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The welcoming words: Jambo, Jambo Bwana (Swahili for Hello, Hello Sir) is the quintessential greeting all visitors receive when they arrive in Kenya. The sound of the friendly voices makes weary travelers feel at home in a place where they can hide from civilization, very close to the heart of Africa.
Bordering the Indian Ocean, in the Eastern part of the continent, and just below the equator, lays Masai country. All you’ll need are a pair of binoculars and an SLR camera with a telephoto lens to immortalize the adventure. You’ll want to capture every unexpected encounter and open your spirit to take in the unforgettable landscapes you may remember from Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa.
Any trip to Kenya would be incomplete without a visit to the Masai Mara Natural Reserve, very close to the endless plains of the Serengeti National Park in nearby Tanzania. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bask in the soft, pink glow of the most unimaginable sunset, as the African savannah stretches toward the infinite in front of you.
Our safari begins in one of the largest game reserve in the country, with more than 593 square miles. If you have not previously hired a guided tour, your hotel or camp will be happy to set up an expedition with a couple of guides at the wheel of a roofless van or truck. This territory is the natural habitat of giraffes, gazelles, (better known as Pumba) wartskin wild boars, buffalo, and even cheetahs, which will likely cross your path or attentively watch you from a tree branch. It is a cherished occasion to take in the sights and sounds of primordial Earth.
You will learn to be patient in Africa and to enjoy the stillness of the landscape, to observe the zebras grazing, the baboon mother lovingly grooming her baby, the Thomson gazelles reaching speeds of 40 mph, the wildebeest migrating towards Tanzania, or the strange relationship between the hippopotamus and the crocodile, peacefully coexisting on the banks of the Mara River.
Searching for the Big Five (the most difficult animals to hunt in Africa) can become a very exciting adventure. After the third day on the plains, you would have probably already spotted the elephant, the buffalo and the elusive leopard. The potential hunter may have to wait to see the lion. The King of the Jungle is usually found in a daze, relaxing miles away from its enemies. Finding a lion’s den, paradoxically, will make you feel the haunting peace this beast exudes.
The fifth member of the club, in great danger of extinction (its horn is valued at $50,000 for alleged healing powers that have never been demonstrated), can be easily found along the lakes that border the Rift Valley, in Lake Nakuru National Park, to be precise. This remote enclave is home to magnificent rhinos, which wait, protected from poachers, behind the electric fences the surround the reserve.
Elmenteita is another spectacular nearby lake, about 170 kilometers from Nakuru, and it is home to families of hippos that cool their massive bodies in the river in daylight, and come out for food after sunset. But if you have had your share of safari (at least until next year), but not enough of Africa, a short flight to one of Kenya’s most emblematic cities, Malindi (Mombasa), is recommended. This is a different side of modern Kenya, with a particularly enchanting culture.
Malindi is a Muslim town; its streets are busy with rickshaws imported from India, used by the locals to move from one end of the town to another. It is home to wealthy Italians and tourism is its main sources of income. Aboard the boat that takes you to the paradisiacal beaches of Watamu, you’ll catch a glimpse of the mansions that line the shore line, including the home of Flavio Briatore, a well known entrepreneur from Piedmont, who chose Malindi as his summer residence.
Despite the obvious cultural differences, somehow, Kenya turns out to be a familiar place, perhaps a memory from a childhood dream. Those who visit will discover a country that struggles to be the steward of Africa’s most magnificent animal and cultural treasures. At the end of an unforgettable trip, you’ll hear the locals bid you goodbye in Swahili: Hakuna Matata. ■