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Safridude's Trip Report Part I - Kenya

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In September, after a nine-year hiatus, I embarked on my sixth African safari (my fourth to East Africa) with four friends of mine. Sixth! Needless to say, I am a one-dimensional lunatic, but it’s what floats by boat. The following is what I saw, heard, smelled and felt at five truly magnificent places in East Africa. In short, Campi ya Kanzi was thought provoking with its unique pursuit of resolving human/wildlife conflicts; Meru quite simply stole my heart; Ngorongoro delivered once again; Serengeti mesmerized me with its immensity; and as for Ugalla, ooh… you’ll just have to read on…


Campi ya Kanzi, Kuku Group Ranch – the Future of Conservation

On the morning of September 10, our charter plane from Wilson airport sprinted down the runway southbound toward Nairobi National Park. In three previous trips to Kenya, this had been the official beginning of the safari, the defining moment -- as hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, having migrated from the nearby Athi plains at the onset of the dry season, would soon be seen. But only a couple of minutes into the flight, I came to a quick realization: Nairobi National Park was dead. I had been reading in Swara magazine about the plight of Nairobi National. New human settlements were blocking migratory corridors to the south and east. Cut off from their seasonally plentiful food supply, lions in particular suffered hard. I had seen pictures of the emaciated lions in Swara, but the brown, empty plains below me somehow looked more grotesque.

Thirty or so minutes into the flight, the pilot pointed out Mt. Kilimanjaro to our right. It, too, was an unfamiliar sight, as the snowcap has been reduced to nothing but a sliver due to climatic changes. Just when I was feeling let down, the emerald, improbably shaped hills of Chyulu came into view. Just south of them lies Kuku Group Ranch, where Campi ya Kanzi (“Camp of the Hidden Treasure” in Kiswahili) is located. Ten years ago, Luca Belpietro and his wife Antonella Bonomi, both originally from Italy, struck a deal with the local Maasai landlords to co-develop eco-tourism in this important wildlife dispersal area between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The camp provides employment for the local Maasais, the trust that was set up in conjunction with the camp helps them build and maintain schools and medical facilities, an agreement is made to restrict livestock grazing from certain areas of the ranch, and ultimately tourism revenues are shared. During the next three days, we would explore, in a vehicle and by foot, an array of biomes contained within the 250,000-acre ranch, including the whistling-thorn flecked plains surrounding camp, the artesian spring area several hundred feet below, and the dramatic hills above leading up to a patch of rainforest.

In the afternoons, we opted for game drives or walks above camp. The vistas from high up at Kuku Group Ranch rival those of Laikipia or even Ngorongoro. I took some of the best landscape photographs I have ever taken (it was easy). At sunset, it’s just one of those places -- with an endless view of the plains leading up to the base of Kilimanjaro and a cold Tusker in hand -- to contemplate life. Fauna-wise, the area around and above camp may as well be renamed “Hartebeest Farm”. The long, dry grasslands do not support big concentrations of game, but that is where those awkward looking beasts with fanatical eyes thrive, along with smaller herds of zebras, elands, giraffes and impalas. Lions and cheetahs occur here but in small doses. On several occasions, we saw lion tracks, and we were lucky to spot five cheetahs sitting together one late afternoon. Some unusual observations were made on the hills. We saw a lone male Thomson’s gazelle high up on the ranch in a patch of very tall grass long ways from any watering source (Thomson’s gazelles are reputed to prefer short grass and need to drink every day). As Luca would later point out, most of the research on Thomson’s gazelles has been carried out in Serengeti-Mara or Ngorongoro, and when it comes to wild animals, there is only one rule: there are no rules. We also saw a giraffe utilizing browse on a nearly vertical hill even though there were miles of suitable browsing below.

The highlight of the game viewing experience at Kuku Group Ranch, however, is the trips to the springs. These drives are typically done in the morning. As you descend from camp, one may be lucky to see a naked view of Killimanjaro’s peak before it gets shrouded by the usual late-morning clouds. About 30 minutes into the drive, you begin to come across some of the local Maasais, with their ever-present cattle and goats, in a large swath of shockingly overgrazed land. After passing several Maasai villages on the main road, the vehicle turns left onto a tiny, almost undetectable road. The scenery changes abruptly and dramatically. You enter an area of green acacia trees and shrubs, reminiscent of Amboseli National Park’s edges. Clearly, it is an area endowed with a high water table, because the vegetation stays green throughout the dry season. I forgot exactly what Luca told me about the area, but it is either an area which the Maasais for some reason choose not to let their livestock graze or an area that is off-limits for them according to an agreement struck with them. The area teems with giraffes, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, gerenuks, elands, and offers fleeting glimpses of lesser kudus. In the open plain beyond the acacia patch, I had a good viewing of the fringe-eared oryx. It was, for me, the highlight of my stay at Kuku Group Ranch; because I know their population is crashing, without much fanfare, throughout Kenya and Tanzania. At the edge of the plain, elephants can be seen watering from the springs. Just when you reach that blissful state of mind though, Africa throws you a curveball -- as belts of new cultivation (mostly corn) appears near the springs, highlighting the challenges of human/wildlife conflicts this land faces.

The overall experience at Campi ya Kanzi is one of total harmony. The camp is set inconspicuously on a gently rolling terrain. The individual tents and the main mess area are built in a completely eco-friendly manner. No careful planning was spared in this regard. For instance, each toilet has two flush buttons: one for small flushes and one for large. I came away from Campi ya Kanzi thinking that there are endless ways we can all strive to conserve. Ultimately, the place is about Luca. His magnanimous personality trickles down the plains and percolates up the hills. A self-described lunatic, he almost single-handedly created this innovative experiment in conservation. He is fluent or conversant in many languages. With just a hint of an accent, his English is much more eloquent than yours or mine. More so than any place I have visited in Africa (yes, I have been to the wonderful Lewa Downs), this was the most intimate and familial. It’s just like being a house guest in a Tuscan villa – except, of course, for the sound of Cape buffalos grazing twenty feet away from your tent at night.

Campi ya Kanzi was ultimately stimulating to the mind. It charged me up. I saw the future of wildlife conservation in Africa there: give an economic stake to the local people living on the periphery of national parks. I see this as the most logical, sustainable method of wildlife conservation. Campi ya Kanzi has been around for ten years. The neighboring Ol Donyo Wuas, located on the adjacent Mbirikani Group Ranch, has been around longer. I do not know how financially successful these concession areas are to the operators of the establishments or the Maasais who ultimately own the land. But, I do detect an enormous amount of positive vibes from the folks at Campi ya Kanzi. During my stay, I met a young man there whose family is close to Luca and Antonella. This current resident of South Africa and frequent visitor to Campi ya Kanzi told me that at times it is hard to be optimistic about Africa, but we both agreed that it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Ecological failure is not an option for those of us who love Africa so much. The first step for all of you is to visit places like Campi ya Kanzi yourself. It will help, even if only marginally, to financially validate the innovative conservation model. Besides, you’ll love it. You will be profoundly moved. In many ways, it is a richer overall experience than “doing the Big-Five” at Maasai Mara. Thank you Luca, Antonella, Stefano, Samson, Matasha, Thomas, Pashiet, etc. at the Camp of the Hidden Treasure.

(Note: I, along with many people I met on the trip, generally agreed that places like Campi ya Kanzi, Ol Donya Wuas, Lewa Downs, etc. are better to visit at the end of your safari. This is contrary to what most travel agents recommend. I just think it is better to get the Big-Five/cats/migration thing out of your system at places like Maasai Mara first, so that you can relax and take in everything these other places have to offer.)

Next up: Meru National Park

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