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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : June 2000 : Heads up mates, we're on safari in Kenya
 

Heads up mates, we're on safari in Kenya

 
By Adam Z. Horvath Newsday
The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
June 11, 2000

- The black leopard stared at us, and we stared back, a perfect safari moment until our open-sided Land Cruiser tumbled into a ditch.

On our first nighttime drive in the Kenyan bush, we had made it our mission to track the rare cat, searching with a spotlight for more than an hour before he made his appearance. He gave us a long, calm look and eased back under cover. Then came the lurch of the car into the rut and the sound of the front wheels spinning.

As our driver and spotter carefully climbed out to work the car loose in the dark, we kept our own vigil with feeble flashlights. We did not want to see the hunters become the hunted.

But for the next two weeks we stayed face to face with the wildlife of East Africa. In days under a hot, beating sun and nights under a brilliant planetarium dome of stars, we were up close and personal with a kind of time-warp world that had almost nothing in common with our own on the other side of the globe.

We spent dawns watching prides of lion feasting on their kill of wildebeest or zebra, as the orange sun slowly lit up their straw-colored coats like flames of a campfire. We had afternoons on horseback flanking families of giraffe, watching adolescents learn to gallop and infants struggle to stand.

We walked until evening alongside a rifle-slung guide, examining antelope tracks and rhinoceros dung - and all the intertwined layers of life in trees and bushes and soil.

Nothing we saw was more graceful than the smooth gaits of 50 fast-lumbering elephants or the undulations of a single giraffe lowering its neck. Nothing was more bizarre than an orphaned rhino who had adopted a warthog as its mother - or a leopard storing an entire gazelle carcass up in the candelabra branches of a euphorbia tree. Nothing was more threatening than a hippo opening its mouth very wide or the nighttime roars of roving lions breaking the quiet air like thunderclaps.

To choose to go to Kenya, we first had to shrug off some concerns: a history of violence and banditry in some parts of the country, as well as health threats. We also had to fly for a day and a half each way, and we had to be prepared to spend lots of money.

But on safari those worries soon evaporate in favor of more immediate issues - like whether that bull elephant flapping his ears and trumpeting at you is about to charge. Despite the loss of wildlife to poachers, conflicts over conservation and surging competition from South Africa, Kenya is still the safari heart of a traveler's dreams, where eons of nature still rule wide swaths of untouched land.

Our trip was made much easier by a family connection. The 45,000-acre private game preserve that we made our home base, Lewa Downs, is run by family friends who planned our itinerary and joined us, flying in a propeller plane from place to place. But the rough outlines of our trip are reproduced by countless tourists on two-week safari packages, making stops at a similar spread of accommodations: a private preserve like Lewa, in the central highlands north of Mt. Kenya, a tented camp on the edge of the mammoth plain of the Masai Mara, a fishing excursion to catch Nile perch the size of small children on Lake Victoria and a coastal island visit to swim in the Indian Ocean. Lewa Downs and the tiny Wilderness Trails lodge sit near Isiolo at the intersection of two valleys, each broad enough to take up the whole horizon, under the wide shadow of Mt. Kenya, one of the broadest extinct volcanoes on Earth.

It's a vast, humbling landscape of flat-topped acacias making umbrella shapes against the sunset and serene glades of yellow-fever tree filled with grazing herds of antelope and zebra, buffalo and gazelles. The colorful terrain, contrasted with Kenya's famous plains, is one of Lewa's main draws. But there are also the homey Wilderness Trails cottages on garden-like grounds.

Then, of course, there's the wildlife. A rhino sanctuary on the grounds provides protection from poachers to more than 50 endangered black and white rhino, of the fewer than 500 in the whole country. Huge herds of elephant and the distinctive reticulated giraffe make a constant, leisurely parade across the landscape.

Big cats are more elusive, but we got our first sight of the normally nocturnal black leopard on our first afternoon when our driver, Mungai, noticed all the giraffe looking intently in one direction, which turned out to be the panther's hiding place. The next day, Mungai's keen eyes spotted four dots on a distant hill. Even as we went closer, they looked like four tree stumps - but Mungai knew they couldn't be. "I know my stumps," he said. Sure enough, we were able to surprise four cheetahs within 30 feet, before they finally scrambled away.

Lewa is unusual in offering night game drives in the Land Cruisers as well as daytime safaris on horseback, which let you get closer to many animals who are unthreatened by the scent and sight of horses grazing alongside them - even when carrying human cargo.

Then there's the food at the lodge - wonderful homemade breads, homegrown produce and a vegetable soup that with proffered additions of sherry and hot sauce becomes a unique delight.

Thus fortified, on our final night we took one more walk through the woods and one more starry night drive, during which a mother and two cubs cavorting for long moments on a rock gave us three more sets of leopard eyes to remember.

 

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