A Kenyan Adventure-Three Distinct & Unique Experiences

20160429_114910_resizedKenya has so much more to offer than I could  ever have imagined.  My recent ten day Kenyan Adventure was carefully curated and planned by Protravel’s in house Africa specialist “ProAfrica” and included three very diverse, unique experiences including a visit to the newly opened Angama Mara which is no doubt one of the hottest new properties not only in Africa, but worldwide.  Just listed at one of the 25 hottest new hotels by T&L.  Below I review each lodge including my stopover in Nairobi.   Each destination I visited was completely different and unique from the other allowing for a truly rewarding experience.  I had been to South Africa twice previously on safari but Kenya (and ProAfrica) certainly took Africa to whole other level.

Sasaab Lodge in Samburu

Our first stop and the most northerly location of our Kenyan Adventure.   We land on a little rocky runway in the middle of a semi-arid desert terrain that looks much like Arizona.  We are greeted by two Samburu Warriors named (in English) Jacob and Will, in full tribal dress with their “decked out”  9 seater Toyota Land cruiser Cabriolet.  The drive from the Samburu airstrip to Sasaab Lodge is about 1 hour allowing Jacob to describe the area while Will, the spotter, pointed out various animal spotting along the way.  These boys are not actors, they are genuine local warriors that can tell you the species, sex and age associated with every animal track and spec of fecal matter. Our drive from the landing strip was a full on game drive where we saw a dozen different species and learned a lot about the local way of life.  Upon arrival at Sasaab Lodge we were greeted by our marvelous hosts Oliver and Jessie.  We were shown to our tented room which is complete with electricity, flush toilet, plunge pool, seating areas, a shower that gushed 10 gallons of hot water per minute (solar heated) and linens that would make a Four Seasons Hotel look second rate.  You have to keep reminding yourself you are in the bush.  Our tent with its Moroccan flair, was located about 50 meters from a major river bank with a few crocs, baboon, and water bucks moving around.  At night we would hear the baboons screeching and crocs splashing into the river.   Enough to make this city girl feel a little on guard.   In a nut shell the quality of everything in your room and the amount of space far exceeded our expectations.  The dramatic setting was very idealistic and the service quality was perfect.  If I had to mention one downside it would be the lack of air conditioning however to compensate there is a large fan within the tent.

After a delicious lunch we were offered a number of afternoon activities.  We chose the camel ride to a nearby rocky outcrop where we would enjoy “sundowners” (evening drink) on a bluff with the baboons and where we could see 20 miles in all directions.  Camel are prevalent in this area of Kenya (a surprise to me) and are found within the local Samburu Village and Tribes.   I almost felt as if I could have been in Morocco and the Sasaab Camp has captured this feeling within its décor.  Along the way we learned more about the local game, birds and plants.  We arrived on the rocky bluff to a set-up which included small fire with hot appetizers and drinks where we watched the sunset in the distance.  Our adventure had just begun.

Our morning rides would start with coffee delivery to our tent at 5:30 am to help pry us out of the comfortable bed to the table where we found a full on hot breakfast with fresh fruit and fresh juices and more coffee.  Shortly after 6:00 we were in the land cruiser once again spotting game.  Sasaab Lodge is about a 1/2 hour drive into the Samburu Park however you begin to see game soon after leaving the lodge as well as the local Samburu Tribe herding their sheep, goats and cattle all along the country side. (more on the locals later).  I might recommend Samburu as a first stop in an African Adventure.  In retrospect, the game is equally diverse in this area but perhaps not seen in plentiful groups as other parts of Kenya but the dramatic desert like landscape and access to the local community more than made up for the lighter number of animals in groups. Because there are not as many visitors to this park as some of the other parks in Kenya, guides have the ability to drive off road and maneuver in order to get very close to the wildlife.

One of the highlights of our visit to Sasaab and Samburu was one afternoon we were invited to visit the local Samburu Tribal Village.  Both of our guides were part of the community and we were well received.  I hugely recommend an hour in the village where you can see the local tribes’ people at work and play.  We were invited into their small mud homes and met their smiling children, mothers, goats, dogs, sheep and cattle.  This is BY FAR a truly authentic experience.  Unlike other villages in the Masi Mara which see far more tourists and while also authentic have been clearly tainted by tourism.   The Samburu Village experience is truly a real look into a noble nomadic tribe that is continuing to embrace their culture from more than a 100 years ago.  We did not see any western clothing or items which we did see in our visits to Masi Villages later in our journey.   If you have children that love their iPad, soccer practice, and French toast on Sunday mornings this is a tremendous eye opener for them….and you.   Undoubtedly this was a life altering experience and the “real deal”.   How many more years these Samburu Tribes will remain untainted by tourism is yet to be seen but I feel lucky to have experienced this for myself, first hand.

Sasaab is sufficiently different, from other Kenyan Lodges.  While offering a very authentic look at the tribal culture that is slowly being lost in other areas of Africa and the Arizona like scenery and terrain, it should be part of your Kenya trip. I would certainly recommend a two night stay to offer some diversity to your Kenya tour.   A stop in Sasaab is a perfect complement to a trip with one or two other Kenyan lodges/destinations woven in.

SOLIO LODGE & RESERVE

We landed on the Nanuki runway in the late morning and were greeted by Ollie, a Masi Tribesman in full warrior garb who would be our driver and guide, as well as John a local bushman who would be our spotter.   Ollie and John couldn’t be more knowledgeable about the bush and local culture in addition to being very adept as child entertainers as we were traveling with our 8 year old son.    John and Ollie kept our son on his toes with questions about everything from rhino habits to animal excretions.  Our drive from the airport was about 25 minutes through local villages before we turned off the main road to the gates of Solio’s massive private game reserve.  Within 5 minutes of entering the game reserve we were spotting rhino (white and black), zebra, water buck, impala, wart hogs and many others.  The huge upside of a visit to Solio is they control the game park area allowing guides to drive the vehicles wherever they like at times getting “up close and personal” with the wildlife.   We didn’t recognize this tremendous “perk” until we traveled onward in our Kenyan Adventure to the Masi Mara where our drivers were not allowed to travel off the dirt paths.

We arrived at the Solio Lodge where we were greeted by Avra, the resident Manager, and ushered to a superb lunch with delicious wines and coffee overlooking the fields and plains surrounding the lodge.   Our stay at Solio was short but I would rate the lunch and the dinner along with the game drive as the best we had while in Kenya, and believe me they were all very good.

After lunch my son and husband took advantage of a horseback ride on a very large range that bordered the game park.  Accompanied by two horseman who were able to provide good introduction to the landscape and animals living outside the park.   While my husband and son were enjoying their horseback ride I took advantage of the oversized soaking bathtub in our room.   The sleeping rooms at the property are rather large with separate sleeping and seating area with a fireplace and huge bathrooms complete with its own small fireplace.   There is wall of windows overlooking the fields and trees where you can view wildlife from your room and a deck and outdoor seating area.   If I had to mention one downside of this property I would have to say the furnishings in the sleeping rooms felt a bit out of date but not anything that would deter me from recommending this property.

Our evening game ride began at 4:30.  Ollie and John had outfitted our Land cruiser with padded seats on the roof.   This was a fantastic vantage point from which to view the landscape and wildlife not to mention full time entertainment value for our 8 year old who couldn’t believe he was sitting on the roof of the vehicle while it was moving.  We enjoyed a variety of terrain and landscape including crossing a river in our land cruiser while in hot pursuit of a lion spotting.  Needless to say this made a city girl like myself a little anxious.   I was relieved when we made it safely through the river and to the other side where we viewed (very closely) a couple of male & female lion pairs.  The park is littered with game and if you are a first timer you will see a large percentage of Kenya’s prominent game within a very short time span.  As we approached sundown we connected with another lion pair and had a Sundowner (evening cocktail) under a tree with a lioness perched 20 feet above our heads with the male lion prowling around the base of the tree and both completely oblivious to our presence.  This was the highlight of our game viewing in Kenya.   I think the combination of wildlife abundance and the guide’s ability to get in very close to game (at the same time trying to calm my nerves) made our Solio game drives the best of our trip.   I would add that Solio is a slightly different ecosystem to other locations that we visited in Kenya and the late afternoon and evening air is cool so if you are visiting take a fleece or warm sweater.   This cool air allows for enjoying the multiple fireplaces within the main lodge at dinner time or in your room in the evening.  And, I wouldn’t want to forget the hot water bottles which were placed in our beds in the evening, a nice touch.

