This piece was originally published in Nomad Magazine.
“These are the last campers,” joked my friend, Ruthie, motioning towards the dusty, cracked jawbone of a zebra lying discarded on the ground.
We’d been strolling across the parched Laikipia landscape for the past two hours with our guide Joseph, and couldn’t help noticing that the remnants of prey seemed to increase as we approached the camp where we were to spend the night.
Joseph chuckled at our observations. In his 20 years working at El Karama Lodge, many of them as a guide, he has used the gun he carries. So it can’t be that dangerous, I reassured Ruthie.
We dashed enthusiastically toward our tents, suspended between a few trees about a metre off the ground, and jumped in to test out the bedding and bounciness of our floating accommodation. Verdict: comfy and bouncy in equal measure.
Looking back, I think I should probably have been a little more nervous. After all, there was just a thin strip of canvas separating us from the cackling hyena and low rumbles of lion we could hear in the distance.
But it was far too exciting to be worrying about all that.
We were in this area of Laikipia for the weekend to go fly camping, which involves hiking for a couple of hours to a temporary camp in a remote location.
El Karama keeps the set-up pretty simple – the suspended tents, a barbeque fire, a few safari chairs and Masaai blankets and a couple of askaris to ward off those howling beasts.
The adventure began earlier that day, when we turned off the main tarmac road from Nanyuki and began the final 40km drive to El Karama, a private 14,000 acre ranch in central Laikipia.
Our first sightings of wildlife came as we neared El Karama: baboons sitting in the shade, nonchalantly inspecting their fur; gerenuk grazing on the trees, necks outstretched for the greenest, juiciest leaves; a solitary hippo wallowing in the shallow, muddy waterhole.
After lunch and showers it was time for a short safety briefing (avoid the puff adders, stay in line, listen to Joseph, try not to get eaten – that sort of thing) and then we were off in the vehicle to the start of our walk.
On the way we passed a herd of elephant, who seemed a little skittish. “Many have come from the north and west of Laikipia because of the troubles,” Joseph explained.
Laikipia has been beset by disturbances through a combination of complex issues including drought, lack of sustainably-managed grasslands and population growth. The wildlife has come into the crossfire, and is understandably nervous.
El Karama Lodge owner Sophie Grant explained that while travel to some pockets of Laikipia is not advisable currently, visiting this region is still possible as long as you travel responsibly.
“Contact the lodges and operators before travelling and ask them what the situation is on the ground” she suggested.
The elephants eyed us warily for a few moments and then turned their backs, heading for the river. As we began our walk, Joseph was up front, armed and on the outlook for wildlife that might not appreciate our presence, and we fell into line behind.
Silence was everywhere, but for the sounds of dry grass crunching beneath our boots and weaverbirds tweeting in the trees. Mighty shards of light filtered through the clouds, and as the sun began to diminish we watched a giraffe gallop across the horizon, silhouetted against the vibrant orange glow.
After a hearty dinner around the fire, it was time to retreat to our hanging tents for the night. With no moonlight, the night sky was out in its full glittery splendour, visible through the translucent tent tops.
The homely smell of burning logs filled the air as we lay back and gazed up at the universe from the comfort of our beds until our eyelids could stay open no longer.
The night’s sleep was sporadic. I kept waking to mutter “ooohhh … ahhhh” at the stars before dozing back off. Naturally, no adventure is complete without a hair-raising trip to the toilet in the middle of the night.
I crept along in the darkness, wondering what lurked beyond the glow of my lantern, and dashed back to the tent when my imagination got the better of me.
As night turned to day, the sky changed colour – black to navy to dusky purple to orange and eventually to pale morning blue. Bleary-eyed but happy, I unzipped the tent to watch a herd of zebra meandering across the horizon.
The beauty of Laikipia is in these camping adventures. Hiking with expert guides, “seeing the story of an animal encounter in the dust, appreciating the value of the natural world and the fragility of the ecosystem, and getting away from the fluff,” as Sophie puts it.
Besides which, there is little that is more thrilling than venturing into the wild.