I'm already halfway down the steps of my raised safari tent when I see it: an elephant, less than 20 metres away, tearing bunches of long grass from the earth with its trunk.
I shouldn't be surprised – as part of my Bench Africa safari itinerary I'm staying in an unfenced property called Elephant Bedroom Camp, after all. And yet I am both surprised and, momentarily, frozen. Then the fear passes and I realise how extraordinary this is. I have an elephant as my neighbour, a creature that's actually far less intimidating than the cranky, middle-aged guy I live next door to back in Sydney.
The Samburu National Reserve, set in Kenya's northern Rift Valley province, is the perfect escape for an urban refugee such as myself. At 165 square kilometres it's one of Kenya's smallest reserves and it sits off the beaten track, quiet and serene and free of tourists snapping away like paparazzi. The landscape isn't typical Africa. On a canvas of rich red earth framed by rugged mountains, among them the cloud-ringed peak of Mount Kenya, are smatterings of doum palms, the only family of palm with arms. They reach towards the china-blue sky with fan-shaped leaves, giving the reserve an almost tropical feel that enhances the getaway vibe.
The wildlife roaming this landscape is unique, too. On my first animal-packed safari drive, I meet species I've never seen during seven trips to the continent. There's the long-necked gerenuk, like a giraffe in antelope's clothing, which we watch standing on its hind legs to feed from a thorn bush, and the endangered Grevy's zebra, with its Mickey Mouse ears and narrow stripes. Later, we find reticulated giraffe, defined by their more geometric patterning, feeding alongside spear-horned oryx.
These rare creatures are attracted here by the Ewaso Ng'iro river, Kenya's third largest river that weaves its way through the reserve from the Kenyan highlands. Without the river, the wildlife couldn't survive in this arid region, and neither could the Samburu tribespeople who also call this area home. Semi-nomadic pastoralists with language and traditions similar to the Maasai, the Samburu are also known as the Butterfly People, a nod to their vividly coloured wraparound shukacloths and elaborate beaded jewellery.
Our guide and driver for three days in the reserve is a Samburu, a sharp, passionate young man named Julius Lesori who was born and raised in the bush, where he tended his father's cattle. On our second morning he leads us on a walking safari so we can be fully immersed in the landscape. As we walk the dusty earth, pushing lurking lions to the back of our minds, Lesori points out acacias hung like Christmas trees with the nests of weaver birds, and 20-year-old termite mounds shaped like fairy castles. He cuts pieces from the calcium-rich toothbrush tree for us to scrub our teeth, as the Samburu do, and picks saltbush for us to taste.
"You can get anything you want out here," he says, "food, water, housing – you can survive completely." He talks about the peace the bush brings, and expresses a quiet puzzlement that a person could choose to live in a more crowded place.
It's a confusion my city brain starts to understand back at camp, a lived-in, relaxed and soulful place where 12 permanent tents are scattered through the riverine forest. I soak in the plunge pool on my balcony while monkeys scramble through the trees, rock in a hammock beside the river, and eat lunch under the thick press of palms, the constant ambient moan of the river as my soundtrack. There is endless birdsong, too. About 350 species live in the reserve, and at times it sounds as if every last one is perched in the palms, singing just for my pleasure. The nervous irritation of city life makes less sense with each passing hour, as I fantasise about a life lived the Samburu way.
Later, it's time to head back into the wilderness. Within 15 minutes of pulling away from camp, Julius has tracked a lioness. "Her name is Nanai, I've known her since she was born eight years ago," he whispers as we inch our vehicle along behind the feline's honey-coloured body as she stalks through the tall grass. Soon, a small herd of elephants with two babies emerge from the bush on the other side of our truck. The two species are oblivious of the other's existence until suddenly Nanai smells elephant on the breeze and we watch her muscles tighten at the thought of dinner. Having located the herd, she pads around our truck, but by now the elephants have seen her, too. A female charges, trumpeting wildly and flapping her ears, while the others herd the babies back into the forest. To see these tight community dynamics play out in the natural world is incredibly moving, and a potent reminder of the interconnectedness of all things.
By the time we have wound our way back to the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro river, every cloud of dust and every insect seems illuminated by the setting sun. We pull up to find a group of 20 Samburu, dressed in elaborate tribal costumes, waiting for us. The women stand in the long grass, their necks and shoulders covered with thick, multi-coloured beaded necklaces, their heads decorated with beaded crowns. The men congregate by the river, bare-chested with shukas tied around their waists, their shaved heads covered in ochre paste.
A performance soon begins. The men sing, clap and jump, while the women shake their torsos, necklaces bobbing on their chests in time to the music. As the sun drops behind the mountains, the Samburu seem to forget us as they lose themselves to the music. Some close their eyes as they sing, others tilt their faces to the heavens, their headpieces etched against the darkening sky.
Watching the Samburu get swept away by their song is a simple medicine for the soul. As they dive deeper under the music, I too slip into a place outside of myself. A place far from the fever of the world, and filled with the age-old romance of wild Africa.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Bench Africa.
Emirates flies to Nairobi via Dubai; from there it's a one-hour light aircraft flight to the Samburu reserve. See emirates.com
To mark its 50th anniversary, Africa travel specialist Bench Africa has launched an eight-day Connoisseur Signature Safari Special, including three nights at Elephant Bedroom Camp in Samburu National Reserve, and four nights at Mara Ngenche in Masai Mara National Park. From $6960 per person, twin share, international flights not included. See benchafrica.com
AFRICA'S LITTLE FIVE
One of the largest beetles in Africa, the rhinoceros beetle has horns on its head, is aggressive and a tough exterior – pretty similar to its Big Five counterpart, really.
By digging conical holes in soft sand, this furry, cockroach-like insect traps ants that it then pounces on. Later in life they grow wings, but aren't great flyers.
Named for their stretched snouts, these cute mammals grow to 25 centimetres. Your chances of spotting one are almost smaller than they are; they're painfully shy.
With a chic leopard-print shell, this is one of earth's largest tortoise breeds, with adult male shells often measuring up to a metre across.
Characterised by their red bills and bedraggled nests built from coarse grasses, you'll likely hear buffalo weavers before you see them. They're a noisy mob.