Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Kenya Calling - Sarara Camp an Oases of Peace and Harmony








I have always believed that what we gain after severe hardships of mind and matter, brushing death kind, etc appears that much sweeter and worthy. Sarara Camp defies that logic; even if I had been dropped by Donald Trump’s private helicopter (not that he ever would despite being such a sweet man) while nursing glass after glass of Dom Perignon, I would still be struck with the same awe and wonderment that was my state when I laid my eyes on the Sarara Camp and its hosts. That is not to say that my passage to Sarara was paved with silk. This is the story of one of the most enchanting spots in Africa I have ever visited, amply cared and catered by Piers and Hillary, who jointly along with the son Jeremy and other staff truly make it a home. So let’s begin our journey to the Oases of Peace and Harmony.


After braving matatus, marauding drivers, scorching sun, bandits and blizzards of burning dust (you can read about my passage to Sarara in my earlier post titled ‘Batting with Bandits’) when I hop off at the meeting point, I find a well appointed Toyota Land Cruiser safari version with two occupants posing with automatic guns. Northern Kenya, where I am is a true lawless country so I go around the vehicle and satisfy myself with the ‘Sarara’ sticker sticking out of the windscreen before I smile back at the green camouflaged battle fatigued driver, who nods his head, smiles and nods his gun in that order – all pointed at my middle. My recent bandit encounter had already heightened adrenalin density in my blood so I return his smile like Dirty Harry of Clint Eastwood fame. As the other fellow, dressed in traditional Samburu attire, helps the knapsack out of my back into the back seat, the driver offers me another smile of dazzling proportion and utters, ‘Soda?’ In East Africa and perhaps all of Africa, all fizzy drinks are called Soda, no matter what the brand, colour, viscosity, taste and temperature is. I nod my decline and jump into the back seat, glad to be out of the rattling matatu and happy to find some room to stretch my severely aching limbs finally. The driver, whose name now escapes me, places his gun on the floor and turns ignition, and makes a sudden swivel to the right that nearly throws me off the back, since these vehicles don’t possess any doors or roof so to speak. We head directly into a sizeable ditch and are on our way.

As the car humps and dumps, twists and turns through the jungle (we are now inside the Namunyak Conservancy), the guide (the guy in Samburu attire) begins to tell me the stories of the place, about the animals I am likely to see and those I won’t, etc. My camera is cocked and ready to shoot. I eye the dry ground, parched and cracked and at the towering Lololokwi peak to my right that is covered beneath a dense canopy of green. It’s a sacred peak and has an impressive rock wall to the south. From afar it seems to have many climbing and hiking possibilities and I quiz the guide about it. Suddenly out of the bush, runs out a pair of camels and they start galloping right in front directly on our path. Their rumps bump funnily enough and as suddenly they veer to the left and disappear into the bushes leaving a stench of such significance in their wake that if I wasn’t me, I would have gone into a coma. Camel wind, the driver offers through guffaws. For some reason my companions find it extremely funny.

Soon enough the forest begins to turn green, with few odd waterholes. Through a dust cloud emerges Samburu cattle and goat herders, young boys and kids, driving their herds. They wave at me as I wave back. My guide points out several birds to me as well. Namunyak is known for its elephant population, yet I don’t see any. It’s hot now and they don’t like the heat, the driver explains. Hmm I ponder; I do have at least one similarity with elephants. As we drive deeper into the conservancy I feast my eyes on the hills around that seems to have formed a perfect girdle around us, in every direction. They are unusually green and full of lush trees, even though the ground on which we drive is dry and red. We cross several parched river beds. These are so flooded in the rains that sometimes we cannot cross them, the guide reveals. The mountains around have good water catchment and they provide several perennial springs that lead to waterholes and river beds, he further elucidates. We take another of those interminable turns and to my right looms a mid-sized hill. We are almost there; you can see the tents of Sarara on that mountain slope, the driver points ahead onto a green hill. I look but see nothing except what is obvious. We cross an airstrip to our left; I notice the bumpy ground and wonder who could land here, and a tiny hanger shade with a tiny four seat turbo prop plane inside. Piers flies it for our guests, the guide informs, sensing my wonder I guess. And I recall that in our earlier correspondence Piers had offered to fly me out from Sarara back to Nanyuki.

