Kenyan safari: Beast, blanket, Babylon

William Sutcliffe grew up with his family's tales of the vast vistas and wildlife of Kenya. But he never dreamt a face-to-face meeting with a lion would be so awe-inspiring

The word "safari" comes from the Swahili for journey. When the word was adopted into the English language, an interesting shift in meaning took place, with "safari" now referring to a journey through the African bush killing anything that moved. This tells you everything you need to know about the difference between our two cultures, and can perhaps serve as a potted history of colonialism. They were a bloodthirsty lot, the original white pioneers. If you'd asked them about conservation, they would probably have thought you were talking about jam.

As Karen Blixen, the Danish author of Out of Africa, describes it: "Many young Nairobi shop-people ran out into the hills on Sundays, on their motor-cycles, and shot at anything they saw." She even says of herself that when she was young, "I could not live till I had killed a specimen of each kind of African game."

I have always wanted to visit Kenya, not least because my father was brought up there. When he was a child, the years of heading off on a killing spree at the weekend were already over, but for him, in his heart of hearts, a decent-sized garden is still around 10 acres, and should be home to several species of deadly animal.

I was not, however, entirely sure how I would take to the safari experience. When I see pictures of overweight middle-aged people in khaki shorts and fishing vests peering out of jeeps through the most expensive camera equipment money can buy, my first thought isn't, "You look like my kind of people." Nor am I a natural animal lover. In fact, the only pleasure I usually get from the company of animals is eating them. But from the second I set off on my first game drive, in the Samburu Game Reserve, I find that I love it. We have all seen nature programmes about big game, but one of the strange things about TV is that the more it shows something, the less real those images seem.

We may all know exactly what a lion looks like, and how it walks, but that is no preparation for the moment when you drive round the corner, and there is a lion. A real one. Right in front of your car. Only rarely in life do you find yourself unable to believe your eyes. It simply doesn't seem possible that you can be here, sitting in your car, and a lion can be right there, almost close enough to touch. The feeling is reminiscent of the moment in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo when Jeff Daniels steps out of the cinema screen into the auditorium.

I have barely driven out of the compound before I come across water buck, baboons, dik-dik (tiny, unfeasibly cute deer), gazelle, impala, giraffe and buffalo. By the end of the day, I've also seen crocodiles, hippo, ostriches, zebra, a pride of lions, two cheetahs, a family of elephants and an eagle. It's not even as if you particularly have to look for them. These animals are everywhere. Any residual scepticism about the purpose of safaris disappears. You would not be human if a day with these animals didn't fill you with awe and delight.

The highlights of my second day were a leopard asleep in a tree, tail dangling downwards in utter, beautiful nonchalance, and an adorable six-day-old elephant that tottered right up to the car for a sniff, his mother's trunk nudging him here and there to stop him falling over.

Though these animals are wild, the feeling of a game reserve is closer to that of a zoo than I had anticipated. In fact, there is only one difference. Here the humans are in cages (motorised ones) and the animals go where they choose. This is an inversion, but not a negation of the concept of the zoo. We no longer kill them, but we don't just want to see them, we want to get close. We want, every one of us, our own personal photo of every big animal we see. Anyone who has ever switched on a television or opened a magazine will have seen better images of these creatures than any of the holiday safari snappers will ever take. But the point of these photos is not to say, "This is what a lion looks like", but rather, "Look how close I got!"

Perhaps we do this not to prove our safari stories to others, but to ourselves. These endangered animals, living in small enclaves thousands of miles from our homes, have been rooted deep in our psyches since earliest childhood. We probably learnt the words "lion" and "tiger" before we learnt to say "breakfast" or "bathroom". My own son certainly has, which, when you think about it, is bizarre. These great animals on distant continents are like secular gods, their habits related to children like religious myths.

This is why coming face to face with a lion is such a heart-stopping moment. It is, literally, a dream come true. Maybe this is the best explanation for the obsessive photography. We cannot believe our eyes, and we photograph in the way a dreamer might pinch himself. We are checking that the moment is real. We are grasping for something to take away from the dream when it evanesces.

In an effort to find an alternative to the crowding of cars, I opt one afternoon for a game walk with a local guide and a ranger, who carries a rifle. On the walk, I get an infinitely better feel for the environment - for the light, the soil, the heat, the vast space and the wonderful silence. I also pick up such handy skills as how to tell the difference between impala and giraffe dung (which isn't as easy as you'd think), and how to assess the age of a termite mound.

Aside from the animals and the landscape, it is for a taste of the colonial experience that travellers come here. The lodges in Kenyan game reserves, which are generally tented camps, cater for this desire. Frankly, if these are tents, the Ritz is a garden shed. Many are built on a concrete base, the roof solidly constructed in wood. There is electricity, hot and cold running water, and a bathroom made of stone. Your bed is a four-poster with mosquito netting. There is only one remnant of camping, which is that the walls are made of canvas.

These pseudo-tents at first struck me as faintly ridiculous and more than a little kitsch. Then, as night fell, I saw the point, which is aural. Through canvas walls, you hear everything, and the sounds of the bush at night are thrilling - a symphony of tweets, chirrups, grunts, growls, scratches, thumps, howls, and, in one place, something that went on all night and sounded like pebbles being dropped on a snare drum (frogs, apparently).

These lodges play on the somewhat dubious romance of colonialism. Small extras, like the "bush breakfast" or "sundowner cocktails", hanker back to an age when there were servants to cater to one's whims. If you wanted your breakfast on top of a mountain, you could damn well have it, and someone would carry your breakfast things up there for you, right down to the last teapot, napkin and tablecloth. In a high-end game lodge, this spirit is still alive.

