Safari As A Way Of Life

21: Kenya.3: Nirvana

“Peter. They are soooooooooo loooonnnnggg.”

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a relatively short entry, but based on that deeply thought-provoking critique from Margot, I’ll try to keep this one short. Shortish. Shorter.

Suffice it to say, when I mentioned that I’d be returning to Nairobi, my sister Shelley said I should reach out and say hello to her friend, Peter Kinyua. Now, neither of us knew each other, so my first reaction was one of hesitance. I mean, reaching out to a complete stranger and saying, “Hey, we’ve never met, but I know someone you know, let’s grab a beer,” just seemed so odd. I mean, why the hell would Peter Kinyua want to have a beer with me?

Turns out, he didn’t. 

What he wanted was for me to leave my AirBnB immediately and come stay at his stunning Nairobi home with him, his wife Sophie, and their wonderful daughter, Alexa. Their son, Matthew, is currently at school in Boston. Peter, a native of Kenya, is a graduate of Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University, where he knew a couple of my sister’s best friends, Kelly and Jodi Collins, who grew up four houses from our childhood home in Providence. Jodi’s husband, Tom, was a roommate of Peter’s. John Skeffington, another classmate of his from Salve, was a hockey teammate of mine at Classical High School, and our families have known each other for decades. Also, Peter and Sophie hosted my sweet and wonderful niece, Olivia, during a visit some years ago, when she spent a semester abroad in Tanzania. So, just as I’m discovering this great big world, it keeps getting smaller and smaller.

But leave my AirBnB and come stay with the Kinyuas? They didn’t even know me. I didn’t even know them. But, screw it, I thought, I’m on an adventure. And besides, what’s the worst that could possibly happen? 

Turns out the worst that could possibly happen was for them – I nearly never left.

If I tried to detail every stunning and incredible experience resulting from their seemingly limitless generosity and hospitality, this would by far be my longest blog to date, but please grant me one more moment… 

Peter is the owner of ServiCoff Coffee. His family’s story in this business alone, going back to colonial Kenya, is blog-worthy. But Peter is also the current Chairman of the Kenya Forest Service, charged with protecting and expanding the coverage of Kenya’s tree cover – protection from lucrative development, poaching, illegal logging, and even destruction from the growing population of elephants. Protecting those elephants, and Kenyans as well, is also part of this massive responsibility. Sophie is an incredibly accomplished entrepreneur, an amazing chef and owner of The River Café (she no longer creates meals for her daily restaurant clientele, but I am lucky to say that she continues to amaze for family, friends, and long-term house guests who simply won’t leave). She is also the soon-to-be owner of a petrol station in Timau. They are both on countless conservation and fundraising boards, not the least of which are Rhino Charge and Rhino Ark, and are partners in seemingly endless other ventures. They both have limitless energy (and patience), and appear to be the perfect team. They were dear friends with Richard Leakey, who passed just days before my arrival, and through them I met, drank, and dined with world renowned artists, authors, filmmakers, documentarians, conservationists, elephant and rhino experts and researchers, archaeologists, safari guides, charter captains, Olympians, broadcast and business executives, international event coordinators and DJs, legendary mercenaries, retired military, entrepreneurs in the nonprofit and for-profit sector, millionaires, billionaires, current and former diplomats and dignitaries – not to mention upcoming Parliamentary and even Presidential candidates.

And yet, somehow more impressive than the resumés of all of these truly amazing people, was how genuinely kind and interesting and interested each and every one of them were, so patient with my never-ending barrage of questions and commentary (I know what you’re thinking – You? Talkaltive? Noooo.).

My one week of R&R in Kenya turned into a month of glorious and unforgettable mayhem, much of it spent with my partner-in-crime, Sophie (thank you for lending her to me, Peter, but all exhaustingly good things must come to an end). The only reason I’m not still there is if I didn’t leave when I did, I might never have. And if I ever want to return, for a visit or forever, I had to be sure I didn’t wear out my welcome – and trust me, it was becoming a very fine line. If there is one place in the world I can think of that would describe my own personal Disneyland, it’s not even close – Kenya is it.

So a world of thank yous to Peter, Sophie, and Alexa, you have given me an invaluable gift. Thank you to John and Catherine and Chris in Nairobi, and Carol and Jennifer in Timau. And thank you to every single amazing person I met during my stay. Peter and Sophie can attest I took my notes, but you are far too numerous to mention here.

I am truly blessed, and I look forward to seeing you all again one day.

