TRAVEL UPDATE: Settle down with a cuppa and enjoy Chloe’s safari adventure in Kenya
June is an exciting time in Kenya, the rains are due to finish and the migration is due to start. At the very beginning of June I left sunny Scotland (no truly) and embarked on an exciting and slightly wet tour of some of Kenya’s most famous parks. Rain isn’t the first weather type you would expect visiting Africa, however it is vital for plant growth and water sources and makes a dramatic backdrop for photographers (of which we met many). I have to say there is nothing nicer than sitting in the back of a Landrover or inside a tent watching the rains sweep across the plains as lightning bolts crack down. Rains in Kenya are usually dramatic, heavy but short. By the time you have had a quick stop to zip up the vehicle and an early sundowner, it’s all over. The sun comes back out to create beautiful backdrops of rainbows as the animals come out to dry off and reclaim their territories. Coincidently this is the best time to see cats on the move or the plains game rutting.
This was my first visit to Kenya, having worked as a guide in South Africa I was looking forward to seeing what East-African safaris had to offer. In particular it was a great opportunity to see the northern species of many of the animals, like the grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and the differing species of giraffe and learn more about the cultures of the various Kenyan tribes. Perhaps it should be mentioned that with everything going on in the news regarding the problems in Kenya my family weren’t too pleased that this was my chosen destination, especially as I went to the coast for a week to relax. However I can’t stress enough that at any point did I feel unsafe even on the coast. As you can imagine it was a well discussed topic on the trip and it was reassuring to hear opinions from the ‘ground’. Whilst I don’t want to belittle the horrors that have taken place, I must add that the companies here are looking to boost tourism within the country and so would never place clients in what they perceived to be a dangerous situation.
The aim of my trip was to take a quick tour of Kenya looking at Tawi lodge, in the Amboseli and the Kicheche camps. Tawi Lodge is new to us but an intimate and luxurious lodge, and like all the lodges we favour, it had a focus on social responsibility and conservation. Kicheche, an old favourite of Farside Africa’s, is a company with four bush hideaways in the best spots of the Kenyan wilderness. Combining comfort with conservation they have built their reputation on the quality of their staff and guides and relationships with the local tribes by keeping the camps in conservancies out of the national parks. If you are looking for high quality game viewing with low vehicle densities then conservancies are the answer. The aim is to create minimum impact on the environment, with all camps having reached a silver eco rating and Mara Camp having recently acquiring gold. From using re-fillable water bottles to growing their own organic food every effort is made to make sure everything is reused, recycled or repaired. Along with projects to preserve the environment Kicheche has implemented many improvements to the welfare of the communities it shares land with, though education, health, family care, community empowerment and environmental conservation. Providing financial support and security for the communities enables long term commitment to responsible tourism and protection of the flora and fauna.
The first stop on my trip was Tawi Lodge in a private conservancy just outside the Amboseli National Park, in the Rift Valley on the Kenyan -Tanzanian border, famous for its large herds of elephants. A beautiful lodge just a few minutes’ drive from the gates of Amboseli. Tawi has just 12 cottages all of which have their own wooden decks facing Mount Kilimanjaro and a watering hole giving great views and game viewing from the comfort of your bed, shower and bathtub. Tawi has a friendly and relaxed feel, with water flowing through streams at the entrance to the organic pool in the garden, open lounges, a spa and a library it is a peaceful spot bursting with birdlife. Tawi does its upmost to make you feel special during your stay with welcoming staff and entertaining hosts. Ron, who hosts the lodge with his family, is a renowned chef which makes meal times at Tawi a culinary delight.
At Tawi we were able to partake in a range of activities from game drives in Amboseli, having sundowners whilst watching the famous herds of elephants, taking a nature walk round the conservancy to camel riding. The guides at Tawi were brilliant, patient, engaging and knowledgeable, which was lucky for one member of our group who forgot his toothbrush. Did you know the fibrous branches of the Magic Guarri Tree can be used as a toothbrush having both antiseptic qualities and plenty of bristles? Tawi is a lovely option for those who want to go on safari but find the idea of a tent daunting! The height of luxury in the heart of the bush, this makes a relaxing stop and works well at the start of your trip to ease you into life in the bush or at the end to relax and unwind before you return home.
