Game viewing on camel-back offers a new perspective of not just being a spectator but actually being part of the wild.
I am idly standing by what turns out to be the stables of Sabuk Lodge, cup of hot black coffee in hand, when two camels on long thin legs are led out. I have never been on a camel before, and save for the trees, these seem to tower above everything in the vicinity. Perhaps seeing the alarm plastered on my face, the handler reassures me that these two are being taken out to graze and are not actually used for safaris. Relief washes over me.
Shortly after, our guides Gas and Tise bring out our rides for the day and at a little over 6 feet, these seem more manageable. “You need to hold onto this metal frame and hop on fast so that you don’t get tossed off,” instructs Gas, erupting into peals of laughter when he sees my shocked face. The camel is resting on its knees so I hop on and it gets up hind legs first, then we set off for the plains.
The saddles are draped in colourful maasai shuka and complete with a metal frame to grasp onto, are sturdy and secured in place. They however do not have much padding and I can instantly tell that this won’t be comfortable for me over a long distance or faster pace. As it walks, it moves both legs on one side then both on the other, making me rock from side to side. I wonder out loud if I might perhaps be too heavy for the animal, but I am quickly reassured that their legs are incredibly strong and can carry up to 400kg. This certainly came in handy for nomadic pastoralists when they had to pack up their belongings and move from one manyatta to go set up base in greener pastures.
It is around 8:00am so the sun is mercifully not overhead in all its scorching glory. As though we had set up a meeting and they showed up on time, we encounter two giraffes browsing on leaves and they seem unperturbed by our presence even as we get as close as 100 metres. To me, we might as well be eye to eye. I have rattled around ranches and conservancies in a 4X4 van and gone on walking safaris, but this is an altogether new perspective. It is almost as if we are no longer spectators but are actually part of the wildlife. Camels can reach speeds of 65 km/h; imagine the thrill of tearing across the plains alongside this pair of giraffes, heart pounding and wind against your face, as though trying to get away from a big cat.
During our short walk, we also encounter a herd of zebras and elands drinking their fill at a waterhole. When we come across about six female camels grazing and browsing, the guides tell us that these are largely kept for breeding and their milk which is very nutritious and can fetch a good price at the market.
“One camel can cost up to Ksh 80,000 and if you own all these, you would be considered wealthy,” suggests Gas, stopping his infectious whistling to point at the herd. The mischievous grin I have come to associate him with spreads across his face. “If you got married and your father received two of these as your dowry, he would be a very happy man!” he finishes gleefully.
Camel safaris can be anything from half day, full day, overnight or a short walk like ours which culminates in a bush breakfast nestled amidst trees. Here, we discover a rock reminiscent of the famous Lion King “everything the light touches is our kingdom” rock scene. From this vantage point we are able to see the vastness of the plains as well as the waterhole and trail we just took.
There are several properties in the North that offer camel safaris but our selected spot was Sabuk Lodge which was about a three hour drive from Nanyuki. The lodge has been running these safaris for over 25 years and their animals are well looked after.
We arrived late at night and I wasn’t able to check out the property in the dark, but the refreshing hot shower with water from the Ewaso Ng’iro river which I could hear roaring past was a magical experience under the night sky. There was also a star bed and telescope which kept me preoccupied for a while.
In the morning, I was woken up by orange sunrise seeping in through my mosquito net and I sat up to see that it had washed over the entire rustic space as though casting an enchanting spell. The cottage was open-faced and perched on a cliff with no construction blocking the view of the valley below. Looking down onto the gorge, the river meandered and thundered by, and binoculars revealed zebras milling about. A plunge pool curved out of natural boulder overlooked the plains and similar rock fixtures were worked seamlessly into the design of the lodge.
Verity Williams who is a pioneer in Kenya’s safari scene owns and manages the property and was the loveliest of hosts, running Sabuk like a well-oiled machine. There are six spacious open-front cottages, each unique from the next, as well as a family cottage with its own mess area and plunge pool.