Traveling from an apartment in Paris to Kenya for a safari was truly a “now for something completely different” move. Just what I had in mind to really make this 2-month trip a birthday celebration. I’d been wanting to make a trip to sub-Saharan Africa from Europe to avoid the really long flight(s) and jetlag that attend travel there from the US. After five weeks in Belgium and France, now was the perfect time.
In addition to the obvious appeals, I loved the idea of Kenya because it made sense as a waypoint on our way to South Africa and we could get there from Paris without an overnight flight. This meant we were fine with flying economy (with a exit row or bulkhead seat for David’s long legs). I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Air France/Flying Blue to book an 8-hour flight on Air France from Paris to Nairobi, Kenya, for 48,000 points (24,000 points apiece) plus €214.40.
Flying to Kenya before South Africa also meant I could fly directly from Nairobi to Cape Town and avoid Johannesburg, something I definitely wanted to do. It also meant another daytime flight so we’d be fine flying economy again. Once more, I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Air France/Flying Blue to book on Air France partner Kenya Airways from Nairobi to Cape Town. This cost 40,000 points (20,000 points apiece) plus €173.70. We paid extra for bulkhead seats.
Our original flight from Nairobi to Cape Town was supposed to be only 5h45m, but that flight was canceled a couple of weeks before we were to fly. Kenya Airways rebooked us 3 days later, a change that would not work. I called Flying Blue and was able to change to a day before our original flight. This flight was longer (7.5 hours) because of a fuel stop in Zambia, but it was still a day flight. I called Noah Kuti, owner of Wildebeest Safaris, and he had no problem moving our planned safari up a day. This actually worked out better for us as I’d allowed an extra day in Nairobi just in case our Paris to Nairobi flight was delayed from its original late night arrival. The flight was delayed, but only until 11pm, and we were fine starting early the next morning on our safari.
We spent the night at the Crowne Plaza Nairobi Airport. I had booked a Kenyan hotel near the airport, but tales of nightmarish traffic caused by extensive road construction (including one horror story claiming it took 3 hours to go 5 miles) made me opt for the more expensive Crowne Plaza. It’s one of two hotels on airport grounds and it took about 3 minutes to get from the terminal to the hotel via a free shuttle sent by the hotel. At $150US, it’s very pricey by Kenyan standards, but well worth it IMHO. A security guard stopped our shuttle van, searching underneath with a mirror on a pole for explosives, I assume. Once cleared, a boom was raised and we were in. The hotel lobby is elegant, the staff eager to help, and our upgraded room (as IHG members) was sleek and modern with a large balcony. (The hotel also offered a surprisingly good exchange rate, much better than at the airport so we were set with cash for tips.) We didn’t have much time to enjoy the room, but the bed was comfortable and the shower hot and powerful. All we needed.
Our guide and driver, Dennis, met us in the lobby early the next morning. Cheerful, friendly, knowledgeable (with a college degree in local biology) and genuinely interested in making sure we got what we wanted out of our safari, Dennis was a great companion. I’d booked a private safari so it was just David and me and Dennis in the 8-seat vehicle. Driving from the hotel towards Ambesoli National Park, we quickly encountered the road construction and traffic we’d read about. Dennis assured us our hotel choice minimized the traffic exposure. Still, we marveled at the traffic free-for-all that kept our pace slow for the first part of our journey.
The safari land cruiser we were in was in good shape, very clean, and much nicer than some of the roll-side and open air vehicles we saw on game drives (not to mention the packed tour minivans). Moreover, many of the safaris I considered before choosing Wildebeest wanted ridiculously high extra charges for vehicles identical to ours. An electric ice chest in the back kept drinks cold and we had lots of room to stretch out and to move around should we want to move into or out of the sun. The only negatives were a tied-together seatbelt on the seat I spent most of the time in and an a/c that was either not functioning or not used. When we first slowed in Nairobi traffic, I asked Dennis, “No air conditioning?” He just replied “No,” with a smile, and I left it at that. Fortunately, the weather was pretty delightful the entire time and we were comfortable. On the other hand, his windows-down policy meant meant we and our luggage were ludicrously dusty at the end of some drives, especially Ambesoli. At each lodge, porters would beat the dust from our suitcases and carry-ons then wipe them down. Oh well, when in Kenya…
We arrived at Ambesoli National Park in time for lunch at Ambesoli Serena Safari Lodge inside the park. We were thrilled as the first wildebeests and zebras appeared at some distance across a vast dry lakebed. Dennis assured us we’d see more much closer soon, but we had him stop anyway to scope the animals through our binoculars and snap a few pics. We laughed later when Dennis proved to be oh-so-right about the many up-close encounters we’d have on this safari. Our room at Ambesoli Serena Safari Lodge was comfortable, interesting and very local with painted clay walls, a bed draped in mosquito netting and a back patio shaded by giant cactus trees and populated by monkeys. The common areas overlooked a picturesque bit of the park where elephants, waterbucks and zebras grazed. We arrived in time for lunch and a little time to settle in before our first real game drive. Lunch was an ample buffet spread as would be dinner and breakfast. Three main tables offered self-serve salads, main courses and desserts. A chef manned another table and one table that offered made-to-order pasta, Asian noodles or omelets depending on the meal.
