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Touring Kenya: off the beaten trail for unbeatable vistas. The success of Perry Mason safaris is no mystery

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Entering Samburu during a cooling rain shower, all at once we saw them -- zebra, gazelle, giraffe, buffalo, oryx, ostrich. Nothing had prepared me for the grandeur of these animals in the wild. I was awestruck. As we unpacked the Land Cruiser at the lodge, we heard a rustle in the nearby palm fronds and discovered an elephant feeding.

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We stayed at Samburu Lodge, on the green banks of the Uaso Nyiro River. The lodge is one of Kenya's excellent chain of Block Hotels, of which the Norfolk is also a member. Our room faced the river, and as we sat on the balcony in the twilight the air was dense with grunts, roars, and high-pitched screams.

Game runs are taken in the early morning and late afternoon, when the animals are active. On our first game run, we learned the value of a safari conducted by a guide with Brown's background. He had years of experience tracking animals on foot and knew their habits. Scanning the horizon, he saw things we never even glimpsed.

One day at dusk, when the light was a glimmering orange, we stood up in the open double hatches of the Land Cruiser as a herd of over 80 elephants trooped around us, their young carefully concealed behind great gray limbs. Later, we came upon a kill: a bloodied waterbuck lay in a copse 10 feet from the river's edge. The lioness who had killed it slept nearby in the last glow of the sun, while her small cubs romped over the carcass. Yet somehow this gruesome scene felt proper here -- another element in the natural order.

Samburu set the mood, and the standard, for the rest of the trip, whether we were boating among hippos at Lake Baringo or floating in a hot-air balloon over the Masai Mara. On safari, human culture often seems to merge with the wild. On the grounds of Keekorok Lodge in the Mara, young baboons frolicked under one tree, children under another. Older baboons rummaged for sweets in any tent that wasn't tightly zippered shut.

But the wild can also seem far away, banished by the colonial legacy. At the Lake Naivasha Club, high tea is served on manicured lawns in the late afternoon; we sat on wicker chairs beneath a canopy of acacia branches and indulged in cucumber sandwiches and scones with clotted cream.

We stayed at two tented camps during the trip: Island Camp at Lake Baringo and Lion Hill at Lake Nakuru. Camping in Kenya is not quite the same as camping in America: in Kenya, tented accommodations include two comfortable beds, a dressing room, and a modern toilet-shower facility -- plus culinary delights elegantly presented three times a day. The lands around Lake Baringo are hot and dry. We unzipped our tents during the nights. Nearby Lake Nakuru, however, is surrounded by misty forests, and we wore sweaters to bed and shivered under blankets. Lake Nakuru is home to millions of flamingos, who are attracted by the high alkaline level of the lake water.

To decompress before returning to the rigors of Nairobi (not to mention New York), we spent a few days on a 40,000-acre ranch owned by the British expatriate Prettejohn family. Our accommodations were the family's guest lodgings, built beside an artificial lake several miles from the main house: two spacious log cabins (including plumbing) and a separate dining-living-room cabin with a thatch-roofed veranda.

Each afternoon, the syce (groom) brought horses and we rode across the high plateaus among impala and zebra. Snowcapped Mt. Kenya faced us across the valley. We visited with the Prettejohns in their home, which seemed wholly transplanted from the English countryside: wood-paneled hallways, stone fireplaces, paintings of ancestral faces adorning the dining room. Whippets and Jack Russells gamboled at our feet, and a pet zebra pranced through the formal gardens.

When the time came to leave Kenya, and Perry Mason and Bob Brown took us to the airport, my husband and I realized that not once during our stay had we felt like tourists. Rather, Mason and Brown had seemed like friends introducing us to the glories of a country they love. Practical information

Perry Mason Safaris, PO Box 49655, Nairobi, Kenya, designs itineraries to suit specific interests. (US agent Sherry Corbett, Perry Mason Safaris, PO Box 1643, Darien, Conn. 06820-1643. Telephone: [203] 838-3075.)

The cost for a Perry Mason safari is between $175 and $200 per person per day, all inclusive, determined by the number of people traveling together.

The weather in Kenya is excellent for much of the year, with the exception of the so-called long rains from mid-March to late May and the short rains in November and December. Temperatures are generally warm, but due to the high altitude, it can get chilly at night, so a heavy sweater is needed. Dress is informal, and inexpensive laundry service is available at lodges and camps. Most lodges have swimming pools. Sunglasses are a necessity.

Lauren Belfer Church is a freelance writer based in New York City.