As we drove away from our luxurious tented camp and turned toward the river, we spied yet another creature — in a trip that had been full of them — that took our breath away: a 25-foot crocodile.
Our guide guessed the dozing reptilian predator weighed 800 pounds, the largest he'd seen. From 20 feet away, we could see its massive pearly whites, but we felt safe in our Toyota Land Cruiser.
During our seven days in East Africa, it was what we didn't see that proved more disquieting: other travelers.
Frightened by the threat of Ebola, visitors are staying home, a recent survey shows.
In the face of that, I debated a bit before deciding that a long-dreamed-about and -planned safari trip was a go.
If I had canceled, I would have missed a breathtaking ballet of animals, those glorious African sunsets and the graciousness of the people.
I wasn't compelled to go by some outsized sense of odds-defying bravery. Instead, common sense and science told me that fear in the face of facts would rob me of an opportunity of a lifetime.
With the last of our four children at university, I planned a celebratory trip to Kenya for my husband, Casey, and me as part of a larger East African journey that included Tanzania.
But the outbreak of Ebola gave me pause. It began in Guinea in late 2013, then spread, as the calendar turned, to Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone (with one reported case in Senegal). The epidemic of the painful and often-fatal disease is the largest in history. No wonder people are scared.
So scared, in fact, that about half of the 500 safari operators surveyed by Safaribookings.com reported decreases in bookings of 20% to 70%.
Geographically speaking, canceling our safari made no sense. You wouldn't skip, say, Madrid because of Ebola. Yet Spain's capital is only about 2,200 miles from the outbreak area. Nairobi, the jumping-off point for the Kenyan part of our trip, is 3,300 miles away.
Case closed. Suitcase open.
Onward to seven days in the Kenyan bush, first in Samburu in north-central Kenya, then to the Masai Mara in southwestern Kenya.
After an overnight in Nairobi and a day of sightseeing, we were met for our flight to Samburu by Daniel Kikemu, the DK of DK Grand Safaris. For the next week, DK would be our trusted guide and inspiring wildlife teacher. By the end of the trip, we added "good friend" to those descriptors.
The animal welcoming committee at the tiny Samburu airstrip about 200 miles northeast of Nairobi consisted of a large herd of grazing zebras and a family of dik-diks (miniature antelopes and one of the cutest critters in the animal kingdom). We were shuttled from there to Larsens Tented Camp about 20 minutes away.
This tented camp is hardly the stuff of Boy Scout lore. These abodes have hardwood floors, comfortable king-sized beds, mirrored makeup tables (not that anyone wears makeup in the bush), armoires, coffee/tea-making facilities, complimentary mini-bar (with bottled water, sodas and Kenyan Tusker beer), a massive bathroom with a walk-in shower, hair dryer, mosquito repellent (though thankfully there were no mosquitoes in October) and the usual bottled amenities.
All of the tents have a large veranda facing the Ewaso Ng'iro river, where there was always plentiful live entertainment: dozens of colorful birds, herds of waterbucks (African antelopes) and legions of black-faced monkeys so clever they'd distract you into forgetting to fully zip your tent. When that happened, your bush home became their bush home and they would help themselves to anything edible, such as your toothpaste.
Lunches on the restaurant tent veranda were three-course affairs and dinners, four. A traditionally dressed Samburu warrior, spear in hand, was always present at meals to ward off the monkeys that would begin to approach if he stepped away, retreating immediately upon his return.
I had a delicious gammon steak, which tasted like thick Canadian bacon, perfectly cooked green beans and steamed vegetables. Casey had veal skewers, basmati rice and salad. Dessert was homemade brownies with fresh fruit and great Kenyan coffee.
After a siesta, our game drive in the Samburu National Reserve proved to be the stuff of childhood dreams. Herds of elephants with several babies in tow, hundreds of elegant impalas and grazing Grévy's zebras, gazelles, baboons, eagles, oryxes and ostriches.
We also had a ringside seat to a dinner dance that played out before us. An adult cheetah was poised to fetch that evening's entree — an unsuspecting impala — for herself and her two cubs. The impala bolted just in time, but the scene framed by the glowing hues of the African dusk was pure poetry.
After our next morning's game drive, DK arranged for a visit in a Samburu village just a few miles outside the Samburu National Reserve. The Samburu people are semi-nomadic pastoralists whose elders said they were the 43rd generation.
Josphat (pronounced Jossfat), the village chief's son who spoke nearly flawless English as well as Swahili and Samburu, gave us the rundown on his village: It has 25 families. Polygamy was the norm in his father's generation and is still legal; some Samburu men marry 10 or more women and have dozens of children. But Josphat has only one wife, he said with a chuckle, "because it's just too expensive." (Each wife costs the groom 10 cows paid to the bride's family.)
We were invited inside a traditional boma — a low, thatched hut with dirt floors, open fire pit and dung or rice bag roof — and to the children's area where "babyschool" was in session. About a dozen 2- and 3-year-olds and a young Samburu man sat under a large tree as they sang Samburu versions of nursery rhymes.
At the end of a very full day — the village visit sandwiched between two amazing game drives and another spectacular dinner — African "bush music" — various insect and animal sounds — lulled us to sleep.
As we flew the next morning from the Samburu airstrip to the Masai Mara National Reserve, the terrain changed from arid to lush.
Driving on to the northwestern Mara, we saw herds of Cape buffalo, jackals, hundreds of topis (in the antelope family), giraffes, wart hogs and their offspring, and thousands of zebras and wildebeests on the tail end of their migration south toward the Serengeti.
We arrived at Ngerende in the Wild camp just in time for lunch. Its two tents — even larger than the ones at Larsens — included a private outdoor plunge pool and a fireplace that was lighted every night at dusk. A free-standing bathtub facing the veranda fronted a 50-foot-wide tributary where enormous hippos bathed and giraffes ambled past, topis scampered and buffaloes grazed.
Meals here also were remarkable. Lunch was fresh salad greens served in a bowl made of watermelon rind and topped with a vinaigrette that would have made Julia Child swoon, Mombasa red snapper with roasted potatoes, sautéed zucchini and bell peppers, served with Chilean Chardonnay, fresh bread and followed by a dessert of shaved chocolate, crème fraîche and sliced peaches.
During the afternoon game drive, we saw several prides of lions and cubs enjoying the sun; pools full of bathing and yawning hippos; vultures perched atop trees; and scores of common zebras, giraffes, gazelles, baboons, wart hogs, topis and jackals.
The skeletal remains of various animals we often encountered reminded us novice game viewers, amid the beauty of animals in their natural habitat, that Darwinian theory was alive and well in the bush.
The next morning, we witnessed a part of the great migration. Every year, starting from the Serengeti in Tanzania, about 1.8 million wildebeests, zebras and antelopes start their northern clockwise pilgrimage to the Mara and back in search of greener pastures and more abundant food and water.
At the end of their annual circuit, we saw thousands of these animals heading south back toward the Serengeti in an orchestrated, stampede-like trip that would cover 1,800 miles.
After another delicious lunch and lazy siesta, we were about to leave for our afternoon game drive when more than a dozen giraffes, as if on cue, paraded proudly in front of us. Then an enormous bathing hippo came up for air just a few feet away. Could we possibly see anything more?
An early surprise
The next morning, DK convinced us to depart at 6:30, which let us see a magnificent sunrise, hot air balloons gliding over the Mara and a parade of animal antics.
By about 9:30, we came upon a fully set table with linen and fine china. Then appeared the whole crew of Ngerende with a complete cooking station to make us a hot breakfast in the bush. We dined on eggs to order, pancakes, bacon, toast, yogurt parfaits and coffee.
It was one of our most memorable travel experiences not just because of the delicious food amid the magnificent setting but also because DK and the Ngerende crew took such pleasure in surprising us.
That afternoon was our final game drive in Kenya. We had seen so much we couldn't imagine more, but Africa always amazes.
About two miles from Ngerende, our usually gentle driver slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing a deadly black mamba.
It slithered harmlessly across the road. Then, like any concerns we might have had before our African journey, it disappeared.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO KENYA
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Nairobi, Kenya, is offered on KLM, Turkish, British, American and Delta. Restricted round-trip airfare begins at $1,239, including all taxes and fees.
The State Department has a travel warning on Kenya that largely centers on Nairobi and coastal cities. It says, "U.S. citizens in Kenya, and those considering travel to Kenya should evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing and recently heightened threats from terrorism and the high rate of violent crime in some areas." To read more: http://www.lat.ms/1wbL26W.
DK Grand Safaris, Daniel Kikemu, Sat Centre, Third Floor, Suite 101, Nairobi; DKGrandSafaris.com. Prices start at $2,000 per person, all inclusive, for a six-day migration package tour. Custom and longer packages available and can include Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.
Travelers are best served by having their safari guide book all domestic flights, hotels, lodges and camps because they can secure packaged rates with guides, game drives, park fees and full board included at substantially discounted pricing compared with individual bookings.
WHERE TO STAY
Larsens Tented Camp, Samburu National Reserve, Samburu District; wildernesslodges.co.ke. Doubles from $333 a night, meals, drinks, taxes and laundry included.
Ngerende in the Wild, Masai Mara National Reserve; lat.ms/1Em6gDE. Luxe tented camp on the banks of the Mara River; $350 a person a night, meals, drinks, taxes, laundry and two daily game drives included.
LEAVE AT HOME
Binoculars; all reputable safari guides have their Land Cruiser equipped with one pair of high-powered binoculars (16 by 50) per passenger.
Blue jeans and other dark clothes, which attract tsetse flies (nasty stings) and other insects, rodents and animals. Also, leave jewelry, dressy clothes and makeup at home. Utility, not fashion, is the bush experience.
East African bush flights have a 33-pound weight maximum for luggage, including carry-on. If you arrive at Nairobi's Wilson domestic airport with hard or overweight luggage, you will be required to purchase a duffel bag and store your excess there. Bush camps have complimentary or low-cost, daily laundry service; two or three changes of clothing will suffice.
TO LEARN MORE
Consulate General of Kenya in Los Angeles, 4801 Wilshire Blvd.; (323) 939-2408, kenyaconsulatela.com
For general information and trip planning, tourism.go.ke