We were sorry to say goodbye to the rustic comfort of Serian Mara after just one night, but it was time to head back to Nairobi and then home. After breakfast, we headed out for a short game drive on our way to the airstrip.
The last giraffe we saw on our trip.
A group of elderly cape buffalo.
Our driver and guide were two young men from the local Masai community. William, our guide, pointed out dik diks, topi and numerous other animals on our way. He told us that pumba, the Swahili word for warthog, is related to the word for stupid and that the swine got their name from their habit of running only a short distance and then suddenly stopping while being chased by predators. He called topi, a large antelope with a brown body and blue-black fur on its legs, “the blue jeans of Africa.”
We arrived at the airstrip and waited only 5 minutes before the plane landed and it was time to get on board. The plane was tiny, but the ride was surprisingly comfortable. We made two stops to pick up passengers in other parts of the Masai Mara before the final leg of our journey to Nairobi.
Boarding our Air Kenya flight from Masai Mara to Nairobi.
View from the airplane – if you look closely you can see hippos on the island.
We arrived at Wilson Airport, a hub for regional flights within Kenya. Before heading to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for our flights back home, we stopped for lunch at Carnivore, a popular restaurant that serves a variety of all-you-can-eat meats. Meats such as ostrich, lamb, crocodile, chicken, beef, turkey and camel are roasted over an open fire on Masai sword skewers. Servers then come around to each table, carving slices of meat to order for each guests. In addition to meat, we enjoyed the classic Kenyan cocktail called dawa. This mix of lime, honey, raw sugar and vodka was first made popular in Nairobi and has spread in popularity throughout Africa.
It was a lovely way to toast the end of a wonderful journey, Kenyan-style.
It’s the last full day of our trip. We decided to make the most of it with an early morning game drive before breakfast, when many animals are the most active. Our early wake up was rewarded when we came upon a pride of three female lions and their cubs resting in the shade. We kept a respectful distance and they kept theirs; the way they slowly blinked their eyes seemed to suggest that they were more interested in sleeping than in us.
En suite bath at Mara Intrepid
Mara Intrepid outdoor dining room
After breakfast, we visited Mara Intrepids Camp and Mara Explorer, sister tented camps along the Talek River. Mara Intrepids is a more family-oriented camp, open to children 4 years old and above when accompanied by a parent, and offering organized activities for kids with its Adventurers program. An electric fence surrounds the property to keep large game out.
The inside of a tent at Mara Explorer. The fabric hanging above the bed is a mosquito net.
The public area at Mara Explorer has excellent views of the river.
Explorer is an unfenced camp with a wilder feel. Each tent includes a secluded outdoor bath so guests can watch the river while they clean up from the day’s activities. The camp also has no fence, so wildlife sometimes wander through its grounds. While these animals rarely pose a threat, guards are on duty at all times to prevent problems.
This tent at Governor’s Camp has a great view of the savannah.
Huge tents at Governor’s Camp
We then visited Governor’s Camp, an unfenced tented camp with views of the Mara River. From the dining area and bar, visitors can often watch the resident hippos swim in the river or munch on the grass. Each tent has a large bath with shower, and most have views either of the river or the savannah.
Flooding meant the only way from Mara National Reserve to Mara North Conservancy was across this stream. Our Landcruiser handled the rocky crossing as well as any road.
We encountered ostriches on our way to Mara North Conservancy.
We left Masai Mara National Reserve for Mara North Conservancy. Unlike the reserves, which are managed by local governments and the Kenya Wildlife Service, the conservancy is privately owned land set aside for conservation purposes. The land is owned by local Masai who decided that their land was better served by providing homes and passageways for wild animals than being used as year-round pasture for their herds. They receive income from the land in three ways: safari fees paid to them by visitors to the land, rent paid by lodges located on the land, and an additional occupancy fee paid by the lodges when rooms (or tents, as the case may be) are filled.
Serian’s family tent includes two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a shared living room and veranda.
A bath with a view
Once in the conservancy, we continued on to Serian Mara Camp, our lodgings for the night. Set above the Mara River, the six-tent camp offers luxury in a natural setting. The furnishings evoke the safaris of a bygone era, with the rich colors of eastern caprets on hardwood flooring and swathes of cotton setting off the colonial-style furnishings and pale canvas walls. Each tent has its own full bathroom with a rain shower and a hand-carved stone bath with river view, as well as a large private veranda.
