For good reason Kenyan safaris are on many travelers’ bucket lists. There are few places where you can witness the animal kingdom’s magic unfold amid majestic vistas and sunsets, then have cocktails, dinner and retire in marvelous comfort while often serenaded by monkeys squeaking, hippos grunting or hyenas laughing.
For this 10-day jaunt I used Daniel (X-Ray Eyes) Kikemu, the DK of DK Grand Safaris. Daniel was our trusted guide, inspiring wildlife professor and continuing practical jokester. And he also became a friend. When we weren’t in animal, accommodation or alimentary awe, we were heartily laughing. www.DKGrandSafaris.com. Tel 877/409-0897 (8:00am – 8:00pm Pacific Standard Time). DK Grand Safaris can customize safaris from seven to 14 days starting at $2,555 per person, including all accommodations, meals, guides, drivers, game park fees and domestic air. DK can also arrange trips to neighboring Tanzania and Uganda.
There are many game parks and many types of travelers, both young and young-at-heart, and DK can tailor arrange the experience so that it will be “life changing” as is so often uttered by Kenyan travelers.
Here are several combinable options to forge an extraordinary Kenyan safari experience.
For the curator
To view local culture and traditions different from one’s daily life, nothing beats Samburu. In this northern Kenya region, we stayed at Larsen’s Tented Camp located within the reserve.
Larsen’s 20 “tents” have king-sized beds, hardwood floors, mirrored make-up tables (not that one would consider wearing make-up in the bush), armoires, teapots, complimentary mini-bar, and massive bathrooms with walk-in showers. From our Ewasu River facing veranda, elephants came to drink, impalas grazed and monkeys frolicked. There’s an inviting lodge, bar and swimming pool. www.wildernesslodges.co.ke
The Samburu people are semi-nomadic pastoralists. At Samburu Village, the 30-something Chief Josphat – who I met during a prior Kenyan visit – showed us around. Now with 160 inhabitants, polygamy was the norm in Josphat’s father’s generation and is still legal. Some men marry as many as 10 women and have dozens of children. But when I asked Josphat if he added any wives in the past three years, he shook his head chuckling saying, “too expensive for more.” (Each wife costs the groom 10 cows.)
We were invited inside a traditional boma – a low, dirt floor thatched hut, with open fire-pit and dung or rice bag roof. Stopping at the children’s area, preschoolers sat under acacia trees singing Samburu nursery rhymes. We watched elders play entoitoi – a checkers like game played with stones – and were treated to traditional marriage dances appearing more athletic than romantic.
Game drives were eventful with the Samburu Five: gerenuks – a kangaroo wanna-be, Grévi zebras, Reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches and Beira oryx. Also in abundance dyk-dyks, grand gazelles, elephants and high atop an acacia tree, a sprawled-out leopard.
For the adventurer
For an action packed few days that races one’s pulse, the Maasai Mara is a must.
Arriving to Mara north airstrip in an 11-seater Cessna Caravan, within five minutes we saw lions aplenty, topi antelopes standing atop their pointed mounds, Maasai giraffes, herds of common zebras, wildebeests and various animal skeletons – reminders that bush law is always supreme.
Arriving at Karen Blixen Eco Camp, we were greeted by an unforgettable sight: a dozen, partially submerged hippos lollygagging in the Mara River facing the camp. With 22 well-appointed tents, each has a river view, large veranda and enclosed outdoor shower. At dusk several matriarch elephants and their newborns came riverside to quench their thirst. www.karenblixencamp.com
It was here in the Mara that we saw a cheetah pounce with lightening speed on an unsuspecting Thomson Gazelle. Clutching the startled prey by the neck, the cheetah bore down, ending the herbivore’s misery while dragging it to her waiting 18-month old cubs. With Darwinian angst, my daughter and I watched the three felines completely devour the elegant, doe-eyed Tommie. The satiated, bloody-faced felines then licked each other’s faces clean to not attract their own predators: hyenas.
