We turn our wheels west, from Kilifi towards Tsavo.
It’s hot, and there are five of us in the 4×4 … and about 250km to go.
The road is excellent, but we take the drive slow and steady. First we drive through the green slopes and palm trees that roll in from the coast, then we straighten out…on and on towards Kilimanjaro.
Lush greens flatten into sparser soils. There is not much traffic and no police blocks. We bowl onwards, a gleam of tourist wealth through a land of intrepid entrepreneurs and rural scarcity.
Gradually the tumble of life along the verges thins out, and the goats, crowds, fruit stalls, internet hubs, and occasional mosque drop away behind us.
Early evening, and a lot of Tarmac later, we reach the turn to the Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary. We bump on to the red-orange road, past the roundabout with the animal bones, to the thatched main gate.
There is a pause for payment, with time to get out of the car, to un-rumple, and it’s then, as soon as we open the car door, that the new world rushes at us fresh from the oven and layered with memories – with dust and birdcalls, with thorn tree shade, and with laughter, as welcomes exchange. This is the Africa I know.
From the entrance the road curls us up towards Lions Bluff Lodge at the top of a rocky outcrop.
We park in amongst the dust covered 4×4 and walk round to the reception. Smiles and drinks wait for us on the wooden verandah, which juts out like a nest in a tree above Tsavo. Below us open miles lead across to the hills, and the clouds that hide Kilimanjaro.
Scrubby trees dot into the distance, with the occasional bright red puff of dust as tourists search for game.
We stand, dosed by sunshine, and stare out across Africa – in time to soak up the last stretch of light…but not in time to secure the rooms we need. Somehow one of our three tents is taken, so genial adjustments are made and we divide up between two tents and a manager’s hut.
Supper is served beneath the stars, freshly cooked and candle lit, with every table taken.
The plan, as we head to our beds, is that our self-guided morning drive should set off at dawn…and it does.
Dew jewelled grass frames pale hills, and on the highest branches bright birds catch the early light.
Binoculars ready we steer happily in any direction we choose, alone for the most part although sharing dust clouds occasionally with passing tourist vehicles.
Our tally, by the time we return for a late breakfast, consists mainly of birds – starring bustards, hornbill and superb starling – with plenty of antelope.
Over omelette and coffee at our tented camp, Leopards Lair which is just below the main lodge, we discover that others have seen more game than us, their stand-outs including a pair of cheetah by the main gate.
Too hot to go out again we spend the few hours before lunch up at Lions Bluff Lodge, with other families who rest in the shade. There is talk of wildlife, of possibilities and problems, and there is the refreshment of cold drinks as the sun rises higher.
By lunch the air thickens…rain perhaps? But it never comes. Warm winds gust around us, hot with thunder and the smell of wet earth, but they only bring showers which fall like curtains across the plains, then rise again and vanish.
That afternoon we set off for the second and last of our drives. The air is fresh and the sun has come out again.
This time the hunt is for elephant. We criss-cross the plains, and by nightfall are close to the edge of a small stream, where we see baboon and buffalo in the tall grass.
We reach the shade of the river trees, alive with birds and baboons, but then have to back track to reach the other side of the stream.
We find a place to cross, and circle around carefully. It’s then that we see the elephant.
There are two of them – deep red and relaxed. We watch them as the sun sets, then drive slowly away, our headlights bumping over the route back to camp.
As we unload we meet others who have just returned, and they have tales of a leopard seen not far from our tents. Listening in the dark, its the hairs on the back of my neck that make sense of the management’s insistence that we should only walk the short distance to the main lodge with a guide.
That night is our first night under canvas. As lights flick out around us, and the chat from other tents subsides, we sink deeper into the dark. There are coughs – we imagine the leopard – and the distant whoop of laughter we know to be hyaena.
In the morning we’re up early, with a new destination to reach – Naivasha. Breakfast is ready for our early start, and the back of the car loaded down with pack lunches.
We say our goodbyes, and then, as the clouds peel off the mountains around us, head out into the morning to find the shortcut others have suggested. Anything to cut time off the eight hours travel that lie ahead.
Who knows how they will go?
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019