It’s definitely something of a disconcerting feeling going to sleep in a canvass tent while listening to the deep-throated rumble of a pride of lions. Whilst I doubt they’ve ever been known for tearing a tent to shreds and pulling out the occupants for a midnight snack, it nevertheless leaves you under no illusions as to where you are, and what you’re doing; just as a siren or car alarm might in London… I know which I prefer.
We’d had a great day. No more than 5 minutes out of camp on the Lolldaigas we spotted a herd of elephants slowly munching there way through the bushes to our left. We stopped and watched them for a while before leaving them in peace and continuing on our way. Lolldaiga is the name given to the long ponytail, laced with beads, favoured by Masai warriors, and the range of hills that takes its names stretches in a long, tapering formation towards the semi-arid plateau that makes up Laikipia.
An hour or so into the ride we left the horses in a small cover and climbed a ridge a hundred metres above the plain to an ancient rock shelter. Michael told us to make as much noise as we could on the way up as it was a spot now favoured by old male buffalos who, when startled, become extremely dangerous. (And sure enough when we reached the top, under the canopy of rock, we found fresh buffalo dung.) From here the view out over the plains was magnificent. The jury is out on just how old the rock art is, but what is agreed is that it was created by San bushman that roamed this region as much as a hundred thousand years ago. Standing in that spot, looking north towards the Matthews Range, Samburu, Turkana and ultimately Ethiopia, it’s very easy to imagine the life of our ancestors.
Around one in the afternoon we hold up from the heat under wide reaching branches of an acacia thorn tree, had our picnic lunch and a short siesta, before watering the horses at a small lake – disturbing a couple of water buck in the process – before riding on towards our new camp.
Although in the previous three days, both at Borana and riding on the Lolldaigas, we’d seen elephants, cheetah, giraffe, zebra and more gazelles, impala and hartebeest than you could shake a stick at, we hadn’t seen a huge amount of game that day. Coming in March, just before the long rains, with much of the region having not seen rain since the previous November, the land was dry and heat intense leaving much of the game hiding (sensibly) in shady thickets.
But soon after five, with the sun sliding towards the west and heat subsiding we had three big hits in rapid succession. First, while cantering beside some Oryx and giraffe, we crashed headlong into a dazzle of zebra. But these weren’t your normal common all garden Burchill zebra, these were the rare Grevy zebra. With narrower stripes and big round ears – that look like ping-pong bats – they are much more interesting than their more common cousins and bizarrely only appear in the northern hemisphere – meaning here on Laikipia and not in most of Kenya’s other national parks. Curios of us, they allowed us to get very close before we pushed on leaving them to their grazing.
Gemma was determined to see rhino and it was she that first spotted the next great sight, away to our right. With Michael leading the way, down wind, we circled round and leaving them at both a safe and respectable distance, observed a full family of three black rhino. With a combine tusk value of over a million dollars it’s not hard to see why the parks have of such a difficult time managing poaching of this magnificent, and endangered, animal.
And leaving the rhino behind we were immediately confronted by a huge herd of buffalo. Swooping round like a blitzkrieg tank division, the enormous horned animals formed a line in front of us as though they were preparing to charge. Of course they did no such thing. Like their cattle cousins, they simply sniffed the air, cautiously approached, before turning a fleeing en masse on some invisible command. Having crossed the Ewasu Nviru river we rode into camp just as the sun was setting. Everyone was buzzing.
And after a delicious dinner and evening by the campfire we retreated to our tents. It was only while doing my teeth, looking up and enjoying the canopy of stars, that I heard the lion. It wasn’t unsettling, or scary, it was simply a part of the sound of Africa and I slept like a log.