During breakfast at our safari campsite in southeastern Kenya, the manager of the tribal staff places his iPhone at the middle of the wooden dining table.
He smiles at the guests seated around plates of scrambled eggs, toast and sausage, then presses “Play.”
The song ascending from the little device could not have been any more unexpected.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Kenny Rogers is singing “The Gambler,” a favored selection of Harry Maina, the manager of the safari excursion operated by Gamewatchers Safaris and Porini Camps. The Masa Porini Camp is an encampment in the Ol Conservancy in southeastern Kenya. The conservancy is a 17,500-acre wilderness reserve that sits about 170 miles southeast of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city with a population of more than 3 million.
The wilderness acreage is filled with wild animals and grassy, acacia-tree terrain, and is linked to the Maasai Mara Reserve. To the south is the Kenya-Tanzania border and the Serengeti, and Maasai Mara shares that region’s ecosystem.
Clearly, this is not Kenny Rogers country.
Except when Harry is involved. He loves him some Kenny, including such deep cuts as “Coward of the County.” Members of our traveling party began referring to Harry as “Kenya Rogers,” for his whimsically musical mixing of cultures. Harry is a fan of classic American country music, and one of the songs he sang for us was the Johnny Horton classic, “North to Alaska,” from the John Wayne film of the same name.
Harry is a lean man with a wide and bright smile who strides comfortably into the middle of any scene, especially when music and its writing is being created. He is ardently curious about the activity of our traveling party. This Kenyan adventure is one of the songwriting trips of the Moreno brothers – Stratosphere headliner Frankie and his brothers Tony and Ricky, and a friend of the Moreno family who has for years supported its musical endeavors financially and every which way, Peggy Armstrong of San Leon, Texas.
Harry looks over the staff of tribesmen who maintain the Porini Mara campsite, which is a half-dozen resident tents set up around a single, communal tent used as a site for lounging and meals. A half-dozen tents set up in the middle of a Kenyan wildlife conservancy might seem like the most primitive camping experience, but it is not that. Though they are not built as permanent structures, the tents at Porini Mara are heavily reinforced and equipped with comfortable beds, work desks, solar-powered lights, running water and flush toilets.
The showers are something different, as staffers pour hot water into a white bucket outside the tent for guests to use for a two-minute cleansing ritual. The buckets are connected to a lever inside the tent. Pull that, and hot water streams out of a common shower head. It’s something of a race to be clean, and Harry’s advice is to rinse thoroughly, stop the stream, suds up, then hit the lever and rinse clean. You can do this in less than two minutes if you hustle.
The site is not fenced off from the wild animals that populate Ol Conservancy. In our camp, the branches of an acacia tree have been broken as if stomped upon. That is what happened, as an elephant ran over the tree while wandering through the site. We see monkeys all around us, vaulting from tree limbs to tent tops, and reports of cheetahs and hippos moseying through the camp are common. That’s why whistles have been placed at bedside tables. If we are to spot an animal (especially a spotted one), we should blow the whistle. Or, as one of the guides instructed, “If you see a rhino at your tent, take a picture — then blow the whistle.”
The food is prepared simply in wood-burning ovens, and the meals are consistently outstanding. Dinners are filet, chicken, port and lamb. Breakfasts are eggs over toast, whole-grain cereals, fresh fruit, sausage and bacon. Very western. But there is a rich local affiliation with the Point Mara camp to its Maasailand culture. Members of the Maasai staff are all hired from families of the Maasai community who own individual parcels of land that make up the conservancy. A total of 26 members of the community work at Porini Mara as guides, drivers and support staff.
And this is a remarkably efficient, attentive team. As we walk toward our tent at the end of each day, a staff member appears literally out of the dark, carrying a flashlight to guide our way home. Kenyan coffee, hot and robust, is delivered on trays to our tents each morning if we want that. They speak English articulately, easily distinguishing the grammar used by visitors from the United Kingdom and United States. Most of the visitors to this camp, at least those who do speak English, are either from the U.K. or U.S.
This interwoven family is eager to learn from Western culture and share their own. After a dinnertime chanting and dancing performance by the tribesmen, the Morenos ask the crimson-gowned men if they would appear in a video they recorded for a new song, “Hello World.”
Our guides, Geoffrey Risa Ketere and Ripa Olmara, are two who take part in one segment recorded by Ricky Moreno in a wide-open field in the conservancy. Zebras, giraffes and wildebeests are visible in the background. They perform the pulsating, full-body dance common among members of the Maasai Tribe, as Frankie Moreno sings and plays acoustic guitar.
A day later, a full complement of eight tribesmen back the Morenos again during a video recording, and also perform the version of their traditional dance in which the guys alternately take to the middle of the group and jump high off the dirt. Sometimes they vault from both feet, and other times just one.
This is to impress the women of the tribe. The one who jumps the highest has what we in Vegas would call “game.” But afterward, Harry reminds us, “The girls, they will be there for you, no matter how high you jump.”
We believe Harry. From his perch at Porini Mara Camp, he is a man of the world. He knows when to hold 'em, knows when to fold 'em …