On Travel and Places this week, Magical Kenya takes us to the Samburu bush, to a luxury camp teeming with cheeky monkeys.
The first thing Kelvin Muendo, the manager at Samburu Intrepids Tented Camp, will tell you to worry about are the monkeys.
“Zip down your tent at all times,” he’ll say as he smiles.
“If you are leaving, zip your tent down. Use both zippers, then tie them together using the string. Place the mat against the tent, and push the table towards the entrance.”
It’s when he gets to the details that the laughter will stop. This man is serious. This man is not joking about the monkeys. These monkeys have figured out everything but how to push a table and untie a knot. And it’s only a matter of time.
When the Cessna Caravan’s wheels touched down on the runway at Samburu Oryx two hours earlier, none of us were ready for the heat. It was a little past midday, and the deceptively stunning side views of Mount Kenya on the way here had made us forget where we were headed. Samburu heat is always welcoming in the same subconscious way a swimming pool is. It’s as if daring you to let go, to strip down there and then and just let loose.
Before long, we hopped on to two Landcruisers, and snaked down towards Samburu Intrepids.
When you finally settle into the tent, surrounded by luxury in the middle of a game reserve, you’ll hear the monkeys. Then you’ll see them swinging outside, having the time of their lives. You’ll know they are watching you watching them, waiting for you to forget to tie the knot and place the mat as you leave for the sundowner. Then you’ll come back to a trashed tent with empty cans of deodorant and torn candy wrappers. You might not even find your knickers.
There was this story, told to a laughing van on our way to Amboseli in December last year, about a sadistic monkey that stole a handbag and swung up a tree. It then started tossing out one thing after the other. This definitely took a long time, and then all it had in its hand was a book. It held it, upside down, then peered down. With an evil look in its eyes, it started tossing the book to the lady, page by page. Monkeys don’t like women.
There are places in Kenya where the sun doesn’t just set. It refuses to put up a mundane show. Instead, it gobbles up the entire horizon, bathing it in a staccato of orange and silhouettes. The entire sky looks like a surreal painting if you can find the right frame. It bellows tunes reminiscent of a time of love and peace, and charms the idea that that place can be found again. For the sundowner, Kevin and his staff had moved the entire bar, or so it seemed, to a hilltop. They hadn’t had to carry the paintings.
It doesn’t really matter what else you choose to do if you are on holiday in Samburu, but never miss the sundowners. Never miss the sundowner if it’s on the itinerary. On my first travels, that rule used to be for game drives. But that quickly lost its luster when I realized all you had to do to see lions was to drive around Nairobi.
If it’s not the sundowners, it’s the bush breakfasts. Or both.
At Intrepids, you eat and muse over the serenity of the flowing Ewaso Nyiro River nearby. It’s calm, almost too calm, except for the monkeys swinging about the trees, planning a bacon heist. On the other side of the river, two small boys will walk their goats to the banks to drink before a long day and a long walk. The boys will walk in the water, kicking it as they follow it down. Then they’ll sit and wait.
Set under the welcome shade of several large trees, breakfast becomes something else. It becomes an experience.
At Serena Mountain Lodge, where we set in a day later, breakfast was the surprise at the end of a long nature walk. In just three hours, we moved from 30 degree heat to a place where 20 degrees is an achievement. Suddenly the scarfs and sweaters made sense, and we were piled with a raincoat and gumboots for the nature walk.
Mountain Lodge is an imposing green edifice set in the forest. It is a tree house themed around a watering hole, and its serenity is something else. It’s the kind of place you take her if she likes ultimate silence. Its the kind of place you go to finish up scripts in peace.
Benson, the naturalist, eagerly waits outside.
When the entire party gets there, he sets the stage for a slow walk through the forest. At some point during the nature walk, he will stop and turn abruptly, with that look that he forgot to mention something critical.
“Oh, by the way, stay with pack. Don’t be left behind. We might encounter a few wild animals.”
“Really? What animals would be out here on such a cold morning?”
Benson (helpfully and): “Lone buffaloes most likely.”
Everyone (at the same time): “Oh!”
“Aren’t those the most dangerous buffalos?”
“Yes they are,” Benson will add, smiling for some apparent sadistic reason,” If you encounter one, you need to outrun everyone else. If you can’t, and he corners you, lie down in a fetal position and let him have his way.”
“Are you serious?!”
Then he’ll turn and continue pointing out hyena shit and other random things like he did not just say that.
There’ll be silence and paranoia. Someone will fall to the back of the line, holding a machete he bought on the way down from Samburu. He will want to become the silver back, the alpha male. But there’s always an alpha male, a man in uniform carrying a G3 and packing so much ammunition you’d think we were at war here. We are, he tells me when I try to make small talk. It’s a survival instinct, forming an alliance with the man with the gun in case an aging buffalo decides to chase us down on such a cold morning.
At the second bush breakfast in just 24 hours, it hits me how intricately different and yet similar these two experiences are.
The serenity of eating in the bush, surrounded by the stories that nature becomes when she’s left to be. Whether it’s semi-arid bush or the tropical forest. From the small clearing, on all sides, the bush rolls on and on, endless paragraphs in a wild tale with birds chirping and the occasional sound of a bigger animal.
You don’t even hear the sound of an egg breaking, and the crackling sound as it rolls onto the pan.
One story is good,
till Another is told.