Chee­tahs and cock­tails

Kenya is full of un­ex­pected din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences at all hours

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

FOR­GIVE me for feel­ing faint. At Car­ni­vore, about 4km from the cen­tre of the Kenyan cap­i­tal of Nairobi, the wait­ers, in ze­bra-print aprons and jaunty straw boaters, cir­cu­late around the ta­bles bran­dish­ing swords on which is skew­ered an ar­ray of un­usual meat, from os­trich and camel to croc­o­dile and the frankly un­ap­petis­ing prospect of ‘‘ox balls’’.

Then comes the Dawa man. Hang­ing on straps around his neck is what looks like one of those old-fash­ioned snacks trays you used to see at the cin­ema. But in­stead of chocolate-coated ices, Mal­te­sers and pop­corn he’s of­fer­ing a po­tent cock­tail of vodka, fresh lime juice, sugar, honey and ice. It’s enough to blow off your (sa­fari) socks. Dawa, it tran­spires, means medicine or magic po­tion in Swahili.

Car­ni­vore is a bit of a cir­cus with its huge fire pit over which the meat is cooked, its cos­tumed staff and smoke-sharp air. But since its 1980 open­ing it’s been a big suc­cess and the con­cept is fun in a one-off nov­elty kind of way. Its Ta­marind man­age­ment com­pany also runs seafood restau­rants in Nairobi and Mom­basa, food cruises on dhows in Mom­basa and the Ta­mambo Karen Blixen Cof­fee Gar­den ad­ja­cent to the Out of Africa au­thor’s for­mer home, now a mu­seum in the Nairobi sub­urb of Karen.

Since 2004, game has not been served (croc­o­dile is the one ex­cep­tion) at Car­ni­vore due to a change in bush meat reg­u­la­tions, so don’t ex­pect, say, gi­raffe on a stick, im­pala spare ribs or warthog sausages but, like a Brazil­ian chur­ras­caria, the meat comes on an al­lyou-can-scoff ba­sis.

In the cen­tre of each ta­ble is a holder of sauces into which the var­i­ous meats should be dipped. For croc­o­dile and chicken there’s a gar­lic sauce, while for beef it’s a tikka masala. The fruit salsa is for pork, wild­berry for camel and os­trich, and mint for lamb. ‘‘The chilli goes with ev­ery­thing,’’ laughs our waiter, giv­ing the two-tiered dis­play a vig­or­ous spin for good mea­sure. There’s a to­ken amount of salad for the fee­ble-hearted and a wel­come starter of mine­strone and plenty of warm brown bread to mop up juices.

Our waiter is shocked when we place the ta­ble’s lit­tle white flag on its side as a sign we have had enough. ‘ ‘ Not sur­ren­der­ing al­ready?’’ he cries in dis­be­lief as a col­league tries to push in with a sword­ful of chicken liv­ers.

It’s a big restau­rant, seat­ing more than 400 din­ers, and with the Simba Saloon night­club at­tached. Best ta­bles are in the rear gar­den court­yard with open sides and well away from the smoke and siz­zle of the roast­ing pit. There’s also a shop with sur­pris­ingly good sou­venirs. I buy my hus­band a ze­bra-print bar­be­cue apron but don’t dare look for a cook­book.

Mean­time, in Kenya’s Ma­sai Mara Na­tional Re­serve, sa­fari cui­sine is al­to­gether gen­tler on game drives with Andrew Kin­gori, head field guide with the fam­ily-owned Wildlife Sa­fari com­pany. We are staying at the 10-tent Mara Ex­plorer camp, which is ap­pro­pri­ately com­fort­able and friendly rather than grand-luxe, and its staff are given to merry sur­prises.

‘‘What are those peo­ple do­ing? They are not al­lowed to leave their ve­hi­cles in a na­tional park,’’ shouts Kin­gori late one af­ter­noon on a sa­fari drive from camp. He points to a flat-topped aca­cia tree in the dis­tance. Sure enough, we see fig­ures mov­ing. Are they tourists gone dotty with the heat?

As we ap­proach, Kin­gori can’t con­tain his laugh­ter. Then we re­alise it’s the camp’s kitchen staff who have set up for us a ta­ble of sun­downer drinks and sizzling snacks. An askari, or watch­man, stands dis­creetly to one side, his eyes sweep­ing the sa­vanna for any sign of move­ment. Only 10 min­utes ear­lier, we saw lions, ele­phants and a chee­tah pass­ing close by our ve­hi­cle.

Next day, we have been up since dawn on an ex­cur­sion rich in an­i­mal sight­ings.

Just when we de­cide things could get no bet­ter, we turn a cor­ner and en­ter an en­chanted glade where Mara Ex­plorer chefs Vin­cent, James and Steven, with white uni­forms and sun­beam smiles, have set up a break­fast buf­fet ta­ble cov­ered with a red-checked Ma­sai blan­ket.

The rum­bles are not from our stom­achs but a deep wa­ter­hole be­low the river­bank where a pod of hip­pos snorts and snuf­fles. A hot- air bal­loon whooshes over­head and a li­lac-breasted roller lands, like a slip of laven­der silk, on a branch above my head. It seems mil­lions of miles re­moved from the mad­ness of Car­ni­vore but one con­stant is the friend­li­ness and hos­pi­tal­ity of the big-hearted Kenyans, the ex­hor­ta­tions to eat up and eat some more.

Kin­gori is wor­ried I don’t ever eat enough on our tour, and this morn­ing I have es­chewed a pile of best-qual­ity ba­con in favour of a ba­nana. ‘ ‘ You are one strange Mma Ba­nana,’’ he says with a sigh and goes off to find me two more. As I peel the skin, I hear the chit­ter-chat­ter of ba­boons. I am not go­ing to share with them. Su­san Kurosawa was a guest of Wildlife Sa­fari and Emi­rates wildlife­sa­fari.com.au emi­rates.com/au ta­marind.co.ke

More Kenya fea­tures by Su­san Kurosawa at theaus­tralian.com.au/travel

Sun­downer drinks and sizzling snacks with a view of the sa­vanna, cour­tesy of Mara Ex­plorer’s friendly staff

CHRISTINE McCABE

Mara Ex­plorer chefs set up a sa­fari break­fast

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