'Inevitably, the mother headed straight for us' – the thrills of rhino-tracking in Kenya

Posted by On 11:35 AM

'Inevitably, the mother headed straight for us' â€" the thrills of rhino-tracking in Kenya

We have to stay downwind of her,” our guide, Sambara Lengamuya, whispered, releasing puffs of chalk into the air like a priest dispensing incense, then watching which way the powder blew across the thorny scrubland of Sera Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.

Walking in a column behind him, our small group halted whenever Sambara raised his arm, moved silently forward when he beckoned and followed the direction of his pointing finger when the rangers ahead of him, with their radio antenna, signalled that they had found their microchipped quarry.

“There in the tall grass, 50 yards away,” said Sambara, mouthing the words as much as uttering them. “You can see the curve of her back. She’s lying down.” Perhaps I was looking for something smaller, something paler, but for minutes I was unable to see the grey shape even through binoculars.

Northern Kenya is today one of the best places to see the black rhino
Northern Kenya is today one of the best places to see the black rhino Credit: Getty

Then she stood up, a female black rhino as tall as a man, 12ft long, weighing half a ton and capable of charging at 55km per hour, her muscled flanks the colour of dark slate. “There’s a calf too,” Sambara said, “and they’re coming this way.”

Rooted to the spot, hearts pounding, we watched the rhinos trot in an arc through the gnarly bush, extrapolating from their course that they would end up face-to-face with us. “Don’t move,” Sambara said, and I noticed Jimmy Lekiondo, one of the rangers, steady himself. His rifle could only make a noise, not fire a projectile, but I found the presence of a weapon reassuring.

With a grim inevitability, the rhinos â€" now 20 yards away â€" headed straight for us. Hindered by poor eyesight, they simply couldn’t see us â€" and thanks to Sambara’s expertise with chalk dust, they couldn’t smell us on the wind either. I held my breath as the mother slowed her gait, sniffed the air and stopped, just 10 yards from our group. It felt like I could hear her computing the risk of whatever it was she feared. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, she flicked her head, turned on the spot and galloped back into the bush with her offspring.

Once we could breathe again, it was high-fives all round as we realised what an epic encounter this had been, standing eyeball-to-eyeball with a critically endangered (and deadly) animal whose numbers in Kenya have fallen from 20,000 in the Seventies to 750 now. However, the current population is twice as big as it was in 1983, at the height of the poaching carnage â€" testimony to joined-up conservation efforts in Kenya ov er the past 35 years, of which Sera is a part.

Founded in 2001, Sera Wildlife Conservancy is owned and run by local people, mostly Samburu â€" a semi-nomadic pastoral sub-tribe of the Maasai. Part of the thinking behind Sera was that it would unite three rival ethnic groups, the Samburu, Borana and Rendille, by harnessing their traditional knowledge and combining it with science to manage their rangelands more sustainably â€" and together. It could create jobs to help people diversify out of cattle-herding into handicrafts, entrepreneurship or working as guides and rangers. If tourism could be shown to be more lucrative than poaching, people would feel engaged and committed.

In 2015, the project culminated in the creation of Sera Rhino Sanctuary, a fenced-off area of the conservancy which became home to 10 black rhinos translocated from Nairobi and Nakuru national parks and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy â€" the first time the species had been seen in the area for 25 years. Not only are there now 12 rhinos to track on foot â€" a unique experience in East Africa, using radio antennae to locate the elusive beasts â€" but the community has benefited from dozens of new jobs.

In my time at Sera I did not see a white European, apart from the other guests. Everyone â€" from the wardens guarding the sanctuary fence to guides, anti-poaching rangers, drivers, chefs and safari lodge managers â€" were local people with knowledge to impart. On a day trip to the community-owned Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, where orphaned elephants (and a baby rhino) were being fed and conditioned for their return to the wild, the nutritionists, vets and lab technicians were Samburu.

Among the many success stories is Sammy Lemiruni, a wildlife guide by training who is now the manager at Saruni Rhino, the remote camp where I was staying. Opened last year, the lodge is well-located for the rhino sanctuary and guests contribute $175 (£133) of their room rate each nigh t to conservation. “Keep within the structures,” Sammy had told me on arrival, meaning the dining area, kitchen block and three rustic bandas, small stone cottages, accommodating just 10 guests. “We have elephants here, and leopards too â€" though they’re very skittish â€" so in the early morning and evening especially, don’t walk at the edge of the property.”

