Kenya rouses a place in the mind that is at once the present, but with a strong stirring of the past thrown in as well. Think the author Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa,” but that’s just touching the surface.
To really understand Kenya you have to be there to experience the safaris and the villages and riding through thousands of acres of wilderness it is in that in which you will find “Africa.”
There is also that word “Nairobi” it loves to be rolled off the tongue. It’s a word that sounded vaguely familiar even before we had ever visited the continent.
A place you have been in spirit all your life.
With my husband, Russell taking the bulk of the photos and pointing out the things that I could never see from his eyes, Africa with a co-conspirator became that much richer for me too.
That is what has surprised both of us the most about Africa and our most recent trip to Kenya specifically. People either love it or hate it – never in between – the passion of Africa will not allow that. For us, we are lovers. It’s natural to feel the earth, the energy, the existence of the world.
We flew into Nairobi late one night – again – a better judge this time since it was my fourth time and Russell’s second there. Nevertheless, you do still wonder what to expect and as you are driven from your airport to the lodging you can only see the night sky above you and you have a faint idea you are in a city somewhere in the world.
There are no streetlights in Nairobi so you’re journey could have ended anywhere.
First stop for us was late night when we arrived at the magical Giraffe Manor. Giraffe Manor has a long and storied past beginning when previous owners Betty and Jock Leslie Melville rescued, raised, bred and lived with the endangered Rothschild giraffe. The first giraffe there was named Daisy Rothschild and she was rescued and brought to the manor and raised by Jock and Betty.
She would often put her head through the manor windows and doors looking for treats and it’s here even today that the giraffes still do the same thing.
Acquired by new owners in 2009, the commitment is still to the giraffes who live there, but the manor has been turned into a quaint boutique hotel with a blending of old and new and very much that colonial Nairobi feel as if you’ve just arrived at some far flung destination at some very far flung date in time. Of course staying at Giraffe Manor for one or two nights is the real story, and there’s nothing better than a larger-than-life giraffe taking a few morsels from the palm of your hand – we dream about it still.
Fast forward to that otherworldly feel – so far away from home and “real” life. Real life here came to me though the people in Kenya and it is what you will notice first even before the stunning landscapes that touch your soul and the awe-inspiring wildlife with particularly good viewing in the Masai Mara or other parts of the Kenyan outposts.
Waking up before dawn has its highlights, namely that you get out and wake up with the animals, albeit the lions have probably been hunting all night and are quite lazy. I can never help but stare beguilingly each time I have the lion experience. Under my breath I also have to chuckle at the newbies who are completely terror-stricken as the lions approach the jeep.
I remember that feeling the first time too. It rivets you, throws you into the unknown. The lions are so close you could reach out and touch each one, so dangerous you know better.
Nothing compares to a pack of wild hyenas gathering for a pow wow behind the jeep either as the evening sun sets or there’s the herd of larger-than-life elephants grazing to the backdrop of the rising sun.
Zebras are a bit skittish and the crocs quite lazy, but Kenya will never disappoint. You won’t be disappointed in the people, the tribes, either. I had heard most about the ever-wondering Masai and the Kikuya. The Masai tribe is a bit more complicated as they never stay in one place long and they can be quite fierce. In the Masai village we saw one man dressed in lion skins because he had killed a lion, dangerous to his tribe and the man does not always win. Selling their wares the tribe is all too aware of globalization and they have some great gifts to offer for prices you can’t pass up.
On our second day as we left the center of civilization in Nairobi we made our way to the airstrip to be transported to our first safari lodge Lewa Wilderness. No matter how many times you visit Kenya no matter how many times you go out - everything is otherworldly in its own place in the universe. And it goes without saying you’ll see as much wildlife at each of these lodges as you want from the Big Five (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and the leopard) to birds to a number of unusual animals you’ll never forget along with the sounds of the lions roaring, the hyenas barking and the hippos making their nightly walk for a vegetation dinner.
Lewa Wilderness is one of Kenya’s oldest private safari camps. Offering a Lewa experience for the past 40 years the owners are the Craig family and it is one of the original family homes in the area. Great views from the rooms, always a dog or two running at your feet and expect to eat family style. There are five acres of organic garden, which the chef magically transforms into dinner each evening.
Lewa Wilderness only offers nine rooms with five looking down the Lewa’s Western Marania Valley, the other four situated on the lawn adjacent to the main living areas. Activities include horseback riding, walking with Masai, game driving, camel rides, cultural visits to local communities or local schools and for relaxing there is a horizon saltwater swimming pool overlooking glimpses of wildlife from every angle.
