Seeing a zebra in the African night is as close as I’ve ever really got to a Blakeian epiphany. Our guide Issa’s torch beam, panning the gloom, had illuminated a line of zebras trotting in single file against a copse of low trees. There they were, all aglow and nervily alive. A moment later we saw a great black rhino appear on the open plain. He was huge, prehistoric. He turned slowly and then strolled off into the bush.
I’d made it to Kenya after 20 years of not bothering. Part of the reason I’d never been on a safari was just life: I was busy going elsewhere, working, and living in South America. The other reason was a package of preconceptions I had about safari holidays – a conflation of Out Of Africa, big game myths, boasts about the Big Five and David Attenborough’s breathy BBC accent. I imagined safari fans would be pith-helmeted, pink-faced retirees, overindulged by Africans running around like servants. Some photographs I’d seen of Land Rovers loaded with telephoto lens-wielding tourists circling a lone cheetah also put me off.
Porini, my tented camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, wasn’t like that.
It was managed by locals, was strident about sustainability and its Maasai guides – including Issa and Daniel, my two companions – weren’t dressed in scarlet robes but in ranger gear, and were wildlife experts. We saw about 30 species on the drive into the park from the Nanyuki airstrip (a 40-minute flight from Nairobi). I started making a list. There were giraffes, zebras, warthogs, impala, eland, ostriches, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, a secretary bird (in its mini-skirt and hold-ups), a pair of crested cranes, a tawny eagle, a fish eagle, buffalo and three cheetahs chilling under a bush. Not bad. Though I began to wonder what I was going to do for the next few days. The setting was magnificent. To the east was Mount Kenya, its jagged peak rising through the haze. Low mountains and hills, and a mix of farmland and game reserve ringed the 90,000 acres of Ol Pejeta. The landscape was not classic savannah, but scrub. It’d been raining so the grass was green and lush, but the dominant flora was stunted with lots of evil-looking spiky bushes.
But these were unlikely to trouble Ol Pejeta’s raison d’etre: the endangered black rhino. Black rhinos aren’t black at all, but recognisable by their beak-like mouths and the shape of their backs. They’ve been hunted almost to extinction for their horns. In the 19th century, they were slaughtered to make piano keys and billiard balls; in the 20th century, hunting and demand from Yemen for ivory dagger handles decimated their population. More recently, demand from China has led poachers to risk their lives to get their hands on a single horn.
The next day, I had giraffes for breakfast. That is, I watched these absurdly tall, elegant beasts strolling past and munching tender leaves while I enjoyed my toast. Like zebras, giraffes are common in many game reserves and you take them for granted. But they were, in some ways, my favourite animal; that strange gait, emulated by the world’s CGI programmers when imagining our prehistoric pasts, is just so sublime. I didn’t get to see lions, and I didn’t expect to see leopards – so mythically elusive you almost don’t want to see one – but I was delighted on my last drive to see a spotted hyena. I’m not sure why I like these scruffy, humpbacked doggy opportunists, but when the headlights suddenly caught a lone prowler spying on a herd of gazelle, I felt immense respect. The hyena, like all wild animals, is just so basic and hungry and continuously alert.
Porini is solar powered and, therefore, dark and silent at night. Four days was plenty of time to get into the safari thing, and I was never bored and never missed a drive or a walk. Even when I was feeling tired (we rose at dawn every day), the spectacle was too good to miss. So was I converted? Actually, yes. I’ll definitely go back to Africa to see other habitats and species.
There’s a Jurassic Park quality to game reserves. You do feel that it’s like a fenced-in world. And the fact that this was one of a handful of genuine sanctuaries for our planet bore this out.