The Wonder of Lake Elmenteita by “Big Cats” Jonathan Scott

Less than an hours’ drive from Nairobi city center is one of the scenic wonders of the world: the Great Rift Valley, a sight that never fails to take my breath away. As you approach the edge of the Escarpment on the outskirts of the city the landscape rolls out in front of you a thousand meters below, a wide expanse of African savannah dotted with flat topped acacia trees stretching as far as the eye can see. This is familiar territory for Angie and myself. Three hours’ drive away to the west lies the Masai Mara National Reserve where we have a base at Governor’s Camp, further still the blue of Lake Victoria and Mufangano Island another Governor’s Camp retreat. The Rift Valley is speckled with a series of lakes – some freshwater like Lakes Naivasha and Baringo, others a caustic mix of soda where lesser and greater flamingos gather in their hundreds of thousands – Lakes Bogoria, Nakuru, Elementeita and Magadi in Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania.

I first set eyes on the Great Rift Valley in 1975 while traveling overland from my home in England. It was the beginning of a love affair with Africa that has lasted 40 years – Kenya is home. How different things were back then. After the highlights of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Masai Mara was little more than a stopover on our way to Nairobi. Today the Masai Mara hosts up to 400,000 visitors a year and is rightly considered Kenya’s premier game viewing destination, famous for its big cats and the spectacle of the great migration that floods across the border during the dry season from June to October. For us ‘overlanders’ there was just time for a morning game drive around Lake Nakuru, which as beautiful as it undoubtedly is proved disappointing. The tens of thousands of greater and lesser flamingos that normally transform the edges of the lake into a pink paradise had vanished for richer feeding grounds further north at Lake Bogoria. The splendor of the world’s greatest bird spectacle would have to wait. As we began to climb out of the Rift Valley and away from Lake Nakuru I could see in the distance a smaller lake where the pink of the elusive flamingos dotted the margins of the shoreline. I looked at the map and saw that it was called Lake Elementeita – ‘the dusty land’ of the Masai. I was determined to return for another look.

It was November and the streets of the Nairobi were lined with Jacaranda trees surely one of the most captivating sights when in full bloom, their ripe blossoms creating a carpet of lilac along the highway in to town. After a few days of R&R at a campsite not far from where Angie and I now live close to Nairobi National Park and Giraffe Manor I headed back to the Rift Valley in search of the illusive flamingos. Everyone else was busy catching up on some creature comforts after three months on the road – hot showers and a change of clothing, lazy days by the swimming pool when not tucking in to pastries and coffee in downtown Nairobi. I hitched a lift past the stunningly green tea country of Limuru down into the Rift Valley. When I reached a wide bend on the rutted tarmac overlooking dry thorn bush near Lake Elementeita I jumped out camera in hand and strode down through the long grass towards the water. I had not a clue as to what I would find along the way – might there be lions or buffalos lying up among the patches of thick bush, a leopard perhaps watching from the acacia forests? I kept to the open wherever possible taking note of trees I might climb if something large and dangerous suddenly emerged. I got the fright of my life as wart hogs erupted from under my feet as they exploded from their burrows with blood-curdling grunts and squeals, showering me with soil. There were herds of waterbuck – large shaggy coated antelopes – the males bearing impressive sets of knurled horns that could easily skewer a lion if cornered; goodness knows what they might do to me.

I was rapidly discovering that I was a novice when it came to walking through game country but I was determined to immerse myself in the sight of those flamingos even if only for a moment or two and despite the risk (don’t walk in bush country without a qualified armed ranger is the answer). Nothing in my upbringing in England could have prepared me for the excitement of this. I had never felt so alive. I snapped a few photographs of the flamingos and then hurried up to the road, hitching a ride back to the campsite, feeling a sense of utter elation as I picked the ticks off my legs. I had kept my promise that I wouldn’t waste one precious moment of my time in Africa, soaking up every spine tingling element of the safari experience I hungered after.

Wind forward 40 years..

