A Guidebook for the National Parks of East Africa

I like guidebooks. There are so many on the shelves in my study. I must have some kind of guide for every country I have been lucky enough to visit. Yes, I know I can get the information on my computer or my phone. But I like books – like the feel of them; like to have one by me in the car.

There is a new one out. It’s the Stuarts’ Field Guide to National Parks & Game Reserves of East Africa. No, the apostrophe isn’t in the wrong place. The guide is written by a husband and wife team, Chris and Mathilde Stuart, who have produced so many books on wildlife and conservation. And, lucky couple, they have visited over 50 countries together.

In this guide Chris and Mathilde describe 58 of the parks and reserves across the four countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. For each park they give background information on its geology and landscape, its climate, vegetation and wildlife. In addition, there are many colour photographs of the common – and not so common – animals and plant life you can see there. And there are park maps, indicating the places of particular interest and the places where you can find the key species.

In the introduction to the guide, the two authors tell us that they have two main aims: to outline the natural history of the best conservation areas that East Africa has to offer, and to assist visitors in identifying the more common mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, trees and plants in these areas. So, after the main guide to the parks, the book has a splendid photographic gallery for a, hopefully, quick identification of what you are looking at through your binoculars.

Some years ago, back in England and at a graduation party for one of my daughters, I realised that I was the only one sitting around a large table who was born before Kenya’s independence. So I launched into an impromptu, informal, and no doubt unscientific, survey about their knowledge of Kenya. Apart from my daughter, who was born here in Nairobi, none of the others knew whether Kenya was in the east or west of Africa, and only one could name the country’s first President.

But, when asked about the landscape of Kenya, all of the youngsters had – I guess from the many safari and wildlife documentaries popular at the time on TV – an image of rolling savanna grasslands, dotted with umbrella-shaped thorn trees. But this new guide reveals to anyone not familiar with East Africa, its amazingly varied landscapes: its mountains and lakes, its rain forests and deserts.

After reading the introductory section of the book, with its overview of East Africa’s main topographic regions, I decided to test out the park descriptions by looking at the first national park we had visited outside Kenya. It was back in the late 1960s – and the daughter I have just mentioned was travelling with us in a carry-cot on the back seat of the car. The park was the Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania, which is close to the town of Mto wa Mbu – the ‘Place of the Mosquito’ – and on the main route that links Arusha with the Serengeti.

I well remember the view from the escarpment lodge we stayed in – down to the woodlands of the park and across to the lake. The guide reminded me about the lions that lounge in the trees and the massive herds of buffalo down there. I wanted the name of the lodge, but I discovered that Chris and Mathilde’s book doesn’t deal with accommodation. That’s OK, isn’t it? In the main, the landscapes and the wildlife stay the same; the lodges and camps change. Best to use the computer and the phone to find out about those.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation