Loc: 2007 till now Hanoi, Vietnam (...
We booked another trip booked with Emirates Holidays, this time to Kenya, Africa with our Australian friends, Rob and Trudy who we met whilst living in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. I must state at the start that the four of us had no particular advance knowledge of Africa, or the wilds of an African Safari adventure, other than what is available from reading National Geographic magazine or watching similar fare on the Tube. So, it sounded like a good idea and we decided to give it a go. We booked our 5 days / 4 nights trip with ‘’3-star’’ level accommodations, and pre-paid for all bookings and meals. When booking, we were told that private small group Safaris can be booked at higher rates, so we opted for the standard group tour which could include up to 8 people in a 10 passenger minivan.
First day - we flew out of Dubai, U.A.E. on an Airbus 330-200. As we climbed to our ultimate cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, our route took us over the mountains to neighbouring Oman and onwards towards Yemen, then across the Sea of Aden, over the coast of Ethiopia, and on to Kenya. Flying time 4 ½ hours was just about alright [for economy class]. Emirates is a ‘’switched on’’ airlines and their planes are in great shape. We arrived just before 1:00PM local time (GMT + 3) and proceeded to immigration to purchase our Kenya entry visa. NOTE – if you have access to a Kenyan Embassy the visa can be pre-purchased and stamped into your passport before the trip. Our friends had visited the embassy in the UAE and done this, but since there is no Kenyan Embassy here in Kuwait we had to purchase ours at the airport. Cost of the visitor visa is USD $50.00 EACH, wife and I = USD$100.00, payable in US cash. After we got our visa stamp we moved straight to luggage collection and discovered that Rob and Trudy had collected our luggage, loaded up the trolley and were waiting on us (brilliant mates indeed!) We were then approached by an Emirates tour representative who loaded us into a 10 passenger van and we headed off to downtown Nairobi, destination ‘’The Stanley’’ hotel, in the city-centre for our first overnight stay. (The safari started the next morning.) The Stanley Hotel, Nairobi, is part of the Sarova Hotel chain and is a nice older 10 story hotel with colonial (British) touches. We were given a good sized comfortable room with ensuite bathroom. We had lunch and wine at their outdoor café – good food and service, then wandered the streets near the hotel. Dinner and drinks were taken at the first floor club restaurant. Great food with excellent service. We were greeted in the lobby after breakfast the next morning by Peter Mutisya, tour conductor for Southern Cross Tour Company. Peter is a member of the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association and proved himself to be very professional, very attentive and very accommodating. Peter informed us that there would only be the four of us (plus Peter) on the Safari. WOW, lucky us, no cramped vehicle! ( and we did not have to pay the up lift for private tour ). We climbed into a modified minivan (roof made to be a pop-up, allowing people to stand and look out whilst still being covered from the sun or rain) and headed out on the 3 hour drive to Lake Nakuru National Park. Along the way Peter was a font of information on the local political, social and general daily life experiences of a typical Kenyan. After a while, he suggested that we visit a small camp where a guide would take us out onto Lake Nakuru for an hour of close-up photo ops of water birds and hippos. This was a great suggestion and we were glad we took the boat trip. After that we continued on to the Sarova – Lion Hill Lodge, Lake Nakuru where we checked in and enjoyed a late lunch. Our Accommodations here were in individual Duplex cottages of stone construction built onto the side of a hill. Smaller than the hotel room, the double bed with mossie netting filled 95% of the room, but for only one night, so no worries! Ensuite bathroom with tub and hot water shower. After lunch we freshened up a bit and reconvened for a 4PM journey out to see the land around the lake and the indigenous animals. This proved to be the start of ‘’dinner time’’ for the animals and it was fascinating to see them eat. All vegetarians (no carnivorous lions here!) The animals have apparently gotten accustomed to seeing minivans full of human visitors snapping photos of them and decided that we are harmless and pose no threat to them. Peter stopped the van several times and turned off the engine. All was silent except for the sound of monkeys, zebras and rhinos chewing their meal and padding about. It was amazing to see the animals walk close by the van and either look up at you (or ignore you) and continue on their way. We drove over to the shore of the lake and Peter informed that wew were looking at two species of Flamingo (the greater and the lesser Flamingo). I would guess there were about 1,000 of them, all around us. After about 2 hours of looking and photo snapping it was back to the lodge for (human) dinner time. All meals, lunch, dinner and breakfast the next morning were served buffet style with great soup, meat, fish, vegetables, curry, breads, deserts, fruits, ice cream, coffee / tea available. Evening entertainment around the campfire featured a group of local Masai dancers doing a welcome dance for us (a-lotta jumping about) and chants (sort of a deep grunting sound). During the entertainment, the lodge bartender made his way around serving wine and drinks. Lovely.