Every morning I woke to freshly sliced fruits and bananas and cereals (or an omelet if I preferred) provided by my friend, John, and an endless supply of Peter’s coffee – french-pressed, of course. I’m not some common hobo, after all. Well, not anymore, anyway.
It didn’t take long for the safaris to begin, as I was entertained each morning by Sykes Monkeys coming in from the abutting Karura Forest (zoom in and up or just scroll down!).
Live shot of my breakfast entertainment (video).
John and Catherine prepare the banana bait and trap, hoping to capture the pesky critters for transport by animal specialists to Nairobi National Park. Unfortunately, the monkeys were always a step ahead, and I would watch as they ran across the roof with banana in hand, trap untriggered.
No banana. No monkey. I guess I’ll kick back on the veranda.
Breaking from appropriate societal manners, I would utterly crush the spirt and lay waste to the very soul of my hostess and word-game partner, Sophie. Only a dozen plays in, she already has that look of utter despair. It would get no better for her, unfortunately. Rumor has it, neighbors saw the Scrabble board in the trash can the very next day.
My (first) stay in Nairobi wouldn’t last long, as Peter and I would head for their home in Timau, giving me a taste of Kenya life from the road. I mentioned this in the last blog, but this is traditional scaffolding throughout Kenya (Rwanda too). I’m thinking of opening a similar scaffolding company back home. Hello, OSHA?
“How would you like your eggs, sir?”

“Over easy, please.”

“Scrambled it is.”

Funny story. Nowhere from Europe to Africa are eggs refrigerated. Took me three countries to find eggs, and I’d begun thinking there was either a mass chicken shortage or an opportunity to become the Billionaire Chicken King of Europe. Turns out the eggs are just in the toothpaste aisle.

Another funny story, if the animals in Kenya don’t kill you, the driving just might:
Who Needs A Buddy With A Pickup Truck? Not This Guy.
Eyes On The Road. And On Your Right And Left. And Behind You.
On the outskirts of the city and at different elevations across the country, you’ll find tea and coffee plantations. This is tea, and it’s quite a beautiful sight when passing by, as it covers acres and acres. What’s astounding is tea leaves are all picked by hand. Part of the reason is based in job security. In America and other nations they would simply automate and thousands would be looking for work. Here, because thousands would be looking for work, it remains manual, but no less daunting a task. Can someone please take care of that weed, though?
Canola fields in the Mount Kenya region lend to an already beautiful landscape.
I would spend the day acting as Peter Kinyua’s seedling muscle as we checked in on the progress of a few of the nurseries responsible for growing the trees that will be transplanted throughout the region and country. Under Peter’s leadership, Kenya has surpassed its initial goal. He has loftier plans for the KFS, but such success is oftentimes at odds with government leaders – even when it’s their own initiative – and with elections looming in August, such appointments are never guaranteed.
Seedling which will be transplanted. The majority will make it to adulthood, but trees in Kenya face obstacles from drought to illegal logging to government supported development (despite the government’s own programs). They also face a challenge we don’t at home – death by elephant.
Peter is at once a calm and kind and intimidating presence, a demanding boss for the nursery managers who can be difficult to rein in when overseeing village nurseries two and three hours from Nairobi. Here, Peter and Christian Lambrechts, a conservation expert, discuss the need for electric fencing to protect the nursery from elephants that come down from the hill directly behind. Christian will have protective fencing installed within a couple of months’ time.
We arrive in Timau, around three hours north of Nairobi, and my lord it is quite the palace, on 60 acres of land abutting 30,000 acres of the Borana Conservancy, which in turn abuts 60,000 more protected acres…which in turn abuts…
The trees and landscaping are all Peter and Sophie’s, as they lead by example in the regreening of Kenya’s open spaces. They have inspired all of their neighbors to do the same, planting thousands of trees on their properties alone.
I was hoping for a bedroom with a little more privacy, but you take what you can get.
View from the rooftop terrace of Peter and Sophie’s gorgeous Timau property, the Borana Conservancy stretching into the distance. We would drive through and across the conservancy in the days and weeks to come.
From their FRONT yard (happy now, Sophie?) I could see elephants and antelope and giraffe and more. In the evening, all around the property we heard the cries of the truly vicious hyena, which hunt in packs and will track, attack, and kill humans, even close to the capital city (read).
The properties here require electric fencing to stop the elephants from trampling the landscaping and trees and coming right to your front door. It still doesn’t always stop them, as during my stay in Kenya their neighbor Tomie’s landscaper was chased by an angry bull that used its tusks to dislodge a buried and cemented fence post, tossing it in the air with ease. His experience and knowledge is all that helped him survive, distracting the elephant by tossing his flashlight and running in a zigzag pattern, the elephant hot on his heels, barely reaching the safety of a building on the property. The fencing doesn’t always stop other animals either, as within the property boundary “Leopard Tree” is so named for a pair that spent an amorous night in its limbs. Another time, Peter and Sophie’s landscaper was clearing brush only to discover two leopards peering back at him. He backed slowly away, and lived to tell the tale.
Soon after our arrival, Peter, his sister McKenna, and her boyfriend Robert and I would jump into the oft-admired Kinyua Land Rover (I named her Deziree 2, without their permission – or knowledge, for that matter) for a game drive and meet-up with their wonderful neighbors, the Mistiaens.
Peter’s sense of humor can sometimes be subtle, but I wasn’t born yesterday, so when he told me that cliff in the center was the inspiration for Pride Rock in Disney’s Lion King, I laughed and said “Nice try, but I ain’t THAT gullible.”

