I celebrated a big birthday last year and wanted to make it one to remember so, after much deliberation about where in the world I’d like to be when I hit a half century, decided on a safari in Kenya.
To get a full safari experience (and increase our odds of spotting the ‘big five’) we eventually settled on a trip (booked through Africasafari.co.uk) which would take in three of Kenya’s national parks – Amboseli, Lake Naivasha and the Masai Mara. I’d been on a game drive previously in South Africa but had yet to see any of the big cats or elephants so, although I had high hopes, I was realistic enough to remember that the animals are wild so there were no guarantees!
What are the ‘big five’?
Early big game hunters coined the phrase ‘big five’ to describe the animals they considered to be the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot – buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino. While there has, thankfully, been a decline in poaching in Kenya we knew that any animal sightings couldn’t be guaranteed but we weren’t disappointed!! We didn’t just see the big five but also baboons, cheetahs, flamingos, gazelles, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, mongooses, ostriches, warthogs, zebras and, perhaps the highlight of the trip, the unforgettable spectacle of the migration of the wildebeest from a hot air balloon.
Our adventure started in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where we spent our first night at Fairmont the Norfolk hotel.
We didn’t arrive until late and had an early start the following morning so didn’t get to fully appreciate all the hotel’s facilities but we did have a lovely meal and a few drinks in the Cin Cin Bar overlooking the hotel’s tropical gardens and I even squeezed in a gym visit.
After an early breakfast in the Lord Delamere Terrace restaurant our driver arrived and it was time for the adventure to begin. The overland part of our journey was with a company called Natural World Kenya Safaris. Our driver, Chris, who’s been a safari guide for over ten years, would accompany six of us over the next week showing us the best that Kenya had to offer. Our travelling companions were two other couples, one from Sweden and one from Denmark.
We drove through the chaos of Nairobi traffic and started on the roughly 200km journey south to our first national park, Amboseli. Leaving the city behind we were soon driving through small villages and past roadside stalls piled high with exotic fruits.
Maasai Village Trip
On the way to Amboseli we had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. While undeniably touristy it was still an enjoyable insight into the lifestyle of East Africa’s oldest inhabitants.
The Maasai tribes live in mud-thatched villages surrounded by fencing (it’s easy to forget that they’re surrounded by lions and other predators who would make quick work of their livestock) and, on arrival, we were welcome by two of the village elders.
The rest of the villagers then came out to greet us with their traditional song and dance including the well-known adumu (jumping dance). A colourful spectacle, it was amusing for me to watch as Mark and the other men in our group were invited to join in (all failing miserably to match the jumping heights of the Maasai) but not so funny when the women regaled us with their traditional song and I had to participate!
Singing and dancing over we were taken further into the village to see their homes. These are called bomas and are built by the women of the tribe from wooden poles and branches and then covered with a mixture of mud and grass (not to mention cow dung). We were invited in to one of the bomas to see where each family lives, sleeps, cooks and eats.
Back outside we were shown displays of the villager’s handicrafts – from beadwork to wooden carvings and other souvenirs. It was a bit of a hard sell and the villagers drive a hard bargain (haggling here wasn’t quite so easy as it is in other parts of Africa) so I’m not convinced we got any real value for money but it does go towards supporting the village and educating their youngsters.
The cost of the village trip was USD 25 which we paid directly to the village elders.
Back in the jeep and it didn’t take long for us to start spotting the wildlife that we were all here for – our first lion encounter. Driving past Lake Amboseli filled with flamingos we watched as a lone male walked out of the undergrowth, crossed the road seemingly oblivious to our presence, and lay down in a patch of light to catch the last of the day’s sun. I’m sure you can imagine our excitement!
Amboseli National Park
“Jambo. Welcome to Ol Tukai Resort. You’re in an elephant view room”. Well, this was a promising start to our stay here.
Amboseli is one of the smallest of Kenya’s national parks but what it lacks in size it makes up for in wildlife. It sits in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, across the border in Tanzania, and has the highest concentration of elephants in Kenya. With the promised elephant view room it looked like we were going to be in for an interesting few nights.
