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Green and serene: how electric vehicles are transforming Africa's safari experience

This year, Lewa Wilderness, at the base of Mount Kenya, is celebrating 100 years since it was established as a ranch and conservation area. Here, e-vehicles are changing how visitors explore the bush, transforming safari into a truly tranquil experience.

A giraffe in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya.

Photograph by Brian Siambi
By Emma Gregg
Published 9 Jun 2022, 15:00 BST

We’re gliding across a meadow of sun-ripened grass in the smoothest safari vehicle I’ve ever experienced. Suddenly, there’s a thundering of hooves to our right. A 30-strong herd of buffalo is heading straight for us.

Uncertainty chokes me. Buffalo can be dangerous, but it’s usually grumpy lone bulls that cause problems. What’s provoked them? Could it be our electric vehicle? The elephants here in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy took a while to get used to it when it first arrived less than three years ago. Is it emitting some kind of high frequency note that only buffalo can hear?

Gorgeous but pricey, electric safari vehicles (ESVs) remain rare in Africa’s safari heartlands, with just a handful of operators trialling them. In Kenya, Botswana and Zambia, there are signs they’ll catch on. But when I told a guide from South Africa that I was visiting Lewa’s founding lodge, Lewa Wilderness, to sample an ESV first-hand, he scoffed. “What if you get into trouble?” he said. “At the first sign an animal might charge my vehicle, I rev my engine to make a big, loud noise. What happens if you can’t do that?”

Perhaps I’m about to find out. The buffalo are getting close, the thunder rising to a roar. But, as it turns out, it’s not our vehicle that’s spooking them. “A lion!” says Frances Mayetu, my guide, gripping the steering wheel as the herd swerves past and the lioness comes into view — until now, she was invisible in the grass.

For a moment, she seems to doubt the wisdom of the chase. Then she sprints, lunges and seizes a young buffalo, just a couple of hundred feet from our bonnet.

Will Craig, who owns Lewa Wilderness, has been observing his ESV’s effect on animals, and says there’s still much to still learn. “In the bush, every novelty has an impact,” he says. He was the first East African safari operator to invest in an ESV: a shiny Toyota Land Cruiser, custom-converted in Nairobi in 2019. The elephants’ initial wariness seems to have worn off, though, and with no sudden engine noises to startle them, other species, including buffalo, seem relaxed in the ESV’s presence.

For guides and guests, it’s a game-changer. Freed from the distracting grumble and chug of a diesel engine, it’s easier to chat and tune in. “It’s definitely more tranquil,” says Frances. “We sometimes hear little calls and scuffles as we drive, helping us spot animals we’d otherwise miss.”

Performance-wise, there are no issues: the routine gaps between drives are long enough for a full charge, the electrical components are robust and the engine has plenty of torque. “We test drove both the ESV and a diesel vehicle into a rhino wallow,” says Will. “The ESV got out faster.”

The grandson of pioneering cattle ranchers, Will has survival in his genes and a sustainability-first approach to business. He walks me through his garage and workshop to his solar panels, which are gleaming in the sun. “If we weren’t self-sufficient in solar energy, having an ESV would, in my opinion, be pointless,” he says.

One afternoon, Frances drives me to the Lewa Wilderness farm. Created by Will’s mother, Delia, it grows alfalfa as fodder for Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage. There’s an organic kitchen garden for the lodge, too, its plots festooned with yellow pheromone traps, which eliminate harmful insects while letting pollinators fly free. “I’m trained in integrated pest management,” says gardener Sammy Mwirigi, with pride.

It’s as if I’ve moved towards a brighter, greener future — and when my ultra-smooth game drive purrs to a stop, I feel like I’m yet one journey closer.

How to do it
 

Ker & Downey Africa’s new, nine-night Kenyan ESV safari includes stays at Lewa Wilderness, Ol Pejeta Bush Camp (Laikipia) and Entumoto (Maasai Mara). From $7,180 (£5,510), excluding international flights. The best months for a Kenyan safari are when it’s driest: January to March and June to October.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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