Our driver and guide for the trip to Amboseli introduced himself as Stephen. He was quick to add that he was from the Kikuyu tribe, and was a Christian. He told us that he would be with us for the whole stay, and would be sure to show us all the ‘best animals’. We were in a small minibus with five other passengers; two couples, and a single Japanese man. We were the only tourists from England, but everyone else spoke English, which was just as well, as at no time was any other language translation offered. Starting the long journey soon after an early breakfast, we began to see something like the country we had expected. Rough roads, slow lorries, and wobbling motorcyclists heralded the start of the trip, but we were soon away from the city’s outskirts, and into open country.
This was the Kenya of my youth, and all those safari films. Endless plains, stunted acacia trees, termite mounds, and scrub-land. The sun was out too, and it was getting warmer; light reflecting off of the red earth that looked as if it had been painted especially for our arrival. We passed small villages, a few jumbled buildings at the roadside, surrounding a general store, or perhaps a lone petrol pump. Small children waved as we passed, thin frames in tight vests. After some hours of this, we stopped for lunch, at a roadside lay-by. It was a cold meal, prepared by the hotels we had come from and handed to the driver, who kept it in a cool-box. Stephen showed us the view, by waving his arm expansively. ‘That is a part of the Rift Valley’, he told us, adding ‘Look, elephant.’ I looked off at the horizon but could see nothing. One of the other passengers offered his binoculars, and I was amazed, quite literally, to see hundreds of elephants, far off. I had never imagined that so many of these magnificent creatures still existed, let alone in one single massive herd. We took many photos, but the small lens failed to register much of interest.
We arrived at the Kilimanjaro Safari Lodge that afternoon. It was exactly as I had expected it to be. Individual African-style cabins, dotted around a large central building housing the reception, bar, and restaurant. The whole area was overshadowed by Mount Kilimanjaro; snow-capped, and truly magnificent to behold. Although a long way off, and actually in another country, Tanzania, we felt as if we could easily walk across to it. We couldn’t of course. We were shown to our cabin. It had basic accommodation, and a small patio with comfortable chairs. The beds had mosquito nets over them, but I never once saw a mosquito in Kenya, so presumed that they protected us from some other kind of bug. Sitting outside, the view was simply enthralling. We were told that late afternoon was the best time to look for animals around the lodge, but that we should not venture too far after dark, as lions had been seen close to the compound. We went for dinner, and during a drink in the bar, Stephen appeared, to tell us that we would be going on a game drive after breakfast. We were very excited that night, as we were finally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but animals.
Back in the minibus the next day, we didn’t have to wait too long before coming across the first truly wild animals. As we drove along the track from the lodge, we had to stop, as a family of wart-hogs crossed the road ahead of us. The large male stood guard in the centre of the road, glaring at us behind a formidable display of curly tusks. His females and tiny babies crossed behind him, just like a family using a pedestrian crossing in London. It was very charming, and a good start to the day. With the lodge no longer visible, we started to see quite a few other vehicles, more tourist minibuses, and some large four-wheel-drive safari jeeps too. Stephen told us that he was going to turn off, so as not to end up in a queue, to look at the ‘best’ animals. One of the passengers alerted us to a huge herd of zebra, grazing off to the right. They were accompanied by a large number of Thompson’s gazelle, and some larger impala. It seemed to be a feature of the prey animals, to gather together in groups of differing species. Stephen got the vehicle close enough for us to take some good photos, but not to frighten off the nervous small deer.
Further on, he took us to his ‘favourite trees’, where he was sure that he would find giraffe. The taller trees were in a clump, and sure enough, there were giraffes feeding, and in large numbers too. Brought up with zoos, we might have already seen most of these animals, but it never ceased to fascinate, to see them in such large numbers. Quite a few family groups of giraffe were there, and numbered over fifty in total. Leaving that area, we were suddenly aware of a large ostrich running very fast a few yards from the bus. Another followed, accompanied by a juvenile. They got up a fair turn of speed, and ran very close to us for a while before veering off, seeking safety from whatever danger they had perceived. We then had to return for lunch, with the promise of a trip to see hippo that afternoon.
Driving out to the hippo pools, Stephen gave us stern warnings about approaching them. They were responsible for killing more people every year than any other African animal, he told us. We would have to walk some way off the track to see them, so rangers armed with rifles were going to escort us. He was going to stay with the minibus where we were dropped off. We met up with another group, and the two rangers. They explained that there was a ten minute walk, and we were potentially exposed to any dangers. They advised us to be wary of the cape buffalo, as it was unpredictable, and to listen to their instructions, should any animals approach the group. It seemed to be exciting, away from the relative safety of the small bus, walking across to the watery area where the hippos were usually found. We were all very safety conscious, and kept quiet. We arrived at an area where rushes surrounded a few deep pools which had a lot of vegetation floating on them. The rangers indicated the presence of the large mammals, but we couldn’t see anything. After ten minutes or so, the shiny back of a hippo briefly appeared on the surface, and on the other side of the pond, a loud snort indicated another. That was it. We were told that we had to go, as another group would arrive soon, and numbers were controlled. It was something of a disappointment, even though we had seen a back!
When we told Stephen, he seemed determined to find us something to make up for it. After a brief drive, he stopped the bus. Up ahead, we could see a large number of baboons. They were picking at the ground on either side of the road, unconcerned by our presence. He waited for them to move off, before continuing the drive back to the lodge. Just before sunset that evening, something happened that made the holiday for me. As my wife was in the shower, I was sitting outside the hut, on the small patio. In the distance, thousands of wildebeest were heading across the horizon, silhouetted by the setting sun. They looked as if they were returning from a hard day somewhere, moving slowly and deliberately. I was suddenly aware of something close by, and turned slowly to look. I almost leapt out of my chair in alarm, as I saw a huge mandrill sitting down next to me. This large baboon-like animal had a formidable set of teeth, and a brightly-coloured muzzle, indicating a mature male. Even sitting, its head was level with mine, it was so large. I had no idea what to do, but thought it best not to run. Moments later, I was amazed when it extended its hand to me, palm up. All I had to offer was some cube sugar, a leftover from a cup of coffee. I placed it very gently into the outstretched hand, and the mandrill ran off clutching the booty. That close-range encounter made the whole trip worthwhile for me.
That evening over dinner, I told of my meeting with the mandrill to anyone who would listen. The staff scolded me for giving it the sugar. It had obviously been fed before, and would keep coming back if people gave it treats. They mentioned that salt was being put out that evening, and with the lights from the compound, we might see some elephants. We sat outside after the meal, and did indeed see some elephants and buffalo, coming for the salt, all very close to the buildings. I was left unsure if that was how I wanted to see them though. The next day would be our last at the lodge, and was to feature a trip to a Maasai village, and the prospect of seeing some big cats.