The word safari - a Swahili word meaning journey popularized by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt - still conjures up imaginative scenes of the great white hunter and his native retinue setting off into the African bush. They went on foot, surrounded by an aura of adventure in an atmosphere imbued with exotic flavor.

The safari became popular during the heady, exuberant days of the early 1900s, when the rest of the world felt called upon to bring light to the Dark Continent. And it has never really passed out of vogue since.The modern safari sets out in vans, and the only shooting is done with cameras. But some things have not changed. The romance and the adventure are just as great as in 1909 when Teddy Roosevelt wrote:

"There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm."

An African safari still inspires awe and wonder, providing a chance to see some of nature's most fascinating creatures - on their own terms and in their own setting.

"To see the elephant at home is a sight to remember," wrote another intrepid traveler who visited Africa at the turn of the centruy. "The stupendous awkwardness of the menagerie animal, as if so large a creature were quite a mistake, vanishes completely when you watch him in his natural haunts. Here he is a nimble as a kitten and you see how perfectly this moving mountain is adapted to its habitat - how a ponderous monster, indeed, is as natural to these colossal grasses as a rabbit to a modern park."

IT ONLY TOOK one early morning game drive to convince Jo Checketts. "If I had to," she said, "I'd trade every other trip I've taken for this one. Seeing the animals and their freedom is somehow very fulfilling."

It was a feeling shared by other members of our group.

"The animals are just glorious," said Fran Mitchener. "I had never quite understood the people who want to save the environment and the world. But after seeing these animals in their natural habitat, you can see how precious they are and how important it is to keep places like this."

Her husband, Charles, agrees. "The beauty of the animals is just incredible."

There were 25 of us on this safari, mostly Salt Lakers, including our safari master, Anwar Hussein. The Mitcheners had been instrumental in organizing the trip, partly because of the allure of the safari experience and partly because "we had read so much about the decimation of some of the herds - particularly the rhino and the elephants - and we knew we had to see them before they are all gone.

"We knew it would be a great trip, he said, "but it has been even beyond our expectations. Not only the animals and the scenery, but the Kenyans are such a happy, kind, friendly people."

For Lois Roth and Sarah Ann Jones, two other members of the group, this was a chance to see faraway places they had always read about. Kenya, after all, is "Out of Africa" country. They, too, noted the friendly people. "They smile and their whole face is illuminated," said Lois.

Anwar Hussein, a native of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, has been based in Salt Lake for the past eight years. As a co-owner of Wildlife Trails, one of the top 10 safari companies in Kenya, he delights in sharing his country with visitors. "Kenya has so many pluses - the contrasts, the people, the scenery, the history, stable government. And the animals are incredible."

(Before moving into the organizational end, he drove a safari bus for 20 years, so there's little about the safari experience he doesn't know. Among others, he has escorted Sargent Shriver and Sean Connery.)

Although there are some camping treks and a few that go by camel train, most safari groups travel in custom-made vans with roofs that open up to allow for picture-taking. With a maximum of six passengers per van, everyone has easy access to windows and roof slots and a chance to get exceptional photographs. (Hunting has been banned in Kenya since the mid-'70s, but the cameras are plentiful.)

The animals are not threatened by the vans and go about their lives even as we pull in at close range. From this vantage point, the window on nature is extraordinary. You may see everything from mating lions to cheetahs going for the kill, from baboons grooming each other to mother elephants protecting and encouraging their babies. But the aura of wildness is real; there is nothing tame about these creatures.

A typical day on safari begins with dawn's early light. The early morning hours are a good time to see animals in action. Another game drive occurs in the late afternoon, when animals again stir and move around.

While the wildlife sleeps during the heat of the day, the people can relax at the lodges, perhaps enjoying a swim in a refreshing pool, maybe just soaking in the spectacular view. Most lodges are placed to take advantage of a natural stage, upon which there is a constantly changing show: zebras, monkeys, marabou, storks, even elephants.

