There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel the whole time as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne -- bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive. -- Isak Dinesen
Imust have been drunk on champagne before I went to Africa. Why else would I have agreed to a tented safari -- me, who hates camping?
Oh, my husband's idea of Christmas in Kenya sounded great. But camping out on the game reserves? Where all that separates you from the most eager eaters in the animal kingdom is a bit of electrified fence or a river?
I was not game.
"Fewer people stay in the tented camps," John argued, and he was right: In the tented camps, there are no convoys of zebra-striped minibuses transporting safarigoers, outfitted in pith helmets with battery-operated fans ("Out of Africa" meets Out of White Flint).
But tents? Could a creature of comfort be that comfortable so close to creatures?
" 'The tented camp embodies some of the old traditions of camping in the wild,' " he read, brochure in hand, adding, "It's a Luxury Tented Safari -- not like camping at all."
Not like camping at all?
I still had reservations, and refused to let him make any. Then he rolled "Out of Africa." I could see myself installed at some picturesque camp, lounging in one smashing safari get-up after another. I particularly liked the part where he would wash my hair with champagne by the riverside.
He had me.
We signed on for the tented safari, staying in the smaller permanent camps in the game reserves, forgoing the more crowded lodges.
There were more authentic, more deluxe safaris that visited remote areas, promised adventure -- invoking the golden age of the Kenyan safari, in the '20s -- and cost about as much as a night at the Paris Ritz. This was not the '20s, however, when safarigoers had no fear of being accosted by bandits in game parks. And we were not millionaires. But even though we weren't going ultraluxe, we would still pay close to $200 a day per person. At that price, they couldn't expect us to suffer, could they? Well, could they?
Our trip would be ambitious, sampling the varied African landscape, one that looks alternately like Scotland, like parts of the Caribbean and like nowhere else on earth. We would journey from a mountain game park up to the northern reserve of Samburu, back down through the lush lakes of west central Kenya and to the spectacular Masai Mara Reserve -- climbing down into the Rift Valley and back out again.
But as our first night was to be at the Ark, a game-viewing station in the Aberdare mountains, I would have a brief reprieve from adventure camping.
Our group of 11 left Nairobi in two vans on Christmas Eve day. Not long out of the city we found a country of lush rolling hills. The road cut first through verdant pineapple and coffee plantations on one side, sisal and tea on the other; then between the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, the highest peak in the country, off in the distance; and through Kikuyu and Embu country. (Kenya has four dozen distinct tribes, each with its own language.) Kenya's is a dramatic, relentless beauty -- with one breathtaking vista after another, and nearly 360-degree panoramas, where you can seem to see forever.
From the Aberdare Country Club, safari groups are shuttled into the Aberdare National Park and to the Ark. On this same ride 15 years before, John had been waylaid by a herd of cranky elephants, who trumpeted and charged his bus for nearly an hour, alarming the driver, who readied his rifle. Today there are a lot fewer elephants -- only about 18,000 left in Kenya -- thanks to the poachers, who have decimated the African elephant population by 70,000 a year since 1979. This time all we saw was a hawk and a Cape buffalo.
Visitors to this shipshape game lodge install themselves in the glassed-in observation room, or outside on two terraces, and order in the big five -- elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard. There is 24-hour service, as the animals come to the watering hole and the salt lick day and night. The Spartan dormitory rooms (single beds, no heat) and communal bathrooms -- the Ark had neither tents nor luxury -- are equipped with alarms that announce nocturnal visitations.
As Christmas Eve tea was served, the revue began. Elephants enter stage left, Cape buffalo exit stage right. Cue the wart hogs.
This early in the trip the sight of any animal was enthralling, and we were attentive as a herd of Cape buffalo -- considered by some to be the fiercest and most foul-tempered of all the African mammals -- mud-wrestled and used the giant rocks as scratching posts.
By nightfall, there were fewer animals, and only the stalwart watchers remained, peering out into the surreal darkness at the floodlit salt lick through floor-to-ceiling windows -- like a super-wide-screen TV.
We kept score. One Bugs Bunny, three Bambi (bushbuck) made their way to the water. Stop. Look. Listen. One step up, three steps back. Did they smell a predator? Did we care? Were evenings here always so uneventful? The ranger described how the previous night, a roomful of horrified spectators had watched a leopard stalk, kill and devour a bushbuck.
At 3 a.m. we got our chance, awakened by a lion hunting a series of big bucks on the big screen. As she was about to pounce, a black rhino -- the only one of our trip -- blundered between her and dinner. She tried again, singling out another group.
