A sensational safari trip to Kenya in August with relaxing beach days at the end.
The migration season from July to October is the best time of the year to visit the Masai Mara. Over a million wildebeest gather, forming vast herds, a moving buffet for predators, and the greatest wildlife show on earth.
Friday 29th July
Our friendly driver guide Bejah collects us from Nairobi airport. Expertly driving the large comfy Land Cruiser past crops of coffee and maize, cattle, chickens, and God signs written on the 'Matatu' local minibus transport.
The official languages of Kenya are English and sing-song-sounding Swahili.
Gazing out the window of the cruising Land Rover, we see:
Kids walking home from school in shorts and bobble hats.
Mopeds loaded up with maize, people, or beers.
Madfish tied on a passing car’s bonnet.
Colourful shacks and fruit markets at the side of the dusty road.
Blessing stores, little yellow tuk-tuks.
A cow in the back of an open-top truck, taxi bikes, red bougainvillea trees.
Lush green landscapes with bright brick red paths, Mount Kenya in the distance.
After four hours of enjoying the view, we’re excited to arrive at Sweetwaters Serena Camp. Serena’s logo is like the fingerprint we left at passport control.
Our ‘tent’ has a thatched roof, mahogany furniture, and a zip panel between the bedroom and bathroom. We can hear the neighbours’ mumbled voices in the hushed camp. It’s a little cooler in the evening, enough to put on a not-so-cool fleece.
At dinner, we enjoy pumpkin soup, local Tusker beer, and from the buffet: oven wedges, fish snapper, veg, then fresh fruit.
Shadows of black rhinos loom in the black night and a hare bounds past, as we head to our luxury tent, to discover animal print hot water bottles tucked in the bed. A lovely warm touch.
Saturday 30th July
We drive into Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 360 km² not-for-profit wildlife conservancy in Laikipia. Impalas scatter in the beautiful sunrise and the staff bus leaves a trail of dust as it speeds down the track. Plump wild guinea fowl scuttle in a comedy fashion. A black ‘M’ on the chestnut impala’s rear earns it the nickname McDonald’s. Buffalos line up on the horizon. Mount Kenya creates the backdrop for this scene, standing at 5199 m high.
I’m struck by a cool breeze and the sheer vastness of the Savannah landscape, broad rolling grasslands in beautiful shades of corn yellow, green, slate, and sky blue.
As the sun comes up, the buffalo retreat into the bushes and the zebras venture out.
A horned impala is surrounded by a bevy of females. The horny dominant male chases an unimpressed female.
The last two northern white rhinos remaining in the world live here. Najin and Fatu (both female) live under constant protection from poachers. Sudan (the last remaining male) died in 2018, effectively rendering the entire subspecies extinct. The poster states that Najin is known for her booming snores and loud wind. I hope they didn’t use that on her dating profile!
Rattling down the dusty track, we spy two lionesses sitting with two cubs. The jeeps pull up alongside. There are rangers ensuring there are never over three vehicles. Each allows the others a turn to sit and quietly watch these magnificent not-so-cuddly creatures. Our guide Bejah is a fantastic animal spotter, a careful driver, and never makes us feel rushed. 'Pole pole' meaning go slow is a favourite Swahili saying.
Warthog’s waggle by, hair blowing in the breeze, them and me, as I stick my head out the top of the Land Rover to see. Bejah calls them Pumbaa, as in ‘Hakuna matata’ or no problem', and I cannot help but hum the tune of The Lion King. The silhouetted rhinos’ horns echo the peak of Mount Kenya behind. One turns to look directly at us, and his baleful stare reminds me they are dangerous creatures.
Zebras graze, each individual’s black and white stripes as unique as our fingerprints.
A flock of shaggy ostriches huddle by a fence. It’s there to protect them, but the grass is greener. Actually, the grass is brown on both sides, as in life!
The unpredictable buffalo has a heavy set of curly horns styled like Heidi. A reticulated giraffe reaches for tree leaves. Waterbucks stand strong.
We’ve seen 4 of the big 5 already. The term “Big Five” originally referred to the difficulty in hunting the dangerous lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Thankfully, nowadays most people shoot with their cameras or phones.
Initially, we find the big five are almost as hard to name as the seven dwarves. Try it!
Back at the camp for breakfast, the cobalt wings of starlings flash as they warble away. A tree hyrax’s enormous eyes stare from the scarlet bougainvillea. Cute by day, noisy at night. A family of four… elephants drink at the watering hole next to our camp, swinging their tails. They amble away from the waterhole, spraying first water and then dust.
One of the best ways to watch wildlife is to sit quietly near watering holes. You almost don’t need to leave this bench in the shade of the giant tree’s canopy.
A duck and her ducklings waddle past, then a black rhino. His grey starched folds look like armour. Superb starlings strut their stuff.
We head to the spa for an amazing massage with Elemis products before the next game drive. It’s the perfect way to melt away travel tiredness and reset.
Out on this afternoon’s game drive, the river is completely dried up due to the heat and lack of rain. Cry me a river.
The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary brings waterworks to my eyes when I read about the shocking treatment before their rescue. Chimpanzees are critically endangered. The poster states if you’d like to help: ‘Do not pay to watch chimps perform or have your photo taken with one or keep as a pet’
You can help by adopting a chimpanzee in a sanctuary like this. Humans and chimps share a surprising 98.8 percent of their DNA!
The keeper tells us that Max is his favourite and that the naughty chimp used to throw shit and stones at him, but now he high-fives him.
‘Karibu’ is the sign above the rhino sanctuary, which means 'Welcome'. Here you can feed and stroke a black rhino. Poor old boy is blind because of cataracts and is protected here from poachers.
Stopping at a beautiful umbrella-shaped acacia tree, reading the inscriptions on the rhino graves is so saddening, including the grave of Sudan, the last ever male white rhino. The tree above is full of birds’ nests. Elephants stroll in the beautiful light of the setting sun. A breeze blows.
Hopping off the sand-coloured vehicle, to hear a saxophonist playing Careless Whisper in the bar. Amarula, an African cream liqueur, is available but we opt for a refreshing Tusker beer before dinner.
Back out for a night safari under the most amazing stars, the torch beam lights upon zebras and rhinos grazing. The guide points out impala, a striped hyena, a white-tailed mongoose, and more impala.
Sunday 31st July
A sunrise start, passing a waterbuck, baboons, and Grant’s gazelles. A lioness drinks her fill, then throws up as she walks past us. Drinking problem? The two cubs play oblivious to the jeep.
A giraffe crosses the road. Bejah’s dimples crease as he smiles broadly in the rear-view mirror. ‘Sawa?’ Okay.
A zebra has his friend, the tick bird (a yellow-billed oxpecker) sitting on his back – a symbiotic relationship.
Back at breakfast, gazing out the large windows of the wooden beam restaurant onto the watering hole. Then we check out from the camp to head to Lake Elmenteita.
Driving past colourful towns and market stalls to stop at the equator, Nyahururu. A man with a match, a bowl with a hole in it, and a jug demonstrates how the water flows clockwise on one side of the line, anti-clockwise on the other side and the match floats stationary in the centre. He chats about football and supports ‘The Tractor Boys', unusual for Kenya where the concern is the lack of football fields.
Next stop is cascading waterfall Thompson’s Falls, where men in traditional dress follow us with a chameleon! Lunch is in modern hotel, Panari Resort for a subdued but tasty buffet lunch.
Arriving at Lake Naivasha, we walk past spooky broken trees, a ‘Warning Be Aware of Wild Animals’ sign, and wait nervously on the water’s edge for our boat trip across the lake.
We float past hippos flopped in a bundle on the bank, peacefully sleeping on each other, smiles on their faces, looking as chubby as us in our inflatable life jackets. These hefty hippos look placid but are actually the biggest killer of humans, second to the not-so-big mosquito.
An African fish eagle swoops in and expertly catches a fish thrown by the boat’s captain. Lake Naivasha has a blooming flower industry exporting mainly roses, growing in greenhouses. The lake is quiet and ethereal as we float across, away from the stormy-looking skies. Back on dry land and thirty prehistoric-looking Marabou Stork perch in a tree above us, their wings creaking and audibly flapping.
Arriving at Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp in Nakuru. Our gorgeous colonial-style room has mahogany furniture, a four-poster bed, white towelling robes, double sinks, and a walk-in shower. Walking through the camp’s beautifully manicured gardens to the magical open-sided lounge tent, I’m enthralled by the sounds of frogs in the gentle rain by the ponds. A man plays guitar in the atmospheric bar area.
We dine on a delicious à la carte meal in the intimate restaurant. We love the ambience here and wish we could stay longer. Then a squeaky chair emits a farting noise which sets us off into fits of overtired, embarrassed giggles.
No time for cooked breakfast as we’re up early, serenaded by birdsong. Friendly chef Leah has kindly prepared us a breakfast box to take with us. We marvel at the flamingos and pelicans at the lake and a bunch of baboons.
We climb the altitude of Mao summit, enjoying the beautiful scenery and rolling patchwork hills, when something gives way under the vehicle. A man, with his wife and baby all bundled on a moped, stop to hand over the number of a mechanic.
