FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Kenya: Seeking Safaris

Aug 1, 2007
2007 / August 2007

It was the quintessential safari experience, but with a twist. We had seen a distant commotion in the long grass, and quickly headed there in our zebra-striped minibus. When we arrived, two lions were settling onto the warthog they had just killed. Teeth crunched on bone; cameras clicked. And in the background loomed the skyscrapers of Nairobi, a conurbation of 4 million people.

There are few places in the world where the juxtaposition between city and wilderness is quite so dramatic. Nairobi National Park protects 43 square miles of savanna and acacia woodland right on the doorstep of Kenya’s capital. Within minutes of leaving the lions to finish off their kill, I was back at my downtown hotel. That evening, looking out at the city streets, I was able to empathize with the unfortunate warthog.

It is not just nature that is red in tooth and claw. Nairobi after dark can be a mean, unforgiving place. Many first-time visitors fall victim to roaming prides of muggers (from my hotel window, I witnessed a succession of tourists being relieved of their valuables). But as long as you remain as vigilant as a skittish antelope, and take heed of local advice, you can survive a stopover here without undue incident.

The highlights of Kenya lie beyond the city. In the morning, I departed early, driving northeast for three hours. It was a journey that took me across the equator (a roadside sign enables you to mark the event with the requisite photographs) and seemingly into another country.

I arrived at Naro Moru River Lodge, and checked into a rustic chalet overlooking a gurgling trout stream. The air was cold, and I pulled on a sweater — so much for being in the tropics. That night, a welcome log fire roared in the hearth. Scenically and climatically, it felt more like Scotland than Africa.

This was an anomaly caused by altitude. Over the next four days, I would take it to extremes. Naro Moru is situated on the slopes of Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano, which, at 17,000 feet, is the second tallest mountain in Africa.

The mist-draped slopes and valleys of Mount Kenya are unlike anywhere else on earth.

Mount Kenya has three peaks. The two highest are accessible only to skilled mountaineers equipped with ropes. For amateur trekkers, the third summit, Point Lenana, is the most realistic goal — though it is still a serious undertaking that should only be attempted if you are reasonably fit.

With six fellow tourists, a local guide and porters, I began the ascent along the Naro Moru Trail, the shortest access route to the top of the mountain. Soon we were walking through a botanical wonderland.

The mist-draped slopes and valleys of Mount Kenya are unlike anywhere else on earth. We were surrounded by bizarre vegetation: the giant groundsel, the ostrich plume plant and the water-holding cabbage. The air was thin, the wind was bitter, and every step was hard work. Yet it was a privilege to be up here.

After two nights in mountain huts, we began the final ascent in the pitch dark early hours of the morning. The last hour was brutal; my lungs raged, and my feet seemed to be weighted down. But finally we reached the summit, and watched dawn break over the snowy flanks of the mountain and the open plains far below.

My next ascent was much shorter, but equally memorable: In late afternoon in Aberdare National Park, not far from Mount Kenya, I scaled the steps into the world’s ultimate treehouse, Treetops Hotel.

In 1952, Princess Elizabeth made the same short climb. Overnight, her
father died in London, and when she returned to ground level she was Queen Elizabeth II of England.

This rickety wooden hotel built on stilts overlooking a waterhole is one of the great experiences of Kenya. I stayed awake most of the night, watching as a succession of animals emerged from the darkness of the forest to drink under the floodlights: buffalo, elephants, warthogs.

In the morning, I returned to Nairobi to catch the fl ight down to my childhood home, the coastal city of Mombasa. The Arabic old town, with its maze of narrow alleys and crumbling old houses with carved wooden doors, had been a magical playground in my youth. The sights and sounds, and the pervading scent of exotic spices, brought all the memories vividly back to life.

I drove up the coast to the luxurious Hemingway’s Resort, set on the beautiful white sand beach of Turtle Bay at Watamu. A day on the sand was the perfect antidote to the strains of my Mount Kenya climb, enabling me to recharge my batteries for another strenuous challenge.

In a 30-foot fishing boat I voyaged 20 miles offshore to a legendary stretch of ocean known as “the Rips.” Here we cast our lines, and waited. The boat rocked somnolently; I dozed. And then, without warning and with considerable force, my rod arched and the line fizzed off the reel.

For an hour I struggled against the mystery fish. My arms and shoulders ached; sweat poured from my brow. But finally I was rewarded with the thrilling sight of a striped marlin jumping clean out of the water. With help, I reeled the fish in, and we returned to shore with a green flag fluttering above the boat to announce my catch.

Following my Indian Ocean interlude, I donned my khaki safari clothes and returned inland by road to the vast, red dust expanse of Tsavo National Park. We reached the park gate at midday, and as we negotiated the long rutted road to Voi Safari Lodge, all was quiet. The park appeared to be devoid of animal life.

By late afternoon, the landscape gradually became more animated; now that the ferocious heat of the day was waning, the animals were beginning to rouse. On a circuit close to the lodge we found ourselves in the middle of an elephant herd. The dominant female ambled alongside our vehicle, dwarfing it. Our hearts thumped, only relaxing when she moved away to rip a succulent branch down from a tree.

By morning, I was on the road again, driving up the shockingly potholed main highway to Nairobi, and then turning off for a bone-shaking detour along a corrugated dirt road to Amboseli National Park, for an overnight stay.

The park is flat, dusty, and not particularly attractive. When I arrived, its best feature was blanked out by low cloud. The next morning, I was more fortunate. I left Ol Tukai Lodge for a game drive at daybreak. Within twenty minutes, we found a large elephant herd, and behind them, resplendent against a clear sky, its snowy cap tinged pink by the early sun, was Mount Kilimanjaro.

The mountain actually lies across the border in Tanzania, but Kenya’s Amboseli benefits from a multi-million- dollar view — without it, the park and its thriving tourist industry would not exist.

This was yet another indelible moment in a trip full of them. With the engine stilled, I watched the elephants languidly make their way across the grassy plain, with the continent’s tallest peak for a backdrop. My spirit soared higher than the mountain. Just another day in Africa.

Kenya is the original safari destination, and has been popular with khaki-garbed tourists for more than a hundred years. Abercrombie & Kent (http://www.abercrombiekent.com) is one of the country’s longest serving tour operators, and offers a range of tailor-made safari itineraries in Kenya and neighboring countries. The U.S.-based African Safari Company (http://www.africansafarico.com)provides several Kenyan itineraries, including an 11-day conservation tour, visiting Nairobi, Amboseli and Masai Mara, from $5,240. Mount Kenya treks can be arranged through tour operators in Nairobi, or can be booked in advance through Naro Moru River Lodge (http://www.alliancehotels.com/naromoru ; prices on request). A night at Treetops Hotel(http://www.aberdaresafarihotels.com/treetops) is usually combined with an overnight stay at the nearby Outspan Hotel (from $505 per person, for two nights departing Nairobi). At Hemingway’s Resort (http://www.hemingways.co.ke) a full day of deep-sea fishing costs from $450 per person.

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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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