Into Africa: The Trip of a Lifetime


A childhood dream to visit Kenya turns into heightened reality and the trip of a lifetime.


I’m in a green Toyota Land Cruiser along with four other journalists, being tossed and bounced along in the hard rhythm of the dirt roads, what our Kikuyu guide, Peter Kamau, laughingly refers to as an “African massage.”

It is our final safari day in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park and we’ve just left the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary “empty-handed,” not having seen one of its critically endangered black rhinos. The sanctuary is surrounded by miles of perimeter fencing, and armed guards patrol from the ground and perch in outposts high in the mountain range to stop poachers. The animals are as coveted by a thriving black market in rhino horn as they are by photo hounds. In fact, the rhino population’s decline is nearly 100 per cent due to poaching, not habitat loss or human-wildlife conflict.

But even without seeing a rhino, we are a buoyant group as we return to camp. Dusk in Kenya billows down from the sky like a cloak of magical dust. Earth, mountains and flora are bathed in a glow that saturates every vantage point with almost otherworldly colour. This is enchantment.

Our Land Cruiser rounds a bend, and we are suddenly thrust into the path of a lone bull elephant. Peter hits the brakes. The elephant is massive, at least three times the size of the truck, and he doesn’t seem too impressed with us, especially considering we have disturbed his roadside snack of lush grasses. The road is as narrow as it is rough. To our left, a steep vertical incline; to our right, a death drop off a cliff – in other words, not much passing room. For the first time in a week of traversing the various parks – Masai Mara, Amboseli and Tsavo – Peter seems tense. He doesn’t chat; he just watches. The elephant also watches. His giant ears begin to flap in what can only be described as a menacing beat.

All of us are quiet now, fully aware that we’re face to face with an awe-inspiring creature that could also crush us to death. It was up to him.

Peter slowly reverses the truck and cuts the engine. “There are two signs an elephant is going to charge,” he says soothingly. “Flapping ears is one.”  I look up. Check.

“The second is the trumpet call.” Thankfully, our bull is the strong, silent type. So far.

Few things in life live up to the fantasy – movie stars are shorter than they appear onscreen, you don’t actually have more fun as a blond, that sort of thing. But Kenya exceeds expectations. I was an animal-crazy little girl with a particular passion for elephants. Raised on wildlife documentaries, I rated Africa as the Number 1 place to go on my bucket list. But not just any country would do. It was always Kenya. To me, Africa was Kenya.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Born Free, Out of Africa and the books of Kenya’s own female aviator Beryl Markham were all reasons for my obsession. But as I grew older, another reason drove my desire to visit this East African nation – its hardline approach to elephant conservation. In 1989, Kenya led the charge to ban the ivory trade after watching its elephant population plummet from 1.4 million to approximately 750,000 in a decade. To show the world it meant business, Kenya’s director of wildlife, Dr. Richard Leakey (son of famed anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey), lit a bonfire that sent millions of dollars of confiscated poached ivory up in smoke. I was so moved by the global fight being waged to save the endangered mammal that I bought every book I could find on the subject. One stood out: To Save an Elephant. It read like an Indiana Jones adventure and was co-written by Canadian environmentalist Allan Thornton. His group, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), was heavily involved in gathering evidence that helped lead to the ban via an undercover sting that spanned three continents. EIA had an office in Washington, D.C. So in 1993, I drove from my home in Ontario to D.C. and volunteered for several months to help save the elephants.

The battle to maintain the ban on ivory was and is still being fought. Indeed, more than 20 years since the ban, Kenya is still leading the fight as other African nations seek exemptions. These pro-ivory trade countries claim the ban created a surplus of elephants and have taken to culling entire herds. They want to sell the tusks – there is insatiable demand from Asia for trinkets made from ivory. The tough part is that no one can differentiate between poached ivory and “stockpiled” ivory. So releasing 100 tons of it onto the marketplace – as Tanzania and Zambia proposed in 2010 – would make it easier for poachers to launder tusks. In fact, scientists are claiming that more than 100 elephants die every day to fuel the ivory trade. If this rate is left unabated, African elephants could be extinct across most of their territory by 2024.

After leaving EIA, I’d still yet to see one in the wild. And, for me, there was only one place on earth where I wanted to be when I saw my first – Kenya. Now I had my chance to visit the country and travel to some of the different game reserves’ luxury properties. While I love elephants, I also love comfort (I’m in my 40s, after all), so the thought of retiring each night to a tent with a bed, slate floors and running water was irresistible.

We landed in Nairobi late at night and stayed at the historic Norfolk Hotel (now a Fairmont property), where photographs of 20th-century colonial Kenya and its most famous inhabitants, Isak Dinesen (a.k.a. Baroness Karen von Blixen, who penned Out of Africa and was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 1985 film) and her lover, the doomed aviator Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford), graced the walls. The sepia pictures set the scene all right, and I was ready to unearth my own personal experience and find a connection with the country I’d dreamed about for my whole life.

The journey began the next morning on a bush plane. I’m no fan of heights, so getting onto the tiny plane was unnerving. Remember Finch Hatton? But something happened once I was up in the clouds: the view below opened up and the green vistas dotted with exotic animals made my fear subside – or at least it was suppressed.

