Paradise Lost and Found in Northern Kenya
For a recent birthday, writer David Lansing received an unusual gift from a friend–a well-worn book with the great title I Married Adventure, purchased at auction because his acquaintance like the book’s cover: a zebra-stripe pattern.
The memoir, published in 1940, sat untouched on Lansing’s shelf for months until one afternoon, bored, he began reading the brittle jaundiced pages. The prose was showy, histrionic–like an old Frank Capra movie–yet absorbed him completely. Particularly when he got to the part where the author, Osa Johnson, and her husband, Martin, both natives of Kansas, took off for faraway East Africa in 1921 determined to document on film a land they know almost nothing about.
What, Lansing wondered, where they thinking? And what did they find?
Following up on an insider tip, the couple set out, led by big-name game hunter Bud Cottar, across the Kaisut Desert in search of a lake “nobody knows about.” Eventually they came upon a small body of water in the shape of a spoon that sloped up into steep, wooded banks 200 feet high, which they dubbed Lake Paradise. Nearly a century later, Lansing returned to the wilds of northern Kenya along with photographer Pete McBride to see if the lake was still there–guided by Cottar’s great-nephew Calvin Cottar.
In Lansing’s words:
I immediately researched the name, but in this age of information there was almost nothing to be discovered about this lake since the Johnsons’ explorations. I found a few undated photos, notices of discontinued safari trips, warnings about difficult travel. It appeared that Paradise Lake–once a Garden of Eden in the middle of a hostile desert–had in ensuing years vanished.
How was this possible? Did Lake Paradise still exist? And if so, what had happened to the herds of elephants the Johnsons had filmed and the ancient cloud forest that was home to great numbers of leopards, baboons, and African buffalo?
I had wanted, and now I felt compelled, to find out.
What Lansing and McBride discovered on assignment for Traveler in the wilds of northern Kenya almost a hundred years after the Johnsons traveled there: Life here remains remarkably the same–and wildlife is flourishing thanks to smart conservation efforts.
Here’s an insiders guide to this oasis of green in the middle of an otherwise arid landscape:
WHEN TO GO:
Kenya’s northern half, where both Samburu National Reserve and Marsabit National Park lie, is a semiarid region with a long dry season.
To see this area at its greenest, plan to visit in the rainy season, mid-March into April, and November. Animal viewing is best in the drier months of January through March and June through October.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Recent terrorist events in Nairobi have triggered travel warnings. Check current advisories before you go.
OUTFITTERS AND LODGING:
Sarara Camp: Tented lodging in the community-administered, 850,000-acre Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy: Choose between well-appointed cottages and tented quarters in this conservancy that now is part of the Mount Kenya World Heritage site.
Marsabit Lodge: One of Kenya’s older park lodges, with simple accommodations in a pristine natural setting by a crater lake.
Cottar’s Safari Camp: Three hundred miles south of Lake Paradise, guests stay at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp or the private Homestead (the Cottar family also offers customized safaris throughout East Africa)
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Lake Paradise, Samburu, and Sarara are reachable from Nairobi by small plane or, for the more adventurous, by four-wheel drive along often unpaved roads.
WHAT TO READ:
I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson (1997), by Osa Johnson. Tales about the Johnson’s African travels are also included in Africa’s Big Five and Other Wildlife Filmmakers: A Centenary of Wildlife Filming in KenyaAfrica’s Big Five and Other Wildlife Filmmakers: A Centenary of Wildlife Filming in KenyaAfrica’s Big Five and Other Wildlife Filmmakers: A Centenary of Wildlife Filming in Kenya (2010), by Jean Hartley.
The challenging plight of Africa’s elephants informs the 1992 book Battle for the Elephants, by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton; Iain Douglas-Hamilton founded the Samburu-centered Save the Elephants organization.
This insiders guide appeared in conjunction with a feature entitled “Paradise Lost and Found” that appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler.