WHERE do you go for a few days if you already live in the land of safaris? Well, we go on safari - but with some differences. Betty, my photographer wife, and I go slower, and we don't drive around in a group.
We took three mini-safaris this way last year: at a private game ranch where we went on a walking tour to see elephants; a national game park where we drove around on our own; and a large game reserve run by Kenya's Masai tribe, where a guide drove just us two on a leisurely round of game viewing for several days. We did all this in three weeks between work assignments. It was a good way to get to know better the country in which we have lived for about six years.
At dawn, a chorus of birds awakened us in our private cabin on a small lake. We were the only tourists at the ranch. We got dressed and followed Ngengi Waninga, a former tracker for professional hunters, to a high ridge overlooking a cave frequented by leopards.
After a long wait atop the ridge, observing bush buck and wart hogs browsing on the other side of the valley, we descended a dirt trail leading to the cave as quietly as we could. Ngengi moved almost without a sound. The leopard had been there recently but had left, Ngengi said after examining footprints on the cave floor. After breakfast by the lake, we took an easy horseback ride through the bush and onto the open plains for more viewing.
Late one afternoon we followed Ngengi on a walking safari to track elephants in nearby woods. As we got closer we could hear them pulling down branches. Through the brush we spotted several big bulls, then circled downwind to get a closer view.
One bull, known as Joseph, had a broken tusk. Ngengi called him ``mbaya sana'' (``very bad,'' in Swahili). Whenever Ngengi spotted that bull close by, he turned and ran, with Betty and me scampering after him. Almost at nightfall, we stepped into a clearing. There, in the open, less than 200 yards away, were three big bulls, including Joseph. We froze, then walked carefully back to the cabin, where yet another gourmet meal awaited us.
Amboseli National Park
If you're patient, there are ample rewards in Amboseli, set against the bold backdrop of snow-topped Mt. Kilimanjaro. We spent half an hour, for example, watching yellow-billed storks search for an early dinner in shallow water only a few feet from the car when we stopped on a road atop a dike.
Amboseli can be crowded with tourists at times. But you can avoid them by going out at dawn (return for a late breakfast) or during lunch and nap time (bring a box lunch).
Just before sunset one day, we parked our car on a dirt road next to a track, down which a herd of elephants was heading toward us, grazing leisurely on the high grass along the way. This kind of stakeout was our favorite strategy for getting close to Amboseli's elephants. Finally, the dozen or so elephants stopped grazing and moved directly toward us. They split, passing our car on either side. As Betty clicked away at close range, one of the babies shook its trunk at us in a gesture that would have been menacing if it had been an adult. Three elephant cows with the calf paused, looked us over, then moved along.
You can be alone in the park if you rent a vehicle in Nairobi, rather than joining a group tour by minivan. A van carries from six to eight people.
Masai Mara National Reserve
After several futile searches, our Kenyan driver and amateur animal behaviorist, Charles, spotted a cheetah sitting lazily atop a termite hill. We followed it until it settled down on another hill for nearly an hour, to Betty's photographic delight. There were no other tourists around. We spent a quiet hour watching the fleet animal.
Finally the cheetah descended and began tracking some gazelles. The day before, we had watched three female lions stealthily close in on a herd of zebras as a shaggy-maned male watched, waiting for his meal to be caught. But after one lion came into the open, scaring the zebras toward her colleagues, they waited too long to strike and missed a banquet by inches. On one drive - we paid extra to have a four-wheel-drive safari Land Rover to ourselves - Charles found 14 female lions walking nonchalantly across an open field. They settled down on a small knoll, and we settled down in our seats, only a few yards away for some excellent photos and viewing.
Two of the three nights at our luxury tented camp (hot showers, toilet, and four-poster beds), we saw a large leopard gnaw at meat tied to a tree just across a narrow river from the camp's viewing platform.
Tips for travelers
If you want a private safari, Sangare Ranch may be the ultimate in Kenya. The single, lakeside cabin has only two two-person rooms. The price includes game rides, horseback riding, and pickup and return to the nearby Aberdare Country Club, about 15 miles northwest of Nyeri. One person, per night, costs $410; two people, $210 each; three people, $180 each; four people, $160 each.
Amboseli National Park's rates include room, meals, and two game drives a day. A single is $124; a double, $200. Driving time from Nairobi is about four hours, half on paved roads and half on very bumpy dirt roads. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended, but not required. We used an ordinary sedan. Cars can be rented in Nairobi; a guide is not necessary.
Rates at the Masai Mara National Reserve vary, lodge by lodge. At the tented camp where we stayed, rates are: single, $188 per night; double, $256; triple $358. Prices include meals, tent, and three game drives. We paid about $40 extra per day for exclusive use of a vehicle (well worth it). The massive wildebeast and zebra migrations from Tanzania - the herds cover the plains - are usually in July and August. Low season for most camps and lodges in Kenya runs from about April 1 to June 30, when prices are about half the high season rates (July to Dec. 15).
The quickest and safest way to get there is the 45-minute flight by small plane from Wilson airport in Nairobi. Round trip: $143 per person. Planes land at airstrips met by pre-arrangement by vehicles from the lodge or camp. The overland drive takes about five or six hard hours on a dirt road; bandits are rare, but not unknown. Extra guards have been posted in the Reserve after several armed robberies.
It is best to travel with other vehicles in the park. Ask a travel agent or check the United States State Department for updated security information before traveling.