The green season: Kenya at its most beautiful

An unforgettable adventure in a country of deep contrasts, marvellous people, epic sunsets and wonderful sunrises

One of the biggest risks I found travelling through Kenya was the ever-present threat of getting all poetic. It happened when we got out of our jeep to step across the Tanzanian border, leaving the Maasai Mara and quite literally setting foot on the Serengeti. A bollard marks the division, and standing in the vast landscape, I suddenly felt an incredibly strong sense of connection to the ancient horizons of grasses, scattered trees and, everywhere, herds of zebra, elephant, giraffe, buffalo and skipping gazelle. It was

uplifting, hard not to think in clichés, and easy to understand why so many people feel compelled to write bad travelogues on their African adventures.

We were on a trip that took in the southern lakes, the Maasai Mara and the coastal area south of Mombasa at Diani, and it was an adventure of unforgettable sights, huge contrasts, marvellous people, and epic sunsets equalled only by wonderful sunrises.

Shortly before we went, Kenya had been in the news when Al Shabaab terrorists massacred university students in the town of Garissa, further east towards the Somali border. "You'll cancel of course," was the response of most people. It dawned on me reached Kenya that not going would be the same as cancelling a trip to Cornwall after the 7/7 bombings in London, or deciding to steer clear of the whole of France following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.

It’s not quite up there with volunteering for Médecins Sans Frontières, but going to Kenya is a valid way of supporting the country as it strives to develop and consolidate its economy, build better social structures and maintain a stable democracy. Also, the newly developing Conservancies – essentially group schemes that exist alongside the National Parks to protect wildlife and attract visitors – have a policy of employing locals and are major proponents of ecotourism.

Arriving in Nairobi early in the morning, a long and sometimes bumpy drive took us to the Kigio Conservancy, in the heart of what seemed like nowhere. Climbing up through lush plantations of tea and roses (assailed by poetic feelings), we paused to look down into the Great Rift Valley, which runs for 6,000km through Africa. Sightings of zebra competed with the signs adorning roadside shops. These brightly painted constructions of corrugated metal and wood, sometimes as small as a garden shed, have names such as Amazing Grace General Shop, Echoes of Joy Preparatory Academy and, my favourite, Women of Faith Agency – Plots for Sale. I realised later that they were selling a different kind of plot to the schemes I was dreaming of.

Kigio is an enclosed wildlife camp and ecolodge in the Rift Valley. It is a haven for the endangered Rothschild Giraffe, and because it's enclosed and has no major predators, you can do walking safaris and night game drives in the sage-scented air. Walking with George, our guide, and learning about all the things you can do with buffalo poo (building houses and making turf), we turned a corner to come upon a baby giraffe learning to fold its legs to take a drink at a watering hole. Unforgettable. Out at night, we spot an aardvark. This is said to give you an extra 10 years of life. Aardvarks are like the gentrifying artists of the animal kingdom: they move in on anthills, create burrows, then move on, leaving them to warthogs and hyenas.

Also unforgettable was the sense of serenity at the camp. Accommodation is in traditional wood and thatched houses, with verandas fronting the river. Soothed by the sounds of the river I slept until woken by wild laughter; incongruous, until I shivered to realise it was hyenas, celebrating a kill.

After a glorious bush breakfast (Kenyans seem to like setting up tables of fabulous feasts to surprise their visitors in the most unexpected places), we drove further towards the Ugandan border to Lake Nakuru. A game drive is like fishing, our guide told us. You never know what you’re going to catch. People talk about the Big Five: the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. It’s a hangover from when hunters tracked them on foot to shoot, stuff and mount. Hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, and these days we hunt with cameras, although it’s good to remember to put ours down occasionally to feast our eyes.

Lake Nakuru is famous for its pink flamingos, although the water levels have been rising recently, and the flamingos are fewer. We see Cape buffalo, whose curly horns make them look oddly like Rhine maidens. According to our guide, they’d easily pass for the most dangerous animal in Africa. “They get so grumpy,” he says, “they’d chase a butterfly.” As the day wears on we begin to experience that vague torpor of animal-spotters; tired people on a hot day for whom even zebra and adorable warthogs are no longer enough. But we’re suddenly saved by the yawning appearance of a hippo, and the discovery that the Blue-balled monkey really is.

You can’t do walking safaris or night drives in the Maasai Mara, where the Maasai tribe still hang on to their culture and customs, but the land and the animals are truly incredible. We arrive on a 12-seater aircraft on a small mud airstrip and immediately see a pride of lions, basking in the long grass. It’s Green Season, and you can see the intense darkness of isolated rainstorms sweeping across the horizon.

On our way to Mara Engai, our lodge on the Siria Escarpment, we stop for a genuine zebra crossing. It takes the herd a good 10 minutes to amble over the road.

We stop again and listen out for the primal sound of hyena crunching bones. “You know you’re a cool animal when you eat skulls,” Laura says.

I discover I’m very bad at animal spotting, but it was impossible to miss the leopard that appeared, and sauntered alongside us for a while. Had he any idea how incredibly rare and cool he was? When you’re top of the food chain, maybe that stuff doesn’t matter.

Kenyans are good-natured and unhurried, although at Mara Engai, they raced us further up the hill to catch the sunset, where an impromptu cocktail bar had been set up. The “tents” at Mara Engai are palatial, with tree-house-style verandas opening to gorgeous views. I arrived back to mine to find an alligator on my bed, in the best example of that unsung craft, towel origami, I’ve seen for a long time. There were also hot water bottles, and a Maasai legend about hippos written out on a page on my pillow.

Over at the coast, the Saruni Ocean at Msambweni is the perfect spot to wind down. A new collection of 14 luxury villas cluster round a delicious pool, right on an isolated sandy beach. You’re in a world of your own – but one with fabulous food, a spa and water sports should you feel a little energetic.

I opted for watching the others try their hands at kite surfing, occasionally dipping into the pool when it all got too hot. It’s a lovely spot, and they’ve got everything right.

Driving back to Diani airstrip two days later, I was struck again by the contrasts of Kenya: mud, tin and thatch huts set against the luxury of the tourist accommodation; the vast open spaces of the plains and the bright chaos of Nairobi; the wildness and the sophistication.

You’d be doing both yourself and this wonderful country a disservice by not visiting, at least once in your life. But be careful, Africa, as they say, gets into your blood.

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