Luck by name, and a pretty lucky safari: A trip report from Kenya, September 2017

Well, what can I say ! Another amazing trip Alex. Wonderful people and hospitality and the most fabulous wildlife I feel privileged to be able to see in real life.

Our guide, Clement, in Amboseli, lovely, charming man, very knowledgeable and went out of his way to try and get us a good position for the perfect photos.

Serena Lodge didn’t allocate us a view of the plains but it only needed a request to make that happen and it was done, no problems at all.  We think the staff may have been fascinated by our name, ‘Luck’ !  As they just kept saying ‘Luck’ to us, haha!

Governors Camp (NOTE: this is in the Masai Mara) gave us the river view, as we requested but on arrival I decided a tent overlooking the savannah would probably be better.  I asked if this was possible and they were very accommodating and said, ‘of course’ but would have to be on the second night.  They seemed a bit concerned that they only had tent 37 available, right up the end, kind of on it’s own, but I swear this is the best tent in the camp !  Not a sound from the other guests, no one walking past and was able to sit outside watching the giraffe and zebra during the day.  We were on our hands and knees at 3am peering though a gap in the tent door at this hippo munching the grass only 8 feet away!  Fabulous memories.  Lions bellowing all night, hippos and hyena making a racket too……love it 🙂

So, the balloon flight.  it was a amazing and thank god we did it as we wouldn’t have seen the Big 5 if we hadn’t.  It was Little Governors side of the river where the rhinos were.  I managed to snap a quick shot from the balloon of two but they were very far away.  I made it quite known to the guides how desperate Gary and I were to see at least one, they asked to see my photo, they knew exactly where it was and took us there on the way back and there they were.  How lucky were we to see this magnificent, endangered animal in the wild. 

As for the leopard…… Dickson searched tirelessly for the leopard for us, made constant phone calls to the other guides, spoke to the Masai en-route trying to find out exactly where they had been seen then low and behold, one leopard and her cub appeared from nowhere as we flew over the canopy the other side of the river in the balloon!   I was a very happy bunny 🙂  the captains of the balloons asked to see my photos as they were shocked she had a cub.

The food at Governors was really good and the staff were so lovely to us.  Again, seemed fascinated with our name! 

All in all, another amazing trip Alex, thank you.

Was going to attach a photo of The Big 5 for you but will only let me do two.  We were so lucky to see so many other amazing animals too, even a Genet, a Serval, a Wild Cat, a Bateleur eagle, a cheetah hunt, lions matting, ostriches matting and a HUGE hippo yawn !  I took 1700 photos!

Won’t be Africa for the next few years but will certainly be in touch next time it is.

Kenya Family Safari: A trip Report

Dawn and Leo took their honeymoon in Kenya, and returned this August with their two sons. This is their report:

Hi Alex,

So sorry that I haven’t been in touch sooner. We really got caught up in our trip, and I stayed away from email and any connection with the outside world. It was lovely.

We had an absolutely wonderful trip! Every single thing went off without a hitch, and I could not be more grateful to you for making it happen. Every transfer was smooth, and every pick up and drop off was as scheduled. After such a long journey, it was so reassuring to have someone waiting for us with our name on a sign.

We loved our choice of destinations and are glad that we spent so much time in the Mara. As you predicted, Amboseli was very dusty, but it did not ruin our time there. We saw tons of elephants as I had hoped, and Kilimanjaro was cooperative for almost an entire day.

 

Sundowners overlooking Mt Kilimanjaro from the Amboseli Serena

The Amboseli Serena was perfectly situated for our activities, and the rooms and food were great. Food is a very big deal for my teenaged boys, and all of our meals everywhere were very plentiful and terrific.

Food at Karen Blixen Camp- you’ll never go hungry on a safari!

The Mara Serena was just as we remembered, and the views from that lodge are unmatched by any place I’ve ever stayed in the world. Despite its size, the lodge remained quiet and serene, except for the dining room which was just fine for a family. The game viewing in the (Ed: Mara) Reserve was tremendous, and the scenery was spectacular! Being there for the migration was so much better than when we were there last (January). We saw so much more wildlife and all those wildebeest….simply amazing! We were lucky to see two river crossings (one with a croc trying unsuccessfully to eat), and we will never forget the feeling of excitement and anticipation….there are truly no words to adequately describe it.

The view Dawn describes from the Mara Serena

The Mara North Conservancy did not disappoint either, and we were very impressed by how close we were able to get to the wildlife compared to the Reserve. After leaving the somewhat shiny and semi-luxurious surroundings at the Serena, I was very concerned that the Karen Blixen Camp would not measure up. I am happy to say I was mistaken. Karen Blixen was extremely comfortable, had fantastic food and is perfectly situated for game viewing on the river. The staff was exceptional, and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable. We were very well attended to, and the staff made sure to check on us frequently. We felt so much more important than we usually do on vacation! We loved the eco-aspect of the Camp and how well the employees are treated. The employees raved about the camp owner and how well they are treated compared to other camps. After spending some time in Africa, one feels like an overindulged Westerner, so it was great see a camp that tries to spread the wealth and treat people properly.

Karen Blixen Camp Staff

One of my biggest concerns about this trip was worrying that it was not long enough. However, ten days in Kenya seemed like a month. We were/are exhausted and would not have wanted to do another thing more. I loved spending the bulk of time in the Mara and am so glad that we didn’t have to trek from place to place every two days. As you know, travel there is so hard and tiring, and we enjoyed just soaking in the surroundings for days on end.

Game viewing from Karen Blixen Camp

All in all, it was a spectacular trip, and I don’t think we will ever be able to top it! I can go on and on for days about it but I will spare you for now! Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have or if you would like me to post a review somewhere. I cannot thank you enough for all of your help, advice, tips and recommendations. You were spot on and provided honest and extremely thorough guidance. Nothing was left to chance, and I felt so much more knowledgable than I did going into other trips. Thank you for helping us to have this most special trip.

I am very late this morning and must run out the door, but will be happy to tell you more later! I’ll also send a photo when I muddle  through the 1200 I took!

Thank you for EVERYTHING, Alex!

Very best and warm regards,
Dawn

 

Christian, a remarkable lion

Africa is full of big animals, big characters and big landscapes. It’s where you’ll find the world’s largest land mammal, legendary explorers and the Great Rift Valley. Yet even amongst such well known, if not always illustrious company, some stories stand out. One is that of Christian the lion.

Christian’s was no mere common or garden lion. His story begins as a young cub in Harrods. In 1969, he was spotted by John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke who bought Christian and swept him home to Chelsea, where he lived in the basement beneath their furniture shop. He took walks in a local garden, and charmed visitors to John and Ace’s furniture shop.

Born FreeHowever, dear Christian, though a remarkable lion, was becoming rather large, and began to startle visitors to the furniture store. Fortunately, two such visitors included actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna who’d recently starred in Born Free- the true story of Elsa, the orphaned lioness raised by George and Joy Adamson.

And so Christian moved from the King’s Road to the wilds of Northern Kenya (via a stint in the Traver’s country garden). He was released from George Adamson’s camp at Kora, far from the dangers posed by hunters, tourists, or local villagers. However, Christian still had wild lions to contend with who resented the male interloper smoothing in on their territory. He formed an alliance with “Boy” (a semi-tame male who’d starred in Born Free), and eventually became the head of his own pride. He left George’s camp for longer and longer periods of time, until he was seen for the last time, headed in the direction of Meru National Park.

.And while it seems elephants may never forget, lions too must have a long memory. For when Ace and John returned to Kora, there was Christian, running up for what looks remarkably like a bear hug. Or should that be a lion hug?

The Turkana Bus is Back!

In the 1980’s taking the “toughest bus ride in the world” was one East Africa’s legendary journeys. This week long trip from Nairobi to the Lake Turkana passed through lawless districts braved by only the most intrepid of travellers. United in search of adventure international diplomats and backpackers sat side by side in Bedford trucks, bouncing through Kenya’s northern frontier.

The Turkana Bus (credit: Martin Dunn)

The Turkana Bus (credit: Martin Dunn)

By day, passengers would alight to trade with roadside hawkers and dig out the bus, and once they made camp for the night, they’d be visited by Samburu warriors who’d come to investigate. Finally, after three long dusty days on the road, guests would finally catch a glimpse of the implausibly turquoise waters of Jade Sea- Lake Turkana.  The lake shore thronged with Luo fishermen, families and herders bringing animals to water. Temperatures soared above 40 degrees and travellers slept on the roof of the truck to admire the fireflies and stars. In an era when luxury tented camps were coming in to their own, the Turkana bus was a true adventure through Kenya’s wild frontier.

