If you think that Kenya is spectacular from inside a jeep, then you should see it from the air. Soaring with the eagles above the Masai Mara and Lake Victoria puts Kenya in a new perspective
Sitting in the back seat of a Cessna 206 aircraft with my colleague – all six feet five inches of him – was a bit like sitting in the back seat of a Morris Minor with a restless wildebeest. An interesting experience, but not a very comfortable one. And that's how we left Nairobi behind and beneath us.
Out of Wilson Airport the plane banked sharply over the city's National Park where a neat line of zebra mimicked the bumper to bumper of morning traffic on the adjacent highway. The corrugated roofs of a new shanty town flashed in the morning light along the perimeter of the park.
Higher still and the affluent homes of Nairobi's business community appeared oversized, stately and belonging to a different age. Their gaudy squares of swimming pool reflecting the blueness of the clear Kenyan sky. And then, the city was gone.
The high altitudes of the upland countryside showed green and fresh, cultivated by generations since colonial times. Coffee and tea plantations decorated the hillsides in unbending lines. Beneath us land was being ploughed, revealing the dark cotton earth which attempts to feed the majority of this hungry nation. And then, as if the ground had been gouged by the hand of God, the Great Rift Valley cuts north to south like a parched brown scar on the earth.
It is here in this dry valley that the twin oasis of Lakes Naivasha and Elementeita can be viewed spectacularly from the air. Surrounding the lakes vast circles of manmade irrigation, like multi-coloured pie-charts, are set in stark contrast against the baked earth. These shrinking, soda-lakes, home to thousands of pink flamingos, have given rise to a flower industry second only to that of the Netherlands.
Leaving the lakes behind us our pilot pointed to a reminder of the 2008 post-election violence which had almost engulfed the country. Away from the permanent settlements of Naivasha town we flew low over a staggered village of temporary, white tents; the new homes of those displaced by inter-tribal rifts which the elections had reopened like old wounds.
Our plan had been to fly north to Lake Nakuru National Park where we would land and sample a spot of lunch. The pilots buzzed the airstrip before landing to remove the family of warthog who were busy doing whatever it is that warthog do on landing strips in the Kenyan bush.
Once on the ground we were greeted by Benson, a smiling ranger from the Kenya Wildlife Service whose sole charge was to take the $60 Park entry fee from whoever should happen to drop in unexpectedly from the sky. After some radio calls to base it was agreed transport would be sent from the nearby Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge fetching us to the hotel for lunch. In the soaring midday heat we waited almost an hour, all the while being investigated by two large and dangerous looking buffalo, until a decision was made that we may have been forgotten or some other hiccup had occurred. I had stayed in the Sarova Lion Hills once in the past and found it to be a welcoming place with an abundance of wildlife on its doorstep (almost literally in the case of packs of marauding baboons); but as the old saying goes, the midday Sun is the haunt of mad dogs and Englishmen, and we being neither made our excuses and left.
Our course was south west towards the Masai Mara, over the once vast Olpusimora Forest, which was fast being denuded to make way for agriculture. Small corrugated cabins dotted the strips of arable land, plumes of grey smoke rising skyward in the calm noon air.
Soon the neat rectangles of pasture gave way to traditional Masai bomas; thick, circular fences of thorn bush lending the livestock protection from raiders – human or animal. We flew so low above these settlements as to be able to make out the brilliant red of the men's tunics as they tended their cattle in the open bush.
Again the plane banked steeply and swept us over the side of the escarpment which divides the high country from the Masai Mara - an unending, rolling plain of grasslands and solitary acacia trees. Large herds of elephant, zebra, impala and gazelle grazed; a scene from the dawn of time. In the murky brown waters of the Mara River, where vast numbers of wildebeest cross each year on their long migration, pods of hippo splashed in groups and crocodiles floated like harmless logs on the current.
We rested overnight at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, watching the sun set over the blue hills, sundowners in hand. The lodge is sited theatrically on a kopje overlooking the rolling landscape where the night's silence is only broken by the sound of hyena and lion "talking in the darkness" – as Hemmingway would have put it.
Next morning, after a sumptuous buffet breakfast, our small plane headed northwards towards Lake Victoria, and more specifically the island of Rusinga, where the archaeologist Mary Leakey discovered remains of man's early ancestors. The island sparkled like a Caribbean jewel linked tentatively by a narrow causeway to the mainland. As the Cessna came in to land cattle and goats grazed quietly by the narrow grass strip and children waved wildly running to greet the visitors.
The Rusinga Island Lodge is a paradise resort where those wishing to break an arduous safari can unwind and are pampered by the manager Suzy Belcher and her attentive staff. It is a place where you step straight from your transport into an atmosphere of sweet tranquility. With the lake's calm waves lapping the shores, the lodge's lush semi-tropical grounds abound with a myriad of vibrantly coloured birds and the air is sweet with frangipani and jasmine. In the trees above the manicured lawns fish eagles and hammerkopfs call across the lake.
For those of a more adventurous nature the lodge offers fishing, water-skiing and power boating and for those wishing to truly relax the azure pool, spa, Jacuzzi and endless delicious meals (prepared from the lodge's own organic garden) create a true feeling of well-being.
The lodge's guest rooms jump straight from the pages of the best architecture and interior design magazines. Airy, circular rooms with lavish bed space and tastefully chosen Kenyan furnishings nestle beneath the traditionally styled, conical thatched roofs. But, unfortunately we were merely passing through, and, after a meal of the highest culinary standard, we flew back towards our Mara base and a last night of luxury before the long hot journey by road across the floor of the Rift Valley.
It was a short and exciting experiment with flight over this beautiful and contrasting land but once again Kenya had left me with a new album of memories. Certainly, it is not the cheapest holiday you may have in your lifetime, but can you really put a price on something so precious and so breathtaking?