Kenya is the elder statesman. The iconic home of safaris and the mould from which all others have been cast. Just the name Kenya conjures up “Out of Africa” images of vast savannahs dotted with acacia trees, migratory herds ploughing through rivers and spear carrying men in Maasai red tribal outfits.
But although Kenya is famous for its sheer volume of game, it’s also a place where you can easily combine safari with culture and a raft of other activities. I mean where else can you have breakfast with giraffes, watch a migratory river crossing, discover life with locals tribes people, return from your bush breakfast by camel, view game from horseback, track the endangered rhino and chill out on the beach…..all in one holiday? Well, that’s exactly what you can do on a trip to Kenya.
With so much to see and do and a lot of accommodation choices (at all levels), planning a trip to Kenya does require a fair bit of knowledge. Especially in the Maasai Mara which can get overrun with herds of the human kind, particularly during the migration.
I was lucky enough to spend two weeks bed-hopping around Kenya last month. I travelled from the northern plateaus of Lakipia through the excellent and very successful wildlife conservation areas of Lewa and Borana. Then I hopped down to the Maasai Mara to experience the difference between staying in the Mara Triangle, on one of the conservancies or actually in the National Park. I skirted round the edge of the Mara to lesser known conservancies and then lazed around in Lamu for a few days, down on the coast.
Here are a few of my favourite finds - some are old finds (the old ones are often the best), others new:
Best for breakfast with giraffes
No matter how many times you’ve been on safari, the chance to get up close and personal with wild animals is always a thrill. A stay at Giraffe Manor allows you to do just that with its residents, Kenya's highly endangered Rothschild giraffe. Here the giraffes are not pets,but part of a highly successful breeding programme. I cannot put in to words how utterly amazing it was to get so close to these magnificent long-necked creatures.
As there are just 10 rooms and only guests staying at the Manor are allowed in, the time you spend with the giraffes is personal and exclusive. But do be aware that this is a turn-of-the-century stone mansion full of its original features (including the bathrooms) and dinner is served in candlelight as the dining room has no electricity.
A night here is not cheap but everything is included from arrival to departure and get your timings right, you will spend a fair bit of time with the giraffes. I can definitely testify for it being one of my “once in a life time” experiences and I felt virtuous that at least part of my money was going to a good cause.
Best for activities and sun lounger safaris
The 62,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is viewed of one of the best conservation successes in Kenya and shelters endangered species such as Grevy's Zebra and the black rhino. In fact, I have never seen so many rhino in one place as I did traveling around Lewa.
It's here, set in a shady acacia grove on the foothills of Mount Kenya you'll find Sirikoi, a beautiful, family owned lodge. The place is small with just four lovely tents, a two bedroom cottage and a very private fully staffed three bedroom house which is perfect for family gatherings.
One of the joys of Sirikoi is the busy waterhole right in front of the main deck which plays host to elephants, buffalo, waterbuck, impala and many others so you don’t even have to leave your sun lounger!
Then there’s the array of activities: You can take a helicopter ride to Mount Kenya followed by a visit to remote nomadic tribes; head up to the Ngare Ndere Forest to swim in startling glacial blue pools, leap from the top of a waterfall and walk along a suspension bridge high up in the tree canopy; or go out with rangers to track and monitor the endangered rhinos.
The opportunity to watch wild animals from vantage points other than a Land Cruiser is pretty special and at Sirikoi you can head out on foot or do horseback and camel safaris. Having breakfast in the bush and then riding back to camp on a camel was such fun.
Best for adventurous families
Serian (The Original) is a traditional tented bush camp where the emphasis is on a natural wildlife experience and getting off the beaten track. Guiding is excellent and what’s great is that each group gets its own private vehicle so your family’s safari can be exactly how you want it. The camp is set in the private Mara North Conservancy and the beauty of this location is that only 10 other camps have access to it, so the feeling is of having your own personal piece of Africa. It also means that as well as traditional vehicle based safaris you can do guided bush walks (or hikes) and evening safaris (after sundowners of course) where I even witnessed lions having sex!
There are six huge tents, two connecting so perfect for families.
And for something totally different, the adventurous can stay in the camp’s secluded tree house in the bush. Spending a night here is an unforgettable experience as you sleep under a blanket of stars.
