KENYA: Many animals, no crowds

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NAIROBI, Kenya — One of Yogi Berra's famous malaprops is, "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

Kenya is like that these days, only different. No one goes there anymore, so it's a lot less crowded.

There are plenty of reasons not to go, of course: political violence, tourism crime, washed-out roads, fears of Rift Valley Fever and other exotic diseases, and even the weather. Even some tour operators in Kenya, whose livelihood depends on attracting people to the central African nation, say they have difficulty advising people to come.

In a world of endless exotic destinations, it seems almost a textbook example of how not to attract visitors.

There are, however, the animals, and they seem unaware of all the calamity. And because fewer people are going, there is less competition for the view. During a two-week trip to a half-dozen game parks, we did encounter a couple of traffic jams in the bush, but most often we had the animals to ourselves, and those times remain the lasting impressions.

Yes, we read about political violence daily in the newspapers: It seemed a half-dozen people north of where we were were being killed daily in clashes that many people blamed on President Daniel arap Moi, who was reelected in a vote no one seems to think he won squarely.

Yes, in the weeks leading to our trip, we had read about attacks on tourists in the Masai Mara game reserve. And at Samburu, we apparently narrowly missed an encounter with armed bandits ourselves. The morning we tried to leave, we were flagged down by townspeople warning us there had been an encounter just ahead, and we were forced to return to the park exit station to enlist soldiers as escorts. We sped out as part of an 11-vehicle convoy. Two weeks after we left, a tourist in Nyeri was stabbed to death in front of his wife when he fought with a bandit who demanded his camcorder.

Perhaps because of these current events, many Kenyans I met had peace on their minds. My guide volunteered early in conversation that his countrymen are a peaceful people, proud that their nation has never declared war. Two days later, I had a short discussion with Moses Ndungu, who fronts for a Kikuyu traditional dance group in Nyeri. Before he knew he was speaking with a journalist, he asked plaintively, "Please tell the people in America that we are a peaceful people, because the media make it seem that we aren't." The eyes of other Kenyans beamed when I recounted his words, as though the incidents are personally hurtful to them.

And yes, the evidence of rampant corruption and neglect of the roadways was everywhere, severely worsened by historic levels of "dry season" rain attributed to El Nino. On the main corridor to Samburu, we spent 90 minutes trying to traverse perhaps a quarter mile of road that had been ruined by cascading runoff from the direction of Mount Kenya. We got through only because we had a four- wheel drive Land Rover and a driver willing to pay bystanders to push us through the very worst part.

Farther north, there were several spots where we needed to plan a strategy for attacking the deep mud, while avoiding the vehicles that had picked the wrong line. From Lake Naivasha south toward Nairobi, the main road was more pothole than not; our guide said the last time it had been worked on was when it was built, by Italian prisoners of war in the '40s. And on the punishing road to Masai Mara, there was no pavement, only evidence of it.

Easily said, Kenya is not idyllic. But still there are the animals. At Amboseli game reserve at the southern border with Tanzania, it's not uncommon to see large herds of elephants, several families hanging out together, feasting on the high grasses boosted by the torrents that have left the area waterlogged. The guide said that in leaner times, families will work the ground separately because they are in competition for food, but even at 400 pounds a day per adult, there is plenty to go around.

We also encountered baboons, gazelles, warthogs, and plenty of birds, all of them made more spectacular by the shrouded mass of Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak. Clouds almost always were part of its grandeur, but at least we saw the peak occasionally; we were told that for some three- or four-day visitors, the clouds never part.

Early one morning, accompanying only my guide, he spotted two lionesses and their cubs, following -- stalking? -- some gazelles, themselves followed by a scavenger hyena. They were well into the distance, and first the guide said apologetically it was forbidden to leave the road. But bagging lions at Amboseli is apparently rare, and a moment later we were headed cross-country, he with his eyes on the prizes, me with my eyes out for the law. Back at the lodge, the tale drew gasps of jealousy from other guests, and having had the experience all to myself made it more precious still.

Samburu was the next stop, and not only was it sparsely traveled, we found a terrific range of game. Before even reaching the lodge, we'd seen ostriches, two lazy groups of giraffes, and a couple of gerenuks, whose existence had somehow escaped me until that moment. They are curious looking: Below the neck, in proportion, they are like deer or gazelles, but above the neck, in proportion they are like giraffes.

But it is how they eat that is more delightful to discover: They balance on their hind legs while they nibble a stratum of vegetation apparently reserved just for them. The first time -- the only time we saw them eating -- it was hard to process just what kind of animal it was, and what it was doing: fully upright, forelegs placed like a begging dog's. With just about every other species, even neophytes like me at least could guess which animal was in our sight.

Samburu has an improbable landscape. In one spot, there is a huge cubic outcropping, sheer on the sides and flat on top. Right next to it is a fairly perfect cone rising to a point; it is hard to imagine what natural force could have created both shapes so near to each other. And next to them is a hill like a camel's back, only a camel with six humps.

Such is not the case at Masai Mara in southwestern Kenya, but then again, one does not go to the Mara for topography. It is located at the top end of the Serengeti, and considered the gem of the nation's animal treasures. It is a truism that one saves this reserve for last, to leave on a high plain.

Although eventually we did see satisfying numbers of lions, wildebeests, hippos, and other animals, but after our first game drive there, our high expectations had not been met. It seemed an armada of touring vehicles had left our lodge as one, so that as we trolled the plains we could see as many as a dozen other vehicles doing the same thing; for the two-hour-plus excursion, at no time were we able to see more animals than people.

Finally, near the end, we heard over the two-way radio that a lion had been spotted perhaps a half-mile away, and once we turned our attention in the direction, the location was made obvious by the clump of vans. Still, we wanted to see it too, so we got into the queue for a parking spot. I hopped up on the roof -- all the vehicles have detachable roof covers to allow easier game viewing -- and saw the beast just on the other side of a glade. A rainbow was in the background, and I snapped happily away. It wasn't until we departed that I learned that somehow I had missed the lion that everyone was viewing in the thicket, and had seen one that somehow no one else had noticed.

That it was unshared, even with those inside my vehicle, made the moment special, just like the lionesses at Amboseli and the uncrowded vistas of Samburu. Yes, there are plenty of reasons not to go to Kenya, but if you've ever considered it, you might want to go while no one's there. SIDEBAR: Game lodge's reputation clashes with its reality

In 1952, Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain went up to spend a night at Treetops game lodge in Kenya, and when she returned in the morning, she was a queen: Her father had died during the night.

Even though that was almost half a century ago, and even though the Treetops she stayed in burned down a few years later, the cramped, bloated substitute that carries on the name still leans on that legend. Maybe it's because that's the last brag-worthy event its owners have had.

In my party of five that visited in February, not a one of us rated it more than 1 on a scale of 10.

What separates Treetops from most game lodges are the creature comforts; they all belong to the creatures: salt licks and a large watering hole. There's no nature path, no swimming pool, no native floor show after dinner; the animals are supposed to be the entertainment. Huge lights flood the watering hole all night, and there is a system to alert guests from their sleep if anything interesting arrives outside.

Inside, the accommodations are spare. A handful of bathrooms are available for the dozens of rooms, most of which sleep two people. The rooms have no locks, and are so small that I had to skip my morning situps because there wasn't enough floor space.

My room had a bonus: an infestation of locusts. When I saw the dozen or so long, green pests upon entering, I went to ask, but was assured that they are harmless. Perhaps, but the idea of spending the night while they prowled the room was creepy. So using the plastic bag that my drinking glass was wrapped in as a glove, I grabbed them, one by one, and cast them outside. I had it down to one or two by dinnertime.

I joined my companions outside the dining hall, and we spent the 10-minute wait batting away the swarms of Nairobi flies that were dive bombing us and everyone else. (Thankfully, the dining room was cramped, but somehow insect free.) When I returned to my room a few hours later, I found a dozen locusts more. Figuring I had missed these before, I again donned my mitt, began catching, and again got them down to a couple.

Then I got into bed, to read before sleep. As I lay on my back, I noticed I had missed a couple more up in the corner. Then I realized the ceiling did not connect with the room's rough-hewn corner post. Then I noticed the parade of locusts, slowly marching single file into the room, our of some science-fiction horror. Luckily, when I reached a staff member this time, they relocated me to a room with a stable number of pests.

Fair enough, you say? This is the wild, and even in an extreme case, what's a few bugs? Sure, but the locusts outnumbered the beasts we had come to see. Soon after arrival, someone exclaimed, "Hey look, here comes an elephant!" The day before, my companions and I had been amid a herd of perhaps 50, close enough to touch them (no, we didn't). Except one herd of water buffalo, the locusts were the most notable event.

William Otieno, Treetops' manager, blamed the insects on wet conditions brought on by highly unusual, unseasonal rains. I asked him about the lack of game, and puzzlingly, he said game turnout has been great the past couple of years.

Perhaps there was nothing more he could say. Even when one saves for years, plans for months, and journeys for a day and a half to get there, this was yet more proof that travel offers no guarantees. Sometimes bad weather intervenes. Sometimes events conspire to ruin a day.

And sometimes, you learn that some places are living off reputations established -- and then eroded -- long ago.