There’s an elephant, the guide points out excitedly towards a giant tree that is swaying gently in the wind whereas the air is still as death. I peer into the shade and in a little while, as the car stops, make out the outline of a massive elephant behind, rubbing itself on the tree trunk. No wonder the tree is swaying. We are merely ten meters away. Elephants destroy many trees, the guide highlights, they eat leaves, branches and then uproots trees and like this (pointing at the elephant bottom) damages more trees. I nod and indicate that I have had my fill of elephant behind and we can go. The vehicle runs up a slope and in a moment reaches the end of the road and to the beginning of my days in this African Paradise.

If a smile is capable of lighting up a night sky (as we often claim for our beloved) then it certainly was emanating from the trim, tall, poised and exceptionally beautiful lady with silver hair who stood expectantly beside her husband in olive green shorts and bush shirt. Piers stepped forward and gripped my extended hand warmly. The rugged looks and contours on his face bespoke of a life-time in the bush. His warm smile glinted off his eyes through the spectacles. I shook hands with Hillary next and immediately felt at home. The staff, all gathered around to usher me in, were all aglow with smiles and more of the same warmth and hospitality.

We climb few stone steps and up a foot track and then turn right to enter the main foyer cum lounge and dining hall tent. The view that lay like a magic carpet in front simply makes me stop on my track and gape with complete awe. We are on a high ground about two hundred feet above the forest and ahead of me lies an unbroken canopy of trees comprising mostly of acacia tortilis and deciduous commiphora bushland, along with mix of newtonia hildebrandii, melia volkensis and delonix elata.

The canopy extends right till the bottom of the surrounding hills and then go up the slopes to the skyline ridges. A sparkling cerulean sky above dotted with few recalcitrant clouds play the perfect foil to the green below. In the foreground glistens a circular shaped natural rock swimming pool reflecting the blue sky in its pristine glory. It is fed by the mountain spring, I am told later, and the water thereafter flows down to a waterhole below for the elephants and animals to drink from. I am ready to jump in; the water is so clear and inviting. Nice view, Piers remarks, and I retort, nice, this is ethereal, mind blowing and numbing in that order. Would you care for some wine, I am asked. Before reaching Sarara I had bound myself to the promise of complete abstinence from any form of alcohol – after all one can handle only that bit of good life and Kenya was offering me far too many options. So I decline and follow Hillary’s advice of freshening up in my tent and returning for evening tea followed by a game drive and a sundowner (watching the sun go down while sipping delicate distillates and munching nutty nutrients – an African tradition followed by all with religious fervour).

A staff in traditional dress guides me to my tent (no 6), which is at the highest elevation, he confides given my penchant for lofty places and also for the view. The path goes through bed of white sand that another staff is sweeping with a broom. He pauses his work and grants me a heart-warming smile for no particular reason. Why he sweeps the sand, I ask of my guide. To keep it clear of any footprints, I learn, and I wonder again, hmm that must keep that guy really busy. We leave the sand beneath and climb more steps made from wooden logs embedded into ground. We reach my abode for the next two days. We enter the tent and I find myself gaping again at the interiors. I have no intention of describing the tent here since it is not possible to catch the elements aptly. Refer to the accompanying pictures of the tent interiors with this post. Above all two factors strike me as most prominent.

They must really love elephants or ele (as Hillary says), since elephant motifs are everywhere; lamp shades, shower curtains, floor tiles, pillow and bed cover, foot-mat, and settees. Even the font used to type out their brochure is in a font called ‘Elephant’ size 12. Though inside a tent I get the feeling of being outside, surrounded by the magnificent landscape. There’s no wall dividing the inside with the outside save a thin mesh to keep the insects out at night. The toilet and shower are all open air and rightfully this qualifies as the loo with a view, and what a view! While you shower beneath the grand sky filled with stars there’s every chance of a leopard or an elephant sauntering by. I quickly wash my face of all the dirt between Nairobi and here, throw my stuff helter-skelter and dash out since it is close to tea time and I do not wish to lose out even a second of my stay here doing nothing. Grabbing my camera and water bottle I go down to the lounge area where the tea and a plate of delightful cakes are already in attendance. Hillary pours me a cuppa and introduces me to the handsome tall fellow, predictably British due to his accent, who would be my companion for the evening game drive and sundowner. The tea is piping hot and excellent while the cake is dulcet to the point of ‘sinning’. I enjoy both and then Hillary guides me down to a pathway going around and down the natural pool which has a shaded view point right above the animal water hole, where by now an elephant family had gathered. She asks me to be quiet and make no sudden movements.

