A Night in the Forest

I’ve enjoyed plenty of gamedrives in Nairobi National Park over the years, but few as much as my drive in the park last Saturday evening.

An overnight shower had washed the air clean of dust, and the city lights shone bright against a lilac sky. We trundled along a rocky track near the park’s Middle Ridge, trailing a pair of sauntering lions. Every now and again, these two chummy males – the collared Mpakasi and silver-eyed Kitili – crouched down to drink from puddles, or flopped into the long grass for a rest. Whatever their mission, it wasn’t urgent, and neither was ours. We knew that we wouldn’t have to dash to the exit as usual by sunset, because we’d be spending the night at the Nairobi Tented Camp.

We sat by the lions until the daylight faded, before weaving our way back across the plains and into the patch of forest in the park’s north-western corner. There’s a signpost to the camp just beyond junction marker 25D, and from here it’s another 700 metres or so down into the Kisembe Valley.

It had been seven years since I last stayed at the camp, not too long after they had opened. It’s owned and managed by Gamewatchers Safaris, who run the Porini Camp collection in conservancies across the Mara, Amboseli, Ol Pejeta and Meru.

All of the camps in the Porini collection are deliberately simple, based on the principles of mobile camping safaris with solar power and no permanent structures.

The nine safari tents of the Nairobi Tented Camp are set in two loose rows on the gentle valley-side, within a dense grove of crotons, African olives and strangler figs. The tent that my wife and I stayed in was the only one elevated on wooden stilts, to prevent water damage and improve the views through the forest. The other tents will be upgraded, too, once normality resumes post-COVID.

At the base of the valley, on the bank of the seasonal Kisembe River, are the cosy lounge and dining tents. Here we were hosted by Camp Manager, Joseph, and his team, and treated to three delicious meals by Chef Shanzu. His stuffed butternut and rich celery and sweet potato soup warmed us up nicely in the evening, after a few fireside beers.

The following morning, after a dawn wake-up call of coffee and biscuits, we met the Camp Guide, Gordon, and clambered into his open-sided Land Cruiser. Our brief was clear, but ambitious – to scour the forest for a leopard. With Gordon’s experience, and the camp’s prime location in the heart of leopard territory, we fancied our chances.

Over the next two-and-a-half hours, we searched every inch of the forest circuit for a flash of rosettes or the flick of a tail. It wasn’t our day. But we still really enjoyed the drive. The park’s forest belt is stunning – a remnant eastern patch of the once-extensive Ngong Forest. The chances of getting stuck here after the rains are considerably lower these days, too, since KWS upgraded the roads.

It is also a testament to Gordon’s skill as a guide that a gamedrive largely absent of wildlife was so memorable. He kept us engaged throughout with great stories from the camp, and from his past as a walking safari guide. There was the time that he stumbled into the girlfriend of Kitili – the lion we spotted the day before – as he walked out of his bathroom dressed only in a towel. And the night when one of his new Safari Boots was chewed by a hyena outside his tent.

The morning’s drive rounded off an excellent weekend in the park. With special half board resident rates of Kshs 9,450 per person sharing, and the city’s COVID measures tightening, the Nairobi Tented Camp is an ideal escape close to home.

Head to www.porini.com/residents or call 0733 888 570 for more information.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation