Feb 25

Written by: Bartholomew O’Dwyer
2/25/2011 10:56 AM  RssIcon

Elephants,zebras and flamingos of course, but also fine food and scenery.

Elephants on an African Safari in KenyaNAIROBI, Kenya – We left the old colonial Norfolk hotel, which was which was the starting point for so many of our safaris over the years for great so called white hunters, wildlife lovers like my wife Babette and for strictly photographic shooters like myself early on a sparkling sunny Sunday morning.

A  herd of elephants grazes in Ambolesi Game Reserve
in Kenya, with Mount Kilamanjaro five miles away.
Photo by Bartholomew O'Dwyer.


We were taking a six-hour drive to Tsavo National Park in southwest Kenya, where a tent in Finch Hatton’s safari camp had our name on it.

As we drove out of the sprawling unsightly factory complexes, Alex our guide and driver from the Qakamba tribe, received a call over the radio informing him that a set of keys had been mistakenly left in our Land Rover. Alex searched the seat beside them and when he found them broke into laughter. His good natured reaction to a situation that would have vexed most people was to define our safari, which turned out to be the most mirthful ever. Bob pulled up at a garage and left the keys off for collection and we sped on our way south on the busy road to Mombasa passing hardscrabble little towns and villages that surprisingly had quite a few well stocked marketplaces. But when we got to Chyulu a couple of hours from Nairobi, the landscape magically transformed.

Masses of shimmering white morning glories were in full bloom and covered everything including tree stumps, fences and fields. And they hung over the high and bright red-ocher banks on each side of the roadway like irregular doilies. It was like moving through a stupendous garden without an end.

Normally we fly by light aircraft to the safari camps. The drive was as if we were being reminded by the gods of nature that our combined 35 safaris we had surely missed riches by traveling by air. The glorious drive diluted the long journey somewhat and soon we entered Tsavo West National Park and were surrounded by the scenic Chyulu hills, home to a wide range of animals.

Our Safari camp loomed in the distance and was a tiny speck in the vast Chyulu savannah bowl. Named in honor of Deny Finch Hatton, consort of Baroness Karen von Blixen aka Isak Dinesen in ‘Out of Africa ‘fame, it consisted of 15 permanent tents positioned around a spring fed hippo pool on 35 acres of unfenced land on one side, and a fine dining room, bar and library, as well as a sundeck and pool on the other side.

Finch Hatton put his own imprimatur on safari and took them to the new level, elevating them from the Tarzanesque to the Hattonesque by taking his rich aristocratic friends into the Kenyan jungle where they entertained after a hard day’s slaughter of Africa’s noblest animals with fine wine in cut crystal glasses and food served on exquisite European porcelain, all to the sound of classical music to aid their digestion.

Six elegant courses of food were served by pleasant and courteous waiters dressed in traditional Khanzu attire (long white tunic, waistcoat and fez). The recreation of a bygone time worked mostly, the only hint of the modern era was the Nike logo on the waiters’ footwear.

And while it was nice to partake of the elaborate dining arrangements, it was the game drives and in our tent quarter we found our true joy. Our tent was set up on poles 4 feet off the ground on a deck with a thatched roof above it overlooking the hippo pool. Crocodiles mingled with large pods of hippos that grunted and snorted contentedly as they moved from one end of the old tree-trunk-strewn pool to the other. We reclined on the deck observing the scene that included an assorted bird life and their strange echoing calls.  Pied kingfishers bombed their prey in and around glistening tan-colored islands that were really the hippos’ backs. Swamp acacias hung over the thatched roof, and it was tranquility incarnate, to watch the way the sunlight reflected upward from the water onto the thicker olive colored branches.

Amboseli, home to a large elephant population, was our next stop and our tent in Tortilis camp in the Maasai steppes, was set facing Africa’s highest mountain at 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

On our first game drive we sighted two cheetahs walking in the distance. Their presence put every antelope on the alert. Impalas and gazelle froze in concentration as they monitored their lethal enemies until they were out of sight before resuming grazing.

We watched a lone elephant gorging himself at the edge of an emerald green grassy swamp. The luscious oasis was an interesting phenomenon in the mainly dry terrain, its source being the great mountain. In the meantime, our elephant gradually made its way into the center of the swamp and started to sink deeper.

Alex told us they had already pulled one elephant out the week before. But this one appeared to be going to his doom and was now up to his belly. It looked as if a terrible tragedy was unfolding until the great beast swung its head to the right, and tore its left leg up and then the right one, and with a few more steps it cleared the treacherous swamp. We were so relieved as the elephant drove on.

Alex pointed to two silver-backed jackals up to no good, and laughed heartily when the comical warthog came along and chased them off.  

On the second day I got the money shot I longed for: a herd of elephants walking in a line in the foreground five miles from the ionic mountain. Then a family of zebras lingered near the same spot.

Contented, we headed back and as always, we had our twilight encounter with the baboons, as they sat in the road and gave us their unique look of unbridled maniac resentment for having the impertinence to invade their territory. And when Alex compounded the insult by playfully clicking his fingers at them scattering them a few more feet, they shot back dagger looks that always left us helpless with laughter.

Our last stop was Lake Nakuru, to see again one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, the 1 million lesser flamingoes that reside there. Six years ago I described them from a hilltop as being like an immense pink lasso upon the water. Sadly this time I will revise that to a semi-circle. But still, as we walked out to the dwindling lake, they were in the tens of thousands, and they appeared to be doing very well indeed. At one end of the lake there were no birds, due no doubt to the putrid smell that almost took our breath away. There was no reason not to go there, but when that was set against half a million positive reasons in the form of the dazzling flamingos, we considered it the wildlife bargain trip.

East Africa still has the greatest and most diverse concentration of wildlife on the planet.

Flamingoes in Lake Nakuru, Kenya.

Lake Nakuru: home to a million lesser flamingos and one of the great wildlife spectacles on earth. Photo by Bartholomew O'Dwyer

Copyright ©2011 Bartholomew O’Dwyer


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