I follow the path and enter the camouflaged view point. I haven’t yet seen an African elephant in the wild up so close. Even the baby is big as they play and wallop in a mud pool beside the water hole. A gigantic bull with bulging ear and long tusks separates from the herd and comes to the water hole. I focus my camera and he looks directly into it. I have a feeling he senses my presence, but decides to ignore me. Wild elephants are normally most gentle and equally unpredictable. They can charge without cause and warning and with rapidity that far belies their massive girth. The bull curls and dips his trunk into the water, drawing in a trunk-full and then splashes it on top of his head and back; after several repetitions, he starts drinking. He is joined by another soon and then the first one saunters to a tree for his bottom and body rub. Soon enough the tree begins to sway. The one left at the pool by then has started doing all sorts of contortions with his trunk. I could have continued watching this spectacle endlessly if not Hillary tip-toed behind to inform that the vehicle is ready for the game drive. As we retrace our path back to the lounge area suddenly a bush hyrax drops down from the tree above like a lump of clay, barely missing my head. All three of us freeze. The little fellow recovers first and scurries to the pool for his sip. Hillary giggles and so do I, absolute comedy it is.

Quentin (the tall Brit, a wealth manager at UBS Bank) and I reach the vehicle into which a suspiciously familiar looking cooler box and other goodies are being loaded. It will be difficult to keep up to my vow of alcohol abstinence as I can fathom. Our guide, Phillip (I might have got his name wrong) dressed in Samburu paraphernalia complete with an artificial rose in half-bloom sticking out of his ochre coloured braided tress like a flag atop a fortress. Phillip is a warrior hence unmarried and fit as a fiddle (pardon my over usage of seemingly unconnected connections, for fitness has nothing to do with marriage; or may be it has but how would I know!). Phillip has a nasal baritone (if these two can be produced simultaneously) and in a highly non-melodramatic monotone he tells us about the jungles around, animals, birds, etc. He is a qualified guide and a proud Samburu, educated in college as well. I find no fault in his grammar or syntax as he waves at the clouds, and the sky and the mountains around while weaving a magical tale of the area of his ancestors. He points at a series of caves (round holes) by the steep side of a hill and tells us how the tribes used to fight and slaughter each other in the olden days and this particular tribe who were good climbers, would hide themselves inside the caves and throw stones upon the raiders. Right beside the caves we sight a group of cliff-hoppers.

The vehicle zips into the twilight and we sight a lilac breasted roller, affixed to the top of a bush that doesn’t fly off even when we close to spitting distance, followed by a tiny group of impalas grazing serenely and a funny looking bird with red crown and black wings with white and yellow dots. We are headed for the dry river bed, Phillip tells us, where we might see animals coming to drink water. If it’s dry what would they drink, I ponder, but in Africa as I learn fast, it’s best to keep your mouth shut and mind open for most of the time. Just then the vehicle stops with a jolt and to our right emerges a massive bull elephant, gazing directly at us. We take pictures and suddenly the elephant begins to jiggle its ears and head alarmingly and begins to head our way. He is angry, Phillip tells, he should be, I muse. After all we are in his turf. The elephant closes the gap rapidly and I feel the urge to hop off and run in the opposite direction. The car remains dead and this is not the place to run out of fuel. The driver punches and pulls buttons, twists the ignition key in every direction mechanically possible but the vehicle doesn’t purr or whirr or whatever noise they are supposed to make. I can smell panic around me and I look back at the now rapidly striding elephant trying to calm him down with my thoughts of peace and harmony. We come in peace and we mean you no harm, I chant slowly in my mind. After all I come from land of India where we worship the elephant God Ganesha and I am a lifelong devotee of Ganesha’s father the Almighty Lord Shiva, so either of them would hopefully arrive to save the day. I start calling both and then few more who are not connected to elephants or any animals whatsoever. Divinity doesn’t classify between animals and humans I hope, after all we are animals too, and certainly more brutal and cruel than the wild ones we often hunt and kill.

