisted shouting to John, instead hissing loudly to ask him whether we could put the roof up. We didn't really wait for - or care about the answer. As the men battled with iron levers to release the hood, I was left to hoist up the roof - no mean feat for a 5 foot 4 woman. As the scent of warm fresh air tantalized our nostrils and cameras whirred and clicked, my arms began to shake as the roof headed closer and closer to the men's heads. It's true - chivalry is dead when it comes to elephants!

Red in the face and glowing from the excitement, with the roof properly secured, 6 heads peered over the roof of the bus, refusing to remove our eyes from the encroaching landscape as the bus took us on the final leg of our journey to the lodge.

Given the relatively small size of the park, the Usavo River is immense. A backbone to the park, the river is a beacon on the landscape, providing you with a point of familiarity throughout the safari. Given the arid, brash landscape of Samburu, you soon begin to bask in your recognition of which flora signals water nearby. There's something warm and comforting in the feeling that, as a novice, you may be able to find your own way back in a country as alien as the landscape that inhabits it.

At the right time of day, the river plays host to herds of elephant of every age and size, an amazing spectacle. A sea of bottoms, trunks and tusks frolic just metres from the vehicle. The adults teach the young how to use their trunks whilst the adolescent males are battling on the riverbank in a show of strength and stubborn pride. We later learn that the matriarchs from different herds were meeting in the centre of the river to conduct a welcoming ceremony to ascertain family ties and familiarity.

It is within Samburu that the theme tunes for the Lion King entered, and failed to leave my mind, for the remainder of the holiday. The landscape so clearly mirrored, and the animals so closely mimicked, it was all I could do to prevent myself from breaking into a Lebo M rendition every sunrise. Fearing that I was going crazy I bravely approached the topic with Ali over our second bottle of wine that evening and was more than relived to discover exactly the same was happening to him. That may mean that both of us deserve to be committed, but hey, at least we'll be together!

Samburu Lodge

I really do hope this lodge is not my favourite just because it was the first, because it deserves such a higher accolade. Nestled on the banks of the Uasvo Nyero River, the lodge's uniquely designed Crocodile bar is by far the highlight of the lodge. Returning from the afternoon's safari, full of tales to share and adrenaline to stifle, you retreat to what can only be described as the most delectable piece of man made concrete in Africa. You descend down to the bar through narrow, windy steps arriving at basic, low wooden tables and canvas director chairs, shaded by overhanging trees upon which sits a redundant leopard's perch. The waiters tell us they had to move the perch to the other side of the river because the leopard was getting too close to the guests- and boy do you believe it. As you sip your Samburu Rum cocktail, the local Samburu warrior plays a hand carved instrument of 4 notes that, upon first hearing grates on your mind, but by the second night you associate the music with wildlife and happiness, and you find yourself unable to sleep without it, and by the second week you pine for it. After half an hour of blissful relaxation, listening to the insects in the tress, scanning the banks of the river for nocturnal wildlife you are brought to your senses by a deep sigh. To your right there's a 15 foot crocodile having his dinner just as the chef begins preparing yours. The waiter encourages guests to come closer, and for some surprising reason you need little encouragement. Leaning over the battered chicken wire fence separating him from us, the waiters detail the crocodiles' habits, their ages and their habitat. Tossing a second piece of bone over the fence, the crocodile lunges and with a swift toss in the air the bone is heard cracking in two. The noise is deafening and all talk is suspended in the bar as the croc completes his meal. Amazed by the spectacle and somewhat delayed in my reaction, I realise I am missing a vital Kodak moment. Taking my cue from other guests I lean over the fence and snap a picture - failing to notice that no others guests have yet dared use flash. As Ali and the waiters jump to my defence, the croc takes this as his cue to have me as a second course as he lunges at my camera. You may have gathered I am alive to tell the tale, with somewhat false pride and ridiculous shame, but it was a third crass reminder on my first day on safari that this was unlike any holiday ever before.

Most importantly, the lesson I feel inclined to share with all budding safari rangers worldwide is that monkeys are more curious than you'd ever think. You may be leaning in close to the baby, camera lens slowly focusing, failing to remember to breathe, waiting for that perfect pose that would melt a thousand hearts, somewhat lulled into a false sense of security thinking that because they are in the lodge grounds they must be tame. More fool you! As the baby jumps, I jump back and scream. As I swiftly turn to run, the baby screams and the mum comes to investigate. It's at this point that the monkeys grab whatever dangly bits I had on my person at that time - whether this be the ties on my shorts, straps on sandals or handles on my camera bag. As I run shrieking, the monkeys follow in close pursuit, clawing at my ankles and calves. Trust me - it takes a local warrior to disarm the primates from your regions and a stiff drink to recover afterwards.

Embarking on our first "full day" safari of the holiday a mixture of intrepidation and expectancy preoccupies our minds. As baboons line our exit path and locals wave goodbye, I leave the lodge gates and almost immediately require the toilet. This is a somewhat uncomfortable feeling compounded by my second near death experience.

