PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAOLO R. REYES
The safari—the Swahili word for “long journey”—was born in Kenya, the
former British colony where barons and plutocrats, maharajas and royalty
once paraded across the plains to play out an expensive, outlawed fantasy.
One blistering summer in this land before time, Paolo R. Reyes was given
a rare opportunity to experience Africa in its age of innocence
“Kristine Hermosa. You know her? She very
beautiful.” The immigration officer at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport inquired—with a mischievous smile—about the
semi-retired Philippine actress as he stamped
my passport with a 90-day tourist visa.
I didn’t have time to tell him that I had interviewed Hermosa for the Inquirer in the
past, or that her once-stellar career had been
sidelined by marriage and motherhood. So I
flashed him a similar smile, cracked a corny
joke, and took my first step into Kenya: the
land of Out of Africa safaris, world-class Olympic athletes, Barack Obama’s forefathers, and,
as I soon discovered, defunct Filipino soap
After claiming my luggage at the carousel,
I was met at the arrivals hall by Rajab, a representative of my tour operator, Asia to Africa Safaris, who was to escort my party to the
nearby Wilson airstrip, where a tiny, twinprop De Havilland Otter bound for the wilds of
Meru awaited us.
Before I could even reciprocate Rajab’s
warm “jambo” (Swahili for “hello”), he began interrogating me on what I was begining
to realize was a local obsession: the dramatic
cliffhangers, twisted storylines, and tantalizing stars of Pangako Sa 'Yo, Sana’y Wala Nang
Wakas, and Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay.
These ABS-CBN telenovelas, all dubbed
or subtitled in the vernacular, have taken the
East African nation by storm in recent years,
thus giving these expired Pinoy soaps a second
life in the unlikeliest of places.
Perhaps not so unlikely, I thought, as the
air-conditioned van crawled its way to Wilson,
inch by inch, through the winding, honking
crush of traffic that Nairobi—the capital city of
third-world Kenya—has become notorious for.
The two airports are only 12 kilometers
apart, so what should have been a 20-minute drive took us nearly an hour. But it was a
good opportunity to get a glimpse of the capital’s working belly, far removed from the fancy suburb of Karen (named after Out of Africa author Karen Blixen), where the country’s
1-percent are ensconced post-colonial estates not far from the Danish writer’s former
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High up in the air, however, Kenya transforms into a different kind of creature—primal, prehistoric, and capable of inspiring wonder. As we hovered over game reserves where
the grass seemed to roll on forever, the jangled
din of the city dissolved into the gentle lull of
“They’ve pumped so much money
into this place, it’s incredible,” I overheard my
seatmate, the Vanity Fair and New York Times
photographer Guillaume Bonn, tell the plussized American woman behind him as the De
Havilland plane made its descent on the $1.25
million Meru National Park.
Bonn, a French photojournalist born in
Madagascar, has covered the dark continent
for over a decade, from the murder of conservationist Joan Root in Lake Naivasha to the
Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of fugitive warlord Joseph Kony in North Uganda. (His photographs of the latter ran alongside a controversial Vanity Fair piece, “Childhood’s End,”
written by the late Christopher Hitchens.)
Today, on commission for Condé Nast Traveler, he was en route to Lewa, the 60,000-acre
wildlife conservancy where Prince William famously proposed marriage to Kate Middleton
in a rustic log cabin overlooking Mount Kenya.
The whirr of the plane’s propellers prevented me from probing him further. But I gathered from the gruff, imposing tone of his voice
that this was no fluff piece on a five-star ecolodge or glamping site—which was where I,
like most of the khaki-clad holidaymakers on
board the flight, was headed.
Elsa’s Kopje, the first stop of my week-long
safari, is a cluster of open-faced casitas built
into the jagged folds of Meru’s Mughwango
Hill, a pyramid of granite marooned in a sea of
thorny thickets. It’s a luxury lodge with a killer
view and a storied past.
Fifty years ago, before the park was nearly destroyed by bandit gangs that swept down
A twin-prop Air Kenya plane in the airstrip of Meru
National Park. Opposite: The Boran-style tent suite of
glamping resort Joy's Camp; the treacherous gorge of the
Ewaso Nyiro River, once a hideout for Somali poachers.
from Somalia in search of ivory and rhino
horn, this was the lair of Elsa the Lioness. The
eccentric Adamsons, George and Joy, handraised the orphaned cub like their own child
and reluctantly released her into the wilderness—a heart-wrenching tale of two conservationists that was immortalized in the 1966
movie Born Free.
Looking out from the balcony of my cottage, dramatically perched on a drooping lip of
the kopje (small mountain), I understood how
John Barry had been inspired to compose the
epic film’s Oscar-winning score. Down below,
on a corn-colored earth specked green with
doum palms and baobab trees, Rothschild giraffes and Grevy’s zebras were cantering away
in the twilight, as a thirsty herd of elephants
dipped their trunks into the Rojewero river,
one of 13 tributaries that bisect the park like
Francis Epong, a native of the Turkana
tribe, served as our guide at Elsa’s Kopje. Tall,
weather-beaten, and hardened by the harsh
climate, he was a throwback to the days of the
white hunter and the memsahib (colonial women)—always ready to cater to our group’s varied whims, whether it was a champagne breakfast in the bush or a request to rifle through the
forest to search for the elusive leopard.
As with most safaris, our days at Elsa’s began before the crack of dawn, while the stars
were still visible and as the mists rolled back
slowly in the sunrise; a magical hour for bush
walks and game drives, when the landscape
and all its the living creatures seemed to be in
the process of being created.
The day ended, more often than not, with
Tall, weatherbeaten, and
hardened by the
they were a
the days of the
white hunter and
a sundowner at dusk, in an open-sided Land
Rover well-stocked with wine and liquor.
Upon returning to the lodge, the walinzi (night
watchmen) would lead us to the clubhouse at
the windy crag of Mughwango Hill, where a
multi-course Italian dinner would be served
under an intermittent shower of meteors.
Canopied under this cloudless sky the color of midnight, you will sometimes hear—if
you’re lucky—the guttural moan of a wandering lioness, as if the ghost of George and Joy
Adamson’s Elsa still haunted the savannah
into which she was released.
After two spine-crunching hours
on highways that have seen better days, and
a quick stopover at Isiolo, a sleepy backwater
town where the men chewed on miraa (a herbal
amphetamine), I finally arrived at the east gate
of Shaba, a 59,000-acre reserve where the reality show Surivor: Africa was shot 10 years ago.
As my driver left the Land Rover to pay the
entrance fee at the ranger’s station, I played a
game with a few persistent locals, mostly children, who were peddling all manner of trinkets, necklaces, and carved animal figurines
outside my window.
“I will buy something if you can guess which
country I’m from,” I declared, as the crowd,
their faces pressed against the glass, gathered around the jeep like a friendly mob. They
couldn’t, even with my clues. When I pacified
their growing frustration by shouting “Philippines!” they erupted in laughter, still puzzled
perhaps by the odd provenance of this passing
In Shaba, the equatorial sun doesn’t so
much shine as strike. But its Martian landscape, unchanged for thousands of years,
Top right: A Maasai woman outside her manyatta in the
Mara North Conservancy. Opposite, clockwise from top
left: A cheetah, fresh off a kill, in the Maasai Mara; a Meru
road sign; a Topi antelope in Shaba; an elephant grazing
the Mara plains; a picturesque watering hole in parched
Shaba; a male lion roars outside Elephant Pepper Camp.
makes up for the blistering heat. In this trek through the Ewaso Nyiro River’s unforparched corner of Kenya’s northern frontier, giving gorge: a daredevil’s playground of prednot far from Ethiopia, the Pleistocene Era en- ators, abandoned poachers’ caves, and poisonjoys a kind of eternal life: the volcanic moun- ous plants that can render a man blind.