As the porter took our cases to our lodge we dodged the baboons and vervet monkeys on the lawn. We’d already been warned, on checking in, to keep our door locked at all times – just closing it wasn’t enough to keep these cheeky creatures out as they’d mastered the art of opening the doors and making mischief.
Ol Tukai Resort is one of the few actually within the boundaries of Amboseli National Park and has 80 rooms all with a private terrace either, like ours, with a view of the plains where the elephants roam or, if you’re in a mountain view room, a spectacular view of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. Sitting in the fading sun having a coffee on the terrace watching the elephants stroll past just metres away is a memory I’ll never forget.
Dinner in Ol Tukai was a huge buffet which catered for most diets (even as a non-meat eater I had plenty to choose from, although by the end of the trip I was beginning to think that if I never saw another lentil or chick pea curry I wouldn’t actually mind!).
After dinner, a few drinks, and a good night’s sleep, it was time for our first full day on safari. And what a day it was. Game drives tend to start early in the day as that’s when the animals are more active. While I wasn’t up in time for the sunrise on our first morning there, the early morning light meant that I got extremely clear views of Mount Kilimanjaro as I walked to breakfast.
Out on the plains it was fairly easy to spot the animals as vegetation in Amboseli is sparse (although elephants and giraffes are pretty hard to miss given their size!).
Late morning we stopped at Observation Hill and climbed to the top for some amazing views. From our vantage point we could see the flat arid plains stretching out for miles, with the occasional swampy area where we glimpsed a lone hippo grazing.
A popular picnic spot we were soon surrounded by birds looking for crumbs – the superb starlings (great name) seemed to be the Kenyan equivalent to the pigeons we’re used to in the UK and Spain.
We headed back to the lodge for a late lunch and I spent a lazy afternoon enjoying the resort’s pool area. There was nobody else around the pool except for a few monkeys so, I kept one eye on them in case they tried to pinch my belongings, while the other watched the elephants, buffaloes and wildebeest wandering along the pool’s perimeter fence.
The following morning it was time to head off to our next destination. It’s a long drive from Amboseli to Lake Naivasha which involved driving back to Nairobi for lunch before heading north through the Great Rift Valley. Thankfully our jeep was fitted with all mod cons including charging points and wifi which made the long journey bearable but if you’re short of time (and have a big bank balance) there are options to fly between camps.
Lake Naivasha is on the highest point of the Great Rift Valley and is famous for its hippos.
Here we were staying in Sopa Resort, right on the edge of the lake. It’s a small resort (only 21 double storey cottages) and, from our top floor balcony we had a great view of the wildlife on the lawn – giraffes, zebras, waterbucks and vervet monkeys.
During the afternoon we took a walk along the edge of the lake – there’s a security guard who accompanies anyone wanting to do this as, in 2018, a tourist was killed by a hippo on the shore of the lake. The local fishermen didn’t seem to be too bothered about the hippos though and were out, chest deep, in the water.
Come nightfall, the hippos leave the lake and head to the lawns in front of the cottages where they stay until the following morning. They’re considered the most dangerous animal in Africa which is why we were warned not to walk around the grounds alone after dark. This meant that, when it was time to go for dinner we had to call ahead to reception for a guard to escort us to the restaurant. To give us an opportunity to see the hippos on dry land and at close quarters our guard, armed with a stick, led us to the grassed area where the hippos were grazing (thankfully there was a wooden fence between us should we need the extra protection as I’m not convinced his wooden stick would have stood up to a 1.5 tonne wild animal!). What an experience that was!
Dinner was buffet style again and, after filling up (sitting in a jeep all day is hungry work!) we had a few drinks in the bar area next to a roaring log fire before being escorted back to our room for bed ahead of another early start.
We only had one night in the Sopa Lodge resort which was a shame it was a wonderful place to stay.
After breakfast, we headed to the water’s edge where we were kitted out with life jackets and hopped on a tiny boat for a short journey to Crescent Island. To putter slowly past groups of hippo wallowing in the water was a great experience. Disembarking on Crescent Island we met a guide who took us on a guided walk for some real ‘up close and personal’ animal encounters. Giraffe, zebra and gazelle all roam freely here which meant that we were able to experience them at even closer quarters than we had from the jeep and, obviously, the photo opportunities were amazing.
