Kenya: Life and death revealed on an African safari

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His years as a BBC foreign correspondent gave Michael Buerk a unique perspective on Kenya when he returned to the country as a tourist

Nobody could tell me why he was called "Deputy", and now it doesn't much matter. His corpse, bloated and bloody, rots in a ditch under a thin cover of brushwood. He was 50 million years old. The black rhino is one of evolution's great survivors. Down through the earth's great ages there have not been many creatures that would tangle with a two-ton, armour-skinned animal that can come at you quicker than a car.

But a child with an AK-47 automatic assault rifle did for him in as long as it took to empty the magazine. He wasn't much of a shot. The moon was full, the range was point-blank, the target bigger than a barn door, yet only six of the bullets hit him. They were enough, of course.

The rangers' post was in earshot. Even so, the poachers were able to saw off the horn with some care and then escape. You could smell the fly-swarming cadaver from 50 yards away, but it's not the only kind of corruption in the air these days.

It was meant to be a holiday. The Africa I knew as a foreign correspondent was a dangerous and troubled place. At least that's the way we reported it. There was another Africa they sold in the tourist brochures: a pre-lapsarian paradise of big game, tribesmen and sundowners by the water hole. But we misery junkies were too busy, heading to the next war, the next crisis for humanity; there was never time. And, now, when I finally got to go there, my Africa proved to be just over the fence. That's its problem and, for me at least, its fascination.

Solio Lodge is as close to an African paradise as you can get. It's a huge, luxurious game lodge, set up by Tanya and Mikey Carr-Hartley, two fourth-generation white Kenyans, which makes them as rare as some of the animals. The lodge is surrounded by a private 20,000-acre reserve. The setting is spectacular, looking out across the high plateau to the great, frosted nipple of Mount Kenya.

The lodge itself is the last word in safari chic. There are just six thatched cottages, each large enough to swing an elephant. The shower alone was bigger than my living room. At lunchtime, you sit under the fever trees eating mangos flambéd in Cointreau with a living diorama of big game unfolding in front of you.

At night, after dinner by the cedarwood fire, they escort you back to your room. There's nothing so old fashioned as a fence between you and the wildlife. The buffalo we practically had to brush past one night was probably after Ava, the cook's coq au vin – and I don't blame him.

The point about Solio is the animals. It's swarming with game – a thousand buffalo alone, more buck of various brands than you can shake a telephoto lens at. At least three prides of lions loaf around, occasionally rousing themselves to go out and murder something for lunch or indulge in the odd, brisk bonk. Blink and you've missed it.

But it's the rhinos that make Solio special. It has the highest density of rhinos in East Africa. They breed better here than almost anywhere else. They have 75 of the desperately rare blacks – there are only 4,500 left in the entire world – and 155 of the slightly more common whites. They've bred enough to have sent scores to start to restock other parks, and even other countries, where they had been wiped out.

According to Felix Patton, an ecologist who has devoted half his life to studying and trying to conserve rhinos, they're not fierce and they're not dangerous. The way he tells it, they're sociable, inquisitive vegetarians who make great parents. Good natured, if not overly bright. And cursed with that horn on the head that could kill them all.

It had looked as if rhino numbers had stabilised, even begun to rise, after the poaching massacres of the 1970s and 1980s that wiped out nearly 90 per cent of them. Contrary to popular belief, that trade in horns wasn't driven by Chinese men fretting about their virility (though powdered rhino horn is still used to bring down fever in traditional Chinese medicine). Most horns went to make the hilts on the much-prized ceremonial daggers in Yemen. When Yemen and its economy imploded, the demand dropped, the poaching died down and the surviving rhinos perked up.

Now another spasm of human irrationality has put them back in the cross-hairs. The new rich of Vietnam treat rhino horn as a pure status symbol. The more useless and insanely expensive, the better. In Ho Chi Minh City, it's worth much more than its weight in gold, as much as US$300,000 (£200,000) for a single horn. Imagine what that kind of money can do in a country where eight out of 10 of the rural population lives under the poverty line; where you can buy an AK-47 for the equivalent of £10.

The Solio reserve is entirely surrounded by a seven-foot-high fence. They spend $100,000 (£67,000) a year on security. But the poachers are now killing a dozen or so of their rhinos a year – "Deputy" was the latest – and it's getting worse. Felix Patton says unless the Vietnamese can be persuaded to boast about something else, the rhino is again faced with a serious threat of extinction.

Flying back to Nairobi in a light plane you are in both Africas simultaneously. Up there, you are Denys Finch Hatton in his Gypsy Moth, immortalised by Robert Redford in Out of Africa, the white hunter flying over untamed bush teeming with game. But the real Africa down below is actually teeming with people. Kenya has one of the highest birth rates in the world, a million new Kenyans a year. The way it's going, the big game may eventually go the way of the Happy Valley set of colonial cokeheads.

The safari planes fly into Nairobi's Wilson airport. Last time I was there I was fleeing, half-concussed, from an African war, with my soundman in a body bag under the seat and my cameraman close to death in the plane in front.

You fly over that other Africa on the final approach. Kibera is the biggest slum on the continent, maybe a million people and a reeking mass of hovels packed into a space two miles long and half-a-mile wide. The excrement runs through the alleys, the garbage is piled up, rotting on every side. Yet, go there, and what you see is a triumph of the human spirit. There are little businesses springing up everywhere. It may stink, but it is vibrant with life, a victory for aspiration over circumstance. The children picking their way through the sewage are in clean, pressed school uniforms. Everywhere is a contrast between private cleanliness and public squalor, between individual ambition and official neglect.

I could have stayed there. The Stage Inn, rather less grand than it sounds, would have cost less than £2. But I crossed back into the other Africa and stayed at Giraffe Manor instead. It's every inch the Scottish baronial mansion, built in the 1930s next to the farm owned by Finch Hatton's lover, the author Karen Blixen. The entire district is now named after her. Their posthumous glamour is good for tourism.

At Giraffe Manor you can almost see Finch Hatton striding across the lawn with his trademark bottle of Chateau d'Yquem under his arm. Karen Blixen's furniture is in one of the bedrooms. The hotel is beautifully run, the house party atmosphere is welcoming, and the food, served out on a terrace heated by braziers, really good. But the hotel's USP is the animals.

In the morning, and again at dusk, the giraffe come loping up from the sanctuary next door looking for food. It's a shock waking up in your room on the first floor to find one with its head through the window rooting through your discarded clothes looking for the hotel's special food pellets. They share your breakfast, too. Sounds naff, but it really isn't. It's impossible not to warm to them … and to the half-tame warthogs, who skitter around the tables on their stiletto-heeled hooves, shaking their Prussian whiskers.

Go. But try to see both Africas. Safari Africa is spectacular and often luxurious, but the other Africa is about elemental forces, about human struggle and a changing world.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Michael Buerk travelled as a guest of The Safari Collection (thesafaricollection.com) and Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com). A week-long stay at Giraffe Manor and Solio Lodge costs from US$3,900 (£2,600)pp, based on two people sharing. The price includes all meals, house wines and spirits, horse-riding and mountain biking, transfers, internal flights and conservation fees; flights are extra. Kenya Airways flies daily from Heathrow to Nairobi, with return fares starting at £728.

More information

magicalkenya.com

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