TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya -- Once, Aruba Dam was a popular spot with tourists to East Africa, but today our dusty white minivan pulls into its nearly deserted campgrounds. There are gaping holes in the thatched roof of a waterside pavilion and paint peels off the door. Our little band stands on the lonely shore of the reservoir, watching herds of elephants and Cape buffalo drinking its shimmering waters.
It will be dark in a couple of hours. So as we pull away, we are joined by a young Kenya Wildlife Service officer armed with an automatic rifle. He is our "askari," Swahili for guard, and a reminder of where all the crowds have gone.
They've been scared off. Kenya's newspapers are full of stories about armed thugs in the cities, bandits in the countryside. The 1997 Lonely Planet travel guide to Africa warns: "Rarely does one come across a country where such lawlessness is so ingrained that it's basically accepted as a part of life." If mugged in Nairobi, the editors advise, don't tell the police. They may wind up picking you clean of whatever else you have. And don't cry out, unless you want blood on your hands. Kenyan crowds will chase down purse-snatchers and stone them to death.
Neither are the national parks entirely safe.
A few days before we came to Tsavo East, three poachers shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger in Tsavo West, the park next door. That same week, two suspected bandits armed with an AK-47 assault rifle were gunned down by police forces after a 15-minute firefight. The suspects were said to have planned attacks on tourists near the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Several parks in northern Kenya, especially those near the border with Somalia, are too dangerous to visit.
Security problems have taken their toll. By some estimates, the number of visitors to Kenya's once-popular coastal resorts has plummeted 60 percent. Several hotels have closed. Kenya's already fragile economy has been severely hit: Tourism is its largest single source of foreign currency.
Photographer Doug Kapustin and I flew to Kenya for business, and we weren't sure what to expect. What we found -- in addition to scary headlines -- was magnificent scenery, tropical beaches, lots of wildlife and many gracious people grateful to see us.
I have previously stayed at one or two nice hotels. Few were as comfortable as the Mnarani Club (pronounced "MAHN-ah-RAH-knee"), our hotel in the coastal town of Kilifi. White sand tickled the emerald water of the Indian Ocean, a pool sparkled under coconut palms and $45 a night bought not just a spacious room, but a gourmet dinner and all the local beer -- called Tusker -- we could drink.
Though it was the height of the tourist season, the club was half full. There was no jostling for the delicious pumpkin soup, no shortage of front-row seats for the evening's entertainment by Masai dancers, no waiting for the squash courts. The staff was hard working, but still had plenty of time to chat.
The Mnarani Club was designed, we were told, to cater to well-heeled continental European visitors. Instead, there were -- besides Kapustin and me -- a few bargain-hunting British and Irish tourists, and a group of Christian missionaries from Missouri. The missionaries had come to convert members of the staunchly animist Giriama, the major tribal group on the Kenyan coast north of Mombasa.
We didn't spend much time in Mombasa, Kenya's major Indian Ocean port. Our guidebooks warned us to stay away from certain stretches of beach, including a place ominously nicknamed "Machete Point." We clambered over the battlements of Fort Jesus, an ancient Portuguese outpost made of huge blocks of volcanic rock, and visited its excellent and nearly deserted museum.
Mombasa's Moi Avenue has felt the effects of the tourism crash. One merchant there ran a jewelry store that sold gold, silver and tanzanite to visitors. But after a bloody crackdown by police on opponents of President Daniel Arap Moi in 1997, the number of wealthy visitors plummeted. The merchant was forced to switch to peddling low-cost clothing to local residents.
When I mentioned that my mother wanted some tanzanite stone, he pulled a tray of the purple gems from under a counter stacked with slacks. I realized I couldn't tell a precious rock from colored glass, and offered him a fraction of his asking price -- figuring that would get me off the hook. He seemed crushed. But when I started to walk out the door he agreed to my price and practically shoved the stone in my hand. (Even if it was fake, I figure, it didn't cost much and my mother would never know the difference.)
Everywhere we went, Kenyans had posted stern portraits of their aging dictator. One Moi Avenue merchant -- not the one who sold me the stone -- explained that any business without a portrait could be accused of disrespect by the ruling political party. Most Kenyans we met were bitterly critical of Moi. Tales of his corruption, real or imagined, are part of the national folklore. One senior Kenyan academic even assured me that Moi's son ran a car theft ring out of the presidential palace.
We saw more carved soapstone animal figurines in Kenya than tourists to buy them. Kapustin became adept at bargaining for these trinkets. At the recommendation of a resident of Kenya, we decided to visit the Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Center, run with the support of the Methodist Church, outside Mombasa. The gift shop there sells the work of handicapped Kenyans. I snapped up several pieces of jewelry at reasonable prices. But because the place was a refuge for the handicapped, I didn't try to negotiate.
My clerk followed me around, literally wringing her hands in anticipation. "You will spend a lot of money, yes?" she asked hopefully.
After a week of working, Kapustin and I decided to take a couple of days off. So we signed up for a safari to the Satao Camp, a privately run luxury camp at Tsavo East. Transportation to Satao, accommodations and guide cost $250 each for two days and one night. (When we arrived at the camp, which was far from filled, we realized that we probably could have bargained for a lower price.)
The "camp" consists of a dozen big canvas tents set up under thatched roofs, a gift shop, anopen-sided restaurant and bar, and a viewing platform built on stilts that overlooks a man-made watering hole.
We found ourselves traveling with two other guests from the Mnarani Club: Tony, a Belfast hair stylist, and his girlfriend, Marie. They first came to Africa a few years ago because it seemed exotic and a tremendous bargain.
Monkeys scampered around the camp as we ate dinner in the open-sided restaraunt. After dinner, we lingered at the bar with a Tusker or two. We talked about the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland. Tony says Belfast is perfectly safe, as long as you stay out of certain neighborhoods.
So is Baltimore, I said. So, it occurred to me, is Kenya.
As darkness fell, the camp's lights flickered on, and impala wandered so close to the camp they grazed between some of the tents. "Do they come so close for the salt licks?" Marie asked a camp employee. "They come so close to stay alive," the employee said. There are lions out there, beyond the lights.
Early the next morning, we stumbled out of our tents and back into our minivan. Tony was eager to get started. "I want to see a lion kill something," he said sleepily. Our guide, who asked to be called Mr. Douglas, hauled us off into the savannah in a cloud of blue diesel smoke.
We overtook a female lion trotting along one of the dirt roads. She stopped, glanced over her shoulder and fixed me with an amber-eyed stare. Apparently, she was stalking something still invisible to us, but whose smell she picked up a ways back. At first, I wondered if our noisy diesel vehicle annoyed her. Then I realized she used the rattle of the engine and stink of exhaust to cover her approach.
Stalking the wildlife
If she wanted, the animal could have torn the plastic sun roof off our frail van and enjoyed a hearty repast of Irish and American tourists. But she seems to regard us as part of the metal contraption. "She's looking for her breakfast," said Mr. Douglas. (By coincidence, three of the five people in our van bear the name Douglas.)
Mr. Douglas has been doing this a long time, and can spot game several thousand yards from the road. He finds giraffe and buffalo and exotic birds. But we spend a lot of time bouncing through the bush looking in vain for a leopard. None of us cares that much: the abundance of wildlife seems amazing. But for Mr. Douglas, finding a leopard seems to be a point of pride.
Whenever Mr. Douglas spots an animal, he intones its name in a languid, somber tone. "The bird is called the Corey buzzard," he says, pointing to a blatantly ugly bird rustling its feathers far out in the bush. "There are two of them."
As we pull up to a watering hole set among tamarind trees, a half dozen elephants are splashing around with their trunks. A mother elephant nuzzles her baby in the water. The infant is probably the size of a riding lawn mower, but it seems small and frail next to the adults. "Look at the wee elephant," Marie said.
A bull with long tusks confronts a Cape buffalo on the shore. After a few tense moments of indecision, the buffalo turns and canters away. The pugnacious Tony seemed a little disappointed by the buffalo's discretion. "He's going to find his mates," he said.
Where he comes from, he said, no one runs away from a fight.
WHEN YOU GO
The best time: Summer or winter. The spring brings the long rains, which run through May, to the Kenyan coast. The fall brings the short rains. Kilifi is below the Equator, so the closest thing to winter there comes June to August. This is also the most pleasant time of the year. While we were in Kilifi last July, it was in the 80s. Back in Baltimore, temperatures were routinely breaking 100.
Getting there: KLM is one of a number of airlines that fly to Nairobi, with connections on Kenya Airways to Mombasa. Your hotel can arrange to pick you up at the airport. Because the roads are in lousy shape and security is a concern, it's best to have someone meet you at the airport. Try to arrive in the daytime.
Where to stay: The Mnarani Club, P.O. Box 1008, Kilifi Creek, Kenya. Phone 011-254-125-22318, or 011-254-125-22320. Fax: 011-254-125-22200. Reservations fax: 011-254-122-32345. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates vary with the season and the size of the group.
Safari: The Mnarani Club management can recommend several safari companies, with visits to most of the famous Kenyan wildlife parks. Or ask your travel agent. We went to Tsavo East only because we planned the trip at the last minute, and were limited to two days. Most visitors will want to do a lot more planning, and spend a lot more time in a park.