AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — I couldn't be sure how many were out there. They had just shaken me from a deep sleep, a herd of cavorting hippopotamuses bellowing like out-of-tune tubas as they blundered and splashed in the dark waters a hundred feet from my tent.
No one had said anything about camping with hippos, I thought as I listened to their midnight mirth on the shore of Lake Baringo. I lay awake most of the night, tracking their sounds through my canvas tent and waiting to sidle into the darkness to the distant latrine. But even when the revelry subsided and the camp seemed calm, the snorts and grunts of a lone hippo grazing between the tents kept me stranded inside.
By the time I finally left the tent, the African sun was burning through the dawn clouds. The hippos were back in the lake resting, only their heads poked through the water, brown bumps peeping at the shore. We eight campers peered back, shaking our heads in awe and amusement at our obnoxious neighbors. I walked toward the lake to get a closer look. Two hippos yawned, showing cavernous, pink mouths. Others paddled closer, then circled out in single file and disappeared into the lake.
"Camping," a friend said as we walked back to our tents, "is the only way to see Africa."
That's the sentiment that convinced me to go camping for the first time. Until then, my idea of roughing it had been staying at a motel without an ice machine. But as our group reached the halfway point on a two-week camping safari through Kenya's most popular lakes and game parks in the summer of last year, I couldn't imagine better accommodations.
To be sure, there are more comfortable ways to go on safari. One can see elephants grazing or lions playing in the high grass as easily from a lodge as from a campsite. But to fully experience the world beyond a minibus window, camping is authentically best. The sound of a hyena prowling outside your tent wraps you in the romance and reality of Africa.
The snow-covered peak of Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro loomed through a sheath of clouds like a celestial being. On the blazing plain below, a bearded wildebeest scampered before a dozen grazing zebras, darting and leaping in a lunatic dance. A jackal ran ahead of the bus, then dived into the brush. A small herd of elephants grazed near the horizon.
We had just arrived in Amboseli National Park after a four-hour trek on the dusty, pockmarked roads from Nairobi. Our guide, Joseph, sat amused in the driver's seat, politely jerking the minibus to a stop with each oohhh and aahhh from behind. "We will get much closer to the animals," he said. "Are you sure?" someone asked. "Yes, yes. I am sure. Trust me," he said, then laughed.
A 30ish member of the Kikuyu tribe with extensive knowledge of the game parks, Joseph not only tracked animals but maneuvered the minibus to within a few feet of fighting elephants and feeding lions. Amboseli, one of Kenya's smallest game parks, is famous for its herds of wildebeests, Burchell's zebras, water buffaloes, gazelles and a handful of the endangered rhinoceroses, but it's the elephants that seize the imagination.
Although the elephants have been heavily poached for their ivory during the last decade, the gray giants seemed to be everywhere in Amboseli. They grazed in herds numbering from a few individuals to a few hundred, always with sentries posted for their only predator, man.
Alongside our minibus, a calf tried to filch a bunch of grass that another calf had shaken free of dirt. A bull inexplicably dropped to its front knees and kicked its hind legs like a circus performer. Two juveniles squared off in play, their trunks entwined, one driving the other like a sumo wrestler into our shadow.
At dusk we drove to our campsite, marked by a stone in a cluster of thorn trees surrounded by the the dusty plain.
This is the no-frills camp. Those wishing more pampered treatment can choose from several luxury tour operators who offer campsites with permanent tents and private baths, meals served on fine china and good wines. But we were comfortable enough in our rickety abodes, sleeping in bags on thin foam mattresses and dining on staples--lots of bread, cheese and fresh fruit. The cost was about $1,200 each.
Our first night in the bush was cool and quiet; it surprised me. I expected the night to be more menacing and claustrophobic. The cook managed a good meal of pasta, potatoes and beans on a fire that brought our group together under the sparkling canopy of the Southern Hemisphere. Over drinks, we traded stories of travels and careers, and drifted into the darkness to our tents.
During the next few days our routine was to drive in the morning to view wildlife and return in the heat of the day to camp, some to sit at the shaded table to read or write letters, while others washed clothes or napped.