Next we headed north to the mountainous Laikipia region in the shadow of Mount Kenya, a tantalising contrast of landscapes and wildlife. Ol Pejeta Conservancy is the largest Black Rhino sanctuary in East Africa home to over 100 black rhinos. It is the place for rhino sightings with a large population of Southern White Rhinos and four of the seven remaining Northern White Rhinos. As soon as we arrived on our journey to camp, we saw two black rhinos with calves and a white rhino with a calf within meters of each other - almost unheard of due to the solitary nature of black rhinos and the different eating habits of the two species. We were lucky enough to be shown round by Mohammed, an engaging and informative guide who let us feed their resident blind rhino, Baraka. Ol Pejeta has many conservation initiatives including the rhino sanctuary, a chimp sanctuary set up by Jane Goodall, and cattle ranching by the locals to improve the soil. Some great activities for those who have a longer stay and for families where the kids can learn a little bit more about conservation by visiting the education centre.
Kicheche Laikipia is a beautiful and luxurious six tented camp. Surrounded by an electric fence it feels very homely and safe, perfect for families or those who are a little nervous about what goes bump in the night. The fence allows you to walk around the camp during the day and as it has a large dam just beyond the fence line, there is always something to see around camp. Andy and Sonja have a wonderful reputation of being fantastic hosts and they won’t disappoint. From Sonja’s incredible food, be it a snack on a game drive or a three course gourmet meal in camp, to Andy’s wealth of knowledge of the animals in camp to the animals of Africa. You really feel a sense of being looked after here, the staff are incredibly attentive and friendly. We spent a few magical days being entertained by Andy’s stories in the evening and our guide Onesmis during the day (and night) drives. Whilst I am sure all the guides at Kicheche are fantastic (we certainly had some great ones) Onesmis really took the biscuit, from his incredible spotting skills to his wealth of knowledge of the animals. Always entertaining our eclectic group we enjoyed bush breakfasts with beautiful views, sightings of lions mating, black rhinos and an incredible night drive watching a hyena chewing on a jaw bone. Kicheche Laikipia is a picturesque camp that is perfect, like Tawi, as a starting point to a safari in Kenya.
The next stop on the trip was the Masai Mara, arguably the most famous of all safari destinations and for good reason. Unfenced and famous for its large populations of big cats and the annual great migration of zebra, gazelle and wildebeest to and from the Serengeti, we were to visit all three of Kicheche’s camps spread over three conservancies. One of which the Olare Motorogi Conservancy is owned exclusively by Masai land owners who collaborated to rent the land to specific tour operators and means on games drives you come across the Masai with their cattle herds. At any point on your trip Kicheche can arrange for a village visit, your guide will inevitably tell you about the culture of his people, but if you wish to see more of the day to day life then it is simply a case of asking.
Valley Camp is the most luxurious of the Kicheche camps set in the Naboisho Conservancy. With beautiful views and only six tents and a spa, it is an intimate and exclusive part of the Kicheche family. Welcomed by Val and Brendan, widely travelled and very charming hosts, who instantly make you feel welcome and at home.Valley Camp, like Laikipia, had running water but has the added bonus of electricity sockets within the tent to re-charge your appliances. Meal times were a real treat at Valley Camp in particular, one morning we took off for a bush walk with our guide Jonathan and an armed ranger. A great time to discuss some of the smaller creatures and plants of the bush, Jonathan was able to show us an elephant ‘graveyard’ and explain their mourning process. Details like those discussed give a client such a sense of empathy and understanding which is incredibly important. The greater the understandings of the delicate balance of the ecosystems in the bush the more we can do to help protect them. After a refreshing stretch of our legs into the seemingly middle of nowhere we came through some bushes to find a hot bush breakfast - a welcome treat in some stunning surroundings off the beaten track.
Valley Camp is beautifully romantic. The tents themselves are hugely spacious, with large double beds (even as a triple there is still plenty of room in the tent to roam around) and en-suite bathrooms. Decorated simply but luxuriously they are designed to help you relax. An ideal spot for those on honeymoon or couples looking for a treat on their safari.
