One of the chief benefits of having a privileged childhood is foreign holidays, but as a result, there's a danger of ending up a little blas, a tad world-weary, a touch dare I say it? "been there, done that" rather too soon in life. As a diplomat's child, I did more than my fair share of travelling compare that with my Scottish mother, who had never even seen a banana until she left home. Yet only one generation later, hours before setting off for an eight-day safari in Kenya, I'm grumbling about how long the flight to Nairobi is, and wondering whether I can really be bothered. Well, shame on me and my lah-di-dah ways. The trip turned out to be the most spectacular, invigorating and life-affirming thing I've done in a very long time.
I won't pretend an eight-hour flight with my two young children (Isabella, nine, and Archie, eight) accompanied by a husband who might as well be under water once stuck into a book, is anyone's idea of a picnic. But even that overturned my expectations. The airline staff were terrific with the children, right from check-in onwards: kind, tolerant and patient. And not one of them heaved a weary sigh when greeted loudly by the very flamboyant Archie.
We arrived in the Kenyan capital at dawn and were whisked away in a minivan across a bustling, rush-hour packed city. The only relief from the omnipresent grime was the vibrant lilac of the jacaranda that erupts defiantly everywhere. Within half an hour, we had reached Wilson airport, from which small aircraft fly across Kenya. Even a short flight in one of those dinky planes induces a degree of stomach churning for me, but the terror passed, and I seemed to be the only person on board who'd written a "goodbye" note.
Our first destination was Nanyuki, just northwest of Mount Kenya, almost on the Equator and 40 miles east of the Rift Valley. At this equally dinky airstrip we were picked up by Kennedy, a local wildlife expert, and his Masai colleague Benjamin. They were to transport us to our camp, but first we had to stop en route at the Equator "village". This is really just a big sign letting you know you're crossing the Equator, under which we, in common with just about every other tourist, photographed our children. We then drove about an hour north to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where our accommodation for the next two days, the Porini Rhino Camp, was located.
Ol Pejeta is a vast estate at the foothills of the Aberdares mountain range, and was once home to Lord Delamere, one of the original "white settlers". The estate now houses, among many other species, Kenya's largest population of black rhino. A bumpy but thrilling ride along a dirt road, passing impala, rhino and giraffe, suddenly made us all feel like we'd really arrived in Africa. We took advantage of the 4x4's open roof and stood on our seats, heads out of the top, marvelling at the beasts as we whizzed past.
Paul, a genial major-domo, awaited us as we arrived at camp. He led us to a table laid for lunch in the open air, under two acacia trees, and, as we ate spaghetti bolognese and salad, took us through our itinerary. Just as dessert arrived, a Masai colleague whispered in Paul's ear, and he leapt up, urging us to follow him: "We'll come back for sweets!" We ran after him to discover a huge elephant with giant tusks having his lunch. He was standing a few yards in front of what turned out to be our tent. This trip was clearly going to be a real close encounter with wildlife.
After our postponed pudding, we were shown our accommodation. There are only six tents at this camp, placed a respectable distance from each other. Ours were large and made of canvas and heavy-duty plastic, with solid floors, showers and flush loos, which, though welcome, look slightly comical in that setting. The tents had a colonial feel, evoking those used by the 19th-century white hunters, and had a comprehensive view of the complete isolation that surrounds the camp. At night, in particular, it was easy to feel as if you were in the middle of nowhere.
In the afternoon, Kennedy and Benjamin returned to take us on our first proper game drive. Kennedy trained as a wildlife ranger, and has found his dream job. Both he and Benjamin proved extremely knowledgeable companions. The sensation of being in the wilderness took hold within minutes of leaving the camp. While driving around searching for the "big" creatures, they kept drawing our attention to smaller animals that we'd otherwise have missed, including some stunningly hued birds. One, an array of orange, turquoise and green, was fittingly called the "superb starling". u o Their passion for the wildlife made us just as enthusiastic. Indeed, it was at this point that I overheard my husband (a former scientist specialising in parasites) and Benjamin discussing the "symbiotic relationship between ants and birds". I left them to it, as I barely know the difference between a gazelle and an antelope, and, until this trip, couldn't have cared less either.
We came upon the gruesome but compelling sight of a recently killed zebra being devoured by a large flock of vultures: nature taking its course, we assured the children. (They deemed it "a bit gross".) We then drove across the plains in search of rhinos and came across scores of them surrounded by a herd of elephants, as if posing for a picture. I am not, you'll have guessed, an animal lover, but to get so close to these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is awe-inspiring.
As dusk fell, we headed back and felt a thrilling alarm as the eyes of unknown beasts glimmering in the gloom were identified for us. Back at the camp, we had pre-dinner drinks around a log fire (this region is chillier than most of Kenya), under a clear, inky-black sky twinkling with stars so bright it felt as if you could reach out and touch them.
Supper was taken in the mess tent at a long table with the other guests from the camp in our case, three nice Norwegians, and Paul (who skilfully steered the conversation towards generic, local information, thus saving us from my husband's greatest fear small talk with strangers). At the end of the evening, ragged with exhaustion this was the end of our first day, remember we were escorted by a lone Masai back to our tent. The escort, armed with a flaming torch, was a precaution against lurking hungry beasts probably the same ones who'd been eyeing us up in the 4x4.
Once safely zipped up and in bed, where welcome hot-water bottles awaited us, I lay there and listened to the silence. I'd never heard anything like it: total quiet, broken very occasionally by a frog croaking or a cicada, erm, creaking. Later I heard a lion roar: loud, imperious and pretty frightening. The next morning, over breakfast, Paul assured me that lions don't attack the tents since they haven't acquired a taste for human flesh. "So far..." I replied, trying to banish the image of a lion devouring one of my babies in the night.
Provisioned with a picnic, we set off for a whole day out on the reserve, sighting more impala, giraffe, elephant, rhino, as well as visiting a wonderful chimpanzee orphanage, where the children adopted two infants, and getting close to the only tame rhino in existence. Rhinos don't have much interest in the company of others, and Unique Morani, who is tame having lost his testicles in a fight (worth remembering, eh?) spends most of his day soaking up the sun, storing up his energy for late-night snacking, and seems impervious to being patted by visitors, thankfully.
We found the perfect picnic spot under the only tree in the middle of a huge plain, with Mount Kenya as a backdrop. As night fell, it began to rain, but Kennedy and Benjamin were determined that we should enjoy the traditional sundowner, and took us to the best spot to watch the departing sun. We duly piled out of our transport and stood around toasting the sunset in the rain, while Benjamin watched out "in case leopards attack". I thought he was joking until, back in the car, he assured me that this was a real possibility at dusk. On the way back to the camp, the 4x4 got badly stuck in mud. Yet instead of this marring a perfect safari day, it added to the experience. The children whooped and yelled while Benjamin rocked the vehicle (occasionally looking over his shoulder for predators), and Kennedy span the wheels, making them screech in the effort to get free.
The next morning, we flew north to Samburu, the arid lowlands on the other side of Mount Kenya, where an entirely different safari experience began. The "hotel" was slicker and more obviously commercial than Porini. While the accommodation is still in the form of tents, at Samburu they are erected on wooden structures on stilts and boast four-poster beds, tiled two-sink bathrooms and mains electricity.
Our tent was on the banks of the Ewaso-Ng'iro river. As soon as we'd settled in, we saw an enormous crocodile basking in the sun. No paddling for us, then. We had lunch en famille at the hotel restaurant ("The only thing I like better than Porini," said Isabella), followed by a somewhat excruciating, yet virtually compulsory, "cultural dance" put on by the local Samburu. Then we set out for a game drive; early-morning and mid-afternoon drives are the norm in most camps.
The landscape here is completely unlike that at Ol Pejeta, and provides a visual feast rich, deep-ochre plains surrounded by umber hills and dark rocks, the occasional terracotta-coloured termite mound rising out of the ground, its shape resembling a fairy-tale castle.
During the journey, escorted by JJ and Steve, it became clear that the character of the guides has a significant impact on the safari experience. We marvelled at all the usual suspects (zebra, rhino, giraffe, impala), and one species unique to region: the oryx, with its perfectly straight horn. Yet I detected a slightly bored air from Steve and JJ, which put me in mind of a tour guide taking a bunch of tourists through their list of "must sees".
That night, the children and I swam in the hotel pool while massive lizards waddled past nonchalantly, and husband read, of course. After a dusty few hours in a lurching 4x4, this level of luxury comes into its own.
