NAROK, Kenya — The adventurous traveler on safari in Kenya or in neighboring Tanzania is confronted with a bundle of options: Which tour operator? Which game parks? Proper game lodge or tent?
Having spent the obligatory night in a tree house and a sojourn making game runs out of beautiful Samburu Lodge in northern Kenya, we elected to spend our last five days close to the ground in a tent camp, albeit the most comfortable form of camping I ever experienced.
That doesn't mean it is everyone's style. A former foreign correspondent, veteran of many Vietnam campaigns, was aghast when I unrolled my plans. "Not for me!" he fairly shouted. Looking back, I wouldn't have traded those days for all the candlelit dinners at Manhattan's Four Seasons or Washington's Galileo.
Safariworld, our ever-reliable tour operator, urged us to see Masai Mara, the game park in southwestern Kenya that is really an extension of Tanzania's Serengeti Park just over the border. After the rains of early summer, enormous herds, especially wildebeest and zebra, follow the newly green grazing land to the north, crossing the border into the Mara, a million of them on the march in thick columns that stretch for seven or eight miles.
Once the Preferred Nest
Friends at Abercrombie & Kent, the outfitters, sent a plane to Samburu for us so we could see their private camp called Kitchwa Tembo, sitting on a vast plain in the Mara, before we moved to the famed tent colony called Governor's Camp, once the preferred out-of-Nairobi nest of the British governor.
The Mara is a triangular preserve owned by the Masai, nomadic cattle breeders who live on blood and milk, but exist in some harmony with the game with which they share the land. And so we were to pass Masai villages fenced in by thorn tree cuttings to keep out the lions. We were invited not to visit the villages, either, and we respected that; there was plenty to see without stirring the natives.
From Nairobi to Mountain Lodge and across the Equator to Samburu we had been working out of Safariworld's big vans with pop-up roofs; now in the Mara we were in Land Rovers with peel-back tops but equipped with beanbags, virtually an essential on which to rest cameras with long zoom lenses to avoid blurring.
After lunch in Kitchwa's handsome lodge we crossed the Mara River, past baboons that flock around the bridge, and were soon crossing great herds of zebra and wildebeest, running past Thomson's gazelles with their telltale white rumps bouncing on almost rigid legs.
Largest of Antelopes
Topi appeared, almost the only place in East Africa where they can be seen. Largest of antelopes, they are short-haired, purply brown in color, and pose obediently on raised ant hills.
Zebras and wildebeest were everywhere, running to cross the river (the grass is always greener on the other side) but stopped short by a menacing crocodile. Down river we came upon an enormous dead hippo on its back, legs stretched skyward. Perhaps this huge animal didn't heed the crocs or argued with one of its own. Soon the vultures would begin circling to start digging at its innards. Lions were in the grass, utterly bored by our presence; waterbuck were stock-still against a broadloom of deep green marsh grass.
With that indelible scene we rolled back to Kitchwa Tembo for drinks and a curry dinner and to bed in our first night under canvas, a luxurious sleeping tent with a bath tent alongside. Coffee came at 6 a.m. and we were out for a pre-breakfast game run before moving on to Governor's Camp.
Now there were wood ibis breakfasting (before we did), pecking their long beaks into reed-fringed pools. Nearby, vultures were cleaning the last tidbits from a wildebeest's rib cage. And then came the stalking lions, the males with great mane, the lionesses sniffing for an early morning kill. A mass of hippos, 32 by count, lay half submerged in the river.
Most African of Scenes
After breakfast we drove to the river bank to find the most African of scenes. A small boat waited by the pier and once the luggage was loaded the boatman pulled us to the opposite bank on a guy rope. An elephant watched from an embankment. We were moving to Governor's Camp.
Governor's is owned by an Englishman, a Greek and a Masai chief; its manager, Murray Levet, a white Kenyan. He oversees a row of tents strung handsomely along the river, each with sleeping quarters to be zipped up at night, and behind each is a wash tent with shower, toilet and basin lighted by the standard kerosene lamp.
There we were to witness the river crossing of some of the million migrating wildebeest; we were to dine in a candlelit tent while the chefs and waiters paraded in with a birthday cake, beating on pans all the way. There we were to go on early game rides and return for barbecue breakfasts served by the river bank. There we were to see a two-ton hippo in front of our tent one night, finding our grass greener.
And there we were to catch a DC-3 for the run back to Nairobi for a wash and a repack at the Inter-Continental's Lilian Towers. Then, with our Safariworld guide on hand, we made the last run to the airport to catch a flight that would carry us back to the world we knew, from one we would never forget.
Safariworld, 40 East 49th St., New York 10017, phone (800) 221-4737.