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We were returning from an afternoon safari when the first bell buzzed over the intercom. Having already spent a night at the Ark, a quirky Noah's Ark-like lodge tucked into the thick, verdant forests of Kenya's Aberdare National Park, I was familiar with the drill: one bell meant elephants arriving to the salt lick and watering hole that the back of the lodge overlooks. Two bells signalled a rhino. While I would have jumped at the chance to catch even a glimpse of either a few days back, Kenya's easy proximity to buffalo, giraffe, zebra and other African wildlife has an odd way of dulling your senses. Rather then run to the lodge's triad of decks with camera in tow, I turned down the hall toward my room. But as I reached my door, the bell buzzed a third time ­– a pattern we had never heard before.

A small group had already formed on the third-floor outdoor deck when I arrived, breathless. Charles Mathenge, the Ark's affable ”captain”  during my stay, was  beckoning us with one hand while motioning to be quiet with the other. Partially hidden in the brush was a leopard, its yellow fur covered in densely packed rose-shaped markings that illuminated it against the dark green backdrop. He was staring intently at a mother warthog, her four tiny piglets foraging nearby.

“You remember Pumbaa, the warthog from [the film] The Lion King?” whispered Mathenge. “Pumbaa means “stupid” in Swahili.” At that exact moment the leopard leapt from his perch, bolting toward one of the piglets. The mother warthog ran after him at a surprising speed, grunting and repelling him backward.

“That didn't look dumb to me,” I said.

“No”, Mathenge said, “but now watch this”.

Within seconds the mother warthog had turned her back on the leopard, grazing obliviously as though the entire scene had never taken place.

It is hard to beat Kenya for its unfettered access to wildlife, but visitors often forget that getting up close does not have to mean being confined in a vehicle. For example, while much of your day at the Ark may be spent roaming Aberdare National Park in 4x4 jeeps seeking out playful monkeys, elusive lions and the occasional waterfall, at the lodge you are still sleeping within the animals’ hunting grounds. Step into the Ark's ground-level, wildlife-viewing room and you may find yourself within steps of a black rhino, easily photographable through the thick window. Or curl up with a hot water bottle as the temperature drops and listen to the whoop calls of hyena as you drift off to sleep. One evening I stood on the deck and watched more than two dozen elephants – including a mother and baby – grazing on the lick below.

And the Ark is just one of many alternative opportunities within a few hours of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.

Boat safari on Lake Naivasha
There is no shortage of hippos in Lake Naivasha, a freshwater body lying 1,890m up in the highlands of Kenya's Rift valley, 120km northwest of Nairobi. And most nearby lodges offer boat tours, including Lake Naivasha Sawela Lodge.

As your guide navigates the motorised boat past papyrus stands and fisherman standing waist-deep in the water, it is easy to envision the hippos rising up like sharks at any minute. But once you spot them – their disproportionate ears and widespread eyes hovering just above the water's surface – you almost forget your fears. Huddled together in pods, they seem surprisingly (and wrongly) nonthreatening, their massive bodies gliding around the bottom of the lake.

But hippos are not Lake Naivasha's only wildlife; it is also a bird-lovers paradise. The lake is home to hundreds of bird species, from mohawked pied kingfishers to brightly-coloured brimstone canaries to majestic fish eagles that glide easily through the air. Meanwhile, buffalo meander along nearby swampy banks and beyond them, black and white colobus monkeys dangle lazily on the crooked branches of flat-topped acacia trees.

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