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

Covid-19

Safari in a time of Coronavirus: Where Can I go in Africa Now? (December 2020)

Since we last updated our Africa travel guide, there have been huge leaps forwards for anyone wanting to travel to Africa over the coming weeks and months.

The latest updates:  

South Africa has opened its borders to countries including the UK and US- travellers must present a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours before travel.  The UK has also agreed the first two travel corridors to mainland Africa- Rwanda (see the comprehensive guide to travelling to Rwanda now here) and Namibia.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda from Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

This makes it much easier for travellers to get insurance and should (in theory) mean that UK travellers would not need to quarantine on return. However, the currently available flight routings mean that quarantine would still be required for Namibia, though we hope this will change shortly. The full detail is on our table below.

Quarantine Reduced:

There is further good news on the quarantine front! The new UK Test to Release scheme means that a rather arduous 14 day quarantine can be reduced to 5 days from leaving a country not on the travel corridor list. So if you were to say leave Kenya on a Thursday morning, you could spend a long weekend at home sorting photos and making friends and family jealous, then take a test on the Tuesday morning. Provided results come back negative, your self-isolation is at an end!

The difficult business of quarantining at Carana Beach in the Seychelles

Even better news in our eyes is that if you spend 5 days in a country on the travel corridor list on the way home there’s no need to quarantine at all. So if you say, ended a safari in Kenya or South Africa with 5 days in the Seychelles, there would be no need to quarantine when you get back to the UK.

Where to go now:

At the moment, we think the best way to travel with the least uncertainty is to book relatively at the last minute, hopefully avoiding any sudden changes of national policy.

A beautifully empty Masai Mara from Rekero Camp

We’d recommend Kenya and Tanzania for phenomenal safari – as a reminder, Tanzania does not require a PCR test, and includes Zanzibar for anyone looking for winter sun. Rwanda and Uganda would be wonderful for gorilla trekking. While Uganda remains on the FCO advisory list, gorilla permits are reduced to $400 pp till March for anyone who chooses to travel. Namibia is a great choice for anyone looking for a rather glorious road trip around one of Africa’s most beautiful countries. Lastly, if you are someone who has always wanted to visit Botswana and are put off by the cost, this is absolutely the time to go- there are some astonishing discounts (like this one) on offer until March.

Want to know more?

Ask the Africa Experts
Covid-19, Gorilla Trekking, Rwanda

Travelling to Rwanda during covid 19- a comprehensive guide

We’ve been champing at the bit to have travel to Rwanda added to the UK travel corridor list for months. Rwanda has been on the EU green list since around August, but the Foreign Office have only just started recognizing the huge differences between African countries and their approach to Covid 19. Rwanda, which has had long experience in tackling Ebola, has not been messing around.

At the time of writing (November 2020) the UK remains under lockdown, however once we’re free to travel, here’s how to do it (and a picture of a gorgeous gorilla to remind you why!)

A gorilla spotted from Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge- how handsome!

Flights to Rwanda:

While the UK quarantine rules have been lifted for travel to Rwanda, they are still in place for many of the countries you would need to travel via to get there. So the obvious option for flights would be to fly to Dubai, and connect on from there with the direct Rwandair flight. We all hope the Rwandair direct flight from London resumes soon.

Rwandan sunset from Virunga Lodge, one of the most charming lodges in Rwanda (we can say that because we’ve tried most of them)

What are Rwanda’s rules?

Before your board your flight to Rwanda you will need to fill out the government contract tracing form (we’ll provide you with a link in your departure information).

When arriving in Rwanda you will need to show a negative PCR test certificate taken within 120 hours of departure. The certificate needs to mention that it is a PCR test. When you arrive in Rwanda you will need to quarantine at a designated hotel for 24hrs and take another test (this costs about $60). Provided your results are negative, you are then free to continue on your adventure.  Obviously, we will help sort this all out for you.

The Kigali Serena- one of the designated quarantine hotels- 24hrs here isn’t really a hardship….

On departing from Rwanda if you are showing Covid symptoms you will also be tested (and need to show a negative result) before you are able to leave the country.

What coronavirus measures are in place in Rwanda?

Firstly, you will need to wear masks in public places.  

When you go to Akagera National Park you will need to walk through a disinfection bath at the entrance, and carry hand sanitizer in your car. To allow physical distancing, numbers on game drives and boat safaris will be limited.

Chimp trekking (please excuse the less than expert photography of our staff- chimps are notoriously difficult to photograph!)

While gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park or chimp trekking in Nyungwe, you will need to keep a 10 m distance between you and the chimps or gorillas.

For gorilla trekking you are limited to a group of 6, for golden monkey trekking a group of 12, and for chimp trekking a group of 8.

You will need to spend a couple of minutes signing guest registration and indemnity forms before entering the parks.  

Obviously this may change at any time, but as always, we are old hands in Rwanda and will guide you through as needed. In the meantime, here’s more on how to plan a trip to Rwanda!

Covid-19

Safari in a time of coronavirus: where can I go in Africa now? (Nov 2020)

We’re utterly delighted that people are heading out to Africa once again. And a bit jealous. Travelling to Africa during coronavirus is certainly not as easy as it once was, with the sort of logistical and bureaucratic challenges that would be all too familiar to travellers of 50 or 60 years ago. But likewise, you have the sense of adventure, astonishing discounts, and the sort of empty game reserves and beaches that people experienced in times gone by.

Our guests stayed at Oliver’s Camp in October 2020

We’ve only turned slightly green as our guests told us about virtually empty reserves, game drives that moved them to tears and a virtually deserted crossing of the wildebeest migration.

