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Reflections on the Mystery and Magic of Kenya

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The rains are over now and Kenya basks in the magic of summer, awakening to the call of birds and, at day’s end, slumbering in the dark brooding shadows of distant mountains.

To stand here in the soft half-light of dusk, amid the murmurings of the forest, is to understand the spell Africa casts over all those who venture its way. I should know, for Kenya wove its spell on me when I lived here for four years in the 1970s, and now, coming back, I feel as though I had never been away.

This time my wife, Sandy, and I are but visitors, looking for memories. With only a week to spare, it would, I suppose, have made more sense to disappear to a quiet Caribbean beach, but the notion never crossed our minds. We wrestled with jet lag for a day in Nairobi, then headed straight north, passing coffee farms and little villages with thatched-roof homes, crossing the equator at noon and soon finding ourselves on the dirt road to Mt. Kenya that we had not traveled for 11 years.

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Mt. Kenya was the monument that symbolized to me Africa’s mysterious beauty, and it is just as I remember it, its twin peaks, Batian and Nelina, soaring 17,000 feet into a tapestry of clouds. From the porch of the Mt. Kenya Safari Club--surely one of Africa’s grandest retreats--I can see where the bamboo and juniper forests give way to the moorlands, then the snowfields, and it is not difficult to understand why the Kikuyu, Kenya’s dominant tribe, believe God dwells in the mountain’s hidden valleys.

A German missionary, Ludwig Krapf, came this way in 1848 and spoke of seeing snow on Mt. Kenya. Snow on the equator? Impossible, people said. Krapf was right, of course, and a century or so later, that same site so captivated actor Bill Holden and attorney Ray Ryan that they bought a coffee farm on the mountain’s doorstep and turned it into the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, a resort with lush gardens, elegant dining, horseback and walking trails and rooms with fireplaces.

The Safari Club, situated 7,000 feet high, almost on the equator, no longer attracts the celebrity crowd, catering now mostly to groups of tourists who arrive in vans en route to Samburu National Park. But its ambience is still one of luxury and exclusivity: five-course meals featuring fresh brook trout, coffee and brandy served in the lounge by a roaring fire; two-bedroom cottages with sunken baths, and acre upon acre of manicured grounds, each inch of which is swept clear of leaves every morning.

Down the dirt road a few miles, in the town of Nanyuki--the heart of the so-called white highlands during colonial times and the Mau Mau war of independence against the British--I went looking for the old Silverbeck Hotel with its bar that straddled the equator. A man could drink there with one foot planted in the Northern Hemisphere, the other firmly in the Southern Hemisphere. The hotel, I was told, had burned down, but otherwise Nanyuki didn’t seemed to have changed at all, with its Settler’s Store still run by the same Indian family, its broad main street full of little shops and potholes and muddied Land Rovers.

Friends who had been in Kenya more recently than I had told me I would be disappointed coming back to this special land, where I had seen Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s founding father, buried, and known the delights of many safaris on the dark, moonless plains of the African savanna. You won’t recognize Nairobi, they said. The great herds of East African wildlife, they said, are gone, poached or driven away by the drought.

But Nairobi, sprawling now almost all the way to the international airport and hurtling skyward in a frenzy of construction, is still a pleasant place, though hardly the overgrown village I knew a decade ago. It’s a real city now, bustling with well-dressed African and Indian merchants, and, unfortunately, beset with an abundance of crime as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Crime--ranging from pick-pocketing to outright gang attacks on buses traveling country roads--is such a worrisome problem these days that the minister of wildlife recently took the unusual step of assuring tourists the government guarantees their security. I’m not sure how much credence I’d give the minister’s promise, but I don’t think tourists need be unduly alarmed if they take the same sensible precautions they would observe in Los Angeles.

Tour operators I talked to said tourists were seldom the target of attacks--even the bandits seem to realize that tourists provide Kenya’s prime source of foreign exchange--and suggested that visitors who stay together in a group on safari and who take taxis at night in Nairobi should have cause for no great concern.

Choosing a hotel in Nairobi was, as usual, an easy matter, for the Norfolk still stands high above its competitors. Built in 1904 when the city was little more than a tented camp on the rail line to Uganda, the rambling Norfolk exudes a colonial charm rare in modern Africa, and its Lord Delamere terrace remains a gathering place for old British settlers, former hunters, journalists, African professionals.

The highlands around Nanyuki where I traveled often during my years in Africa are three hours north of Nairobi by car (and 30 minutes on a $100 Air Kenya flight). A tip: Travel only with a government-authorized driver and reward sensible driving with a handsome gratuity; it’s a wise investment in a country whose highways claim 2,000 lives a year.

In the expansive private game ranches around Nanyuki--most of which are open to the public--wildlife is again abundant, testimony to the beneficial effects of the government’s anti-poaching campaign. Elephants once more are raising havoc with farmers’ fences, and rhinos roam through the Mt. Kenya Game Ranch, each one followed night and day by a game warden carrying a rifle and a two-way radio.

The darkness of night comes early along the equator and last night, just after the sun had plunged below the horizon, I watched the shadows descend over plains where rhinos grazed. Mt. Kenya towered in the distance, wearing a necklace of wispy clouds, and I knew I was finally back in Africa--a place that you can depart from but never really leave.

GUIDEBOOK

Nairobi and Beyond

Getting there: No American airline flies to Kenya, but there are daily connections through many European capitals. Los Angeles-Nairobi round trip on British Airways, via London, for example, costs $2,513 with a 30-day advance purchase for travel between Jan. 16 and May 14. A cheaper alternative is to purchase a low-priced L.A.-London ticket and a separate London-Nairobi ticket on Kenya Airways.

Nanyuki is three hours by car from Nairobi. Your hotel in Nairobi can arrange a private taxi, usually about $120 one way. Numerous tours to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club are available in Nairobi and include transportation in eight-seat vans. The 30-minute flight on Air Kenya from Nairobi to Nanyuki costs about $100.

Where to stay: In Nairobi, the city’s oldest hotel, the Norfolk (P.O. Box 40064, Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa, telephone 011-254-2-335-422), is still a favorite. Rates: $133 double, $243 suite. In Nanyuki, Mt. Kenya Safari Club (P.O. Box 35, Nanyuki, Nairobi, 011-254-2-723-776); rates: $230 double, $358 suite, $559 cottage. For reservations at both hotels and other luxury accommodations in Kenya, call Lonrho Hotels at (800) 845-3692. Lonrho also offers a design-your-own safari package called “Safari Pass,” on which visitors can travel between several luxury hotels and wildlife lodges the company operates in Kenya. Sightseeing: The Safari Club can arrange trips to private game ranches for wildlife viewing. Sweetwaters luxury tented camp on private Ol Pejeta ranch is one of the best.

Things to know: A visa is required. They cost $10 and can be obtained through the Kenyan Embassy, 2249 R St., Washington, D.C., (202) 387-6101.

Best season to visit is during summer months, January-March, when nights are cool (bring a sweater) and daytime temperatures are typically in the mid-70s.

For more information: Contact the Kenya Tourist Office, 9100 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 111, Beverly Hills 90212, (213) 274-6635.


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