KENYA TRIP REPORT PART 1:
THE MASAI MARA
Since I first started traveling to Kenya in the 1990’s, I have grown increasingly fond of this beautiful and incredibly diverse country and its friendly, easy-going people. With every return visit, my previous perceptions about Kenya as a safari destination have been re-validated, notably that it is an ideal destination for a first African safari. No doubt about that. Kenya has lots of animals which are easy to see, it has remarkable diversity in terms of habitats, wildlife, scenery and activities along with a well-functioning tourism infrastructure.
Culturally, Kenya is rich and diverse, it has excellent accommodation options in each area, great guiding and - like I said - friendly people who are genuinely interested in your well-being and happiness. So learn a few Swahili phrases, get your E-visa online, and get ready for a fantastic experience! Of course, if you’ve already been, you know most of this. But do keep on reading as there’s lots of information here about some places you might not have been to yet, like the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, or the Olare Motorogi Conservancy in the Masai Mara.
On my most recent trip, last June, I arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on South African Airways after an on-time, uneventful flight. Getting a visa was a cinch - it literally took less than 10 minutes. Then a gremlin appeared in the way of a long and disorganized, scrum-like line to get one’s luggage scanned in an industrial-sized luggage scanner. Of which there really should be more than one, clearly. To compound matters, traffic congestion caused a lengthy delay getting out of the airport and on to the road to downtown.
Even so, I remained in a good mood, just happy to be back in Kenya. Here’s a tip for African travel in general and specific to Nairobi and Kenya: be prepared for a little bit of chaos mixed in with smiles from people who are genuinely pleased that you have decided to make your way there.
NAIROBI SERENA HOTEL
The security check on arrival at the Nairobi Serena Hotel was thorough, but not brusque. I never felt rushed or intimidated. A little bit of courtesy goes a long way. Reception at the hotel was smooth and professional, as was my in-room briefing. The room was luxuriously appointed, with the usual amenities including tea and coffee-making facilities, multi-channel TV, air conditioning, and thoughtfully designed charging facilities with a phone-ready cable for your iphone, and enough USB and universal plugs capable of accepting a US type plug without an adaptor.
I tried both the Asian fusion and traditional restaurants at the hotel for dinner and breakfast respectively, and they were both good. Serena has a well-deserved reputation for their breakfast spread and the Nairobi Serena Hotel was no exception.
LOLDIA HOUSE, LAKE NAIVASHA
From this point on and for the duration of my trip to the Masai Mara, I was accompanied by Zachary Methu, an affable, extremely capable and hugely knowledgeable Origins Safaris guide. What a difference a good guide makes! It took about 3 hours by road to get to Lake Naivasha, where I would spend a couple of nights at Loldia House. I had been looking forward to a return visit to this lovely old home which was built by Italian prisoners-of-war during WWII. Just like the last time, I spent a peaceful night in Room #1. Being inside the main house, it is convenient, large, and has beautiful views over the garden and the lake. The bathroom has been upgraded.
I enjoyed some bird photography and a delicious lunch, and went for a 5K run later in the afternoon in the cultivated (farm) portion of the estate. That evening, we enjoyed a delightful dinner - table d'hote style - with 8 other guests and the manager. The 3-course, plated meal was expertly prepared and served. Breakfast the next morning was equally good, particularly the pancakes.
Loldia is the perfect place to spend one’s first couple of nights in Kenya, prior to going on safari. It's a great introduction to Kenya's wildlife with a good variety of game to be seen including buffalo, hippo, impala, gazelles and giraffe. On night drives hyenas, owls, and bush pigs may be seen.
Included activities at Loldia are an afternoon game drive with sundowner drinks, a boat cruise on Lake Naivasha early in the morning and a night game drive after dinner. Beyond those, Loldia offers a host of optional activities (at additional cost), such as guided trips to Lake Nakuru, Crescent Island, Hell’s Gate, Crater Lake, Lake Ol Odien, Eburru Forest, Aberdare National Park, Lake Elementaita, and Lake Bogoria. There’s also golf available at the nearby Great Rift Valley Lodge, horse-riding and a tour of the nearby rose farm.
Room 1 at Loldia is in the main house; rooms 2, 3 and 4 (all upgraded) are in the garden. Room 6 and 7 (thatched roofs) are also in the garden. Room 8 and 9 are in the Top Cottage and room 10 is in the Top Cottage loft and has a separate/outside bathroom.
MARA BUSHTOPS, MASAI MARA
Fom Naivasha it was a solid 5 hour 30 minutes drive to Mara Bushtops, situated in a game-rich conservancy just to the north of the Masai Mara National Park. The impressive tented rooms are solidly in the deluxe category with beautiful wrap around views over the surrounding bush. There was an indoor and outdoor shower, Wi-Fi and an outdoor jacuzzi which can be filled in advance. The room has a buzzer to summon your personal butler. The room lighting wasn’t quite up to my ‘bright, clear, and easy to operate’ expectations.
A two-hour afternoon game drive on the Isaaten Conservancy illustrated once again why Kenya is such a good choice for a first - or any - safari. Without too much driving at all we notched up good views of elephants (lots of them!), giraffes all over the place, many zebras, scattered groups of wildebeest, impala, Thompson's gazelle, topi, eland, Kirk's dik-dik, vervet monkeys, warthogs and bat-eared foxes. Guests who spend three nights or more at Mara Bushtops will usually spend a half or full day inside the Masai Mara National Park; the lodge is only about 30 minutes from the Sekenani gate. Dinner was first class in every way in what was essentially a full-blown restaurant with multiple starters, main courses and dessert options. No set hours: you dine when you want to.
Exercise note: Mara Bushtops caters for health enthusiasts more than most other camps. They have a large pool with adjacent heated jacuzzi, a sauna, a small gym with weights and a treadmill. The Amani Spa at Mara Bushtops has a wide range of beauty treatments and massage and rejuvenation treatment options, several of which cater for couples.
ASILIA NABOISHO CAMP, NABOISHO CONSERVANCY
It was a relatively short drive today to the Naboisho Conservancy where I spent the night at Asilia’s Naboisho camp. Naboisho is a well organized camp with friendly and attentive management and staff, superior guiding by Dickson Kaleku, and abundant wildlife. I also did a site inspection at nearby Mara Encounter and liked what I saw, particularly the adventurous walk through a small, dense forest on the way into camp. I can recommend both of these camps and the Naboisho area without any reservation. The game viewing was as good as I've experienced anywhere - ever - with huge numbers of wildebeest around. It felt like the migration season, even though we knew it was not. We saw many lions and enjoyed an exceptionally good cheetah sighting with three sub-adult cubs. Plus elephants, eland, topi, gazelles, impala, zebra, giraffe and more.
Exercise note: Not an ideal spot for exercise, but you can go on an extended walk of a few hours duration with an armed professional guide.
MARA PLAINS CAMP, OLARE MOTOROGI CONSERVANCY
The next day, it was on to Mara Plains Camp in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. This conservancy is a model of how local landowners and conservation-minded safari operators can work together for a greater goal, being the preservation of Kenya's wildlife heritage for generations to come. In this huge area - which otherwise would have been dotted with homesteads and overrun with cattle, sheep and goats - wildlife is thriving and the local communities benefit with employment and cash income. Mara Plains Camp is a Relais & Chateaux property and it shows on many levels from the impeccable quality of the food and beverage offerings to the attentive and competent management and staff. I was wowed from beginning to end. The massive rooms are dramatically set on the edge of a seasonal creek.
For the few days that you may spend at Mara Plains you will be in a cocoon of unadulterated luxury. While guests no doubt appreciate the luxury touches and the property’s high level of sophistication, the lasting impression is of a team of people with a clearly defined mission to be a force for good in both conservation and community. The wildlife experience at Mara Plains on this trip was just as good as it was on a previous visit to the area, a few years ago. At that time I recall seeing as many as seven different mammal species all at the same time.
It would not be unreasonable to expect to see three big cat species - leopard, lion and cheetah - on a 3 night stay at Mara Plains; in fact we saw all three on one game drive, on this trip! Most memorably, I photographed a cheetah crossing a small road within the conservancy, while a local resident on a motorbike (here known as a boda-boda) paused for a few minutes, to give the cheetah the space to do so without pressure. Only in Kenya! We also saw various prides of lions, some with cubs of varying ages, and a host of other mammals and birds. My Mara Plains hosts Rich and Lorna - as well as Kyra - went out of their way to make me feel at home.
Exercise note: Clearly not a good place to go jogging, but each room has a yoga mat and a jump rope.
ASILIA REKERO CAMP, MASAI MARA
My next stop was Rekero - another Asilia property - located in an ideal spot on the Talek River with a great view down-river, inside the Masai Mara National Park. The huge deck is a perfect place to discover the coming and going of numerous birds including the rather stunning blue fly catcher which I tried to photograph with some success. Rekero is so well hidden in the thick riverine forest along the Talek River that it remains completely hidden until you walk into camp, from the parking area. There are nine tented rooms, two of which are family rooms; the tents are quite spacious with a separate en suite bathroom with plenty of hot water, a separate vestibuli with a day-bed and adequate lighting. I slept soundly by the sound of water rushing over the rocks in the Talek River. The food at Rekero was excellent and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a mix of South Africans, Texans and Kenyans and a couple from San Francisco.
We enjoyed yet another superb day of game-viewing in the Masai Mara spotting a leopard with an impala kill in a tree, four different groups of lions, two prides with cubs (from literally 1.5 weeks to several months old) some handsome full-maned male lions, powerful females, sub adults and more.
INTREPIDS CAMP, MASAI MARA
Intrepids camp, my accommodation for the following day, is quite large with 32 tents but with the rooms strategically spread out along the edge of the Talek River in thick vegetation, the camp does not have a ‘crowded’ feel.
The rooms are quite smart and nicely equipped with decent lighting, mosquito nets, a separate shower and toilet with door, a deluxe wash basin and ample mirrors. There is Wi-Fi everywhere in the camp. Each room has a small desk and ample storage and clothes hanging space. The bathroom area and particularly the shower of my room number 14 was starting to look a bit tired and is definitely in need of refurbishment.
Hot water - provided by wood burning boilers - is available from 5 to 9 a.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Lunch was served buffet-style with multiple choices and options including a wide variety of vegetarian items. For dinner meals are plated with a substantial number of options for starters, main course and even for dessert.
What makes Intrepids a good choice though is the location. It is ideally located in the heart of the Masai Mara right where the action is during the migration season. From here your guide can take you towards the Musiara area if needs be, or to the main or Serena crossing over the Mara River, or even further afield to the southern section of the Mara in search of whatever is out there, including of course potential wildebeest crossings.
Exercise note: Mara Intrepids has an extensive trail/walkway winding through the camp and past the vehicle maintenance area, so this is a property where you can plan on getting a few miles under the belt.
MARA EXPLORER CAMP, MASAI MARA
The next day my journey would take me on to Mara Explorer camp, Intrepids’ smaller and more luxurious sister tented camp. Mara Explorer has just 10 quite elegant tented rooms, most with good views over the Talek River which was flowing quite strongly on the day. The rooms are spacious with a separate indoor shower (shower head needed replacement), a toilet with a door and an outside bath with a view. Hot water available from 5 - 9 a.m. and from 5 - 9 p.m.
The rooms are on the edge of the Talek River and some of them, like mine (#4), are very close to a sizable number of hippos hanging out in a hippo pool in a bend of the river. So if you really like hippos and don't mind them waking you up at around 5 a.m. when they go back in the water then this is just the room for you. Our game drive today produced a sighting of an acclaimed coalition of four cheetahs, as well as some good views of lions and buffaloes. The day was rounded off nicely with a surprise bush dinner.
MARA NGENCHE CAMP, MASAI MARA
It was a shortish drive this day to Mara Ngenche, sister camp to Samburu’s Elephant Bedroom camp. The property is located in a prime spot at the confluence of the Talek and Mara Rivers with the rooms having views over either of the river beds. My room was large with a comfortable king bed, decent lighting, indoor shower and bath and outside shower. It also had a private plunge pool, lounge chairs and hammock. The staff was friendly and attentive and obliged with a special local meal with items such as ugali and sukuma wiki.
The dining room, lounge and bar tents were likewise quite well done; food was superb and varied with several choices of starters, mains and desserts. Game drives in the area were productive and we had a good morning with several sightings of leopards, among others.
ELEPHANT PEPPER CAMP, MARA NORTH CONSERVANCY
It was a slightly longer drive today, leaving the Masai Mara National Park at Musiara gate into Mara North Conservancy. I was initially somewhat put off by the presence of a large village not far from the gate, with several herds of cattle around. However, by the time we got to our next stop, Elephant Pepper Camp, everything had changed. It turned out to be a lovely and clearly well-run camp with energetic and friendly management, who made me feel welcome right away. I liked everything I saw about Elephant Pepper from the camp layout, the nice rooms with good lighting, to the fun meal-times. We arrived in the middle of a leopard sighting and that pretty much set the tone for the remainder of my stay. It turned out that the game viewing at Elephant Pepper - particularly for the big cats - was terrific. Zachary and I had some of the best views of the entire trip of cheetahs and lions on what was to be our last proper game drive in the Mara. A short spell of rain did nothing to dampen our spirits - in fact it set up an opportunity to get a photo of a wet lion shaking its mane.
KAREN BLIXEN COTTAGES - NAIROBI
It took just over 5 hours to drive back from Elephant Pepper to the suburb of Karen on the west side of Nairobi. We encountered heavy traffic in spots with lots of 16-wheeler trucks, the road being the main artery from the port of Mombasa to the East African interior. I was happy to have someone as experienced and patient as Zachary behind the steering wheel. This evening, I spent the night at Karen Blixen Coffee Garden & Cottages. Located in one of the oldest formal gardens in Kenya (with lots of great birds around), the hotel is convenient to the Karen Blixen Museum, Wilson Airport, Sheldrick elephant orphanage and Nairobi National Park. In contrast to the historic main building, the individual cottage suites are quite modern and spacious with high-beam ceilings, fireplaces, verandahs, a bath, shower, and TV. I enjoyed lunch and dinner at the adjacent Tamarind restaurant and could not fault the excellent ostrich burger and grilled tuna fillet, or the swift and friendly service. I took a cab to the nearby Karen Mall for some shopping at the Kikoy store and the well-stocked aisles of Carrefour grocery store (candy stop!). The next morning I would be on my way to Lewa in the northern part of Kenya.