Luxury isn’t for everyone. To have a more rustic experience Kicheche Bush Camp, set in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, is an exclusive small tented camp designed to get you back to the basics without losing any level of comfort. My favourite of the Kicheche group with just six tents, here you really feel a sense of what it is like to live in the bush with the added luxury of hot water bucket showers and flushing toilets! If like me you truly like to immerse yourself in getting back to nature without the crowds, Bush Camp is a must on list of places to safari, a firm favourite with photographers. Unfenced, the wildlife can literally be on your front door! With askaris (guards) to walk you to and from your tent between dusk and dawn, you can feel safe whilst enjoying being completely immersed in the wild. The set up at Bush Camp is wonderfully engaging from the square dining table designed to encourage the swapping of tales over the usual high standard of gourmet food, to the hilarious and cheerful hosts Darren and Emma. Between drives you can relax in the lounge tent on the many couches or under the shade of the Acacia trees. The camp set up allows for a social relaxation time or you can take a nap on your tent veranda if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet.
True to its word the wildlife viewing here was incredible. We were assured by Emma and Darren that there would be no rain and their predictions were correct and although we saw a distant rainbow we had our first game drive water free. It was in the Mara we got our best cat sightings, with many large prides of lions which seemed to be as numerous as the plains games. Patrick, our eagle eyed guide, provided us with sightings of mating lions and a leopard nervously pacing the top of an Acacia tree as a female lion paced below. Patrick is somewhat famous at Kicheche, a long standing and passionate guide, he is regularly requested for repeat clients. An entertaining story teller he has anecdotes for all the animals and can put a positive spin on any experience. He told childhood stories of his father escaping an elephant by throwing his Masai blanket over its eyes to stories of folklore tales to explain why each animal is different. He is a firm favourite from children to adults.
Kicheche Mara Camp, in the Mara North Conservancy, is similar to the set up at Bush Camp but with eight tents spaciously spread out it is slightly larger. The camp is popular with small groups and families, with two lounge tents overlooking a river, the camp is designed to attract wildlife with the river acting as a natural barrier. While there we watched zebra fill the ‘car park’ and a dispute between two male hippos, the loser being chased across the lawn. Sammy was an incredibly welcoming host meeting us off drive and leading us across a bridge to camp, a nice detail which gives the feeling of wild exclusivity before settling us in for lunch. Sammy explained the tradition of having a curry at lunchtime on a Sunday, having grown up on the Kenyan coast herself; she was a wealth of knowledge and a captivating host. The tents are widely spread out which allows you to explore the area; however, there are always askaris (guards) around on watch so you feel perfectly safe despite the camp not being fenced. The askari will also accompany you to your tent at night which if you are in one of the further away tents, allows you to have a mini night walk to spot nightjars and genets - an exciting end to your evening.
Much like the other camps the level of guiding was excellent and Benjamin our guide didn’t disappoint. We were able to get glimpses of lion cubs and enjoyed a bush breakfast overlooking a river full of hippo pods. Benjamin’s level of calm and collectiveness was infectious; there is nothing more peaceful than watching an animal on safari. However his skills were helpful in letting the two less experienced members of our group relax as a young male lion play fought with his brother before settling next to our car.
The thought that often struck me throughout my trip was the incredible attention to detail. Much like the behaviour of animals and the way your guide is able to predict weather from the calls of a certain bird, the difference between play and territorial disputes or the emergence of a predator predicted from certain animals calling together, Kicheche knows the movement of the human species just as well as the animals. From hot water bottles in my bed at night to a fresh wet towel as I arrived for meals, it is as if your every move has been anticipated. With the exclusion of modern appliances such as the internet it didn’t feel intrusive, but rather like you were part of a large family that had known you for years.
Africa is still a difficult destination to navigate independently and is not cheap. However Hemingway once said "I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy" and it is easy to agree. Waking to the sounds of the dawn chorus and the last of the hyenas whooping to a hot coffee and homemade rusks with freshly sprung grass, from an evening of rain and thunderstorms, and the imminent tracks of last night’s movements to follow, there isn’t anywhere I would rather be!