While I have been looking heavenward the elephant has begun its charge like a tank. We are dead meat no doubt I tell myself and feel rather content about it. Barely 20 ft away from collision and annihilation (for us) the vehicle roars into life and jumps forward like a lion springing at the neck of its prey. The sudden flurry of activity from us now stumps the elephant that freezes on its track and stares at us with unsuppressed wonder and is soon engulfed by the clouds of dust we leave on our wake. Can’t tell about others but I am certainly sweating not due to the heat. Phillip and the driver joke about the incident while Quentin looks far too composed as if he encounters wild elephants every day in London Tube, and maybe he does. Who can say what one might encounter in a London Tube!

By now the sun has sunk behind the high mountain ridges and the sky wears a bright shade of crimson mixed in milk. I have no idea if this particular shade has a name in English. I spy an Acacia tree framed like a frozen ocean wave on the horizon and click few pictures. And then we arrive at the dry river bed where we find another vehicle with a solitary tourist atop pointing his binocular intently at a barren and dry patch of land. If he is seeing anything then either I must be blind or he is seeing it through his mind’s eye. A little away a herd of elephants do some kind of ritual dance as if to appease the water gods, for I don’t see a drop anywhere. Samburu warriors dig wells here every morning for water, Phillip whispers into my ears. I had heard of the ‘Singing Well’ ritual of the Samburu and am eager to watch them in action next morning. As the darkness deepens we leave the river bed and head for the sundowner point. Piers had earlier told me that Sarara had an abundance of leopards since the bigger predators weren’t around and till then I hadn’t seen a leopard in the wild so I ask Phillip for one. He laughs and confides that leopards are very rare to be seen during the day unless one is stalking them for days or one is extremely lucky. I look up for a shooting star but see none and hope that my luck would turn for the better.

At sundowner point, which is a part of the dry river bed, we find two people with tables and chairs placed around a fire that they begin to stoke on sighting us. We hop off and our cooler and goodie box are unloaded as well. We draw near the fire and enjoy its warmth. Phillip approaches with two glasses filled with suspicious looking fluid. I refuse the offering and seek out my water bottle from the bag. Just then the radio of our vehicle crackles and Phillip beckons us to hop into the car. Leopard has been sighted at the dry river bed he utters, adding that we can carry our drinks and eatables in the jeep. Someone up above had certainly heard my wish. We speed off in complete darkness. At the river bed already two more vehicles are poised at the edge. We park in the middle and turn off ignition. The darkness is thick and impregnable. Suddenly a couple of spotting lights (red of a certain wavelength that animals can’t see) spring into action throwing pools of red light down into the river bed.

I strain my eyes into the light and eventually spot the solitary leopard descending from the opposite bank. Set very high ISO on my camera and long exposure to click photos, even then the results are poor, so I shut the camera up and simply watch. The leopard paces up and down for a while and then melts away into the surrounding bushes. On the cue all the vehicles purr into life and we retrace our path back to the sundowner point and the fire. There I meet the other guests at the camp. A family of parents and two kids who run tea estates somewhere in Kenya and another solitary banker from UK named Geoffrey Lunt. All the heady fumes of alcoholic assortments around makes my mind giddy and I find my vow slipping on dry ground so I walk away from temptation and the fire to locate Capricorn in the night sky. As the voices and the heady fumes fade away I immerse completely into one of my favourite activities; to gaze at the star filled sky without seeking in my mind what I am looking at. Complete sense of wonder. To experience something we need not know anything about a thing and what’s in a name that is human concoction! Lost as I am in the moment, I am jolted suddenly by a cacophony (seemingly coming out of the dark forests around) of such immense proportion that but for my altitude attuned heart; I would surely have collapsed in a heap.

The cacophony rises in crescendo and I quietly retrace my path back to the fire where everyone is as jocular and unconcerned as afore. Am I the only one hearing things since the forest still resounds with that horrific noise! They are calling you, Piers suddenly says, directing his words at Geoffrey, at which everyone laughs with gusto and I miss the humour completely. He loves hyenas, Piers now turns to me, those are hyena packs that you hear. I nod my head vigorously, of course they are hyenas, I know, I mutter and finally grab a bottle of soda. Soon the goodies are over and we head back to the camp, our vehicle being at the last. At a place we find another jeep standing stationary while pointing the red spot light into a bush. We take place right next to it and we find a leopard crouched under foliage barely few feet away. Aglow in the red light, the leopard seems unreal and I find it hard to believe that it cannot see the light though it must sense human presence so nearby. The beast seems transfixed under the light and this time I get couple of clear shots, though bathed in that ghostly eerie crimson glow.