Damnnn youuu Kinyuaaaa!: Pride Rock Inspiration.

But, I was there, so, cool.
“Hey little buddy. Takin’ a little afternoon nap are wOHHHH MYYYY GOD HE’S BEEN HOLLOWED OUT.”
“Hey little buddy…” Okay never mind, you know how this ends. It should be noted that this is all within view of Peter and Sophie’s home, a short drive into the conservancy. The lions and leopards and all animals roam freely, among villagers, locals, and transplants alike. Some properties are fenced, while others are not, some by choice, others by agreements with the Conservancy itself.
It’s not uncommon for rhino to wander into the gardens of unfenced neighboring properties here in Timau. If on your way to town, you simply have to wait it out, and all are eager to share these little inconveniences as the amazing experiential gifts they are. Peter and Sophie and so many of their neighbors and friends are involved with Rhino Ark and Rhino Charge, two amazing foundations with the common goal of advancing the ability for humans to live in harmony with threatened habitat and wildlife. And if you’re a shortsighted human who can’t see the necessity for that, then maybe you’ll just dig the opportunity to support a 4×4 race across one of the world’s most challenging terrains!
On this afternoon’s drive alone, we would see well over one hundred elephants, not to mention a plethora of zebra and every type of antelope grazing among them.
Click For Video!
And to be clear, when Peter asks, “There’s nothing behind us?” he’s not talking about cars. We are utterly alone among these beautiful, wild animals.
The stunning view from Il Ngwese Nature Conservancy reminded me of visiting the Grand Canyon many years ago with my brother Steven, when even standing there in front of it, it was still difficult to fully comprehend the vastness of the landscape before us. In the valley seen in the panoramic video (click below), more than 2,000 elephants were recently counted lining the banks of the river alone. There are believed to be more than 14,000 in the connected area reserves.

Our Approach Took Us Through Masai Villages.
Baboons Scatter As We Arrived.
Il Ngwese Pano Video.
Robert, Peter, Emma, Johan, McKenna, with Erika, Isabelle, and Erin.
Robert (standing), McKenna, and my amazing host, Peter Kinyua.
My time in Timau would include a canopy walk in Ngare Ndare Forest (or En-garayyy, En-darayyy if you’re a French expat).
Emma and Elin leading the way (so I can see the bridge’s weak points).
Elin and Erika impressed us all with their brave and adventurous spirit.
Our journey in Ngare Ndare Forest would also take us to the Blue Pools waterfall.
Erika giving mom Emma a bit of a heart attack, but no worries, Peter is holding his beer tightly. I mean HER HAND. He is holding her hand tightly.
Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?
Brave neighbor youth are known to jump and dive off this ledge and into the pool below. Then again, these are the same youth currently driving from Timau to Capetown in TukTuks.
“You can’t leave Kenya without seeing the coast,” someone said to me at a cookout at Peter and Sophie’s Nairobi home when I told them I’d be heading for Tanzania in two days.

“I’ve seen the coast,” I replied. “I went to Kilifi back in 2006.”

“That’s not the coast. You need to go to Lamu.”

