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Game Face

Jack Smith

It was a perfect day to go horseback riding: The afternoon air was fragrant with acacia; puffs of cloud floated low over the Kenyan plain; and, for the moment, at least, not a single lion was in sight. Other big game, however, abounded. Just over the horizon we would find herds of kudu, impalas, elephants, zebras, and giraffes clustered around a water hole—and Safari, my mount, seemed eager to join them. He snuffled and tossed his head as we trotted through the thorn bushes.

"Grazing animals like each other’s company," Patrick Angugo, my personal safari director from Micato Safaris, had explained back at the stable while tightening the cinch around the big stallion. "Like people, they seek safety in numbers. But Safari’s been raised in the bush, so he knows how to behave around game."

Angugo, who has worked for Micato for more than 20 years, was less sure about Safari’s rider. "Remember, once you get close to a herd, let your horse graze," he had instructed, his voice growing faint in the distance as my mount trotted out of the stable. "That identifies him as one of them and not a predator."

As for the local big cats, I had no need to concern myself with looking out for them, according to Adam, the stable hand who was my guide on this ride across Kenya’s Loisaba Wilderness conservation area. If one came along, my horse would be the first to know. "The horses will catch a lion’s scent long before we see it. If that happens—," he paused and chuckled. "Just hang on tight."

Very funny, I thought. But the prospect of galloping through the bush with hungry predators hot on our heels was not without a certain allure. For years, safari operators have expressed their concerns about the dwindling number of lions in the wilderness. Lately, however, they have been more worried about the shortage of tourists.

The year 2008 was a disaster for Kenya. Before then, this country of 38 million had been enjoying a tourist boom, with travelers swarming to the beaches around Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, and to the game parks of the interior. On safari, it was all you could do to snap a picture of a leopard on the prowl or a family of giraffes peering at you over the treetops without getting a van full of tourists in the photo.

The Kenya Tourist Board reported that in 2007 revenues from tourism topped $1 billion for the first time. In June 2007, Virgin Atlantic opened service into the capital city of Nairobi, thereby boosting Kenya’s overseas air traffic by 25 percent. Meanwhile, private investors were pouring money into the country’s tourist facilities. Among them was the Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts group, which spent $34 million upgrading and refurbishing such newly acquired luxury properties as the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, the Mount Kenya Safari Club, the Aberdare Country Club, the Ark, and the Mara Safari Club. In the bush country—the Masai Mara, Laikipia Plateau, and Samburu, the most game-rich corners of East Africa—plush pavilions were sprouting: tents 28 feet long and 9 feet tall, with flush toilets and beddings of 100-percent Egyptian cotton.

Even the vagaries of American politics augured well for the future of Kenya’s tourism. When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in February 2007, his father’s ancestral home, the sleepy village of Nyang’oma Kogelo, became a tourist draw in its own right. "All Kenya was excited about Mr. Obama," said Angugo, who was especially so: He is a member of Kenya’s Luo tribe, as Obama’s father was.

At the end of 2007, when Kenya’s own presidential elections were drawing near, it seemed that one of the biggest issues facing the country was how to manage a tsunami of incoming tourists. But shortly after going to the polls on December 27, voters’ concerns over policy were swept aside by fears for their lives. The turmoil began with reports that the election—in which incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest tribe), defeated opposition candidate Raila Odinga, a Luo—had been fixed. There were accusations of voter fraud as well, and claims that officials had fomented violence at the polls. Suddenly, tribal grievances erupted into chaos, pitting Luo against Kikuyu.

The rioting began in the slums and spread quickly to the Rift Valley, which borders Uganda. Television coverage featured men sharpening machetes on the pavement and burning tires in the streets. In just a few weeks, some 1,000 Kenyans were killed and more than 300,000 fled their homes.

Micato Safaris, which has offices in Nairobi and New York, continued to operate, but it flew some travelers directly to the game parks by chartered aircraft, bypassing the capital. By January 2008, occupancy rates in Kenya’s hotels had plunged, and the game parks lay practically empty.

The drop in tourism was certainly trivial compared to the loss of so many lives, but Kenya’s economy depended on a constant influx of travelers. The game that drew people to the country was a highly perishable commodity, and some people warned that, given the economic crisis, desperate Kenyans would begin viewing wildlife as a readily available source of food and slaughter it. "If the tourists stop coming for a long period, none of the national parks will have the income to be able to sustain their security," conservationist and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, a former Kenya Wildlife Service director, told National Geographic Adventure magazine. "In those circumstances, people will try to take the land. They will also try to take the meat, because they will need it, and without the security, what will happen?"

With any luck, Kenya will not have to find out. The violence that flared up so suddenly and brutally seemed to dissipate almost as swiftly. Less than a month after the election, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan arrived in the country and brought the two sides to the negotiating table. On February 28, 2008, officials for Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement called the National Accord and Reconciliation Act, thereby creating a coalition government.

Even so, after repeated TV broadcasts to worldwide audiences, the images of Kenyan-on-Kenyan violence could not be eradicated overnight, and the protestations of tour operators and hoteliers that no tourists had been injured rang hollow. Ten months after the two parties had come to terms, the tourists were still staying away.

I had no plans to visit Kenya either, until I got a call from Micato. What the company had in mind was for me to travel wherever I wanted to go in Kenya, to explore every possible setting or situation a traveler might encounter. I would be traveling with Luo, Kikuyu, and Masai. My itinerary would lead through luxury resorts with liveried maids and bartenders, into a wilderness where predators roamed amid tents, and to sprawling shantytowns where, only months before, the ground was drenched with blood. In extending this invitation, Micato was wagering that the strife was over.

In accepting the invitation, I was making the same bet.

 

A 7-foot-tall electrified fence runs for several miles along the southwestern edge of Nairobi. The barrier helps keep zebras, antelope, and rhinos out of this teeming metropolis of 4 million people. As my bush plane clawed its way skyward from the Nairobi airport, I could see where civilization ended and wilderness began.

As the plane ascended higher, I looked out over a barren landscape pockmarked with bomas, traditional compounds that were each the size of a soccer field and surrounded by a wall of thorn bushes heaped atop each other. Every evening, the Masai who live in these compounds herd their cattle and goats inside the walls, just as they have done for centuries, to protect them from predators. Alas, this practice does not always work. In April of last year a leopard ravaged a village in the Masai Mara, one of Africa’s prime game-viewing preserves. Every night for a week, according to the local Independent newspaper, the hungry cat hurdled the 10-foot-tall fence and made off with another goat.

In many parts of Africa, the villagers might have hunted the leopard down and killed it. But not in Kenya. Instead, a wildlife-conservation organization called the Mara Conservancy paid the villagers for the loss of their livestock. The purpose of this scheme is to protect the leopards and other game that tourists travel thousands of miles and sometimes spend vast sums of money to see. But as tourism dwindles, so does funding for the conservancy.

After two hours, our bush plane delivered us to a dirt airstrip not far from the Loisaba Wilderness. Loisaba—a 95-square-mile private reserve of cliffs, valleys, and waterfalls edged with lush groves of palm and fig trees—is home to elephants, buffalo, zebras, kudu, and lions and other cats. Even wild dogs, once thought to have been hunted to extinction in this region, have been sighted here.

Loisaba is as exclusive as it is scenic, representing the kind of low-impact, low-volume tourism that conservationists hope will be the wave of the future in Kenya. The accommodations, which are built on a hillside, consist only of a two-bedroom cottage and seven more rooms in a main lodge. A balcony off the lodge’s living room looks out to Mount Kenya, 60 miles distant, and down to a water hole 1,000 feet below.

The water hole abounded with wildlife during our visit. To the left of it was a huge boulder that glowed in the sunset like a crystal mountain. To the right was a "leopard watch," a camouflaged hut with sightlines to a tree where—as Loisaba’s general manager, Alastair Boyd, explained—leopards were known to stash their prey.