Tamara lounges on the deck of the family tent.
Across the river is Ngare Serian, an even more luxurious camp with only four tented suites.
A genet watched us from the edge of the dining veranda during cocktail hour.
We enjoyed watching hippos (as well as a genet and a tiny African hedgehog) before a relaxed dinner with managers Rosin and Adrian and conservancy shareholder Charles, one of the Masai tribal members who set aside his land for the conservancy. Charles asked us if we had any big animals in the United States and was thoroughly unimpressed when we told him we had wolves.
He laughed as if we had just told a very funny joke. After all, wolves aren’t even as big as lions, much less giraffes, rhinos, hippos or elephants.
The best we could come up with for a large North American land mammal was the grizzly bear, which we described as something like a hyena, but the size of a cape buffalo. He thought that was a bit better, but still nothing to write home about.
We also talked about changes he’s seen in Masai Mara and the the Masai culture over his lifetime. Charles has two wives, 16 children (the youngest of whom are in secondary school), and more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than he can count. He told us that while polygamy is permitted in Masai culture, it’s not required, and he has encouraged his children to have smaller families so that they can provide for their families more easily and educate their children. (Primary school attendance in Kenya is compulsory and ostensibly free, but families still must pay school fees for textbooks, uniforms and other supplies. Families who want to send their kids to secondary school must pay tuition.) He says all of his kids have decided against polgamous marriage for themselves, but he does not see this as a threat to the Masai culture. Rather, it’s a shift in cultural practices that takes into account new realities and opportunities.
As of this morning, we’d seen four of the Big Five: cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, and rhino. But we hadn’t seen any lions.
That changed as we left Nakuru this morning. Our guide had seen a male lion the previous evening while we were getting ready for dinner, and we returned to the area to see if it was still around. At first, we thought the lion must have moved on, because all we found were dozen of baboons going about their normal business with seemingly few cares. Surely, if there was a lion around, the baboons would show some signs of distress. (Even though lions don’t commonly eat baboons, they’ve been known to on rare occasions, and so the two species aren’t exactly close friends.)
We were wrong. Upon closer inspection, we finally eyed the lion about six feet up from the ground, napping on a tree branch.
Unlike most lions, who spend their entire lives on the ground, the lions of Nakuru have adapted to climb trees. We were glad to have the opportunity to see an example of this in the wild.
We took the road south through Narok to Masai Mara, the area of the country that has been home to the pastoral Masai tribe for many generations. (The spelling “Masai” is more common in Kenya, while “Maasai” is more common in Tanzania.) We enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Great Rift Valley and acacia-filled plains along the way, and also stopped along the road to buy crafts made by local artists, talk with them and enjoy Bitter Lemon, a Sprite-like soda that is slightly less sweet and has a hint of bitterness from quinine (the same plant ingredient used in tonic water and early medicines for malaria).
After checking in at Sarova Mara Camp, we went for an afternoon game drive in Masai Mara National Reserve. Highlights of the drive included hippos and Masai giraffes. Kenya has three types of giraffes: reticulated, Rothschild, and Masai. Reticulated are easy to distinguish from the others because they have a spot pattern that looks like a light brown net has been cast over their otherwise rust-colored bodies. Rothschild giraffes develop dark centers in each spot as they grow older and have no markings below their knees, so that they look like they’re wearing white knee socks. Masai giraffes are distinguished by jagged spots that look something like blobs of brown fingerpaint.
Tent at Mara Simba Lodge
Tamara takes in the view of the Talek River from a veranda at Mara Simba Lodge.
We then visited Mara Simba Lodge situated on a bank of Talek River, a tributary to the Mara River. The 84 guest rooms, arranged in clusters of 6 within a natural wood and stone Banda (4 rooms on the ground floor, 2 interconnecting rooms on the second floor) comprise 60 twin rooms, 12 double, 4 double+single and 8 triple rooms. All have en suite showers and tiled bathrooms with natural granite. Each spacious room, which can easily accommodate an extra bed, opens onto its own private veranda with uninterrupted views across the river. For those looking for a permanent tent experience, 17 are also available at Mara Simba Lodge. Seven of 14 tents have views of the river and all of the 84 banda rooms sit on the river bank.