Safari in style at Saruni Rhino
Safari in style at Saruni Rhino Credit: Doug McKinlay

Set on the banks of a dry riverbed overlooking a wide expanse of sand, the lodge feels more like a beach club â€" an impression strengthened by its kidney-shaped swimming pool. Nearby is a waterhole that in the dry season attracts up to 70 elephants. The bandas themselves are charming but basic, with bare stone walls, thatched ceilings and animal-hide rugs on the floor. Leave your lights on after dusk and the room will be filled with insects (including giant crickets) and at night you may be woken by the flutter of a bat’s wings. This is safari at its purest.

Sitting on driftwood furniture by the riverbed at night, warmed to oblivion by a blazing firepit, a whisky or two and a night sky filled with stars, I tried to recall my arrival in Kenya three days previously. Flying into Nairobi, I had taken a Safarilink Cessna from Wilson (Nairobi’s satellite airport) and landed on the red-earth airstrip at Samburu Kalama, the point of entry for guests at Saruni Rhino and its sister property, Saruni Samburu, where I would stay one night. On the drive through Kalama Community Conservancy, just to the north of Samburu National Reserve, we saw the “Samburu Five”: gerenuk (a long-necked antelope), reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, Grevy’s zebra and Beisa oryx (a handsome larger antelope) plus elephants and a lioness. How could things get any better?

et on the banks of a dry riverbed overlooking a wide expanse of sand, the lodge feels more like a beach club
Set on the banks of a dry riverbed overlooking a wide expanse of sand, the lodge feels more like a beach club Credit: Doug McKinlay

Then we arrived at Saruni Samburu. It is the most spectacular property â€" six villas sprawled across an escarpment with stupendous views of the conservancy below, hundreds of square miles of grassland in between and Mt Kenya in the far distance. The villas, restaurant and infinity pool, linked by stone pathways, are sublime â€" but the main selling point is privacy.

With no access road, the lodge can only be reached by a 4x4 grinding its way up a slab of bare rock where leopards hold sway. One unusual touch is a wildlife viewing hide made from a shipping container buried in the ground, offering surreptitious sightings of wildlife at a man-made waterhole. Another is sundowners in scenic locations, accompanied by young Samburu demonstrating their adamu, or jumping dance.

The 90-minute drive from Saruni Samburu to Saruni Rhino was full of surprises. For the first time I appreciated how far north we were â€" almost level with Mogadishu in Somalia and just 200 miles from the Ethiopian border. In this surreal desert landscape, the animals you see are not giraffes but herds of camels with cow-bells around their necks and goats tended by Samburu in their colourful costumes. Once, a hyena crossed our path, but the highlight was a stop-off at a “free school” for infants, concealed within the hanging branches of a tree and located in the wilderness, not in a village, so nomadic children can still benefit from an education. They were learning English but this felt like the Horn of Africa.

It is not just rhino at the Sera Wildlife Conservancy
It is not just rhino at the Sera Wildlife Conservancy Credit: Doug McKinlay

How fitting, then, that my journey should end in another bastion of Islam. Zanzibar, Tanzania’s island enclave on the Indian Ocean, is the perfect place to recover after the rawness of the bush â€" especially if it’s at the Residence Zanzibar. Every villa at the five-star resort has its own private pool, and you can hail a golf buggy to take you to the spa, or cycle through the expansive tropical grounds on your own pink bicycle. Stone Town, with its mosques, markets and emotive slavery museum, is a short drive away â€" and there’s a fascinating outing to a spice grove where you can learn about Zanzibar’s most lucrative export.

The imperative for me was to encounter more wildlife â€" not just the colobus monkeys at the resort, but lionfish, Napoleon wrasse, stingrays, scorpionfish and lobsters: the classic marine fauna I had read about. On a boat trip with Buccaneer Diving out of Paje, on the island’s blustery south-east coast, I went scuba diving in uncomfortably high seas on an offshore reef and couldn’t believe my luck.

Just as the Tanzanian divemaster had predicted, there among the churning seabed debris of broken weed and grit was another rare sight â€" seahorses, as delicate as orchids. My East Africa wildlife odyssey was complete.

The essentials

Hayes & Jarvis (01293 762456; hayesandjarvis.co.uk) is offering a 15-night holiday to Kenya and Zanzibar from £7,179 per person, all-inclusive. The price includes an overnight stay in Nairobi, a seven-night Saruni experience with rhino tracking, staying at the five-star Saruni lodges in Samburu National Reserve and Sera Wildlife Conservancy, plus seven nights’ half-board at five-star the Residence Zanziba r. Also included are park fees, airport meet and greet, internal flights and return flights from London Heathrow with British Airways and Precision Air.

Source: Google News Kenya | Netizen 24 Kenya

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