Second stop, Ol Malo, located on the northern edge of the Laikipia plateau it sits happily nuzzled into a craggy landscape looking out over Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. The owners are the draw here as much as the animals. Having lived in Kenya for many years as well as their children who are grown now, but still live there, Ol Malo is about peeking into a family (Colin and Rocky Francombe) who know the ropes in Africa and play it well. Listening to their stories you’ll find you will wonder what storybook you have wandered into and can you stay for at least a little while.
The backdrop to that is the pet Kudu roaming Ol Malo and a bit skittish since this Kudu was attacked by one of the big cats in the area several times and is keen to stay alive. In fact the lodge takes its name from the many antelope in the area and means “the place of the Greater Kudu.”
The Francombe’s also have the help of the local Samburu people and you can visit the nearby Samburu village too. Activities include guided walks, game driving where you will see elephant, buffalo, Eland, Oryx, Grant gazelle, Impala, common and grey Zebra, reticulated Giraffe, Lelwels Hartebeeste Gerenuk, Greater Kudu, Water Buck, Klipspringer, Steenbok, Gunthers Dik Dik, Warthog, Wild dog, Leopard, Cheetah, Lion and spotted and striped Hyena. There is also horseback and camel riding and a Leopard Blind with four bunk beds where guests can spend the night if they dare.
The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille is a completely different experience from the last two places we have journeyed and we both know it. Thick brush surrounds our jeep as we are driven to the lodge and once there we are as far away from civilization as the moon.
Like most lodges we visit, we are keen to visit the local schools and villages since it is here as much as the game drives that you get the real sense of place. In this case it is both the Masai and Samburu communities that we’re going to explore for the next few days in tranquil and luxurious surroundings that boast “economic development with ambitious conservation and community development programs.”
Ol Lentille sits on top of a rock kopje surrounded by trees and is located in the middle of a private conservation area consisting of 20,000 acres of grassy hills and deep valleys. The name comes from a large hill where at the top you are able to get astonishing views of Northern Kenya .The Conservancy is home to the African wild dogs, greater kudu, leopard, striped and spotted hyena and klipspringer and there are loads of elephant too.
Activities are diverse; day and night game drives, bush walks, horse and camel riding and they also have mountain biking, quad-bikes/ATVs and a spa. The library is a special place at Old Lentille too with a rotunda and a stained glass dome. On the top of the library is a viewing deck with an open fire, bar and a GPS-controlled telescope.
Our last stop was the more basic Porini Lion Camp located in the Masai Mara an authentic safari adventure with an eco-friendly bend. From guided game walks with Masai Warriors to game drives and bush breakfasts and lunches, game drives are in the Olare Orok Conservancy, which is a 20,000-acre wilderness set aside for wildlife conservation and low-impact tourism.
Appropriately named, you will see the big cats if visiting Porini Lion Camp since there are many lions in the Masai Mara, which the conservancy borders. With just tents as your home away from home this camp really is the African Bush. The tents are spacious though and are equipped with solar-powered lighting, hot showers and a private verandah. The tents are not permanent either, but are situated along the Ntiakatiak River where permanent hippo pools are located near the camp.
It was another Kenyan adventure that will go down as one of the best. Later Russell even commented how calming Africa seems to be for me and that’s no small feat. Sort as if I am coming into my own there and finding my spirit. Fortunately, as we said goodbye I knew it would only be a year before I found myself there again.
Know before you go:
- We booked the bulk of our trip excluding Giraffe Manor and Porini Lion Camp with the luxury travel company called Bush and Beyond and they come highly recommended for many reasons. The strongest case being that they understand the needs of the traveler, have amazing properties all around and are there to help.
- A typical Kenya experience will be a visit to three or four lodges and will include flights from one to the other. Also included in the price should be guided game drives and walks, accommodations, meals, beverages and laundry service.
- Keep in mind that small airplanes have space and weight restrictions so think light packing with soft sided luggage plus a carry one with your valuables like your camera, money, passport and toiletries.
- When you are out on game drives talk softly and sit still. You don’t want to distract the animals since you are in their world. It’s not advised to go out walking on your own without a guide, because it can be dangerous since many animals are killers. Think crocodiles. Even after dark in your camp from dinner to your lodge or tent you can expect to be escorted by a guide.
- The topic of malaria always comes up when speaking of Africa and when traveling to Kenya this is no different. The mosquitoes that carry this sometimes fatal disease are not usually a threat, but to be careful and wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts, long pants and insect repellent at twilight. If you do take malaria pills before your trip just expect some side effects and speak with your physician.
- Upon entering Nairobi you can obtain a visa, which costs anywhere from $50 to $100. Be sure you have money that is dated no earlier than 2000 and have correct change. It’s an easy process and the line for the Visa is usually shorter than the customs and immigration line otherwise.
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