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!