Amboseli, Covid-19, Kenya, Laikipia, Masai Mara, Safari

The best socially-distant safaris in Kenya

It’s red list announcement day today, and the Extraordinary Africa team are celebrating, as Kenya has finally been removed from the list! Needless to say, our sundowners are most definitely of the champagne variety! Safari is by its very nature a pretty socially distant sort of holiday as almost all of your time is outside -you can read here a trip report from John and Mags who travelled to Kenya with us in November.

So, if you are itching to get exploring, here’s our top recommendations for socially distant safaris in Kenya (several of them have some excellent last minute special offers too):

Walking on the wild side

Walking on a Karisia Safari
Walking safari with Karisia

In most of the camps we use the game drive vehicles are open to the elements to maximise your photography opportunities, but if you want to be totally in the open air, a walking safari is the way to go. These are beloved by safari aficionados as you experience total immersion in the bush and get a much more up-close, intense safari experience than you do from a vehicle. Standing nearby a big bull elephant is an excellent way to feel how small your place in the universe is!

Looking out over the bush on a Karisia Safari
View!

Karisia Walking Safaris, run by Kerry and her husband James is easily amongst the best walking safari options in Kenya. You can walk out for a few days or weeks- with each day tailored to your interests and how energetic you are feeling. Our favourite thing to do is to use the walking safari as a transfer between two remote safari camps so you have a dose of luxury to start and finish your adventure.

Private safari houses

Family Safari in Kenya
Safari from Mara Bush Homes

Kenya has always been the go-to choice for family friendly, owner-run safari lodges, and staying in a private safari house is really a natural extension of this.  The whole schedule runs around you and your family, mealtimes are just for you, and if you want, you can choose to see no-one but your staff for the duration of your stay.

Bathroom at Elsa’s Private House

We have visited numerous excellent private safari houses across Kenya especially in the Masai Mara and Laikipia, but amongst our longstanding favourites are the Mara Bush Houses and the private house at Elsa’s Kopje in Meru.

Or, as a twist, take over a whole safari camp

Some of Kenya’s safari camps are deliberately tiny, to really emphasise your sense of remoteness and escape from the outside world. So if you want privacy, but with the romance of canvas, this is the way to go. Saruni Wild for example has only 3 tents- gather your friends (or family, if you haven’t seen enough of them over the last few months) and get packing!

Take private driving transfers.

While numbers on light aircraft flights are still fairly low, chances are if you’re using them to access remote game reserves you’ll be sharing the plane with other passengers. So you can either choose to charter, or to take private transfers to your lodge or camp instead (there are a series of strict protocols our drivers use to make sure you are protected!) Some areas are just too remote to make this feasible, but Amboseli, Samburu and certain Laikipia properties can be reached in a fairly easy drive from Nairobi.

Game drives in vintage landrovers with the Safari Series (our transfer vehicles are a bit more 21st century!)

For example- the Safari Series (the newest, and most fun camp on the block in Laikipia) can be reached in under 4 hours from Nairobi, travelling mainly on tarmac roads. So you could be having sundowner drinks in Heathrow and brunch (or at the very latest, lunch) in the bush.

We can also arrange private drivers to help you reach the Masai Mara, though the roads here are a bit more of a mixed bag (we once saw a pothole big enough that it’d absorbed most of a mini-bus) so we’d pick the camps for you a bit more carefully!

If all else fails- there’s always a private flight!

Most planes are 12 seaters so private charters are quite good value for groups.

The practicalities

Needless to say, our safari camps have some pretty serious anti-covid protocols in place- (some of the manuals we have run to multiple a4 pages of details!) Most of these are behind the scenes so you may not notice them, but you can expect things like being asked to wear masks on light aircraft flights, increased hand sanitising and separate dining when you’re staying in safari camps. Some camps may also take guest temperatures on arrival.

At the time of writing to fly to Kenya from the UK you will need to show a negative PCR test taken no more than 96 hours before travel. Children under 5 are exempt.

We’re packing our bags- want to get the ball rolling so you can pack yours?

Ask the Africa Experts
Amboseli, Covid-19, Kenya, Laikipia, Masai Mara, Safari, Trip Reports

What’s it like to go on safari during a pandemic?

John and Mags, two of our most experienced, and intrepid, safari-goers report back.

Our daylight flight with BA was very good, with only 70 passengers onboard.  John had treated us to First Class and we had a wonderful experience.

We were a bit confused who would be meeting us… later the hotel bus turned up and the driver took us to the hotel, leaving all the BA Crew waiting as they were also staying at the hotel too ! So it all turned out fine. We had a lovely spacious, well equipped room and slept very well. (Editor’s note- this was the airport Crowne Plazawe use it a lot for an overnight crash-out).

