August 2, 2008
By Fiona MacGregor
Kenya is as safe to visit as ever - bar the occasional raging elephantLIKE THE LEATHERY WINGS of some gigantic, grey angel of death, the monstrous creature's ears billowed furiously as it thundered towards us, trumpeting our impending doom. There's nothing quite like the thrill of a close encounter with five tons of angry pachyderm to get the adrenaline going at 6am and clear the hangover from the wine of the night before.
Admittedly, David, the driver of the open-sided 4x4 in which we sat enthralled and appalled as Jumbo's dust-scattering charge got within the ten-yard mark, was slightly less excited by the whole experience.
"Great photo op," he beamed enthusiastically, as once-cool members of our party squeaked: "I think we should get out of here - NOW!"
Back in January, tourists in Kenya were voicing the same phrase with real urgency. The violence that erupted in parts of the country after bitterly disputed election results and allegations of corruption was broadcast around the world - a fiery, bloody mess of macheted bodies and burned buildings.
The horror of those weeks, when an estimated 1,500 people died and tens of thousands fled their homes (many of whom remain in the most miserable conditions in camps for the internally displaced), shattered Kenya's reputation as a safe spot. Shocked governments across the world responded to the crisis by posting warnings against travelling to Kenya and urging those on holiday there to leave. Yet, while hastily packed suitcases were being loaded on to the tiny planes that fly between the sprawling national parks that have forged the nation's reputation as a safari destination, the only experience most Kenyans had of the troubles was the same as the rest of the world - what they saw on television.
Across the swathes of savannah, the cloud-covered mountains and glittering blue coastal resorts favoured by most visitors, the dangers were the same as ever - the odd passing lion, territorial elephant or stinging tropical fish. In a country where tourism is one of the principal industries and where, for much of the population, income is directly reliant on day-to-day trading with holidaymakers, the sudden and almost total cancellation of holiday bookings has been near disastrous.
Kenya is desperate to persuade people to start visiting again. Thankfully, it has a natural wealth of unforgettable sights and experiences to promote. Our meeting with the angry elephant occurred while returning from Borana, a ranch high in the mountains overlooking Samangua Valley, where welcome breezes keep the temperatures pleasant and the air mosquito-free.
It would be hard to imagine a more luxurious place in which to be introduced to Kenya's wonders. Lodges, each with a unique design, provide private decks and secluded bathrooms with open vistas where one can lie unobserved in the bath, soaking off the rigours of a safari horse ride, and watch the sun go down over the mountains, before heading up to a magnificent dinner amid good company. I ended up having an interesting argument about nature versus nurture with an 83-yearold retired German scientist who was passionate about horse-riding, and a thirtysomething English mother of two who spends her days studying the local lion population, often risking life and limb to get close to the ferocious objects of her obsession.
I got back to my lodge to discover the fire had been lit and a hot water bottle was warming my bed; even in a Kenyan summer it can get chilly at night in the mountains. By then I was already besotted with the country. It had been pretty much love at first sight. A short and exhilarating flight in a 17-seater plane from Nairobi, passing the snarling silhouette of Mount Kenya's serrated peaks, had taken us to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which lies next to Borana.
In dire need of a wash, a sit down and a cup of non-airline coffee, I wasn't exactly at my best as I considered the long drive ahead, but at our first sight of the psychedelic stripes of a Graves zebra, my grumpy tiredness evaporated.
A day or two more of safari-ing and I would barely give a zebra a second look. As our drive continued we were almost immediately blessed with the fluttering glances of long-lashed giraffes as they stalked elegantly past, while elephants eyed us impassively, great folds of wrinkly skin rippling as, with measured steps, they manoeuvred their gigantic bodies through the tall grass. Shy but stoic rhinos (we were fortunate enough to spot both black and the rarer white) stood their ground in the trees as we watched them, awestruck at their prehistoric magnificence.
Antelope, buffalo, cranes, dik-diks, elephants, gnus, hyrax, impala . . . we saw a travel game-inspiring alphabet of wildlife, from A to Z. For someone who, 24 hours earlier, had been tramping up Leith Walk in Edinburgh, where wildlife encounters consist of trying to avoid diseased pigeons and gluttonous seagulls, seeing so many exotic creatures in such quick succession was a little overwhelming - it was almost like being on the set of a film.
Indeed, we would soon pass the very rock that Disney illustrators used as inspiration for the famous outcrop featured in The Lion King. But, of course, this is very much real life; nature, red in tooth and claw - and for a couple of months at the start of this year, humans were the most brutal creatures around.
But it was a brief episode after decades of peace and, significantly, it was violence between locals. No-one pretends Kenya has all the familiar comforts of holidaying in Spain, but to reject it because of fear of violence would be like refusing to go to New York because of gang shootings in Harlem. Yes, it happens, but not on Fifth Avenue.
And while the safari would be enough to satisfy most visitors, Kenya has so much more to offer. The memory of snorkelling in the coral-rich, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, before enjoying freshly caught crabs on the shore as we wriggled our toes in perfectly white sand, will remain for a long time.
Those who prefer city thrills to laidback beaches or wildlife- watching will find that Kenya's second city, Mombasa, offers a very special brand of eastmeets- west exoticism. In its historic old town, the narrow, winding streets boast imposing Arab architecture, while the impressive Fort Jesus, which dates back to the 16th- century battle between the Portuguese army and Shirazi Arabs, gives a taste of Europe in this culturally diverse and energetic city.
For a more classic image of Africa, head back into the countryside to the Maasai villages that dot the landscape. It is an otherwordly experience to hear the straightbacked, slender warriors in traditional red robes sing of the lions they killed with their bare hands to prove themselves men.
Of course, the younger men no longer kill lions. The symbiotic relationship between wildlife conservation and cultural survival is one the Maasai and other Kenyans understand all too well. Poaching has been slashed thanks to the efforts of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, not just in providing strict security, but in encouraging local people to take part in conservation themselves. Without the wildlife, far fewer tourists would come to the country, dramatically cutting a key source of income. To lose their lions would ultimately be to lose their livelihood.
But it works the other way too. If tourists do not come back to Kenya, then the service, which is entirely reliant on the money raised by the national parks, will be unable to carry out its vital work and the animal conservancy will start to suffer.
It can be hard, in these times of environmental awareness, to justify a long-distance holiday, but a safari trip to Kenya can be done in the knowledge that you are supporting an industry that plays a vital role in preserving endangered wildlife and generating income for local tribespeople.
The opportunity to see some of the most magnificent wildlife in the world, before enjoying a few lazy days on an exotic beach and some city shopping, all in the knowledge you're doing your bit for conservation? I'd say you can't have a better holiday than that.
Prices are from GBP 1,399 per person for three nights in the Masai Mara, staying at the 4-star Mara Intrepids on a full-board basis, three nights in Mombasa staying at the 3-star Diani Sea Resort on an all-inclusive basis, and one night in Nairobi at the 4.5- star Nairobi Serena on a room-only basis. The price includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Nairobi. Transfers to the Mara Intrepids are included, but all other transfers involve an extra supplement. Prices are based on two adults sharing and are valid for departures from 1 November to 8 December. Tel: 0844 557 3861 or visit www.virginholidays.com
For more on Kenya, visit www.magicalkenya.com
Virgin Atlantic flies to Nairobi daily from London Heathrow. Fares start from GBP 449.90 including all taxes, for travel up to 30 September 2008.
For further information contact reservations on 08705 747747 or visit www.virginatlantic.com
Scotsman Reader Holidays offers a range of destinations in Africa. Visit www.holidays.scotsman.com
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