Third and Fourth day – We were up early for breakfast on day three and headed off to Sarova –Mara Camp, near the Tanzania border. The travel brochure states that this would be an unforgettable drive down the Great Rift Valley, and it was. The valley is quite wide and indeed long. This proved to be a 6 hour drive. Oh yes, Kenya’s paved roadway system is, uh … rugged.... In the years since independence from Brittan (early 1960’s), the roads have fallen into poor condition. Main roads near Nairobi were OK, but further out into the hinterlands they fell rough. Large trucks ply the roadways hauling produce and other goods. As a result, huge pot holes seemed to be the norm. In places the road was stone and dirt. Peter was undaunted by this and kept up the pace at 100 KM/Hr. He informed us that the tour company owner was a former Kenya road rally participant and had specially modified the vans with ‘’rally suspension’’ for such eventualities. With a deft hand on the wheel, and a mixture of braking, shifting and acceleration, Peter managed to maneuver us around 85% of the potholes. When he encountered those that were of extended length he shifted off the road. Apparently this is quite common as the shoulders are well compacted with tyre tracks. Yes, right then, make a note, one should not expect silky smooth highways whilst on a safari. After a while we stopped for a break at a conveniently located gift shop and coffee / tea stand. As we climbed out of the van the proprietor smiled at us and told us that the ride tends to exert pressure on the bladder. He then pointed the way to the toilet block. After we returned, he escorted us into the gift shop and encouraged us to purchase handmade carved wooden souvenirs that he and his laborers make on site. (I am skeptical about the ‘’hand made on site’’ part). More on gift shops and their prices later. We continued on, and eventually approached the Masai Mara National reserve where we began to see groups of 10 to 12 Masai tribesmen standing by the road side, apparently waiting for someone to come by. Oh yes, that would be us. We stopped and ‘’donated’’ USD $20.00 apiece to the tribe and were told that they would dance for us and show us their village and how they lived. The welcome dance and chanting had a familiar ring… We were then escorted about 20 meters further along the road to their village. Small huts constructed of slender wood branches, covered with buffalo dung. A barnyard aroma gently drifted thru the air. We were invited inside one of the huts and shown about. We were shown how they make fire and were told that they wear red coverings to frighten the lions away. Tour completed we were taken to their gift shop, out back. Hey, do some of these hand made items look familiar?
On to the National Reserve gate. While Peter attended to the formalities of showing his vehicle pass and paying the entry fees, we were surrounded by a crowd of Masai women offering to sell us hand made items. Uh, haven’t we just seen these same… oh, Peter lets push on.
We eventually arrived at the Sarova –Mara Camp, which accommodates guests in Canvas ‘’cabin style’ Tents. Ah yes, the truly rugged Safari life begins, tenting amongst the wild animals of ‘’deepest Africa’’. A Tarzan like existence ready to unfold. Actually camp is enclosed within an electrified fenced area and the tents are pitched under an open-sided and roofed wooden structure… with attached private bathroom (functionally sized with toilet, sink, and hot water shower). The tent was furnished with a double bed, writing desk and chair, side tables, closet and zipper-up (screened) windows and entry flap. Pulling a cord at the front zipper illuminated the electric lights. The tent had electrical power points (handy for re-charging the digital camera) but did not have TV / Phone / internet connection, or mini-bar. (Well it was a rugged Safari holiday, remember?) There was bed turndown service and complimentary mozzie sprays every night. (rugged, yes??) Outside the tent entrance was a covered deck with two chairs and a small table. We enjoyed a bottle of wine (South African of course) with Rob and Trudy on the deck the first afternoon. At 4 PM it was time to search for (Track) the animals, so back into the van and off to the great outdoors. This reserve is huge and spectacular. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of the place, but of course I shall try. Large open fields with grasses and a scattering of Acacia trees (the ones with the flat tops that one sees in National Geographic pictures of Africa). Peter silently stops the van and tells us to look to the right, 100 meters ahead. We discover a herd of giraffes nibbling at the tree tops. The cameras begin snapping away. Peter moves the van closer and shuts down the engine. Silence except for the sound of eating, a mere 3 meters away. We look in another direction and see a herd of elephants walking by. And so it goes, for the next 2 hours Peter moved the van skillfully from here to there pointing out wild life. We eventually made our way back to the camp for dinner (Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast was same buffet fare as at the Lion Hill Lodge). The evening’s entertainment was, why yes, the now quite familiar welcome dance and chants, but with a different (I think) set of Masai dancers. After this we sat in the ‘’lodge’’ by the pit fireplace and enjoyed some after dinner drinks before retiring to our tents. Apparently ‘’everyone’’ decided to shower before bed, so the water pressure was barely a dribble. But it was hot.
The night was cool, but there were enough blankets on the bed to keep us warm.
The morning of day four saw the guys up and at-em early for big game tracking and a trip to the border area to visit the Crocodiles and hippos. The girls claimed that they wanted to sleep in after the long bumpy journey. We traveled about 1 hour out of camp, stopping to snap more photos of the magnificent animals. Naturally they were everywhere. We arrived at the border (of Tanzania) area and were met by and escorted by an armed soldier of the Kenyan military. He informed us that he was assigned to guard against poachers and to ensure the safety of tourists, in case one of the animals ‘’should decide to engage in inappropriate behaviour’’. The animals (both 2 legged and 4 legged) behaved themselves on the journey. At one point, while we walked on a bluff just above the river’s edge, we noticed a crocodile eyeballing us as he swam parallel with us. I’m sure that if one of us had slipped down towards the water, he would have been right there to engage in ‘’meet and eat’’ activities. Hey soldier, is that rife loaded? Can you check it again?
