Dispatch, Kenya: Charging elephants and a health scare

Baran's Kenya hedshotTravel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran is in the midst of a 10-day trip to Kenya, to report on how recent violence in the country is affecting tourism. She spent some time in Nairobi speaking to tourism officials and is now on safari.

Days 5 to 7, Samburu National Reserve and Mount Kenya: Those of you who have been following my dispatches from Kenya know that I have been focused on the recent violence here and its effect on the safety of travelers. Perhaps I should have been worrying about angry elephants and the consequences of having bypassed proper medical precautions.

The bottom line: Elephants get mad, and I got sick.

Let's start with the wildlife. I didn't truly understand the concept of "wild" until our first game run in Samburu National Reserve. Not more than 30 minutes after departing from the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, we came across -- and very close to -- a herd of elephants. A perfect photo op.

But as everyone in our Big Five vans was busy adjusting their camera lenses, one of the large male elephants was steadily becoming more agitated, urinating all over himself. He suddenly charged one of the vans. The driver sped off in time, and the elephant never made contact.

At that moment, I realized that when you're out in the bush, whatever is happening in human society -- whether Mwai Kibaki or Raila Odinga have agreed on a power-sharing government or not (which appears unresolved despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit on Monday and Tuesday) -- doesn't matter. Out in the bush, it is man (or safari van) versus nature.

Then, there's the issue of health. In my haste to get to Kenya, I skirted certain medical precautions, most notably the highly recommended anti-malarial drugs. Everything would be fine, I told myself, which of course is tantamount to asking for an exotic disease.

Well, I've been assured by a doctor that I do not have malaria, just a nasty flu. But at the height of my discomfort, I realized that I was far more fearful about the consequences of a potentially serious illness that I could have prevented than I had ever been about the safety of traveling through Kenya.

After a scolding from the nurse at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, who told me, "Sweetheart, this is Africa," I got the message loud and clear. I am now taking a proper anti-malarial regimen.

On the road in Kenya

Agitated elephants and malaria scares aside, driving throughout Kenya has thus far been without incident.

Leaving Nairobi, I had the gratifying feeling of leaving a hectic urban center. Once the grime and stress of city life were behind me, a simpler, more tranquil rural life unfolded. The Kenyan countryside is absolutely stunning. I could feel my shoulders drop as they released the tension of honking cars and droves of people.

We headed slightly east, then north to get to Samburu. Our driver, Peter, assured me that this is the normal route to get to the reserve and that we weren't making any detours due to unrest. We were often right alongside Kenyan people while driving through towns along the way, but never did anyone approach the vans other than to try to sell souvenirs and snacks.

It was at one of our roadside stops, at the Equator in fact, that I began to understand the sweeping effects Kenya's tourism drought has had on every level of Kenyan society. A group of men approached the van, holding up various pieces of jewelry. When I and the five other passengers in our van declined to buy their wares, the men started to tell their tales of woe.

"Please," they said. "We have no tourists here. We need you to promote us. Please."

It wasn't the first time I had noticed what a toll the tourism crisis was taking, not just on the hotels and workers but on all the people in between, from these little roadside businesses to the people who supply food to the restaurants.

When we arrived at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge our group was the only one checking in. For one night at least, we had the place to ourselves. Then, slowly, more tourists started to arrive, including a group of about 10 young travelers and a few couples. Out on the game drives, we started to encounter more vehicles along the road.

By the time we got to Mount Kenya, the dining room at the Serena Mountain Lodge was packed. We ran into another group from Go Ahead Tours (which according to one of the travelers had canceled a Feb. 1 departure and had pushed anyone back from that itinerary to a Feb. 15 departure). And there were several other smaller groups of families or couples.

Day by day, it seems the tourism industry is rebuilding.

But for now, those who have chosen to come to Kenya enjoy a certain exclusivity and attention they never would have received in less turbulent times.

To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].


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