We returned to Sarova Mara where before dinner, a group of Masai warriors (young men in their teens and twenties) treated us to a traditional dance.
We saw a cheetah on our way out of Samburu National reserve this morning. Although cheetahs are most renowned for their speed, this particular male cheetah was ambling slowly through the savannah. When we got closer to him, the reason for his sluggishness became clear: he had just eaten a meal so large that his stomach was visibly distended. We watched as he ambled along, looking for a nice shady spot where he could lie down for a post-meal nap.
It was a great way to kick off the hours-long journey to Lake Nakuru National Park, a birdwatcher’s paradise and also home to many large game. When we arrived, we were greeted by a herd of hundreds of water buffalo, who watched us with disinterest as they feasted on lush grass made green by the recent rains.
Baboons own the road in Lake Nakuru National Park.
After lunch, we checked into Sarova Lion Hill Lodge and embarked on a productive afternoon game drive. We came across several large groups of baboons lounging around in the middle of the dirt road — some grooming each other, some napping, others looking like they were engaged in neighborly chats.
Flamingos and an ibis (lower right) find food in the shallows.
The game drive along the lake’s edge had several other highlights. Birds included greater and lesser flamingos, pelicans, hammerkops (a type of water bird), snowy egrets, two kinds of herons, and sacred ibises.
White rhinos graze on Lake Nakuru’s shore.
For mammals, we saw white rhinos, Grant’s zebras, hyraxes (a rabbit-sized rodent and the closest living relative of elephants), Thompson gazelles, impalas, waterbucks and vervet monkeys. In the woods away from the water’s edge, we were lucky enough to see a group of three black rhinos munching on the underbrush. They ran away too quickly for us to take pictures, but we felt lucky just to have seen them. They are extremely shy and notoriously difficult to spot, since they live in the forest and rarely spend time in open areas. We only saw them because they happened to be snacking within a few yards of the road.
The view of Lake Nakuru from Baboon Hill.
At the end of our game drive, we checked into Sarova Lion Hill, a large lodge set on a plateau overlooking Lake Nakuru. Guests stay in modern cabins that dot the grounds and feature sliding glass doors for a spectacular view of the lake. The lodge’s Flamingo Restaurant serves a delicious variety of European, Indian and Kenyan specialties.
We started our day off with a morning safari drive in Shaba, where the air was fragrant from the scent of wildflowers and the animals were out enjoying the cool weather. Early in our drive, we spotted several reticulated giraffes, as well as jackals, dikdik (antelope about the size of rat terriers), gerenut (also known as giraffe gazelles because of their long necks), and several bird species, including hornbills, guinea hens, bee-eaters and starlings.
Intricately striped Grevy’s zebras
When we reached the top of a hill, we stopped to admire the view and noticed some movement among the acacia tree’s shadows in the far distance. Through our binoculars we could identify those shadows as a large herd of oryx and, more notably, about a dozen rare Grevy’s zebras. We moved closer to the herds to get a better view. Grevy’s zebras have large ears and such fine stripes that they almost look gray from a distance. They have a smaller range than the Burchell’s zebra (also known as Grant’s zebra), which are widespread through much of Kenya. Once the zebras realized we were only there for a look and meant no harm, they returned to their morning routine of grazing and taking dust baths. It was thrilling to watch them up close.
After our morning drive, we headed for Samburu National Park. Just a few kilometers away from Shaba, Samburu boasts many large game, including elephants, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, lions, Somali ostriches, and more. There are several tented camps in the park. These lodges offer visitors fresh air and close access to wildlife without sacrificing comfort. Tents usually have wooden, stone or concrete floors that are raised off the ground; fully plumbed bathrooms with showers, sinks and flush toilets; and outlets for charging cell phones and camera batteries. (Since electricity in most tented camps runs on generators, it is often turned off while guests are asleep or away on safari during the day.)
Private room at Elephant Bedroom
I made new friends at Elephant Bedroom. Staff who are members of the Samburu tribe wear their traditional clothing at work.
