I consider my trip to Kenya to be comprised of two distinct parts – the city of Nairobi and the open spaces of Kenya’s national parks and the traditional safari that everyone thinks of when they consider visiting Africa.
Kenya has 24 national parks. That’s in addition to the 15 national reserves, 6 marine parks and numerous conservancies on top of those. I visited only 3 parks, meaning I barely scratched the surface of all the country has to offer. However, the 3 I visited offered encounters I only ever dreamed about.
The one thing I learned on my trip was the difference between safari and game drive. Safari is considered the whole vacation or journey. The game drives are the actual drives through the parks. Typically, a safari lodge or camp will offer at least two drives a day, one in the early morning and one closer to sunset. You then often have the option to do another in the middle of the day as well. We did 13 across the 3 parks and while it may seem like overkill, each drive ended up being a completely different experience; no two drives were alike.
From Nairobi, we headed to the Nairobi Terminus for a trip to Tsavo West National Park. The one thing I noticed about the drive is while traffic is horrendous, you will find people walking everywhere. Car ownership is expensive, and the Nairobi transportation is solely private, relying on privately owned taxis and other enterprises. There is a desperate need for affordable and convenient mass transit for the almost 7 million people that live in the Nairobi metropolitan area. Imagine driving down I-95 outside Baltimore and finding people – men, women, children – impeccably dressed and walking to their jobs and school down the highway. That’s what it was like.
However, Kenya is very proud of its rail system and spends a lot of time and money keeping it safe and clean for passengers. My experience with the Nairobi station was quite unlike any passage through a station I’ve had before. Before entering the building, everyone is separated into two lines – men and women – for a pat down. Then you walk into a tunnel like structure where you line your bags up on a small metal platform and immediately step back against the wall (and they mean against the wall – do not step forward until you are told to do so) while dogs sniff the bags. Once thoroughly sniffed, your bags are run through a scanner. Only then are you allowed to enter the main terminal where your bags are scanned again and passports and tickets are checked before going upstairs. At that point, we were pat down again, our tickets and passports checked once more and our bags scanned a third time. Since we were in First Class, we then were escorted to a lounge to wait for our train.
The trains are clean and comfortable. The only difference I could tell from first class and the other classes were that we had assigned seats and an attendant would come around asking if you wanted to purchase any food or beverage. I chose not to, and rather just dozed and watched the scenery transform into a wild landscape. After 4 hours, we reached the Mtito Andrei station that was our jumping off point for Tsavo West (and yes, our tickets were checked again upon getting of the train). We were met by our driver, Francis, who would stay with us the rest of the week. I only wish everyone had a Francis as a guide for their trips and will endeavor to make sure he is the guide for all my clients to this area. He’s been a guide in the parks for 21 years and I have yet to meet someone as personable and knowledgeable as him. I am not sure I could have learned as much about Kenyan history, culture and wildlife from anyone else in such a short time. Since we were a group of women, he dubbed himself our “rooster” and became one of our family.
Our lodge, Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge was situated deep in the park – about a ½ hour drive from the entrance. The lodge is built almost entirely of stone with thatched roofs and a décor that designed to embrace the essence of Africa, with carved animals and woven tapestries hanging from the ceiling. One side of the lodge opened up from the main dining area and bar to a long terrace overlooking a watering hole where animals gathered at all times of the day. While there was a small measure of security surrounded the lodge, smaller animals like the dik dik were able to walk fairly close to the building.
My room was small, but comfortable and colorful with a queen size bed enshrouded in mosquito netting, desk, plenty of outlets and a patio with a fantastic view of the watering hole. From my vantage point, I was able to see herds, yes herds, of elephants and cape buffalo descend for an evening drink and bath. It was so fascinating that it was almost impossible to drag myself off to bed at night.
Tsavo West is large – it’s 3,500 mi² – and combined with Tsavo East at about 5,803 mi² it makes up the largest park in Africa. The landscape is wild, from overgrown grasslands to mountainous terrain. There is even a lava field from an extinct volcano It’s here you can have a chance at seeing the Big 5 (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo – we saw 3 of them), or one of the 600 bird species that reside in the park. We had close up encounters with a family of elephants, countless giraffe and even a rare leopard. Listen to the talk coming from your guide’s radio – when all the park guides are chattering excitedly, you know something special is out there. That’s how we found the leopard sitting in a tree stalking its prey.
