You wouldn’t believe how small giraffe poo is. Given the animal’s size you’d expect something you could varnish and play crown green bowls with. But as we stand in the middle of Kenya and look at the ground, we’re confronted with pellets you’d think had come from a decent-sized rabbit.
‘It’s because the giraffe extracts all the nutrients it can from its food,’ explains our guide, Joseph. ‘There’s hardly anything left, not even water.’ Whereas elephant poo contains loads of goodies — undigested berries, for instance. That’s why you’ll see birds snacking on it. Hyena poo, meanwhile, is white, because when they eat an animal they even consume the bones.
Needless to say our nine-year-old son Barney is loving all this. We’ve chosen El Karama because the lodge prides itself on catering for children. Its founders, the sculptor Murray Grant and his wife Sophie, have two small kids of their own, so know how important it is to present information in a way that youngsters will enjoy. But listening to Joseph, I’m reminded that all teaching — even to adults — should be like this. The day you fail to respond to the fact that the collective noun for a group of wildebeest is an ‘implausibility’ is the day your soul has died.
On one drive we encounter a water buck, and Joseph tells us about its unusual defensive mechanism. ‘It has a gland that, if the buck is attacked, instantly releases a substance that makes its flesh tasteless.’ How incredible is nature? If you put something like that in a science fiction story no one would believe it. The same thought occurs as we see a group of zebras standing next to some giraffes. If a child drew those creatures from imagination you’d laugh. Yet here they are. (How to tell a female zebra? It has ‘fuzzier’ stripes – male ones are more defined, as if they’ve been drawn by magic marker.) We pause as the zebras move from one side of the track to the other. ‘Zebra crossing,’ says Barney.
Culinary options at El Karama are varied. Most of our meals are served in the River Mess (which, like all the lodge’s buildings, is constructed from local materials — rocks, fallen trees and so on, all collected without the aid of mechanised machinery.) One day our bread is made by Barney himself — it’s among the activities designed to give parents a rest from their little darlings. The loaf is in the shape of a hippo, though another option is a lion paw. (Barney will also cast a real lion’s paw print with plaster of Paris.)
Another evening we’re taken out of the lodge for a bush dinner, where dessert for the children is marshmallows toasted on the campfire. We eat to the sound of lions roaring in the distance. My partner, Jo, keeps peering round nervously. The lodge managers, Grant and Michelle, reassure her that big cats are far more scared of humans than we are of them. This will be shown on a foot safari later in our stay, when a lioness slinks away as soon as she spots us. Nevertheless Jo moves to stand behind Joseph. Of course Barney and I don’t find this at all funny.
Some of the animals, it becomes clear, are ‘known to the authorities’. One morning I tell Grant about a female leopard Joseph has shown us. From the location we work out that Grant has encountered her too. ‘That’s the one with a male cub,’ he says. ‘He’s been having his first stab at storing a kill in a tree.’ Leopards’ jaws are so strong they can carry up to twice their own weight, depositing a carcass high on a branch to stop hyenas and other animals on the ground from stealing it. ‘She was watching him the other day. He was making a complete mess of it, placing the kill so it would probably fall out again. But like any arrogant child he thought he knew best. There’s a mark on her body we’re pretty sure he’s caused by attacking her. The look on her face as she watched him said: “Fine, do it your way. You’ll learn eventually.” ’ As Grant says all this I think of Barney.
But next day comes a reminder that kids can know stuff their parents don’t. Joseph is telling us about the Rothschild giraffe, named after a member of the banking family. ‘That must be the second Baron Rothschild,’ says Barney, remembering an episode of Horrible Histories. ‘He kept wild animals on his estate in England. His carriage was drawn by zebras instead of horses. He let snakes curl around the bannisters on his stairs. And he had tea parties with chimpanzees.’ I make a note to suggest to Far and Wild (the company who organised our trip) that they should bill El Karama as ‘the safari lodge for the CBBC generation’.
Not all the facts relate to big beasts. At the lodge’s farm we learn that some cows will only produce milk if their calf is brought into the milking shed with them. A regular visitor to the River Mess is Hoggy the hedgehog, who proves a surprisingly noisy eater. And one brightly coloured bird is called the ‘superb starling’. I ask the identity of another bird we hear, only to realise just too late that it’s the squeaky wheel of an approaching wheelbarrow.
But of course our favourite facts concern the safari star turns. Elephants are either right- or left-tusked, favouring one over the other for digging (left is rare, as with humans and hands). Impalas have ‘bachelor’ herds, where young males fight for the right to mate with a nearby female — lose two fights and you’re condemned to bachelorhood for life.
In the end, however, my favourite animal is the warthog. I feel an empathy with it, largely because it’s stupid. So stupid, in fact, that after 200 yards of being chased by a big cat it will forget that it’s being chased, stop, turn round and get eaten. We all have days like that.
Specialist tour operator Far and Wild Travel offers a ten-night family safari and beach holiday, including El Karama Eco Lodge with safari activities, fly camping, plus all meals and drinks for £3,400 per person. Includes international and domestic flights, transfers, accommodation and park fees. For more information go to www.farandwild.travel and www.ElKaramaLodge.com