A mother kudu and her calf were among the animals that wandered the grounds; upon our arrival they strolled up to us like a reception committee. Later that night, a genet—an elegant, catlike creature with features and limbs seemingly sculpted from porcelain—poked its head through an open window of the lodge’s living room, while somewhere in the distance a lion roared. "It’s hard to say how close he is," Boyd said to the few guests who had gathered in the living room for sundowners. "A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles."

The talk at dinner inevitably turned to the long-term effects of the country’s recent unrest on Loisaba and other tourist destinations. At the time of my visit, 11 months after the riots, Loisaba’s occupancy rate was running 25 percent below normal. But, said Boyd, it was hard to say whether the falloff was because of the riots or the worldwide economic woes. Either way, opined one guest—a Paris-based safari guide by the name of Gautier de Pazziz—Loisaba would suffer far less than would mass-market destinations. "It is well known to a sophisticated, well-traveled clientele that these troubles are usually localized," he said. "Also, Loisaba has so much more to offer than most wildlife preserves."

Those offerings include camel trekking, horseback riding, rafting, hiking, and fishing—as well as star beds. "Imagine having the entire universe as your roof," Boyd said the next day as he steered the Loisaba safari van along a series of deeply rutted trails. He was describing the essence of the beds, one set of which is situated approximately 30 minutes from the lodge and is reachable only by a precarious footbridge that leads over a rushing river.

Each star bed consists of a platform (equipped with a flush toilet) built into the hillside, with a bed on wheels that can be rolled back and forth for a better view of the river below. The beds are protected by thatch roofs and mosquito netting, and covered with thick duvets. "You’re lying here near the equator, with no light pollution at all, and you’ll see the stars like you’ve never seen them before," said Boyd. "It’s very popular among honeymooners."

That sounded great, I said, but what about the baboons? A pack of maybe a dozen of the primates had been cavorting on one of the star-bed platforms when our van pulled up.

"You don’t have to worry about them," offered one of the Masai staffers who had ridden along in the van. "They’re gone by dark. They’re afraid of the leopards."

I looked from one staffer to another, expecting them to break out laughing any moment, but they merely nodded in agreement before another added that "the baboons can’t see in the dark the way the leopards can."

Darn, I said, looking around at my new Masai friends, who were obviously eager to host me for the night; I would love to spend a night in one of the star beds, but I can’t see in the dark either.

Loisaba’s working relationship with the local Masai is critical to the larger vision for the conservancy. In addition to being a tourist destination, Loisaba is a working ranch with some 2,500 head of cattle. The ranch’s objective was to establish a herd that would produce income for the Masai community yet present little competition to wildlife for vegetation and water resources. Here, cattle, bushbuck, and buffalo share the same water holes.

At the same time—and this was where I came in—the owners also hoped to develop practices that would allow domestic livestock, including horses, to coexist with predators. This program has been largely successful. Despite its high number of resident lions and leopards, Loisaba has one of the lowest predation rates in the region. Because the big cats have not been attacking the cattle or horses, not a single lion or leopard has been shot here in the past 18 years, and no people have ever been attacked. By returning to the stables unscathed, I had done my part to maintain this low level of predation.

 

Where Loisaba is rustic and unspoiled, the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club epitomizes colonial posh, with a golf course, a croquet lawn, rose gardens, a bowling green, and tennis courts. The property has 120 guest rooms and cottages, each with a sunken bath. The club’s bar offers a martini that costs more than $2,500. "That’s the tanzanite martini," said Philippe Cauviere, the club’s general manager. "It’s served with a 3.3-carat tanzanite gem instead of an olive." If you prefer a more understated cocktail, the bar also serves garnet, topaz, and aquamarine martinis.

Extravagances of this order are a tradition here. This is, after all, Kenya’s most famous retreat, a haven of the mid-century jet set that was founded in 1959 by William Holden, one of Hollywood’s most charismatic figures. Regular guests at the Mount Kenya Safari Club included Catherine Deneuve, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Bob Hope, and gunrunner Adnan Khashoggi. Ten miles away is the Sweetwater game sanctuary, a 24,000-acre preserve thick with giraffes, eland, oryx, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelles, Thompson’s gazelles, elephants, silver-backed jackals, ostriches, and rhinos.

