Boating (and baboon spotting) for beginners

Paul Gogarty tries Kenya's new Big Five – sail, surf, cycle, scuba and safari – at Mnarani beach, Neilson's first long-haul destination

Amazing. "Ready about. Lee ho." The Laser 1 turned into the sun and started travelling in the direction of the ancient, giant baobab tree high on the bluff. This time, not only had I managed to turn the boat without capsizing it, but I'd even got the words right, instead of burbling, "Ready to tack, Westward Ho!"

I was a mariner, sailing the Indian Ocean – well the mouth of the Kilifi Creek in Kenya – and yet just 24 hours earlier I hadn't known a gybe from a tack or a Pico from a Laser. Now that I was a master – OK, that might be pushing it a bit – of the same dinghy that Olympian Ben Ainslie used in his battle for gold, I could strut proudly up to the bar and nod knowingly at sage musings by salty sea dogs about weather and wind.

During my induction, the crew at Neilson's new Mnarani beach resort had been endlessly patient and good humoured, always employing good old English banter to encourage when I grew exasperated. It was the same story when, at 5pm, we gathered to put on helmets and climb the hill out of the resort on shiny new mountain bikes, before disappearing into a maze of off-road village tracks.

Crossing the concrete bridge over the estuary, we gazed at the lazy, snaking river. In the elbow of the creek, venerable dhows, pale as ghosts, dawdled and fished, while in the hills, second-home owners sat on manicured lawns sipping sundowners.

As we freewheeled past schools, churches and mosques, children ran after us screaming with excitement. Occasionally, to our chagrin, someone on a vintage one-gear boneshaker, laden with boxes or baskets, overtook us, grinning broadly and giving us an encouraging thumbs up.

Apart from cycling and sailing (incidentally, by the end of the week I'd progressed to a Laser 3, which I'm reliably informed is the Porsche of dinghies), we also made several snorkelling trips to coral-fringed lagoons before kitting up for a dive out on the offshore reef. Two of our group had only donned scuba equipment for the first time a couple of hours before the trip in an introductory session in the pool; now they were about to descend to the coral floor of the Indian Ocean.

As we did one final check on the bucking boat, our dive-master, Tim, whetted our appetites by claiming that although he'd dived all over the world, Kenya – and particularly Kilifi – was hard to beat. "The only place that compares – and I've dived the Caribbean, Indonesia, the Red Sea, Oman, Mexico and the Med – is Thailand. But here, we haven't as many fishermen emptying the sea and destroying the coral with dynamite!" True to his word, as we finned our way through a garden of coral outcrops, wrasse, chocolate dips, lion fish, sweet lips, and a moray eel put on a spectacular show for us.

We also tried windsurfing and "bayak" – canoeing to lunch at a boat club upstream and then cycling back to base. But we soon turned our attention inland. The coastal playground and beaches may be huge draws, but to visit Kenya and not go on safari would be like going to Rome and skipping the Colosseum.

Galdessa camp, a four-hour drive from the resort, is located on the banks of the Galana river inside Kenya's largest park. Our one-night safari taster in Tsavo East couldn't have been more dramatically different, taking us from the familiar – boats, bikes, ocean and beach – to the unfolding epic of creation. Arriving at our oasis in soft late sunlight, we headed out straightaway on a walking safari in the Yatta Plateau, the oldest and longest lava flow on earth.

The Galana river, whose croc-infested banks we strolled, stretches 390kms (242 miles) from Nairobi to Malindi (changing its name several times en route). Thomas, our wildlife guide, pointed excitedly at leopard, lion and hyena footprints in the soft dust and then switched our attention to a swarm of yellow-masked weaver birds on a nest-building mission. Alongside him, Martin, our guard on the walk, cradled a comforting rifle. Across on the far muddy bank, a hippo lumbered in a matronly waddle into the scrub to gorge through the night on 50kg (110lbs) of grass.

On the next morning's game drive, the animals came thick and fast: first we caught sight of the perky ears of the bat-eared fox and a herd of water buck. Next up, a pair of skittish dik-diks (which apparently mate for life) and a decidedly odd couple consisting of a single zebra and an adolescent giraffe, which had decided to hook up together as they had for one reason or another lost their families. In quick succession we spotted herds of impala and kudu, a yellow baboon with a knuckleduster swagger, and legions of monkeys. Finally, rounding a bend, we come upon a pair of cheetahs, moving gracefully through the acacia bush.

As we bumped along in the jeep, between sightings, there were further diversions, including the gripping tales of 82-year-old Kotcha who was living in Tsavo in the 1940s before it was even designated a park.

Kotcha's English was limited, and so Thomas translated his stories for him. "Kotcha was taught to hunt by his father with bow and arrow and they would sometimes live in caves. When an elephant or giraffe was killed, the community would be sent for and move to the site of the kill to remain there until the food was exhausted. When hunting was banned, he was imprisoned for two years for refusing to obey the rules."

Now Kotcha is a ranger enforcing the rules, looking out for poachers and helping guests enjoy his bush garden. "He teaches me something new everyday," Thomas beamed. The rest of us, too, had learned something new every day on our Kenyan adventure.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Paul Gogarty was a guest of Neilson (0845 070 3460; neilson.co.uk), which offers a seven-night holiday at Mnarani from £628 per person without the two-day safari or £847 per person including the safari, both based on two sharing and including return flights and transfers, club board (daily breakfast plus three lunches and four evening meals), windsurfing and dinghy sailing, Royal Yachting Association tuition and courses, mountain biking, kayaking, a "try dive", and children's clubs (aged 5-14 years).

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