Sheep, donkeys and smiling waving children pass by. Two boys are thrilled to receive cake from our snack boxes. Within minutes, a couple of mechanics arrive on a motorbike with a battered toolbox to fix it, faster than the AA would be! So, seamless and stress-free, we are quickly on our way.
Narok is the capital of the Masai area, a bustling town. At the market stalls, women have babies wrapped snug in neon checked blankets. A man wrestles with large sacks of cabbages. People are squashed three on one moped. Tethered donkeys graze on the grassy bank. Lush hillsides are dotted with trees on the undulating horizon. Maize grows at the side of the road. Knitted bobble hats bob on by. Kids wave excitedly, shouting in Swahili ‘Habari yako’ how are you? or ‘Nipe kitu’ give me something.
Monday 1st August
Searing heat beats down on my skull as I look in awe at the gigantic elephant and crocodile skulls at the entrance of Masai Mara National Reserve. The rattle of stones hit the wheel arches. The camera lens weighs comfortingly in my palm like an extra appendage. Feet in hiking boots and zip-off trousers up on the steel bar.
Our first extraordinary sighting of thousands of wildebeest speckle the grasses of the 1800sq m of land. The wildebeests evoke a cave painting as they awkwardly lurch across the road.
The entrance of this wonderful bulbous building Mara Serena Safari Lodge really has the wow factor. Cool, curvy painted interiors and large windows offer a sweeping balcony view of the Savannah in the Mara Triangle. Our Lodge Room reminds me of The Flintstones and the fun-designed interiors like James and the Giant Peach or a lemon!
The quirky, modern, cavernous design enhances the clatter in the restaurant.
Soup is served with a cheery hello greeting of ‘Jambo’. We sip a refreshing no-added sugar Balozi lager, before grazing the buffet.
Out on the next game drive, excitedly spotting an elusive leopard. Up a tree, swaying in the wind, are the innards of its kill, an unfortunate Serval cat, now a spotted carcass in the branches. A lion is delicately chewing its kill, while another rolls around in the long grass like a satisfied kitten. Almost enough to put you off your lunch. Well… almost.
I keep humming the catchy earworm song of Jambo Bwana.
Tuesday 2nd August
Another early start, in time to see hot air balloons float majestically on the horizon.
In the distance is a line of wildebeest, looking like a fence or a wall of hedges. There are thousands of slow-moving, purposeful migrating beasts. Apparently, numbers reach over a million. Overwhelmed at the unbelievable magnitude of the sheer numbers of wildebeest as far as the eye can see.
Zebras use the sign as a scratching post. Past the carcass of a wildebeest on the road, its bones picked clean, hoof and horns intact. A Balanite tree has a Martial Eagle perched on top. A maned lion with a scratched nose walks up to and around the vehicle as we hold our breath, exhilarated from all the incredible animal sightings.
Zebras stare as wildebeest grunt and elephants roam. Some wildebeest square up to the vehicle, then scatter at the last minute springing sideways.
We gingerly venture out of the vehicle at the border marked with KE and TA on a triangular pillar. I receive a ‘Welcome to Tanzania’ text on my mobile phone.
At the Maasai Manyatta, goats bleat next to stout, round huts made of mud and cow dung. The village guide tells us how they used to just drink milk, blood and eat meat from the cattle. Ew.
Then talk of circumcision makes us wince.
Dressed in brightly coloured blankets with circular beaded necklaces, the women sing and the men jump. In the past, warriors showed their prowess by killing a lion. Now it’s about how high they can jump! There is, of course, a pop-up gift shop at the end of the tour. A long-crested eagle soars above the carvings and colourful trinkets.
A troop of vervet monkeys lope by. A green and yellow Little Bee-eater darts by the ‘African sausage’ tree. Its fruits are poisonous but used for fermentation.
A dik-dik runs into the bush – it's smaller than I thought.
Flash of yellow beak and legs of an African Wattled Lapwing.
A wake of vultures tug on a Topi carcass.
Elephants amble in the distance at the base of Oloololo mountains.
A pod of hippos slumber at the river bank.
Banded Mongoose bound across the savannah.
A Hamerkop bird’s nest is untidy, like my hair with my head stuck out the top of the jeep.
A vulture sits on top of a termite mound like a sentry, marking to its predators where the wildebeest are so it can dine off its kills. Nature is brutal.
As novice bird watchers, not twitchers, we’ve seen Marabou storks, Yellow beaked stork, Egyptian goose, Turaco, African Jacana, Pied Kingfisher, Pied Wagtail, Tropical Boubou birds. And even a bustard!
This evening to the spa to enjoy a muscle-pounding massage, and zone out from the pounding of the treadmill in next door’s gym. The only exercise we’ve had is walking to and from the buffet and the jeep.
Written by Crystal McClory