Our first real game drive was magical. (I say “real” because we saw lots of animals just driving to the lodge.) Dennis drove us all over Ambesoli, stopping often to let us take in the animals closer often than we’d even seen them in zoos: zebras, wildebeests, antelopes of all sorts, lots of elephants of all ages, giraffes, hippos and water birds and even a pair of lions mating. Being in dry season, a large portion of the lake was dry making a vast tan plain across which the animals roamed in profusion. We’d driven all the way from Nairobi with the windows down in our large safari land cruiser; now we had the roof top lifted as well and we were soon even dustier than ever, but thrilled and happy.
The next morning proved spectacular as well as we watched one elephant pluck branches from a roadside acacia and another walk toward us down the road, passing so close we could have touched it. Dennis slowed the cruiser to a crawl to ease a Cape buffalo off the road, and we came upon a wading hippo so close we could hear him munch the water grass. Giraffes ran ahead of us down the road and we stopped to let a line of elephants cross just ahead of us. In the distance, Mt. Kilimajaro towered above it all. Beautiful!
Leaving Ambesoli began a long day of driving to our next stop, Lake Nakuru National Park. Geography necessitates driving back past Nairobi to get from Ambesoli to Lake Nakuru. This is a common route taken by safari tours and we knew what we were in for, but still it was a really long day: 7 hours of driving without a stop. Once again, traffic was a mess around Kenya and an overturned truck in the slopes leading to the Great Rift caused another traffic holdup. There are small private planes that fly between Kenya’s national parks and we considered going that route. In the end, we decided we were glad we drove on this our first Kenyan safari, but we’d definitely consider flying next time. We genuinely enjoyed the ever-changing and entertaining views of Kenyan life that streamed past our windows. Lunch at Lake Naivasha was a pleasant break from the drive, too.
The wildlife stars of Lake Nakuru National Park are rhinos and water birds. We got great views of both and of the beautiful lake. The greener and more forested nature of this park provided a pretty contrast to the vast and often tan openness of Ambesoli. Lake Nakuru National Park is much smaller than Ambesoli, though, and we were stuck in a “traffic jam” of safari vehicles watching two lionesses in a roadside motte before we could get to our lodge… or even get far from the main gate.
The highlight for us at Nakuru was Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge. This lodge was an upgrade that we chose due to wanting a lodge inside the park. We were put in the endmost “Faru” (rhino) suite which turned out to be elegant and enormous (including mahogany floors, a living area with a dining table, two sofas, a large chair and a fireplace and a huge front porch overlooking Lake Nakuru in the distance). With no neighbor on one side, we had views on 3 sides. A plate of fruit awaited us on the coffee table in our living room. A porter warned us to keep our sliding glass doors locked –not just closed– because the baboons knew how to open the door and would come inside to get the fruit. Even though my hair was so dusty I couldn’t run my fingers through it, I’d debated waiting to wash it until after the safari, figuring it would just get dustier. The enormous bathroom with it’s big shower and huge tub were too much of a temptation, though and I happily soaked the dust away. Fortunately, we never again encountered dust like we had in Ambesoli so my hair stayed blissfully brushable.
I wanted to visit a Masai village en route to the Masai Mara National Reserve but was braced for a cheesy touristy experience. The Masai did have a tourist-ready presentation, but the stop proved to be more than we expected. David and I were the only tourists there as things are still slow due to the pandemic. A group of men lined up to great us with a dance as we exited our land cruiser. They got me to dance a bit, but then focused on David because, after all, it was a men’s dance. David was a good sport and the guys took to him. At the common area inside the circle of clay and dung huts, I was drawn into a song and dance with the women before the chief of the village took us to visit a home. The interior was much more complicated than the outside suggested with two sleeping areas and a kitchen. We were soon smoky from the fire so headed outside where David’s new buddies showed him how to build fire their way before challenging him to a jumping contest in true Masai style. David’s a tall guy and managed to hit a high target branch to much cheering and laughter. Later, we enjoyed one-on-one time with the chief, visiting about Masai life and walking outside the village where sheep and goats grazed. He explained that our $30 entry fees go towards the local school perched on the hill above this village of seventy-five inhabitants. They really do need the income and were grateful for our visit. Hoping we’d contribute more, we were then led past table after table of handmade goods for sale by village women. The chief urged us to buy, saying sales proceeds would support families in the village instead of going to the community school. A small contingent of men followed us as we admired the wares, picking up anything they thought we liked. There was friendly sales pressure, but nothing too pushy. We ended up buying a few things, and they were happy with that. Despite the final (not unexpected) sales pitch, it was a fun experience and well worth the stop.