The Safari Club’s many charms and attractions went largely for naught in the wake of the riots, when its occupancy rate fell by 90 percent despite Fairmont’s recent refurbishment of the hotel. Cauviere blamed the falloff on the media and its coverage of the turmoil. "You would see the same news clip four and five nights in a row," he said. "No wonder people didn’t come. It’s one thing to be shot; you can accept that. It’s different to be cut to pieces by a machete."

The shortfall in revenues notwithstanding, the property continued to maintain an animal orphanage that Holden founded and that remains one of the country’s most appealing attractions. A visit to a preserve should be a learning experience; the first thing that you learn at this orphanage is not to stand beneath the colobus monkeys. In addition to the monkeys, the rescued animals included a cheetah, a lynx, a tortoise, a mountain bongo, a waterbuck, and African wildcats, which are similar to long-haired domestic tabbies.

If I wanted to see a pair of much larger cats, said one of the club’s habitués, it was just about feeding time, and I was welcome to join him. He then introduced me to one of Africa’s legendary adventurers, the big-game hunter Peter DeMello. Named hunter of the year by his peers in 1976—the last year hunting was legal in Kenya—the soft-spoken DeMello now organizes non-shooting safaris for a small circle of clients, one of whom keeps a house and a pair of large pets adjacent to the Safari Club.

"What is that?" I asked as we pulled up to a white-peaked miniature of Mount Kenya, perhaps four stories tall.

"That’s the house," said DeMello, unlocking a heavy gate and entering the property.

After following him through the gate, I heard a low, rumbling growl and turned to see a lioness weighing perhaps 400 pounds charging straight at me. She stopped only when she banged her head into the chain-link fence between us.

Meanwhile, DeMello had stepped into the pen, where a male lion was now stalking him. Just as the lion was about to pounce, DeMello heaved a slab of meat into the air as casually as you might toss a Frisbee to a golden retriever.

"Don’t worry!" he yelled to me. "They can’t get out!"

Wasn’t that what they said in Jurassic Park?

DeMello’s demonstration served as a reminder that at my next destination, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, the predators would not be fenced in.

 

The Masai Mara is said to be the most game-rich of Africa’s reserves, and Abdi Hassan, an executive at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, was intent on showing me that its reputation is deserved. "I know you have done the Big Five before," he said to me as the club’s safari van rolled into the wild, "but you have never had such a concentration of game as you will see here."

Within an hour we arrived in the bush and came across a half-dozen lions lazing in the tall grass. "If you want, we can get even closer," said Hassan, documenting the moment with his camera while one of the tawny cats blinked at us as if wondering what kind of fool would intrude on its space.

No, I said, that was fine.

With the van’s gears gnashing and its exhaust roaring, we then drove past a herd of Cape buffalo. Shortly thereafter, our van sneaked up to a family of elephants hiding behind a stand of trees. Next we came upon a handsome leopard lying by a pool, admiring its image in the reflection. We did not move nearly as close to the leopard as to the lions. "We want to be careful," whispered Angugo, my safari director from Micato. "Leopards are different from lions. You can come as close as you want with lions, but you don’t push your luck with leopards. They’re unpredictable."

Then, in a chilling moment, the leopard lifted his head and stared straight at me. "I think we should be going," said Angugo.

On the way back to the club, Hassan checked his watch. "That’s four of the Big Five we’ve spotted in a half hour," he announced proudly. "Tomorrow we’ll drive in a different direction and we’ll bag the fifth, a rhino."

There was a time, of course, when the Big Five were the purview of big-game hunters. They were the animals most difficult to track and most ferocious when cornered: the lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhino. The idea was to shoot the cats with the biggest teeth, the elephant with the biggest tusks, and the water buffalo and rhino with the biggest horns—and then mount their heads in your study for all to admire.