We reach back to find the round dining table laid out perfectly along with candle lights and full linen and cutlery besides the water pool beneath the sky dome. If I had ever partaken supper in a setting more beautiful and haunting, I couldn’t remember at the moment. Food is served and table is soon filled with wine, chatter and music and sounds of the forest night. I remain silent mostly, staring up at the sky every now and then, nibbling at my plate and eyeing the wine and cursing my self-imposed vow. Sitting at the table I find it impossible to imagine that the same day morning I was in Nairobi. Sarara is like another world far from anywhere peopled with unsurpassing beauty. I pinch myself hard to ensure it isn’t a dream and I really am where I am. We have been cautioned earlier that night walks alone is forbidden due to the wild animals around, so I sit by the pool for long after everyone else has retired. Sleep eludes me and thoughts assail me in the darkness. I can hear the distant cries of elephants and hyenas and nocturnal birds and insects. I sit in the dark and continue to ponder. After a long while I walk back to my tent, accompanied by one of the night guards. A kerosene lamp outside my tent throws a pale pallor into the night. I change and dive into the bed and am soon overcome with fatigue and dreams of the wild.

Morning twilight creeps into my room silent as the surrounding hills that I can see from my bed, immersed in light fog. I walk out to the veranda and drink in the fresh cool breeze wafting down the green mountains in abundance. Nearly half a million acres of forest lay unfurled beneath my feet with countless animals and thousands of Samburu manyatas (group of family dwellings) scattered within. The world at my feet looks unbelievably pristine and stunning and purposefully peaceful. I could as well be on another planet. I have been all over the world and at every corner of the planet have I found unsurpassable beauty, each spectacular in its own way and it puzzles me forever why would we, human beings and the self-imposed rulers of this planet, go to such great lengths to destroy their own home, planet Earth! Even as a miniscule proportion of the population strive against all odds to safeguard and heal the same. The battle is on and the arena is within ourselves, within hearts of the human race; and evil is certainly winning for the time being. I have no idea who would the final victor be and if there would eventually be anything left for the victor to claim as trophy but as long as places like Sarara and Namunyak Conservancy exists hope would continue to thrive.

I go on an impromptu morning walk, clicking pictures of hornbills in their holes, superb starlings, barbets and thrashers and few early rising elephants, kudus and ostriches. The camp staff has started cleaning up and I am surprised to see female staff too. I roam around aimless with my camera and chat up with few. I walk up to the water hole, scattering few gazelles while the elephants remain elusive. I return after a while for breakfast. It’s a meal fit for the most ravenous and I help myself to moderate helpings. The tea estate family is about to depart and I chat up with them for a while. They invite me to visit them some time and I reply in the affirmative, knowing full well I would never see them again. My walking partner Quentin arrives shortly and we soon leave with our two guides on foot for the ‘Singing Wells’.

Singing Wells is a strange and time honoured Samburu ritual where each morning Samburu warriors from every manyatas assemble at a dry river bed and then dig for water. They often have to dig more than 20 – 30 ft. The first water that comes out is dirty and is offered to the cattle and goats, followed by clear water that is carried in containers by the women folk back to their homes. While they dig, the warriors sing a particular song to appease their animals and also as a chanting for their activity. It has a catchy tune and rhythm. What’s surprising is that every family has its own song and well and are different from the others.

We walk for an hour and reach the dry river bed of last evening where we had sighted the leopard. The place is now inundated with Samburu people and cattle and goats, with more joining in. People are digging wells everywhere. We climb down into the river bed and observe closely. Digging wells under such harsh sun is labour intensive and the warriors are glistening in sweat as the one right below scoops out mud and sand from the sides and bottom of the well and hands it over to a chain of people who brings it out. They use wooden or metal or plastic containers for digging. At one well, an old elder sits on the edge and directs a group of young warriors as how to dig properly. Each well is already lined up with plastic containers and women of all ages. Cows and goats line up next to a long hollowed wood into which the dirty water is poured, from where the animals lap up. The air is redolent with hundreds of voices and different songs and it soon casts a hypnotic spell on me. I soon find myself thumping my feet and moving to the tune. I look around and find a half-clothed girl standing apart who could any day be the rage of Milan haut-couture.

