'Chui!" hisses Lessemana, a few paces ahead of me. I swivel round, hastily lowering my binoculars to find our tracker pointing to the far bank of the stream. My Swahili isn't up to much but his voice sounds urgent.
"A leopard," translates Thomas, our guide. "But it's gone now."
I curse silently, as we examine the tell-tale tracks. Yesterday I also missed a hyena. We fall back into step and I glue my eyes to the trail ahead. Blink-and-you-miss-it seems to be the way in these parts.
To be fair, though, this is not a Big Five jaunt. I'm hiking through the heart of the Matthews Range. This remote outcrop of hills encloses a pocket of forest in the otherwise arid savannah of central Kenya. The lush greenery felt as unexpected as Narnia when we arrived after a long, dusty drive, and it's clear that the magic of the place lies simply in being here – enjoying whatever secrets the forest discloses – rather than chasing a safari tick-list.
Kitich Camp, our base, is an impressive retreat, all solar panels and compost loos. Its secluded safari tents are tucked beneath statuesque hardwoods overlooking a marshy clearing. The forest ambience is bewitching: we awake each morning to an avian symphony of robin-chats and orioles, and breakfast on a sun-dappled terrace beside a gurgling brook.
Tempting as it is simply to hole up here, there's exploring to be done. Hiking is the only way to get about, so we've been stepping out along ancient elephant trails with our guides, both resplendent in traditional Samburu attire, both well armed (with spear and rifle respectively) and both uncannily tuned in to the wildlife.
Birds have been the most conspicuous forest creatures. Patience and our guides' keen ears have so far revealed such specials as narina trogon and Hartlaub's turaco, the latter flashing its scarlet primaries among the branches. But the elusive mammals have at least left plenty of signs: chalky-white hyena dung; bushpig diggings; even a flattened clearing where, Thomas explains, two lions downed a buffalo last summer. Suddenly spear and rifle seem less superfluous.
One trail also led us through the stone ruins of a honey store built by the Dorobo people, the region's original hunter-gatherers. Further up, we watched a confetti of butterflies dancing among the gnarled trunks of giant cycads – prehistoric-looking plants that, like much of the local fauna and flora, are endemic to these forests.
On the final afternoon, just as we've adjusted to smaller fare, we get our "Big Five" moment. While admiring the grand panorama from a ridge south of camp, we spy a distant line of elephants filing over the hillside opposite. Scrambling back down into the valley, we pick up the pachyderm trail and soon round a corner to find an old tusker browsing on papyrus. An irritated ear-flap has us backing up nervously but a firm yell from Thomas, plus a well-aimed stone, sends him lumbering after the herd.
Kitich is the first of three Cheli and Peacock camps that make up my safari across this relatively little-known region of central Kenya. Each has its own very particular attractions, and, combined, they offer a fascinating off-the-beaten-track alternative to the crowds of Maasai Mara.
Next up is Shaba National Reserve. The verdant haven of the Matthews' Range seems a world away as we bump over its sun-baked plains. This is where Joy Adamson, of Born Free fame, reared an orphaned leopard – a story recounted in her book, Queen of Shaba. Certainly the dry, acacia-studded grasslands feel like big cat country. On the first morning we find fresh lion tracks, and soon our guide, Mohammed, is leading us to a small thorn thicket where he has glimpsed something tawny.
This particular tawny creature, however, is not a big cat but a small bird. A Williams' lark, to be precise: anonymous-looking to the average safari-goer perhaps, but found nowhere else on the planet and thus a thrilling tick for twitchers. As our avian celebrity flutters up to deliver its scratchy song, Mohammed seems more thrilled than if he had found us those lions.
Shaba may look like more traditional safari country than the Matthews Range, but wildlife viewing still requires work. Our attention focuses on the reserve's more unusual creatures. Among the local specials, we find rare Grevy's zebras, all Mickey Mouse ears and elegant pin stripes, long-necked gerenuks and stately reticulated giraffes. Early one morning I watch a striped hyena – its ears pointier than those of its better-known spotted cousin – loping past my veranda. This shy predator is a first for me and a rarer safari sight than either lion or leopard.
Birds, meanwhile, continue to dazzle. If our lark is strictly a twitcher's treat, it is harder to ignore more spectacular species: the imperious secretary birds that stalk the savannah; the gaudy bee-eaters, rollers and glossy starlings that top the thorn bushes. This being January, the feathered cast also includes European migrants enjoying their African winter break, from yellow wagtails fluttering around the hooves of impalas to sand martins darting over a marsh.
Whether it is larks or lions that float your safari boat, Shaba is a place you get pretty much to yourself. In my three days I see no safari vehicle other than our own, and the stylish canvas and expansive decking of Joy's Camp make for a luxurious hideaway. By day, diminutive dik-dik antelopes pick their way along the shaded boardwalks; after dark, buffalo troop down to the floodlit waterhole, while nightjars flutter like oversized moths around the lights.
Two nights later – and another 80km south – a crunching noise in the small hours has me shining my torch on the lithe outline of a genet (a small wild cat-like creature). Crouched beside my bed, it chews contentedly on a gecko. "Don't worry," camp manager Philip tells me in the morning, "she's very friendly". Fine, I think, just so long as the leopard – whose rasping grunts I had also heard during the night – stays outside my chalet.
I'm now at Elsa's Kopje, a spectacular lodge in Meru National Park. A 30-minute flight ferried us here from Shaba and before we even landed I had spied our camp, smuggled discreetly into a rocky outcrop that rises above the plains. This is the exact spot where, in 1956, the Adamsons took their beloved lioness, Elsa, for her daily walks – a story told in a small museum at reception.
At ground level, I find my chalet tucked cleverly among granite boulders and serpentine tree roots as though an organic part of the hillside. Blue-headed agama lizards sun themselves on my deck, while I watch elephant, giraffe and buffalo moving across the plains far below. Philip points out the distant tree beneath which the Adamsons set up camp.
Habitat-wise, Meru – with its mosaic of grassland, woodland and riverine forest – falls somewhere between Shaba and the Matthews Range. This variety brings a corresponding richness of wildlife – notably antelope, which range from massive eland to lithe Grant's gazelles and elegant lesser kudu. We also find hippos wallowing in pools along the Mutunda River and even spy a gleaming three-metre African rock python uncoiling across our track.
But what of the Adamsons' signature animal? Our answer comes on the final morning. Circling vultures lead us to a stand of palms, where a lioness is tucking into the bloody remains of a waterbuck. A descendant of Elsa? I've no idea. But after a week in which we've eschewed the Big Five agenda in favour of Kenya's more subtle wildlife delights, I feel we've earned our big cat. Just don't tell the lark.
Cheli & Peacock (00 254 730 127000; chelipeacock.com) offers a 10-day safari including three nights at Elsa's Kopje, three nights at Joy's Camp and three nights at Kitich Camp, starting from £2,999pp, excluding international flights. The price includes full board, domestic flights and transfers, guided bush walks and game drives.
Mike Unwin travelled to Kenya with Kenya Airways (020 8283 1818; kenya-airways.com), which flies daily overnight flights between Heathrow and Nairobi from £703 return.
British passport-holders can now apply for an e-visa at ecitizen.go.ke for £30, which will be compulsory from 1 September. Until then, visitors can also apply in person at the Kenya High Commission in London, or on arrival at Nairobi airport (US$50/£33).
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