Towers of dust devils chased each other and the tall grass was bleached to hay. The streams were drying and the zebra looked skyward, trudging towards a distant marsh. Elephants wallowed wantonly in the meagre channel under yellow-bark acacia trees, while a vulture eyed an unsteady lamb. This year, the lack of rains has hit Kenya particularly badly, forcing the Masai tribals to drive their cattle into the game reserves, further stressing the precious resources.
We arrived in Lewa Downs, a 62,000 acre, privately-run conservation trust north of Mt Kenya to parched but beautiful vistas. Rust was the predominant colour everywhere, except for an emerald marsh which remained defiantly lush with papyrus reeds. This is where the wildlife congregated, as did its viewers.
It felt good to know that there was yet another pocket of wildlife in Kenya worthy of exploration and cared for by individuals -- in this case, the Craig family.
We stayed at the heavenly Lewa House that sleeps twelve in its three, two-bedroom cottages, but is generally given to one group at a time. Typical of the highland style, its twenty foot-high ceilings are covered with attractively plaited papyrus thatch swept down low over the sides, keeping out the equatorial sun. Lava rocks that were strewn about on the plains were cemented into the walls. Hardy wood furniture clad in African textiles made up the interior, with walls and coffee-table books filled with images of wildlife. Just beyond, in the garden, slender mongoose, grey-louries and yellow-throated spurfowl scrambled for tidbits at a perch, and further still, past the pool, was a waterhole where eland, giraffe and elephant came to drink, eyeing me nervously each time I approached.
Lewa was a perfect complement to a trip to the Masai Mara. After viewing the migration of the wildebeest on the flat plains, it was wonderful to see game against a hilly backdrop. Never having seen a rhino in the Mara, we were soon spotting white and the extremely rare black rhinos without binoculars. We viewed the fine-tooth comb stripes of the Burchell's zebra for the first time, notably different from the common Grevy's thick-paintbrush markings. The chestnut coat of the reticulated giraffe was nothing like the leafy patched Masai giraffe. Somali ostriches had stark white blobs on their dark feathers, with blue legs instead of the Masai pink; there were silverback jackals as well as side-striped ones -- but the most striking of creatures were the oryx. Fifteen straight points on the scrabble board, oryx are stunning creatures with black and white markings on a tan background. Their long horns veer straight up, enhancing the majesty of the elusive creature.
Although there were a handful of other jeeps, Lewa felt like we had the place to ourselves. Cheetahs stalking, lions on an eland kill -- we stayed forever, re-positioning our vehicle for the best vantage points for photography. Once, with an armed ranger, we went for a walk through the silver-gold wire grass over the hills near Lewa House, sighting many animals on foot.
Samburu National Park is an hour's drive north of Lewa, where we dedicated a day along the Ewaso Niero enjoying plentiful sightings. We watched it reach up to feed on acacia leaves -- an almost human silhouette- aloft on its dainty hoofs.
In the villages, Samburu people went about their hair-braiding and water fetching dressed in bright clothes and splendid jewellery, reminiscent of some of the flashiest birds in the wild.