These people live with nature in complete harmony following their survival instincts for sustenance and despite being naked the warriors do not display any signs of discomfort or shyness at our presence. We go around few more wells and talk to the people then retrace our path back to the camp.

The day has begun to get hot and once again I decline chilled wine of excellent vanity (as Piers stressed) and accompany Hillary to show me around the camp. Just before we leave the lounge area, the same bush hyrax again crash lands on ground, once again barely missing my head by inches. This time though it didn’t remain stunned or head for the pool. It simply scurried to a hole on ground and wriggled itself out of sight showing its bottom with utmost dignity and decorum in that order. We both laugh out loud and Hillary decides to name the hyrax after me. So when you visit Sarara, do ask Hillary to introduce you to ‘Satya’.

We go on a tour of the craft souvenir shop (Kudu Corner), the kitchen, the charcoal cooler, kitchen garden and a self contained ‘Sarara House’, which is bigger than a tent and has a dining cum sitting space with an extended wooden deck and sleeps 4 people in two sections. Despite being named a house, it is open from all sides and there’s no door or windows so to speak and gives the occupant a sense of freedom and oneness with the forests around. Breeze and animals flow freely through the house as naturally as the human occupants. Hillary recounts a hilarious episode of a lady occupying the house few years back with her kids when a leopard chasing an ostrich entered the sitting area during night. The leopard finally kills the ostrich inside the house, splattering the walls with ostrich blood and the bird dies while kicking noisily on the walls of the sleeping room. Amazingly the kids sleep through the entire episode and the woman, rather than having a nervous breakdown, mildly suggests in the morning that in the night there had been a bit of a commotion. The lady I am sure was of British origin. I am further amazed to learn that all the tents and accommodations, landscaping, etc are Piers’ brainchild.

We return to the lounge area for a refreshing drink and then a staff takes me on a tour of the rest of the campsite. The camp has six tented accommodations and my guide takes me to no 1 first. I notice that only this tent has a name and it is baptized ‘William.’ On quizzing my guide confides, this is the tent where Prince William had proposed to his girl friend. Hmm, I wonder again, not a bad place at all, but then something else strikes me. As he bids me inside, I quiz again, but I read somewhere that Prince William had proposed his girlfriend in Lewa! He is a prince and he has proposed in many places but this is where, sitting under these roofs that his girlfriend finally consented. By then we had come out in the veranda and I couldn’t imagine a more romantic getaway and place to propose propositions of matrimony. This tent has the finest view, my guide supplied unnecessarily... obvious and plain for me to see. The animal watering hole lay right ahead and below. Evening tea with cakes and cookies while elephants and leopards drank beneath your veranda can indeed be a view worth killing for. From there we go to tent no 4. This is honeymoon tent, guide says, as he guides me in. This is the only tent with its own private pool for the couples to enjoy in solitude. What if someone not on honeymoon wants to book this one, I seek, dumb as ever. The guide shrugs and doesn’t answer. Then an idea strikes me, a complete package deal for Sarara. Let’s imagine, I tell my guide excitedly, a couple arrive and they stay in tent 1, where the boy proposes and is accepted, then they get married in Sarara and then they shift to no 4 for their honeymoon... how about that! He stares at me as if I am a nut case, then he nods his head gravely. He thinks I have sun stroke, they all know I come from the high snow covered mountains of Asia. The private pool of tent 4 is really nice and offers absolute privacy. Tour over, I return to the dining tent for lunch.

Post lunch I sit with Piers and Jeremy and take notes on the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust modus operandi and community development work that they do. Built around a whopping area of nearly a million acres, Namunyak is a role model trust for others to follow. I would elaborate about it in a separate post. The heartening news being that rhinos would be reintroduced within a year and for that 20 thousand acres of land has already been allocated. In between Hillary introduces me to the resident in-house hornbill, whom I befriend by feeding live worms. As the hornbill sits on my outstretched palm and picks up the worms I smile for the camera and Geoffrey shoots us deftly.

