Where Elephants Come For Free

‘That’s a good start,’ said our son, Jan.

Which was fine – because it was Jan who had instigated the trip. He had reminded us that we hadn’t done a proper Safari for quite some time. We had been either too busy or too lazy. So, with an assignment in Bangladesh conveniently postponed for a couple of weeks, we took off from Nairobi for the full Easter weekend. Took off right down the Mombasa Road to the Ngutuni Lodge, eleven kilometres past the Voi petrol stations.

And the good start? Well that was few minutes after we had turned off the main road, through the lodge gate and just over the railway line. There was a large bull elephant just a few metres from the track. We stopped to watch him, until he raised his head, flapped his ears and moved what we judged to be somewhat menacingly towards us.

As we drove on the five winding kilometres towards the lodge, through dense thorn-bush and round jagged outcrops of rock, we passed two small herds of elephants in the skimpy shade of the acacias. There were buffaloes, giraffes, impalas, dikdiks – and so many birds.

The lodge is at the eastern edge of the private game sanctuary – 30 square kilometres of true wilderness, tucked between the road and Tsavo East, backed to the south-west by the Sagala mountains and opening out to the seemingly endless plain that stretches north-east beyond the Galana River and to that red desert world of Kenya that is so different from the green highlands we had left behind only five hours before at breakfast time.

Ngutuni is an unpretentious place – simply a lodge in the bush. It overlooks a water-hole that, except in the rainy season, has a good record for attracting animals; since it opened nine years ago, all the ‘big five’ have paid visits.

The rooms are spacious and pleasant enough, with efficient bathrooms. All of them have balconies looking out to the water hole and beyond to what the old ‘Africa hands; used to call MMBA – miles and miles of bloody Africa. And this stretch of MMBA is still very well stocked with game.

The lodge design is sensible and uncluttered: with an airy central lounge, dining and bar area; with polished wood and tiled floors, and a high thatched roof. There’s no ‘Jambo Bwana’ stuff about this place; the staff are friendly without being pushy. The food is well varied and very good.

‘Ngutuni’, so Christopher Wasike the lodge manager told us, is the Kamba name for Grant’s gazelle – there are certainly plenty of them in the sanctuary. The elephants are more obvious, of course, as are the buffaloes and giraffes. But in the three days we spent there, we spotted a number of other less conspicuous creatures: a hyena, a genet cat, a foursome of silver-backed jackals out hunting, and a family of our namesakes – the bat-eared foxes.

The birdlife is quite prolific. All along the tracks, the colourful rollers eyed us from the tops of bushes. We saw a secretary bird snatch a snake and dance away with wings outstretched in imitation of Arsenal’s Adebayor celebrating a goal. There were harriers skirting the ground and buzzards riding the thermals. A tree-full of weavers provided non-stop entertainment just a few metres from our balcony seats. And a slate-coloured boubou serenaded us every early morning.

But the most dramatic performance was on the first evening. The storm clouds had been gathering all afternoon. Just after dark they clashed right above us. As Okot p’Bitek used to say, it rained buffaloes and elephants. The thunder rumbled on for more than two hours and the lightning lit up the sky every few minutes – and showed that all around us there was a flood. Soon the happy frogs struck up a chorus that lasted uninterrupted through the night and well into the next day.

So, Ngutuni is a good place. For us Nairobians it makes a very convenient and entertaining stopover on a drive to or from Mombasa. Even for a weekend. If you are not one of those lucky embassy or UN families whose work finishes at lunchtime on a Friday, you can still make the lodge by Saturday lunchtime after a reasonably early breakfast.

At Ksh.3,675 per person full board (from April to the end of June) Ngutuni is good value, too. At that price, and with its own game to view free in the sanctuary, it must be challenging the much more pricey lodges inside the parks.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation