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Thursday
Jan052012

Born Free in Kenya: Elsamere

In Kenya, the Rift Valley forms the basis of the country’s major geographical features, the string of lakes that lies like an elongated ribbon to the north-west of Nairobi

Lake Baringo, Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru, Lake Elementaita, Lake Naivasha and Lake Magadi in the south, have all become important focal points for wildlife, especially birdlife.  

Lake Naivasha was ‘discovered' by a German naturalist called Gustav Fischer in 1883, and its name is thought to derive from a classic case of European mispronunciation. The early visitors asked their Swahili porters what the lake was called and were told 'enaiposha' which means quite simply 'the lake'.  And so, with the pronunciation slightly mangled by the Europeans, Lake Naivasha it became. 

Over 400 species of birds have been recorded on the lake, and hippo and crocodile abound in the lake’s cool waters. It is little wonder, therefore, that one of Kenya’s most famous residents, Joy Adamson, the author of the spectacularly successful book Born Free, chose to live on the shores of Lake Naivasha.

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In 1956, Joy’s husband George, who was a game ranger in northern Kenya, brought home three orphaned lion cubs after he had killed their mother, unaware that she had attacked him only because she was protecting her tiny cubs.  The Adamsons decided to hand rear the three cubs, naming them Lusiticia, The Big One and Elsa.  When the three cubs became too much of a handful for the Adamsons and their staff, the two larger ones were sent to a zoo.  The youngest animal Elsa stayed with them and would become Joy’s passion. 

In time, the Adamsons decided that Elsa had to be set free rather than sending her to a zoo as well, and thus they embarked on a long program teaching her to hunt and to live on her own. They were successful and Elsa became the first lioness to be successfully released back into the wild, as well as the first lioness to maintain contact with humans after her release. 

The Adamson’s former home, a pretty, unpretentious vernadah'ed bungalow called Elsamere, is today a wildlife education center with an interesting little museum devoted to Joy and her late husband George, a renowned conservationist and lion expert. 

Elsamere is first and foremost aimed at wildlife researchers and is a serious center of study. Day visitors are more than welcome and, if the bungalows scattered around the garden are not all occupied by researchers, can also spend the night.

Aim to arrive in good time in the afternoon, when there is a wonderful tea laid on in the gardens down by the lake. The tea is a proper old-fashioned English tea, with neatly crimped sandwiches, cakes on tiered cake stands with white paper doilies and home-baked Victoria sponge cake. Despite the attractions of the delicious spread, you may find your children (or yourself) hardly able to concentrate on the food, so exciting are the troops of beautiful Colobus monkeys that live on the estate. The monkeys are everywhere: in the trees, on the roof, and even sitting on the lawn at a respectable distance, watching you eat. 

One of the charms of Elsamere is that it has been kept pretty much the way it was when the Adamsons lived there, so you feel much more like a house guest than a hotel guest. The staff are charm personified and delight in having enthusiastic children staying. Rather than being the usual learned researchers, they will also proudly show off all their Elsa the lion memorabilia.  

There are photo albums of the original lions as well as of the making of the film, framed photos galore, the Adamson’s own books lying around on tables for you to read.  Visitors of all ages can curl up in chintz covered armchairs and read wildlife books all afternoon.  Of course, you can also watch Born Free sitting in the Adamson’s own living room, adding extra charm to an already charming movie. 

After dinner, a ranger escorts you to your bungalow with instructions that under no circumstances are you to leave your bungalow during the night because hippos often come and wander through the property, eating the grass.

And sure enough, just as this blogger's family was ready to turn in for the night, we heard a snuffly sound outside.  Opening our bungalow door cautiously, we saw an enormous hippo happily chomping on the grass, just a few inches away. We all went to sleep with a delicious frisson of excited fear.  Despite the very comfortable, English feel of Elsamere, that was Africa out there, having a midnight snack. 

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