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Safaris in Two Styles for the Wild at Heart : Camp Kenya : Adventure Served Up in the Lap of Luxury

November 11, 1990|DICK RORABACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'd love to go, I really would," said my wife.

"But?"

"Well, you know. Bugs. Snakes. Stuff that eats you: lions and leopards and tigers."

"No tigers in Africa."

"OK, but no toilet paper either. No hot water. And food: I like mine completely dead. Look, I'd love to see the elephants before they're gone. I'd love to see a giraffe at dawn, eating off the top of a thorn tree. I'd love to see one of those sweet little deer-y animals with the long necks. . . ."

"Gerenuks."

"Whatever. I'm sure I'd love it all, but I am not sleeping on the ground over a mamba hole with tsetse flies up my nose."

"You don't know what you're missing," I told her, "but I tell you what. It being our anniversary and all, suppose I take you to Kenya--lions, giraffes, rhinos, the whole nine yards. And promise you soft beds under netting, good food, maybe even a little dance music. And Kleenex."

"Kleenex?"

"Kleenex."

"You're on."

I take mild issue with Thomas Romeo's accompanying contention that "Camping is the only way to see Africa." Agreed, camping is truly a blast. But there are many ways to experience this disappearing Eden, ranging from the suicidal to the sybaritic. I have been lucky enough to sample most of them, usually as the Blanche Dubois of the Bush, relying on the kindness of strangers.

In a gentler time, I had walked through the sleepy villages of Gambia and slept on a chief's hammock.

I had driven cross-country through the Tanzanian night in a Land Rover piloted by a madman intent on bagging a dik-dik for his brother in Ujiji, and ridden a gravid "mammy Wagon" 100 miles with an infatuated pig on my lap. I had been in a forest fire in the Congo (OK, Zaire), a riot in Rwanda. . . .

Never, never had I done time in what my wife calls "a proper bed." It was a revelation.

For the Kleenex crowd--which is most of us--Kenya probably is the best bet, for several reasons. First, it's better organized for the tourist.

Second, Kenya's terrain (and consequently its fauna and flora) is wildly varied, from desert to jungle to bush to forest to a snow-capped mountain right on top of the Equator.

The trick is to get out of the capital of Nairobi as quickly as possible. It is a scruffy, dysfunctional city with all the charm of Depression-era Poughkeepsie.

Tack a note for friends on the trunk of the thorn tree at the New Stanley Hotel. (If you have no friends, fake it; it's one of the things you do in Kenya.)

Then scoot.

Forty minutes away by twin-engined bush plane is the Masai Mara, a vast, numinous game reserve just over the border from Tanzania's fabled Serengeti.

Our gutty little aircraft plunged from the high plains into the savannah, and we were met at the gravel strip by one of Africa's ubiquitous "Combis": four-wheel-drive mini-vans, topless, perfectly designed for illegally standing on the seat, head and torso untrammeled, the better to play Lord of Creation.

A meddle of monkeys, four wart hogs and a lone, stately eland later, we drove through the gate of the Mara Safari Club, in time for passion fruit cocktails all around.

Passing through a grand spotless lodge of polished hardwood (the club opened only last December), we were escorted to our "tent." Tent? Our quarters were to the traditional conception of a tent as the Trump Tower is to a tepee.

Shaped like a Quonset hut in canvas, the tent was easily 30 feet long, not counting 10 more feet of front "patio" furnished with leather camp chairs. Inside were carpets over a stone floor; two large, comfortable beds with netting and electric lanterns for reading; a shower, a toilet, a dressing table with padded seat, mirror, fluorescent light, and 24-hour hot water from an individual outdoor heater fueled by a wood fire. And Kleenex.

Africa can overwhelm even the most fearless, but there are few introductions more felicitous than sitting on one's own patio, feet up, Tusker beer in hand, overlooking a sharp bend in the Mara River.

In the mud below, an amorphous bulge of hippos lazily jostling for position. Right across the little river, in the high grass, a kaffeeklatsch of baboons, toting their baboonlets papoose-style. Downriver, a monstrous crocodile snorkeling up on a bobbing pair of Egyptian geese, just for practice.

The real adventure was to begin after a dip in the club pool and a buffet lunch in the lodge with more dishes than a Tupperware party.

The real adventure began, of course, on the first Combi run through the vast Mara, teeming with game; and the morning run, and the next evening run and the next morning run--each adding a hundred individual grace notes to future memories of Africa.

It is not the intention here to babble about animals; the section isn't large enough. Each sally outside one's cosseting quarters, however, holds its own transcendent moment, as well as its own frisson .

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