Kenya Safari Trip Report

Linda Fox

13 Oct 2016

Day 1: Arriving in Kenya

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills" Karen Blixen, Out Of Africa

Flying out of Wilson Airport in our little Cessna Caravan, someone pointed out the Ngong Hills in the distance, where the book and film started so many people's fascination and love affair with Africa. Kenya set the scene for the classic safari to Africa. The sprawling ramshackle city of Nairobi gives way to rolling green hills and eventually the vast openness of the Highland plateau of Laikipia, the first stop on my my East Africa adventure.

We arrive at Loisaba airstrip, welcomed by cold refresher towels and purple prickly pear juice set out on the dusty edge of the airstrip. On the way to our lunch stop, our driver gives us an introduction to Laikipia, originally Masai and Samburu territory this area is a series of massive ranches interconnected by game corridors.

Welcoming, warm and inclusive, three generations of the Francombe family live and work here, perched on the edge of a hill overlooking their 5000 acre game ranch. A sense of impending adventure is implied by the arrival of Andrew, by helicopter, landing just behind the browsing camels as we are driving up to the lodge. Rocky and Colin are there to greet us with cooling drinks and stories to share.

Loisaba, professional and cool, this sleek tented lodge is straight out of a magazine, with views over the plateau.

Reticulated giraffes at sunset in the soft light start our short game drive on the way too visit Loisaba Star beds, a separate lodge with a twist, the four poster beds are on wheels and roll out on to their own private little decks so you can literally sleep under the stars. Each bed even has its own number plate.

After G&T's by the fire and some stories about snake bites .... we head back to the main lodge for dinner. Greeted with hot chocolate and marshmallows and swiftly seated, our chef for the night, Christine comes over to explain the menu for our dinner, an elegant conclusion to our day. 

Day 2: Kenya Exploration

Sunrise wake up call with flasks of coffee and a brief moment to contemplate the sun creeping over the hills and illuminating the vast scrubland which Loisaba looks over.

Muhammad comes looking for us before the sun gets too high, for our morning walk to explore the area. The prickly pears are everywhere! This invader species has really taken over this area, according to Mohammed it was originaly brought here by a missionary who moved over from America and decided to use this barrier of thorns as his fence.

Now a favourite delicacy of the elephants, who we discover just behind the hill, carefully picking the purple fruit from between the thorns. Being on foot, elephants take on their true size and I'm reminded of the respect we need to extend these giants, Muhammad keeps us down wind, quiet and careful not to disturb their breakfast.

A gentle stroll down the hill, a few giraffe and some zebra later and breakfast is waiting for us under the leafy shade of an acacia tree.

Our next port of call and Verity is waiting to greet us at Sabuk, running it for 11 years, she owns it with a partner who died in 2012, leaving his share to his widow, who doesn't want anything to do with the lodge. Verity used to run mobile safaris and still occasionally does. What an interesting life story, she has worked with various film crews, including Out of Africa and The Constant Gardener. She met Meryl Streep's husband she says, sadly not Robert Redford.

The sound of running water greets you before you set foot through the door. Sabuk is set, looking down on a bend in the river. Swimming in the river is encouraged, with no bilhazia and the crocs don't hang around the area, it's too rocky. Rustic and breezy, Sabuk is completely open, all twisted wood and, moulded concrete. The rooms are just open at the front, looking over the river with open air day beds on their decks, so on clear nights you can just take your duvet and sleep under the stars.

About two hours of bumping around the dirt roads of Laikipia, with Mount Kenya a vague outline in the distance, we arrive at Sosian. The area has flattened out into savanna landscape, with open grassy plains. A classic, colonial house with wide  verandahs and tea and scones waiting for us.

Hopping on a horse and heading off across the savanna is a freedom hard to match, especially after a few hours today of bumpy roads. More elephants, this time a breeding herd with small babies, well hidden in the thick brush. Cantering across the plains and the vast open spaces.... the first thing that struck me about this area, each lodge is so remote from the next you almost can't imagine there is anyone else on the planet for a minute..

Ol Malo is friendly and welcoming, and the feeling is immediate. Family owned and operated by now 3 generations, although the 3rd is still running around naked in the bushes.

It’s getting close to sunset and we can't be out on the horses after dark because of the predators. We meet up with the others who have been on a game drive and head down to the dam for sundowners. The horses are collected and taken back to the lodge. 

Sundowners on the deck, lit by lanterns with stars above, now this is a nice end to a ride in the bush!

Back to the lodge for an elegant steak dinner, direct from their cattle ranch.

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Day 3: The Samburu five

Our lunch stop today is the beautiful Sasaab, Moroccan style, cool, clean and open, just on the other side of the Samburu Reserve. Over lunch a perfectly timed line of camels cross the river in front of the lodge, just to complete the scene.

Back into the Samburu Reserve this afternoon to look for "The Samburu 5". Robert, our driver, and wildlife guru, explains; these five animals are endemic to this area and only found together in the Samburu National Reserve: the Somali ostrich, the gerenuk, the Beisa oryx, Grevy's zebra and the reticulated giraffe. The Somali ostrich was almost wiped out during the war and there are only about 3000 Grevy's zebra left in the world. The reticulated giraffe and Grevy's zebra are only found in the northern hemisphere.

On the banks of the river is a Doum Palm grove, a favourite elephant hangout and the setting for our overnight stop, the Elephant Bedroom Camp. Safari tents on decks with private plunge pools overlook the river as well as the almost constant elephant activity.

The park is so densely populated with game, we found ourselves watching a Marshall eagle eating a guinea foul in a tree, with lions sleeping on a termite mound behind us, and elephants wandering past on the right! The river is a big attraction, glistening in the early morning light, it always has something going on. Vultures congregating on the sandy bank, closely followed by a couple of eagles and presided over by some Maribu stalks.

The wide decks with cosy lounge nooks, are a great social place to watch the river. You are right in the heart of the activity here.

Day 4: Saruni Samburu

About an hour out of the Samburu Reserve this morning, Robert stops to show us the sacred mountain of the Samburu, or "God's mountain", Ololokwe. This rocky table adorned with vulture dropping is place where the Samburu come to perform blessings and pray. It is also a breeding ground for Rubbel's griffon vulture, the only vulture to nest on rocky cliffs.

Another half hour or so and we are at Saruni Samburu. At the top of a huge granite outcrop are the Saruni staff, all dressed in their traditional Samburu beads and bright colours with welcome drinks and cold towels for a quick clean up. Where we have arrived at starts to sink in, vast flat plains of scrub with mountains erupting from them, in almost conical shapes, 360 degrees of this eagles perch.

This afternoon our Samburu guide walks us down the mountain and explains some Samburu culture to us, very fitting with Ololokwe looking misty in the distance. The caves are where the boys who have just been circumcised, shelter when it is raining and they are going through their isolation period. This is when they have to leave the tribe and stay on their own in the bush for a time, and not rely on their family for food for fear of risking shaming them. The cave has white markings on the roof and the remnants of many fires.

Onwards down the mountain, with sculptural termite mounds illuminated in the afternoon sun and we reach their animal hide, a partially submerged shipping container over looking a watering hole perfect for hiding out to watch for animals while we have a sundowner g&t.

Day 5: Discovering the MAra

Over breakfast this morning, Robert gives us the low down on his wildlife experience in Kenya, where he recommends are the best places to see certain wildlife: leopard - Nakuru, Samburu & the Maasi Mara; cheetah - Amboseli, Samburu, & the Maasi Mara; birdwatching - Nakuru & Amboseli; wild dog - Laikipia & Ol Pejeta; rhino - Borana, Nakuru & Solio; lastly, the best places to see the small things - the conservancies surrounding the Masai Mara.

A quick transfer to the airstrip this morning and we say goodbye to Robert, who has looked after us and taught us so much. Flying south away from the dry hills, we fly between Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha, sadly too high up to see if the flamingos are there, and on to the Masai Mara.

The Masai Mara is lush and green with grassy savanna plains. Our game drive to the lodge is interrupted by a herd of wildebeest and zebra, the tail end of the migration which is now heading to the Serengeti.

Read more about the Masai Mara

We're staying at Cottars Camp tonight, about one kilometre away from the border with the Serengeti. In a conservancy bordering the Masai Mara, Cottars has two accommodation options, we're spending the night at The House, in the style of a traditional hunting lodge, a self-contained, exclusive-use lodge, perfect for families, celebrities and anyone wanting privacy. A luxury home in the Mara, looking out from the green hillside over the plains. They also have a fantastic vegetable garden and meals feature the freshest veggies, grown in the rich soil of the Masai Mara.

