Kenya – Past, Present and Future
By David Bristow
“The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz, if you like.” Ben Okri
The Kenyan national parks preserve some breathtaking tracts of wild Africa. In a country where wildlife is not confined to strict park borders, you get a sense of what it must have been like several decades ago when the game was far more numerous, and the people far fewer (Kenya has the highest population percentage growth on the continent).
You can also easily understand why the colonials of old were so besotted with the place. There is a vast openness, a sense of freedom and the promise of [wild] opportunity every way you look. Almost subconsciously, the mix of rift valley and volcanoes gives the place a sense of geological freshness, as though the physical landscape is still forming, right before your eyes.
Layered on top of that is the knowledge that this was where our closest hominin ancestors roamed. This understanding imbues your sense of being there with a deep connection to the place. No matter where you were born, when you stand on the East African savanna a voice in you says: this is where you belong, this is where your spirit was born.
Amboseli, abutting the Satao Elerai Conservancy where we are staying, is one of Kenya’s medium sized and most popular national parks. It is impressive for its wide-open vistas and plains where tortillis or umbrella thorn trees create an almost archetypal African landscape. The seasonal wetlands support abnormally large herds or grazers. Huge herds of elephants travel between the palm forests and the wetlands daily, creating one of the most memorable game sightings imaginable. Predators have plenty of cover in the thick marshy reed stands and palm forests. And all this unfolds at the foot of colossal Mount Kilimanjaro, its ice-crusted summit glowing in the early light.
Yet this undoubtedly great game reserve suffers from three significant modern maladies. The first is the upwardly mobile and extortionate park entry fee (US$80 a day per person, every day or every time you enter. Then there is the problem of mobbing. You cannot enjoy any predator sighting without becoming embroiled in a melee of game drive vehicles and you just want to push off (except for the chattering masses, who don’t seem to mind).
But more significant, and one that will ultimately determine the fate of this and all the other parks, and most of the wildlife, is the conflict between the game areas and surrounding communities. Things are particularly bad in the Amboseli-Tsavo region (but admittedly not as bad a around the Masai Mara National Park).
We feel immensely fortunate to be staying on a 7,000 ha conservation conservancy that lies between the park and the slopes of Kilimanjaro – for several reasons. The first is that we can flee the masses whenever we chose. There is plenty of game on the conservancy, and we can also walk whenever and pretty much wherever we chose, with a game guard. The quality of service and guiding is also of a truly superior standard.
Most important though, is that the partnership between the lodge and the community is a solid one, where the Maasai community is the landlord and tourists basically pay the rent. By comparison the lodges inside the parks pay little towards conservation.
If wildlife is to survive in Kenya, and as much for the whole of Africa, tourism can no longer be a white man’s game, or indeed a rich man’s game. Buffer conservancies such as Satao Elerai (the only one in the immediate Amboseli area) offer a far better safari experience than staying inside this and the other popular parks.
One thing Kenya gets really right though, is luxury-rustic and here again Satao Elerai Lodge is a fine example. While in many other safari regions they are falling over themselves to court the fictional Mrs Schwartz from The Hamptons, NY, here you feel that you are still in real Africa. The architecture is inspired and environmentally appropriate.
There are no fences, there is no pampering or flattery, nature comes right up to your room or safari tent, and that includes elephants and any other wild animals that happen along. An askari escorts you between your room and the lounge-dining area at night.
Like the wild animals in so many areas, this kind of genuine safari experience is getting rarer all the time. I guess we have become quite discerning after 30-some years working in Africa’s wild places, and this is how we love it.