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

EAST Africa . . . elephant on the march, zebra stripes in dizzying array, lion surveying the plains. But reverie may quickly turn into anxiety when the time comes to plan a vacation there. To even the most seasoned traveler, the thought of going it alone can be intimidating, while the prospect of signing up with a tour group may be abhorrent.

There is an alternative, however, as my husband and I discovered on a recent safari to Kenya.

Months before our projected departure, I collected dozens of travel brochures, each one filled with alluring pictures and purple prose. But the brochures all offered the same thing: large groups of Americans whizzing across the plains in minibuses and sticking like magnets to the well-beaten trail. Although setting off on our own seemed imprudent, I still wanted something different, something special -- at an affordable price.

I had almost despaired of finding this elusive perfect option when I responded to an unprepossessing advertisement in the back of a nature magazine. No, Perry Mason Safaris does not take you to the Nairobi courthouse for a criminal trial. It is operated by Malcolm Oliver Mason, a charming English expatriate who, in the Army, was given a nickname that stuck. He professes not to have seen the television show or read the mystery novels that Americans think of automatically when they hear his name. Mr. Mason, a citizen of Kenya, where he has lived since 1954, speaks fluent Swahili.

He stayed on in Kenya after completing his tour of duty with the British forces in the 1950s, and after a long apprenticeship (much of it without salary), Mason became a professional hunter. Long associated with a prominent Nairobi-based safari company, he took part in safaris for many American museums and zoos. When hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, Mason devoted himself to horse training and racing until he established his photographic safari company in 1980.

A Perry Mason safari is an individualized trip. Each one is different, designed to meet the specific interests and needs of the travelers. My husband and I wanted our trip to include hiking, fishing, and horseback riding, and so it did. You might want to include mountaineering, or golf and tennis, and you can.

The safaris are led by Mason himself or by men of his background, former ``white hunters'' who have traversed the country and spent much of their lives as guides. Accommodations are at the same lodges used by the most expensive tour groups or at the more romantic tented camps. Transportation is by four-wheel-drive vehicle, rather than minibus. Strangers are never grouped together, and my husband and I were able to travel alone with our guide.

Beginning about four months in advance, I worked closely with Sherry Corbett, the United States agent for Perry Mason Safaris, to arrange our itinerary. Ms. Corbett made suggestions, but my husband and I designed the trip ourselves. From Nairobi, Mason occasionally overruled our choices -- if he believed, for example, that a particular lodge was no longer up to standard. Plans set, we devoted the final weeks before departure to worrying about what we would do if a lion came into our tent at night.

Nairobi -- mauve-blossoming jacaranda trees and, for us, the atmosphere of a frontier town. We stayed at the Norfolk, the oldest hotel in the city. Its atmosphere evokes the colonial past, and we would not have been surprised to see Theodore Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway relaxing on the veranda.

On our first day, we lunched sumptuously at the Norfolk with Mr. Mason and Bob Brown, who would be our guide. Mr. Brown, like Mason, had come to Kenya from England during the Mau Mau uprising and stayed on to become a professional hunter. Later, he established the Tarangire Game Reserve in Tanzania and served as its warden until Tanzanian independence, when he resumed work as a hunter.

Early the next morning, after a traditional English breakfast -- complemented, however, by papaya and passion fruit -- we set off in our Land Cruiser for the bush. Our first stop would be Samburu-Buffalo Springs Game Reserve. In only a few hours, we drove from lush Nairobi through the chilly highlands and then on into a desert of scrub. We passed mud hut villages that blended into the hillsides; private taxis, called matatus, swarming with passengers and careening down dirt roads; and everywhere, women carrying huge bundles of firewood or produce on their backs, bent double from the weight. The high plateaus were covered by wind-patterned wheat fields. The sky was a seemingly palpable blue, the clouds an evolving configuration of light and color. Amid all of this, we crossed the equator.

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.

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.

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