"Whose baby is this?" I asked a crowd of fifty children, one of whom had just handed me a baby younger than some of the food in my fridge. They all laughed and pointed, and I began to worry that I’d somehow been tricked into becoming an adoptive father. But before I could start making space for a child in my life, a responsible adult appeared from a nearby classroom and took my new daughter away from me. I was visibly relieved, and the kids fell about howling.
I was being teased by youths at a school run by the local Maasai community, the most famous tribe in Kenya and the caretakers of the 18,700 acre conservancy known as Ol Kinyei on which I’d found myself, the first such community-owned conservancy in the country. This vast area of land has been set aside by the Maasai for the purposes of wildlife and environmental conservation, but having been expecting to be blown away by big game and epic landscapes, it was the friendly and funny people I met here that put the wildlife and shrubs to shame.
I was staying at the Rusinga Island Lodge on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. The biggest of the African Great Lakes (and the third largest lake in the world), Victoria has conditions more similar to those of the open ocean than a freshwater lake. I know this because I took a kayak out on it just as it started to get a bit hairy in the afternoon, and it wasn’t long before I sheepishly returned to the shore.
The lodge is an extremely private retreat with its own beach and just a handful of cabins, secluded enough that you can walk around and pretend you’re the king of a small island. Our host was on hand to accommodate our whims throughout our stay, and arrange any and all activities we could think of or dare to attempt, from jet skiing and wine tasting (though not at the same time) to night fishing and mountain biking (again, not at the same time).
The island of Rusinga is known for its rich and varied archaeological heritage, and has been a destination for explorers throughout history. Kenya itself is considered to be the cradle of mankind for this reason, and on Rusinga you can still visit the site of one of the most important discoveries ever made in the field of evolutionary history, when in 1948 the paleontologist Mary Leakey plucked a 20 million year old skull out of the ground. The discovery of proconsul africanus, one of the “missing links” between humans and apes, contributed to the understanding of our early human ancestors, and really couldn’t be much further removed from zooming around the place on jet skis.
With so much to learn, it’s useful to have hosts around that are as knowledgeable about the history and surroundings of Rusinga as they are at suggesting ridiculous ways to faff about on the lake. Our tour guide on outings around the lodge had a knack for storytelling, twinned with a supernatural ability to spot and identify nearby birds. The wetlands around Lake Victoria are vital to migrating birds, he explained, who stop here on their way up to Europe and Asia. Rusinga is a special paradise for feathered travellers. The island alone attracts more than 350 different species of local and visiting birds, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in Kenya.
Personally, I can name as many types of bird as I have fingers, but this guy rattled them off with ease. Eventually feeling inadequate, I borrowed his little bird book and correctly named a bird that was perched on a nearby tree. He congratulated me, but in retrospect I think he was just trying to make me feel better.
As a first impression of the Kenyan charm and beauty, Rusinga was an unmitigated success, and I was sad to be moving on when we left for Nairobi airport to squeeze into a tiny chartered flight to our next destination, a camp located in the middle of the Maasai Mara. Reachable only by private airstrip, Porini Cheetah Camp is run by Gamewatchers Safaris, a company who split their interests between looking after their guests and protecting the local Maasai communities and wildlife. Our small but luxurious camp of just five tents was run by Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee, who decided to give running it a go after their son left for university. My parents got a divorce when I went off to uni, but the Banerjees went a different way. I’m glad they did because the Porini Cheetah Camp is spectacular.
The tents themselves are nicer than some London flats I’ve lived in, but I barely spent any time in mine as our itinerary was sufficiently packed with interesting things to do, like driving around in a truck looking for animals. The rangers are all local tribesmen who grew up in the area, and who have gone through extensive education to reach their positions. On one of our days at the camp, we venture out to one of these schools to meet with the next crop of rangers who will be out in the field by this time next year. The graduated rangers speak with confidence not just about the wildlife but about life in general on the conservancy, and this was mirrored by the pupils who are all passionate about showing off the amazing country in which they’ve grown up.
The male seemed far more interested in the lioness than in his next meal, but she clearly wasn’t in the mood, carefully tracking the wildebeests for about forty minutes before giving up and falling asleep in a bush.
The rangers have a network of scouts who roam the camp, and on one of our drives our guide Nelson received a text from a friend informing him of the location of some lions. Racing down some valleys to find them, we stopped just a few metres away from a lioness and her partner carefully surveying some wildebeests nearby. The male seemed far more interested in the lioness than in his next meal, but she clearly wasn’t in the mood, carefully tracking the wildebeests for about forty minutes before giving up and falling asleep in a bush.
The excitement over, Nelson prepared our daily sundowner. This is basically a little boozy picnic out of the back of the truck as the sun slowly sets and a selection of drinks and snacks appears from a cooler. These sundowners are among the things I miss most about my time in Kenya, and I’m considering importing the tradition back to London. As we sipped our drinks, our host shared a story about one American tourist in particular, who got the hump because his request to see “a lion killing a big giraffe” had not been fulfilled.
I must admit I had come to Kenya with similarly grand expectations, but I soon learned that the people walking about on two legs were far more interesting than anything knocking about on all fours.