For those who enjoy being driven to where the action is, no real exertion required, where the driver brings a thermos of hot coffee, biscuits, even small folding chairs to sit upon, well then, you may be the perfect candidate for a safari. You will, however, have to withstand a bit of jostling about in a jeep which rumbles along rocky roads, through brush and jungle, but with a destination that is both otherworldly, stunning, and so worth it.
On a recent drive through the Maasai Mara National Park in southwest Kenya, my daughter and I spotted hyenas and vultures finishing off a kill, a baby zebra sticking close to mom, a lion and lioness having a roll in the hay, and an elephant matriarch keeping watch as her herd steps along the road, like the mightiest crossing guard ever.
Our guide and driver, and a member of the Maasai people, Lemeria wore the red plaid robe which his people have worn for centuries, a color that, according to tradition, wards off lions. With binoculars in hand, and innate knowledge of the landscape before us, he’d suddenly shift the jeep’s gear and barrel us along towards the mama cheetah lazing in the sun while her brood of cubs hide in the nearby brush, or to the pair of giraffes sharing the leaves from a very high tree branch. Each animal would gawk at the large jeep with the loud motor, but sensing no danger, continue its activities.
Safaris have come a long way from the rustic tent living without electricity or running water. Now, they are very posh with all the amenities: electricity at all times, indoor showers, hot water, plenty of outlets for charging devices. But still with old-fashioned hospitality. When we retreated to our hut for the night after dinner and a long day of rough riding it, we found the beds turned down, mosquito net in place, and hot water bottles between the covers. While daytime temps in Kenya in November are in the 70’s, nighttime’s can drop into the 50’s. Once the lights go off, the night sounds of the jungle turn on with baboons screeching, elephants snorting and grumbling, and the big cats roaring.
The trip was a reunion between me and my daughter. She, on business in Africa for the next year and a half, while I wanted to visit her, take her on safari, and bring a care package of items she missed from the U.S. Not sure what thrilled her more. We met in Nairobi for a three-day tour of the city, staying at the Tamarind Tree Hotel and then to a safari, via bush flight to the Maasai Mara National Park, 45 minutes away.
There, we had another three days at the Saruni Mara camp which included a sunrise ride with full breakfast and coffee, and a sunset ride with dinner and drinks. In between, we enjoyed cups of Kenyan coffee while lounging on the veranda overlooking the valley and the zebras, giraffes, and elephants going about their business. Or, visit the library for some quiet time, sit by the fire in the great room to chat with other travelers, receive a facial or massage, or shop in the local souvenir store. The meals were fabulous, equivalent to a five-star restaurant. We could do as much as we pleased in our day, or as little. Our guide, Lemeria, would find us after dinner and ask what we wanted to do the next day, what time we wanted to get up, and did we want breakfast brought to our room. Although my daughter and I love our sleep, we did one 6 a.m. wake-up for a 7 a.m. drive.
We also observed a bit of Maasai traditions at the weekly market, held on Thursdays. Goats and cows were being sold in fenced off areas; storefronts that sat empty all week were now bustling with farmers selling their products and groups were sitting in circles as it was also a day to socialize. Mopeds were a popular sight, and used like taxis, carting families home with their purchases. One moped was crowded with four people and a newly purchased sheep squished in the middle. For dinner one night, we opted for a restaurant next to the hotel called Carnivore, which, as you can imagine, had every sort of meat on the menu: beef, pork, turkey, chicken, crocodile, and ostrich, all served Brazilian-style. Each table had a little white flag which when set upright meant the diners were stuffed. Until that flag went up, my daughter and I took samplings of everything that went around. It was fabulous!
If I could sum up the whole Kenya experience, I’d say “hospitality.” No matter where we went, staff members greeted us warmly, offered their assistance with any request, and asked us how we were enjoying our holiday. And, if something went wrong, like in the case where the air conditioning was not working in our room, housekeeping provided another room, already cooled off. Every task was taken care of with grace and a smile. The staff of hotels and other service businesses are graduates of Kenya’s hospitality college, I learned, but there was still a genuineness to their desire to be of service.
