On Foot With Elephants in El Karama

The shrill cry of a buff-crested bustard jolts me out of a deep sleep. It rises to a crescendo, preventing me from drifting off again. My tent glows in the soft pre-dawn light, and beside me the Ewaso Nyiro River is swollen and fast-flowing. Barking baboons warn of a passing predator in the distance. It’s our first morning on the 14,000 acre El Karama Ranch, in the heart of Laikipia.

By the time I’ve downed a cup of coffee, an open-top vehicle from the neighbouring El Karama Lodge arrives. Our guide and driver, Andrew, is sat in the cab with John, a camo-clad ranger with a gun on his lap. We make our way out of the campsite along a track that skirts the river. A thin veil of mist cloaks a thicket of blue guarri shrubs on the opposite bank, and out of the gloom rise the twisted grey trunks of rough-leaved shepherd trees, with their Cossack hat canopies.

We’re quickly rewarded for our early start. As we approach a tower of giraffes on a ridge, the sun finally peaks over the Loldaigas to the east. The giraffes and the other plains game at their feet are now silhouetted against the deep orange sky, and the pale blue hues of rolling hills. The rising temperature burns off the morning mist, and our surroundings begin to resemble the arid landscape that I’m familiar with in this part of the country.

Creatures more at home up north start to emerge: vulterine guineafowl with their bald heads and pin-striped aprons, and gerenuks with their stretched necks and antennae ears. Large herds of eland thunder amongst the whistling thorns, and beisa oryx stare at us with their war-painted faces.

As we continue to explore the ranch, a lone male cheetah suddenly cuts across the track in front of us, stalking an inattentive impala. A few seconds later, the cheetah is spooked by something, springs in the air and bolts for the cover of a bush. He may have caught wind of us, putting him off his hunt, or stumbled across an unexpected creature in the grass. The impala, now aware of the cheetah’s presence, snorts in alarm, with an air of ridicule.

We leave the cheetah sulking in the shade, and head towards a nearby dam.

‘A big male lion was spotted here yesterday’, says Andrew, ‘we call him Half Tail.’

There he is, lying in the short grass on the dam wall. He glances up at us as we approach, but quickly loses interest and flops back down to resume his nap. Andrew tells us that the rest of his pride should be in the area, too, so we leave Half Tail in peace and follow tracks across the surrounding plains. Eventually, we spot multiple pairs of fluffy round ears beneath a tall shepherd tree. 11 cubs lie content in the golden light, waiting patiently for their mothers to return from their hunt.

Later on in the day we decide to explore the ranch on foot. Now we’re fully immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, without the disconnect of a vehicle. John leads us, single file and in silence, through the long grass. Hidden thorns graze my shins, and sharp burs pierce through the tongues of my trainers, but I’m focused on the wildlife around us.

A short distance away, superb starlings in a frenzy mob something in a whistling thorn tree. Closer inspection reveals a beautiful brown snake – a female boomslang – coiled around the trunk between a cluster of nests.

We reach the edge of a small valley near the Ewaso, and spy a herd of elephants on the slope below. Anticipating their movements, and staying downwind, we quietly descend into the valley, hop across a stream and clamber up a wide rocky outcrop on the opposite side, where we sit and wait.

The leading elephant wanders within metres of us, and splashes herself with the cool water from the stream. The matriarch follows with her young calf, but suddenly stops dead in her tracks. She’s picked up the scent of where we walked, and waves her trunk in our direction to investigate. The rest of the herd freezes, too, and they stand silently in conference. Having decided that the path they follow is unsafe, they slowly move away and disappear over the edge of the valley.

In the evening we sit round a campfire to watch the lunar eclipse. The moon glows as orange as the flames at our feet. An elephant suddenly trumpets in the direction of the dam. The herd may have stumbled across Half Tail, still guarding his territory from his perch on the wall.

Published in Air Kenya’s Ndege News magazine