In Kenya’s Masai Mara, Sean Thomas gets thrillingly close to lions and hippos, and visits a project that is battling to save the rhino
It’s Africa. It’s dark. I’m on safari. And I’m being escorted through the lamplit blackness to my Masai Mara camp bed by a spear-wielding warrior, Saruni, who has just laconically informed me that there’s a “hippo run” close to my tent. A what?
“A hippo run.” He smiles, reassuringly. “A place where hippos, uh, run.”
As I zip my tent shut, my mind wanders. A hippo run? I’m guessing that he means there must be hippos within, say, 200m. Maybe they like mud-bathing half a mile away? Surely he doesn’t mean close, because hippos are notoriously one of Africa’s most dangerous animals, beaten only by buffaloes.
But no. It turns out Saruni means right by the tent. Halfway to sleep, I am wrenched awake by the ominous sound of Africa’s second most dangerous animal lurching out of the nearby river, harrumphing through the undergrowth and, basically, brushing past my knees, the other side of the canvas. Then one stops and makes a distinct munching sound. I’m pretty sure it’s eating my tent.
It’s time to remind myself about the good reason why I’m here. This afternoon I took one of the greatest light aircraft rides in the world. My Airkenya eight-seat aircraft ascended into the wide blue east African skies, leaving the slums and skyscrapers of Nairobi — soon we were riding the rollercoaster thermals that spiral from the Rift Valley, the trench of lakes and volcanoes that extends from Lebanon to Mozambique but which peaks in its grandeur here in Kenya, where humanity was born.
Thirty minutes later we descended towards the Masai Mara, Kenya’s precious, rolling subsection of the great Serengeti, one of the noblest sanctuaries of Africa’s iconic wildlife. From my plane, I could see great herds of zebra, stately parades of giraffe, mud-caked grey buffalo and hundreds of fleet and jaunty gazelles. As the plane landed on the last dust-and-grass airstrip, I spied a herd of elephants a few yards away, laconically chewing acacia as they gazed at the taxiing plane, like office workers smoking in the street staring vacantly at a No 73 bus. I could have gone home right then, having already clocked many of Africa’s most famous species — and from the most spectacular perspective. One great animal was missing, however.
And that is why I am in Kenya; to see how rhinos have disappeared from much of Africa, and how one species is dying out entirely, right now, 200 miles north of the Mara.
So I’m on a mission — and I can’t let a hungry hippopotamus get in the way. Soon enough, the chomping hippo stops, and the beast drifts along — then I hear a lion roar and an owl hoot and the trillion stars of Africa gaze down with eternal indifference and, in the end, I decide that the rush hour of hippos is no more distracting than London traffic and I fall into a deep sleep.
A guard opens a gate and here they are. The last northern white rhinos on the planet
The day starts early with pre-dawn coffee delivered by more whispering Mara tribesmen to the trestle table outside my tent. I’m staying in Rekero Camp, concealed in a dappled meander of sweet cooling greenery and run by a charming and affable young Aussie-Kenyan couple, Peter and Stacey.
The camp does great food, fine South African wines and brilliant cakes for tea. There are vervet monkeys in the trees, there is wi-fi in the “mess” and the fresh-linen-and-flush-loo tents overlook the glittering backwaters of the River Talek.
I haven’t got time to linger, however. My guide for the duration — Pius of the Masai — is taking me on my first game drive. As we rattle out of Rekero he tells me about his two wives, four kids and the day his uncle Oloolpatit, who taught Pius about the bush, was tossed and gored by a buffalo. Uncle Oloolpatit got his stomach ripped open but managed to spear the buffalo to death, mend the wound “with some leaves”, before walking 25 miles to get “proper” help for the savage gash, which was sewn up in a mud hut; after which he went hunting again. Pius adds: “He was a pretty tough man. Died last year age 108. Look, there’s a lion.”
He’s right. We’ve been driving ten minutes and I have just seen my first lion, disappearing into the thickets.
Indestructible Uncle Oloolpatit was clearly a good teacher, because Pius is an excellent guide. That’s as it should be, however, because Rekero is one of the Mara’s finest camps. Not only is it very comfortable, it’s smack-bang in the middle of the park, where much of the creature action can be found. Safari connoisseurs choose Rekero, for example, in wildebeest migration season — September to November — to watch the famous river crossings. Those savage ones from TV, where crocs drag the gnus to a grisly death.
Rekero’s centrality means you can see all the Mara’s different landscapes, the rivers, woodlands and bald, intriguing hills. About the only disadvantage is that because it’s in a national park, not a private conservancy, you can’t do night drives.
There’s plenty of fauna to be going on with by day, however. Half an hour after we’ve quit the camp, we’re staring at an entire pride of lions feasting on, yes, a hippo.
“This is very rare,” says Pius, driving us upwind of the pungent banquet. “Lions won’t usually tackle hippos because they are big, dangerous creatures.”
Before I can tell him that I have hippos trying to share my tent, he goes on: “But lions do love the taste of hippo, they love the fat. And this will feed the whole pride for a week. Hey, there’s the males,” he points to the shade of a tree, where three big, handsome, male lions, their bellies visibly full, are snoozing off the feast, reclining like a rich Roman family from the era of Augustus. “These are good times in the Masai Mara. The rains were full and late, so there’s a sense of plenty.”
The subsequent days, filled with morning and evening game drives, prove him right. I see a single-mum family of three cheetah — my first wild sighting — gamboling on one of those treeless hills. I see Thomson’s gazelle and Grant’s gazelle, dwarf mongoose and bat-eared fox, impala, hartebeest, bushbuck and topi.
It’s the rutting season for topi — a lordly, tawny antelope — so the males joust and butt by a water hole, kicking up the russet dirt of the savannah, filling the late-afternoon air with the strangely addictive scent of wild African soils.
Then we drive to the Mara river and Pius mixes possibly the strongest gin-and-tonics in east Africa, just as the dying sun turns the sky purple and burgundy and the river into pools of glowing amber. Mighty crocodiles slither into nocturnal action, 20ft from my canapés. It occurs to me, as I accept my third G&T, that I’m feeling an almost-perfect happiness.
Almost. Because I still haven’t seen rhino. And that’s because there aren’t many left in the Masai Mara, or the entire Serengeti. As in the rest of Africa, they have been poached into oblivion.
If you’re in Kenya and you want to see rhino, guaranteed, there’s only one place left: the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the Kenyan uplands, is a place that tells the rhino story in all its poignant tragedy — and with maybe a scintilla of hope.
It’s another hour’s flight across southern Kenya to Ol Pejeta, which straddles the Equator and sits at an altitude of 2,000m (meaning much cooler nights and no mosquitoes). Ol Pejeta used to be a cattle ranch owned by the Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi. Now it has been rewilded and is practically as bountiful in game watching as the Mara.
There’s so much wildlife here, and it’s so noisy in the dark, you may not get much sleep, at first
The camp, again perched over a remote stretch of Kenyan river, is slightly more rugged than Rekero — though the food is possibly even better. The guests are a magnificently eccentric bunch, from the beautiful Anglo-Belgian teenage intern who insists on chocolate-sprinkled toast, to the gung-ho British ex-soldier who is taking his surprisingly sanguine family on a trek to Lake Turkana (he’s 77), to the octogenarian American billionairess who came for a week and stayed for three months and who tells me that her neighbour Donald Trump is a “very smart man” and a “jolly good delegator” — with a twinkle in her eye.
The fireside dinners are hilarious: pepper steaks and gossip. The setting is fabulous: Mount Kenya dominates the mighty horizon. The game drives are glorious: in one day I see more cheetah and more impish gazelles, we nearly run over a lioness, we almost hit a hyena, I see African hares and the rare Grévy’s zebra, then massive troops of baboons like a raggle-taggle army on the march. The birdlife is equally fecund: superb starlings, iridescent green and sapphire, and lilac-breasted rollers, made of seven colours, like a bird by Fabergé, like a bird made for a tsar.
About the only disconcerting aspect of Ol Pejeta (apart from the chilly nights, when the hot-water bottles are welcome) is the noise. There’s so much wildlife here, and it’s so noisy in the dark, you may not get much sleep, at first. And what noises they are. As I lie here, eyes bright, I seem to be listening to a squirrel inexplicably trapped in a shoebox. Then I hear dogs apparently skiing. Then a classroom of gibbons attacking a young Irish priest. Or something like that.
Next day, last day: rhino day. We wake to the news that another rhino has been poached from Ol Pejeta. A pregnant southern white has been poisoned and left to bleed to death, even as the poachers hacked off her horn. Depressing. Then, as we drive the dirt roads, I spy my first rhino in the wild, then three more. My guide says that this is no coincidence: Ol Pejeta, with its teams of guards, rangers and zoologists, is slowly but successfully expanding its rhino population — despite the poachers.
The darkest story comes last. We turn a corner, a guard opens a gate and here they are. The very last northern white rhinos on the planet: all three of them. They were brought here from a Slovakian zoo to spend their days in the world’s best rhino country in the hope that they would breed but it hasn’t worked. The last male, Sudan, is too old. So they’re doomed. There is no hope, apart from the sci-fi dream of cloning.
I go up to Sudan and pat his leathery back. I can hardly look him in his half-blind and rheumy eye. We did this. We exterminated the northern white rhino. We wiped them from the Earth so that the Chinese can have pointless folk medicines and the Vietnamese can have pretty knife handles. It’s hard not to be horribly angry, and terribly sad.
At Ol Pejeta Bush Camp, Alex Hunter, the owner, hands me a cold Tusker beer and tells me to cheer up. “It’s too late for the northern whites, but we can save the rest of the rhino. And the best way to save them is by pumping money in — by encouraging tourism. If your readers want to do their bit, tell them to come out here on safari and see it all for themselves.”
Amid the gloom, this a good place to end. If you come on safari to Kenya, you can get almost eaten by hippos and have a magnificent holiday, and at the very same time you will be helping to save one of the world’s most extraordinary animals. It’s difficult to think of a greater motivation for your next vacation.
Need to know
Sean Thomas was a guest of Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, expertafrica.com). An eight-night safari, staying at Rekero Camp in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy and Ol Pejeta Bush Camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, costs from £3,940pp, based on two people sharing, including international flights on Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com), internal flights on Safarilink (flysafarilink.com), full-board accommodation, most drinks and all park fees and activities.