As we travel out of the lodge we stumble across a herd of elephants immediately ahead of the vehicle. As we edge closer and closer we fail to notice the mother elephant to our left, camouflaged in the bush and not at all happy that we have now formed a barrier between her and her young. As she rears onto her hind legs and 'harrumphs' (that's the only way I can describe the noise), she raises her trunk in the air and lowers her tusks, preparing to charge. Next thing I recall, I am on the floor of the bus, having apparently dived there muttering something about being too young to die. Somewhat shamefully I am the only passenger to react this way - but somewhat justified I feel, following my previous monkey incident. John assures us that it's merely a threat, but one that was all too real for us. As we swap exchanges on what the pearly gates looked like for each other during our fleeting glimpse, John takes us further and further into the bush to explore wonders beyond our wildest expectations.

As we return to the lodge, we find our crocodile blamed hangover is receding (we conveniently refused to sleep until it did) and after breakfast, we embark on a nature walk with one of the locals. Described as a walk among the grounds, we rapidly found ourselves beyond the little known boundary of the lodge and into the local village. The makeshift football pitch we laughed at just that morning as a "ridiculous danger" we suddenly find ourselves stumbling across and only then do we realise we are actually wandering around Samburu National Park with a local who has not so much as a spear to protect us from wild animals. The heat is pounding down and our trainers offer little protection from the acacia trees foliage, penetrating like knives through the soles of our feet. It's at this point fellow travellers wished "sandals not advisable" had been dictated.

The guide points out the most beautiful birds of every size and colour, from great eagles to kingfishers, and the larger the birds got, the less likely I was to be able to spot them. Until that very day, little had been taught to me by way of how to use binoculars, and it was upon asking Ali what the large black blob was on every bird that the group collapsed in laughter as red faced I was treated to a lesson in basic bird watching and binocular usage.

The most stunning of all birds must be the weaver bird and the starling. The former is a beautiful bright yellow bird, little more than the size of a clenched fist. The weaver specializes in constructing a unique nest which dangles from the minutest of tree branches in a design that mimics the local Samburu huts. Unsurprisingly, the latter, the Starling, bears little resemblance to the bird of the British Isles. The African cousin is a stunning, vivid, glossy blue. As we gaze in awe the guide fails to understand if we have birds in our country, why this most common of the African variety attracts such attention. It is then that we enter into one of the many amusing and similar conversations had with locals throughout the holiday entitled "What dangerous animals do you have in Scotland?"

As the walk concludes, weary with the heat we retire to our rooms, my husband for 40 winks and myself with aim of having the longest most pampering shower of the holiday - using hair conditioner, mousse and everything!

The relaxing experience was somewhat hampered by the tribe of monkeys throwing themselves kamikaze style at our front door and hurling themselves over the roof of the lodge. As I admitted defeat and trudged out of the bathroom snuggled in deep pile towels, I happened to take a glance out over the balcony to the river to see a sight so amazing it was all I could do to resist screaming. As I gasped loudly and ran across the room, Ali sat bolt upright, wondering what on earth could have happened. This he would never have guessed. Standing just metres away from our balcony was a lonely bull elephant on the side of the river bank, loudly feasting on the lush vegetation. As we ran outside all thoughts of mousse and hairspray disappeared and in the rapid heat my hair took on a life of its own. My husband and I looked at one another and no words were required to communicate what we were both thinking. In true Charlie Dimmock style I threw some clothes on and dashed outside, kicking the monkeys out of the way in a rare act of defiance, running down the wooden steps towards the river bank.

Standing barely a metre away from the most beautiful and powerful animal we have ever seen, we are completely awestruck. With tears in our eyes we settle ourselves down on the riverbank for the morning. Completely unflustered by our presence the elephant continues to progress further and further towards us. Transfixed, your mind is screaming for you to move back with every progressive step he takes, but your heart cannot bear you to move a muscle. All sense of danger is forgotten, only the arrival of the Samburu warriors snap us back to reality as they chant and hurl stones at the elephant to scare him from advancing further. In a rebuttal, I find myself, in turn, shouting at (and wanting to hurl stones at) the warriors, but as the security guards point out, the bull is a real danger and one that is far too close for comfort. After 20 minutes or so, the elephant admits defeat and slowly plods into the distance across the riverbank. Ali and I turn to each other and only then dare speak a word, only no words are forthcoming. Words are superfluous after what we have just witnessed, so instead we take each others hands and wander in silence, smiles across our faces, to find a strong drink…..

Still, near death experiences are a good way to make friends and entertain fellow travellers around the camp fire in the evenings. But from my point of view it's a lot more entertaining if someone else is telling the tale. Still, as I recall the tales to an attentive audience in Treetops the next evening, I can be proud that I achieved a certain legacy in the lodge as my monkey experience was formalized into local lexicon. From then on, monkey attacks came to be known as "Being Monkeyed." A significant achievement I'm sure you'll agree.

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…