It’s safari and beach time and the news is full of airport chaos, staff shortages and long queues. Our flight to Nairobi isn’t cancelled, which is a decent start, and it does indeed take a solid two hours to check in and clear security, leaving no time for a pre-flight drink. It’s a night flight with the usual blend of screaming babies and chatty antisocial grown-ups, but eight-and-a-half hours later we arrive smoothly at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and our onward flight to the Masai Mara isn’t until 10.00, so our agent has cunningly arranged for us to have a slap up breakfast at the rather grand Ola Sereni Hotel – a nice, unexpected touch. Suitably refreshed, we are whisked off to the tiny bustling Wilson airport for a short flight to Olkiombo airstrip via the excellently named Keekorok. The plains open up as we begin to see herds of wildebeest and elephant below. We are picked up and assume we are on our way to Basecamp Explorer, our lodge for the next three nights, and we are, but it turns into a full-on safari on the way. In a totally bonkers run, we see four of the Big Five in 3-4 hours before even arriving at camp.
The usual suspects provide the backdrop: hundreds of Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelle, impala (tasty snacks for leopards), thousands upon thousands of zebra (constant companions of wildebeest who are in the middle of their annual so-called Great Migration), cheeky little warthogs munching away on their knees, herds of elephant, and of course the vultures constantly cruising overhead in search of a not-so-fresh kill. Soon we find a beautiful leopard up a tree with its impala kill, as usual quite unfazed by a cluster of jeeps beneath. If she can drag her meal up a tree, the lions and hyenas can’t nick it. Three cheetahs lounge nonchalantly under a lone shady tree. They are the remnants of a coalition known as The Magnificent Five who gained notoriety in National Geographic magazine for hunting as a team with a particular technique – one cat topples the animal and the others maintain a stranglehold on its neck until it suffocates. Two cheetah have since left, and as we left a third may have too – see later.
The sites keep coming. There are 2,500 lions in the area, and soon we are finding plenty of them. Impressive males here typically seem to have 3 to 4 females in tow, often with a single cub. Eland, the largest antelope weighing in at a ton, are very much in evidence (15,000 of them). Topi are an attractive antelope with brown/blue/yellow colouring (40,000 of those). Huge herds of buffalo wander around, usually appearing somewhat grumpy. There are 8,000 giraffe. Ostrich wander about, often in pairs but we also see a group of eleven. Apparently they can crush you with just one wing. Jackals prowl about picking up mongoose and tasty francolin. And of course there are numerous birds – marabou storks, saddlebill storks, lilac crested rollers, bateleur eagles, yellow-bellied falcon, black-bellied bustard, and hadada ibis that make an almighty racket when returning home to roost. The list goes on and on.
After this brilliant onslaught we arrive at Basecamp Explorer, situated on the Talek River on a tight bend reached by a wooden footbridge suspended from a 200-year-old Sycamore Fig tree. We are staying in a room called Obama, so named because the Obama family stayed here 16 years when he was a senator. Strangely, each family member planted a tree, for reasons unknown. This is a fantastic location where eagles nest in a tree above the lawn. Frequent visitors include zebra coming to the river to drink, a contented warthog who pops in daily to munch the lush grass, a troupe of mongoose – 30 or so – who maraud around mewling and chattering, hundreds of brightly coloured small birds flitting in and out of the trees, and hyena who skulk through the camp at night.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is approximately 20 miles wide and 10 miles north to south, bounded by the Tanzania border to the south. Over 6 drives we see all sorts of amazing behaviour: two lionesses in a river gully unaware that a leopard was eating their kill nearby; a grumpy bull elephant who would not budge from the track, forcing us to reverse and head elsewhere; a lion cub waiting patiently for its parents to come back; another playfighting with his father’s tail; a pride of lions seeing off an unwanted rival lioness; hyena loping along tracks with various items they had scavenged; small scrub hare scuttling off the track at dawn or dusk; a blue and red lizard in a dry river bed; and endless lines and herds of wildebeest, buffalo and zebra.
On one drive we head south to the Mara River to observe, if possible, wildebeest crossing the river. There are 1.3 million of them and huge herds congregate before deciding to cross. We see huge crocodiles lurking below, with the odd upended carcass of gnu that failed to make it. Pods of hippo thunder around as everyone waits for them to cross. The moment they begin, 20 jeeps (not including ours) accelerate towards the high riverbank to secure the classic crossing photo, at which point the spooked wildebeest turn round and change their mind. This is the dark face of ecotourism where man’s stupidity impedes the natural behaviour of the wildlife whilst simultaneously ruining the very experience they have come to see. Depressing.
Back at camp there are baboons with babies eating fruit, monkeys that will ransack your tent if you don’t lock it up, steal your breakfast and hurl shit at you for fun, bats swirling around the light at night, and Masai singing songs that regale their oral history. Traditions include bachelors jumping as high as possible to win the affections of young women, using a stick to tap on the head of the partner you desire and, if successful, roasting some meat, skewering it onto a stick, and leaving it outside your house to show that you do not wish to be disturbed. We visit the new community centre they are building and chat to the women threading beads to make various handicrafts, and wander around the grounds discovering the traditional and medicinal use of a number of impressive trees which provide, among other things, a form of toothpaste, sandpaper, and mosquito repellent.