One marvelous aspect of Mara game drives is the variety of animals communing: topis, warthogs, zebras, impalas, banded mongoose and Maasai ostriches in harmony. Nearby a large community of Rock hyrax scampered while ten minutes later we came upon a den of nine cubs frolicking by their lioness moms.
A huge herd of Cape Buffaloes grazed and then we came upon a lioness and her two-year-old cubs devouring a just-killed warthog. Apparently the warthog didn’t go down easily: one cub bore an enormous shoulder gash – the warthog’s tusk’s futile last ditch defense.
There were also continuous surprises of the human variety. Daniel secretly arranged for a campfire, hors d’oeuvres and a full bar in the Bush. Shades of persimmon burned the vista as the ball-of-fire sun set beyond the acacia-laden horizon. It was hard to imagine a greater bliss.
An evening game ride with an infrared torch – so not to startle or blind the animals – brought into view nocturnal spring hares, jackals and hyenas on the prowl for Tommies. As the jeep hummed, its swaying motion made me sleepy while realizing that Bush nights are some of our planet’s darkest.
Daniel offered us a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Preferring instead to keep my feet grounded while sleeping in, our breakfast reward was a breathtaking site of several elephant families, at least 25 members, drinking from the Mara River as we drank Kenyan coffee.
For the unwinder
For travelers happy to go along provided they can relax in a beautiful new setting, Mount Kenya is the place. Located just south of the equator, Mt. Kenya is Africa’s second highest peak after neighboring Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro.
This central region, inhabited mostly by Kikuyu people, is Kenya’s breadbasket with verdant green hills and valleys.
At Fairmont Mt. Kenya Safari Club, there are 120 beautifully appointed rooms on over 100 acres of breathtaking grounds with enough activities to keep one busy for days. There’s golf, tennis, croquet, horseback riding (eastern saddles), an animal orphanage and beautiful pool, all with Mt. Kenya as the panoramic backdrop.
After feeding the horses and walking the four-legged ambassadors: Labradors Tusker and Grammy, I enjoyed the well-equipped gym and had an excellent massage at the spa. There are also plenty of storks, baboons and neon-tailed peacocks strolling this gorgeous property. No small wonder it was originally the private retreat of founder William Holden who spent time there with Stephanie Powers. Powers still has a home on the property and remains very involved with wildlife conservation. www.fairmont.com
For the Epicurean
For bush travelers, game viewers and birders who wish to eat fabulous fare on fine china served on white linen, drink paired wines in crystal and sleep in perhaps the most luxurious “tents” on earth, Finch Hattons in Tsavo West National Park is the place. In Southern Kenya, it’s set in the Chyulu Hills with Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro on the horizon. In addition to elephants, leopards, Cape Buffaloes, dyk-dyks and lesser kudu, dozens of Tsavo’s nearly 500 bird species joined our game drives.
Our tent had hardwood floors, luxurious bedding under a cut crystal chandelier, indoor and outdoor showers, copper soaking tub, dual granite vanity, zebra-skin trunk bar with tea service and homemade cookies. The enormous veranda overlooked a river cabbage covered pond.
We had dinner under the stars where talented Chef Sammy George prepared a six-course meal of delicacies including smoked sailfish, tree tomato sorbet and grilled pork chops paired with New Zealand and Chilean wines. Meals here were remarkable for freshness, diversity and exquisite taste while assaulting dietary decency in an atmosphere like no other, coupled with service so impeccable that royalty would be deeply satisfied. www.finchhattons.com
For the Chameleons
For those who relish new opportunities, uncommon experiences and are comfortable in a variety of settings, regardless of what kind of Kenyan safari experience you choose, it will be utterly unforgettable.
As historian Miriam Beard once said, “Certainly travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” With DK’s knowledge, kindness and humor, your views and ideas will never quite be the same. And this of course is the very reason we travel to the far corners of the earth in the first place.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.VagabondLawyer.com