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At nature's doorstep in Kenya

Back from Kenya, Vijaya Pratap writes about how she was at one with nature by spending her days spotting lions, African elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards and rhinos

Kenya
Best from: Nairobi
You need: 1 week

The magical Kenya we all grew up dreaming about, right from our classrooms to boardrooms can be ours for a week, if you so wish. So, I set out, to turn my daydreams into reality and to cherish, one of my best holidays embracing Africa’s diverse attractions national parks, wildlife, culture and history.

A lion in Masai Mara National Park. Pics/Vijaya Pratap
A lion in Masai Mara National Park. Pics/Vijaya Pratap

Nairobi welcomes me with open arms. At 5,889 ft above sea level, Nairobi is mostly cool all through the year situated close to the equator, the differences between the seasons are minimal. Gilbert, my guide and companion for the next few days, receives me, fully prepared to answer all my questions with a smile and a shrug.

School kids on a donkey in Lamu Old Town. Donkey is the only transport in this 1,000- year-old town
School kids on a donkey in Lamu Old Town. Donkey is the only transport in this 1,000- year-old town

Hopping into one of the many cute little caravan planes flown by Safarilink (capacity eight to 10 persons), I sit behind the pilot duo and look down to view the beautiful landscape. We fly close to the ground, just below the clouds and sometimes on par with them, slashing through the misty wonders.

Nature’s call
As we reach Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, it is a different scene. Savannas abound with wildlife, providing the perfect setting for a nature lover. “Sweet Waters Tented Camp” is a sheltered retreat, clustered around a waterhole and set in the untouched calm of its own private reserve.

Zebras at the Masai Mara National Park
Zebras at the Masai Mara National Park

I see giraffes, zebras, rhinos, gazelles, elephants, all lovable creatures roaming like pets in the compound. Silently they graze, pervading harmony and peace as they all share the same terra firma. I watch with wonderment, the sunrises and sunsets, as the silhouetted animals move gently against the faint sun rays.

At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi, orphaned baby elephants roll in the mud and play
At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi, orphaned baby elephants roll in the mud and play

The classy tents built on stilts offer an ambience of charming luxury. Great food and wines further add to my quiet experience. One day, an early morning game drive ends with a surprise Bush Breakfast. Sitting under large trees as the birds chirp to the murmur of the nearby stream, it is a delightful way of breaking the routine.

Giraffes at the Giraffe Centre, Nairobi
Giraffes at the Giraffe Centre, Nairobi

During our safaris we see the often sought-after ‘Big Five’ game animals the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Gilbert tells me that the members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size.

A cheetah in Sweetwater’s Game Reserve, Nanyuki
A cheetah in Sweetwater’s Game Reserve, Nanyuki

The Big Five are among the most dangerous, yet most popular species for big-game hunters. Flocks of zebras, gazelles and various other deer species are seen regularly during our drives. Giraffes with their newborns present a pretty picture, mums and babies bonding in the morning sun.

We visit the Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the conservancy and find it touching to see the orphaned and abused chimpanzees given lifelong refuge. The pretty keeper Letty, takes us around, and I can perceive the love she has for these animals. Jane Goodall had certainly inspired many an environmentalist!

Ol Pejeta House is a gorgeous place, formerly owned by a rich Arab with a colourful character. But what attracts me is the huge willow tree overlooking the balcony and the hundreds of golden yellow weaver birds hanging upside down, fussing over the females as they inspect and assess the males’ nest building talents. I fall in love with the scene.

High up on a balloon
I have a sense of deja vu, as our Bush plane flies over Masai Mara. The wildlife films that I saw as a child and the countless documentaries on National Geographic and Discovery, all quickly replay in my mind.

We spot a few lions lazing around after a heavy meal and a cheetah basking in the sun. As we drive down to Mara Leisure Camp, we see the tall and sturdy Masais herding their cattle and their children attending schools. Majestic Masais clad in red, wave to us, and I find them quite friendly, contrary to popular belief.