Our last camp was an hour's flight away in the Masai Mara. Here we met John, a guide whose passion and knowledge matched that of Kennedy and Benjamin. The Mara camp is run by the same company as Samburu. In the intense heat of the Masai Mara, the luxury was again welcome and the game drive we took shortly after arrival was unlike anything we'd done so far.
The Masai Mara is essentially a vast desert. Any vegetation huddles around whatever water there is to be found, and, naturally enough, this is where you also find hippos. We watched an enormous family of them taking a bath, all the while keeping a respectable distance as, according to John, they do attack, "but only on dry land". Much of what Kenya has to offer in terms of wildlife can be seen in the Masai Mara, hence its international fame.
Within less than an hour of driving around the plains, we came across a cheetah nursing her two cubs. We felt extremely lucky to sit and watch the scene for half an hour, particularly since the cheetahs, we were assured by John, weren't bothered by our presence at all.
The sun in this part of Kenya is truly fierce. I badly burnt my forehead in a few minutes after having stupidly forgotten my hat, so early-morning drives, followed by leisurely lunches and visits to the pool before late-afternoon excursions are very much the order of the day.
John drove us for miles and miles in every direction, showing us not one but two prides of lions. It was fantastic to be inches away from them watching them saunter around, so haughty yet so uninterested in us. (We'd all only ever seen a lion in a zoo, and he was bored, too.) We saw a pair of mating ostriches (the male turns the most peculiar bright pink prior to "lift off"), and a family of elephants, including two adorable infants that looked, according to Archie, like they came "straight out of The Jungle Book" (the movie, not the book the children don't seem to have inherited their dad's knack of escaping domestic duties via literature... yet).
We drove back to camp, a picture-book sunset lighting our way, with flaming orange descending over the horizon like something out of a Turner painting. John suddenly swerved our 4x4 and drove away from the direction of the camp. We had no idea what he was doing, but trusted him enough to know that we weren't being taken on a wild-goose chase (no geese there, anyway). And then we saw what he'd spotted: a leopard lying between some scrub.
We all gazed at her in enraptured silence for ages, and would happily have stayed until darkness had we not been joined by a total of 10, if you please, other tourist vehicles.
Apparently, John is so experienced that, when other guides see his vehicle stopped in the middle of nowhere, they head straight for it knowing he's spotted something worth showing their passengers. I'll admit to wondering then, and not for the first time, if this is the way safaris will inevitably go: 4x4s packed with tourists, armed to the teeth with technology, recording the elusive leopard for the sole purpose of going back to Whereversville to show their pals the proof over beer and nachos. On the other hand, tourism is now Kenya's principal source of income, and the authorities seem to handle safari tourism, animal protection and land conservation diligently.
In a world gripped by carbon-footprint guilt, one can't help wondering what is going to happen to all the developing countries whose survival depends on tourism if we do all opt for green travel: it's a mighty long train ride to Africa.
While my family preferred the ethos and style of the first camp, and completely fell for our guides there, over eight days and covering three regions, there's no denying that the high-end comfort the other two camps offer is very welcome. The food was excellent, albeit a little more "international" than you might expect: none of the wildebeest stew or impala steaks we'd promised the children.
I'm not sure who got the most out of our Kenyan adventure the children, or me and my swotty husband but it's such an enriching experience on so many levels that I'm sure I returned a better person. And I'll never visit a zoo again.
The writer travelled with Africa Sky (0870 904 0925; www.africasky.co.uk), which can tailor safaris to a range of destinations including Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania. A seven-night family safari taking in the highlights of Kenya starts at 1,790 per adult and 1,275 for under-12s, based on children sharing with adults. The price includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Nairobi and all internal flights; transfers and park entrance fees; full-board safari accommodation with two nights each at Porini Rhino Camp, Samburu Intrepids and Mara Intrepids; and a final night in a hotel in Nairobi with an excursion to the Giraffe Sanctuary.
Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virginatlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to Nairobi daily, with returns from 465. The Kenyan capital is also served from Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk); or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Porini Rhino Camp, Ol Pejeta Conservancy (00 254 20 712 3129; www.porini.com).
Samburu Intrepids, Samburu National Reserve (00 254 20 444 6651) and Mara Intrepids, Masai Mara (00 254 20 444 2115): www.heritage-eastafrica.com.
Kenya Tourist Board: 020-7367 0900; www.magicalkenya.com