While Geoffrey, Piers and others sip chilled beer I roam around a little looking for more animals, birds and squirrels to shoot. Finally I get jaded by all the elephants that just keep on rolling one after another around the camp (there’s around 4000 elephants in the conservancy) and return hot and humid at the camp. I can resist it no more and changing into swimming trunks slip into the turquoise pool. At its deepest the water reaches my chin. It’s cool and refreshing and I enjoy the view around. Soon enough elephants walk across and drink from the pool right beneath me at barely few arm lengths distance. I have to agree with what Piers had told me in the morning that this pool is perhaps the most spectacular natural rock pool in whole of Africa. I float aimlessly and count the clouds scattered above. Then something tiny and red draws my attention that I follow to discover a miniscule dragonfly doing push-ups on the water edge. Strange dragonfly I muse, but then I am no entomologist perhaps all dragon flies do push ups in the afternoon by a swimming pool.

In the evening Phillip takes Quentin and I to the Samburu village where people are returning home with cows, goats and camels. We enter the manyata and an old lady’s home. It’s dark inside and rather warm. We emerge and engage in a friendly game of bao. It’s a game played on a long wooden board with two rows of embedded bowl pits on each side and played by two with one side each. The playing pieces are pebbles, beads or large seeds, marbles or dried fruits. The rules of the game now defies me but it’s an odd game where players move the stones rapidly from one pit to another, the aim being to finish your stones first to be the winner. Phillip explains the game as he sets the board. Apparently he is the local champion. I ask what they generally play for, goats, he replies. The game progresses in the predictable manner till the very end and when Phillip has almost won, suddenly I emerge as the winner. In one sweep I clear the board of my stones. Phillip is surprised and offers me a goat dutifully. I laugh and assure him that I would take it next time when I come. As we ride back to the camp, darkness sets in and a beautiful crescent moon lights up the sky.

The supper table is set in another corner of the camp, again beneath the starry sky and Geoffrey, Piers and Hillary regale us with amusing stories of their lives. Quentin and I mostly remain silent enjoying the wine and breeze respectively. I turn in early as I am bound for a small hill climb to watch the sunrise in the morning.

Next dawn I wake up around 5 and jog down to the lounge area to find my guide waiting in the jeep. We take off into the darkness. I am eager to climb the hill well before the sun rise. We drive till the bottom of the hill a little away and start walking. Soon we are climbing steeply on rock and mud. As we gain ground the eastern sky begins to turn pink. I am surprised to see elephant droppings rather high up on steep rock faces. I learn from the guide that elephants can and do climb such places. I wonder, hmm, when they have the entire forest to poo, why do they have to climb to discharge themselves; another mystery of the wild I would never know. I scramble to the top ahead of my guide and perch myself beneath a thorn bush. The air is chilly and the entire conservancy now lies beneath me spreading out like an immense field of green. I stare at the dark ridge to the east beyond which the sun lifts its veil. Countless sun rises later at countless places on earth, the cosmic drama still fascinates me. The dawn begins with promise and then rapidly evaporates as the sun climbs too fast and I realize I am literally on the Equator, the sun out here hurries quickly. We climb down and head for camp. I have much more to climb before I depart later at noon.

I return to find breakfast packed and ready to go along with Quentin and Phillip and a gun totting ranger who is strangely called Lord something. We would be climbing up the hill behind the camp right till the top from where gushes a natural spring. Our endeavour would be to see the endemic ‘cycad’ palm tree Encephalartos Tegulaneus which ‘only’ occurs in the Mathews range and on Mt. Lololokwe. I fall behind the ranger and up we go following a faint trail along a gorge. Soon we spy a herd of buffaloes and elephants above us nearby. Suddenly a stampede ensues and the buffaloes, chased by the elephants crash down towards us. The ranger is the first to spring into action. He runs up the opposite hill as fast as his legs and gun would allow. Our guides too urge us to follow the ranger. We run for our lives, since an elephant and buffalo stampede can flatten anything on its path. We rapidly gain ground on the further side from the stampede and through gasping breaths Lord something explains, as if it weren’t already obvious to us, that we have been extremely lucky. Shortly thereafter, once the elephants and buffaloes are gone, we resume our march in a trot as if nothing untowardly had happened all day.

Soon we come to a waterfall and a pathway below on rock, which turns into a giant slide pool in the rains Phillip explains. As we climb further the path becomes steeper and before long we enter thick forests of tall evergreen trees dominated by podocarpus and croton megolocarpus punctuated with patches of olea africana and juniperus procera.
Our guides take turns to explain us the foliage around. At one point we dissect a wild cucumber and smell the interiors; it’s highly poisonous for human though baboons enjoy them as delicacies and then further along we pick up a tiny insect from ground and Phillip demonstrates how this particular insect can only walk backward. How much he pushes and plods the insect, it only moves back and never ahead. Strange creature for sure, that looks identical to a miniature pebble. Nearly an hour and half later we reach the top, right till the gushing source of the spring and we stop. As I am about to sit on a rock, Lord something shouts and waves madly as he points out to the rock and then I sight a frog the size of my little fingernail exactly where I was about to rest my posterior. It is a funny frog for sure, albino in appearance and sitting still as the rock. I take few macro shots of the same and then shoos it away. After all it had been sitting on the best sitting rock in the area. We open our boxes and breakfast merrily. While our companions chatter in their language, Quentin and I discuss British Royalty and such other matters of importance. We pose in front of a cycad tree and then return to the camp. My bags are packed and Jeremy informs that instead of Piers, another plane coming in with a family would fly us out. He too is heading for Nanyuki to attend a marriage.

I quickly scribble my thoughts on the visitor’s book, bid my goodbyes to the staff and return to my tent. Even as I take my last shower at Sarara under the sunny sky I feel an uncharacteristic pang of loss. I don’t wish to depart. I don’t realize where the previous two days go. Rarely does this happen to me. I am always ready for a journey, forever on the roads and to me destinations are only resting points from where to recommence my journey. Sarara beckons me to tarry a little longer. My heart pines to climb every hill and rock face that the place abounds and to befriend the strikingly poised Samburu girl by the singing wells. I nod my head finally, life is all about motion and one must go when one has to go. If time and tide permits this is certainly one place I would wish to return. I take a final longing look at the tent and leave with my knapsack on my back. Everyone is lined up to bid me goodbye. Jeremy arrives with his case and a well ironed shirt dangling from a hanger. Hillary hugs me tight and asks me to return. I shake hands with the farewell group and we board the jeep that Piers is driving and head off to the bumpy airfield.

Soon enough a Tropic Air plane lands raising dust and my respect for the pilot. That should be Charlie, Jeremy tells me. Out hops the tourist family and in we go. Phillip shoves our packs into the boot and Charlie shuts the window. In the rush I don’t even bid Piers a proper goodbye. Perhaps it is for the best since I would do it the next time. Charlie indicates us to strap our headphones. We do communication check and then he throttles the plane forward. A brief run later we are airborne. Jeremy does the introduction and Charlie guffaws good-naturedly, you must be xxxxing crazy mate, and I have seen quite a few crazy ones in my life. He tilts the plane to give me a better view of the camp and forest below. Then he cuts through the air like a rocket and we climb to 9000 ft. I keep the tiny ventilation panel next to me open to get the cool air in. No sooner we have cleared the top of the boundary ridge of Namunyak; I crane my neck behind to get the last glimpse of the forest land that had been my home recently. The aircraft catches a bump and we go down a little on the other side and Jeremy points out the obvious arid region on this side. The difference is so stark, barely within few hundred meters in altitude and few kilometres in distance, the lush unending green has given way to red, chaffed dry earth with barely a trace of green anywhere. Overgrazing and human presence, Jeremy explains further. I follow the serpentine track to Wamba below. Far to our left we can spot the base of Mt Kenya.

Eventually Nanyuki airfield comes to view and Charlie lands with the ease and grace of a ballerina. I thank him for the ride and Jeremy rushes out to meet his girl. I too pick up my sack and bidding Jeremy and his girl goodbye, walk out of the airfield in search of a matatu that would now return me to the world of mayhem and madness in that order.

3 comments:

  1. Absolutely dreamy... a beautiful rendering of a heavenly abode... thanks so much S!

    Hope to experience it with you one day. <3 and hugs always.

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  2. Thanks Satya, as always, for taking me (and everyone of your readers) along on this fascinating journey. I have always admired your story telling skills and this piece brings to light your amazing memory as well. You have recalled the Sarara camp so vividly despite the passage of time and your return to the concrete jungles back home!
    Raj

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  3. Would to visit kenya sometime....

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