The call of Kenya: King Charles is visiting this week – and he’s not the only one who cherishes the country’s majestic wildlife
- Fiona Hardcastle visits Ol Pejeta, home to the world’s last two white rhinos
- She stays at the ‘stylish and authentic’ Sanctuary Tambarare campground
- READ MORE: Winning shots from Landscape Photographer of the Year awards
We hear them before we see them.
Yapping and yelping from a yellow acacia tree, perched like giant fruit in its boughs, thirty-odd baboons are making their new home for the night.
‘It’s also called a Fever Tree,’ says Abdul, our guide. From the back of our open Toyota Landcruiser, my daughter Rose, 17, arches an eyebrow.
‘They love a fever tree almost as much as you and Daddy,’ she says, referring to the favoured T in our nightly G. Light is fading in the foothills of Mount Kenya and vast plains stretch out before us while the mountain’s silhouette takes on a silvery glow.
There’s magic in the air. And an unforgiving chill. We’re nudging the equator but you’d never know it; at 1,826 metres up on the Laikipia Plateau, you need a blanket or two. Your Majesties, take note.
Fiona Hardcastle and her family visit Ol Pejeta (above), a wildlife conservancy spread out over 90,000 acres of open grassland in Kenya
Ol Pejeta is home to the last two white rhinos (pictured) on earth, Fiona reveals
While King Charles and Queen Camilla’s state visit to Kenya this week includes a trip to Nairobi National Park, a forty-minute light aircraft flight north would deliver them to the wilds of Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy spread out over 90,000 acres of open grassland, home to the last two white rhinos on earth and the closest reserve to the capital where you can see the Big Five.
I’ve longed to take my family on safari ever since falling in love with East Africa twenty years ago, captivated by the wild beauty of this great game country.
And judging by the children’s faces as we bump along the bush, the thrilling possibilities of this endless landscape are working their wonders again.
Our initial drive to camp ticks off three must-sees: buffalos snorting the evening air, black rhino encircling a watering hole; the dusty hide of a lone elephant pacing to kingdom come. Not that our sense of awe is confined to the box office beasts.
‘Look at their eyelashes!’ gasps Evie, 16, as Abdul slows to a crawl so we can admire a pair of giraffes, batting away like the late Sophia Loren.
‘Pumbaa!’ cries Felix, 11, as a family of warthogs scurries through the scrub, as though dashing to a meeting for which they are hopelessly late.
The greatest show on earth is giving us the lesson of a lifetime. And class engagement is high.
King Charles and Queen Camilla visit Nairobi’s Kariokor Cemetery on their state visit to Kenya
Fiona checks into the newest camp in the high-end Sanctuary Retreats group, Sanctuary Tambarare (pictured). She describes it as ‘both stylish and authentic’
Next up, collective nouns. Unlike my attempts to sneak in a spot of verbal reasoning when the children are least expecting it, Abdul’s pupils are hungry to learn.
We are soon prattling on about a dazzle of zebras; a drift of warthogs; a clutch of rhinos. We argue the toss over when is a group of giraffes a tower (answer: when standing) and when is it a journey (answer: when walking). No one needs any explanation as to why a group of hyenas is called a cackle; when our headlights pick out a pack ripping into a fresh cadaver, their baleful laughter is chilling.
Abdul puts his foot down; stiff drinks by the fire pit are long overdue.
The newest camp in the high-end Sanctuary Retreats group, Sanctuary Tambarare is both stylish and authentic. Furnished with a Masai touch and topped with canopied ceilings, its restaurant and lobby areas are linked by a teak walkway which is lit up at night. It is the perfect stage to replay the day and finish with a feast.
And what feasts. Baked camembert with apricot sauce; halloumi skewers with Swahili salad; a passionfruit pavlova to die for. Quite how this magic happens in a basic bush kitchen is beyond me. But thankfully it is not beyond Eric, Tambarare’s wizard chef.
We retire to two of the camp’s ten canvas-lined lodges. Each has its own veranda overlooking the boma and a four poster bed shrouded in mosquito netting so dreamy it takes an African sunrise to get out of it.
Our first morning game drive and an up-close encounter with Big Five’s Number Four. Sprawled on scorched grass under the cover of a thicket, a lioness nurses five cubs. She spots us and narrows her eyes. Abdul turns off the engine and my heart almost stops. ‘She’s not hungry,’ he whispers, pointing at the partially devoured zebra behind her.
My ECG rhythms are only just back to normal when Abdul gets wind of a cheetah. We speed across the savannah, hoping to catch sight of this elusive creature. We’re in luck. Lying in the midday sun, its spring-like limbs folded in repose, we’re given a golden audience with the fastest animal on earth.
Above is the ‘luxurious’ Sanctuary Olonana in the Masai Mara reserve, one of the stops on Fiona’s tour. Suites at the retreat open directly onto the Mara River
Fiona says the views from Sanctuary Olonana ‘are so glorious you could be forgiven for wanting to skip a day of safari and stay in’
‘How do you tell a cheetah from a leopard?” asks the dunce of the Jeep when I finally start breathing again.
‘You’ll tell!’ laughs Abdul. ‘Let me know when you find one in the Mara.’
Onto our second leg and, two turbulent flights later, we are deposited onto the magnificent plains of the Masai Mara and into the care of our next guide, the larger-than-life Joseph. He opens the cool box of his Jeep and presses two ice-cold beers into our hands. It’s only 11am.
The relief is immense. As are the views. Miles of unbounded space, home to arguably the most famous wildlife stage in the world – as well as one of its most luxurious lodges, Sanctuary Olonana.
Our room is a vast, glass-sided family suite that opens directly onto the Mara River. The views from its large circular sofa are so glorious you could be forgiven for wanting to skip a day of safari and stay in. But Joseph has plans and none of them include sleeping past 6am.
Another early drive delivers new gems. Sunbathing crocodiles, stalking lions. As we pause by a bend in the river, I count the heads of 22 hippos, slowly rising and sinking in the morning sun.
Joseph finds the perfect spot for bush breakfast and within minutes a foldaway table is dressed in Masai checks and groaning with food: French toasts, fruits, yoghurts, boiled eggs, sausages, the best mug of tea.
The landscape around Sanctuary Olonana. ‘As we pause by a bend in the river, I count the heads of 22 hippos, slowly rising and sinking in the morning sun,’ Fiona says of their safari in the region
Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; 03301 734 712) offers a 7-night tailor-made Kenya safari from £5,255pp. Includes one night at Hemingways Nairobi, three nights at Sanctuary Olonana and three nights at Sanctuary Tambarare on an all-inclusive basis, flights, transfers and park fees. Price based on two people sharing.
‘Now for a race!’ he declares, pointing to a tree 100 yards away.
Competitive to their core, the children limber up.
Joseph joins them – and all four are off. The kids are quick but none is a match for him, his heavy physique belying a lightning speed. He laughs when we ask how he learned to run so fast. He was once attacked by a lion and lived to show the scar.
No better man, then, to get up close with the last of our Big Five – the leopard.
Abdul’s words ring in my ears as we spy this terrifying mass of markings and muscle straddling a tree while tearing away at what’s left of a wildebeest. Only the face and tail remain but the leopard is in no mood to rush leftovers.
Our final evening and Joseph drives us out to the plains. G&Ts to hand, we watch as the children do cartwheels, vying with each other for the straightest legs, their frames outlined against the setting sun.
If safari has taught us anything it’s that only the fittest survive. Joseph nods and looks towards the children.
‘So,’ he squints, ‘whose is best?’
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