We landed on a dirt strip in the Masai Mara National Reserve – known locally as “the Mara” – in the southwestern part of Kenya. The Mara is the continuation of the Serengeti Plain from neighbouring Tanzania. Masai warriors greeted us and demonstrated their native dance as our guides loaded the trucks with our luggage. Then, we were off on our first game drive.

There is a reason the local government came up with the tourism slogan Magical Kenya. Every direction was teeming with wildlife. Zebras. Gazelles. Baboons. Giraffes. Buffalo. Cheetahs. Leopards. Hippos. Ostriches. And, at long last, elephants. A family of six grazed peacefully. A baby stuck close to its mother, and the herd slowly marched. I was transfixed. After decades of longing for this moment, seeing elephants in the wild was a visceral emotional experience that went beyond nature documentaries and movies. Some moments in life aren’t easily captured by camera or pen, and this was one of them. I could die happy now.

That night, we attended a bush meal where cooks and waiters in dinner jackets brought an element of glamour to the close of the day and an armed guard patrolled the camp. In the darkness, I heard the sound of moving water. It was the River Mara, beneath the cliff where our table stood. Then came a distinct call that cut through the night and rippled down our spines: a herd of hippos, one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, was down below in the river. According to Peter, you should never get between a hippo and water. Given that they were fully immersed, we were fine. Then a funny thing happened on the way back to camp. Funny in the way Jurassic Park is funny. Our Land Cruiser broke down in the middle of the bush. And let me say there is no darkness like the heart of the Kenyan bush. Peter radioed for a truck to rescue us. We sat there calmly, tired but happy from our first big day. When the truck arrived, I began to open the door to step down, but Peter quickly shut it. “Get out on the right side only,” he instructed. Nervously, I obeyed. As we arrived at our camp, The

Fairmont Mara, I  asked him why. “There was fresh elephant dung on the left, and I didn’t know where the animal might be. So, to be safe, I wanted all of you to stay between the trucks.”

At 4 a.m., we are back on the road, driving nearly two hours to another camp where we will board a hot air balloon at sunrise. The trip is particularly rough due to the black night that prevents our driver from anticipating the next bump, ditch or pothole. What we couldn’t anticipate was pulling up to a pride of lions devouring a freshly killed zebra. The animals scatter but not before we meet the gazes of dozens of eyes glowing an eerie red from the trucks headlights. Magnificent.

By first light, we are airborne and despite my unease with the height factor, I move to the front of the basket. And that’s when I see it – or rather, I see them. A giant moving swarm galloping across the grassland in unison, like a flock of birds. Wildebeest. Our guide estimates there are probably close to a million of them. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a million of anything before. We lucked out, and our flight coincided with the annual migration of wildebeest from the Serengeti to the Mara for fresh grazing. It is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and I see why. As the balloon lowers, we periodically get close enough to see the distinctive black stripes on their shoulders, beards and horns that make them resemble some sort of mythical creature. The gleam on their coats renders them almost silver. One of the journalists calls them ugly. To me, they are exquisite – perhaps the closest thing nature has to a unicorn.

When, at last, we land and are driven in a truck to the River Mara, we witness the crossing, where thousands perish each year due to flooding and predators. In our case, it is in the jaws of an enormous crocodile that we see a wildebeest killed in a snap and hauled underwater in a death grip only to emerge moments later on the riverbank to be devoured.

That’s when it hit us. As we sit safely inside our truck – the ground thundering from the wildebeests passing us, the zebras drifting by along with gazelles and dozens of other creatures – we realize just how insignificant we are on the plains of Africa. One wrong move and you’re dinner. It is humbling and exhilarating.

There is also the romance of Kenya. Be it a champagne breakfast in the Mara; a sunset glass of wine atop a mountain in Amboseli National Park, where Mount Kilimanjaro overlooks the swamps and flatlands; or the beautiful tents at the camps we stayed in, including Finch Hatton’s, named after the aviator and built near the place his plane went down, there is much glamour to be found. No wonder we were so happy that final afternoon in Tsavo National Park.

That morning, we had chanced upon two male lions looking for female company. Tsavo is famous for its man-eating lions as seen in the film The Ghost and the Darkness, and these two were fighting fit, with muscles and sinew enough to bring down any sized prey. Then had come the failed excursion to the rhino sanctuary – though we did spot a baby giraffe and its mother. And, finally, that lone bull elephant.

He continues to eat grasses as we continue to stare. We are equal parts afraid and thrilled. Africa is supposed to be dangerous. That is why we’re here. This lone bull is why I’m here. Peter turns the engine back on and revs it.

“Everybody crouch down,” he instructs us. “We are going to race by him.”

“Why are you revving the engine?” someone asks.

“I want to warn him.”

I don’t want to duck, I want to see the elephant up close. So I stick my camera on video mode and crouch low but not below the sight line. Peter continues to gun the engine. The bull elephant is watching us silently, still eating. I think he is playing with us.

Peter hits the accelerator, and we are off. I hear low whispers from some of the others, and I lift my camera up as we fly past him. He spins on his haunches but doesn’t charge. Everyone cheers. We feel we have survived something together. Were we really in danger? I don’t know for sure. But the moment makes us all feel very alive. And I am grateful for the intense, even intimate, moment with the elephant after all my years of yearning. We continue through dusk to our camp, a fine mist begins and I stand up in the truck and hold my chin up to catch the breeze and feel the rainfall.

This is happiness. This is Kenya.