Within minutes, a plan was finalized, and four days later I disembarked from a plane onto a gravel runway, walked through an open air airport, down to a dock, into a boat, and fifteen minutes later was checking into my private waterview room at The Peponi Resort Hotel, my budget-backpacking, AirBnB-staying, peanut-butter-sandwich-eating self a distant, unrecognizable stranger.
My incredibly fun travel companions Sasha, Sophie, and Lucy Chodota, an accomplished producer and documentarian who came to Lamu to do research on local artists who collaborated with the late, legendary Peter Beard.
Andrea, Sasha, Lee, Lucy, Ismahan, and my partner-in-crime, Sophie Kinyua.
Sophie told me to be down in fifteen, so I was down in fifteen. We jumped into an overloaded dhow and crossed the channel and arrived at an empty stretch of beach with our own private bar for a Sundowner’s party. I could get used to this.
The sun would set, and the dancing would begin, our playlist courtesy of one of our crew, who also happened to be a world renowned DJ, Qui Qui.
Enjoying a nightcap while contemplating what the hell act of kindness I could have possibly done to suddenly find myself here.
Maybe this? I’m nice to the island’s only mode of land transportation?
Speaking of which, Tesla ain’t got nothing on Lamu’s self-driving automobiles.
At least these things don’t crash and burst into flames.
The Cats of Lamu are believed to be the unique descendants of the cats of the Egyptian Pharaohs. And they’re everywhere.
Looks nice, but not the wisest decision for a mzungu tourist to wander off alone into the desert dunes off the beaches of Lamu. First, I was barefoot, and it was desert-hot (I actually burned the bottom of my feet – had to keep burying them for relief). Two, the aforementioned pasty white mzungu-in-a-desert thing. And three, from very recent terror attacks to past abductions, this is quite truly Al Shabab territory. Time to turn around.
Having grown bored with sssoooooooo many amazing land animals, Peter, Sasha and I set out on the Indian Ocean aboard L’il Toot, captained by local island legend, Nils. We were utterly alone out there, 60 miles from the border of Somalia. L’il Toot is the only charter boat in Lamu, and one of only two in the region. When I asked Nils what happens if, say, an engine breaks down out here, his answer was “That’s why we have two.” Here, Peter boats the first Dorado of the day!
Am I smiling in this one, ZinaKay? I feel like I am.
That Dorado would be our evening dinner at The Peponi Resort.
Having grown bored with sssoooooooo many amazing fish, it’s time, of course, to head back to Timau, bound for Samburu, this time with Sophie. But first, some traditional Nyama Choma at Mlima View Gardens in Nanyuki. I’ll need the nourishment for the long days and nights ahead.
The Borana Conservancy has unique ways of raising money for the protection of its land and animals. I was yet-again-blessed, this time to be invited to the utterly stunning home of Phillip Ihenacho, Director of the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), charged with planning and building the Edo Museum, future home of the Benin Bronze Artifacts. Sophie and I would dine with Phillip and his fascinating (and hilarious) project team in a home that by conservancy agreement sits unfenced (and rentable!) within the reserve, elephants coming to drink from his infinity pool each day. Our drive home across unlit Borana was one of the most entertaining moments on a trip filled top to bottom with them. Zebra, giraffe, grazing antelope, followed immediately by the roadblock above.
(videos below)

Zebra in the Borana Nighttime.
Lion Roadblock
Lion Roadblock is Bigger Than We Thought!
Giraffe Crossing
Believe it or not, Timau and Borana weren’t even the objectives of this trip. Our destination was Samburu National Reserve, home of the famous Elsa, of Born Free fame, whose story I watched with Dad, Mom, Steven, Jon, and Shelley when just a kid on Ravenswood Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island. My fascination with Africa began then, but never did I imagine that one day I would actually be standing here in person. Okay, maybe I did, but I was just a stupid kid then who also thought he was going to be an astronaut (which, thanks to Beezy and Sir Richard, is also back on the table).

Africa, Where Even Ostrich Are Just Birds To Those Who Live Here.
Elephant Bedroom Camp was our home for the night, along the (temporarily dry) Ewaso Nyiro River. We’d barely sat down for lunch after a long and grueling drive by my chauffeur, Sophie, when we discovered exactly why it’s called Elephant Bedroom Camp…

Lunch Interrupted!
Hey, that’s my tree!
The Doum Palm Fruit is what the elephant was after, shaking them from the branches above.
Yes, tent living in Africa is just as grueling and brutal as you imagine it to be, but I think I can suffer through this for one night. The close tree trunk you can see on the right is the one the elephant was shaking during lunch. He would return to my bedside window in the middle of the night, causing me to wonder exactly how far his tusks could reach through the fabric should he be frisky enough to tear through (I might have shimmied to the right side of my bed), while the monkeys shook the trees above and the baboons barked to one another across the (formerly) quiet evening.

