A taste of paradise in the Kenyan wilderness

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In the middle of a lake in western Kenya there is an island, and on this island is a demi-paradise. The lake is Lake Baringo, the island is Ol Kokwa, and the paradise is Island Camp.

As so often in Africa, the approach to this paradise is not propitious. On a recent trip to Kenya, my husband and I drove to Lake Baringo from the north, and we struggled to find and follow the few signs posted for the camp. We finally discovered ourselves in a treeless village, made up of tin huts overflowing with staring children; the afternoon sun was blinding in its glare. At the far edge of the village, we emerged on the lakeshore, in a clearing of baked mud.

With trepidation, and under the watchful eyes of several young men who seemed only too eager to carry our baggage, we unloaded the car and followed along behind the men as they deposited themselves and our luggage in a low-lying boat.

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And what a boat! An antediluvian remain of weather-beaten gray, its long planks strung together virtually by force of habit alone. The engine looked like a tin pot with a notched wheel on top.

When the skipper finally got it started, wrapping a rope around the wheel and pulling over and over, we set off, a sizable crowd: my husband and I, our guide, three men carrying luggage, the skipper, a man who appeared to be his assistant and who gave much advice (which was not generally heeded), and, in the prow, a shirtless smiling man who shielded himself from the hot afternoon sun with the tattered remains of a large black English umbrella.

The boat chugged along so slowly that it barely rippled the water. Lake Baringo is surrounded by mountains, which loomed blue-black in the afternoon haze. The lake's many small islands jut out from the water almost vertically; a few revealed solitary mud-and-thatch rondavels, but most seemed deserted. I felt like an explorer tracking uncharted water, 65 miles north of the equator.

After 35 minutes, we saw bright green tents emerging from the trees of a rocky island ahead. The skipper pointed excitedly: ''Ol Kokwa,'' he said to us: a village of rondavels perched on the northern part of the island, the tents growing ever larger as we approached the southern end. We pulled up to the floating dock, and I saw not what an explorer might expect to see, but sailboats , motorboats, water skis, and wind-surfing equipment.

My husband and I walked up a steep path cut through stone. Stopping to catch my breath, I noted a myriad of desert flowers hanging over the rocks and bobbing up and down in the warm breeze. There was a profusion of acacia trees, their thin leaves swaying gently. We continued up and up, until we came to an open, thatched roofed bar and lounge, where we were greeted by a sprightly dark-haired Englishwoman who encouraged us up the last remaining steps with a laugh and then introduced herself: Ruth Barnett, the manager of Island Camp.

Island Camp was established in 1972 by three Kenyan ''settlers'' (white Europeans). Of the partners, Jonathan Leakey, brother of paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey, is most directly involved with the daily operations.

In planning construction, Leakey and his partners decided to follow the natural topography of the land. Because of their sensitivity, the lounge, dining room, and pool are each on different levels and have a feeling of intimacy. Each tent seems sheltered and secluded in its own rocky niche.

There are 23 tents at Island Camp and two traditional rooms, providing accommodations for up to 50 guests. Each tent faces the lake and boasts a ''porch'' area with wooden chairs. Although not luxurious, the tents are more than adequate: two beds on wooden planks (surprisingly comfortable), a table with a reading lamp behind each bed, and a partitioned dressing room, complete with mirrors and a place for hanging up clothes. The ''back door'' of each tent opens onto a concrete lavatory and shower area.

Island Camp shares Ol Kokwa Island with about 100 members of the Njemps tribe. Most of the camp's staff are members of this tribe. A low fence separates the camp from the Njemps' land, and there is much going and coming across it: Guests at the camp freely hike and bird-watch on the Njemps' side of the island, and camp boats ferry villagers to the mainland.

Of the several possibilities for excursions, my husband and I chose birding trips. On our first morning, we visited the swampy river estuary at the southern end of the lake, where huge Goliath herons stood sentry at virtually every bend, raising their powerful wings as we approached and taking to the air only when we were directly upon them. We saw pelicans walking on the water as they landed, sacred ibis, egrets, fish eagles, and the brilliantly yellow weaverbirds, which turn upside down to enter their hanging basket nests.

For our second trip we went north, to an area of reeds and lotus blossoms. Along the way, we passed Ol Kokwa's hot springs, their mist trailing like smoke in the clear morning air. We saw small crocodiles sunning themselves on black-sanded beaches. And again, we witnessed a profusion of bird life.