The food and service at Solio is ultra-amazing.  Avra and her staff nailed absolutely everything….it’s like they are mind readers and show up with what you want before you ask.

Angama Mara Tented Camp, Masi Mara

I have to chuckle to myself at the fact that they call these places tented camps.  Angama Mara is set on an escarpment roughly 1,100 feet above the Masi Mara.  From that perch you can see 180 degrees for miles and miles and miles.…..which we did at breakfast, lunch, sunset, and a couple more hours each day.  Both our room (aka tent) and the common areas had similar vistas.  There is no other place in that Masi Mara that has this vantage and if the food and lodging offering were just average I would still go there.  The cherry on top is the fact that the food, lodging, guides and butlers could not have done anything to make this camp any better.

Angama Mara is not even a year old and is receiving stellar reviews (just Google it) as both an architectural phenome as well as a one of the best lodges in Africa.  I suggest you go here before the lineup is twice around the block.  I toured the entire property so feel free to drop a line if you have specific questions.  The lodge is the brainchild of Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald who are hands on owner managers.  They brought with them over 25+ years of experience managing properties in East Africa as well as hand picking the best staff from their years of experience in the region.  We joked with one another about this property being the “Faena” (very trendy upscale Miami/Buenos Aires hotel) of East Africa.  The contemporary décor incorporates a lot of steel, glass and more modern design along with some traditional African furnishings.  The tents are large and as mentioned all have expansive views onto the Masi Mara.  We had game in sight of our front porch every morning which you could watch from the open style shower or large stand-alone tub overlooking the park.   The room is very sunny and airy with a front porch with rocking chairs and dining table.  The towels and linens are simply the best money can buy.

The hotel has a small gym with cardio machines opening to the view as well as a large pool with an abundance of lounge chairs.  The gift shop is certainly worth a visit curated with a lot of locally made products and adjacent to the gift shop is a beading center where local Masi “Mammas” ladies make various jewelry pieces.   Many guests, including my 8 year old son, make their own bracelets and necklaces.  In fact the center served as a frequent babysitting depot as my son would spend two hours at a time making gifts.

Our butler (who took care of all our meals) Bonface was a seasoned host.  By the first day he knew how we liked our coffee, not to offer unending treats to our son, and that every meal started with 2 forks, 2 knives, a bread knife and spoon.  I think they measured the table set up the way the butlers do it on Downton Abbey.   All the meals had a rotating menu with 3 starters and 3 or 4 entrees to choose from.  Saying that there were a couple occasions where we had off the menu requests and they did a marvelous job of accommodating us.   They pour very nice wines and the bar has all the basics.  Food and beverage is excellent.  What a bonus when you are staring off a cliff at the Masi Mara Triangle.

By the time we arrived at Angama Mara we had already been to two other lodges and seen a lot of game.  As a result, while at Angama we did only one game drive per day and sprinkled in a few other activities and simply enjoyed our surroundings at Angama Mara.  The game is very plentiful and our guide Geoffrey was able to describe everything about the animals we saw. We saw a lot of game every day and learned a lot about the migration (which takes place there starting in June) even though we did not see it.  I would have to mention that the one downside of this property is that because the game viewing is done in the National Game Park the guides must keep their vehicles on the dirt paths and are unable to drive “off road” for closer game viewing and animal tracking.   I would certainly recommend incorporating this property with a visit to one or possibly two other lodges for a variety of game experiences.   Again, feel free to contact me with questions on this subject as I did a lot of research.  We also did a 5 mile walk (2 hours) with a local Masi Warrior one morning.  We learned about a lot of birds and smaller animals as well as all the various uses for the various plants.  Some are medicines, some are insect repellents, some are poisonous, some are perfumes and some are used as toilet paper.   We learned a small handbook worth of knowledge on animal tracks and droppings.  My whole family can now tell both the sex and rough age of a giraffe’s droppings.  During the course of our walk we met a number of school aged children tending to cattle, sheep and goat herds.  The Masi children are very charming.