Monkey Happy Hour
Time For You Damn Dirty Apes To Go Home
I would have my chauffeur take me on our own game drive the afternoon of our arrival, but the next day we would go on an official safari, figuring Sophie had earned a modicum of R&R. The view as we set out the next morning was both gorgeous and deceiving – I’m not seeing any animals from this viewpoint, after all, so we probably came all this way for nothing.
The nests of the Weaver Birds hung from trees everywhere we looked. No game, though, no game.
What anthill?
And so it begins. An Eland and a curious Pumbaa, video of Antelope, and a couple Grevy’s Zebra. While Zebra can be found in mass quantities throughout the reserves of Kenya, the Grevy’s Zebra are actually endangered, with only 2,000 remaining today.
It didn’t take long at all to come upon a lioness enjoying a little pumbaa breakfast. Her lack of concern for our presence even gave her cubs the confidence to come out and play…

Don’t Bother Mama When She’s Eating
I’ll Take My Pumbaa To Go, Please
Don’t let that sweet and innocent smile deceive you. Michief lurks just beneath its surface.
Oh, and there’s a maned lion in the background. Whatevs.
Don’t make me get out of this Land Rover and come down there and teach you some manners about sticking out that tongue, Mister.

This guy had a collar on, and our close presence didn’t seem to distract him from his breakfast.

King of The Jungle Breakfast Video with Crunching Audio
The Reticulated Giraffe of Northern Kenya are identifiable by their deep chestnut patches of color with bright-whitish channels between them.

They’re all just as goofy as others when they run, however.
A Red-Billed Hornbill for the bird-nerds out there.
There are hundreds and hundreds of species of birds in Kenya. This distant and grainy photo doesn’t come close to showing off the amazing array of colors in this Superb Starling. The colors of the birds here touch every point of the spectrum, and I might be able to capture them if the fine people at Apple would send me their latest iPhone.
Storks feed in the Ewaso Nyiro riverbed.
By all means go right ahead, we’ll wait.
The elephants of Samburu were more than plentiful. We’d come in search of the rare recent twins (story) born only a few weeks earlier, however. Twins rarely both survive in such a harsh environment dependent on limited milk from a single mother. We wouldn’t find the twins – the land is vast and mothers often take their calves into the hills at night for protection from predators – but single young elephants were in great supply, giving a sense of hope for the future.
Elephant Video.
More Elephant Video.
Even More Elephant Video.
How About A Close-Up?
How About Some Calves?
How Many Is Too Many?

Game drives aren’t limited the reserves…

Any camel fans out there?
A shout-out to the cattle lovers out there.

My one week of solo “regrouping” in Kenya turned into more than a month of dream on top of dream on top of dream, safaris and parties and fishing and resort living. I went from an intimate little $15 per night AirBnB to gorgeous sprawling homes with wonderfully kind staff preparing my meals and doing my laundry. I saw the Big 5, hundreds upon hundreds of stunning animals both day and night, and passed through Masai villages of waving kids and adults. I slept in a room with views of Borana Conservancy, drifting off to the sound of nearby, mocking hyena. I watched elephants and zebra and giraffe from my yard (notice I said “my,” Peter K?). I flew and boated to Peponi Resort on Lamu Island, dining seaside and dancing under the African stars and attending a massive four-mansion birthday bash and swimming at night and catching Queenfish and Barracuda and Dorado while spotting jumping Kingfish and Manta Ray and schools of Porcupine Fish in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. I dined and drank with authors and artists and politicians and archaeologists and conservationists and filmmakers, millionaires and billionaires and so many more, people whose resumes and wealth you wouldn’t know – and didn’t matter – because their kindness and hospitality and interest and kindred love of Africa and Kenya far overshadowed any personal wealth or accomplishment. I cannot fathom how that experience could possibly be replicated or matched, except to truly believe that this is, simply, the promise of a life in Kenya. Not for everyone, of course. I easily could have come and gone and seen little beyond the daily life of those who live and struggle and toil as people do everywhere else in the world. But I hit the lottery here, and I have my sister Shelley to thank for suggesting as foolish an idea as reaching out to complete and utter strangers who l assumed wouldn’t even want to have a beer with me.

Peter and Sophie and Alexa Kinyua, and all who I met through you, I truly don’t know I can ever repay the kindness. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

A toast of thanks to you all.
The time had come for me to depart – or I might never have left. My transportation from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania, would be by shuttle. After such a stunning few weeks, it was time for me to take things down a notch, blend in, and return to my low profile life…
Okay, maybe once in Tanzania I’ll do the low-profile thing…

1 Comment

  1. Aknapp says:

    Wow Peter what an amazing adventure! Thoroughly enjoying all your posts and beautiful photographs !

    Like

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