Located along the Talek River, in the Mara Leisure Camp, my tent is picturesquely placed, on the bank of a stream. I hear the cowbells at dawn and dusk as the cattle go for grazing in the park. Birds with unique bird calls regale me with their music, on lazy afternoons.

A hot air balloon ride, against a gorgeous sun rise in the Masai Mara National Reserve is a highly exhilarating experience. Nothing can match the spectacle as one glides over the vast expanse, with aerial views of the animals grazing, frolicking, hunting and running for life. It is a different world, beautiful and pristine.

The balloon ride ends with a fabulous champagne breakfast, where all the travellers bond and exchange notes. A couple of days later, we ride in the bush plane again to reach our next destination, along the coast. The Islands of the Lamu Archipelago are what remains of a thousand years old civilisation that developed between the 9th and 19th centuries. Lamu was, for centuries, one of the trading ports from which ivory, rhino horn and slaves were exported.

Lamu archipelago consists of near-shore islands, bays, creeks and large mangrove forests. The magnificent town of Lamu dominates the island and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its architecture and urban structure, the cultural influences from India, Europe, China and traditional Swahili, the interaction between various cultural groups and its important position as a centre for Islamic religion and Swahili culture in East Africa.

Landing on Manda Island air strip, we take the speed boat to our resort, Majlis on the beautiful Ras Kitau Bay. The resort’s proprietor Frederico is a much travelled man and the hotel’s classy décor reflects his refined taste. I notice some Indian artifacts when Frederico tells me that he collects them during his frequent visits to India.

Lamu’s Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in the East African region, with the houses reflecting Swahili culture. The main entrance has a double wooden door, traditionally elaborately carved and decorated with geometric or floral and leaf patterns and Quranic inscriptions. A car free town, the only transport here is the humble donkey.

Green Nairobi
We come back to Nairobi and I manage to see and experience plenty just in one day. Surrounded by several expanding villa suburbs, the greenery and the profusion of flowers everywhere put Nairobi on a different plane. I find certain parts of the city colonial, floral, up market and very delightful.

At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, I am charmed by the adorable baby elephants (orphaned) feeding from huge milk bottles, parading around, rolling in the mud and playing with a huge ball and in general, regaling the spectators. At the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, I sit on top of a platform and stand eye to eye with the giraffes and feed them small food pellets, which they lap up with their long tongues.

I visit Karen Blixen Museum which gained international fame with the release of the movie Out of Africa, an Oscar-winning film based on Karen’s autobiographical novel by the same title. It was a mix of romance, passion, disappointment and failure, all rolled into one Karen’s life, showcased through her house, where she spent dreaming, living and coming to terms with life.

At the local market, as I pick up souvenirs, my eyes fall on something unique to Kenya. The lovely ebony wood figurines of a Masai couple, constantly remind me of my treasured Kenya visit, as I gaze at them and admire their shiny, chiselled-to-perfection bodies.

Where and what
Stay: Check out these links: http://www.serenahotels.com/serenaolpejeta/default-en.html and http://www.maraleisurecamp.co.ke/
Shop: Local open air markets have beautiful African arts and crafts at reasonably low prices. You can carry home, the ever- popular Masai red-checkered garment called ‘Shuka’, drums, musical instruments, wooden figurines and masks carved out of ebony, bead jewellery, clothes, colourful kikois, curios, baskets, bags and home décor.

Fact File
>> Immunisations for Yellow fever and Polio are compulsory before you travel and must be administered well in advance. 
>> Kenya Airways from Mumbai has a short, non- stop 5 ½ hour flight to Nairobi.
>> Visa on arrival, costs US $50
>> SafariLink provides daily scheduled flights to the Masai Mara, Nanyuki and various other interesting destinations.
>> Hot-Air Safaris: An hour’s ride with champagne breakfast costs US $450

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