We first took a tour of Elephant Bedroom, a tented camp on the Ewaso Nyiro River. As we walked in, we could see a herd of elephants grazing on the opposite shore. Elephant Bedroom is a lodge for the traveler who wants lodgings that feel connected to the local culture but also have all the amenities that Westerners are used to. Most of the tents are permanent, with hardwood floors that are raised off the ground, front decks from which to view the river, and plunge pools. Decorations reflect the influence of the local Samburu culture, right down to the bathrobes and slippers, which are the same bright red that the Samburus prefer for much of their traditional clothing.
Vervet monkeys are easy to spot at Larsen’s.
Most tents at Larsen’s Camp have a view of the river.
We then stopped at Larsen’s, a larger tented camp with a beautiful pool, massage tent, colonial-style furnishings, and all-inclusive food and drink, as well as complimentary laundering for four pieces of clothing per guest each day. The lodge offers evening dances, as well as plenty of daytime entertainment in the form of the resident vervet monkeys.
Bedroom at Samburu Intrepid.
We then went deeper into the reserve to check into our lodge, Samburu Intrepid Tented Camp. After a delicious four-course lunch and a brief rainshower, we went out for a late afternoon game drive. The rain had drive many of the animals into hiding, but we still saw plenty of colorful birds and enjoyed the lush green landscape.
A leopard takes an after-dinner nap.
Just as we were about to head back to our lodge, my sister-in-law Tamara spotted a white tail twitching in the grass. “Cat!” she said, and our driver, Muli, stopped the Land Cruiser. The rest of us saw the tail disappear into the brush and answered, “No, that must be a monkey.”
Tamara was proven correct when the cat – a beautiful leopard – leaped out of the grass and up into the canopy of an acacia tree. It seemed very relaxed and pleased with itself, ignoring us and any animals of prey in the vicinity, so we concluded it must have had a good dinner recently.
When we got back, we were treated to a fascinating talk about the cats of Samburu and the Samburu culture by Frances, a member of the local Samburu tribe who studied wildlife ecology from the University of Nairobi. The lodge offers talks about wildlife and cultural topics every night and also has a nature center where visitors can learn more about the local wildlife.
We awoke to a spectacular view of Mount Kenya. At more than 17,000 feet, Mount Kenya is a challenging technical climb suited only for the most experienced mountaineers. When the clouds break to reveal its peak, it becomes obvious why. Then mountain slopes gently up for much of its height, but at the very top one finds a peak so steep that it looks like a mountain on top of a mountain.
Charles, our host at The Ark, led another short bird walk before breakfast. We saw double-collared and golden sunbirds, wild canaries, ducky flycatchers, and red-winged starlings. After breakfast, we headed north toward the equator and Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club for lunch.
Pool and grounds of Mount Kenya Safari Lodge.
Originally the retreat of Hollywood actor William Holden, Mount Kenya Safari Club straddles the equator. (Its premiere suite boasts two bathroom sinks, one on each side of the equator. Since draining water drains counterclockwise in the Northern and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, you can fill the sinks, unplug them and watch the water swirl down in opposite directions.)
Both Hemispheres in one bathroom.
The club boasts beautiful colonial-style architecture and furnishings, a nine-hole golf course, putting green, large outdoor pool, nature center, and indoor-outdoor dining. Horses and bicycles are available for rent and offer a unique way to view the club’s natural areas.
After lunch, we took the highway northwest to Shaba National Reserve, watching the landscape change from lush green forests and farms to arid savannah as we dropped about a mile in altitude. As we passed by towns and villages, we observed cultural changes, as well, with some Muslim women in hijab and many shepherds and goat herders in the traditional clothing of the Samburu tribe. Ethnic cousins of the Maasai, the Samburu settled many years ago in the lands northeast of the Rift Valley, while the Maasai continued to travel south. Both tribes share similar languages (locals say the languages are mutually intelligible, but the Samburu “talk fast” while the Maasai “talk slow”) and semi-nomadic lifestyles.
A towel origami elephant greets guests to Sarova Shaba Lodge.
