Planes, trains and automobiles across Kenya
The Swahili word ‘safari’ has actually very little to do with game viewing, but rather translates to ‘journey’ – the etymology of which is the Arabic word ‘safar’. Nowadays, the implication is that visitors will spend this journey in the wilderness watching wildlife, but my fiancé and I were keen to take the concept more literally over the course of two glorious weeks in the south of Kenya.
Travelling from the bush to the beach, our goal was to experience as much of the country’s diverse landscapes, cultures and wildlife as possible in this relatively short space of time. And we also aimed to take as many means of transport available to get a feel of what it meant to travel in Kenya – as a local, as well as a tourist.
There was method to our madness, which was inspired by the sheer diversity of this incredible East African destination. With so much more to offer than just the great migration, Kenya is a real melting pot in which 67 languages are spoken thanks to the 70 distinct ethnic groups and 42 tribes that call the country home. A plethora of idyllic beaches, lakes and mountains merge to form its landscapes; not to mention a smorgasbord of national parks, game reserves and conservancies that can boast three subspecies of giraffe, over 1,100 species of birds, the world’s only northern white rhinos, and some of Africa’s most notable significant tusker populations.
Into the wild
So it was that our journey began on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park – home to the famous big tusker Tim – where after experiencing the benefits of an ‘African massage’ by driving over miles of bumpy terrain, we arrived at Porini Amboseli Camp. This luxury tented camp, which is set in the 15,000 acres of the Selenkay Conservancy, was voted as one of the 50 top eco-lodges in the world, so it had a lot to live up to. Thankfully it most certainly did, and within the first few hours, we saw three lionesses on the move, as well as gerenuks and countless Maasai giraffes, before toasting to the start of our adventure next to a herd of wildebeest grazing at sunset.
After our eventful first drive, we assumed that our bush experience had already reached its dramatic apogee, but every day that followed in the Kenyan wilderness offered something new and unique.
Elephants abounded in Amboseli the next morning, and while a newborn elephant tried to find its feet when crossing the road in front of us, three cheetahs decided to make chase on a family of warthogs alongside the vehicle. By the time we left the park, we had fallen in love with the romantic backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro and were sceptical about what could compare.
However, two days later as we watched from our 12-seater Safarilink plane while zebras dispersed from the runway when we came in to land at Nanyuki, we realised that so much more still lay in store. And we were just in time to celebrate equinox on the equator by watching a family of cheetahs attempting to hunt a Thomson’s gazelle at a waterhole in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. But the highlight of our stay in the conservancy at Porini Rhino Camp was still to come, and it arrived the following morning in the shape of a six-month-old southern white rhino.
After visiting the conservancy’s endangered species enclosure to see the endangered Grévy’s zebras and the world’s last three remaining northern white rhinos – including the oldest of the bunch, 42-year-old Sudan – we were regaled with the antics of the very excitable Ringo. Reminiscent of a large labrador, this baby rhino seemed only to have belly rubs and lunchtime on his mind, and having gone for a week without milk when his mum abandoned him, it’s understandable why. Luckily the rangers at Ol Pejeta took little Ringo under their wing, and they continue to give him all the love and attention he needs. Rhinos also have shorter memories than other animals, so when the time comes, it should be easier to reintroduce him back into the conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya without any negative human imprinting.
Needless to say, we left Porini Rhino in a starstruck daze and, as we waved goodbye to the six lions that had come to bid us farewell, we realised that this was just a preview of what was to come at our next destination.
Olare Motogori Conservancy adjoins the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve and is reputed to be the “best place in Africa to see lions.” After we saw two mating lions just hours after landing at the airstrip, we realised that this was no exaggeration. However, it wasn’t only the lions that made our time at Porini Lion Camp so remarkable, but all the big cats that made an appearance during our short stay – including the legendary leopard Fig and her cub, as well as the famous cheetah Malaika with her offspring.
More than anything, it was the sense of space and surrounding majesty that left me so in awe, and I’m not sure it’s possible to enjoy a bush breakfast in a more expansive setting. As the sun set on our final evening over a pod of hippos, we journeyed up a hill to have sundowners overlooking the plains. A cackle of hyenas came to join us, passing unperturbed just a few feet away, and I felt humbled by the sheer magnificence of it all. Raising my G&T to the dusk, I felt more uplifted than the spring hares that we spotted on our night drive back to camp; and I understood why people insist on returning to this area of the world time and time again.
Life’s a beach
In time-honoured tradition, after we had seen our fair share of the Big Five, the Small Five and the Ugly Five, it was time to move on to the next exciting chapter of our travels. Tropical beaches lined with palm trees were calling and, after a 36-hour train ride that we had foolishly believed would only take 12 hours, we stumbled bleary-eyed onto the spectacular shores of the Indian Ocean at the delightful Shimoni Reef Lodge.
The stunning sunset vista from our daybed, along with the incredibly friendly staff at the hotel, provided some much-needed comfort for our weary bodies. And we soon forgot the trauma of train travel when we found ourselves swimming with dolphins in the crystal clear waters of the Kenyan Barrier Reef – the second-longest coral reef in the world. While snorkelling with Charlie Claw’s in Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park, which lies just six kilometres offshore from the quaint town of Shimoni, a playful pod decided to show off their underwater skills in the waters below our flailing limbs. It’s difficult to describe how intoxicating their presence was and, as we lay contemplating the encounter on the white sands of a nearby island, it was only the feel of the sun on our skin that assured us this was not a dream.