Nowadays the digital camera has replaced the rifle, but photo safaris can be as competitive as hunting once was. "People rush out, take their pictures, then come back and show off their pictures around the bar," said Angugo. "It’s all about keeping score."

The next morning, we arrived at a spot where a threesome of white rhinos—two adults and a baby—grazed peacefully while a ranger stood watching no more than five yards away. "You can get as close as you want, but don’t make any sudden movements," said Angugo. "And don’t get between the ranger and the rhino."

Close up, the rhinos appeared to be toy piglets made of latex. I was tempted to reach out and touch one, but instead I took my pictures and then, grateful for the moment, moved on.

 

The Fairmont Mara Safari Club is more a luxury camp than a luxury resort, but it was comfortable just the same, with 50 spacious tents, en suite baths, and a deck overlooking the muddy Mara River. I could sit on the deck and listen to the resident hippos bellowing like a tuba section below. There was also an authentic Masai village 10 minutes from the camp. At nightfall, the villagers, wrapped in their distinctive plaid robes and with their hair dyed orange with ochre, performed their tribal dance, bouncing straight up and down as if the ground were a trampoline.

According to legend, before a Masai boy can become a man he must single-handedly hunt and kill a lion, armed with nothing but a shield and spear. If this were ever true, it no longer is, said one Masai warrior, a slender man in his twenties who joined us around the fireplace in the Safari Club’s dining room. "It is against the law to kill lions," he said. "But even if it were legal, it is ridiculous to think that one man can kill a lion. It takes at least 10. And the lion rarely dies alone."

This fellow spoke from experience. The last time his village engaged in a lion hunt was five years ago, he said, and no fewer than 50 men took part. As was so often the case, the hunt was an act of revenge: The lion had killed one of the village’s cattle. At the very least, the villagers wanted to drive the lion away from their territory. True, they could have dealt with their loss another way; instead of tracking the big cat and facing it in a life-and-death struggle, they could have reported their loss to the government, which then would have reimbursed them for their claim.

But this was a matter of honor. And so shortly before sunup, the hunt began. The warriors had an idea where they would find their prey; the lion would either lie by the carcass, protecting its kill, or would tire from being chased and sit down with its back to a tree. When the hunters drew close enough, the lion would make unswerving eye contact with one of them. This, said the man, is the one the lion would charge, and it is a great honor to be so chosen. "It is a test of bravery," he explained. "You cannot move away. You must take the lion’s charge and trust the other hunters to spear the lion as it attacks you."

Only on that morning, in a strange compromise with government protocol, the hunters carried rocks instead of spears. They found the lion, as expected, with its back to a tree. As they closed in on the cat, the hunters began pelting it with rocks, but to no avail. "The lion had already marked one of the hunters," said the Maasai. "It charged and ripped this man’s stomach out and then disappeared into the Mara."

Angugo watched as the young man rose and left. "Rocks?" he said. "Rocks? For their sake, I hope that was their last lion hunt."

 

Thanks to some conservation efforts, Masai have been recruited in the movement to save the lions instead of hunting them. One particular effort began in 1996, when the Italian-born couple Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi built an eco-tourism camp on Masai-owned land in southern Kenya. Dubbed Campi ya Kanzi, the property aimed to offer guests a unique wilderness experience amid the hillocks Hemingway called the Green Hills of Africa. It was also designed to provide shared revenues and employment for the local Masai.

Samsom Parashina, a 31-year-old Masai man who now manages the property, recalled his community’s reaction when Belpietro began building the camp. "We thought the camp would never do anything for the community," he said, "but minds soon changed. Even before the camp opened, it generated revenue by hiring people for construction."

In 2000 the Belpietros founded another philanthropic organization, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, to carry out extensive long-term conservation and humanitarian projects in the area. Some of the trust’s ongoing projects include providing education for Masai children, funding local medical facilities, and employing game scouts to combat poaching.

Another campaign is the Simba Project, which, like the plan in place on the Mara, aims to prevent instances of livestock predation and to remunerate the Masai for the loss of livestock. Now, with the project’s compensation phase in place, Belpietro sees his ventures threatened by the lingering images of chaos. "If there is a riot in Los Angeles, do the media say, ‘Do not come to the United States’? It has hurt us, our bookings are down 25 percent. But we are not suffering as bad as the rest of the country."