We arrived in Shaba late in the afternoon, enjoying a beautiful landscape of acacia trees and euphorbias on the way into Sarova Shaba Lodge. The lodge is set deep in Shaba Reserve on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. The name means “muddy water” in the local language. We were greeted by vervet monkeys and, after we settled into our cabin, we relaxed at the lodge’s large pool and watched crocodiles rest on the shore. (Sarova Shaba is surrounded by a secure electric fence, so there is no need to fear the gargantuan reptiles.)
Before dinner, we had Tusker beer, freshly made watermelon juice and a fascinating discussion about Kenyan and East African history with our bartender. Dinner entertainment included traditional dancing by members of the Samburu tribe.
After another action-packed day, we settled in behind our mosquito nets for a restful, bite-free night of sleep.
We woke up excited to set off on our second full day in Kenya and our first day on safari. After breakfast at Tribe Hotel, we bid farewell to Nairobi and headed out to the Aberdares, a beautiful mountain range in Kenya’s central highlands. The area is lush, green and full of wildlife, from colobus monkeys to leopards to elephants.
Baboons play on the golf course at Abedare Country Club.
Our first stop was at Aberdare Country Club, a deluxe resort set on a private wildlife reserve. Our four-course lunch featured just-picked vegetables and herbs from the club’s organic garden, as well as free-range meats and fine European cheeses. Dessert was homemade vanilla ice cream, freshly churned in the resort’s kitchen.
One of the club’s unique features is a 9-hole golfcourse in the midst of the wildlife reserve. Animals have free reign of the property, and many of them enjoy lingering on the golfcourse and watching humans at play. They usually keep a modest distance from people, although the baboons have occasionally been known to chase after the balls. (Apparently they like to make it an extra challenge to play under par.) The club is also one of the few hotels in Kenya to have a heated outdoor pool – a nice touch, since the evenings in this part of the world tend to be cool.
Elephants play in the mud at the Ark.
After lunch, we took a bus to The Ark, a sister lodge of the Aberdare Country Club that is located in Aberdare National Park. Located next to a watering hole and surrounded by mineral-rich soils, The Ark is an excellent place to view large game. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by about 20 elephants who were digging their tusks into the soil to loosen it, then using their trunks to lift the dirt into their mouths and suck the minerals out of it — all just a few feet away from the viewing decks located on each of the lodge’s four floors. Cape buffalo waded in the shallow watering hole and black forest pigs played near the water.
The Ark is also a great place for birders. Our host, Charles, guided us on a short pre-sunset birdwalk, where we saw more than a dozen species including double-collared sunbirds, turascos, mousebirds, common bulbuls, black-headed herons and yellow-billed storks We also spotted a couple of sunis, a type of forest antelope that doesn’t grow much larger than a housecat.
After sunset, we had another delicious four-course gourmet meal and returned to the viewing area to watch the elephants take a nighttime swin in the watering hole and watch a ginet (a relative of the mongoose) enjoy an evening snack before retiring to our rooms. We were lulled to sleep by the peaceful song of marsh frogs.
Enjoying the view from the third floor of the Ark.
We started our first full day in Kenya with a delicious breakfast at the Sarova Stanley with a nice variety of European and Kenyan dishes and a tour with Eva, our charming guest services ambassador. Founded in 1902, Sarova Stanley was Nairobi’s first luxury hotel and is the oldest hotel in the city. It’s an oasis of Victorian charm in the midst of bustling downtown Nairobi.
Baby elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphan Project.
We spent the morning with baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphans’ Project. The orphanage fosters elephants and rhinos who have lost their mothers to poaching, abandonment or conflict with humans. It is currently caring for one rhino and about two dozen elephants 2 years old and younger. The elephants sleep at the orphanage, then spend the day with the human caretakers in Nairobi National Park learning to forage. Once they’re old enough, the orphans are released into wild herds in national parks and adopted by the adults there.
Ngong House is rich in unique details, such as this bathtub built from an antique canoe.
Close to the animal orphanage is Ngong House, a boutique wildlife lodge just outside Nairobi. Guests can stay in one of six luxury tree houses, a private cottage, a 2-bedroom log cabin, or a suite off of the main house. The accommodations sound rustic, but are anything but – each unit has a private bathroom, full electrical, and wifi. Ngong House was created by Paul Verleysen, a Belgian engineer and artist who retired from more than 20 years of diplomatic service in Africa to start the hotel. Guests experience the seclusion and serenity of being in the bush without sacrificing comfort or style.
