When they handed out blueprints for trees, someone forgot to give it to the baobab, which looks, for all the world, like a tree growing upside down. Massive, thick trunk, sometimes 30-50 feet around; scraggly thin branches that look more like roots spread out in the sky; and even when leaves appear they are puny things.

Legend says an evil hyena played a trick on the baobab, tricked it into burying its head in the ground and sticking its feet in the sky.Whatever the reason for the peculiar appearance, baobabs flourish on the plains of southeast Kenya - a visible reminder of the infinite variety that is Nature. It is a tree remarkably well-adapted to its environment. The trunk is spongy inside and absorbs and stores enormous quantities water, which comes in useful during the dry season.

Variety and adaptation. Those, in fact, may be the key characteristics of the plants and animals - and even people - that call Kenya home. Why else the candelabra or the umbrella trees, the giraffe or the hippo or the tiny dikdik?

There are other explanations, of course. The Kenyans have delightful folk tales that tell how the giraffe got its long neck and lost its voice (a punishment inflicted by the witchdoctor because the giraffe stretched its neck to look over the fence and spread the word about the witchdoctor's fakery), and why the hippo has no hair and spends all its time in the water (the hare once introduced the hippo to his friend, Fire, in a most dramatic fashion).

But when it comes time to cast fancy aside, the fact remains that Africa works because it has created its own rules. This is no fragile ecosystem but a rugged and resilient land. And to visit there is to accept it on its own terms.With Ethiopia on the north and Tanzania on the south, Kenya straddles the Equator on the eastern coast of the continent.

The setting might suggest tropics, but the only tropical region of the country is along the coast. For the rest, Kenya is almost a microcosm of the entire continent, with desert regions, freshwater lakes, alpine snows, forests, lowlands and ocean beaches.

This varied landscape has given rise to a varied and colorful history and culture.

The ancient Chinese, Phoenicians, Romans, Persians, Greeks and Arabs all knew the area and made seaborne journeys to the coast. Vasco de Gama claimed the area for the Portuguese in 1498, but they were ousted by the Turks in 1589. So the Portuguese came back in 1593 and built a fort to guard the harbor entrance. Today, Fort Jesus is preserved in much the same condition it was 400 years ago.

Despite all this activity on the coast, however, the first Europeans did not penetrate the hinterlands of East Africa until the late 1800s, when the English tea and coffee growers came on the scene. And thus the cultural tapestry of the various tribes developed with striking patterns.

Today there are more than 40 ethnic groups or tribes in Kenya. From the Kikuyu, the largest and probably most forward-thinking, to the Maasai, who cling tenaciously to the old ways, they each have distinct attributes and customs.

Kenya itself is a relatively young country, having gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Nairobi, the capital, has a population of about a million, and is a classy and cosmopolitan city. The 30-story Kenyatta International Conference Center has been the site of numerous multi-national gatherings. Nairobi is also known for its mosques, markets and museums.

Mombasa, the second-largest city, is a seaport where traditional dhows mingle with ocean liners. It has always been a melting pot of coastal cultures - like the spicy curry of the region, it serves up a pungent, tangy slice of life. Along with Fort Jesus, Old Town offers a tantalizing look at the past. Another famous landmark is the line of metal tusks across Moi Avenue, built to mark a royal visit back during the colonial days.

These two metropolitan centers aside, Kenya is largely a collection of scattered towns and villages graced by everything from modern houses to adobe huts. Agriculture remains the basis of the economy. Kenya is the world's third largest producer of tea and is a major exporter of coffee and pineapples. It has no known oil or mineral resources, but has found a rich source of revenue in tourism.

Kenya decided early on to protect its wildlife, setting aside vast areas as game preserves. Hunting of wild game has been prohibited, but viewing the animals in their natural habitats is richly encouraged.

"Kenya had about 700,000 tourists last year," says Joe Pereira, director of Wildlife Trails, one of Kenya's larger tour companies. "The goal is a million by the end of the century. But we also have to see how the parks can handle the extra traffic without impacting the environment."

Likely, he says, they will look to the creation of other circuits - new national parks - and look to a diversity of attractions. "The safari is a must. But there is also mountain climbing, golf, bird-watching and relaxing on the beach."

The stability of the government, compared to that of many African countries, is a plus in drawing visitors to Kenya, says Anwar Hussein, a Kenya native who is now a Salt Lake-based tour director.

But Pereira admits the country is not without problems. "Few places in the world are totally free of political tensions, but Kenya knows what it wants. We must first mold ourselves into a nation before we fragment along tribal lines."With more than 40 national parks and game preserves, there's ample opportunity for wildlife viewing. But there are also opportunities to experience Kenya's approach to wildlife conservation, an issue that is taken very seriously - and for good reason.

Wildlife experts estimate that the rhino and elephant populations have been reduced by 70 and 50 percent respectively in the last decade due to illegal poaching. And if these trends continue, these animals could well disappear from Kenya by the first part of the next century.

Kenyans are trying to stop the devastation. Not only are poachers given harsh penalties when caught, but the government has teamed with private foundations in a number of education and conservation projects.

One, the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (known by the telling initials AFEW) operates the Giraffe Center just outside Nairobi.

AFEW is designed to help school children become aware of the need for conservation. The primary focus is the Rothschild giraffe - only 75 of these animals remained when the campaign was launched in 1984.

Visitors to the Giraffe Center can hand-feed giraffes - and can marvel at the grace and agility of these magnificent creatures.

Another conservation program, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, works with orphan elephants whose families have been killed by poachers. The orphans are brought to a special preserve at the edge of Nairobi National Park. There they are carefully tended with the hope they can eventually be returned to the wilds.

Of all the animals, say keepers at the center, the elephant most closely parallels the life cycle of man. Elephants are totally dependent on milk for the first 18 months of life. They reach puberty between age 12 and 14, are young adults ready to leave the herd at age 20, are in their prime in the 30s and 40s and, with luck, may live to 70 or 80.

The loss of their family can cause the young elephants to go through a period of grief and depression that can last months. Keepers literally have to become the new family through 24-hour care, even sleeping in the stables. At the same time, the elephants can't get too attached to the keepers or they won't be able to function on their own.

It is a difficult, delicate and demanding task. And why bother? Because, as writer Wallace Stegner noted, "something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed . . . if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or into extinction."The animals, the lands, the people of Kenya have long captured the imagination of writers. But of all that have come under its spell, none has created as much interest in recent years as Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen.

Blixen came to Kenya in 1914. "I had a farm in Africa . . . " she wrote when her memoirs were published as "Out of Africa" in 1937. The farm was, in fact, a coffee plantation in the knuckle-shaped Ngong hills a short distance from Nairobi.

It was not a particularly easy life, as most of the care of the farm and the workers fell to her. But, as she wrote to her mother, "much, perhaps most, of my heart is in this country. I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong."

Blixen's house in Ngong still stands, and has been turned into a museum. (It was not used in the movie, incidentally, because while it is of good size for the place and time, it was too small to accommodate the film crews. For that, they had to use the house of the President, not too far away.)

Also in the Ngong hills, high in the hills, in what is now the back yard of a small country farm, is another part of the Blixen story - a monument marking the grave of her friend and lover Denys Finch-Hatton, who was killed in an airplane crash and was buried in the hills he loved so much.

The monument, enclosed in a neatly tended garden, is a granite obelisk. And the words chosen for the epitaph, a quote from "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," pretty well sum up the way this land still speaks to the souls of those who venture there:

He prayeth well who loveth well,

Both man and bird and beast.


(Additional information)

BYU Travel Study tour will go to Kenya

BYU Travel Study is sponsoring a 16-day Kenya safari June 18-July 3. The tour will be under the direction of BYU faculty member David B. Galbraith and tour director Anwar Hussein and will feature a stopover in Rome. Cost is $4,295.

For more information, call 1-800-525-2049.