As travel agents we have the pleasure of creating so many people’s ‘holiday of a lifetime’. It might be making a pilgrimage to see Machu Picchu in the Andes, Peru, or retracing Darwin’s footsteps to the Galápagos Islands, or perhaps trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas. Whatever it is, there is always a common theme; to discover a place that blows their minds. Somewhere that could even reset their outlook on the planet. ‘One’ of my holiday of a lifetime ambitions was to safari in the great plains of Africa. Now, I say ‘one’, purely because as a side effect of creating all these incredible journeys for other people, you can’t help but add theirs to your bucket list. Well, it’s a long list for me, but I am happy to report that #1 has now been firmly ticked off.
I chose Kenya for our safari mostly down to the time of year, due to having to travel during the school’s summer holiday. July and August is a perfect time to safari in Kenya for three reasons; a) being on the equator it is still warm, unlike further south where their winter months are much cooler, b) it’s generally dry, which means the vegetation is sparse enabling you to see more wildlife, and c) most important of all, you are highly likely to witness the migration of the wildebeest, and that means plenty of action!
There are two ways in which you can safari. You can travel from one safari park to the next by light aircraft, which will add to the cost of what is already a very expensive holiday or you can, as we did, take the whole safari by road. Now, this has two advantages, and one disadvantage. The first advantage is that you will witness more of what Kenya is about as you drive through the many towns and villages – this really is a reality-check as you witness the poverty in which the majority of the Kenyan people live, but also an equally uplifting experience as you meet them along the way and encounter their welcoming nature and incredibly upbeat demeanour. The second advantage, for us at least, was that you get to stay with the same guide throughout your safari. The one big disadvantage, however, is the colossal amount of driving you are likely to do in a vehicle built for the rugged off-road, rather than comfort.
We flew BA direct into Nairobi and landed late evening. We were met straight away and taken to a hotel close by for an overnighter before our safari began at 7.30am the following day. The next morning our safari guide, Fred, was waiting and very quickly piled the four of us, and our mandatory ‘soft’ bags, into the safari jeep. Our first destination, Samburu National Park, a six-hour drive north of Nairobi in central Kenya.
We arrived at our first safari lodge in Samburu after a long but enlightening drive with Fred. Clearly it’s important to be able to get along with anyone you are about to spend 12 hours a day with for a whole week in such close quarters, and I have no doubt that all the Kenyan safari guides are brilliant, but we hit it off with Fred straight away and we were immediately tuned into his unbounding knowledge of, and extreme pride in, his country.
The Samburu Sopa is a no-frills lodge, but the welcome is first class and the rooms blend so well into the bush that they feel at one with their surroundings. Samburu has at its heart the Ewaso Nyiro River, which attracts wildlife in abundance and therefore perfect for game drives.
I can’t compare the excitement of a game drive to anything I’d experienced before. It’s just so exhilarating and at first you find your head is spinning in wide-eyed wonder. In no time we had seen many species of antelope; gazelles, impalas, eland to name a few, as well as a minute version no bigger than a domestic cat, called a dick-dick. These were lovely, but I really wanted to get my two teenager’s attention with some of the big stuff. Just at that moment we turned a corner and were in almost touching distance with a herd of giraffe. Now, you may have come across these incredible creatures in a safari theme park, but in their natural habitat they take your breath away as they majestically graze on the upper foliage of an acacia tree. As we watched them glide past us with the grace of ballerinas we started to appreciate the different world in which we’d entered.
After more lively talks on the fauna and flora of the area from Fred, we slowly ambled our way back to the lodge for dinner. The food here was simple but fresh, and, after a bottle or two of the local ‘Tusker’ larger, we were more than ready to hit the sack. Even if it was only 9.00pm.
The next day we ventured deeper into the Samburu bush with talk along the way of spotting the Big Five, a name given by hunters to the five largest and most dangerous African mammals; rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard. Fred seemed to have a sixth-sense on just where to find them, which I guess is the benefit of “too many years to remember” of being a safari guide. So our next major encounter was none other than two male lions (#2 of the Big Five). What’s incredible is that they appear to completely look through the safari jeep like we’re not even there. Fred says if you were to leave the vehicle they would immediately see you with a view to you being either a threat or a meal. Either way, I wasn’t about to find out. We also spotted a leopard sitting astride an upper branch of a tree, with the hind quarters of a gazelle placed leg either side of the branch behind him. Clearly nothing was going to take his supper away.