As a separate outing we did a tour of a local Masi Village which was led by the son of the village chief.  We learned how they ate, raised livestock, the marriage process, and their customs and were invited into their homes.   I would recommend the tour as it is a look into a culture that is living a lifestyle relatively similar to their ancestors 3 generations ago and may not remain that way for another few generations.  They are very accustomed to tourists and derived a proportion of their budget from tourist tours and selling trinkets.  It takes an hour and a half or so and is certainly worth experiencing one morning.

We traveled to Angama in low season which is supposedly the rainy season although the only rain we experienced was a middle of the night rain on our last night.  From the escarpment we could see rain showers but they are 20 – 30 minute episodes that roll through followed by full on sun.   And in the evenings we were treated to lighting shows in the distance.   Despite missing the migration I would recommend an April tour as the weather is great and the crowds are considerably lessened not to mention the room rates in all of East Africa would be meaningfully discounted as well.  Don’t let the label “rainy season on the Mara” keep you away, if I go back I would probably choose the same month.

Hemingway’s Nairobi/Kenya

My family and I had the pleasure of staying two nights at Hamingways Nairobi.  Checking in to the hotel we were greeted by a highly efficient and friendly set of bellman, front office managers and a butler.  Our bags went in one direction as we quickly checked in (no line up) and were escorted to our room.  Sometimes it’s a small thing and sometimes it is not, but our bags were in our rooms neatly tucked in the walk in closet before we got there.  That combined with the butler briefing and the room set up and we were 100% confident that we were in good hands.  We spent 8 days in Kenya at various hotels and lodges and I can universally say that the service ethos and the genuine friendliness of Kenyan’s puts the service levels on par with any country and any hotel we have stayed in.  That same standard was evident at Hemmingway’s.

We arrived near midnight, were tired from 16 hours of travel and a bit hungry. A pasta primavera and a Bolognese arrived in less than 30 minutes and was on par with any good Italian offering in lower Manhattan.  The room was a cross between a colonial décor and contemporary.  The bathroom and walk in closet were huge, with a deep stand-alone tub and a shower with two shower heads that spewed double the water volume that you get at home.   A shower followed by the pasta/red wine offering and a deluxe king bed with great linens made for a great first night in country.

The room was huge with a seating area in front of a retractable TV as well as two desks and a comfortable lounge chair perfect for reading or relaxing.   Adjacent to our standard room we had a suite with another larger seating area, 4 seat dining table, another desk, 60 inch flat screen tv, another ½ bathroom, full kitchen and grand entry hall.  Totally not necessary but a bit of decadence never hurt anyone.

We had one breakfast and one lunch at the hotel.  The breakfast was both a buffet with fruit, breads, cereals, juices and some cheese and meats as well as a full on al a carte menu.  Breakfast was great and again the service was flawless.  Our lunch took a long time only because the menu had a bit of everything (probably 40 items on offer) and roughly 12 -15 glasses of red and a similar number of whites available by the glass.  That was in addition to a meaningfully extensive wine list (by the bottle).

The hotel has a small gym and a spa.  I had a 90 minute massage for roughly ¼ the price of a North American hotel.  Both my husband and I made good use of the dry sauna and steam in the spa area.  A nice reprieve after a travel day or time on safari.

I haven’t been to every hotel in Nairobi but based on some feedback from unbiased ground operators that we chatted with our sense is that Hemingway’s has become the best hotel offering in Nairobi.   Based on our experience the hotel has a room, food and service offering to keep pace with the best hotels in any large US/European metropolitan market.

 

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