Kenya, after all, has been a tourist destination almost from the moment it was colonised. Denys Finch Hatton (Karen Blixen's lover, as played by* * Robert Redford in Out of Africa, who was presumably selected for the part due to his natural aptitude for portraying Old Etonians) organised safaris here as far back as the 1920s. While the country has changed beyond recognition since then, there is a certain logic and charm to the way safari travel has tried to remain the same (apart from the slaughter, that is).

My second stop was the bathetically named Great Rift Valley Golf Resort. Could any hotel name better conjure up exoticism and banality in the same breath? The architectural style is one beloved of Kenyan colonials, sometimes called Equatorial Ealing. Golf clubs, like McDonald's restaurants, aspire to sameness, and this one does an excellent job of helping you forget that you are in Africa. Though they are rather proud of the view, which is truly spectacular, with the flamingo-inhabited Lake Naivasha below and the wide valley floor stretching out to a horizon further away than any horizon you have ever seen before, interrupted only by the odd extinct volcano.

My grandmother, who lived in Kenya and South Africa, spent her whole life in precisely this kind of place. As a colonial wife, of whom nothing more taxing was ever asked than the odd par-five, her intelligence was frittered away on golf and bridge. In a continent where people starve, this is not a fate that can ask much from us by way of sympathy, but I was very fond of her, and looking out at African fairways for the first time in my life, I feel an odd grandfilial pang.

In her honour, I ask for a bucket of balls, and head for the driving range. My grandmother taught me to swing a club, using plastic balls in my London garden. Any second-generation immigrant carries odd fragments of their parents' and grandparents' countries buried inside them. Travel, like archaeology, brings these fragments to the surface. Something unexpected will strike you, out of the blue, as familiar. Your journey out is also, on some level, a return home.

As I stand there on an immaculate lawn, idly striking golf balls towards the setting African sun, I feel a circle close. I am making some kind of peace with my colonial ancestry. It is an uneasy peace, though. I'm tempted to cut off the sprinklers and divert the water to the local farmers.

There can be no doubt that the highlight of my trip is the final stop, the Masai Mara game reserve: 600 square miles of staggeringly beautiful grassland in the south-west of the country. The distances here are vast, and I travelled from game reserve to game reserve by 15-seater propeller plane. The in-flight catering consisted of a bag of Murray Mints handed down the aisle. There was no check-in time because there was no check-in. The pilot landed, ticked you off his list, chucked your bag in, and off you went. If you were late, the plane waited for you.

The flight over the Rift Valley and out on to the Masai plains, the ground below suddenly turning from a hilly brown to an endless rolling sea of green, must surely be one of the most beautiful in the world. Even before touching down, you understand that you have arrived somewhere truly special.

I was there in time for the annual wildebeest migration, when 1.3 million wildebeest trek north from the Serengeti in Tanzania in search of fresh grass. The wildebeest are as big as cows, but in this landscape, and in these numbers, they seem more like insects. Unimaginable streams of them stretch ant-like to the horizon, while in front of you they honk, grunt and chomp. For the predators, the wildebeest are one vast, lumbering all-you-can-eat buffet. At this time of year, you can barely move for lions. Unlike in Samburu, the vehicles are dispersed here over a sufficient area for the animals never to seem crowded. Even without the game, it would be worth crossing the world to come here, so beautiful is the landscape.

We travel, in part, to be humbled, to be reminded that the cities in which we live, where every convenience is to hand, where everything has been designed and constructed to meet human needs, is not the natural state of affairs. We visit colder, higher, wilder and scarier parts of the world to be reminded how small and vulnerable we are.

There can be few places that issue this message as resoundingly as the African bush. I have climbed mountains that made me feel small, I have travelled through deserts that caused me to feel vulnerable, but I have never before stayed in any place where I knew that if I jumped over the nearest fence I'd be torn to shreds by wild animals and eaten before my corpse had cooled. But the fence, nonetheless, is there, and it is electrified. You are safe, but with a thrilling sense of danger. Douglas Coupland once wrote that, "adventure without risk is Disneyland". This notion applies interestingly to safaris.

As the tourist industry expands, we want more adventure with less risk. Safaris cater precisely to this demand. A safari is, in a sense, an adult Disneyland, where the creatures of our dreams come alive and cavort for our entertainment. That it is unscripted and unpredictable simply adds to the appeal. This is not to denigrate the experience. It is a marvellous thing that there is a place where we can go to find in ourselves the awe and wonder of a child.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com) and Heritage Hotels (00 254 20 444 6651; www.heritage-eastafrica.com). A similar seven-night package with Kuoni (01306 747008; www.kuoni.co.uk), staying at Samburu Intrepids, Lake Naivasha and Mara Intrepids, costs from £1,390 18 April-31 May. Other operators with similar packages include The Ultimate Travel Company (020-7386 4646; www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) and Thomson Worldwide (08701 607438; www.thomsonworlwide.co.uk).

You can fly to Nairobi on Kenya Airways or British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com); each flies daily from Heathrow.

STAYING THERE

Samburu Intrepids, The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Mara Intrepids can be booked through Heritage Hotels. Doubles at Samburu Intrepids start from $375 (£208) full board including game drives. Doubles at the Great Rift Valley Lodge start from $235 (£131) full board. Doubles at Mara Intrepids from $415 (£231) full board including game drives.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (Penguin, £7.99)

Kenya Tourist Board: 020-7202 6373; www.magicalkenya.com.

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