After an hour or so walking around Crescent Island we headed back in the boat to Naivasha where it was time to jump back in the jeep for the next stage of our safari – we were heading to the Masai Mara.
It’s around 300km from Lake Naivasha to the Masai Mara –a lot of the journey was on sealed roads but, when we turned off at Narok, it was back to bumping over dusty roads (there are currently road works taking place to seal the road all the way so, for future visitors, it should be an easier journey).
We hadn’t been in the Masai Mara long before Chris, our driver, spotted a rhino in the distance. He stopped the jeep and pointed into the distance. Out came our binoculars as we all looked expectantly in the direction he was pointing. Nothing. I know my eye sight’s not great but still…
We waited. And waited a bit more. And then, with a rustle of some bushes, there it was. Some distance away compared to the other wildlife we’d seen so far but still. It was a black rhino, which are an endangered species, and, given that there are very few left in the Masai Mara, to actually get to spend some time watching it before it disappeared into the undergrowth was something special.
We carried on our journey to our lodge for the night when Chris spotted something else – a leopard, well camouflaged, asleep in the branches of a tree. We’d practically only just arrived in the Masai Mara so to see a rhino and a leopard in such a short space of time was a real thrill.
For the next two nights we were staying at the Mara Simba Lodge which sits on the banks of the Talek river. The highlight of the accommodation here is the bar which overlooks the Talek River.
The following day was my birthday and, to celebrate, we’d booked a sunrise hot air balloon flight so, after dinner and a few drinks, we had an early night as we had a wake-up call booked for 4.30am!
When the knock on the door came it was quite disconcerting to be confronted by a man with a spear – it’s too easy to forget that there are wild animals out there so all safety precautions must be taken!
Hot air ballooning
We were picked up in a jeep at 5am and, bumping along in the dark, we eventually reached the launch area for the balloons. As the balloons were being inflated with hot air in preparation for the flights there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air.
Each basket can hold 16 people as well as the pilot and, with everyone on board, there was a final whoosh of gas and the balloon started to move upwards, righting the basket and taking us up above the plains.
We floated silently over the African savannah the only sound being the regular blast of hot air as the pilot controlled the height we were travelling.
As the sun started to rise and cast an orange glow over the plains below we could see giraffes, zebras and elephants. As the balloon dipped down to treetop level the noise of the wildebeest rose up to meet us. There were hundreds of them off in a convoy on their annual migration.
We were in the air for around an hour in total and, after bumping back down to earth, we enjoyed a champagne breakfast under the acacia trees. It was amazing what the chefs had conjured up while we were in the air – seated around a long table we feasted on a selection of hot and cold food including the most delicious mushroom quiche I’ve ever had.
We flew with Balloon Safaris Limited – it wasn’t cheap at over USD 400 each but it’s not every day you have a milestone birthday!
Feeling stuffed, it was time to get back on board the jeep for our last full day on safari.
This was the day we had our first cheetah sightings and were also lucky enough to spot another leopard. This one had just taken down an antelope and was dragging it off ready to feast on it – not one for the faint hearted.
We also saw a huge group of hippos wallowing on the riverbanks today as well as the usual suspects – zebra, giraffes, buffalo and wildebeest to name but a few.
All too soon it was time to head back for our last night – as it was my birthday I had a few cocktails overlooking the river knowing that I could have a nap on the long journey back to Nairobi airport the following day.
It’s no surprise that a Kenyan safari, with the opportunity to spot the ‘big five’ and get up close and personal with some of the world’s most majestic animals, is high on so many people’s bucket list. Now I just need to decide what to do for my next birthday…
We flew from London Heathrow to Nairobi (with Lufthansa via Frankfurt on the way out and with Swiss Air via Zurich on the return journey).
One stop flight times from London are around 11 hours while direct ones are around 9 hours.
If you’re a UK citizen you’ll need a valid visit for your trip to Kenya and your passport must be valid for at least six months after the date of your arrival.
It’s possible to get an electronic visa ahead of your arrival but, when I applied for ours, there were glitches with the system so we just waited until we arrived and got them at the airport. We were given the forms to complete on the plane and it was simply a matter of joining the correct queue (the manual application queue was actually shorter than the queue for those who’d got their visas in advance), handing over the forms with our passports and the USD 50 fee.