Watching, I was of two minds, wanting both to see the bushbuck escape and to see the lion snag its prey. It didn't take long to become acclimated to such dramas -- like seeing one wildlife special too many on PBS. I learned not to take sides, and not to put an anthropomorphic spin on what I was seeing.
When the lion finally made her move that early Christmas morning, she got stuck in the mud and went away hungry.
Later that morning, we headed north to our first tented camp at Samburu National Reserve, famous for its reticulated giraffes (a strain with more clearly delineated spots) and Grevy's (pin-striped) zebras.
Driving in Africa is an exercise in sheer terror, with roads that make D.C.'s streets look like model infrastructure. Negotiating the potholes precludes staying on your own side of the road, and poorly suspended trucks and matatus -- death-trap native buses -- come right at you.
Safari Lesson No. 1: Never nap in a safari vehicle.
The deeply rutted roads, flooded from yesterday's heavy rains, were nearly impassable at points. We crossed the Equator at Nanyuki (like breaking the sound barrier, not so sensational). After the Equator the road improved and we were surrounded by layers of green hills -- the foothills of Mount Kenya, which end at Samburu.
Larsen's Camp, on the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in Samburu Reserve, was tiny, with only 10 tents and room for fewer than two dozen guests. At the end of the river path sat our tent, just past a sign warning "Beware of Crocodiles" -- Kenyan humor, we assumed. But what about that Samburu warrior, armed with a sort of night stick, patrolling the banks?
As for the tent, it was astonishing, far more inviting than most hotel rooms. If there is an African Ralph Lauren, he must have done the tents here -- in antique mahogany, with two double beds, an armoire, a campaign chest, deck chairs and a full-length mirror. There was a separate bathroom, with shower and a zippered privacy flap. If this was roughing it, I was ready.
Leaving for lunch, we secured our tent, having been warned by a fellow sailor on the Ark that mischievous baboons sometimes stage raids on open tents, festooning the surrounding trees with their contents.
Scanning the opposite bank of the river, John spotted what looked like a 10-foot log with a formidable overbite: a sunbathing croc. We nervously noted that we were in "Swallows" tent (allegedly named after birds).
Safari Lesson No. 2: Believe everything you read in the bush.
So, we asked, had any guests been eaten lately? No, said our guide, but that was the only encouraging word. Crocs, it seems, kill more people than any other carnivore, tenderizing their prey on the rocks and keeping it in cold storage in their river. They have retractable eyes, and a kind of trap door in their mouths, which enables them to swim and stay open for business simultaneously. Such tidbits are the stuff of safaris -- they seem compelling at the time. If you are to understand how life and death in the bush work, you need details.
Samburu Reserve, 125 square miles of savanna -- doum palms, bushes and thorny groundcover -- was surprisingly green, after short rains that lasted much longer than usual.
Our first game drive brought antelopes -- impala, oryx, Grant's gazelles -- and the Grevy's zebras, disporting themselves in fields of skulls and bones. Everywhere there were animal remains -- nature's battlefields.
6:25 p.m., Croc Watch: Croc gone.
After cocktails, served around the traditional roaring bonfire, and Christmas dinner, the warrior escorted us back to Swallows.
Sleep was impossible, with ominous animal noises outside the tent -- incessant rustling and grunting. I imagined a herd of rhino preparing to stampede through camp. John was no comfort: Gazelles pirouetting their way through the first act of Swan Lake in the tent would not wake him. I shivered in the dampness -- we were, after all, outside -- and repeated: "Not like camping at all ... "
On our first full day in a game park, we learned the safari drill: This was to be a communal experience -- we ate as a group, took excursions as a group, traveled as a group. (Fortunately, our companions were amiable.) The days were built around early-morning and late-afternoon game drives, when the animals were most active, and these times were exercises in indolence: We sat and watched for hours the breathtaking surroundings and the animals.
On our first drive, marabou storks -- three feet tall with nine-foot wing spans -- munched zebra bones. Storks, we learned, are bone specialists, and along with the vultures, hyenas and other scavengers eat what other predators leave behind. Nature here is wonderfully efficient -- nothing goes to waste.
Eight reticulated giraffes nibbled delicately at bushes, then lumbered away, walking in a slow-motion swagger, limber from the hips down, their long necks rigid.
After lunch we visited Samburu Game Lodge, with its Crocodile Bar, where too many crocs sun themselves in the brown waters below. Meanwhile, the majestic Samburu warriors danced, their audience not daring to ignore the gratuities box on the way out.
Back at camp, a leopard lounged in a tree. Across the bank from our tent, two giraffes galumphed by in the dusk. There were no crocs in sight.
Leaving behind our designer tents, we went south to Lake Baringo, one of the two volcanic freshwater lakes in the Rift Valley, and Island Camp.
Baringo boasts abundant bird life -- from stately fish eagles and Goliath herons to delicate Madagascar bee eaters and sacred ibis -- and a notorious waterskiing center where enthusiasts brave hippos and crocs.
Down the road from Hippo Lodge, just past the abandoned poisonous snake farm, the Lake Baringo launch to Ol Kokwa Island was ready to leave. The lake was a muddy brown, and the view across to the island and Island Camp was like a photograph with the bottom half in sepia and the top half in color. On the horizon was the eastern wall of the Rift Valley -- shades of brown and green and taupe -- and just ahead, the camp's circle of thatched-roof tents perched along the ridge of the island, reminding us of King Kong's village -- complete with a high fence at one end, separating the hotel grounds from the rest of the island where the natives live.
Bring on the human sacrifices, er guests.
Our tents were decrepit, with the line between indoors and outdoors thin indeed. With ragged mosquito netting, heavy-duty protection was required -- incense-like mosquito coils burning all night; cans of bug-off; and sponge baths in Deet.
Safari Lesson No. 3: There is no such thing as too much bug repellent.
Bathroom facilities were in a roofless lean-to out back of the tent, which exposed the occupant to both the elements and whatever chose to crawl or fly in. One night after a heavy downpour, I competed with four toads for the use of the shower stall. I finally make a deal with the bugs: You can have the bathroom, I'll take the tent.
Despite the accommodations and the lethargic hotel staff -- who would have made fine extras in "I Walked With a Zombie" -- the island still had a kind of ramshackle charm. A sojourn here was like staying in Adventure Land, with pink-cheeked hippos popping up unexpectedly during bird-watching forays on the lake and giant eagle owls -- looking too big to be real -- serenading us every dawn and dusk from nearby trees.
We left this wild kingdom for Lake Nakuru and its huge flamingo population -- 2 million greater and lesser flamingos, more or less.
From a distance Nakuru is a lake of pink and rose. Up close, it is shore-to-shore flamingos. Lines of flamingos parade up and down -- flapping their wings, feasting on algae, swimming, taking off and landing in squads.
Our final destination was the Masai Mara, widely thought to be the best game reserve in Africa, for its variety and number of plains game -- 3 million in all -- including one of the largest lion populations in Kenya. But the Mara is best known for its annual wildebeest and zebra migration, a spectacle that occurs every July when hundreds of thousands trek there from the Serengeti to feed on the abundant grasses.
The reserve, of course, had a starring role in "Out of Africa." When Finch-Hatton takes Blixen up in his plane, they fly over the Mara -- with its endless maize-and-brown-colored plains and flat-topped plane trees. Hot-air balloon rides, leaving daily from Governor's Camp here approximate the experience.
Arriving at our camp, Kichwa Tembo ("Elephant's head"), we were relieved to find more designer tents and an enchanting view across the Mara. I was smitten by the place, and already felt strangely at home.
On our first game drive, we met the denizens of the plains -- the zebra, in company with the droll, bearded wildebeest. In the next few days, there would be countless crocs and hippos, lions, cheetahs, the tallest giraffes anywhere (18 feet) and elephants.
We pulled up and parked 10 feet away from a sleeping lion. Only the croc rivals the lion's size and strength as a predator. The lion can fell prey weighing more than three-quarters of a ton. We did not interest him, however: He woke momentarily, then resumed his nap.
After nearly two weeks on safari, we were expert game spotters. Experience had taught us that no special tracking skills were required: Just follow the other vans, and they will lead you to the game. (Call it herd instinct.) One afternoon, our two vans abruptly cut away from a group observing some giraffes, for a break. Before we could open our sodas, we had lured several other vans, who assumed we were onto something rare.
Later we encountered a second lone lion, this time a female. As we watched, she lowered her head to the ground, opened her mouth and made a heaving sound. Seconds passed, and then from deep in her diaphragm came the most unearthly noise, a resounding roar that seemed to shake the van. In minutes she was joined by first one female, then a second, then a male. They set out to hunt.
Though I relished observing the animals up close, I was by this time weary of being confined in a van, of the restrictions. Parts of the reserve were inaccessible or dangerous from the ground, and I longed to see more than I could earthbound. Despite my fear of heights, I decided to go ballooning.
At dawn on New Year's Eve day, we took off in four balloons, each carrying eight passengers plus a pilot.
