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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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African safari to always remember

“TONIGHT”, warned Julius our expert guide, “you will be sharing your bedroom. With elephants!”

A delighted smile spread across his face as he swung down from the 4x4 landcruiser. We had reached our camp in the heart of Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve.

Set among the doum palms, a small cluster of pale canvas tents looked out over the cool waters of the Ewaso Nyiro River.

On the far side, elephants meandered slowly along its banks, occasionally extending their trunks to drink.

Further back, a giraffe stood tall on the horizon while a troop of baboons, some 30 or 40 in total, moved through the dry grass. Sporadically one would stop to glance up, apparently taking stock.

Like us, they appeared to be observing the bucolic scene under the baking heat of an African midday sun.

Earlier, as we had bumped along a rocky track which appeared to wind away to nowhere, such a place seemed almost beyond the realms of possibility.

The savannah, scrub country and grassy plains, dotted with the occasional outcrop of acacia, make for a hard and hostile environment.

But it is astonishingly full of life and its native inhabitants are perfectly designed for survival.

Day and night, many are drawn to the Ewaso Nyiro where they wander, flutter or scamper at their will among the elevated tents of Elephant Bedroom Camp.

And while it is not unheard of for a big cat to saunter through, it is the elephant that presides over this particular spot.

The aptly-named establishment comprises a string of 12 tents, each stylishly furnished in keeping with its African surroundings.

And while a tented safari means forgoing air conditioning and abandoning anything synonymous with ‘wide-screen’, life under canvas at the Elephant Bedroom is unspeakably indulgent.

When the sun goes down, the temperature drops rapidly, allowing weary guests to tuck up under warm blankets and listen to the sounds of the bush.

Outside, elephants occasionally brush past, moving slowly through the shrubbery.

Prides of lion and solitary leopards are also regular night-time visitors to the camp but the game is best viewed in daylight, set against the spectacular Samburu backdrop of rugged hills and plains.

Shortly before dawn, I was woken with a steaming mug of coffee. Piling into an open-sided vehicle a few minutes later, we drove out into the bush. The craggy landscape was dotted with gazelle grazing amid the acacia.

A tiny dik-dik – a miniature antelope standing only about 30-40cm high at its shoulder – cropped at leaves, just yards from its mate.

At each and every turn there was something new.

But nothing prepared us for the sight of three cheetahs sitting together on parched open ground, just yards away as we rounded a copse. It was just us and them.

We fell silent as they continued with what appeared to be a rather leisurely morning surveillance routine.

This largely involved allowing the morning sunshine to warm their backs as they flicked their tails, all the while keeping a beady eye trained on the surrounding landscape for signs of breakfast.

One of the joys of this national park is that, while such sights are not happened upon every day, neither are they so unusual that you are likely to leave without catching a glimpse of a big cat.

En route back to the camp for our own breakfast, we wound our way past a jagged promontory where a single leopard sat with her back to us – more intent on keeping a close eye on her own next meal than giving us a moment’s thought. Just yards from her vantage point, a lioness tended to two tiny cubs in the sand.

We didn’t stay for long. While it was wonderful to admire, Julius was equally keen not to intrude.

Back at the camp, we sat by the river with cups of tea, fresh fruit and bread baked on site.

The next couple of hours were our own – to read, watch the wildlife on the far banks or take a dip in the deliciously cold plunge pools outside our tents.

At Elephant Bedroom Camp, the days are designed around the guests but there are a few “musts” and an afternoon game drive followed by sundowners by the river is one of them.

The wonderfully hospitable team met us the next evening with not only cocktails and champagne, but a barbeque on which they served up a fantastic array of “bitings” – pre-dinner morsels.

Despite its remote location, the camp offers guests an impressive culinary experience. And every afternoon its chef puts in a personal appearance to discuss the evening menu with his guests.

After two nights it was hard to say goodbye, but it was time to move on. So far the rhino had eluded us and we were on a mission.

Our quest took us through remarkably lush countryside to Meru National Park.

While it is situated in a predominantly arid part of Kenya, 13 rivers flow into the reserve from the Nyambeni Hills, making it one of the country’s most geographically diverse areas.

Dubbed Kenya’s “complete wilderness”, a combination of swamps, forests, wide-open savannah and thick bush make for a really varied landscape which is home to an abundance of wildlife.

Driving in through the gates, we paused to watch a herd of buffalo as they cropped gently at whatever managed to grow in the scorching heat.

A soft plume of red dust billowed out behind us and, with the windows wide open, it was not long before our tans were a few shades darker.

These days, many are drawn to the park – which straddles the Equator – specifically to see its rhinos. An area of about 50km square is specifically devoted to the beasts.

Our base was Rhino River Camp, a retreat set just outside this sanctuary and comprising eight tented cottages perched on raised platforms above the fast-flowing Kindani river.

A stylishly-designed pool is set among a jungle of foliage, a few feet from the river, offering the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy a cooling drink.

It was shortly after dawn when we saw our first rhinos.

Barely discernible at first, they were concealed in thick shrubbery.

Keeping our distance, we dropped our voices to low whispers. The only sound to be heard was the distant crunching of branches as the heavy-footed animals moved slowly through the undergrowth.

In stark contrast to the wildlife in the Samburu region, these shy creatures are less familiar with the sight of a 4x4 and we gave them space.

It was time to leave the game reserve and, as Julius would say, “let the rhinos do their rhino thing”.

While the search for some of Kenya’s most treasured and timid species is an integral part of its charm, the country has a lot more to offer.

The old town of Mombasa – famed for its Arab architecture – is steeped in history and its narrow winding streets offer plenty of African hustle and bustle.

A stunning drive up the coast – do this during daylight hours – takes you to the sleepy village of Watamu and its almost deserted shores.

A marine national park makes this an excellent spot for divers, while the birdlife is best viewed with a sundowner aboard one of Watamu’s spectacular dhows as it sails through the mangroves of Mida Creek.

As we tucked into bitings on deck – this time freshly-caught snapper – it was hard to imagine that just days ago I shared my bedroom with elephants.

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