tain ranges of Bodich and Ol Kanjo swoop up
Together with my guide, John Ebukutt,
theatrically from the savannah, where rust- and an armed game scout in military fatigue
colored boulders the size of buses
(“Whatever you do, don’t run,”
are scattered on the red earth like
he warned me), we trudged cauforgotten dinosaur eggs.
tiously through the steep ochre
For this second leg of the safari,
wall of the ravine, the river’s
F RO M BA N K E R S
I was lodged at Joy’s Camp, a lowchocolate-brown waters surgTO B U S H M E N
key “glamping” resort. In the late
ing 40 feet below us, until we
1970s, Joy Adamson called this
clawed our way down to a sanremote corner of the reserve her
dy beach, where we could make
home. It was then a ramshackle
out the spoor of freshwater Nile
of tables and chairs, paint brushes
crocodiles and the footprints of
and paper where she wrote her fibaboons.
nal book, The Queen of Shaba, and
At the flat crown of the canwas mysteriously murdered in the
yon, we came face-to-face with
summer of 1980. A concrete cairn,
the prehistoric panorama of
No one knows African
just behind the camp, marks the
Shaba: a sweeping, grandstand
safaris better than Filipino
spot where she was slain.
view of Creation, the kind one
investment bankers Jose
If you’re looking for isolation—
imagines God might have had
“Litlit” Cortes and Victor
a real selling point for seasoned
on the third day. Even in the
“Binky” Dizon, founders
safari-goers—Joy’s Camp is the
blinding haze of high noon, it
of Asia to Africa Safaris
place to find it. Managed by Wilwas possible to imagine what
(3/F, Lapanday Center,
lem Dolleman and Francien van
it must have looked like in the
2263 Pasong Tamo Ext.,
de Vijver, an eco-conscious Dutch
Makati; 812-2728; atoasafaris.
couple in their late twenties, the
com), the region’s first and
camp is made of up 10 tented
The story goes that
only safari specialists with
when John Galliano, the dissuites, all designed around an exheadquarters in Manila,
graced British fashion designer,
otic Moorish theme inspired by
Kong, and Singapore.
first set foot on Elephant Pepthe local Boran tribe.
Together with managing
per—a traditional campsite in
The main dining tent, a Medpartner Shy Perez-Sala,
the beating heart of the bush—
iterranean-style oasis with a
they’ve arranged thousands
his jaw dropped upon catching
springwater swimming pool,
of unforgettable, tailor-made
sight of his “suite.”
overlooks a veritable Garden of
trips for Filipinos since 2002.
Canopied under a grove of
Eden—a lush green plain with a
“Africa has always been an
pepper trees where vervet monlarge natural spring where lions,
elusive dream for Filipino
keys played and fought, and
reticulated giraffes, and elephants
travelers,” says Cortez,
garrisoned by a row of Maasai
vie for watering rights with buffaformerly of Barclays Capital
tribesmen clad in shuka blanlo, Beisa oryx, and zebras.
and JP Morgan Chase. “At
kets, was a bare-bones canvas
To truly appreciate the volAsia to Africa, we hand-hold
tent with a backyard unlike any
canic terrain of Shaba, you must
them through the process
other: the game-rich grasslands
confront nature on your own feet.
of planning this trip of
of the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s
Instead of a game drive on my fia lifetime.”
most famous wildlife reserve.
nal day, I opted for a treacherous
rogue.ph JUly 2012 127
In this parched
corner of Kenya’s
not far from
enjoys a kind
of eternal life.
PARKS AND RECREATION
A Joy's Camp jeep parked at a hilly summit of Shaba.
Opposite, clockwise from top left: Fruit bowl and glassbead curtain detail at Joy's Camp; an antique gramophone
at Elephant Pepper; Elsa's Kopje's infinity pool, suspension
bridge, four-poster bed, and private house; Joy's Camp
guide John serving cocktails; a bush breakfast at Meru.
The witnesses I spoke to couldn’t confirm whether Galliano raised his sculpted
eyebrows in delight or disbelief. But for most
first-time guests at Elephant Pepper Camp,
the third and final leg of my Kenyan safari, it’s
usually a mix of both.
