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As the Herds Return, Tour Operators Hope Visitors Will Do the Same

By Joseph J. Schatz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Riding around on the bumpy roads of Kenya in a glorified minivan, with your head sticking out a pop-top sunroof, is a peculiar way to see nature.

But it definitely has its moments.

As the van, our vehicle throughout a four-day budget camping safari, neared the exit of Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya's Rift Valley, my wife, Parsa, yelled "Lion! Lion!" -- breaking every rule of safari etiquette.

We had happened upon two rare tree-climbing lions perched in a tree -- just yards from two leopards, one lounging precariously in the highest branches of a neighboring tree and another dragging a dik-dik, a tiny antelope, up a tree to feast on later.

We needn't have worried about scaring off the animals: Several other vans had already pulled up within sight of the big cats. As we left the park, our driver stopped to chat with another driver. Upon hearing of the lions, the other driver grinned and hit the gas, full speed ahead in the direction of the tree-climbing lions.

In many ways, our trip last June, before Kenya's post-election troubles, typified the Kenya safari experience. The classic safari destination, Kenya boasts the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, Lake Nakuru, Mount Kenya, Amboseli National Park and a sheer volume of wildlife that is hard to match elsewhere in Africa. Indeed, the moment you leave the airport in Nairobi, you're liable to see a herd of giraffes next door in Nairobi National Park. Kenya is also one of the most accessible safari destinations, with a long-established tourist industry and lots of options for tourists with varying budgets.

Whether all those tourists will keep coming, however, is the big question. Indeed, the road to Lake Nakuru was taken over by ethnic gangs in February, one of the spates of post-election violence that killed 1,000 people and scarred the country -- and, for tourists, made safari trips touch-and-go.

The violence, which started after President Mwai Kibaki declared a reelection victory in Kenya's Dec. 26 election amid opposition charges that he had rigged the vote, pitted tribe against tribe in a country long considered one of the most stable and prosperous in Africa. While Kenyan tourist authorities put on a game face, stressing that violence was restricted to isolated areas, tourism numbers plummeted by 60 percent, according to the Kenya Tourist Board.

But with the implementation this month of a power-sharing deal between the government and the main opposition party, Kenya's tourism authorities says things have returned to normal. "Bookings are looking up again" as the safari industry tries to recover and prepares for its busy season in June, said Anne Kanini, a public relations officer with the tourist board.

After earlier issuing a travel warning encouraging Americans to avoid traveling to Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza provinces, and suspending Peace Corps activities, the U.S. State Department relaxed its warning on March 21, noting that "threats of political demonstrations and violence have dramatically receded." It recommends that "private American citizens in Kenya and those considering travel to Kenya evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing, potential threats from terrorism and crime."

Before the power-sharing deal, some tour operators, such as Nairobi-based Ketty Tours, canceled safaris to Mount Kenya and western Kenya because of safety concerns; some talked to lodges in Zambia and other countries about rerouting their clients. But many operators are once again pushing the case for Kenya. Road and air safaris in the country are now operating normally, and there is a visible police presence on main highways near Nairobi and Mombasa "to reassure visitors and Kenyans alike," said U.S. safari booker Abercrombie and Kent. "Thousands of international visitors are in Kenya right now, enjoying safari and beach holidays," media relations manager Jean Fawcett said in an e-mail.

* * *

What has traditionally made Kenya so attractive as a tourism destination is not just its legendary flora and fauna, but also its vast array of options for visitors, from high-end lodges to low-budget camping trips such as ours. Nairobi is an airline hub, and Kenyan safaris are less expensive on average than those in neighboring countries such as Tanzania.

Six of us -- Parsa, Kate, Anil and I, all Americans based in Zambia; and Theo and Jim, visiting from the United States -- opted for a four-day, three-night budget safari covering the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve and Lake Nakuru. Our driver-guide picked us up in Nairobi, and we headed for the Rift Valley, a vast geological formation that stretches 4,000 miles from the Middle East to Mozambique. Of course, you can also fly to Masai Mara, and we found out quickly why that might be a good option. Although Kenya is one of the more developed countries in the region, the road to Masai Mara was full of potholes; it took us almost five hours to cover about 125 miles.

After arriving at the small camp, we weren't exactly raring to drag our aching backsides into the van for our first game drive. But that changed quickly.

Masai Mara, which is contiguous with Serengeti National Park on the Tanzania side of the border, is famous for three things: the cattle-herding Masai, wearing their signature bright red checkered cloth; its trademark savannah; and the annual wildebeest migration, when 1.3 million of the animals arrive from the Serengeti for food and water between July and October. We had come just before the start of the migration, but wildlife was hardly lacking: The Mara, as Kenyans call it, is a haven for lions, cheetahs, zebras, gazelles, elephants and countless other animals and birds.

Sure enough, within minutes of piling back into the van, we came across a few lions finishing off a buffalo carcass, some splayed contentedly on the ground nearby. Nearly 20 safari vans jostled for position around the lions, a scene somewhat reminiscent of a middle school soccer game.

We headed back amid a rainstorm that produced an enormous rainbow across the savannah. Then, as we approached camp in the dark, our van got stuck in the mud. Nervously watching the trees around us, we scrambled back to camp on foot.

Dinner (spaghetti with meat sauce both nights) was served in a no-frills, mess-hall-type building by a small staff. We played cards, then nodded off to sleep in our canvas tents amid the sounds of singing from the nearby Masai village.

* * *

While our driver definitely got us to the game -- at one point, a lone lion walked right in front of our car as we watched silently -- he dispensed little wisdom about our surroundings. We jumped out at midday for lunch near a river, though we couldn't stray more than a few feet from the van -- lions, you know. That afternoon, we stopped for a drink at the nearby Mara Keekorok lodge. A perfect example of the more luxurious options available, it's an enormous, well-appointed place with rolling green lawns and a wooden walkway to the river.

On the long, equally bumpy ride back toward Nairobi and then north about 85 miles to Lake Nakuru, we stopped at the enormous Menengai Crater, then bunked at a simple budget motel. The next morning, as we drove toward Lake Nakuru, a pink line emerged on the horizon. Flamingos! Thousands of them overwhelmed the landscape. They were even more stunning viewed from the rocky cliffs at the end of the lake. They are one of 450 bird species at Lake Nakuru alone. As we walked toward the lake, buffaloes, rhinos, zebras, baboons -- and, of course, leopards and tree-climbing lions -- sauntered in the marshy areas and acacia and euphorbia forests surrounding us.

Soon, however, it was back to Nairobi, where Parsa and I parted ways with the group and took a cheap flight to Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa and a melting pot of tribal and Muslim influences. These days, Kenyan tourist authorities are encouraging tourism on the coast, stressing that Mombasa and environs have remained quite peaceful.

Whether Kenya can keep the tourists coming to the coast, or to the rest of this beautiful country, is an open question. In the meantime, the tree-climbing lions will be waiting.

Joseph J. Schatz is a freelance journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia.

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