20 February

Samburu game reserve is way north of Nairobi, past the police checkpoint at Isiolo when you pass into semi-desert. A little further on, and vehicles travel only in convoy. But we turn off the stony, dirt main road and bump along a narrower, rutted track to the entrance of the reserve. Soon after we enter the park, we see herds of game: gazelles, impala, zebra and a distant giraffe. The tiny dykdyks stand frozen as we pass, their ears twitching.

It is a cliché to say that this is harsh, unforgiving country. Everything under the glaring sun is yellow and brown. The trees seem to have risen in agony from the earth, thrusting upward twisted, tormented branches. Colonies of weaverbirds have built nests that hang from the branches of certain trees like bizarre Christmas decorations.

We take our first game drive in late afternoon, after the heat of the day. We circle out through the dust, scrub and the thorn trees. A distance away we see a ribbon of green, marking the path of the river, and our driver heads that way. The water is very low now, showing stretches of sand. That is where the crocodiles are, burrowed into the damp darkness, hibernating until it rains and the river is swollen again.

We circle amongst the bushes, slowly, quietly. There are plenty of places here for animals to hide. We edge around a large bush, and there are eight lionesses. All sound asleep in the shade. Their whiskers twitch and a tail flickers. One opens an eye and checks us out. Just some more of those weird creatures with wheels! She rolls onto her back, four paws in the air and yawns.

We leave and head to another clump of bushes. The monkeys begin to chatter. Our driver says that is a sign of a big cat around, so we edge towards the tall trees, the source of the noise. We’re hoping to see a leopard, which is rare.

As we move a little farther away, we come upon two cheetahs under a shade tree. They travel in single sex pairs. We hear that the lion and the leopard will stay with a kill until it is finished, but the cheetah will eat its fill and leave the rest for the hyenas and jackals. They are a little more alert than the lions, but only just. We watch them for a while as the sun drops. No leopard today, and no elephants. The reserve is known for its large herds of elephants, but where are they?

The next morning, tea is brought to our tent before first light. The air is cold and we can just distinguish monkeys in the trees around, busy foraging before the sun is up. We’ve been warned to tie the fastenings of our tent securely or the monkeys will be inside, rummaging through everything, trying on our clothes and using our creams.

As we leave the lodge, the sun is beginning to tinge everything with gold. The birds welcome the dawn, flitting in the bushes: iridescent blue and orange, black and white. A group of monkeys sits peacefully under the trees while others search in the branches of the tall thorn trees. A hawk sits on a bare branch, immobile, almost impossible to see against the brown bark.

It’s too early for elephants. They like to wake up slowly and then make a stately procession down to the water from the slightly higher ground where they spend the night. Other vehicles are out by now and the drivers exchange words in quiet voices. Each one shares what they’ve seen and heard. We go back to look for the leopard, with no luck. The sun is up now and the colours have returned. We cross the river and meet two jackals trotting across our path. They continue without a glance at us, ears alert, noses close to the ground, long bushy tails streaming out. A couple of drivers say there’s a leopard around, but no one has seen it yet.

We find fresh elephant tracks and droppings, so we know they are around. A film crew is tucked into some bushes with camera ready, waiting for the leopard. We move away to another area and scan the branches. And there he is, stretched out on a branch, dozing. A magnificent creature, he sits up for us, showing his beautiful coat and wonderful muscles. He yawns, stretches and lies down again facing the other way with both back legs dangling either side of the branch, supremely disdainful of all the eyes on him.

Later we move away and circle further from the lodge, following the elephant droppings. At last we meet them, a herd of thirteen solemnly making their way in single file down towards the river. They keep the tiny ones safely inside the procession. They are all the same colour as the yellow-brown earth from their latest mud bath. They know we’re there, but they flap an ear and continue sedately on. We have found our elephants and can turn back for breakfast.

Later that day we go out again and climb into the hills. A few of the cruel-looking thorn bushes bear a brilliant yellow flower, surprising in the monochrome of the surroundings. As we go higher, we look over the vast panorama of scrub towards the snowy peak of Mount Kenya, our destination the next day. Gazelles, impala, giraffe are still abundant and we’re privileged to see a rare kudu. And yes, we find another herd of elephants.

On our way back we come upon the same group of lionesses, now close to the water. Two of the cubs are playing on the sand banks, splashing in the shallows. The others watch and doze. There are vehicles the other side of the river and we see one has slid down the bank and is stuck. The driver gets out. Immediately the whole group of lions twitch their ears, open their eyes and sit up. Two take off and we hope they’re not looking for a way across. The remaining animals sit, staring intently at what is happening a short distance away. We know the male must be close by, because he travels with the group but stays hidden in the bushes. Is his harem thinking there’s an easy supper at hand?

As it grows darker, we have to leave. The next morning there is no news of a van driver eaten by lions, so we know he extricated himself and his passengers.

The news here has been full of the story of another lioness in Samburu. Just before we traveled there, we heard that a solitary lioness had adopted an oryx calf, just a few weeks old. The two stayed together and the lion protected the animal, which she would normally have hunted and killed. The newspapers carried pictures of the two walking together. Just a few days later, the lioness went off to hunt, and another lion killed the calf. Everyone said they weren’t surprised, and thought that was the end.

Just a few days ago, soon after we returned, the same lioness found another oryx calf and chased its mother away. She picked up the calf by the scruff of the neck like a kitten and took it everywhere with her. Unfortunately the calf began to starve, for it needed its mother, so the rangers took it away to feed it. The lioness is still following herds of oryx, never attacking, presumably looking for another "baby" to adopt. The experts are at a loss to explain it.

©2002 Patricia Crossley

3 March