My First Safari – September 1994

August 30, 2014

Next month marks the “20th anniversary” of my first safari in Africa.  I spent 17 glorious days in Kenya and will never forget how much fun I had!  Like the time we were on a game drive in Samburu and found ourselves surrounded by a troop of baboons.  I was sitting in the back of our land rover with another group member. Our driver stopped briefly so we could take pictures.  Suddenly, a large male baboon jumped up on the back of our vehicle ready to jump in!  He leaned over and glared at us and was obviously angry!  All I saw was a mouth full of teeth!!  It was our driver’s quick thinking that prevented us from getting bitten.  He put his foot on the gas and the baboon fell off!  I remember thinking how exciting it all was.  I learned later that baboons never forget.  I was told by one of the balloon pilots at Little Governor’s Camp that one of his friends, another balloon pilot at camp, had recently been bitten by a feisty baboon.  Evidently the pilot had teased this baboon one too many times.

Our guide was Robert Cooper.  At the time, he was one of the best safari/naturalist guides around.  He knew his stuff and taught us well.  He certainly left a strong impression on me.  We learned a lot about Kenya, before and during our safari, but what I remember the most was – in Robert’s words – “sit still, be quiet, and observe.” When an animal was spotted on a game drive most safari vehicles would drive up; click, click, click went their cameras; and off they went!   Everyone wanted to find the “Big Five” – quickly and on the first day!!  Robert’s strategy was to stay put and take the time to really observe the wildlife.  This was especially fun to do with elephants for they were always entertaining!  Robert also made sure the animals we observed had plenty of space.  We stayed out of their way.  Believe me, over the years I have witnessed some pretty despicable things that guides have done to get an animal’s attention.  One guide in particular, who still is, unfortunately, guiding today, was actually seen throwing things at the animals so they would turn around and look at him.  All because he wanted more photos for the latest book he was writing.  Robert was the opposite.  He cared tremendously about wildlife, and his clients!  Even though he was a professional photographer, he waited until everyone had finished taking their own photos before he took his.  He loved and respected all aspects of nature, particularly wildlife, and taught us to do the same. We learned “correct” safari etiquette from him.  We were the visitors!  While it was okay to sit still and observe, we never interfered.  Let the wildlife do what they did naturally without us getting in the way.

This safari wasn’t cheap!  It was definitely high end!  And so worth every penny! I didn’t know much about safaris back then and certainly hadn’t done my research.  But what I did know was that Robert had an excellent reputation as a guide, naturalist, and photographer and the safari camps on our itinerary were among the best in Kenya!  In fact, Little Governor’s Camp, the second camp we stayed at on this safari, is still considered one of the best in the Masai Mara Game Reserve!  I have been back to Little Governor’s numerous times over the years and love it just as much today as I did back then!  One of my favorite guide books in 1994 was “Fielding’s Kenya – Kenya’s Best Hotels, Safaris, Lodges and Homestays.”  I love their description of “Little Governor’s Camp.”

This is our favorite place in the Mara – getting there is half the fun.  First, you cross the Mara River in a little boat pulled along a fixed rope by the boatman.  Then you climb steep steps cut into the bank and walk down a shady forest path.  Suddenly you step out into an open glade; Seventeen tents curve around the edge of a marsh, looking toward the plains and high escarpment of the Mara.  In a word, spectacular!”

Nothing much has changed today, except the tents are newer.  Everything else is pretty much the same which is why I love this place so much.  Little Governors Camp is completely unfenced so you never know what will come strolling into camp.

We also stayed at Larsen’s Camp in Samburu, northern Kenya.  Samburu National Reserve is located on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River.  On the other side of the river is the Buffalo Springs National Reserve.  “Fielding’s Kenya” had this to say about this very special camp.

Larsen’s is a small, luxurious, tented camp set in the lush lawns at the edge of the Ewaso Nyiro River in Samburu.  Everything is canvas: tents, reception, bar, dining room.  However, the grounds give a sense of permanence and order: clipped and watered lawns stretch between the tents and down to the river; well-kept paths meander among the tall trees; and spacious tents sit on raised wooden decks…This is camping in high style, a casual colonial elegance.  Toweling gowns are in your tent, the safari chairs have maroon leather seats, and complimentary sherry is served from a decanter at dinner.  Brass mugs gleam above the bar and old safari trunks and a pith helmet add authenticity, and there are stacks of games and wildlife books.  At night you can sit around the campfire listening to the sounds of the night bush, gazing at the Milky Way.  In the heat of the day you can relax on your private deck looking towards the river – monkeys play in the trees around you, and you might see animals drinking along the river… Dinner is served by candlelight.  Tables are set with silver and china.

The candles flicker, casting shadows on the green canvas of the mess tent.  There are only seven tables and the feeling is intimate.  I love the contrasts:  open sided mess tent and worn safari khaki next to the charming elegance of candles, crystal, and unobtrusive service.  Feels as though I’ve stepped back into an earlier and more gracious time.”   

I have been back to Larsen’s Camp several times over the years and it is still wonderful.  The camp was flooded a couple of times so the location is different, but the tents still overlook the river.  There is a pool too.  Everything else, however, is the same – gorgeous canvas tents, an open mess tent and bar, and monkeys in the trees.  During my first stay there, with Robert and our group, I met a wonderful couple from San Diego, California – Jake and Suzanne.  We got to know each well.  Sadly, Jake passed away two years ago.  Suzanne is traveling back to Africa with me and my group this coming January.  She told me recently that the memories she has of Africa have been with her always and she can’t wait to get back!

I wondered if my trips back to Africa would be less than what I experienced the first time.    The memories of this safari were so sweet!  But over the years I have discovered that each safari is special in its own way.  You just never know what you are going to see.  Recently I saw a “you tube” video taken by tourists of lions attacking a crocodile in the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya. I have never see this happen in the wild and wish I could have witnessed this rare event in person.  Another video showed a baby elephant charging a vehicle with his ears flapping and his two front legs up in the air.  He was an absolute cutie!  He didn’t even know how to use his trunk yet but he was going to show everyone what a big boy he already was!  Fortunately, over the years, many baby elephants have attempted to charge our vehicle, in their own cute way, which is always a delight to see!  The point is, you just never know what to expect and the memories last forever!  During my stay at Little Governor’s Camp last year four elephants that had wandered into camp earlier in the evening ended up having their midnight snack right outside my tent.  They even pulled up a small tree.  I listened to them eat until 3:00 am in the morning.  What a treat this was!  These are the unexpected surprises that happen when you go on safari.  I am looking forward to “20” more years of safari adventures!  And…last, but not least, thank you, Robert Cooper, wherever you are!  You were the absolute best!!

~ Denise Bonnell