The afternoon walk takes us past their their tented camp, Cottar's 1920s Mara Safari Camp, a real timewarp into a time of safari elegance. Vintage artefacts set the scene with windup gramophone players and leather travelling trunks. I half expect to see Robert Redford to show up flying a Tiger Moth...

Onwards with the walk and Ken, our guide, stops us at a curious tree with what looks like growths with small holes in them around most of the trees thorns. The "whistling thorn tree" has formed a mutualistic relationship with the ants, the tree has adapted to grow large bulbous bases around its thorns which the ants occupy. This works well for both parties, giving a home to the ants and protection to the tree, when the browsers try to eat the leaves of the tree they shake the branches and the ants run out to protect their homes either stinging or causing irritation. The name "whistling" comes from the sound the wind makes as it passes through the small ant holes in the bulbous thorns.

Further down the hill and the camp fire is ready with sundowners overlooking a psychedelic sunset over the lush, grassy Masai Mara plains.

Day 6: Central Masai Mara

Heading north west towards the central Masi Mara, the true extent of the density of the wildlife here reveals itself. You literally can't look any where without there being some inhabitant eating, sleeping, living, dying, breeding, flying or running. From a few topis, a few herds of wildebeest and zebra, Thompson's gazelle (or Thomi's), vultures and maribu stalks on a carcus in the river, buffalo bathing in a shallow muddy pond, harems of impala females protected by their male and eventually a leopard.

After the 3rd wildebeest carcus in the river, we nicknamed it "the river of doom with the vultures of death hanging over it". It's the aftermath of the migration, which is coming to an end in this area, a season of plenty for the many hunters and scavengers around, there are bones and dried out remains everywhere. According to Simon, our guide, the grass in the area grows about a metre high before the million wildebeest and three hundred thousand or so zebra pass through towards the Serengeti and by now is cropped short. Perfect preparation for the short rainy season which is about to start.

Find out more about the Great Migration

Our leopard today is a lone, small female on the hunt. She is sneaking along a shallow ditch with an eye on the nearby wildebeest herd. We follow her progress as she tries to get around the far side of the herd without them noticing, ignoring our vehicle completely and continues her mission, great for us to get really close for some brilliant photo opportunities. A topi is en-garde and is looking around now. They like to keep close to the wildebeest herds - safety in numbers - and in return they lend their super sharp senses to the herd as an early warning system. This is not the leopard's lucky day, the topi sounds the alarm and every animal in the herd is gone.

Mara Ngenche, on the confluence of the Mara and Talek Rivers, safari tents with ball and claw baths, open air showers and private plunge pools, on the edge of the river with shady hammocks offer an appealing contrast between the rustic feeling and luxury touches. According to the manager, in the Central Masai Mara, late July to early September is a good time to see the highest concentration of the migration here, very near some of the best places for river crossings. Hippos and crocs are a permanent feature at this confluence. A delicious lunch of traditional style vegetarian curry later.....

A little further down the river is Naibor camp, our stop for the night, also on the river. Naibor comprises relaxed safari tents, stylish and minimalist, with just the right amount of warmth and character. The calmness reflects in the yellow-billed stork patiently fishing in the shallow river, its reflection barley rippling. 

Each tent has its own covered outdoor couch area looking over the river, a very pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon in the Mara.

Day 7: Central Plains 

Following the circling vultures this morning (always a good indicator of where something interesting is happening) we find the big male lion on a freshly killed buffalo. He is taking his time and selecting his favourite parts while his lionesses wait patiently in the shade. In a queue on the opposite river bank are African white-backed vultures , Lappet-faced vultures, Maribu storks and a black-backed jackal, none of which even try their luck until the lions are done. While the lionesses have their breakfast, the big male wanders over the shallow river towards us, he is still young with a beautifully glossy coat and thick mane, no battle scars yet. He settles in to the shade of a nearby tree for a mid-morning nap.

The animal parade this morning continues as we head north east from the central plains. Warthogs with babies all in a row; some happily grazing Thompson gazelle; and a lilac-breasted roller eating a snake - which looks far too big to swallow whole but the tail eventually disappears!