The next day, following an excellent breakfast at the hotel, we were met by Emmanuel, our Asilia driver/guide…  Emmanuel proved to be an excellent and considerate driver, and we liked him very much for the duration of our first few days.  We had opted to drive from Nairobi down to Amboseli, avoiding the inevitable gridlock of traffic crossing to Wilson Airport, and also to avoid mixing with too many other people which we thought was a great choice.

Tortillis Camp is set in a lovely location, with the main area, deck and dining area and bar set on the ridge, with views out to Mt Kilimanjaro (weather permitting – which it rarely did for us, but that’s down to luck and time of year). The highlight of Amboseli was undoubtedly the prolific game, which we had hoped for but not expected.  The huge herds of elephants, including the huge Matriarchs and Bulls with their enormous tuskers were a sight to behold.

And without exception, all the animals had young at this time of year (Editor’s note- late November), which was a bonus, and a real treat.  We were surprised just how many areas of water there were.  Apart from the actual lake, the rainwater from Kili and the recent rainfall had created large swamp areas, which was a haven for thousands of birds and hundreds of animals.  In particular we were surprised how many thousands of flamingos there were, and apparently all the ones at Lake Nakuru and Naivasha have left that area which is now badly flooded, and they were all down at Amboseli. A wonderful sight : clouds of pink.

We also very much liked the Asilia Touring style safari vehicle, and its layout, which suited us well. It was very comfortable and spacious, yet still provided excellent game viewing from the 360 degree top opening.

Lewa Landscapes (c) Mags Fewkes

Our private transfer from Tortillis up to Lewa  with TropicAir went very smoothly.  We had a Caravan to ourselves, piloted by Ian. We arrived early at the airstrip, and the plane arrived just as we did, so we left soon after and arrived early up in Lewa, a short flight of I hour 10 minutes.

We were met by David, our driver/guide whom we both liked immediately. He wore his red Masai clothing with pride every day.  His English was excellent, as were in fact all of our guides, and all were easy to understand. We LOVED our time in Lewa House and were very glad we had chosen to spent 5 nights there : thank you for the suggestion !  We loved the terrain and the variety of game.  On the way from the airstrip to the House, we passed 5 rhinos wallowing by the road, with others in the near distance too.  Lewa House is a beautifully appointed family home, owned by Calum and Sophie MacFarlane.  Calum came to Kenya 10 years ago, but Sophie comes from Lewa and the original ranching family.  They were the perfect hosts.

Sophie, Calum and the children

We had a GORGEOUS room, Room 1/Waterhole (overlooking the waterhole) which was conveniently very near the house.  We had both an indoor and outdoor bathroom and a lovely private patio.  We ate breakfast on the lawn, usually with the children (11 and 8) and their adorable puppy ; lunch was by the pool ;  aperitifs by the log fire in the spacious lounge and dinner (set menu) usually in the adjoining dining room, at one huge table which seated 10 socially distanced.  And Calum and Sophie ate with us and were excellent company. 

Lewa House

On our Anniversary a table had been laid for us in a separate entertainment area with lights and lit Chiminea in the walls making it warm and cozy with our own waiter John who showed us proudly his “oven” to keep the food warm. We were led by torchlight down a path with lantern lights and it felt like we had gone a long way from the lodge, but the reality was we had not gone very far as we realised after the meal !

2 ponies and Jersey cows also graze contentedly on the lawn and the waterhole attracted Somali Ostrich and other game whilst there were lots of birds helping us to breakfast too ! Perfect !  I should also mention that they have a super gift shop where I bought a LOT of things !  (retail therapy fix).  You can see Mt Kenya from the house and all the rooms will have had wonderful views. Wifi was only available up at the main house, not in the rooms.

The game was outstanding.  We were literally tripping over rhinos (both white and black) at every turn, often close and often in small groups.  Grevy zebra were plentiful too and this is one of their last strongholds. David was also an excellent driver.  About the only thing we did not like particularly was the vehicle we used, which was a more traditional (and less comfortable) old Toyota Landcruiser with open top and sides, but no opening doors.  Which meant you had to haul yourself up and over the sides to get in (which we managed, but as we get older, will find increasingly tricky ). It also means you cannot stand to see game.

I did go for a ride at nearby Lewa Wilderness Camp (about 20 mins away) for an hour with Miranda, a super English girl.  They have 45 horses.  Bizarrely though, they only cater for guests 12 stone or under (Editor’s note- apparently it’s down to the horses they have and the weight they are able to bear).  But I had a wonderful hack, riding right close to eland, waterbuck and zebra. I would highly recommend this.