Nairobi is a bustling city, still growing and building and very guarded. Though we wanted to go out exploring on our own, we were cautioned to stick close to the hotels and hire drivers for going out and about, forgoing the Uber ride-share cars for safety sake. Not wanting to take any chances, we did as suggested. Driving through the city, we passed modern office buildings, farmers crossing cows and goats through traffic, and an immense slum area where families live in extreme poverty. Nairobi, having just gotten their independence from Britain in the early 1960’s, is still building itself up. There was tight security at every gate, metal detectors to walk through at our hotel, guards routinely checking the trunk of our taxi. The first time, it was a bit unsettling, but eventually it grew to be a part of our day. With any big city these days, it’s expected.
Highlights of Nairobi City Tour:
Nairobi National Museum: Like the American Natural History Museum in New York, this beautiful building features the timeline of the human species. On display are remains of our ancestors from millions of years ago, including the Hominid Skull Room which provides the “most important collection of early human fossils in the world.” In fact, paleontologist, Louis Leakey’s research revealed that Kenya is the “cradle of humankind.” There’s a salute to the world of Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, a popular book and movie about raising lions. Besides her work as a naturalist and writings, she was also an accomplished painter and was commissioned by the British government to paint a record of the most important tribes in Kenya. These works with their attention to detail are on display.
Karen Blixen Museum: using the pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa. Blixen moved to Kenya with her husband in 1913 to start a coffee farm. Though the farm did not fare well, and she and her husband divorced, Blixen became a great benefactress to the families who worked the land. She moved back to her native Denmark, where she began a writing career, and released the book that became the popular movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Because of the popularity of the movie, and the tourists that came with it, her home and farm were purchased by the city. Guests can learn about how Kenya was settled, about the coffee growing business, and enjoy the beautiful grounds where Blixen entertained guests. Items on display include clothing items that Redford wore in the movie.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Orphanage Project: Begun around the 1940’s, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been rescuing elephants left orphaned because of the poaching trade. Once transported to the orphanage, staff began nurturing the babies with constant care and bottles of formula created by Daphne Dame Sheldrick which matches mother’s milk. Each day the public is invited to view the elephants in their care and watch them rush for their bottle feedings. The keepers, in green coats, have committed a big chunk of their lives (signing on for 10 years) to live and sleep with the elephants. Feedings occur every three hours, and a bond is formed between the keeper and elephant. After elephants are released to the wild, some return to show off their new families. Lasting one hour, the public viewing also provides guests with the opportunity to adopt one of the elephants, see the work of the trust up close, and visit the outdoor gift shop.
Tips for traveling to Kenya
Kenya Airways has a new direct flight from JFK to Nairobi. Fare was $800 round trip; as it’s an evening flight, prepare to sleep the whole way there as best you can. If possible, choose the economy premium ticket for more leg room. Very smooth each way, very pleasant flight attendants.
Bring extra cash for hiring hotel drivers. We paid $60 for a half day, and $100 for a full day. It was worth it as the drivers waited for us, had helpful advice on how to plan the day, and knew where to get the best price on batteries.
No need to change U.S. dollars into Kenya shillings. Everyone, even local artists selling their freshly painted Maasai art, took our credit card. However, even though my Visa card did not have a foreign transaction fee, some businesses in Kenya had their own credit card fees. Use cash for small purchases, and a card for backup. U.S. dollars are welcome for tips. Hotel rooms (even our safari hut) have safes where you can set your own combination.
Phrases to know: Jambo (hello). Asante (thank you). Karibu (you’re welcome.) And, yes, they do say, hakuna matata (no trouble) a lot. In fact, the landscape of Disney’s The Lion King was based on Kenya.
November was a great time to go as the rainy season had ended, and temperatures were very comfortable. We enjoyed 70 degrees during the day and 50s at night.
It’s wise to book a trip to Africa with a knowledgeable travel company that can give you more insider tips on traveling, vaccinations to receive, details on obtaining visas (where necessary), and can make all the transports from place to place while you’re on the road. It gave us great peace of mind.
Thank you to Adventure to Africa which planned the perfect 8-day adventure, including transports to and from airports and hotels, meals, safaris, and flight to and from the National Park. Adventuretoafrica.com.
All photos: MJ Hanley-Goff