Discovering the camps of the mara

We pop past Mara Plains to have a look this morning, the entrance is across a wood and rope swing bridge. Set entirely towards a single tree silhouetted in the plains in front of the lodge, Mara Plains is classic luxury safari, right down to its deep leather couches, crisp white linen and Livingstone-style leather and wood travelling trunks scattered around the lodge.

Very focused on photography, each room has its own Canon camera for guests to use during their stay and the guides are trained in photography to be able to offer assistance.

Our lunch stop today is Richards River Camp, Richard himself greats us, pouring out pints of Pimms, with stories to tell of life in The Mara. White patterned fabric covering the inside of the canvas tents roofs give a feeling of cool luxury. This camp has been beautifully decorated, with an eclectic mix of carefully chosen items for a stylish safari.

Over a leisurely lunch of slow cooked pork belly and rainbow-coloured vegetables, we meet Victoria, from The Mara Elephant project, she has recently arrived from the UK to help them with their PR and marketing. The Mara Elephant project is working to track elephants to prevent poaching and work with local communities to reduce negative human elephant interaction. They also work to assist keeping the elephants away from the local villages, even sometimes using a drone to deter the elephants from a certain area. Victoria is on board to help raise funds for this important project.

Heading across the more northern plains, the late afternoon sun illuminates a herd of Masai giraffe, they glow golden against the overcast sky. Driving up the hills to Saruni Mara we encounter another giraffe blocking the road, definitely the best sort of traffic jam!

Saruni Mara's thatched, semi canvased chalets look down a valley towards the sunset. The sound of singing in the darkness around the fire tonight starts getting louder, jingling and scuffling, a group of Masaai dancers emerge into the firelight to dance and show off their jumping skills. Traditionally the young men compete with each other to jump the highest to impress the girls, the higher you jump the more likely you are to be chosen.

All the guests at the lodge eat together at a long table and swap stories of their game drives and other safari experiences.

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Day 8: bush Breakfast and more special sundowners

Heading back towards the central plains this morning, the lions are feeling frisky, the whole family is playing in the morning sun. The two big cubs are jumping on their mums and play fighting with each other, the big male looks over this frivolity with a strained eye and starts to walk off, soon followed by the family. They stop for a quick mum-and-son stand off at the almost-dry dam, a very typical cat staredown. But soon they all follow the male towards the horizon.

Bush breakfast today is hosted by Saruni Wild. William the manger joins us, dressed in his traditional Masaai clothing and beads. 

Fried eggs and bacon in the bush surrounded by wild animals, feels very decadent.

A quick site inspection of Saruni Wild, a small tented camp in a beautiful position looking onto the plains, a great base for some excellent game viewing and we are off again, heading towards the escarpment.

Ascending from the plains we arrive at our lunch stop, Angama Mara

My gosh! The views..... Angama, which means "suspended in mid-air' in Swahili is not exaggerating.

No wonder this was the location chosen to film Out of Africa. According to Tyler and Shannon who manage this beautiful place, when the film Out of Africa was being shot, the actual Ngong hills were settled and looked very little like they would have around 1920, so these hills were the Ngong doubles. A delicious lunch later and happily I'm looking forward to coming to stay here tomorrow night! What a treat!

We arrive late today at Governors Camp in time for sundowners with Alex,who looks after the marketing for Governors. She is visiting from Nairobi and hosts us for sundowners and dinner tonight. On our way to the sundowner spot she points out where the BBC has their base, they do a lot of their filming from here and Governors looks after them. The sundowner stories overlooking hippos in the Mara River, range from late night requests for Chinese take away to meeting Richard Hammond, it's all go here!

After a brief and slightly unwelcome close encounter with a lone buffalo while we still had sundowners in hand, its back to Il Moran where we are staying tonight. Starlight dinner awaits us before we amble back to out tents for hot baths and hot water bottles in our cozy tents.

Day 9: Balloon Safari!

Before sunrise, we are taken across the river in a small boat to Little Governors and the launch site of the hot air balloons. They are all beautifully laid out, ready to be launched! After a quick briefing on balloon safety they crank up the blowers and the balloons start to rise up above the baskets. Its time to climb into the baskets and set sail across the plains. What a magical experience, its not like flying at all, no turbulence, just drifting with the wind.