We returned to the camp in time for a late lunch and found the girls had recovered enough to move to the pool area and were relaxing and enjoying a glass of wine. We filled them in on our morning tracking adventures. Soon it was time for the afternoon tracking. This time it was better than ever. Lions were spotted. We saw a lion eating dinner a few feet from the van. He paid scant attention to us. Being vegetarian, I of course was not about to ask for a piece of his meal. We moved amongst a herd of buffalo grazing on a sloped incline and watched the nearby lions as they reviewed the dinner menu.
Day five saw us on the van headed back to Nairobi, pleasantly satisfied. We ate a great lunch – not buffet, at the Norfolk Hotel (100 years old this year) and then were taken back to the airport for our flight back to Dubai. We arrived in Dubai at midnight.
Points to note when you go there:
Start by checking the US-CIA website ( www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ke.html ) for background information on the country and its political situation. It is worth a check. The Emirates Tour driver that met us at the airport briefed us on what to be aware of whilst in Nairobi. Kenya and Nairobi has a 40% rate of unemployment and a new government which striving to overcome the previous reign of a corrupt government (as evident in the non-maintained road system). Don’t drink the water, in Nairobi you can use tap water to brush your teeth, but must use bottled water when outside the city. We carried packages of Sanitary hand wipes to use during the day, especially before eating. Do not give money to beggars; do not wander around Nairobi after dark without a guard escort. We noticed that within the Stanley Hotel, each floor level had an armed guard roaming about the floor. We asked if this was to keep ‘’street people’’ from wandering thru and were told that sometimes people with bad intentions check-in and then try to burgle the guests in adjacent rooms. Being Americans / Australians, living in the Middle East we have become accustomed to always being in a vigilant, US department of Homeland Security induced ‘’Code Orange” state of mind, so we were not overly distressed by any of this information. We did our wandering about in daylight hours and told the two street beggars who approached us to ‘’bugger off’’.
Shopping – You MUST bargain. We stopped at a couple of gift shops whilst en-route and notice that the merchandise seems to be all the same. Actually very nice carved wood (ebony, or rosewood). The theme of the carvings is either animals, or groupings of Masai tribesmen / families. Some of the works are from the primitive school of art, others more familiar looking, such as smoothly sanded carvings of animals or people. Pricing is set by the sales person and is as high as they think the customer will pay. Bargaining is a must, unless you like to pay high prices. At one stop my wife and Trudy decided they wanted a pair of carved animal figures. The shop keeper promptly told them it would be $160 USD for the pair. I was summoned to finalise the deal and pay up. I was told that ‘’madam really wants’’ these pieces. I cast an annoyed glance at the merchandise and offered UDS$5 each for them. The shop keeper said, ‘’obviously you do not want to buy anything’’ to which I replied, you’re right, and walked away. I left the shop and returned to the van. Within 1 minute the shop keeper was outside at my side with a new price of USD$80 for the pair. I told him that I would pay him in US cash instead of local currency, (he showed new interest) and perhaps would give USD$10 each. He ran back to the shop and re-appeared with the merchandise and told me how beautiful they looked in daylight and claimed that he could ‘’sacrifice’’ the pair to me for a special final deal of USD $60 for the pair. I shook my head no, and he countered with USD$50. I pressed USD$40 into his hand and he handed me the pair and walked away happy. Wife and Trudy were also happy and were surprised at what I had paid. I replied that since he was obviously asking a ridiculous starting price, I would do likewise, and we would see where we end up. By the way, the same merchandise is sold at the duty free shop at the Nairobi Airport as well as the hotel gift shops. The price stickers on the merchandise there show a more realistic (ie.low) price, so beware of roadside shops.
Tipping – remember that there is a the high rate of unemployment in Kenya and cash tips (in the local currency) are always appreciated by wait staff and porters. We planned to tip Peter at the end of the trip, in cash, based on a rule of thumb of USD $5 to $10 per day per person, but felt that his service was better than we could have hoped for, so we increased it nicely.
Summary of observations:
On this trip we all saw just a small part the beauty that is Africa. We saw the African ‘’Big five’’, being lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. We also saw Flamingos, monkeys, Zebras, giraffes, Impalas, wildebeests and gazelles. We shot 5 rolls of 35mm film and over 250 digital photos. We will return to Africa again.
Our flying time was relatively short as we are currently living in the Middle East and are therefore already most of the way there. Flights from the USA would either leave from Atlanta via Delta/S.A.A. to J’berg ( 22 hours+/-), then on up to Nairobi (3 hours+/-), or thru europe ( 7 hours to UK + 8 hours to Dubai,) and down (the afforementioned 4 ½ hours). Allow for the flying time, and the resultant ( yawn) jet lag. Zzzz!.
Ciao, Ken & Pam, Rob & Trudy