Photographs can be unkind to Africa. The widest lens in imagedom cannot do justice to the breadth of vision that so liberates the eye on this magical continent. The usual banal clutter that so obscures perspectives in Britain has not (yet) infiltrated the grassy plains that are within tickling distance of the Equator. So there is an awful lot of land, and dust, and a huge sky perforated by skeletal acacias and speckled with ghostly clouds, for your untrained eye to take in. But right now, shivering in the half-light in a lightly visited corner of Kenya's Masai Mara, everyone is focusing on the foreground.
The latitude is around zero, and the temperature feels about the same. Before dawn, the cold infiltrates everything. But that might be because we motley dozen have been still for a good half-hour, on an outcrop overlooking Leopard Gorge, whose main feature is a tortured fig tree that droops over the shallow dip.
The only movement is wavering, whispering grass and insects pursued voraciously by a scarlet sunbird. A rock high above the channel carved by some long-lost river resembles a giant's clumsy attempt at dry-stone walling – or a couple of seriously rotting molars. But what it actually is right now is a natural fortress.
Three lionesses have taken up residence, where they can keep their offspring safe from predators – the young, even lions, are always vulnerable in this wildest of worlds.
The first rule of photography, or so I have heard, is simply stated as "f8 and be there". The dinosaur of a digital camera that I am carrying does everything in an automatic, if eccentric, way, so I shall leave the aperture to its own electronic devices. But at least I arranged the "be there" bit.
In fact, being there has involved very little effort on my part. Sure, you have to get to Nairobi – an easy and inexpensive matter, given the way that visitor numbers and fares have fallen since violence erupted, post-election, in parts of Kenya. On the flight I read enough dire warnings in (pre-conflict) guidebooks to convince me that I would be lucky to escape the Kenyan capital with my possessions intact. In fact, I spent a couple of days in the urban jungle encountering nothing but small kindnesses. Nairobi may be the de facto capital of East Africa, but it felt more like a big village with some elegant colonial remnants – plus a scattering of ungainly office blocks that look as though they were fly-tipped in about 1975 by town-planners from Swindon who had discovered that the Wiltshire had too many urban monstrosities for comfort.
Comfort in the capital is easy to find, because the reservations systems at the big hotels are about as empty as the pre-dawn sky. The most central is the Stanley, which is the location for a travellers' shrine: the Thorn Tree. This knarled mess of timber became one of the beacons of the overland trail; before the internet eradicated the art of handwriting, notes gave advice to, or sought succour from, travellers in Bedford trucks or geriatric Jeeps.
Today, short cuts abound: five airlines fly from Wilson airfield in Nairobi (smaller and nearer than the main Jomo Kenyatta airport) to half-a-dozen airstrips in the Masai Mara. These six define the term "arbitrary": they seem to be etched out of the earth at random, with tracks leading off to places where herds of tourists cluster.
If you do not see yourself as part of a mob, then perhaps you should follow in my Toyota Landcruiser tracks and head for Kicheche. This is a safari camp with several differences. Unlike some of the more mass-market (a relative term) locations, Kicheche Main Camp caters for just 22 guests. They sleep in canvas-walled structures, but these were like no tents I have seen before; kitted-out with beds so cossetting that the 5am call seems all the more cruel, and with a built-in shower and loo. The Woodcraft Folk excursions on which I cut my camping teeth some years ago, seemed only distantly related to these temporary palaces. u
o The staff quarters are much more solid and permanent than the guests'; if only the future looked as stable. Seventy staff, all of them male, look after the guests at a ratio of 3:1. In an area where only one-fifth of the workforce is meaningfully employed, these jobs are even more precious than the experiences that the traveller will take home. Running a safari camp – and creating the conditions that will indulge high-spending guests while leaving the wilderness undamaged – is a labour-intensive business. Laundry is done by hand, and plenty of effort has gone into creating a "fridge": a shed with charcoal walls; water is poured through them, and the evaporation keeps fruit and vegetables cold (electric-powered refrigerators are used for fish, meat and drinks).
Kicheche Camp has continued to employ its workers through the strife, and remarkably its owners' confidence has been rewarded with strong bookings. In contrast to the experience of many tourist enterprises in Kenya, 100 per cent occupancy is a regular occurence.
Kicheche is the exception, though. Kenya's economy is powered by tourism. In the brutal, bloody power-struggle that followed the disputed elections, not a single tourist was harmed. Yet the British government warned its citizens to avoid what had, until then, been regarded as a safe, well-managed nation.
Reports suggest that besides the human casualties, plenty of animals have paid with their lives: with many Westerners choosing to dispose of their income elsewhere, pay has dried up for perhaps millions of Kenyans. Reverting to subsistence agriculture means predators such as lions and leopards – who see cattle as easily accessible snacks – have been culled by villagers. Tourism has hitherto worked miracles in preserving wildlife in Kenya, by making creatures most valuable when they are left alone. The downturn in visitors has shaken perceptions of the value of animal life.
Back at Leopard Gorge, the animal kingdom looks more like a kindergarten. The cubs are pawing each other, looking for all the world like oversized kittens, unconcerned about the three – then four, then five – Toyota Landcruisers that arrived bearing spectators. The only noises are the whispers of tourists, the staccato of their shutters and the static of the two-way radios with which guides communicate about the best locations. The big (and little) cats are communicating, too, but wordlessly, by gesture.
