Kenya: I had a tent in Africa

And it had a shower, a loo and waiter service. Lucy Gillmore goes on safari in a style to suit any modern-day adventurer

Saturday 12 January 2002 01:00 GMT

Two girls, 10 men, great ratio. As we stepped out of the four-wheel drive, a smart, khaki-clad attendant rushed forward with cool, damp face-cloths, while another hovered with a tray of cocktails. Lined up to greet us were our butler, barman, waiter, cook and guards. In the African bush, there's camping, and then there's camping, it seems. This was the kind that came with a full staff and flushing loo.

Two girls, 10 men, great ratio. As we stepped out of the four-wheel drive, a smart, khaki-clad attendant rushed forward with cool, damp face-cloths, while another hovered with a tray of cocktails. Lined up to greet us were our butler, barman, waiter, cook and guards. In the African bush, there's camping, and then there's camping, it seems. This was the kind that came with a full staff and flushing loo.

"If you have any laundry, just put it in that basket and Gilbert will take care of it," said Stephen, our guide, gesturing towards a corner of the tent. From the outside it was all dark-green army style. Inside it was positively Hemingwayesque, with ornate, dark wooden furniture, beds bearing crisp, white linen sheets, and handwoven rugs scattered across the floor. It was also three times the size of my bedroom at home. Behind a partition, the bathroom came complete with vanity unit, Imperial Leather soap and proper flush toilet. Another door lead to the shower cubicle.

We had flown in from Nairobi that morning, the tiny Cessna hiccuping from air pocket to air pocket. The African bush spread out below us, a bleached land of ragged thorn trees and treacherous-looking ravines. We bumped down on the makeshift landing strip, a red stretch of earth. Giraffe and zebra wandered past as a four-wheel drive screeched up in a cloud of dust to meet us. This is how it used to be done by the Karen Blixens, the Beryl Markhams, the Ernest Hemingways. Now it is left to Hollywood moguls and millionaires to recreate that bygone era. Mobile tented safaris – a throwback to the days of the great white hunters, along with small, permanent camps and private lodges – today provide vital revenue for a growing number of farms across Kenya. Some ranches have started to band together, marketing themselves as an alternative to the mass tourism found in many national parks. Lewa Downs, a private cattle ranch and wildlife conservancy covering 55,000 acres in the northern foothills of Mount Kenya, is one of 14 properties that now make up Kenyan Portfolios. Exclusivity, of course, comes at a price: from around £300 per person per night for a mobile safari, which is what the average Kenyan earns in four months. But then you do get your own personal slice of African bush.

"I had a farm in Africa." As a pick-up truck full of Labradors bowled past, the head-scarved woman inside (Mrs Craig), waving to us, I toyed with the opening line of Karen Blixen's Out of Africa. The farm has been in the Craig family since cattle ranching began in 1924. Her two sons now specialise in tourism and farming. There is a lodge with eight bungalows and a concession for one tented camp.

After unpacking, we stepped outside on to our verandah and flopped into a couple of director's chairs beneath the spreading branches of the gnarled acacia trees. A wide sweep of parched grassland, trampled and golden, spread out before us. From behind, a figure in a smart waistcoast and crisply pressed trousers approached, bearing a tray with two enormous glasses of ice-cold beer.

Lunch was three courses – with silver service – followed by a siesta and then an afternoon game drive. One rare black rhino and too many elephant, giraffe, zebra and impala to mention later, we headed back to camp and the crackling campfire. Kips, our barman, knocked up two perfect gin and tonics served with ice and lemon in cut-glass crystal. Over a candlelit dinner, Stephen regaled us with stories of decadence in the wild, while Kips kept our glasses topped up and Gilbert turned down our beds, slipping hot-water bottles beneath the sheets.

The one luxury you don't get on a mobile safari is a lie-in. "If Danny DeVito can get up at six, so can you," we were told. Bill Gates didn't complain either, apparently. Bumping along a dirt track on an early morning game drive, we were getting hungrier by the minute when Stephen suddenly pulled up beside a river. Down among the trees was a table laid with a bright check cloth and fine bone china. Kips was grinning from ear to ear as he produced a full English breakfast, seemingly from nowhere. Behind a hedge a makeshift kitchen had been set up. Philip, our cook, was standing over a charcoal fire, a tall white chef's hat perched on his head. At Lewa you rarely see another human being. However, walking is not permitted outside the camp and the only option, if you don't fancy the horse riding on offer at the lodge, is a four-wheel drive safari. To really get a taste of the bush you need to leave the vehicle behind. Our second camp, Lolldaiga, was another private ranch two hours away, up in the hills, where you can do just that.

Toby, all floppy blonde hair and big gun, looking like a Denys Finch Hatton, met us at the gate with Male, a young Samburu warrior. Lolldaiga covers an area of immense diversity with rolling parkland, woods and scrubland and vast expanses of semi-desert. Lolldaiga is very much a working farm and here, unlike at Lewa, camping is the only option.

As we set off in single file through the valley, the grass crackling underfoot, Toby pointed out everything from lion prints to buffalo dung. Squatting in the dust and talking in hushed tones he brought the bush alive. In his rucksack was a packed lunch – tablecloth, china and crystal glasses.

Camels, brought down from the northern deserts, are traditionally used by the Samburu tribesmen as pack animals. Camel safaris are a departure from the more traditional four-wheel drive, horseback and walking options, and can be arranged for just a day or two in Lolldaiga or in the Samburu desert further north for four or five days. You sleep under the stars in traditional fly tents, riding and walking (the lolloping gait isn't the most comfortable for long periods of time) during the day. And what you don't know about camels at the end of it, from the length of their eyelashes to the fact that they cry real tears when one of the herd dies, isn't worth knowing.

Rising at sunrise the sight that greeted us as we staggered blearily from our tent was magical; three camels with bright cloth saddles lying regally in the grass, their Samburu keepers majestic beside them swathed in rich red robes.

The tribesmen walked beside us while Toby strode ahead with his rifle. Giraffe and zebra, curious, galloped through the trees just ahead of us. As the sun climbed in the sky, the heat grew intense. We stopped for breakfast perched on some rocks in the shade; the sun baking down on the round, red hills.

"So any Danny DeVito or Bill Gates stories?"

"No, but I had to scour Nairobi for Oreo cookies and M&Ms before Kenny Rogers arrived."

In the late afternoon we stopped off at a lookout point by the memorial to Harry Hinde, who settled the property in the early 1900s. A cooler full of drinks appeared as the sun started to set. As we sipped the obligatory gin and tonics, his grandson, Robert Wells, appeared over the hill, walking his two dogs. He had grown up in England but after his grandfather's death moved to Kenya to save the farm from being sold. Cracking open a beer, he chatted to us in the twilight about his hopes for the ranch. Looking out over the plain, at the land that had become a part of the Hinde family over the last century, the Out of Africa fantasy was complete.

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 611, The price for a seven-night trip including three nights at Lewa Downs and three nights at Lolldaiga Hills, international and internal flights and private transfers costs from £3,795 per person

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