With limited mobile phone access, no generators (twelve solar panels power the entire
site, when needed), no permanent structures
(mindful of their eco-footprint, everything is
completely mobile), and an unfenced location
inhabited by all creatures wild and free, Elephant Pepper Camp offers what most five-star
African lodges cannot: an opportunity to experience Kenya in its age of innocence.
The Mara, once the world’s most popular playground for hunters and poachers, was
where this European pastime of game-viewing began in the 19th century. In those days,
when well-heeled Westerners with a sense of
adventure went on “safari” (the Swahili word
K E N YA
for “journey”), it meant long, treacherous
nights on horse-drawn caravans with a huge
contingent of staff and crew ready to pitch a
tent and prepare a campfire come nightfall.
When I arrived during the waning days of
Kenya’s blistering summer, under billowing
clouds pregnant with rain, I realized just how
easy it was for writers like Hemingway or Huxley to wax romantic about those halcyon days
of the hunt.
Gone, of course, were the crackling sounds
of rifles being fired in the air and the constant
drumming of hoofbeats in the red dirt. As I sat
under a ceiling of stars, enjoying my cold glass
of Tusker beer over the campfire, there was
only the deafening silence of the night, interrupted only by a falcon’s contact call in the distance or the deep-throated roar of a lion.
The old-fashioned charm of this 20-yearold mobile camp is its accommodations.
Linked together by hurricane lamps and
marked footpaths in the forest, each of the
eight canvas tents consist of a queen-sized
bed, an en-suite bathroom (with a wash basin,
bucket shower, and eco-friendly flush toilet),
and a private veranda with a hammock perfect
for noontime naps between game drives.
Game drives are the highlight of any safari in the Mara, a savannah so flat, leveled, and
free of obstruction that it offers camera- and
binocular-friendly views of the big cats, wildebeests, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and spotted hyenas on parade.
I can still recall the inimitable thrill I felt
when I witnessed my first kill. On a clearing
close to the Leopard Gorge, my guide Stanley Kipkoske called my attention to a cheetah
rustling like a ravenous predator through the
grass, her gaze directed at a helpless prey: a
baby Thomson’s gazelle that had strayed away
from its pack.
A panicked barking, like alarm bells,
erupted from the herd, a futile attempt to
warn the wayward fawn of an impending attack. My telephoto lens closely followed the
action from stalk, to chase, to kill. In the blink
of an eye, it was all over. The predator, her
mouth firmly locked on the bleeding neck of
its prey, grew increasingly paranoid as a flock
of vultures began circling overhead in a ritualistic dance of death.
“The law of the jungle,” Stanley said as I sat
motionless at the edge of my seat.
In this wild, primitive corner of Africa, a
land before time where man stills seems beholden to the beasts of a bygone world, nature—and not much else—puts on the greatest
show on earth. •
Safari Camping In the Kenya Savannah
WHERE: Meru National Park
LODGING: 9 elegant, open-faced
WHERE: Shaba National Reserve
LODGING: 10 en-suite tents
WHERE: Maasai Mara
LODGING: 7 canvas tents with
FILMING LOCATION: The
FILMING LOCATION: Survivor:
FILMING LOCATION: The safari
AWARDS: Included in Condé
AWARDS:Travel Weekly’s “Best
cottages with killer views
1966 hit movie Born Free
AWARDS: “The World’s Coolest
Pool” by The Daily Telegraph
furnished in chic Borana style
Africa was shot in the reserve
Nast Traveller’s 2007 Hot List
traditional bucket showers
scenes of Out of Africa
Authentic Camping Experience”
WHEN TO GO: The best time to view Kenya’s wildlife is during the dry seasons from January to March and from June to
October. GETTING THERE: Asia to Africa Safaris (812-2728; atoasafaris.com) specializes in organizing tailor-made safaris to
Africa from the Philippines. WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Philippine passport holders can obtain a 90-day Kenya tourist visa
($50) upon arrival at Nairobi.
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