An elephant is between my tent and the Wi-Fi. I watch it wander from bush to bush. Pulling twigs off trees, munching on leaves. Looking around.
What else do you expect when you’re staying at a place called Elephant Bedroom Camp?
And yet, I catch myself actually upset (for a second) that this elephant is keeping me from my Twitter.
Fortunately, my digital cold turkey finds instant reprieve. My tent, one of a dozen in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, is totally decked out. I have area rugs on a wide wood floor, a writing desk, a plunge pool, a hot-water shower, and—beyond my monkey-proof zipper—a covered porch. Catching a light breeze in the shade here, I take a few photos of the elephant, then gaze across the Ewaso Ngiro River at giraffes ambling through doum palms.
Yeah, the Samburu is a good place to put your device away.
Just north of the Equator, Samburu is an arid landscape of low-lying khaki-colored ridges and dusty-green bush—drabber than what you find around Nairobi, Lake Nakuru, or even Masai Mara. It’s hotter, too. So much so that guided game drives mercifully cling to sunrise and sunset hours. This relaxed plan suits me fine, leaving chunks of the day to sip cold Tusker beer at the leafy camp. (Or, on one occasion, play volleyball with the staff.)
In the afternoon I join two guys traveling together from the American South on a drive across the bush. The sun’s fire has dimmed. Our guide and driver, James Lekada, rolls back the canvas roof of our Land Cruiser, so we can pop our heads out of the top. Standing in back, we spot wee dik-dik antelopes, scores of startled oryxes, a giraffe-necked gerenuk standing on its hind legs, a lone ostrich on a mad dash, and a dozing leopard, legs dangling from both sides of a high tree branch.
Something else catches our eye.
“Stay right there, sweetheart,” one of my travel mates whispers, getting his camera into place.
A lioness, and the mother of a pride of six, struts within a few feet of us. After it passes, I realize I never saw it. Not really. My eyes never left my viewfinder.
I like taking photos and sharing them. But I promise myself not to make the mistake of snapping any shots before first making a record of the experience with my senses.
James is a member of the Samburu tribe, one of 42 or more ethnic groups in Kenya. He wears a tri-colored robe that looks a bit like Bulgaria’s flag, along with a gold chain that dangles across his face. The next day, after a morning drive, he takes us to the nearby village of Nangida (“Happy”) for a look into traditional Samburu life.
After years of travels in Asia, I’ve grown weary of visits to “traditional villages.” But I’ve not visited one in Africa, and I’m told the $25 fee will help fund their school, so I go.
We meet a couple of elders, women in robes dance, then warrior men sing. We meet a blacksmith and see what crafts are for sale. One elder named Stephen tells us how he’s the sole male in his family with only one wife, and that he still loves to drink fresh blood and milk from the tribe’s cattle. As he put it, “We will never leave our culture.”
And, though the tour feels fairly standard, I find nothing that belies his words.
While we peek into a twig shelter in the round boma—a fortified area made of dried wood to keep out late-night predators—I notice it’s identical to several others around us. I look across dusty savanna and find scores of villagers in bright colored robes surveying me from the shade of an isolated acacia tree.
Pretty much all I had previously known of the Samburu people came from Photographing Africa, a fascinating BBC documentary that follows English photographer Harry Hook. In the 1980s, he took portraits of several Samburu women, then returned a few decades later—a portable color printer in tow—on a mission to find them again. He wondered how far these semi-nomadic women would have dispersed in an ever urbanizing Africa, but found that his subjects had hardly moved a mile!
Maybe the Samburu never will leave their culture.
Before my trip, I also learned that the most famous local is a lioness who—a decade ago—made international news for adopting orphaned oryx calves. Because she chose to mother, and not eat, what would normally be her prey, the local Samburu believed, at least according to The Heart of a Lioness, that she was “a message from God” and named her Kamunyak, or “Blessed One.”
I ask James about her, and he points at a mountain straight ahead of us. “See that mountain? Mount Kiotogor? I saw them up there [a few times].”
Our interest piqued, James takes the three of us to where he had spied the motley brood.
We park by a reddish rock dwarfing the bush on the hillside and get out to investigate. I pick up an antelope bone nearby and sketch the rock in my journal.
“She was really funny,” James says. “She acted just like a mother oryx.”
He says that Kamunyak adopted several oryx, but that ultimately they all died, either from starvation or in the jaws of rival lions.
“We never saw her again [after the last orphan died]. I think she was really upset and left.”
The sun starts to sink behind the mountain and we begin our slow ride back to camp. James inches the vehicle off road and clicks off the engine. Suddenly I see the silhouettes of two giraffes “necking,” a territorial struggle that seems like the gentlest kung fu imaginable. We creep a bit farther along, pausing to make way for a family of elephants commuting back to the hills after an afternoon drink at the river.
I put my camera away and watch the scene in silence for several minutes. It’s my last night in Samburu, and I want to hear the sounds the elephants make eating and pulling limbs, lumbering through the bush.
One of my companions pipes up. “You can just feel the connection with creation here. The ground feels different. The air feels different.”
I consider this a moment. Then an elephant unleashes a fire-hose of urine that splashes against the parched earth.
I didn’t take a photo.