Holidaying in Kenya
Following our brilliant South African adventure last year, we wanted to repeat our safari experience somewhere else. MrS has visited Kenya before, which is why we deliberately didn’t choose it last year, however he was keen to see how much (if any) it had changed and especially felt that the animal viewing would be better than we’d experienced in South Africa.
Where we stayed
Our first stop was Borana Lodge, an eco-lodge set in a private reserve in Lewa Downs Conservancy in Northern Kenya. It has great conservation credentials, and all earnings from commercial activities at Borana are retained to support the conservation costs, in particular committing additional secure habitat for the threatened rhino.
Borana has 27 (soon to be 28) black rhino here (Kenya as a whole has approximately 600) and we were lucky enough to be able to do some on-foot tracking, with an armed ranger and a tracker. There are 95,000 acres in the Borana Conservancy, which is divided into 8. Each 1/8 has a ranger and a tracker who are responsible for it.
Our guide, John, was great. We had a jeep to ourselves here, which you usually only get if you pay extra for, so we elected not to go out super early each morning (ie, 6:30 instead of 5:30!)
We saw everything except cheetah and leopard (which we knew in advance we probably wouldn’t see) in our 5 days at Borana. John knew great places for sundowners, and we took advantage of the mountainous landscape each night to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Kenyan Plains. On our final night, we walked to Pride Rock for sundowners. Yes, Walt Disney stayed at Borana and used it as inspiration by for the film The Lion King and Pride Rock is a real place!
Whilst all this was just what we expected, the lodge itself was very tired and in need of renovation. If this was your first ever Safari you may not have noticed, but having stayed at Sanctuary Makanyane last year, which was very similar in style, the differences were very obvious and we were disappointed. Simple things like the toilet flush handle being broken, the bath was badly chipped and where plug sockets had been fitted the walls hadn’t been finished. The lodges are built into the hillside, which makes for a lot of steps so it’s not suitable for those who are less mobile. But I think the worst thing was the food, it was mediocre at least, and at worst, they served the previous night’s leftovers for lunch the next day. We did feed all this back to Borana on our return, and they said they will be undergoing a refurb at the end of the year, however, if you are after a recommendation for a safari holiday in Kenya, I would for now recommend you don’t stay at Borana.
I appreciate that these sound like first world problems, however when a resort/lodge/hotel is sold to you (and billed to you!) as “luxury”, then these are the things you expect to go without saying. Especially when you compare it to the next place we stayed…
Kicheche Bush Camp
Kicheche have three camps in Masai Mara and we stayed at Bush Camp. Situated in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, bordering the Masai Mara reserve. Kicheche Bush camp was everything Borana wasn’t. You may think the words “luxury” and “tent” shouldn’t appear in the same sentence, but believe me, Kicheche have it nailed.
Visitor numbers are restricted and monitored across the conservancy and Bush Camp has just 6 tents, so at capacity there are only ever 12 guests. Whilst they are ‘proper’ tents, they are on a hardstanding, have electricity (solar) and a fully flushing toilet and cold running water. The showers are traditional bush “bucket showers”, which for the uninitiated, are exactly what they sound like. A bucket with a shower rose is filled with water to your preferred temperature and they operate on an on/off option only. They last around 6 minutes, which is actually plenty, but you can always ask for a second bucket if you need to wash long hair!
Game viewing in the Mara is phenomenal. I thought we’d seen large groups of animals in Kruger, but the size of the herds here is mind blowing, and just like those tv programmes would have you believe. Whereas in the Kruger we would spot the odd lion once a day, in the Mara you would suddenly happen upon 7 or 8 just lying in the grass sleeping. There were zebra, antelope and wildebeest as far as the eye could see (a long way on the plains), and hyena which had been particularly shy in Kruger, were strolling round like they owned the place. There was also group of 5 male cheetahs that live together in an unprecedented manner and we were privileged to watch them hunt and take down a wildebeest; we saw everything here, including at last, hippos.
Our guide, Vinnie, was excellent. We shared a jeep with another English couple who arrived and left at the same time as us and they were just lovely, we had a great time with them, and although for $350 per day we could have had a jeep to ourselves we didn’t feel it necessary this trip.
Kicheche is part owned by a professional photographer, and is therefore particularly set up to attract keen amateurs and professionals alike. The guides are experienced in selecting optimum positions at sightings and the large open-sided, open-topped vehicles are equipped with camera bean bags. You can hire lenses there and we were even loaned a tripod (see luggage restrictions!) one night having mentioned we’d like to try and shoot the night sky.
The camp itself a traditional open camp, animals can roam freely through it all times, so at night you have to be escorted everywhere, although the animals usually only approach once all signs of human life have retired to bed. Being small, meals are all taken together (breakfast is in the bush). This is very common; you do definitely need to be a people person on safari, as you are hardly ever alone!
The managers, Darren and Emma, absolutely make the camp. They eat with guests, send you off and meet you back from game drives, it was genuinely like being at a friend’s house for the week.
The food was spectacularly good - even more so when you know it’s created in a tent kitchen with a coal fire oven. There was three courses at lunch and dinner and a bush breakfast each day. They make their own bread and yoghurt daily, the traditional Kenyan Sunday Curry night was a real treat and a daily cheeseboard came with home made chutneys. The kitchen at Kicheche could give some London restaurants a good run for their money.
We don’t usually return to the same place twice, but we absolutely would return to Kicheche Bush Camp. This is a place I will recommend to anyone who asks, and unlike Borana, they’ve proved that you can combine luxury with conservation and ecologically friendly tourism.
Kinondo Kwetu, Diani Beach
After our safari in South Africa last year, we spent a week in Cape Town and Franschoek. This time we wanted to have a complete chill out afterwards to counteract the early starts of the safaris.
Kinondo Kwetu is an idyllic boutique hotel with its own private beach in Diani Beach, just south of Mombasa. It is classified as a “Kaya” area (protected by the National Museum) due to its surrounding holy forests and sacred land. It has a maximum capacity of 43 people, but actually, there were only 6/8 other guests there the entire time we stayed, including 48 hours when it was just us!
The hotel is divided into a main house with rooms (where we stayed in the Master Bedroom) and individual cottages.
The room was beautiful with a wrap-around balcony, two walk in wardrobes and a huge bathroom. The decor is very much colonial, even the music they played was old jazz and I half expected to bump in to Greta Saatchi and Charles Dance at any moment.
The food here was very good, there is a 3 course set menu for lunch and dinner each day and they mixed up the locations which was a nice idea. As well as eating in the usual dining area, we ate by the pool, on our balcony, and in the shipwrecked boat on the beach. The food was fresh and local, so lots of seafood, but always delicious.
The beach was beautiful although unfortunately the weather wasn’t - we had rain every day and one day ALL day. However as we had gone there to chill out and destress after a safari (and indeed happenings at home) we achieved our objective. I read five books in as many days and when we weren’t by the pool there was that stunning room to relax in and have a game of backgammon.
Kinondo Kwetu is almost the epitome of barefoot luxury. I say almost because there were just a couple of things that let it down, which again, might seem small, but as I said before when you’re sold luxury and you’re paying for luxury, you kind of expect the basics to be taken care of. Firstly the water pressure in our room was non-existent, the bucket shower at Kicheche had more pressure than the shower here, and filling the bath took half an hour. The other issue was that everywhere was completely under-lit. I’m all for ambient lighting, and it was nice to have lanterns on the dining tables, but a couple of times we had to use the torches on our phones to see what we were eating, and MrS had to employ similar tactics whilst trying to shave in the bathroom.
Packing, and what to take
Due to the internal ‘safari flights’ luggage is restricted to 15kg in Kenya, including hand luggage. We found this particularly restrictive as last year in SA, flying on the same planes, we had 20kg plus hand luggage. The toughest thing was working out what photography kit to take. Do check luggage allowances with all the flight companies you will be using before you go. Some will be relaxed, but it depends on the number of people on the plane - our first flight had just 3 people so they didn’t care that we were 3kg over, but if your flight is at capacity you may be asked to pay extra baggage, or even worse, leave some of it behind. Luggage must also be soft-sided and have no wheels.
Fortunately, with a beach break at the end of the holiday this year, no smart clothes were needed, and more importantly, barefoot luxury means pretty much that; I managed the whole 15 days with walking shoes, a pair of Converse and a pair of sandals. The other thing I knew there was no point in taking was hair appliances. In fact I didn’t dry my hair once in the entire time we were away.
Last year we bought proper safari clothes from Craghoppers. These were from their Nosilife range which are impregnated with insect repellent and are worth every penny. They are lightweight so don’t really add too much bulk to your (soft sided, no wheels) luggage. You will need a warm top layer (fleece) and warm base layers, it is particularly chilly before the sun comes up and goes down. You don’t need specialist clothing however for anything more than 3 days, I’d highly recommend it. I can’t imagine how hot it would be to sit in a jeep in the midday equatorial sun in jeans. A sun hat is an absolute must.
Safari lodges usually provide a free laundry service as standard and, excluding what I wore in the evenings, I managed to do 10 days with two pairs of trousers, 2 pairs of shorts, 3 shirts and several vests on rotation. I wouldn’t recommend you put your best clothes through these laundries though, as even the luxury safari accommodation sometimes use fire warmed irons.
Whether or not you need different clothes in the evening usually depends on the type of lodge you are staying at. Even at Kicheche, which was a completely open tented camp, we did change for dinner, however it was only into linen trousers or jeans and a (warm) top. Trust me, when you’ve been out in the dust all day, you’ll want a shower and some fresh clothes, but don’t get too hung up on worrying about what to wear in the evenings, no one is going to be wearing a cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choos.
It’s a good idea to have at the very least a decent pair of trainers to wear in the day. We both wore walking shoes as we already own them but you don’t need to buy them especially. Even our climb to Pride Rock could have been done in a good pair of trainers. If you do any tracking on foot I recommend you wear long trousers not shorts.
As a warning, Kenyan laundries will not wash ladies underwear for religious reasons. Each place we stayed had a small pot of washing powder so you could hand wash your smalls if required.
What else will you need?
Along with clothes there are other basic things you’ll need - you will absolutely need insect repellent, MrS is horribly allergic to insect bites, so the best thing as much as possible is prevention. We take the strongest Deet you can buy (95%) for himself, but I got by on both trips with just Avon Skin So Soft. Last year we were in Malaria free zones, but not so this year, so we had to have anti-malarials. We also had to supplement last year’s jabs with Yellow Fever. I think we’re good for a few years now.
I also recommend you take the obvious things like diarrhoea tablets and some dioralyte, antihistamine tablets and cream and the best thing for bites and stings I’ve found, Afterbite. It’s ammonia so doesn’t smell great but it reduces the bite’s sting immediately. Some antiseptic cream is useful, and some hand gel.
All the camp staff have emergency first aid training, but being sensible for a moment, the nearest hospitals are in the cities, and even they are not of the same standard as the western hospitals we are used to. Make sure you have adequate travel and health insurance - I thought this went without saying until talking to American guests who admitted they had none.
Is it for you?
I’d wanted to go on safari for so long, and to have been twice is a dream come true.I would definitely go again, especially to the Mara. As with any travel or holiday, you can spend as much or as little on a safari as you like, but it’s not for everyone.
You do need to be pretty down to earth on a safari, it’s no place for worrying about make up and hair, and if you don’t like bugs in the UK, you’ll hate them in Africa. But the whole point is to go and see the animals, and by extension for us personally, the photographic experience.
You can sanitise the experience - just doing a day safari out of Jo’berg, Capetown or Nairobi, but that to me smacks of going to the zoo.
A word about camera equipment...
Someone asked while we were there if they needed "a big camera" before they went on safari.
I have been serious about photography for over 10 years. I have always used Canon, and currently we both have a Canon80D DSLR. These are wifi enabled so you send your photos straight to your phone or iPad. This means 2 things - you can send them straight out into the social media ether, but also you can back all your photos up to the cloud for safe keeping and edit them immediately if you like.
I had a Canon Zoom 70-300mm L series lens but also my basic 18-50mm kit lens with me on holiday and MrS had a 150-600mm Sigma on his Canon body. We both had a macro lens and a wide angle lens as well but those are just 'nice to have' as far as a safari is concerned. This kit isn't cheap, but we wanted to get the best photos we could and as we also already had most of it, we each had birthday presents of the new zoom lenses. We also researched it really well and knew that we would continue to use them after the holiday.
Whilst you don't need this level of equipment I would advocate an entry level DSLR with at least a 70-250mm lens as well as the 18-50mm lens that comes with those cameras. Keep an eye out for offers as Canon regularly update their range and you can get some really good deals.
A 'bridge' camera or 'point and shoot' with a good size digital zoom would be great for those less experienced photographers, which ever route you decide to go, do go to a good camera shop like London Camera Exchange (a misnomer as they are not just in London) or Wex and get advice. They are there to help you and they also have a vast range of pre-used equipment which is ideal when you're first setting out.
Then make sure you practise, practise, practise with the camera before you go. When Ian first got his zoom he was disappointed with the results, but by the time we went to SA he had mastered it and his photos are amazing.
Please, whatever you decide (and this isn't me being a camera snob) don't go on the trip of a lifetime and expect great wildlife photos on your phone.
*this post previously appeared on Life and Love in London