This is a whole different perspective of the Masai Mara, things you would never see from a game drive vehicle. The sun is starting to rise and light is spreading over the plains. Hippo paths crisscross the swampy area below us. It's like being privy to the animals' private lives, over a small river and a lone hyena is curled up in a little curve on the bank. A herd of waterbuck are resting for the night, all kneeling close together, they look up at us and start to stand up and move around in curiosity. A stork or heron - I can't quite see in the morning light - is flying low beneath us just above the grass, completely unaware that there is anything above. Looking across to the escarpment and I can see Angama Mara hanging on the edge of the hills, some elephants are highlighted in our shadow, being caste long by the early sun. Our pilot fires the blowers to give us some height and a last long look over this natural paradise and its inhabitants, blissfully unaware of our observations of their morning routines.

Coming down to land, the basket gently tips over and we scramble out for breakfast in the bush, amazingly set up right there where we landed.

A perspective of the Masai Mara not to be missed!

Back to Governors this morning for have a look at Main Camp, Little Governors and Il Moran (in the light)…

Traditional tented safari camps in one of the best positions in the Mara, originally the safari hideout of the colonial Governors, who definitely knew a good spot when they saw it! Main Camp is nestled along the forested bank of the Mara river, so you are never far from the grunts of hippos. Little Governors looks over a very busy wetland area, a buffalo is having a mud bath, some warthogs are nibbling the short grass at the edges of this swampy area and the birdlife is very busy getting on with their lives and ignoring the goings-on of camp life. Il Moran, smaller and more intimate lodge with just 10 tents looking onto the Mara River, their extra touches are like the ball and claw bathtub is very welcome especially after an exciting day out looking for wildlife.

On our way to our lunch stop we drive along the swampy area and watch the elephants picking their way along the edges, flinging mud over themselves. Our lions today are a group of young males who have not even grown their manes yet, lounging under a cool acacia tree. In true Mara style the parade of animals is non-stop all the way to Kichwe Tembo Camp where are having a quick lunch and saying farewell to the group who are all going their separate ways from here. This lodge with its modern tented chalets and wide swimming pool decks has me longing to be spending some quality time with their loungers. Kichwe Tembo’s warm welcome and delicious buffet lunch with home grown vegetables, literally grown right the next to the dining area is a perfect venue to have a little reminisce about this amazing Kenya trip that we have shared.

This afternoon I head back up the escarpment to Angama Mara! All the rooms face over the plains and anywhere is a fantastic viewpoint to watch rain clouds moving across the Masai Mara, the rainy season has started and watching the clouds selectively raining on small parts of the plains at a time before moving off and sun following makes this time of year a very special time to be visiting this beautiful area.

The sun comes out in time for sundowners around the braizier and the Masaai dancers are illuminated by the soft, after rain light this evening.

Day 10: Last day in the Masai Mara 

Misty views in the early morning of the balloons gently floating over the plains below before heading back down off the escarpment for the last time and to my last lodge stop, Rekero Camp.

On the Talek river, Rekero has one of the best locations for the river crossings of The Great Migration. Lunch is under a spreading tree on this river… sadly a little too late in the season to be interrupted by a sudden wildebeest river crossing, which does apparently happen here.

Tim, our ranger, collects us for our afternoon game drive and we head out. The dark clouds, contrasted with bright light, silhouette a lone warthog on the horizon who has just realised that there is a lion family watching him. A very quick about turn and a dark streak into the distance and he’s gone. The lions carry on their afternoon cavorting. Very knowledgeable on photography, Tim is happy to spend time teaching us about wildlife photography and we spend a happy hour over sundowners trying to get the best sunset picture over the hippos in the curve of the river.

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Comments

Arianna

5/11/2016 6:23 AM

Sounds like a truly magical place and wonderful trip! All the tented camps look gorgeous. I'm looking forward to reading more of your stories Linda :-)

Will

27/10/2016 10:18 AM

Sounds and looks like you are having a fab trip - enjoy!

Arabella @ Natural World Safaris

18/10/2016 4:00 PM

Certainly beats a day in the office!

Sherrie Jahedian

17/10/2016 3:16 PM

Hi Linda - what fun reading your blog! We are all so jealous and been thinking of you each day. Love to the gang.

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