We were very sad to leave Lewa, and said we would love to return. With your help we chartered an Air Kenya Caravan (2 pilots) to take us to the Masai Mara to Rekero Camp, which took 1 hour 10 mins, and we saw some wonderful scenery along the way – once again just the two of us!

At the Mara, we were met by Francis, who we also liked immediately.  He was a very experienced driver (which was essential when we encountered rivers he had to ford, and deeply rutted muddy roads).  He was great fun too and we got on very well indeed.  It was only a short 20 minute transfer to the camp, which is set on the banks of the Talek River, and has stunning views from the main deck.  The staff were extremely welcoming and friendly at all times. 

In the evenings, there was a campfire and they also had a small private dining area, which was delightful.  We did notice some mozzies and tetsies here. The food at Rekero was excellent, thanks to Clapperton  the chef and his assistant Wilson.  The waitstaff were very attentive and friendly too . 

We had visited the Masai Mara many many times over the past 40 years and never have I seen it so deserted, with so few tourists.  Which was excellent from our point of view, as sightings were undisturbed by dozens of vehicles all crowding around a single animal, which we hate (Editor’s note: us too!).  Many, if not most, of the wildlife had young which is a big draw for us travelling in November, and although we did have rain it usually came at night and only stopped us going out one afternoon.  And we were astonished at the profusion of game and birdlife too and put this down partly to the location of the camp but also the lack of disturbance by other vehicles.  We were extremely lucky to see cheetah with very young cubs, leopard, a lion pride also with playful cubs, to name but a few.

We took the 1615 scheduled Safarilink from the Mara back to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, (which was very late and had 10 of the seats occupied Which of course we thought of as strange !) where we were promptly met by Asilia guide Rufus, who then took 1 hr 45 mins to get across the city to  the International Airport. Even he thought this was not great, but there was nothing much he could do as the traffic was completely gridlocked.  We had a good supper at the Crowne Plaza hotel before our flight back to London at Midnight.

Mara Sunset (c) Mags Fewkes

I took 7600 photos over the 14 days, which says it all.  We both feel it was without doubt one of the best safari’s we have ever been on.  The combination and order of the camps we stayed at worked perfectly, with differing terrain and vegetation and a huge variety of game and birdlife.

We have come home feeling wonderfully refreshed and bringing back many very special memories.

Mags & John

Adventure, Art, Masai Mara, Mountain Biking, Namibia, Zambia

The Unexpected Five: Some of the more unusual activities you might encounter on safari.

1. Running with a Maasai Warrior

If you’re looking to keep active whilst on safari, how about buddying up for a run with a local Maasai? Cottar’s 1920s Camp will organise one of their Maasai staff to keep you company while you make your way through the bush.  The question is, can you run as fast as them?!

Maasai Moranis at Cottar’s 1920s Camp

2. Painting

Do you enjoy the odd dabble with a paint brush? The lovely Saruni Mara has themed cottages, of which one, The Artist’s Studio, has a collection of drawing materials and an easel for you to let your imagination go wild, and the scenery out the window will keep you enthralled for hours.

The Artist’s Studio, Saruni Mara

3. Star Gazing

What could be better than being surrounded by silence, miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the Namib Desert and watching the stars above in the inky black sky through your skylight whilst lying in the comfort of your bed? Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia has just this.  If you’re really serious about your star gazing, they also have their own state of the art observatory where, each evening, you can join resident astronomers who will guide you around Namibia’s skies.  The reserve here is Africa’s only International Dark Sky Reserve.

Star Gazing at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

4. E-Bike Safari

Plenty of camps offer mountain biking safaris but how about taking the pressure off the legs a bit and trying out an e-bike. Similar to a conventional mountain bike, but with a battery added to it, these bikes will give you an extra helping hand to haul you up the hills, giving you more energy to enjoy the views.

Cottar’s 1920s camp have six e-bikes available (four guests and two guides).

Cottar’s 1920s Camp E-Bikes

5. White water Rafting

If you’re after a way to cool off while getting the adrenaline pumping, then how about a trip to the Zambezi River for some white water rafting?  Along from the Victoria Falls are 70km of warm and fairly turbulent water offering some of the most exhilarating grade 5 rapids in Africa as it surges along the Batoka Gorge.  A perfect base for a little post-rafting luxury would be the Royal Livingstone, a 15 minute walk from the Victoria Falls.

White Water Rafting at The Royal Livingstone

Africa, Amboseli, Kenya, Masai Mara, Safari, Trip Reports

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.

Families, Kenya, Masai Mara, Safari, Trip Reports

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

 

Kenya, Masai Mara

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.