change of plans
Even though D’s parents came to visit during the Great Migration, we opted not to take them to the Maasai Mara. While it is true that the Mara is unparalleled in its number and diversity of wild game, it is also hot, dusty, crowded, and very far away. Wanting a more personal and intimate safari experience, we opted for a small conservancy hidden away in the Matthews Mountain Range north of Isiolo. As we sat at the roadblock, watching the situation escalate, D had a momentary pang of regret for not flying to the Mara. Thankfully, our plan B proved every bit as good as the idyllic safari experience we had envisioned for his parents.
S called Sarara Camp, where we had made reservations, and the camp manager suggested we drive back towards the Lewa Conservancy gate, which we had passed about ten minutes before coming to roadblock, to wait until the situation diffused. She suggested two alternative routes – taking the unsigned back roads of Lewa or looping around via Meru, taking an hour and a half to cover the ten minutes to Isiolo town, after which we’d still have a two-hour drive to Sarara. We spent about an hour at the gate, but it was clear the impasse would not be resolved quickly. The conservancy’s rangers informed us that riot police had arrived, but they were no closer to clearing the road of boulders and irate people.
D had been to Lewa once for work, when Ambo met with some of Kenya’s premier conservationists; S had always wanted to go, but the conservancy’s exclusivity comes with a hefty price tag we have been reluctant to pay. As long as we were at the gate, we decided to call the handful of safari lodges we knew in Lewa to see if they had availability, since taking the back roads to Sarara sounded about as appealing as engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the villagers to clear the road we had intended to take. Serendipitously, the owners of one of our favorite safari companies answered the phone at Lewa Safari Camp and were willing to accommodate us last minute for a fraction of the price.
Lewa did not disappoint. Once a cattle ranch, the conservancy became a guarded rhino sanctuary in the 1980s and is now home to 12 percent of Kenya’s black rhino population. Due to its close proximity to the historically volatile areas of northern Kenya, where banditry, poaching, and illegal firearms are prolific, Lewa’s security operations are no joke. We saw regular aerial surveillance and both armed and unarmed guards patrolling the conservancy on foot. The upshot is that we saw so many rhinos that our guide stopped pointing out the more tranquil white rhinos and only stopped the vehicle when we came upon the skittish black ones.
In addition to spending some up-close and personal time with these majestic creatures, we also encountered a family of cheetahs right after a kill as well as many of the usual safari suspects – elephants, impalas, oryxes, the rare Grevy’s zebras, giraffes, and so forth. Our drive home was short and uneventful, as we had hoped. D’s parents had only one day in Nairobi before their early morning return flight – just enough time to go visit the elephant orphanage and giraffe center, stock up on souvenirs, and teach S to pickle.