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African Sonata
Budget Kenya Camping Safari Reveals An Unseen World

Sunrise on safari in Kenya - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyNothing prepares you for the African nights.

At dusk the wind dies, as whining cicadas and hidden night birds trill the first notes. A jackal wails. Other voices join in: yelps, hoots, a strangled cry. A hyena’s eerie cackle explodes into deranged shrieks in the darkness beyond camp. Shuddering, you edge closer to the campfire.

Then suddenly, rumbling, primal, a deep-throated roar so close your skin tingles and you hold your breath, hoping it’s not as near as it sounds. There is no mistaking this one. Lion.

“Camping safaris are for those whose normal lifestyle has become too mundane,” the brochure began. “Our safaris are for those who feel they need a “close encounter” of an extraordinary kind.” What the pamphlet had neglected to mention was the nightly wildlife chorus at the edge of camp.

This is why I came to Africa: to get close to the wildlife, and to live for a time under African skies. Lured by the tales of Hemmingway and Conrad, I am on safari in Kenya.

Unlike most Americans planning a visit to the game parks of East Africa, I select a safari company after arriving in the country. It isn’t difficult. Strolling the streets my first morning in Nairobi, I am approached by representatives from four safari companies.

Armed with recommendations from travelers at my hotel, I visit three outfitters, asking about accommodations, guides, and vehicles. Prices range from $28-$60 per day, all inclusive, for seven-day camping safaris that match the itinerary I want.

Compared to luxury lodge safaris with similar itineraries running from $130-$300 per day, a camping safari fits my budget. There won’t be swimming pools, iced drinks, or flush toilets, but we’ll see the same animals. I select a company, sit through a brief orientation, and agree to return in the morning for an early departure.

The next day I meet my travel companions: two Germans, a newlywed Dutch couple, and two other Americans. We range in age from 8 to 45. George, quiet and friendly, is our driver/guide. Piling into a van equipped with a pop-up roof for game viewing, we head west.

Masai Mara Game Reserve

After dropping into the Rift Valley we stop for lunch in a grove of cactus-like trees that shelter a colony of weaver birds. As we rest, George suddenly points in the distance. “Masai.” I strain my eyes but see nothing. Then, slowly, they come into focus: three scarlet-clad figures moving toward us.

Twenty minutes later they arrive, tall and muscular, each man armed with a spear, short club, and several long poles. “If the lion breaks one stick, they still have more,” George explains. Nomadic, the Masai spend entire lifetimes in lion country. After exchanging a few words with George, they stride away and vanish in the shimmering heat.

Driving into the Mara is like entering a pastoral Eden. Herds of wildebeest and zebra dot the rolling hills. Gazelles leap ahead of our van, racing full speed across the savannah. Giraffes drift ghostlike among stands of acacia. Warthog families trot single file through the dried grass, their whip-like tails held straight up.

African lion in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyAt first the clicking of camera shutters threatens to drown out the birdsong and the braying of zebras, as one by one, the animals we’ve seen only on television materialize before us. This is National Geographic Africa. We soon learn to pace our picture-taking, knowing we’ll have a week to shoot film.

We stop to watch a cheetah scramble up a tree. Ten feet up, the cat loses his grip and tumbles to the ground. With an aloofness typical of felines everywhere, he nonchalantly shakes off the dust, climbs up the trunk to a high limb, and poses grandly as cameras fire away below.

Each morning we find lion mothers sharing fresh zebra kill with their cubs. The youngsters play like kittens, stalking and attacking each other between feeding sessions. The adult males, bellies swollen with meat, have eaten first, and are usually found resting in the shade.

But even in this landscape of hunter and hunted there is humor. If the lion is king, then the monkeys are the jokers, liberating food from our camp with the stealth of commandos, chasing their mates through treetops, tumbling and teasing and staying half a step ahead of trouble.

At twilight we return to camp and hot dinner. Melodic Swahili conversation among camp staff drifts through the clearing. While we eat, a herd of 25 elephants crosses the ravine below us.

As the fire burns down, the bush comes alive. Grunts and screeches erupt from beyond our ring of light. The thought of spending the night in a tent with only a thin canvas wall separating us from the creatures behind those voices is unnerving, but George assures us we will be safe. Still, we huddle close to the glowing coals.

Lake Nakuru

Arriving as afternoon thunderheads build, we drive through the woods north of the lake. Baboons peer from the brush along the road. A shy bushbuck fades into the forest gloom. Hornbills flap overhead.

We leave the trees and park at the dry edge of the lake bed. The distant water appears pink, but a closer look reveals tens of thousands of flamingoes. I recall the scene in the movie Out Of Africa, where Robert Redford and Meryl Streep fly over this same lake as thousands of birds rise in pink clouds.

With an eye to the darkening sky, we grab cameras and hurry across the bleached lake-shore toward the water. The ground turns muddy, so we shuck our shoes and keep going. As the mud underfoot changes into a sucking quagmire of knee-deep muck and flamingo feathers, the first fat raindrops hit. Within minutes a fast moving squall rips across the lake, soaking us.

Driving to a more solid section of shoreline, we sit out the brief downpour, then walk toward the water as golden light pours across the valley. Black sky gives way to enormous white clouds, and the curtain lifts on an exquisite pink ballet in the shallows. Not a word is spoken, and the only sound is the mutter and honk of thousands of flamingoes.

Samburu Game Reserve

We camp on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River. It’s humid here, dense with peculiar vegetation. Small hills rise like islands from the valley floor. The place is thick with birdlife.

Safari vehicles at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyNighttime, and I write by the glow of lantern light as the forest beyond swells with a chorus of croaks, peeps, and chirps. A bird coos a dreamy note, over and over.

Ground-dwelling cicadas emerge from holes, crackling the steamy air with their shrill buzz. Green moths as big as my hand slap against the glass lantern. Fireflies dance over the river.

At dawn I visit the camp outhouse, but halt at the sight of swarms of bats swirling around the door, slipping silently into the toilet hole. I find an alternate site for my morning ritual.

Over breakfast we compare notes from the previous night. Several in the group heard limbs snapping as elephants moved through the bush next to camp. The Germans saw green glowworms by their tent. The Dutch newlyweds were humbled by the guttural bellow of nearby lions late into the night.

I hadn’t heard a thing. I was dreaming I was deep in the heart of darkness.