Later, the savannah changes from nursery to mortuary. In full view of a group of us sprouting from the top of a Landcruiser, a Thompson's gazelle is "taken" by a cheetah after a widescreen sprint at the sort of speed that can be achieved only by mortal danger. Exhausted by the chase, she is tripped, strangled and quickly dies from asphixiation. Her gender is obvious, because she perished when heavily pregnant.
A kill brings home the naked savagery of Africa. I find it distressing, particularly that the moment of her death was caught on a dozen cameras, including mine.
Later still, while a rainstorm captures about 270 degrees of the horizon, I am still struggling with the confrontation with nature in which I had willingly participated. A mother and her unborn child have died, so that a family of cheetahs – a mother and four cubs – can live. But most Kenyans have too many hardships to overcome to allow themselves the luxury of self-doubt. They are hungry, too.
You and I were not made for life on the equator. The journey from Kicheche exposes the painful irony of the past four months. Airport life in the Masai Mara is more relaxed than in the UK. At Ngerende airstrip – one of the main gateways to the camps in the National Park – the only permanent airport building is a shed with a corrugated-iron roof that claims to be the "Departure/Arrival Lounge". The duty-free shop is a shack on the edge of the wilderness. It sells hippo skulls. Oh, and bows and arrows. And spears. There is no security check. So you are welcome to carry a lethal weapon on board. Only the least lethal of countries can allow that sort of caper, and Kenya feels a kindly place. With the plains as empty as a baggage carousel at Terminal 5, there has rarely been a better time to visit the Masai Mara.
Just before the dust of the runway strip swirls up beneath the wings of a Cessna, I take a picture of the shop. Then I look around.
To remember what Africa looks like, take another frame. But to know what Africa looks like, take your eye from the lens and invite the continent to flood into it.
Holiday in Kenya? Now might be the perfect time
Last year, two million tourists came to Kenya, up from 1.6 million the year before. In January, the heart of the high season, there were only 55,000 visitors to the country. The wave of violence that followed last year's election is over but the tourist industry remains deeply troubled.
But Emma Gilliam, a lecturer from Cardiff and a seasoned Kenyan traveller, has just spent 10 peaceful days on safari. She had almost exclusive access to Samburu National Reserve and its residents, staying at the Sarova Shaba Lodge ( pictured above), which has "luxury tented and lodge accommodation" for 170 guests. She was one of just seven.
Duncan Muriuki, of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, points out that "Not one tourist has been touched, not one hotel has been damaged, and not one tourist bus has been stoned." These facts contradict the impression that Kenya is now a dangerous place to holiday.
The warnings which advised against all travel to Kenya except on essential business have now been lifted, but a glance at the travel advisory sites does not yet inspire much confidence. The UK Foreign Office says that most game reserves and other tourist sites are trouble free, but it goes on to state that "the situation in Kenya remains fragile and tense in the aftermath of violence and widespread displacement of communities, following the disputed election".
The Kenyan tourist business is no stranger to post-crisis recovery. It was hit in similar fashion in 1998, when terrorists bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, and in 2002 there was another bomb at a hotel in Mombasa, as well as an attempt to shoot down a civilian airliner taking off from the city's airport. It took a couple of years for the tourist trade to pick up again. The worry now is that Kenya is acquiring a reputation as a recurring trouble spot.
One technique previously employed to try to attract tourists back to Kenya was to offer cut-price deals, but the industry is reluctant to do the same again. Mahmud Jan Mohamed, the managing director of the Serena chain of hotels, says the answer for Kenya's tourist industry is not to become a "bucket-shop" destination tourist destination. He believes that once such a reputation is established it is difficult to shake off. "When we went down that route in the late 1990s to attract tourists back after the embassy bombing," he said, "it took four or five years to restore our image."
One hotel that has felt the effects of the tourist loss is the Serena Beach Hotel, north of Mombasa. One of the best hotels on the Kenyan coast, it has everything except guests. Its manager, Charles Muia, says guests who were at the hotel when the trouble began had no idea it was going on, but immediately bookings started to disappear. "We lost the bulk of our business," he said. "We have got to get our visitors back. There is no better place to go on holiday in the world."
Adam Mynott reports for the BBC from Nairobi
Sarova Shaba Lodge, Shaba Game Reserve, Eastern Province (00 254 64 30638; www.sarovahotels.com). Doubles start at US$480 (£253), full board.
Serena Beach Hotel, Mombasa (00 254 20 354 8771; www.serenahotels.com). Doubles start at US$155 (£82), half board. Kenya Association of Tour Operators: 00 254 20 271 3348; www.katokenya.org
Nairobi is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com) from Heathrow.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint scheme (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Simon Calder joined a photographic safari with Paul Goldstein of Exodus (020-8772 3703; www.exodus.co.uk); he is running a series of nine-day trips this autumn in the Mara from £2,595. Dotted Plains, Spotted Game: Images from the Masai Mara by Paul Goldstein and Roger Hooper, is published by Crowley Esmonde (£25). Exodus has a classic week-long safari in Kenya running throughout the summer; from £1,649.
The Sarova Stanley, Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi (00 254 20 316 377; www.sarovahotels.com/Stanley).
Kicheche Mara Camp, Masai Mara (00 254 20 890 358; www.kicheche.com).
For the latest Foreign & Commonwealth Office travel advice: 0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk
Kenya Tourist Board: 020-7367 0931;www. magicalkenya.comReuse content