Best luxury tented camp
Accessing via a wooden swing bridge hanging between the branches of acacia trees, you expect what you find on the other side to be special. And it is. Mara Plains is a beautiful place. One of those camps that’s luxurious without being decadent, polished but in a relaxed a relaxed way, with great food, friendly service and top notch guiding.
The seven tents are hidden amongst the trees and come with views either over the Mara or down to the river with an immense pod of hippos. They are a mix of wood and billowing canvas with gorgeous interiors combining a colonial bygone era with Kenya’s Swahili and Maasai roots. After 10 days on the road, I thoroughly enjoyed easing myself into the very deep copper bath with a gin and tonic. Then after a delicious dinner around the Boma, I feel asleep to the low bellowing of the hippos and the nocturnal sounds of the African bush.
The next morning I was treated to the most decadent bush breakfast.
Mara Plains is set in the 30,000 acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy, a private area bordering the main Mara National Park. But being only one of three camps in this conservancy, it has the lowest vehicle density in the region allowing you to avoid the crowds that flock to the region when the migration is in Kenya. If you want to experience the drama and spectacle of a river crossing however, you pretty much have to accept that there will be many others at the main crossing points wanting to see the same thing. My advice is to spend a day in the main reserve with a packed breakfast and lunch on board, so you can maximize your chances of seeing a crossing. Then spend the rest of your time in the conservancy exploring in relative privacy. When I was there, there was a huge pride of lions right on the edge of camp that even wandered in to camp one evening!
Best for views and the whole “Out of Africa” experience
Sitting on the Oloololo escarpment, high up above the Great Rift Valley, Angama Mara has the most breath-taking view over the Maasai Mara. It’s one of those views you see in the movies or in books and I have to say you never tire of it.
From your luxurious “tent”, huge glass sliding doors give way to the deck where you can breakfast whilst watching the sunrise and the Mara’s fuzzy horizon of smudged acacia come to life. Or later in the day partake in a “rocking chair” safari.
For fans of “Out of Africa”, many of the memorable scenes from the film were shot on the land around Angama Mara and one of the highlights of a stay is a picnic on the exact kopje (hill) where Redford and Streep picnicked. Chilled champagne, a lunch served from the same picnic hamper used by Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton (as portrayed by Streep and Redford), nobody else around and that mesmerising view of the Mara unfurling below. Truly magical.
The game viewing in the Mara Triangle is definitely one of the highlights of staying at Angama Mara. There are much fewer vehicles in this part of the National Park and the wildlife is prolific.
Best for hanging out on the coast
I am going to be a little controversial here. The beach add-on after a safari in Kenya is usually Zanzibar, a very traditional style beach destination with lots of hotels strung along pretty beaches. But I really loved my few days on Lamu, part of an archipelago off the east coast of Kenya. It’s had a bit of bad press over the years with Somalian pirates doing their best to rip the heart out of the place. But it’s now off the FCO “no go” list and it’s definitely a place I would whole heartedly recommend for the slightly more adventurous amongst you.
Lamu old town is a World Heritage Site steeped in Swahili tradition and is perfect for spending the morning wandering the maze of narrow alleyways watching life unfold around you. But the village of Shela is where you’ll want to base yourself. This is the place where the cool, arty types hole up. Traditional Swahili dwellings have been renovated into palatial holiday homes which you can rent.
Alternatively I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at The Majlis, a short boat ride across the strait from Shela. This is as close to a “resort” as you’ll find in Lamu, but with only 25 rooms it’s still boutique.
Life on Lamu is decidedly slow and peaceful. There are no cars, only donkeys and dhows with billowing sails. Days spent here should be very lazy, but if relaxing doesn’t come easy to you there are lots of activities of the desert-island type to keep you occupied: walks along seemingly endless stretches of beach, boat trips to nearby islands for picnics or a spot of fishing, snorkelling on the reefs and sunset dhow cruises.
If you are interested in a trip to Kenya or would like to find out more information about going on safari, please do get in touch and let me help arrange your trip. I'll ensure you have a stress free, seamless travel experience from the planning stage right through to when you return with lifelong memories.