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The Savvy Traveler : Lion Rock . . . Africa at Its Purest

November 22, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — There are dozens of stories waiting to be told on the late-night flight from London to Nairobi--the expatriate American happily returning "home," the harried British businessmen coming to discuss the painful realities of foreign exchange, and an assortment of African diplomats nervously trying to coordinate all of their carry-on bags chock-full of duty-free purchases.

Then there are the first-time visitors, all hoping to discover a new continent--and for most of them a brave new world--in an incredibly short time.

At first glance the Nairobi Airport seems quiet. But the daily widebody arrival from London is anything but uneventful, and mornings in Nairobi are anything but calm.

Taxis and buses line up to handle the crowds. Many are VW Kombi vans waiting for their new safari travelers.

Kenya is synonymous with safari trips, and they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the upscale everything-but catered Abercrombie & Kent affairs to more down to earth bush trips to faraway camps and remote outposts in the Serengeti.

Shooting With a Camera

With the exception of a handful of criminals--clever poachers who have managed to elude the police of a handful of countries--the Kenya safari is virtually limited to shooting wild animals with a camera. The big elephant and Hemingway days are long gone, left to the last of the animals that got away and to the memory of the few who choose to recall their glory of shooting the big ones that didn't get away.

During the day the streets of the city jump with people and cars. At the Karatina (central) market, a short walk from the Hilton, you can find almost anything for sale, ranging from old Gilbey's gin bottles to handmade bowls and baskets.

Outside the market sit a handful of sign makers. Within hours they will carve anything you want into hardwood, paint the sign and deliver it to you, for about $5.

Nightlife in Nairobi is deceptively active. The lobby of the Nairobi Hilton jumps with late arrivals from the bush, eager to tell their stories, each seemingly convinced that their experience warrants undivided attention from friends or anyone else within earshot.

The tourists often compete with airline crews, or delegates arriving for regular OAU (Organization of African Unity) mini-summit conferences, and a collection of virtually every Mercedes in East Africa parked in front of the hotel.

The Action Continues

Nearby, a Pakistani flight crew is checking out of the hotel, heading out to the airport for the regular weekly PIA 2 a.m. flight from Nairobi to Karachi on an aging 707.

The streets seem quiet, but at the International casino, $3 U.S. (50 Kenyan shillings) by cab away, the action continues.

A U.S. Air Force captain, back from a tour of the Seychelles, tries his luck at the slot machines. Next to him, a British journalist downs another Tanqueray and places 10 shillings (less than $1 U.S.) on the faded green felt blackjack table. He draws an 18. The dealer pulls two face cards and beats him. Again.

The journalist shrugs and orders another stiff one.

"They can't hurt you too bad here," he says with a laugh. "Besides, even while you're losing, the stories you hear are great. Anyone worried about the loss of romance and adventure out here needn't be concerned."

The memories of the big game hunts are still fresh on the minds of many Kenyans.

"No one shoots anything now," says one woman, "except their cameras. It's much better that way."

A Different Era

Another woman, a 35-year-old British expatriate, remembers a different era. When she was 8 she went with her older brother up to Kitale, in northern Kenya on the Uganda border.

There, struggling to balance a .22-caliber rifle, she shot her first--and last--animal, a small dik-dik (antelope). "After I killed it," she says, "my brother told me that they always travel in pairs. I was heartbroken, and haven't shot anything since."

More often than not, the stories are greater outside Nairobi. Most people come to see the "big five"--elephant, black rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard.

But I go to see No. 6, a small piece of land not found on many maps. It's a place known simply as Lion Rock, a few miles from Salt Lick Lodge.

About the only things Salt Lick has in common with other hotels is the Gideon Bibles found in each of its 64 guest rooms.

Salt Lick was formerly a private hunting lodge owned by a group of 20 Americans and one Kenyan. When hunting in the country was banned, the investors turned it into a guest lodge and asked Hilton to manage it. (It is one of only six hotels in the world owned by Hilton.)

Rates at the Salt Lick are $59 U.S. a night single, $91 U.S. double, including tax and service. During the April-May-June rainy season, prices drop to $47.50 and $72.75.

Up a Dusty Trail

Twenty minutes away from Salt Lick by Kombi van, up a dusty and winding dirt trail is Lion Rock. Like many of my favorite destinations, I like it more for what it isn't than what it is.

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