After a return to Nairobi for one night, we drove out to Amboseli National Park and 2 nights at Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. The lodge is heavily influenced by Maasai craftsmanship and culture, many of whom work there. The design of the rooms is based on the Maasai menyatta (menyatta means home) – the huts that they live in. The first thing staff told us was to make sure we locked our patio doors when leaving because of the blackface monkeys that roam the property. They’re known for sneaking into rooms and searching for snacks. One evening, we watched one slip through an open door into the dining room and steal sugar packets. That same night while we were having drinks and snacks on the open-air patio, another monkey charged up to us and stole all our plantain chips. Naughty boy (I dropped my phone so no video).
The main draws of Amboseli National Park are its proximity to Mount Kilimanjaro that looms over the park and the large herds of elephants. We were so close to Tanzania that T-Mobile welcomed me as we drove to the lodge. Each park has its own unique terrain and animals. Amboseli is a very different landscape than Tsavo West – it’s very flat and very tiny at only 151 mi². The landscape is mostly open plains, swamp and marshland with Lake Amboseli sitting to the west. And while it is known for its elephants, I will always remember it as our first lion sighting. Now, the thing to remember when on a game drive is that no animal sighting is ever guaranteed. The animals operate on their own schedules and not the tourists’. So to spot two lions ambling through the grass with a third not far behind when none had been sighted for days was a sight to behold. While we saw plenty of hippos, elephants, and buffalo, I will never forget those lions.
Our final park of the trip was the Maasai Mara, or The Mara, as it’s known. Our stay was divided into two – two nights at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge and one night in a tent at Governors’ Camp. The Mara Serena was larger than the other lodges we stayed at, with a sweeping lobby and million dollar views of the savanna from all rooms. I am not sure I have ever seen anything more beautiful than sunrise over the Mara.
The Mara at 583 mi² has consistently been voted the best national park in Africa and is adjacent to the Serengeti. It’s between these two parks that you will find one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Migration. Every June, July and August, herds of wildebeest, zebra and smaller animals such as the topi flock from the Serengeti to the Mara in search of food and water. They start their return in September and the migration is generally complete in October. However, due to drought, many of the animals returned to the Mara resulting in impressive herds gathered throughout the park.
In fact the entire park is filled with herds of elephants, giraffe, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, prides of lions, cheetah, rhinos, hyenas, ostrich, wildebeest and so much more! Off-roading is not allowed, but carefully drawn tracks through the savanna allow you to get up close and personal with the animals. Markers delineated where Kenya ended and Tanzania began. I wanted to stand with one foot in each country, but sadly Francis would not allow it. Now, how close were we to the animals? Yes, I could have reached out of our jeep and scratched a lion on the rear. It would have been the last thing I ever did, but I probably could have.
It was in the Mara that we saw most of our lions, bringing the trip count to 63, including a pride of 23 with tiny cubs. The cheetah we saw was majestic, and the herds of zebra taking off were impressive. However, I have never seen anything as so adorable as a baby warthog. Warthogs are everywhere in the parks. They are actually called nguruwe in Swahili, but ever since the movie “The Lion King,” they are known as pumbas, even by the Kenyans. I was absolutely in fits of laughter every time I saw one run.
During our time here, we also took the time to visit a Maasai village. The Maasai are a proud warrior tribe found in East Africa. Because
killing animals is now illegal in Kenya, they make their living mostly through agriculture, primarily livestock, and tourist visits. A man’s worth is based on the number of livestock he has, and the more heads of cattle, the more wives he is permitted to have. However, it is considered rude to ask just how many cattle he owns. While visiting the village, we were treated to performances of song and dance by the men and women. The men spoke English well having been sent to school when young. However, until 2015 Maasai women were not educated, so the women we met did not speak English. The men performed their famed jumping dance. As tourists, we saw the dance done out of context. However, when performed properly, the dance is one of the several rites that make up a Maasai male’s journey to manhood. In the dance, the men form a circle into which one or two at a time will enter. They begin to jump and the higher they jump, the more appealing they are to women who hope to make a match. After the dancing and tour of the menyatta, we had an opportunity to purchase crafts and other items from the woman. Each of us was assigned a tribesman to carry the items we picked out. When we were finished, we took our goods to a circle where an elder began the negotiations. According to him, they took payment in Kenyan shillings, dollars, euros, cattle and goats. He was good – every time I tried to counter-offer, he returned with an offer saying it was for the school. He knew where to get me!