Lunch at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden
We then headed to the former home of Karen Blixen, the Danish writer who also wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen and was best known for her memoir Out of Africa, about her experience turning a section of the bush into a working coffee farm. We had lunch at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden and, as one might expect, the coffee was excellent. The area is no longer in the wild; it is now the vibrant suburb of Karen and part of greater Nairobi.
Beautiful grounds at House of Waine
Guestroom at House of Waine
Just a few hundred meters down the road from Blixen’s home is the House of Waine, an 11-room hotel that melds traditional Anglo-African design with a modern aesthetic.
To get to eye level with the giraffes, take the stairs to the second floor.
We then went to the Giraffe Centre, where visitors can feed giraffes by hand. Watch out, or you might get slobbered on by one of those blue tongues! (One of the docents at the Giraffe Centre told us that getting licked by a giraffe is known locally as “the kiss of life,” because giraffe saliva has natural antiseptic and antibiotic properties. This helps their tongues heal quickly from scratches they may get while noshing on thorny acacia bushes, their favorite delicacy.)
Pool and pond at Tribe Hotel.
The lounge at Tribe Hotel.
After a long but enjoyable day, we checked into Tribe Hotel for some much needed rest and relaxation.
I have a pretty wonderful job that lets me jet off to Africa in search of awe-inspiring experiences for my clients, but it is work! In the 8 days that we’ll be in Kenya, I’ll be visiting two national parks, three national reserves, up to 23 hotels and lodges, the Daphne Sheldrick Animal Orphanage and the Giraffe Center! Phew! I’m tired just thinking about it. Not to mention hours of game drives and hopefully a visit with a local tribe. It should be pretty spectacular and am I excited about the places we’ll be visiting. I’ve been salivating reading about them in guide books and online.
I depart the U.S. April 19th and return April 29th and will be enjoying the company of Kathryn Kingsbury, my communications assistant, and my sister-in-law Tamara Wickland.
I’m currently hovering approximately 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean en route to Nairobi, Kenya. My digs are a first class seat Ethiopian Airlines graciously provided as a thanks for past business. My travel companion is Kathryn Kingsbury, my communications assistant. It’s been 25 years since I flew first class (that was an upgrade and not related to business) and it is pretty swanky – right down to the menu. For lunch I started with sesame seared Ahi tuna, followed by a traditional Ethiopian course, and a main course of wild mushroom ravioli with grilled asparagus, roasted peppers, tomato and béchamel sauce. Yum!
Other than the first class food, one might wonder why travel Ethiopian Airlines. There are several considerations:
• Cost: An Ethiopian Airlines coach ticket costs $200-400 less on average than Delta/KLM (its major U.S. competition for flights to East Africa). Business/first class is usually $2,000-4,000 less.
• Arrival time: When arriving to East Africa via Ethiopian, you typically arrive in the early to late afternoon, while Delta/KLM arrives in the evening. Depending on where you’re staying the first night, a KLM arrival usually means about a 10 p.m. check-in. Tomorrow we arrive at 1 p.m. to Nairobi, which gives us a little time to acclimate to the new time zone and recover from the long flight. The downside of departing the U.S. on Ethiopian is that there is just one flight a day at 11:00 a.m. from Washington-Dulles; unless you live in the eastern part of the U.S., you’ll need to arrive the night before and overnight near the airport. This does break up an otherwise long itinerary and also reduces the likelihood that a delay or cancellation in your domestic flight will cause you to miss the international leg.
• Departure time: Ethiopian flights depart East Africa in the late afternoon, whereas KLM flights leave in the late evening. The nice thing about this is you arrive back to the U.S. a little earlier.
• The service: From check-in through the flight itself, we’ve found the personnel to be friendly, attentive and patient. They help make a 13-hour flight a lot more enjoyable.
• Ethiopian is a partner in the Star Alliance, which has 27 affiliated airlines, including United and US Airways. This opens up domestic flight options to connect to Washington-Dulles. The only other departure point in the Northern Hemisphere where Ethiopian also operates out of is Toronto, making its partnership with Air Canada another option for travel.