Lodge accommodations have a great deal of rustic charm. Beds come complete with mosquito nets, and your room may even be equipped with a friendly gecko lizard. But even the tents have toilets and showers. Food, often served buffet style, is prepared with flavorful concession to Western tastes. Most of the personnel have been trained at a travel college and are not only capable but eager to please. This is no hardship trip.

AS A BACKDROP for a safari, Kenya is unexcelled. It is a land of stunning contrasts: lakes, mountains, plains; primitive villages and modern cities; tropical heat and cool hilltop breezes.

And with more than 40 national parks and game preserves, there's ample space for wildlife viewing. (Don't mistakenly think game preserves are just like zoos or wildlife parks. They are protected areas where humans are restricted, but the wild animals run free.)

Kenya decided early on to protect its wild heritage. The first preserve was established in 1894 - long before independence. The animals have thrived under the system - all except the rhino and elephants. And their common enemy is man. Poachers in search of ivory and mislabeled aphrodisiacs have wreaked tremendous damage. According to one estimate, elephant and rhinoceros populations have been reduced by 50 and 70 percent respectively in the last decade. Unless things are turned around, they could well be gone in the next 20 years. (We only saw one rhino during our trek; but the elephants were still numerous enough to keep us happy.)

Our safari took us north from Nairobi to Samburu, famous for the reticulated giraffe, Grevy's zebra and Somali ostrich that are only found here; and then on to the Aberdare Mountains near Mount Kenya, for a stay at the Ark, one of the famous tree lodges. Here the visitors wait, while the animals come to them - drawn by the natural water hole and salt lick. (And just so you don't miss anything, night watchmen ring a buzzer in your room if somethin wonderful appears.)

From there it was on to the lake district of the Rift Valley, where at Lake Bogoria the hundreds of thousands of flamingos provide what has been called "the greatest bird spetacle on Earth."

Next up was the Masai Mara, which adjoins the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania. This is one of the richest of the game preserves - in terms both numbers and variety of wildlife.

For example, the 700,000 visitors that come to Kenya each year are outnumbered about three to one by the wildebeest (or gnus) that migrate across the Mara from the Serengeti each year. To see them in the midst of migration is to catch one of nature's most amazing shows.

Here, too, the common zebra and the Masai giraffe are very different from their northern cousins. And the Mara is prime lion country.

Amboseli, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, is one of the oldest of the game preserves. The name means "dust," and for most of the year, the preserve, encompassing a dry lake bed, lives up to its name. But dust in only a minor inconvenience compared with the rest of the scenery.

Nearby Tsavo is the largest of the preserves (it covers a territory about the size of Wales). The Mombasa-Nairobi railroad, known as the Lunatic Express, divides the park into east and west sections.

Each of the parks and preserves has a distinct look and personality. Each has a unique beauty - sometimes harsh, sometimes gentle. And each offers a stunning look at nature.

DAWN COMES quickly on the savannah. For a brief moment, the sun forms a red ball in the haze. A lone marabou stork soars high in the ever-lightening sky. And soon the plains come alive.

Herds of gazelle perform their ritual morning frolic - almost a dance of joy celebrating the simple pleasure of being alive, of once again surviving the dangers of the dark. Ballerinas of the savannah, they call them.

A herd of elephants moves with stately style toward the water for a morning drink and shower. A mother nudges her youngster along; a couple of adolescents take time for a bit of early morning play. They are secure in the feeling of family that the herd provides. Of all the animals, the elephants most closely parallel human development.

Hippos lumber into the water, where they will spend most of the day, surfacing every 15 minutes or so for air or to burble at their neighbors.

Giraffes create a striking silhouette among the acacia trees, their graceful movement a contrast to their seemingly ungainly appearance.

Zebra, topi and wildebeest graze in harmony, mingling together on the plain. A lone topi may stand on a nearby mound, a sentry on the lookout for the big cats.

Nearby, a pride of lions may be contemplating the chances of a quick breakfast. But perhaps a full meal of buffalo or wildebeest the day before dulls the appetiite so it is not worth the effort this particular morning.

Another day has come to the wilds of Kenya. Life plays out its endless cycles with typical regularity. And only the humans stand in awe.