Serendipity safari. With a lot of curiosity but not much money, you can explore one of Africa's wildly beautiful game reserves

ONE-HUNDRED miles between the traffic jams of modern Nairobi and the nearest game reserve, Masai Mara, the giraffes browse at will - cautious, alert, at home in the brown-and-gold oven of the Great Rift Valley. We left Nairobi on a safari of our own making with a station wagon rented for $400 a week, two good maps, a guidebook, camping equipment, and a rough itinerary that includes the game reserves of Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha, and Amboseli.

Now, hours from our first destination, our foursome stops at a desolate crossroad. Beside a bridge, multicolored longhorned cattle wade neck-deep in brown water. A Land Rover roars past us, and we speed past a slim-legged boy driving a donkey, to arrive in the town of Narok, with its three gasoline stations, Barclay's Bank, two-story restaurants with the scent of grilled meat, and corrugated iron sheds selling Masai jewelry.

The pavement ends, and our pace slows to a jolting crawl. Pale dust rises around the car and sifts down the windshield. In the rugged landscape, flat-roofed villages of mud and brush blend organically in the gray rocks. A church mission, its bright grass and flowers attesting to presence of a modern irrigation pump, seems as remote as a falling star.

Then we see the gates of Masai Mara National Reserve, and in a moment are paying park fees ($5 a person per day) to a uniformed officer who speaks in clipped English. In this unlikely geography, we arrive at one of the most luxurious vacation spots on earth.

The Masai Mara covers 700 square miles of largely undeveloped wilderness. Its attraction is that it is an extension of Tanzania's Serengeti Plain, where 2 million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles circle in annual migration, concentrated in the Mara from August to October.

In January, when we visit, the herds are smaller, a hundred or so animals together, but all the common species are present. As we bump down the reserve's graded road, wildebeests snort and stamp with anger, kick up their heels, and flee. Delicate-boned duikers romp, rearing and locking horns in play. Massive African buffalo watch us intently, standing their ground or walking aggressively toward our car. At a water hole a giraffe bends its awkward legs to drink.

A swarm of safari vans, pop-up tops open for cameras and video lenses, converge by a herd of Thomson's gazelle, scatter out across the landscape, and converge again by a den of hyena pups.

Operated by organized tours and safari lodges (for $20 a day per person), the network of safari vans is a ubiquitous species wherever visitors are allowed. Dependable and quick, but totally without safari mystique, the vans ``track'' rarer species with CB radios; a leopard spotted by one van is news throughout the reserve within minutes.

After several days of sighting animals at random, we ask the driver of a safari van to ``track'' a cheetah for us. He sends out the call and gets our directions: Look under the third big tree after you turn left at the airstrip. Sure enough, two drowsy cheetahs, eyes half-closed, lounge under that tree. Ernest Hemingway never had it so easy.

But the reserves no longer permit his brand of adventure. Game hunting is outlawed, and bush camping is restricted to areas near safari lodges. In the camping area ($1.50 a person) behind Keekorok Lodge, a herd of zebras grazes beside an old campfire, moving shyly away into the bush as we approach.

The lodge itself is the stuff of dreams. ``Tent'' accommodations, complete with carpeting, hot showers, and electricity, go for $100-$150 a night for a double. Options include a nine-course dinner of French cuisine ($17 a person) and a hot-air-balloon safari at dawn followed by breakfast ($200 a person).

The next day we arrive at the Mara River, which is slow and brown, lined with palm trees and marsh grass and, in some places, high bluffs. Below, eyes and noses of hippopotamuses float in the still water. With a gurgle, one nose disappears, leaving a circle of bubbles. Beside a mud bank, the scaly back of a crocodile breaks the surface of the brown water, then silently submerges.

Later, at the edge of the cold, clean swimming pool ($3 for non-guests) of the Mara Serena Lodge, we sip iced drinks and chat with other vacationers, mostly Europeans and Americans carrying cameras and binoculars and wearing khaki-colored safari clothes. We see no African guests here or anywhere else in Kenya's game parks. Indeed, the prices of lodge accommodations, organized safari tours, or even car rentals are well beyond the reach of most Kenyans.

Partly to see more of the Kenyan people and partly because we aren't on a typical visitor's budget, we get directions to a workers' canteen behind the Serena Lodge for dinner. It is a single room lit by kerosene lamps and furnished with tables and benches, about half-full of African men and women, who become silent and stare as we enter. Then a young man steps forward with courtesy and aplomb and escorts us to a table, handing us menus hand-printed in Swahili and explaining the dishes in English. Over plates of cornmeal porridge, brown beans, spinach, and spicy tomato sauce ($1 a person), we practice Swahili, to the open smiles of people at neighboring tables. Suddenly everyone wants to help us. ``You must learn the Masai greeting also,'' one man prompted proudly. We learn that most of them stay on the reserve for a month or more at a time without visiting their families, but that the relatively high wages make park jobs highly sought after.

On our map we mark the shortest distance to our next destination, Lake Naivasha, but in Kenya, shortest is not necessarily quickest. In five hours of bumping along rutted, washed-out roads, we have two flat tires and get stuck hub-deep in dust and laugh bitterly at each other's gray skin, lips, hair, and clothes. For once we want a hotel with a hot shower, but the splendid Safariland Lodge on the lakefront charges the customarily high lodge rate. ``Isn't there something else?'' The lodge receptionist sends us to the town of Naivasha to Bell's Inn, a middle-class hotel with colonial architecture and, except for us, African patrons. Neat, clean rooms look out on a newly mown courtyard. But a water pipe is broken, the manager tells us apologetically, and each room has only enough water to fill the sink.

Out on the lake the next day, hundreds of pearly flamingos open their wings with a flash of scarlet; handsome fish eagles circle and dive; dozens of exotic bird species are seen nesting along the reeds. And, feeling the clean lake breeze in our faces, we think Lake Naivasha is worth the trip.

We arrive at Amboseli National Park covered, as usual, with a mud made of dust and sweat. Badly eroded orange soil blows between stones the size of footballs that cobble the land as far as we can see. Across the Tanzanian border, suspended blue against the blue sky, is 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro, its white cap shining like a snowball.

By now we have established a basic course of action: pitch our tents, and head for the lodge. Sipping cold drinks on the terrace of Amboseli Serena, we watch a herd of shy impala approach hesitantly, drink from the stream less than 50 feet away, and quickly trot back across the plain. As sunset streaks the sky with purple and rose, a single elephant calmly advances.

Because we have only a few more days of our safari tour, we fall to reminiscing with other guests, trying to hold on to images of the magnificent animals we've seen wandering at will through their native land. If you go

Many airlines offer connections to Nairobi; round-trip airfare from New York goes from $1,365 up. The best times to visit are during the dry seasons, July through October and January through April. Visas, required for US citizens, are available from the Kenyan Embassy in Washington. Contact the Kenya Tourist Office, 60 East 56 Street, New York, NY, 10022; telephone (212) 486-1300.

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