This is something you need to think about well in advance as you will need vaccinations before you go – and believe me, they’re not cheap. We were vaccinated against yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and hepatitis A. Make sure you take your yellow fever vaccination certificate with you especially if you’re heading to other countries afterwards. As malaria is rife in parts of Kenya we were also prescribed malaria tablets.
It’s worth checking the NHS Fit for Travel website for up to date information before you go. And don’t leave it too late – some vaccinations need to be given four to six weeks in advance.
The official currency of Kenya is the Kenyan Shilling. However, US Dollars, British Pounds and Euros can also be used. Most safari lodges have currency exchange facilities.
A word about tipping. There’s a big tipping culture in Kenya so be prepared with lots of small change. You’ll be expected to tip everyone from the porter carrying your bags to your room, the housemen who make up your room, the barman serving you sundowners, and, of course, your driver at the end of the trip.
We were advised to tip around USD 2 each for the porters and housemen/maids, similar to the barmen, and then around USD 10-15 per person per day to our guide. Whether you choose to give more, or less, though is entirely up to you.
What to pack
Once I’d booked this trip I must confess I went slightly Pinterest crazy, particularly in relation to what to pack/wear.
I’m no fashionista by any stretch of the imagination – my main concerns were around wearing colours that wouldn’t attract disease carrying insects and wild animals!
I must have read dozens of ‘essential packing lists’ and they seemed to fall into two camps – the hardcore safari expert and the Instagram brigade; safari hats versus outfits that would look good against the backdrop of the African savannah (mainly long flowing skirts and cute ankle boots).
However, there was some common ground so I was able to draw up a list of items that were allegedly essential on a safari. I’m not including what to wear on this list as firstly, I’m no style icon and secondly, it all depends on the time of year you intend to go.
A few pairs of shorts, a couple of vests/t-shirts, long sleeve tops and trousers for the early starts and for once the sun went down, a lightweight jacket and sturdy walking shoes/trainers were enough for me. I also took a swimsuit as all the places we stayed had pool areas. Don’t take anything you don’t mind getting dirty – being out on safari is dusty business! Be aware that Kenya has banned plastic bags so don’t bring any into the country (including any from your pre-fight duty free shopping splurge).
Here’s my tried and tested list.
I can guarantee that you’ll take hundreds, if not thousands, of photos so make sure that you have a spare battery for your camera as well as a spare memory card. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest a camera bag too. At the end of each day we were literally covered in red dust – as were all our belongings.
On the subject of cameras, I have a Panasonic Lumix TZ80 and, as we were lucky enough to get so close to all the wildlife, it’s 30 x zoom was more than enough. One of our jeep mates managed to get some amazing photos by using the camera on his phone in conjunction with his binoculars so don’t think that you need expensive equipment to take good photos.
It’s worth remembering that, at a lot of safari lodges, the electricity generators are switched off overnight so you can’t rely on charging your gadgets overnight. I use this multi charger whenever I travel – it charges four gadgets at a time and the pins can be changed depending on where I am in the world (Kenya uses the same three pin plugs as the UK). Thanks to the charging sockets in the jeep I never had any anxious moments about running out of juice.
While we were lucky to get close to most of the animals we saw, there were still occasions when we couldn’t (remember the rhino?) so a pair of binoculars is essential. There was a spare pair in our jeep for us all to use but we had our own.
A torch is a handy addition for early morning starts if the generators haven’t been switched on. I’ve been using my mini Maglite for over 20 years and it’s never let me down yet!
You’ll need insect repellent – the stronger the better. I swear by Jungle Formula maximum strength. And, of course, don’t forget your sunscreen and sunglasses.
Something that nobody mentioned but I found useful was a travel pillow. I had one of these languishing at the back of a cupboard so dusted it down and thought it might have been handy while bouncing along dirt tracks in a jeep. However, it really got the most use as a camera rest – even when we were parked up in the jeep watching the wildlife it was still hard to get my camera perfectly still but placing it on the pillow gave it a bit more stability. In fact, I used it every day but not once did it get used around my neck as it was intended!!
I’d also recommend a good sports bra – when you’re in the back of a jeep bouncing over uneven ground you’ll thank me for that tip!!