Today it is a lot easier to enjoy the charms of the Rift Valley with a visit to the elegant Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp nestled among yellow barked fever trees overlooking the lake. There is something about a view over water that is indescribably calming whether an ocean panorama or what we now spread before us; all the tensions and worries accumulated amidst the hustle and bustle of city-life evaporated as we walked through reception and in to that view. It may be called a Camp but this Serena property has all the trimmings of a 5 star resort. We were overjoyed to see others visitors equally enthusiastic about this idyllic retreat. The Camp was bustling with guests, from executives leading workshops to politicians taking a break with their wives rubbing shoulders with a healthy mix of overseas visitors. Kenya’s tourism industry took a deep sigh of relief last week when the UK Travel Advisory on all but essential travel to Mombasa was lifted. A few weeks earlier the British High Commissioner Dr Christian Turner spent a night at Mara Serena Safari Lodge in the Masai Mara (another landmark Serena property with a breathtaking view over the Mara’s animals speckled plains) followed by two nights with his family at Governor’s Camp. His visit underlined to the world that taking a safari in Kenya is something everyone should treat themselves to at least once in a lifetime, preferably sooner rather than later. It is all about defining acceptable risk. While the Kenya coast has struggled this past year under a cloud of insecurity let’s make a pledge to ourselves that we will not let acts of terrorism prevent us from living the life of our dreams.

Closer to home in Nairobi, our Grandson Michael celebrates his second birthday at the end of this month. He spent his first Easter with our daughter Alia and her partner Richard at the Mombasa Serena Beach Hotel & Spa and has taken more safaris around Kenya than most people enjoy in a lifetime. His latest adventure was a days’ outing in Nairobi National Park where he saw lions and rhinos and learnt a thing or two about black cotton soil. After heavy rain those clay soils take on the constituency of chewing gum and is best avoided as Michael’s Dad soon discovered. Alia and Richard rarely miss an opportunity to head off on safari as the weekend beckons in stark contrast to Angie and I who rarely take a break from our work as photographers and authors. Getting the balance right between how much time you spend nurturing work, your community and family is something that most of us fail to do. One way to address this is to view weekends as sacred, quality time to spend with loved ones rather than an opportunity to do even more work. So while it took us as long to pack our safari vehicle for two nights away from home as it does a month, the rewards were immense, not least the golden rule of no mobile phones, texting or looking at IPad’s during meals.

And talking of food the dining experience at Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp was outstanding; everything from starters to desserts freshly prepared with delicious ingredients and plenty of flexibility for those with special dietary needs. There is a spa, swimming pool, nature walks, watercolor classes, horseback riding, balloon safari and sundowners overlooking the lake – just not enough time to do justice to all of them. Game drives offered parties of flamingos and pelicans, herds of buffalo and waterbuck and the promise of lions and leopard. While the big cats alluded us on this occasion we delighted in weaving our way through dense stands of yellow barked acacia where herds of impala and zebras ghosted in and out of the shadows. The thought of a spotted cat padding on soft paws through this kind of setting was almost as satisfying as the real thing – though we did see pug marks. But this was never about searching for big cats, more about slowing down and savouring the clear crisp air, admiring the dazzling array of flowering plants and prolific bird life around Camp.

The Serena philosophy reminded us of another great international hotel chain – the Oberoi Group in India. Service is at the heart of their philosophy, with an understated elegance a feature of all their properties along with sublime attention to detail. When we mentioned that to the inimitable PRS Oberoi he thanked us for our kind comments and then asked “And what didn’t you like – that is what’s most important to me.” Certainly Serena has transformed their product since I first arrived in Nairobi. That is as much due to listening to their guests as it is to the diligence of Mahmoud Janmohamed, the Managing Director of Serena Hotels Africa. Kenya has a well-deserved reputation for the warmth and friendliness of its people and the quality of its service industry helping to ensure that visitors return home with a smile on their face.

What could be more reassuring than knowing that a visit to any Serena property will reflect the high standards that Jan asks of his team. It is a class act.

Shared with kind permission of Jonathan and Angie Scott.  Please feel free to share. / @serenahotels

Jonathan and Angie Scott are award winning authors and internationally renowned wildlife photographers based in Kenya, Africa. They’re the only couple to have individually won the Overall Award in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition – Jonathan in 1987 and Angie in 2002.  They divide their time between their beautiful home in a leafy suburb of Nairobi – with giraffes as their neighbours – and a cottage at Governor’s Camp overlooking the animal speckled plains of the Masai Mara, Africa’s finest wildlife area. The Mara is the location for many of the popular TV series that Jonathan has presented for the BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Paramount TV and Turner Broadcasting including Big Cat Diary, Elephant Diaries, Big Bear Diary, Dawn to Dusk, Flamingo Watch and Africa Watch.

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