Winter sun

For those looking up at darkening skies and plummeting thermometers, The Seychelles are now welcoming travellers from across the world.  You will need to arrive with a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of travelling (this can be stretched to 72 hours if you come from a low risk country). If you are from the UK you will need to spend your first 5 days in one designated hotel. However, these include places like Constance Lemuria, Ephelia, and Denis Island Lodge so this isn’t much of a hardship!

Hotels are operating largely as normal, however you will tend to find staff wearing masks, you may have your temperature taken, and some facilities (mainly kids clubs and some spa facilities are closed). But with warm weather, cold cocktails and some of the best beaches in the world, that’s a compromise we’re very happy to make! On the 5th day you will need to take a Covid test, and then, provided that your test result is negative, you’re free to head off and explore the Seychelles.

Zanzibar is also open to travellers and does not require a negative PCR test, however UK travellers will need to quarantine for 14 days on return.

Safari during coronavirus

Borders are now open for Kenyan safaris and we are trying not to feel too jealous of our guests heading off this month to explore. A negative PCR test is required to travel and UK visitors will need to quarantine on return. But if you get to stay at say- Rekero and enjoy the world-class game viewing of the Masai Mara largely undisturbed, we’d be seriously tempted.

Game drives from Rekero- we are seriously tempted by an empty Masai Mara.

Hot off the presses- Botswana will be opening borders on the 9th of November. Guests will need to arrive with a negative PCR test, and will be checked for symptoms on arrival. Access is tricky without travelling via South Africa (more of which below), so we’d recommend arriving via Victoria Falls for ease of access. For the Zambia side of Vic Falls, as with a Zambian Safari, you will need to show a negative PCR test on departure as well as on arrival.

If you are concerned about the uncertainty of needing to arrive with a negative PCR test, Tanzania does not have a test requirement and travellers over the last few weeks report the sort of safaris we can only dream of. As with safari in Botswana and Kenya, you will need to quarantine if you are returning to the UK from a safari in Tanzania.

Such a lovely photo of the Ngorongoro Crater from the Highlands- this tiny park is so often jam-packed, so intrepid travellers will see it at its best while numbers are low.

We should also throw in a mention for Namibia. You can take a private road trip in your own vehicle and this is the 2nd least densely populated country in the world, so social distancing is not a problem. A negative PCR test is required for travel. UK travellers will need to quarantine on return, but we are hopeful this will change soon.

See- we told you it was empty! Hot Air Ballooning over the Namib, courtesy of our friends at Kulala Desert Lodge

Our travellers, like us, love visiting South Africa, however for now, residents of the UK and US aren’t able to enter South Africa unless they’ve spent at least 10 days in a low-risk country first. So for the really determined, a 10 day trip in say, Namibia, would be more than do-able, and with the temptations of Cape Town and safari in Kruger National Park at the other end, we can quite understand why you might take this option.

So for now, we’d say the most straightforwards places to visit would be the Seychelles, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, however we love a challenge and can help you make most things work!

Please note that the UK is current under lockdown until the 2nd of December so UK based travellers are not able to travel until then, though we know that many of our Africa-lovers are based all over the world. Ozzie friends in particular, we know you won’t be in Africa for a while, and you are missed!

Covid-19, Responsible Travel

Supporting Communities and Conservation During Covid-19

There is no doubt that Africa has been hugely hardly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Not, thankfully, by a high level of infections (see more on this from the BBC here), but more from a total lack of tourism which is vital to many African economies.

It will come as no surprise that in almost all of the countries we work with there is virtually zero social security. Jobs working in safari camps or beach lodges are highly prized, and supports 8-10 dependents. With no guests, there are no jobs, and with no jobs feeding your family becomes pretty terrifying.

This lovely pic came from our friends at Nomad Tanzania- they, like many safari companies operate almost as a family, and do a phenomenal amount to support their staff and the local communities.

As those of you who have been to Africa will know, our colleagues and friends who work on the ground are incredibly determined and imaginative and capable of working miracles in the most adverse of circumstances. Their commitment to supporting their staff, the wider communities and conservation projects is nothing short of inspirational.

The Maasai Community are landords for Offbeat Mara and receive a fee from the camp, ensuring that the community receive a long term benefit from tourism.

Offbeat Mara is beloved of Extraordinary Africa guests, and the pioneering conservancy concept around the Masai Mara has inspired community tourism projects across Africa. Protecting areas beyond the national parks helps preserve vital habitat- it is crucial that these are preserved for wildlife. The Adopt-a-Plot programme helps to continue this magnificent work (and if you donate $800 or more this can be used as a travel credit for your next safari- win-win!)

Offbeat Mara

It’s not just communities who suffer from lack of safari guests- without the (sometimes considerable) park and conservancy fees that guests pay, there’s simply  no money to pay rangers. Without them, wildlife is seriously vulnderable to poaching, especially during a time when many people are out of work and bushmeat is widely available. Ride4rangers raises money to fund salaries for staff on the front  line of conservation- you can donate to the cause yourself, or if you’ve had enough of sitting still during lockdown, you can create your own challenge to raise funds- read more about it here.

Lastly, if you are based in the UK, please help! At the time of writing the UK government has blindly extended a blanket ban on travel to anywhere in mainland Africa, despite the fact that coronavirus levels are generally far lower than in the UK or in other European countries where the UK has travel corridors. For us, this seems unreasonable- as many countries have both a rigorous testing system and low levels of cases. For example- the EU includes Rwanda alongside just 8 other “third countries” (including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore) that travel restrictions should be lifted for. Sign the petition to encourage the UK government to reconsider here.