“Want to have lunch with the elephants?”
That sounded like an offer we couldn’t refuse — even if at least half the menu was bound to consist of hunks of grass and splintered acacia branches. Luckily, the human side of the invitation included gazpacho, zucchini frittata and salad. My husband and I did mind our manners, keeping our picnic well inside the Land Rover while a herd of elephants grazed peacefully a few yards away.
What better welcome to Samburu National Park and to the sort of experience we’d hoped to find on safari in East Africa.
For a pair of travelers of a certain age, there’d been some uncertainty about just how rough the roughing-it might be. Reassuring answers were provided by two small eco-friendly camps: Elephant Watch in Samburu, in central Kenya, and Olakira in the northern tip of Tanzania.
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The first camp was hidden among the trees on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, offering access to a hilly landscape of dry savanna dotted with patches of scrubby forest. The second yielded the panorama of the Serengeti plains, along with spectacular sunrises, from a string of tents pitched above a bend in the Mara River, one of the crossing points of the Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeests.
Parts of the Samburu park can, I’ve heard, feel almost as densely populated — with tourist-packed minibuses. But at Elephant Watch we saw no one on our game drives except our own guides, members of the Samburu tribe. Their intimate knowledge of the local herds owes much to the efforts of the camp’s proprietors, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who’ve been studying Earth’s largest land mammal for more than 40 years. A British zoologist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton first came to Africa in 1965, at the age of 23. His wife (who happens to be a cousin of Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar) was born in Kenya to an Italian-French family. In 1993, at the invitation of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, they established a research station at Samburu and a charity, Save the Elephants. The safari camp opened a decade later.
The camp’s six guest tents, sheltered under thatch roofs, are, in a way, a collaboration between the elephants and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who confesses in “Among the Elephants,” one of two memoirs written with her husband, that she gets “great satisfaction from being able to make nice things … out of scraps” — the scraps, in this case, being driftwood from the river and lumber from trees felled by the elephants. The result, for a guest, is a spacious private lair with a bed made of huge twisted branches and an adjacent open-air shower and toilet.
When we were at Elephant Watch last July, its daily operations were being led by Saba Douglas-Hamilton, Iain and Oria’s eldest daughter, a vivacious documentary filmmaker who greets new arrivals barefoot and in pigtails, then turns up at dinnertime in an elegant red tunic and upswept hair, ready to preside over a multicourse meal of zucchini soup, lamb chops, roasted potatoes, cauliflower casserole and chocolate pudding, largely provisioned from the family farm.
On to Tanzania
Off to the southwest, in the farther reaches of the Serengeti in Tanzania, the crocodiles of the Mara River lie in wait for their prey — the armies of wildebeests that cross twice a year, once as they reach the final stages of their northward migration (usually in the early summer) and again, six months later, when they head back. We arrived at Olakira’s Mara camp toward the end of the northerly trek, but the plains were still crammed with thousands of weary wildebeests.
Olakira moves with the migration, pitching its nine canvas guest tents near the Tanzania-Kenya border during the dry season, then following the herds back to the southern Serengeti grasslands when it’s time for the wildebeests to give birth to their calves.
Although the camp’s goal, as its literature suggests, is “to leave nothing behind but footprints,” that doesn’t involve enormous sacrifices for visitors. What amped the accommodations up to five-star status was the view over the river, as striking in the early morning as it was at dusk, when the sound of the rushing water was joined by the roar of a marauding lion.
As for the Mara River crocodiles, they seemed well-fed. Other guests had seen wildebeest crossings in the days before we arrived, but the herds we followed appeared reluctant to take the plunge, and I couldn’t blame them. At one stop along the river, we came upon a wildebeest carcass wedged among some rocks.
“The crocs are saving it for later,” explained our guide, Usiah, gesturing toward some of the giant beasts sprawling in the sun with swollen bellies.