After lunch and a couple of cold Tuskers back at the lodge, followed by an afternoon snooze around the pool, we were back on the safari trail and really hitting our stride. Every corner seemed to yield another surprise; a different type of antelope, huge deadly eagles, a pair of male and female ostriches, zebras, and then the fabulous elephants (#3), which creep up on you making no more sound than a mouse, and stand in total defiance of us mere humans.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting a Samburu village, which was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the tour. The Samburu are a semi-nomadic people whose way of life is unchanged in centuries. They exist on the meat, milk and blood of the cattle and goats they herd, and of course have no running water or electricity. We were welcomed by beautifully harmonious chanting and a very colourful display of dancing, which we were invited to join in with – this you have to do!
We were then taken into a traditional hut, which was no more than 3sq meters and slept a family of five + chickens + indoor fire. I would say that it was a humbling experience, but I think that would do these proud people a disservice. The contentment they have with their lifestyle seemed far greater than we seem to have in Europe.
Lastly, we were taken to an infant school, which was no more than an area in the shade of a tree. The children counted in English for us, then sang an enchanting song taking us through the alphabet. It was a beautiful moment.
There is a small charge to visit these villages, but everything they receive is shared equally among the villagers. Should you wish to buy any of their beautifully hand crafted jewellery or simply make a further donation, the proceeds are all put towards the education of the children.
On day three we departed for our next destination which was to be set in the cooler climes of the foot hills of Mount Kenya. The Serena Mountain Lodge is timber built with cabin-style rooms and feels like it’s be hewn from the upper canopy of the forest. The dining room was actually rather elegant, with table cloths and formal service, which took us nicely by surprise. The lodge has a viewing deck that overlooks their own water hole and salt lick, which attracts herds of elephant and buffalo. Sadly, we didn’t encounter elephant, and saw just the occasional buffalo, but it’s none-the-less a unique place to visit. I can’t think of a time when I’ve enjoyed a sundowner more than when sat on the viewing deck listening to the strange sounds emanating from the forest, while watching the sun dip over Mount Kenya. We also took a two hour guided walking safari through the forest, which was an interesting experience, particularly watching the monkeys swing across the trees above our heads.
After an early night, and an even earlier morning to watch the mist rise over Mount Kenya, we were soon our on way to our next stop, which this time was to be a tented safari lodge at Lake Nakuru National Park. This was a tough five-hour drive, but Fred kept us busy all the way by teaching us Kenyan history, then throwing in a verbal test from time-to-time to make sure we were paying attention! By now we had a lovely rapport going with him and he started to feel like one of the family on our grand adventure. Along the way we also stopped to look at the stunning Thomson Falls, which was almost worth the bum-numbing journey by itself.
Tented safari lodges are not how you might imagine them, the tents are fixed and have wooden floors and ensuite shower rooms, and the bedding is extremely comfortable. The lodge itself is far more like a hotel than you would expect, and like everywhere we’d stayed at so far, the Flamingo Hills Camp pride themselves on their service.
The main reason for visiting this place at this time of year is to view the massive flamingo migration which settles on Lake Nakuru in a vast sea of pink. Sadly, for us there was no such luck due to the unusually high waters which made fishing too difficult for them. We did see a small flock, however, so we didn’t feel totally cheated. Keen not to disappoint, Fred also took us in search of Rhino. Lo and behold an hour later we were staring at a group of prehistoric looking beasts (#4), which appear even more surreal in their natural habitat. We also saw many more elephant, ostrich, giraffe and some incredibly colourful birds here.
For the final leg of our epic journey we picked up the trans-African highway which stretches 7000km from Mombasa all the way to Lagos on the West Coast of this vast continent. We took in a mere 6-hour, 280-bum-numbing kilometres of this stretch of road but, as usual, Fred had some surprises along the way. The best of which was a stop 2550m above sea level with the most incredible views of the Great Rift Valley. Fred informed us this was a continuous geographic trench that runs 6000km from the Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley in Asia, to Mozambique in South East Africa. You just can’t get your head around the enormity of this continent, no matter how hard you try.
After a stop for lunch at a fabulous lodge by the entrance of Masai Mara National Reserve, there was a further hour and a half drive to our last stop. This was by far the hardest leg of our journey. Roads. What roads? We turned up to the Mara Serena Lodge feeling like bags of bones, but the moment we entered the lodge’s lobby, we knew it was all worthwhile. The lodge is perched on the saddle of a hill at the centre of the Mara Triangle and has spectacular views across the vast plains to the winding Mara River. Although only a very small part of the Serengeti ecosystem, the Mara’s rolling grasslands, meandering rivers and towering escarpments offer one of the world’s most rewarding wildlife arenas. We were perfectly situated within this incredible lodge to spend the next three days taking game drives.
Now, you may think that after 4 days of safari when you’ve seen one elephant, lion, giraffe, leopard etc., you’ve seen them all. Well, I can promise you that is not the case. Each game drive Fred took us on gave a different perspective according to the backdrop or time of day. And each one was a whole new journey of discovery…
…but, in the Masai Mara in July, there was another, massive factor to the whole eco-equation – the migration of the wildebeest – and this could mean death and carnage at any moment! It is here at exactly this time of year that you can witness the brutality of Mother Nature. Even for those with a ‘slight’ disposition at seeing huge animals being brought down by a calculating killing machine, or the litter of bloody carcasses, one cannot help but marvel at the efficiency of the food chain here. If you’re lucky (in my opinion) you may witness a kill, or at least arrive moments after one to watch a lion nonchalantly finishing off its prey. You may then pass that same site a few hours later to witness the hideously huge and grotesquely shaped vultures buried deep into the belly of the beast. Then, by morning, who knows what else has feasted upon this animal, but the bones are stripped dry and left in a neat pile shaped like a head stone.
In fact, wildebeest don’t have much luck here at all. Their mission is to cross the Mara River. Why? Well no one can really say, but they congregate in hundreds, sometimes thousands, and will stand there for hours, seemingly having a committee meeting over who’s going to take the plunge first. Then suddenly one goes, and they all go, throwing themselves over the banks of the river in total abandonment, all under the watchful eye of crocodiles ready to pick off the ones that break a leg in the melee to get across. The hippos are never too far away, who Fred says should now be officially entered onto the Big Five list, as they kill more humans in Africa than any other animal.
As we’re slowly driving back, harbouring a slight sense of shock at it all, my 15 year old son declares that he may need counselling on our return home.
This safari did not disappoint. In fact in many ways it exceeded my expectations. Would I recommend such a gruelling road journey? Well that depends on whether you want to dip in and out of the best bits, or really get to know this incredibly beautiful, brutally rugged, saddeningly poor but joyously happy and welcoming country. By road you will witness sights and sounds that cannot be seen by air, however we did take one light aircraft journey from Mara Serena’s own airstrip to Mombasa beach, where we would spend a week recovering. This was by far the most poignant flight of my life. Firstly, because it was where we departed with our dear friend, Fred. Then, as we watched the endless miles of Kenya’s plains unfold beneath us, I couldn’t help but marvel further at the beauty of this country. No sooner did that scenery disappear, only to be replaced by the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Words simply cannot describe an airplane journey like that. Or indeed our entire journey.
Holiday of a lifetime #1. Done.
THINGS TO KNOW
Tipping is expected in almost all situations. It needn’t be a lot and I promise that you will willingly wish to hand a few dollars to everyone who offers you assistance. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to take a lot of small denominations of either US dollars or Kenyan shillings. It’s also great to hand out biros or British sweets to the children.
Take a good camera and a pair of binoculars. I researched binoculars considerably and choose Optricon WP PC Roof Prism, which are mid-sized, so not too cumbersome, and the quality was incredible. About £150 at time of press: Click here to view
Seek advice from your GP on inoculations and take plenty of insect repellent.
Managing Director – Sunways Travel
Call me on 01474 706 976 to personally discuss this destination or email email@example.com