Before we left the Mara Serena, we arranged for breakfast by a hippo pool. Guests are not allowed to walk through the parks without permission and an escort, so an armed guarded walked us from our jeep to a beautifully set table along the pool and the Mara River. We were treated to champagne and a full buffet with custom omelets. It was a glorious morning and an absolute treat.
Our final lodging of the trip was at Governor’s Camp, a tented camp inside the Mara. Tented camps range in the level of luxury and service, and this one was akin to glamping with full power and bathrooms inside the tents. My tent had a queen size, very comfy bed, a dressing table, good lighting and a full bathroom with the best shower I had on the trip. When staff turndown the room at night, they make sure the sides are down and fastened, and hot water bottles are nestled into the beds. Dining and the bar are also in tents with comfortable furnishings. The good at the Governor’s Camp was probably the most authentically African food I had in any accommodation on the trip. In the morning, a porter wakes you up with a tray of pastries and hot cocoa or coffee that was an absolutely delightful way to start the day.
The one thing to keep in mind when staying in a tented camp is that they are open camps – animals can and do walk through
the camp whenever they please. As a result, guests are not allowed to walk alone at night without an escort. Each tent comes with a flashlight. When I wanted to leave my tent to go to dinner, I shone the light outside, and an armed guard escorted me to dinner. After dinner, we were escorted back to our tents. I didn’t see any animals that night, but we were told that hippos and elephants have been known to walk through.
Governor’s Camp requires guests to use their own jeeps and guides, so it was here that we said goodbye to Francis and the jeep that became home to us for the last week. The one experience we didn’t get but I highly recommend is a hot air balloon ride with champagne lunch over the Mara. Governor’s Camp owns its own balloon concession and operates the rides every morning and afternoon.
After an amazing night’s sleep, I awoke for one final game drive and the return to Nairobi to catch the flight home. All the parks have airstrips, and Governor’s Camp maintains its own fleet of planes. This is where efficient packing becomes crucial. Guests flying to or from one of the parks are limited to a total of 15kg or 33lbs in a duffel bag. I am not sure how they measure it because I didn’t see anyone weighing bags, but that could be because we were a small group and the only ones on our plane.We flew a 12-seat Embraer with an engaging pilot, Charles. The ride was smooth and took about 45 minutes in a straight shot to Nairobi. I was impressed with the size of the Mara on the ground, but seeing it from the air was breathtaking.
I wish I could say navigating the Nairobi airport for the return flight was as smooth as my flight there, but that is not the case.
A word of caution – for your return, get to the airport at least 4 hours early. Getting into the terminal required a security check, and after waiting on an interminable line for check-in where there was one worker, there was another interminable line at passport control. After passing through, we entered what was supposed to be lines for the main security, but were more like a pulsing, pushing mob. It is here that any traveler needs to set aside their politeness and manners, and just fight their way to one of the several scanners.
Once we managed that, our group bolted to the gate, as we feared we were at risk of missing the plane, only to get there and be required to go through an even more stringent security check. Each carryon passed through a scanner again, but each one stopped and scrutinized. My bags were pulled for a bit of a look-through, but it was more due to my CPAP machine that always seemed to baffle Kenya Airways workers. As my fellow travel agents boarded the plane, I noticed my boarding pass was marked with the dreaded SSSS. Any pass with that designation means the passenger is selected for extra security. I had to go to another table where my bags were thoroughly molested and swabbed. Finally, I was allowed on the plane as one of the very last to board.
It’s been a month since my return and I’ve not stopped thinking about Kenya. Everyone I know that has been there told me it would be life-changing, and they were not wrong. I can only hope to go back because as I mentioned, I only scratched the surface.
If you are ready to take yourself on a bucket list trip to Kenya, let me know. I can’t wait to show you all its wonders! In the meantime, check out my photo album HERE to get the full experience.
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Follow my extraordinary journey to Kenya – Pt. 1