On the third day we experience a magical dawn looking down on a mist-filled river valley with a purple-orange backdrop as 20-30 hot air balloons drift over the savannah. There is a commotion as two cheetah appear to be on the hunt. Our guide tells us that this pair is what is left of the three brothers – apparently because these two killed the other one. No one understands why. We watch them observing a herd of zebra whilst camouflaged in the long grass. They blend in perfectly as 40 jeeps look on. In their enthusiasm to capture close-ups, many jeeps are selfish enough to cut off the cheetah’s direction of travel to the herd. The cheetahs move off to use a riverbed for cover, emerging on the other side. All the vehicles scream round the corner and block off their line of attack again. The cats come back to where they were, and this time the jeeps are too slow to get in the way. Suddenly, one of cats is off like a rocket, hitting 50mph from a standing start and causing pandemonium as the zebra disperse in a frenzy. Sadly, he failed – only 1 in 10 hunts are successful. We return to camp exhilarated and frustrated once again by the dark side of ecotourism.
In a similar experience, we watch with dismay as a stream of vehicles attempt to hem in a female black rhino and her calf. They run in various directions to try to gain some peace in grassland surrounded by tracks. Jeeps are not allowed to leave the tracks in conservation areas in order to get a closer look at wildlife, but they frequently do. These rhinos are critically endangered and there are only 50 left in the wild. As they became more and more stressed, our guide called the park ranger who thankfully arrived fast to prevent further encroachment.
It’s time to go, and on the way to the airstrip we take a different route which gives us a glimpse of the local town – waving schoolkids, protective bomas for their revered cattle and goats, a car repair area, schools, and all the paraphernalia of town life. The planes get smaller and smaller. We are the only passengers on a 7-minute hop from Olkiombo to Keekorok, where we are joined by another family, and then we are off in in the single prop 16-person capacity plane. The kid in the co-pilot seat has a whale of a time as we climb to 17,000 feet about the cloud line. The landscape becomes progressively greener as we approach the East Coast to land at Malindi, population 100,000. Rather brilliantly our driver is called Duncan, and 45 minutes later we have arrived at Che Shale, an idyllic spot pretty much on the equator with golden sand and very little else in sight. If you headed directly east you would reach land in Indonesia. To the north, Somalia. It’s time to ditch the shoes and enjoy the beach.
Che Shale has an interesting history. It was built by the parents of the current owner in 1978 – a couple who originally ran a mobile hunting camp in the Kenyan bush, and then built a safari village north of Lamu. Whilst flying his Cessna down to Malindi for supplies, he would follow the coast. After noticing a fantastic stretch of beach he decided to land on it, found the nearest village chief and a year later set up camp, and here we are.
Apart from swimming , kite surfing, having a massage and so on, there is an interesting trip 45 minutes inland to a fascinating physical phenomenon at Marafa called Hell’s Kitchen. Here the ground falls away in a large depression of eroded rock, full of orange, white and yellow pillars. Many say it is like the Grand Canyon, but in fact it is more like Bryce Canyon for those in the know – a scene similar to walking through a giant ginger and cream dessert. At the top we are asked for a donation to buy biscuits for the children, which seems innocent enough, until our guide opens a box and 30 kids mob us. We hand the task over to the guide before the feral gang pushes us over the edge.
After a few flight changes, we return to Nairobi for a very fast pit stop at Karen Gables – check in at 9.30pm , check out at 6am. This is a 35-minute run up the Expressway into the hills. On first impression, this boutique hotel looks as though it is named after a lady of the same name, but it turns out that Karen is the name of the district and the building is indeed gabled in the old Dutch style. Set in hillside woods, there is a bijou swimming pool and gazebo with an outdoor bar. It’s a shame we can’t enjoy it in daylight. A short night’s sleep was rendered even shorter by the incessant crowing of a nearby cockerel. Then it’s off to the airport for our return flight, navigating three security checks in the process. If you go naked you’ll probably get through all the metal detectors.
And so, in the time-honoured fashion of this blog, to concluding remarks. This was a very high quality trip. Kenyan infrastructure has improved immeasurably since we were last here 16 years ago, with good roads and flights. The local ground arrangements were immaculate, with highly prompt transfers and charming staff at every point guiding you through the logistics. The safari was superb quality – both accommodation and wildlife sightings – and easily compares with trips in, for example, South Africa, that cost three times as much. The beach experience was remote and idyllic. Strong local culture means vibrant arts and crafts, music and so on, leading to a strong sense of identity, particularly when pairing English with Swahili. Politics is a mess as it is everywhere and at the time of visiting their general elections are next week, with the bizarre situation whereby one leader actually supports his opponent. With this formula of 3-4 days safari and 3-4 days on the coast, you will feel well displaced and probably conclude that you have had a 14-day trip in only 8 days. Nothing to mark down, so 10 out of 10.