Stopping at an El Molo Village (credit: Martin Dunn)

Stopping at an El Molo Village (credit: Martin Dunn)

Emma Hedges, daughter of Dick, who originally ran the bus, has revived this epic journey for a small number of set departures during March, April and May.  Guests travel in a little more comfort (the Bedford truck’s been replaced by Land Cruisers), but the same sense of exploration remains. With the wilderness of Lake Turkana increasingly under threat from proposed pipelines, railways, and oil rigs, now is the time to visit this World Heritage site.

The Turkana Bus (credit: Martin Dunn)

The Turkana Bus (credit: Martin Dunn)

The Turkana Bus has a small number of 6 night/7 day set departures, leaving Nairobi on the 8th and 22nd March, the 12th and 26th April, and the 10th and 27th May.  Extraordinary Africa can offer a 9 night trip, including international flights from London, a night in Nairobi and the 6 night Turkana Bus trip from £2,625 per person.

View the full Turkana Bus Itinerary.

All photos courtesy of Martin Dunn (wildlifephotographyafrica.com)

The reason we do this job (a trip report from Tanzania & Kenya)

The reason I absolutely love my job, is for emails like this, which kept a smile on my face  for most of my working day:

We are safely back home in Tallahassee, Florida after the most wonderful trip ever!  Really!  My husband and I agree, that of all the places we have traveled, Africa trumps them all.  
We loved each place we visited for different reasons…
Selous Sands River for the hippos and the Rufiji river and croc infested lakes teaming with bird life.  
Sand Rivers Selous

Looking out over the Rufiji from Sand Rivers

The Safari Tent Camp (ed: this was Serengeti Safari Camp) for the simplicity of our accommodations while not sacrificing a bit of comfort.  The Safari drives on the vast plains of the Serengeti were breathtaking.  The wildebeest crossing was a highlight and we were fortunate enough to witness a Cheetah kill! Can’t say enough good about our Nomad guides.  They were tops! The staff and managers at both Nomad properties were very, very good.  
Game drive from Serengeti Safari Camp

Game drive from Serengeti Safari Camp

Gibbs Farm was a delightful stop.  The staff was amazing, the accommodations lovely and the food was delicious!  
Gibbs Farm

Gibb’s Farm

Last but not least …Ol Malo.  Oh My!  I cried when I walked into the lodge!  What a unique structure framing the most incredible views!  The Francombe family couldn’t have been nicer and more gracious.  Visiting a  Samburu village and a Saturday market was so humbling and moving.    What great things they are doing in support of their Samburu neighbors.  We watched the tribal women make their beautiful beaded necklaces and visited the local school.  Our Camel ride was pretty awesome too!
Ol MaloLaikipiaKenya

Camel Safari at Ol Malo

We cant wait to go back!  Maybe in about 2 years.  I will be in touch.  We are thinking Namibia and Botswana with a stop at our new favorite place in the world, Ol Malo!

Thank you Calynne for this lovely report- it made our morning!

The man-eating lions of Tsavo

The British Government began building a railway at vast expense in the face of significant local hostility. Yet despite huge practical obstacles and opposition in parliament the plan soldiered on. Sound familiar?

Yet this was 1896. Building what later became known as the “Lunatic Express”, the British colonial Government in Kenya stuck unrelentingly to their plan. A railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Uganda, was required, and a railway there would be. Even one that included a siding next to the High Commissioner’s mansion so he could head out on hunting parties in privacy. (Thank you Wikipedia, please let that be true). Attacks by local tribesmen, malaria, and huge geographical obstacles wouldn’t get in the way.

Lion on safari in Africa

Lions, not man-eaters. As far as we know.

In 1898 the railway workers hit an obstacle. They needed to build a bridge over the Tsavo River. While building bridges by day was hard work, by night the worker’s camp was troubled by something far more terrifying. Two maneless lions, later known as the Ghost and the Darkness, were killing and eating the Indian railway workers. They built campfires to scare off the lions. They built thick thorny bomas in the style of the local Maasai to shelter their tents. The leader of the project, Lt. Col John Patterson hid out in a tree with his trusty Martini-Enfield rifle. But to no avail.

Hundreds of workers ran away in terror, but still the lions kept coming.  Eventually Patterson shot one huge lion, 9ft 8 from nose to tail. He escaped wounded and returned to camp to stalk Patterson, before eventually dying. It took 8 men to carry his body back to camp. 20 days later the second lion was shot. He was shot 9 times over 11 days before he was eventually killed. They were found to have eaten 10.5 and 24.2 humans respectively. (What happened to the other 0.3 of a person, we can’t possibly comment).

To this day there’s no answer as to what made the Tsavo lions man-eaters. It could’ve been that one was suffering from appalling toothache, than an outbreak of rinderpest meant they had no cattle to prey on, or that they’d grown used to the taste of human flesh by preying on slave caravans heading overland to the coast. The lions ended their days as rugs on Patterson’s floor, and can now be seen in the Chicago Field Museum.

** Please accept our apologies for any inaccuracies. Like all good campfire stories, we’ve told it to the best of our abilities, but we’re prepared to be corrected!

Green season safari- is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Think of African landscapes and the chances are you’ll be imagining an endless golden savannah, broken only with twisted and parched acacia trees. The wildebeest are cantering frantically in search of water and fresh grass (this is the main driver of the Great Migration) and vultures float on the thermals hoping to spot a lion kill.

There’s another Africa however, the Africa that blossoms with life in and around the rains. The green season (sometimes rather optimistically known as the “emerald season”) transforms the landscape.  Rivers burst with life and grasses and trees seem to glow in almost implausibly bright hues. Under thunderous storm clouds young animals learn to stand on shaking legs within minutes of their births, and predators look sleek and happy with a bellyful of food. This is the time when you’ll take the most spectacular photographs and see the bush at its very best (and sometimes at half the price of the peak periods).

Beyond that, the parks are largely deserted, and if you’ve done several safaris it’s utterly fascinating seeing the game reserves in a new light. Birding in particular is utterly glorious- if you’ve never seen a fish eagle swoop for its kill or a finfoot skiddle-skaddle across the water’s surface- this is your moment.

Green season safaris are at their best in Kenya and Tanzania in March and June (catch the savannah with its spring colours) or in Zambia between January and April. The ultimate experience is a boat safari in the South Luangwa– thanks to our friends at Norman Carr for the amazing selection of photos above. Elsewhere, watch the desert spring to life in Namibia, the mighty flood at the Victoria Falls or catch the mini Migration in the Kalahari.

The Best Mountain Biking Safaris

A hundred years ago, the best way to do a safari was on horseback. That way you got to see a little more, and move a little faster than you might if you were on a walking safari, but without the noise and fumes of travelling in a safari vehicle. Fast forward to 2013, when many of us live in cities, and you’re unlikely to find a horse tied up in the back garden.  Bikes however, are everywhere.

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

With the cycling craze sweeping Britain, almost every household seems to have a bike or three in the garage or taking up space in the hall. On summer afternoons the country lanes are choked with cycles, and early morning commuter trains are full of Brompton bikes. It almost seems extraordinary that it’s taken till now for mountain bike safaris to take off to such an extent.  Now though, a bike or two is the must-have piece of kit in every safari camp. What better way to burn off the endless delicious meals that seem to come almost hourly on safari?

Mountain bike safaris take you from being an outside observer of the bush to being part of it. Race galloping giraffes, smell the dampness of the dust in the early morning, and hear the birds cry as you move silently past. Africa at its best? Absolutely.

Here’s our pick of the very best biking in Africa:

Bush Biking for Beginners: Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, ZambiaTafika, in Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park was where I fell in love with mountain biking safaris- my first one, and the beginning of a serious addiction.

Cycling through the bush with John Coppinger, 20 years my senior and embarrassingly fitter, was a revelation-we could keep up with the zebras without scaring them, hear every branch crackle underfoot, and really, really appreciate the size of an elephant. I’d recommend as an introduction to anyone- you can just pop out for an hour or so on the bikes before a late afternoon game drive- perfect for dipping your toe in the water.

Multi-day mountain biking: Karisia, Kenya

Mountain Bike Safari in KenyaIf you’re a serious mountain-biker and love nothing better than getting dusty, dirty, and down with the animals, then a multi-day mountain biking safari could be the answer.

Together with our friends at Karisia in Kenya, we’ve put together a mountain biking safari in the Laikipia plateau in Kenya. We’ve limited it to 3 days of cycling, followed by some time in a vehicle for the saddle-sore, but we can make it as long as you like.- even cycling between safari lodges instead of flying. While we don’t like to gamble, we’re fairly confident that your warrior guides, and the camels who carry your kit, will keep pace with you no matter how long you want to keep pedalling for!

Serious adventure, Serious luxury: Singita Sabi Sand, South Africa

On safari at Singita Boulders, Sabi Sands, South AfricaSerious adventure needn’t mean a compromise on serious luxury. If you want the adrenaline thrill of cycling down dusty tracks, watching elephants from the saddle, but don’t want to rough it in the evenings, then Singita Sabi Sands is the perfect solution.

Not only are you smack in some of the best leopard-viewing territory in Africa, at the end of the day you’ll be returning to a seriously lovely room, easily large enough for a London estate agent to describe it as a “spacious, one-bedroom apartment”. These come complete with a decanter of something warm, delicious nibbles and a plunge pool to wash off the dust. Singita has a wine cellar to die for (we made sure to sample it on your behalf when we visited), fantastic guides, and a gorgeous area to explore.

Biking and the beach:

Mountain Biking at Pumulani, Lake Malawi

Though we’re huge fans of mountain biking on safari, if you’re just not quite sure about heading into the wilderness on two wheels rather than four, there are some fantastic options for biking that aren’t quite so wild.

A mountain bike is a fantastic way to explore the villages that line the shores of Lake Malawi.  Every single visitor that we’ve ever sent on holiday to Malawi has commented on just how warm and friendly the local are. For once it seems that a country really does live up to the tourist board slogan (in this case- the “warm heart of Africa”). Stepping away from the confines of a vehicle is the ideal way to meet the local community, and make hoards of tiny new friends amongst the children of the villages.

A passionate defence of the Masai Mara

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who “know” Africa have told me they don’t do Kenya. “Too busy darling. Daphne told me at dinner it’s simply overrun these days.” As I smile and nod, secretly I think “Poor you.”

Yes, it’s true. You can buy a package holiday from Britain, Germany, and most probably Italy to Mombasa. Yes, there are lodges in certain national parks that are a touch “mass market”. So why do “all” these people keep coming to Kenya, even the experienced safari-goers, the ones who’ve done hundreds of luxury safaris? Because it’s utterly wonderful.

Sundowners on a Luxury Safari in the Masai Mara

Sundowners in the Masai Mara from Elephant Pepper Camp

If you’ve explored Kenya as much as we have, you know what to avoid, and where to go. East African beaches are glorious, a fraction of the price of the Caribbean, and wonderfully warm in October when the much of the rest of the world’s sandy shores are shivering under a monsoon. And safari: do all those people who say safari in the Masai Mara’s been “done” never stop to think why so many wildlife documentaries are filmed there, why people travel across the world to spend a few days there and why more than one wildlife expert would choose to do their very last safari there? Could it be because the game viewing’s some of the best in Africa? And let’s be realistic. The best in Africa really means the best in the world.

Wildebeest Migration in the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara (image thanks to the lovely people at Offbeat Mara)

I love Kenya. I adore the Mara. I’ve probably been on safari to 30 or 40 game reserves (and that’s not counting some of the privately-owned tiddlers that count themselves as a “reserve”) and I still adore the Masai Mara. If you think it’s busy, fair enough- head to the utter wilderness of a walking safari in Zambia, the exclusive privacy of Botswana or the remoteness of western Tanzania. But if you want to see the Masai Mara’s ravishing rolling landscape, and the vast volumes of game it at their best, steer clear of the wildebeest migration and the busy season, and go when the cognoscenti go. Pick June, pick January, or pack your raincoat and pick April, May or November. Who cares if you get a bit wet? You’ll have amazing photos with spectacular light under looming atmospheric rain clouds, and best of all, parts of the world’s finest game reserve to yourself. An April guest at Governor’s Camp (smack bang in one of the Masai Mara’s best game viewing areas) stayed with just nine other guests in a camp which has around 30 tents, and a staff to guest ratio of 3:1.

Game drive in the Masai Mara

A game drive from Offbeat Mara Camp (they’re not even paying me- they just have great photos and it really is this good!)

And that’s just the Mara. What about safari in Laikipia, Meru, the Matthews Mountains and Lake Turkana (bet Daphne from the dinner party didn’t go there)? So, for anyone who thinks Kenya’s overrun, that’s OK- I’ll keep her best bits for me.

Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.