Meanwhile, Belpietro said, he, his family, the Masai, and the animals that benefit from his charitable efforts coexist in perfect harmony. "The ranch is completely open and unfenced," he noted. "Every day we take long walks across the grounds. My daughter has been sleeping in that tent in the distance since she was 2."

And every night, a pride of lions comes into the camp in full roar. It is a memorable experience, Belpietro said when he graciously invited me to stay for the night. Spending an entire evening surrounded by prowling carnivores, with nothing but a sheet of canvas between me and them, sounded like a swell idea, but—oops, look at the time! Before the predators arrived, I was gone, on to my next destination.

Following visits to a pair of seaside resorts (see "Two Shore Bets," this page), I made one final stop before leaving Kenya: Mukuru, a place where luxury tours rarely venture. With a population of roughly half a million, it is one of the largest slums in Africa, a vast shantytown of tin-roofed shebeens. Our safari van, bespeaking wealthy foreigners, drew stares from the people crowded along the muddy rut that served as the main road.

"Will it be safe for me to get out and walk around?" I asked Angugo.

"In daylight, yes," he said.

Actually, Mukuru was probably safer then than before the riots. According to Dennis Pinto, the managing director of Micato Safaris and a Kenyan native, something happened in the wake of the violence that he had never before seen in his homeland. "Kenyans were going to the supermarkets and buying food to donate to the Red Cross," he said later by phone. "This was a big change. For the first time they were helping strangers, people they would not meet or see. Traditionally, Kenyans would help their own extended families, or their own villages, but not strangers."

Likewise, he said, people gained a deeper appreciation of tourism. "It is tourism that pays for the game wardens that protect our animals from poachers," he said. "It is tourism that provides revenue to keep the villages from slaughtering their own game. And it is tourism that provides jobs for people to feed their families."

Tourism also supports AmericaShare, the charity Pinto cofounded in 1986 to help men, women, and children afflicted with HIV/AIDS and the ravages of poverty. When our safari van arrived at AmericaShare’s compound in Mukuru, a dozen children ran out from the compound’s school and sang a song in Swahili. I could only hope that this welcoming ritual would be repeated frequently—and for larger audiences—in the coming years.

Micato Safaris, 800.642.2861, www.micato.com

Two Shore Bets
A beachside hideaway on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Alfajiri (+254.733.630491, www.alfajirivillas.com) is the perfect place to wind down after a trek into the Kenyan wilderness. The three-villa retreat features a main villa with wooden beams and a handsome array of African and Far Eastern artifacts. A veranda overlooks an oversize swimming pool set on the edge of a cliff.

The food at Alfajiri is exquisite; fresh crab, prawns, lobster, octopus, and dorado arrive directly from the beach. Meals are even more enchanting when taken with the resort’s owner, Fabrizio Molinaro; his wife, MariCa, an interior decorator; and their 18-year-old daughter, Giulia, an accomplished amateur golfer. "There are other beaches around here, and some of them are nice," said Molinaro over supper. "But they’re flat. People can watch you and see what you’re having for dinner." The villas at Alfajiri, by contrast, are set above the ocean. "The elevation gives you total privacy," he said.

While at Alfajiri, Patrick Angugo—my safari majordomo from Micato Safaris, who had taken to calling me by the traditional honorific—had an idea: "Why not go deep-sea fishing, bwana?" Why not, indeed?

An hour later, the Alfajiri van delivered us to the Pemba Channel Lodge (+254.722.205021, www.pembachannel.com), whose proprietor, Peter Ruysenaars, has caught numerous record-setting fish. After two hours at sea, I hooked a 70-pound sailfish, which erupted out of the water just the way they do in the movies. The crew released the fish back into the water, but within a half hour I had landed a 27-pound dorado to keep. Served with Alfajiri’s marvelous pasta and shared with my host, it was delicious.

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