The takeoff and the flight were surprisingly smooth -- like riding in a Swiss cable car -- and much less turbulent than in a plane. The balloons went as high as 5,000 feet, coming back down to treetop level to inspect a forestful of elephants and giraffes and to follow the line of the river, where some hippos were out of the water. Our pilot assured us that most balloon accidents are caused by lack of skill.
After an exhilarating two-hour flight over the Mara in the soft morning air and calm, we landed near the Tanzanian border and the Serengeti, celebrating with a champagne breakfast in the bush.
The next day brought us a herd of 40 hippos in a river pile-up -- the morning commute. A hippo is "more dense than water, and can walk on the floor of a lake with its lungs full of air," according to Bartle Bull in "Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure." Hippos spend most of their time in the water, coming out only to eat, and sport noticeable bathtub rings. They are responsible for more human fatalities than any other herbivore, according to our guide. Most problems occur when a human blocks a hippo's path from his food supply to the water.
Safari Lesson No. 4: Never get between a hippo and the salad bar.
We ended the day in the midst of an elephant procession, crossing the plain in the shimmering light of dusk, our van gently following alongside. A young bull wandered in front of us and stopped, and we stood nose to nose for a time. He blinked first.
Our last night at Mara brought an invitation to a "Farewell dinner in the bush." I didn't like the sound of that.
The meal was served in a clearing miles away from camp in the darkness of the reserve, where to our astonishment a tent had been erected, a table set with china and silverware. We dined by candlelight, under siege: insects. Otherwise, it was not like camping at all.
The next day, on the drive back to Nairobi before we left the Mara, our driver abruptly lurched off the road, tearing across the bush. Cheetahs on the hunt -- a mother and three full-grown cubs! Among the few animals that hunt during the day, cheetahs are also the fastest mammals on earth. The mother picks her prey from a plainful of wildebeest and gazelles.
We watched through binoculars (rules of the reserve forbid following during a hunt) as they chased a young gazelle, accelerating to maximum speed -- 70 mph. By the time we got there, a half-mile away, they had nearly finished their meal, devouring bones and all, leaving nothing behind for the vultures.
Now that was a farewell dinner in the bush.
Barbara Ann Curcio is a Washington writer.
The Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs is still advising Americans to exercise caution when visiting Kenya, although with increased security in the game parks, the number of thefts and other incidents involving tourists has decreased dramatically since last year. The department's current advisory says travelers should avoid single-vehicle safaris and solo camping, and recommends travel with reputable safari firms. For more information on security conditions, call the Citizens Emergency Center, 202-647-5225.
TOURS: Safari tours of Kenya are expensive, but there are dozens of trips available of varying length, group size, degree of luxury and method of travel (drive and/or fly). Of the classic tented safaris available, some house you in permanent tented camps (like ours), while on others, staff members precede the safari group and set up camp in selected locations.
The prices that follow include transportation within Kenya but not air fare to Nairobi, the meeting point for most safaris. Lufthansa, SwissAir and British Airways are currently quoting APEX fares of $2,030 to $2,318 round trip from Washington to Nairobi, with restrictions. Most tour organizers will book your overseas transportation for you, and sometimes can arrange for lower air fares.
Among the groups currently offering tented safaris in Kenya:
Abercrombie & Kent, 1520 Kensington Rd., Oak Brook, Ill. 60521, 1-800-323-7308, offers the "Kenya Hemingway," a 16-day trip, or "Kenya Under Canvas" (15 days), classic tented safaris where the staff sets up camp. Some transportation is by land, in minibuses or four-wheel-drive vehicles, and some is by air. The Hemingway costs $5,990 per person, with private bath and shower, fine wines and sumptuous service on china. The other trip costs $2,990 per person, with smaller tents and bathrooms shared by up to six people.
The East Africa Safari Co., 250 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10107, 1-800-772-3274, specializes in custom-designed camping trips but can arrange 10-day trips to Kenya with accommodations in permanent tented camps for approximately $2,200 per person.
Frontiers International Travel, Box 959, Pearce Mill Rd., Wexford, Pa. 15090, 1-800-245-1950, can arrange 17-day luxury tented safaris to Kenya at $5,700 per person (eight-person minimum).
Safari Consultants of London, 3535 Ridgelake Dr., Suite B, Metairie, La. 70002, 1-800-648-6541, does custom safaris but will organize a classic two-week tented safari beginning at $4,000 per person for a party of eight. Smaller groups cost more.
Special Expeditions, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019, 1-800-762-0003, offers an 18-day trip to Kenya and Tanzania with accommodations in tented camps for $6,200 per person.
INFORMATION: For more information about travel to and within Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourist Office, 424 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-486-1300. -- Barbara Ann Curcio