I will be the first to admit it: Kenya was not in the my top 5 of African countries to visit. To me, the country evoked Meryl Streep and Robert Redford's doomed romance in Out of Africa, National Geographic programs on the Maasai tribal customs and the occasional political issues that actually make it to our Western world news; all this presented a country too commercialized to be able to offer a wild African experience. The Maasai Mara has been a tourist destination since at least the 1940s and big game hunters explored the area well before that. My background and family history lies mainly in Southern Africa and I couldn't imagine that such a bustling and popular destination could compete with the remote wilds of Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. Therefore I was surprised and delighted to find Kenya an engaging, diverse and beautiful country with a fantastic amount of wildlife and some of the friendliest and warm people I have had the privilege to meet in my travels.
My trip was only two weeks long however we managed to squeeze in 6 regions and over 20 lodges and safari camps; you can see more photos on our Facebook album here or give me a call for more details and camp reviews.
Glossing over the two long and eventless flights and long line lines for immigration at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (1.5 hours), we finally arrived at the historic Norfolk Hotel late in the evening. This charming hotel is an institution in Nairobi, having served as a military meeting point in both World Wars and hosting many famous faces, including Winston Churchill. The Norfolk received a much needed refurbishment earlier this year and is one of the loveliest city hotels I have ever stayed at; historic, warm and comfortable with gracious and helpful staff.
The following morning we set out to David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in the Nairobi suburbs, a place I have long wanted to visit. The Orphanage takes in baby elephants and rhinos which are at risk, having fallen down wells and being abandoned by their herds or else the living victims of poachers who kill the mothers for ivory. The orphaned elephants are separated into age groups and have a team of keepers to act as their family herd so they are brought up as social animals.
For one hour every day the elephants are brought out to play in a small pool around which some of the keepers stand and tell the stories of each of the elephant to the eager crowd of tourists and elementary school kids. The smallest elephants don't have long enough legs to step out of the mud pool where they play so they get on their knees and slither their way to the dry soil to stand up which makes for some comical sliding! The older group of orphans came charging to the mud pond when they were called since they know that food awaited them. Imagine 2 gallon baby bottles of milk for the baby elephants - each bottle was completely drained in a matter of minutes. Even though these babies are under 2 years old, one good push from their head was enough to send the keepers scrambling to keep their feet as the elephants searched the ground for more bottles. Watching the little Kenyan school children watching the baby elephants was certainly an amazing way to start out the trip.
We left from Nairobi's regional Wilson Airport on Safari Link and our 12 seater plane touched down about an hour later on the dusty airstrip at Ol Donyo Wuas Reserve, just north of Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya. This 275,000 acre reserve in the Chyulu Hills is part of a Maasai cooperative ranch and offers at the exclusive access for only 20 visitors at a time. Driving from the airstrip to the lodge, our guide spotted three cheetahs lounging under an acacia tree in the mid-day heat. This mother has two nearly grown sons and despite the heat of the day, we watched them lazily stalk some Grants gazelles through the dry yellow grass. However the cubs were too hasty and the gazelles too suspicious so we left the hungry cheetahs settling back down in the shade.
The rooms at Ol Donyo Wuas are spacious and luxurious, with all the details you could possibly ask for including a private plunge pool (ours was often surrounded by shimmering glossy starlings taking a bath in the cool water). Upstairs we had a fabulous view to Tanzania from our roof, where we spent the first night tucked into the star bed under the African night sky.
Besides the usual game drives and walks, Ol Donyo Wuas offers hiking in a the mist forest, horseback riding in the forest and mountain biking along the plains; we saw zebras and impalas on our 8 km bike ride in the afternoon under a vast sky rolling with clouds. The horseback rides are out of Ride Kenya, who have 20 horses and traversing rights over 1.4 million acres. While the lifelong riders out there can spend a week camping and riding in the bush, I was perfectly content with an hour and half walking sedately through the acacias on my placid South African Boerperd. We came across a pair of black back jackals trying to lure some guinea fowl into their jaws and wandered amongst a herd of noble looking oryx who didn't pay us much attention. It was a fantastic experience but I do recommend riding and biking on different days if you don't do either often!
Heading north into Samburu land, we visited Ol Malo, a private ranch and game reserve. Unfortunately we only had one afternoon to explore since we had to fly out early the following day but we did have the opportunity to visit a Samburu boma. This boma doesn't see many visitors and we asked permission of the elders before heading down into the valley. The Samburu people live in Central Kenya, which is fairly arid, and they consider themselves cousins of the Maasai. A touristy and commercial "indigenous cultural experience" is something that I loathe and being able to create and maintain relationships with local people is one of our fortes at Wildland. This particular evening was an absolutely incredible and authentic experience and one I will never forget.
We were lucky to be there on a day that the junior Warriors and the young women get together in the late afternoon and dance. The young men wore red shukas and beaded jewelry, singing as they jumped, straight as beanpoles up into the air. They kept their heads high, trying to out jump the others while the girls watched from the side, looking just like teenager wallflowers everywhere. Accompanying themselves by singing, the warriors clustered together then the girls joined them, skipping hand in hand through the dust while the sky grew dark around us and the first rain drops fell. We all scurried back home, the Samburu across the rocky ground to their own bomas and us back up to the safari lodge, enraptured by the colors and sounds of the dance.
We flew in a 4 seater plane, one of my favorite ways to travel, past Mt Kenya on to the Lewa Conservancy. This incredible reserve is haven for both black and white rhino as well as all three big cats in eco-systems ranging from grassy meadows to tree-ringed swamps to rocky hills. Formerly a cattle ranch, Lewa was home to one of the first black rhino conservation programs and the reserve currently has a team of dedicated rhino guards to protect their charges from poachers. Lewa Wilderness is the family home of Will & Emma Craig; the Craig family first came to Lewa in 1922 to ranch and they remain heavily invested in the conservancy and the community.
We visited a couple of great community projects on the reserve including a carpet workshop, furniture making shop and organic farm. There are a half a dozen women making traditional carpets from local wool which is carded and spun right next door. They can bring their young children to work with them so they don't have to find child care or stop working to stay with their babies. The lodges and camps on the Lewa Reserve sell the carpets in their gift shops and Lewa Wilderness also has a one or two in every guest room.
The wood shop had halted activity when we arrived, due to a notched saw but there has a waiting list a year long for handmade furniture and wooden boxes for jewelry and wine. We also stopped by for a tour of the farm. The matriarch of Lewa is Delia Craig (Will's mother), an energetic octogenarian who runs an organic farm on the reserve which supplies the lodge as well sending food to the local market. Walking along the rows of tomatoes, carrots and lettuces, surrounded by banana and avocado trees, I have expected to look up and see my Zimbabwean Granny in her Wellington rubber boots shooing my little sister out of the pea patch at their farm outside Harare.
Lewa has quite a reputation for game viewing and in just 2 days, the reserve didn't disappoint. From a little elephant only a few months old and who didn't quite know what to do with her trunk to a tiny baby elephant only a week old who got lost in grass as she followed her mother along the stream bank, we were able to sit with the different elephant families and take our time. We saw five white rhino grazing along the creek and one big male white rhino after a serious mud bath, an ox-pecker clinging to his shoulders. We came across the blind black rhino mother who has raised 6 calves so far. One morning we went for a horseback ride through the reserve, coming across giraffe, zebra and impala which were all fairly calm and didn't worry about us getting close. We stopped for a bush breakfast under an acacia then proceeded back to camp on camels! Let me tell you, those desert beasts are huge; I had no idea that their backs were so far off the ground.
Our wonderful guide Mongai also took us to the hide overlooking the swamp. This hide is metal shipping crate which has been covered with reed mats and has a bench inside for camouflaged wildlife viewing We sat in hide for over an hour while a herd of elephants drank, played and cooled off around us. We saw 3 young orphaned lions after a kill and a beautiful pair of mating lions. Late the evening we saw a mother leopard with two large cubs romping around and chewing on each others ears and tails like any pair of kittens. Driving up one of the hills or sundowners, we found the 3 brother coalition of cheetahs, sleeping in the dark.
From Lewa we flew through Nanyuki and on to the famous Maasai Mara. We got rain in Mara and unseasonably long spells of it. Despite the rain, we took our sundowners out for a game drive one afternoon and found a pride of 11 lions, including a massivle female named "Mama Kali" and about 8 cubs of various ages. They played and pounced and groomed themselves, walloping each other then running off waiting to be chased. At one point they found a tree that had been pulled down by elephants so the main truck was about 6 feet off the ground. This proved to be a blast for a game of "How many lions can we fit on the tree?" Final count was about 7 but they kept falling off! I could certainly sit with the lions all day, which is a luxury you can't always find on safari.
The following morning we set out in the rain again and just missed three cheetahs make a kill of a Thompson's gazelle. This group is a mother named Beauty for the unusual spot on her cheek and her two nearly grown sons. They tore apart their breakfast with relish as we enjoyed our morning coffee in the vehicle and watched dozens of vultures surround the kill. The vultures literally shuffled their feet on the ground in anticipation but the birds didn't move in until the cheetahs decided they had had enough and set off across the plains to find a comfortable place to sleep.
We saw topis, which have the whimsical nickname of "blue jeans, brown boots" for their unique coloring. These antelope tend to get to highest ground to look for predators so you often find them standing picturesquely on a termite mound. The young topis will just run and run on spindly legs as they play around the adults, looking frail and awkward. There were Grants and Thompsons gazelles, the ever-present impala and tiny dik diks. We also saw my old favorite, the waterbuck which look so sweet with their heart-shaped noses and thick fur.
We went out looking for leopard one day but were unsuccessful and were on our way back to camp when a handsome male leopard crossed the road right in front of us! We watched him take one powerful leap to clear an 8 foot wide gully and he was gone. As the sun set another evening we found an unusual family; a cheetah with 6 healthy cubs. Most cheetah mothers only have two cubs by the time the cubs are a few months old since predators kill the rest. This cheetah has managed to raise all six cubs from this litter to an age where they stand a good chance of surviving to adulthood. We found them fat and happy in the setting sun, the cubs looking like fat balls of cheetah print fluff with sleepy eyes and round ears.
Another highlight was discovering a zebra foal in the road one morning. It must have been born during the night; we watched it struggle to its feet for the first time in order to catch up with it's mother. Its amazing how quickly they can get their skinny little legs under them to be able to trot off with the rest of the herd in a matter of hours.
Even more exciting for me was bat eared foxes!! Five of the bizarre little creatures in the grass, grooming each other just like house cats. I had never seen them before and was completely enchanted. We saw incredible birds, from the famously beautiful Lilac Breasted Rollers to pied kingfishers in their black and white plumage to golden tawny eagles and a host of vulture species. We had gin & tonic sundowners under African sunsets watching the long of wildebeest on their way south to Tanzania.
I hated to leave the Mara but on the drive back to Nairobi we stopped to look out over The Great Rift Valley; this continuous geographic trench is about 3,700 miles and runs from northern Syria all the way to central Mozambique. It's a good spot to give scope to what we had seen and a reminder that this amazing country is just a tiny corner of the world. The jacaranda trees were in bloom when we arrived back in Nairobi and the entire city was awash with purple blossoms; a lovely ending to a wonderful exploration of Kenya.