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THE AFRICAN buffalo seldom is dangerous when encountered in herds. But according to hunters' legends, a single one of these massive bovines easily can be enraged if it thinks it is the target of too intimate scrutiny. Never stop to look at a single buffalo, the experts say, but glance furtively at it as you drive away.

Theodore Roosevelt ranked the buffalo as more dangerous than any other African animal. Hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote that the buffalo "has no weak spots in his natural defenses . . . has the eyesight of a cheetah, the hearing of an elephant and the smelling ability of a bird dog on a damp morning."

As a massive buffalo snorted angrily only yards in front of our jeep, we recalled the warnings we had been given about buffalo and the stories we had heard about the animal's strength and malice.

Our car had stalled as we rounded high brush and stumbled onto a grazing bull. Now we sat terrified and watched the buffalo consider its options.

At the moment it seemed ready to charge us, our driver pushed the horn. The shrill blast sounded horribly impotent, but the startled buffalo whirled away from the jeep with a last hateful look and trotted off into the savannah.

The encounter with the buffalo occurred on our very first foray into Kenya's fabled Masai Mara Game Reserve, and we had been saved by the quick thinking of our English driver -- who had left Europe for the first time two days before and was just as green as the rest of us.

In almost a month of steering a rented jeep through Kenya's wildlife reserves, the showdown with this ugly cousin to the cow was the only alarming incident in a torrent of adventures -- made possible by having our own vehicle as we explored the vast plains containing the world's most spectacular mixture of wildlife.

With a rented vehicle, as opposed to organized day trips or safari convoys, camping is possible just outside park boundaries, where lions, hyenas and elephants make a night frightfully enjoyable.

Disembarking from a vehicle within the parks is prohibited, but outside the reserves even a small errand like fetching wood becomes a gamble in the wild. There's a story about a British tourist surprised during his toilet in the bush by a passing lion: "I couldn't say which of us was the more offended party."

The four-wheel-drive jeep made it possible to wander the African vales as we pleased. On a moment's notice, an itinerary was scrubbed so we could dash to Lake Nakuru to see the famous flamingos, or to Meru National Park to see an albino giraffe, or even to Mount Kenya for a two-day climb to 17,000 feet and equatorial snow.

For less than $50 a day, our own vehicle let us fantasize that we were David Livingstone or Isak Dinesen or Indiana Jones. With a bottle of whiskey uncorked at the campfire and the nocturnal coughing of lions a few miles away, we could scribble in our journals and be Hemingway in the firelight.

The great irony of renting a car is that the brave tourist must then survive the most fearsome of Africa's wild animals: the human being behind the steering wheel.

If Hollywood tried to remake John Huston's epic "The African Queen," the modern version would be set on a passenger bus navigating East Africa's highways. The key to survival rests with avoiding the buzzing minibuses known as matatus -- a Swahili word that foreigners like to claim means "room for three more" -- and the lumbering lorries dueling over the potholed two-lane blacktops. Patient, alert driving is mandatory.

But once in the plains, surrounded by huge herds of wild animals, the diesel and metal of the human zoo is forgotten. For anyone accustomed to seeing only a few giraffes at a time behind a moat, the sight of a herd romping playfully after a rainstorm is awesome.

A constant refrain heard from Kenya's tourists is the surprise of so many animals at once. Even the fanatic armchair naturalist is astonished to see as far as the horizon a melange of impalas, Thompson's gazelles, ostriches, warthogs, wildebeests and zebras, while the sky throbs with birds.

For sheer numbers, the wildlife in the Masai Mara Game Reserve is without equal. Six hours by fine road from Nairobi, the Mara is the northeastern section of the Serengeti ecosystem and has long been the favorite of visitors wishing to see game in the abundance all of Africa knew only a few generations ago.

Partially populated by the Masai, known for the facial jewelry that distorts ears and lips, the Mara is the best place to view the tribe's longtime nemesis, the lion.

Elephants, too, are abundant, and not just within the reserve: Our first dawn just outside the boundary brought a huge herd around our campsite. We woke to the sounds of snapping wood, and cautiously emerged from our tents to watch the pachyderms begin their day uncaring of the tiny humans.

Near Nairobi are two other parks that offer good looks at Kenya's wildlife preservation program, though neither is blooming in game like the Mara. Lake Nakuru is a popular showcase for the government's attempt to place value on wildlife, and the lesser-known Meru is a contrast of the subtlety and opulence of wild Africa.

Only three hours from Nairobi by good road, the park at Lake Nakuru is famous for its flocks of pink flamingos. Tens of thousands walk in the shallow lake, but they are only one among almost 400 bird species in the 24-square-mile park.

Nakuru is the site of an ambitious rhinoceros relocation project and a controversial electrical-fencing scheme. With only two rhinos left in the park, the government relocated 19 rhinos three years ago, plucking most of them from an American's ranch in central Kenya and depositing them among the thickets surrounding the lake. To keep the rhinos in -- and domesticated animals out -- an electric fence was erected.

"The answer for the rhino is sanctuaries, which unfortunately can't work for elephants, since they need whole ecosystems to survive in," says Kagiri Wahome, the government official in charge of the rhino project at Nakuru.

"Rhinos are not going to survive in the wild anymore, and the ones we have left should be kept under surveillance."

Rhino calves soon will delight the tourists streaming into Nakuru, and park rangers learn more daily about Africa's most endangered large mammal. The black rhino population has declined by 95 percent since 1970, claims the World Wildlife Fund, largely because its horn is prized in Asia.

It is at Meru that humans and wild animals play hide-and-seek. The challenge of spotting shy game is made tougher by Meru's unpredictable landscapes: rolling hills, riverine forests, scrub-covered plains, even a rain forest. As a result, Meru inspires greater appreciation from its visitors, who savor encounters with animals more easily spooked than at other parks.

Meru's sights -- for example, giraffes wary in the dense colors of twilight, their huge, patient eyes twinkling in alarm as they watch you watching them from your metal box -- are enough to make you swear you must come back.

Even if just to live like a gypsy in the back of a jeep until you can say you woke up one morning to see a leopard, ferocity and grace perfectly melded, lounging in a tree and pretending to consider your worth as an exotic breakfast.

For information on visiting Kenya, write the Kenya Tourist Office at 424 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.

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