Christmas with elephants, lions in the wild

We had decided, for once, to give the Coast a miss. It turned out to be a good choice.

Sunday January 10 2016

Ashnil Samburu Camp, on the bank of the Ewaso Nyiro River. PHOTO | JOHN FOX

Ashnil Samburu Camp, on the bank of the Ewaso Nyiro River. PHOTO | JOHN FOX 

By JOHN FOX
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'‘There are elephants everywhere you look,” my son Jan said.

From our camp in Buffalo Springs, we had crossed the Ewaso Nyiro River and were driving along the many tracks through the bush along the river bank. Before we had crossed, an Indian tourist in a family-full saloon car had flagged us down.

“If you turn right after the bridge, you will see many elephants,” he had said. “We have counted 68 of them.”

True enough, there were many elephants that side of the river. The first one we came across was an old bull. He was filling his mouth with fresh grass that he was tearing from the ground with his trunk. He looked up as we came to a stop. After a short while he moved towards us.

“Shouldn’t we move on?” I whispered to my other son, Andreas, who was driving.

“No, we are fine,” he said. Look at the way he is flapping his ears – it means he is relaxed.’

I wasn’t so sure. But we all sat tight and quiet as the bull crossed the track, almost brushing against the car as he did so.

It was a magical drive along the river, lined with the tall doum palms and the spreading acacia trees that are the distinctive feature of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs Reserves. We didn’t count our elephants, but we could be sure the friendly Indian was more than right. There were many gazelles: especially groups of impala and individual gerenuk, with their long necks for browsing the thorn bushes.

We saw a couple of fat crocodiles lying in wait on a sandbank. And on the plain before we crossed over we spotted a bush pig running away from the road and through the tall grass. They are not often seen during the day. At first, we thought it was a warthog, but its tail was not erect as he was running and, anyway, he had the distinctive grey mane.

FULLY BOOKED

Not long before dusk we had the luck to spot a female leopard, slinking through the low bush. But as soon as a tour-van driver also spotted it, he must have radioed a message to his colleagues because, before very long, there were a dozen vehicles following the beast. She must have been grateful it was nearly sun-downer time.      

It was certainly a different way to spend a Christmas Day. Because of all the stories about the bad state of the road to Mombasa we had decided, for once, to give the Coast a miss. It turned out to be a good choice. The animals didn’t know it was Christmas, so out in the bush it was all as wilderness normal — no strains of Jingle Bells, no red Santa Claus bobbled hats, no tinsel or fairy lights.

But the lodge where we were staying did know it was Christmas. It was the Ashnil Samburu Camp, on the bank of the Ewaso Nyiro River and on the Buffalo Springs side. There were carols playing softly on the music system throughout our three-day stay; a local choir serenaded us at the Christmas Eve dinner set out on the river bank; there was a complimentary glass of bubbly with the Christmas Day breakfast; one of the staff, dressed in the obligatory red, fur-lined tunic and cap, went round handing out sweets to the children; there was roast turkey on offer at the Christmas dinner – and an excellent, sticky and fruit-filled, Christmas pudding.

They call it a camp (I guess because it sounds so much African safari-like) but the 30 rooms set out along the river are more like octagonal chalets or bandas than tents – though they do have a bell tent-shaped canvas roof. On Christmas night, we were stirred awake by the roaring of a male lion. It was just like the damped-down oscillation described by the most famous lion man, George Adamson, who was once a game warden in these parts:

“Who is Lord of this Land?... Who is Lord of this Land?… I AM!... I am!... I am!... I am!’ 

We had booked our accommodation through Bonfire Adventures. And we saw many of their vehicles not only at the Ashnil Camp but also around the reserve. Bonfire Adventures had 200 vehicles going out from Nairobi this Christmas.

It seems that many of them were also heading for the game parks around the country. Some years ago a travel agent said that at holiday time Kenyans head for the coast or the lakes – but not for the game parks. But there has been a change. At the Ashnil Camp more than 80 per cent of the visitors – and the place was fully booked – were Kenyans. And about the same proportion were being driven round the park in mini-buses.

Perhaps, like us and because of the state of the roads, many Nairobians went to the parks this Christmas. As the saying goes, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”.

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