Peace & Rhi­nos

As odd as it sounds, a walk­ing sa­fari track­ing en­dan­gered black rhi­nos through the Kenyan bush is a tran­quil ad­ven­ture – that is of course, as long as you don’t let them track you first.

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If you want to get up close and per­sonal with some of the mere 5,000 re­main­ing black rhi­nos in Africa – one of the world’s most crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species – then there’s no bet­ter place than Kenya’s fenced-off 54,000-hectare Saruni sanc­tu­ary. Once there, you’ll need three things: an of­froad ve­hi­cle to help you get around this park, which is five times larger than Paris; a GPS lo­ca­tor that picks up the sig­nals of the mi­crochips placed in the pro­tected rhino’s horns; and a sock filled with ash for know­ing the di­rec­tion in which the breeze is blow­ing. Plus, while we’re at it, you’d best not for­get the golden rule of track­ing rhi­nos: al­ways stay down wind. “They have very sen­si­tive noses and ears,” whis­pers Sammy Lemiruni, our guide at Saruni. We’ve left the ve­hi­cle and are tip­toe­ing through the bush along­side two Sera Com­mu­nity Con­ser­vancy rangers. He in­forms me that should the megafauna de­tect us, they’ll ei­ther run away or charge at us, so it’s es­sen­tial we re­main as stealth as pos­si­ble. At the very least, I tell my­self, it’s com­fort­ing to know they’re her­bi­vores. Af­ter 15 min­utes, Lemiruni raises his hand in a ges­ture that means ‘stop and be quiet’. He’s spot­ted a rhino, huffing and puff­ing his way through a for­ag­ing spree in the aca­cia trees. The dis­tance be­tween us is neg­li­gi­ble, the ten­sion is pal­pa­ble; my heart is beat­ing, pulse rac­ing, while the feel­ing of cu­rios­ity and ex­cite­ment are in­ten­si­fy­ing within. Saruni, which opened in Fe­bru­ary this year, has been con­ceived in part­ner­ship with Sera Com­mu­nity Con­ser­vancy, mean­ing the eth­i­cal pro­tec­tion of rhi­nos is tan­ta­mount to their very ex­is­tence. Ev­ery day, around 200 staff roam out across the vast, fenced-in do­main, en­sur­ing the an­i­mals’ wel­fare. Eleven rhi­nos live here, re­lo­cated from nearby ar­eas in a move that has al­lowed them to re­turn to their nat­u­ral habi­tat at last. To help fund the project, a por­tion of ev­ery guest’s book­ing goes directly to the con­ser­va­tion. “Like other African coun­tries, Kenya suf­fered from a surge of poach­ing in the last four years,” ex­plains Ric­cardo Orizio, CEO and Founder of Saruni, who hopes the new project can help save th­ese beau­ti­ful an­i­mals from ex­tinc­tion. “You know this is the first time in 30 years that

the black rhino has re­turned to North Kenya,” he adds. Un­der an hour’s drive from the Con­ser­vancy is the Saruni Rhino, an in­ti­mate camp, where we are based. It con­sists of just two small thatched-roof ‘ban­das’ (mostly open-walled, stone cottages) with wa­ter­hole views, that are nes­tled un­der sway­ing doum palms. The camp only sleeps four to six guests at a time but it does so in style with a king-sized bed in each cot­tage, a sandy ve­randa on which you’ll find a cou­ple of di­rec­tor’s chairs and ta­bles, as well as some hang­ing ham­mocks – or rather sus­pended beds – in the trees. Meals are ei­ther served in the ded­i­cated mess hall or on a dry riverbed, which is the per­fect lo­ca­tion for a stun­ning torch-lit bush din­ner un­der the vast African skies. The lo­ca­tion was strate­gi­cally cho­sen as it’s got per­fect views of the nearby wa­ter­hole, a pop­u­lar stop-off point for a di­verse range of wildlife: ele­phant, im­pala, birdlife, hyena, oryx, and Grevy's ze­bra. We hap­pen upon many dik-diks and long-necked an­te­lope, and on our first evening we’re greeted by the sight of an ele­phant mother and her calf. On the se­cond night, the area’s many mon­keys started fre­net­i­cally jump­ing about and screech­ing in the trees, which Lemiruni ex­plained was a sign that a leop­ard is close by. Days at Saruni are struc­tured around the noc­tur­nal rhythm of the rhino. Guests can go out on track­ing mis­sions at 5am and 5pm and in be­tween you can take a trip to the nearby Reteti Ele­phant Sanc­tu­ary, which pro­vides pro­tec­tion for or­phaned and aban­doned ele­phant calves, as well as one baby rhino. It also hap­pens to be a great place to do a long guided sa­fari walk along the riverbed. While Saruni's camp is tiny, it main­tains a num­ber of lux­ury trap­pings: complimentary drinks and snacks are avail­able any­time upon re­quest; meals are ex­quis­ite, served un­der the stars and the light of flick­er­ing lan­terns; and the staff are well-trained, dis­creet and po­lite. There may not be wifi or TV, but there’s seren­ity, na­ture and peace, which is much harder to come by th­ese days. There’s also the op­por­tu­nity to learn more about the lo­cal Sam­buru peo­ple. Re­lated to the Ma­sai, they are semi­no­madic cat­tle-farm­ers whose colour­ful tra­di­tions have of­ten been por­trayed in Hol­ly­wood films (and even in one in­fa­mous 1989 Nike com­mer­cial). Lemiruni is a mem­ber of the lo­cal war­rior tribe and ever present at Saruni. At camp, he wears vi­brant robes of or­ange and red. When track­ing rhi­nos how­ever, he switches to neu­tral tones, as rhi­nos are es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to red and white. His beaded bracelets, made by his sis­ter, stay on. “I call this par­adise,” smiles Lemiruni one evening over sun­set cock­tails. That day, we fol­lowed a rhino for over 10 min­utes, trail­ing and watch­ing from a dis­tance. He says it was one of the best ap­proaches he’s ever had. “Here, you sit and lis­ten,” he re­flects, “there’s only the sound of leaves and you hear noth­ing else.”

What to know

Track­ing rhi­nos at Saruni comes with a re­quired two-night stay at the rhino camp, and two-night stay at the group’s more lux­u­ri­ous Saruni Sam­buru sa­fari lodge. The high-end re­sort has two pools, six lux­ury vil­las, and views across 95,000 hectares of the Kalama Con­ser­vancy. www.sarunisam­buru.com

Get­ting there

Reach­ing Saruni Rhino is a jour­ney. Ex­pect to spend a day and a night trav­el­ling each way. Kenya Air­ways (a mem­ber of the Skyteam al­liance) of­fers fre­quent flights into Nairobi’s Jomo Keny­atta In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Its busi­ness class fea­tures great legroom, not-quite-fully-flat leather seats with footrests, 15.4-inch screens and of course lounge ac­cess. It’s worth the up­grade (kenya-air­ways.com). There will most likely be a one-night gap be­tween land­ing into Nairobi and fly­ing out of the much smaller Wil­son Air­port to the Kalama airstrip. Book into the newly opened Laz­izi Pre­miere for this lay­over. This sim­ple, safe busi­ness ho­tel is five min­utes from Jomo air­port and can ar­range trans­fers the next day to Wil­son Air­port, a 45-minute drive away (the­laz­iz­iho­tels. com). From here, you’ll board a tiny plane with Sa­far­ilink for the hour jour­ney to Kalama or other nearby airstrips (fly­sa­far­ilink.com). Upon land­ing, a driver will be wait­ing to take you to Saruni, which takes around an hour.

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