‘Boy’s own fun’: safari camp co-owner Ed Hough, rear left, explores the terrain in a Series I Land Rover from 1957
I have inadvertently discovered the secret to mindfulness. You will never feel more aware, more in the moment, more hot-bloodedly, heart-thumpingly alive than when bumping through the bush in an ancient Land Rover, or tracking a lioness on foot through the thick, thorny scrub.
It is likely that the aforementioned lioness is now watching me as I pad as quietly as I can, 10 paces behind an armed ranger, dry twigs snapping underfoot. Northern Kenya is seriously parched. Last year’s rainy season was just a season; no rain fell.
There is a keen desperation for moisture here. I can see it in the stretched-too-thin, wrinkled hides of the elephants. And I can hear it in the voice of Elijah, the Maasai guide.
He is one of 22 Kenyans working full-time for Ed and Moon Hough, a young British couple who own and manage the Safari Series – a new camp in the Laikipia region. They hold the only safari operating licence in the 80,000-acre Lolldaiga Conservancy and here, amid the ochre dust, an extraordinary array of animals and a breathtaking string of habitats, guests can leave their luxury tents, get behind the wheel of a vintage Series I, II or III Land Rover – and head for the hills.
“We have a lot of freedom in terms of what we can offer,” says Ed, as his 6ft 5in frame lopes up the escarpment ahead of us. “If you want night drives, no problem. Take a Land Rover out for a secluded picnic? We’ll pack your hamper and fill up the tank. How our dozen or so guests spend their time is up to them – they’re not on an itinerary of game drives with scores of other vehicles. We’re not offering super-fancy safaris like some neighbouring camps; it’s part of our mission that Kenyans can afford to come here, too.” To illustrate the point, Ed and I undertake a safari the old-fashioned way and see scarcely a soul, apart from the occasional cattle stockman. It is just us, the ranger and a Series I Land Rover from 1957 packed with enough provisions to see us through the next few days. There are just 400 of these old workhorses still left “in the wild” – and we have no timetable, no target of species to spot or distance to travel.
The view from the Series I Land Rover“
In the West, we are used to cramming things in, living by the clock, scurrying from one place to the next,” says Ed. “Here, we remind people that the only time that matters is right now.”
Right now, we are taking tea at one of 80 man-made dams in the conservancy. Only three have any standing water left, and each day these pools shrink and stagnate. “You should see what this place is like when the rains come,” Ed says wistfully. “Everything starts growing, almost before your eyes, into a vast sea of green. It’s paradise.”
Such a scene is hard to imagine. Most of this land is scorched and twisted – not least because, in 2019, the British Army (which purchases an annual licence to practice manoeuvres here) unwittingly started a bushfire. Quickly out of control and whipped into fury by a dry wind, the inferno raged across thousands of acres in five days, devouring everything in its path before being vanquished after a monumental, not to mention life-threatening, communal effort. The land it took now looks dead – but Ed assures me it is anything but.
He spots a family of elephants plodding down the hill towards us. They stop to raise periscopes and flap ears as they get wind of us, a baby shielded at the rear. Their need for water is overwhelming and they eventually plod on once more, lining up to slurp and sluice brackish green liquid into their mouths in gargantuan, bathtub-sized trunkfuls.
I am close enough to hear their stomachs rumble. The youngster dawdles between its mother’s legs; slipping, sprawling, inexpertly wielding its cumbersome coil of a trunk in and out of the water. In turn, she patiently prods and caresses the infant with her trunk, hers possessing the girth of an English oak and the precision of a fingertip.
Such experiences fill the next few golden days; the cough of a leopard in the dawn chill as light blooms across the summit of a snow-shrouded Mount Kenya; a heart-stopping close encounter with a huge male lion as he slinks around us, roaring, murderous eyes fixed on another male in his territory.
Our camp tonight is at the bottom of a dry riverbed, abundantly littered with fresh elephant dung and commandeered by a magnificent fig tree, alive with a babble of birdsong.
I confess I have developed a fetish for picking up and smelling the great cannonballs of digested vegetation that elephants leave behind. Once quickly dried by the sun, they give off a faint, hay-like sweetness mixed with an exhilarating, exotic scent of unadulterated wildness. If they bottled and sold Eau de Elephant, I’d be first in line at the perfume counter.
Before making camp, we head out on foot in the afternoon to scout around. Game drives are great, of course, allowing you to cover large areas and stand a better chance of finding game – and have some boy’s own fun in the Land Rover. But nothing quite sings Africa more than your feet in the red dust.
Spot zebras on a safari on foot
The ranger goes first – raising a hand for us to freeze when game is nearby. Ed and I take our G&T sundowners to the top of a warm kopje, or rocky outcrop. The temperature falls as quickly as the equatorial sun as we scramble back down the slope to the echoes of stirring night. At camp, we collect firewood and soon a roaring blaze throws sparks into the blackness. I learn that dry elephant dung makes an excellent firestarter.
Sleeping under the stars each night is the thrill of a lifetime. With a nightwatchman on hand to feed the fire and keep an eye out for over-curious gatecrashers, I nestle under heaped blankets with a hot water bottle and listen to the crack and spit of the fire and the whoop and giggle of a hyena in the distance. I grin when the trumpet blast of an elephant breaks the stillness – this is sheer, life-affirming exhilaration. After staring at the huge canvas of mithril-shaded stars overhead for minutes, I fall asleep to an orchestra of cicadas.
In the morning, I remain intact and have time before breaking camp to relish the nip of cold air on my nose while the rest of me is warm in bed. My top blanket is wet with dew, and I feel like a man reborn. A night of breathing deep, cool lungfuls of some of the cleanest air on the planet is revitalising.
Our Landy is pressed into action once more to climb a steep escarpment, reaching the top as the first rays of sun reveal a landscape featuring not a single man-made object. It is the same vista an ancestor might have looked upon a million years ago. Sipping strong coffee and wrapped in Maasai shawls, we watch ant-like elephants sway down to a thin sliver of water below; a giraffe stands like a pylon.
Neck and neck: giraffes were among the animals Nick encountered in Laikipia County CREDIT: Denis Mwangi
On we go. At a Maasai village, the drought seems even more pronounced than inside the conservancy. The earth is caked mud, dried concrete-hard. Haphazard homes made of cattle dung and corrugated iron are surrounded by straggling wire fences. A riot of colour welcomes our arrival, the girls and women of the village singing, swaying and dancing as they greet us. I must dance with them, seemingly to every ditty known in the Maasai songbook.
Eventually, they are satisfied with my performance, and we file back into the village. I am ushered into the small, dark, smoky hut of Meshami, the village chief. Chicks peck unconcernedly around my feet while his wife, Francesca, makes me a hot, very sweet cup of Kenyan chai. Meshami turns his watery eyes on me and, in English, begins to tell a long tale of how the life of the Maasai has shrunk. For generations, he says, these proud warriors wandered the plains with their precious cattle, living a nomadic life and following the grass.
Now they remain encamped here – and keep goats and chickens more often than cattle.
“It makes me sad,” he says in the half light, the missing thumb from his right hand a memento of a gun battle with a rival tribe in his heyday. Incongruously, a mobile phone sounds from a corner with the chimes of Big Ben.
“Life is very bad for us now. We get help from the government – but we’d rather look after ourselves. All we want is to be able to raise our cattle and our families, but just finding enough water is a big problem.”
Eventually, Ed, the Land Rover and I must return to the main tented camp; to flushing toilets, hot showers, three-course meals and solar lights. But the endless days and nights in the bush are what I will always remember. That, and the opportunity to relearn what mindfulness really means.
I hadn’t realised how deeply Covid had touched me until I came here and saw the world in Technicolor once again. Paradise is not yet lost. You just have to go looking for it. Essentials
British Airways (ba.com) flies daily to Nairobi from London Heathrow, with return fares from £651
The Safari Series (00 254 7383 40783; safari-series.com) has eight vintage Land Rovers for guests to drive, including a rare 107” Series I from the 1950s. There are five tents (including one for families), a mess tent for meals and social gatherings, a watering hole with a comfortable observation area, and a nightly campfire. Rates start at £303 per adult per night, plus conservation fees of £95 per night; children from £150 per night, plus conservation fees of £48 per night. The price includes accommodation, transfers, all meals, some drinks and some activities, including Land Rover game drives
All arrivals over 18 must show proof of full vaccination, and upload their certificate to the website globalhaven.org prior to travel. Those with an exemption (proof of recovery from Covid, or a medical reason) must show evidence of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before departure. Travellers aged 17 and under do not need to be vaccinated, but must provide a negative PCR test result; under-fours are exempt