Kenya safari: Hiking in a cloud forest

BY PATRICIA WOEBER Modified: November 26, 2012 at 10:43 am •  Published: November 26, 2012
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Admirers of Ernest Hemingway's "Green Hills of Africa" are often drawn to the Chyulu Hills in Kenya. Here, in 1933, the author spent nearly a month on safari hunting kudu (large impala), lions and rhinos.

In her memoir, "Out of Africa," Isak Dinesen aptly described the Chyulu Hills as "picturesque and mysterious." Along the crests of the range the nightly cloud formation's condensation nurtures the forest , while during the day, the clouds burn off. Thirty-five miles to the south, 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro slumbers in a cloud of its own.

The Chyulu Hills, a 50-mile-long range, rises above a semi-arid part of Kenya's southern area that borders Tanzania. It is a place of vast vistas across plains of golden grass dotted with whistling-thorn acacia trees. Nearby are other distinct landscapes such as black lava flows and rounded hills.

On my first afternoon at our safari camp, Campi ya Kanzi, my fellow travelers — four Americans and two Italians — and I headed out for a hike in the Chyulu cloud forest. Along with two Maasai trackers, we drove half an hour in Land Rovers to the trailhead.

On the way, zebras — their white and black flowing patterns covered every inch of their bodies to perfection — scampered before the slow-moving lead vehicle. We saw dozens of giraffes, as well as several hartebeests (large grassland antelopes) and elands (also antelopes).

At the trailhead, the others elected to take a rigorous hike to the top of the Chyulu Hills, while I chose a leisurely walk that would give me time to take photographs. Pashiet, one of our Maasai trackers, led me.

He wore his indigenous tribal clothing of red fabrics knotted around his shoulders. The men wear necklaces of tiny colorful beads, while the beadwork is more ornate on the women, who, in addition, drape brightly patterned cotton fabric over their shoulders.

Pashiet also carried his impressively long spear in place of a gun to protect us in the event we encountered a predator. He took an elephant trail, a compacted path of dark, loamy soil, into the forest, where we were enveloped in its cool and marvelously lush, intricate ecosystem.

Tall trees filtered sunlight onto diverse growth. Fig trees towered above with long vines that twisted around the trunks and branches. Magnolias, hydrangeas, miniature flowering hibiscus and fragrant mint also thrived in this environment. The density of plants reminded me of a jungle.

I was excited by the prospect of meeting wild game lurking in the forest, so I stayed close behind my guide as we hiked on, yet nothing stirred except a spiraling leaf, and the only sounds were birds' songs.

Pashiet halted in an area of disturbed soil.

"Dug up by wild pig family," he said with a big smile.

Further on, his tall, thin body swayed forward as he dipped the point of his spear into a plate-sized, 3-inch-high mess.

"Fresh buffalo dung," he said.

Rustling leaves in nearby bushes placed him on full alert since Cape buffalo are actually one of the most dangerous animals to surprise in the bush. We waited for a few moments before the sounds diminished into the distance. We continued uphill and came upon huge elephant footprints. Pashiet pointed to a smoothed area in the gully running alongside the path.

"Elephant skidded down here and climbed out over there," he explained with a laugh.

After ascending about 3,000 feet, we reached the crest and rejoined the group to gaze down at a meadow that was one of the locations used in the movie "Out of Africa." Then on the other side of the ridge we looked over the vast Yatta Plateau.

During the following days we explored the black lava flow and other areas and constantly watched wild game. When we picnicked near the Tsavo River, herds of elephants gathered to drink, so many that we couldn't count them.

At day's end we reached Campi ya Kanzi luxury tents (ultra-sturdy canvas held up by tree trunks) and stone villas that had been built among the trees. I enjoyed the privacy of my spacious tent and the time before dusk watching birds and wild animals drinking at the small pond not far from my tent's door.

One evening, just as I prepared to leave for dinner in the main building, I heard whispering outside.

"Miss Pat. Quiet! Open door zipper slow."

There, about 25 feet away, stood a massive Cape buffalo staring straight at me. What a magnificent beast! His presence was a thrill.

"Wait inside. I come back after he leave," the Maasai guard said.

At dinner the camp's owner, Luca Belpietro, told us he founded the camp in 1998 as a joint venture with 7,000 Maasai on their 400 square miles of tribal reserve. Luca and his family created the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust to protect the tribe's nomadic lifestyle — roaming the land with their herds of cattle, sheep and goats in search of fresh grasslands and living in temporary villages — and the region's wildlife.

This close link between Campi ya Kanzi and the Maasai has achieved international awards for eco-tourism. Many camp guests, including authors Isabel Allende and John Grisham and the actor Edward Norton, have been so moved by their experience that they have contributed to the conservation trust. In fact, Norton has taken a leadership role in serving as its president.

In "Green Hills of Africa," Hemingway described the intense primal undercurrent the Kenyan safari had reawakened in him. The animals and the land returned feelings of innocence and childlike joy to me.

WHEN YOU GO

Air France, Swiss Air, British Airways and other airlines fly from Europe to Nairobi, and charter flights connect the camps. Campi ya Kanzi is an hour's flight from Nairobi.

Reservations and flights are easiest with an experienced full-service adventure travel company such as Geographic Expeditions: 800-777-8183, www.geoex.com.

Luxury camps usually sleep fewer than 16 guests. The tented and villa suites are spacious, elegantly furnished in safari style and have en-suite bathrooms. Rates include lodging, meals, snacks, beverages and wines. Campi ya Kanzi serves outstanding salads and Italian dishes. Experienced Maasai guides lead morning and afternoon walks or drives, and Maasai warriors guard tents at night: www.maasai.com.

Camps in different areas offer drives in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Other camps I visited were Rekero (www.rekero.com) and Leleshwa (www.leleshwacamps.com).

Patricia Woeber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

(c)COPYRIGHT 2012 CREATORS.COM



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