On both trips, we saw hippopotamuses, or rather, their eyes and ears popping up out of the water. Sometimes, we simply heard them, splashing and plopping everywhere around us. They were frighteningly unfrightened of our boat, submerging as we approached and then reemerging even closer to us. Our guide shut off the boat's engine during these forays, and I noticed that he smiled to himself as the hippos grew ever more brave and we, ever more cowardly (it is not unknown for a hippo good-naturedly to overturn a small boat or even chomp it in half). After our boat trips, we returned to camp for breakfast: fresh papaya and pineapple, cereal, and eggs. Throughout our stay, the food was excellent. Lunch comprised a rich buffet of exotic hot and cold dishes, including a variety of curries, followed by fresh fruit. For afternoon tea in the lounge, a light and delicately flavored lemon cake was served; it was a favorite of the weaverbirds, the braver of which would dive-bomb plates and fly off with unguarded morsels. Dinner was ample, but its pretense of continental cuisine made it less interesting than lunch.

After our early morning excursions, my husband and I were more than content to spend the rest of the day enjoying the camp, its food, facilities, and incomparable scenery. Other guests, however, chose to take expeditions farther afield, to the mainland: to Jonathan Leakey's Snake Park, or on to nearby Lake Bogoria. This lake has a group of hot springs that are reported to be extraordinary. It is sometimes home to millions of flamingos, but guests who made the excursion while we were at Island Camp saw few of the flaming birds. They did, however, see the Greater Kudu and spoke with rapture about the experience.

Nonetheless, my husband and I did not succumb to the lure of that elusive creature, and while others were off touring in the heat, we spent our time sitting on our porch reading or watching the billowing white clouds form and re-form over the mountains. We followed the multicolored lizards on their daily rounds across the rocks: Some were bright blue with orange heads, some purple with green stripes, some simply brown (the females, my husband was quick to point out).

At midmorning, we went swimming in the pool and then got fresh lime juice at the poolside refreshment stand and lay reading under a thatched shelter (the equatorial sun being too strong for extended exposure). Afternoon was the time for lake sports, and many guests went swimming and water skiing. Ruth assured us that it was quite safe: Hippos and crocodiles do not frequent the waters near the camp.

Maintaining a tourist camp on an island like Ol Kokwa poses many technical difficulties. Since there are no telephone lines to the mainland, necessary communications must be held by two-way radio. Food is brought to the island twice a week and stored in freezers. The camp has its own electrical generating plant, which supplies electricity to the tents from 6 a.m. to noon and again from 5:30 to midnight. It is a makeshift system, existing primarily for the freezers, and the use of a blow dryer in one of the tents has been known to short-circuit the entire system. Hot water is solar heated and available only at 6:30 in the evening; it is used up quickly.

The majority of visitors to Island Camp are white Kenyan settlers, and their presence adds the spice of British wit to conversation in the lounge at teatime or before dinner. It also provides insight into Kenya before independence: Most of the settlers ache with nostalgia and speak longingly of their experiences in the ''old days.'' Other visitors are generally from England, Holland, or Germany. Few Americans visit.

With much regret, my husband and I got onto a modern motorboat to return to the mainland. We shared the boat with four Njemps, wearing their native dress of brightly colored fabrics, the women with beaded necklaces of intricate complexity wound around their necks. In my plain khaki shorts and thin cotton shirt, I felt out of place and embarrassed. The Njemps stared at us in silence, while we, I suppose, stared at them, knowing that more than language separated us.

As I watched the green tents recede into the distance, I thought about the memories I was taking away from Island Camp: the chill and brilliant air at dawn , the huge clouds continually changing pattern, and the feeling, as I stood perched on that rocky outcrop, of closeness to the land, and to its experiences and cycles.

Practical information:

My husband and I traveled through Kenya in a Land-Rover: We arranged the trip through Perry Mason Safaris, which specializes in individually designed trips led by registered guides. Our cost was not much more than that of a regular tour. Ker & Downey, one of the oldest safari organizers, also offers private safaris.

We traveled to Island Camp from Samburu Buffalo Springs Game Reserve. It was a seven-hour trip, on rutted dirt roads, done without the benefit of gas stations or other conveniences, and we seemed to be the only vehicle on the road. It was a fascinating experience, but not one that I would recommend for a tourist who doesn't have a guide or doesn't speak Swahili.

The simplest way to get to Island Camp is by car from Nairobi. The road is good, and the trip takes four to five hours. For rentals, Hertz and Avis have offices in Nairobi. A four-wheel-drive vehicle (recommended) rents for between $ 360 and $370 a week, unlimited mileage.

For the traveler with little time, air charters are available through Sunbird Aviation in Nairobi. The cost is about $290 one way for a single-engine plane, and $380 one way for a twin-engine plane, based on three passengers. (The exact number of passengers per plane depends on the specific type of plane being used.)

For further information contact: Sunbird Aviation Ltd.; PO Box 30103; Nairobi , Kenya; telephone: 50 1421. For reservations, Island Camp has an agent in Nairobi: Island Camp, Booking Office, PO Box 42475; Nairobi, Kenya; telephone: 25 941; 25 641; 28 981. Or one could write to the camp directly: Island Camp, PO Box 1141, Nakuru, Kenya.

Rates at Island Camp are reasonable: about $65 a day for two, with full board , or $40 a day for a single.

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