Our final safari destination was Masai Mara National Reserve. Noah texted me a day or two before we left Paris for Kenya offering an “upgrade” to Azure Mara Haven at Masai Mara from Mara Leisure Camp which he said was due to client complaints. When I asked questions, he assumed I agreed and I didn’t argue. This turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because Azure is not actually in the park and we were in an upgraded cottage rather than a true tent, which I had wanted to experience. Azure is close, but being out of the park meant no lions roaring at night and a 20 minute or so drive on either end of game drives. Still, the Masai who work at Azure were excellent hosts and we had a pleasant stay in our riverfront cottage. The common areas were pretty, too, decorated in Masai style. Meals were buffet-style and the Masai employees treated us to a dance one night, pulling me up to join them then decking me out in the blanket-like shuka and a beaded necklace. I was getting good at this! As with many Masai Mara lodges, power goes out in the rooms early every night at Azure. Water in the shower came and went, too, and there was no ice at the bar. As our Masai server pointed out, we were in the bush. There is a Sarova lodge inside the park and, if I’d known how much we would like Lion Hill at Lake Nakuru, I would have looked into that. Still, we had a good stay at Azure overall.
Masai Mara itself was awesome… and enormous! Contiguous with the Serengeti in Tanzania, the vistas go on forever. A wonderful surprise was that the Great Migration of wildebeests was not entirely over. While we didn’t see them crossing the Mara River, we did see astonishingly vast herds, spreading out to the horizon. What an experience!
The main downside to Masai Mara is simply its popularity. There are a lot of vehicles in the park, spread out in the huge space for the most part, but then coming together in clumps as the guides radioed each other when they spotted one of the Big Five or something else of interest. When Dennis would hear one of these advisories, we’d go barreling across the plain to join a cluster of vehicles. All the jostling fooled our Fitbits and we laughed when they read that we’d taken 20-30,000 steps when we’d done nothing more than sit in the land cruiser. We saw so many full-bellied, sleeping lions, I finally told Dennis lions were “boring” and that we should move on. It made him laugh–and seek out more active lions.
Dennis didn’t flinch we when decided to do one last, very early morning game drive in Masai Mara instead of making a more leisurely departure back to Nairobi. We’d seen the “big five” (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, rhino and elephant), but our leopard sightings had be obscured by brush. I told David I kept imagining my ideal leopard-in-a-tree sighting. Our decision to do one last game drive really paid off: There she was, a beautiful leopard lounging in a tree, gazing off into the distance.
After giving us a perfect, leisurely view, she stretched and hopped down to give us a lot more great photos. Often in Masai Mara, safari vehicles race to a sighting as the guides talk to each other on the radio. It was the biggest downside to the park; unlike Ambesoli, we were often joined by as many as ten other vehicles. With this leopard, though, there only one other truck near us. Perfection! Dennis seemed as excited as we were.
Some practical info to wrap things up:
An added concern in these pandemic times was the need for a PCR test to fly from Kenya to South Africa. We would not be allowed to board our Cape Town-bound plane without negative test results done within 72 hours of the flight. I found The Pumba Collection, a company offering Covid PCR tests at Masai Mara and Noah agreed to be sure we got to the testing site. In the end, he actually arranged for the doctor to come to us at the price of an on-site test ($110pp vs. $140pp). This was all good until the expected results didn’t come in within the 24 hours agreed. I started to worry as we neared 48 hours with a very early flight imminent. Noah never complained about my frequent texts and always responded quickly and reassuringly. He promised he’d get the results for me from the lab since I was having connectivity issues, and he did.
David and I had a great experience with Wildebeest Safaris. I was a little wary of booking online with a Kenya company, especially with Covid making so much about travel uncertain. I dealt directly with Noah from the beginning and he was super about staying in touch and always responded very quickly to my WhatsApp texts. In addition to accommodating our flight change, he never pressured us at all for the final payment, and in fact, I had to ask for final instructions a couple of days before we were to start our safari. His prices were extremely competitive and with all that was included, I felt we got great value for our money, always a top priority. I have read reviews regarding people who have not received refunds for safaris canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. I have no personal knowledge of this and can only go by my own experience. Prior to booking and paying a 30% deposit, I did ask Noah what would happen if Covid interfered with our safari and he said we could rebook any time if that should happen.
We returned to the Crowne Plaza Nairobi Airport for our last night. We had an early flight to Cape Town the following day. Again, the hotel provided us with a free shuttle for the short drive to the terminal. We were through check-in and security and sitting in the Turkish Airways Star Alliance Lounge (via Priority Pass) enjoying excellent cappuccino 42 minutes after leaving the hotel.
Note: Yellow fever vaccine is recommended for Kenya and required for our entry to South Africa from Kenya. (We would not have been allowed to board the plane in Nairobi for Cape Town without showing our yellow fever booklets proving our vaccinated status.) We got our vaccines at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium where we spent 3 weeks prior to our stay in Paris. The Institute also advised us on other precautions and gave us prescriptions for malaria medicine and antibiotic ointments. It’s important to research what is needed in the way of vaccines before traveling and allow time as some vaccines require multiple doses and/or time for the vaccine to take effect. We needed to allow at least 10 days between getting the yellow fever vaccine and travel to the Kenyan yellow fever zone. See my previous post for detailed info regarding all the Covid tests and documents required for this 2-month trip.