After all the excitement, it was soon time to travel the short distance to AfroChic Diani – an exclusive boutique hotel on the popular Diani Beach – for some much-needed relaxation. Here we spent two days reading our books on swinging sun loungers, alternating between swimming in the warm ocean and the pool, and happily piling on the pounds thanks to the hotel’s fine dining. With our hardest decision being which way to walk down the beach at sunset, we allowed our brains and bodies to turn to mulch and surrendered to the sea breeze.
Once we had sufficiently tanned our bingo wings, we were ready to travel further up the coast to our final destination – the beautiful enclave of Watamu. The town’s popularity with Italian tourists means that it offers a refreshing dietary change from Kenyan cuisine such as nyoma choma, which had initially been described to us as “burnt meat.” Not dissimilar to what you’d find at a South African braai, you can eat this barbecued fare pretty much everywhere, and it is considered particularly palatable when paired with stewed kale and a staple starch side dish called ugali.
So it was in this kitesurfer’s paradise that we finished our Kenyan safari by devouring homemade passion fruit and coconut gelato and marvelling at the power of the imagination at the creative retreat that is Watamu Treehouse. Feeling inspired by this magical hideaway that overlooks vast expanses of forest and beach, it was a fairytale ending to a fairytale journey. And as we watched an African fish eagle soar over the mangroves that surround the kayaking mecca of Mida Creek, we knew that we would be those people that would keep returning to Kenya time and time again.
Considering the distances and difficult driving conditions between certain national parks in Kenya, hopping on a Safarilink plane to the variety of bush destinations is definitely the way forward if you only have a short amount of time to spare. There is also nothing quite like the thrill of watching a herd of impala scatter from the runway before take-off or spotting a hippo out of the window before landing.
Unless you have a great deal of time on your hands and a penchant for train travel, this may not be the best way to cross the mere 441km distance between Nairobi and Mombasa. However, if you do feel compelled to practice the art of patience, it is an interesting way to avoid the notorious Kenyan traffic and to get a glimpse of the elephants in Tsavo National Park. The new Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway should also be up and running by June 2017, and there are high hopes that this will make the journey much more reliable. However, there is a great deal of conservation controversy surrounding its construction, so do some research beforehand to decide how it sits with you.
By far the most comfortable and efficient way to travel overland in Kenya is in a car with a company such as Safari Exposure. If you don’t have enough Kenyan shillings to take to the skies, then this is a more affordable way to be shuttled door-to-door with experts who know where they’re going. The small team are not only a pleasure to spend time with, but the care they put into their service is second to none.
We were ushered into various matatus on our travels up the coast from Shimoni to Watamu, and these were always so much more than a means of getting from A to B. As a result of the blaring music, there was never much chance for reading in these anarchic minibuses, so we were instead forced to surrender to the haphazard nature of a system that seemed to work inexplicably.
Sitting next to five adults, who are equally as squashed into a seat intended for two, your body slowly morphs to take the shape of your neighbour’s derriere, and you wonder whether it is healthy to sweat so much. The constant thought echoes in your mind that surely the minibus must be full enough, but the engine continues to be revved, hoping to entice a stray wanderer who may feel inclined to jump into the sticky mass of bodies. However, once you pull away and the matatu weaves its way through traffic and villages, picking up more people en route to its destination, it gives a fantastic insight into everyday Kenyan life. In the words of the author, Paul Theroux: “This was the lovely weird essence that I looked for in travel – both baffling and familiar,” and some of my favourite moments on our trip were spent in these sweaty ovens.
Mombasa is actually on a small island so you’ll need to take a short ferry ride to reach the beaches to the south, such as Diani and Shimoni. We took this on foot, and it’s entirely free for pedestrian passengers!
Jump onto the back of a motorbike taxi – referred to as a ‘boda-boda’ or a ‘piki-piki’ – for a quick and affordable way of zipping around town. Many a dextrous driver managed to fit both of us and our backpacks onto their bike while maintaining a sense of equilibrium over even the most rundown roads. This would always be my chosen means of transport, but it is only really an option when covering short distances.
Rumour has it that the name boda-boda comes from a time when motorbikes were used to transport people back and forth across the Ugandan border. The word ‘border’ quickly evolved to ‘boda’, and it stuck as a term.
Flagging down a tuk-tuk along the coast is one of the easiest ways to get around if you’re looking for a three-wheeled option that doesn’t require a great deal of waiting for other passengers.
Where to stay
An ideal place to spend the night in Nairobi – whether on a stopover or looking for a base from which to explore the city – is Town Lodge Upper Hill Nairobi.
Located within walking distance of the city centre and with a great choice of restaurants at its adjoining sister hotel, it is the perfect place for jetlagged souls to ease their way into bustling East African life.
Alternatively, if you are keen to get a bush fix but are unable to venture too far from the capital, then head straight to Nairobi Tented Camp – the only accommodation in Nairobi National Park. The backdrop of a city may seem like an unusual setting, but it is this juxtaposition that makes it so unique. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it will be a watered-down experience – we even encountered a buffalo outside of our tent on the way to dinner! And if you’re lucky, you may get to meet Fred, the resident warthog.
Then on the coastal front, tumble off the train or out of a car into Severin Sea Lodge – a resort with Zanzibari touches that is situated on the lovely Bamburi Beach, near the buzz of vibrant Mombasa. Hearty buffets and a host of daily activities make this a great place to unwind if you don’t want to worry about the kids getting bored!
In between Diani and Watamu lies the sleepy seaside town of Kilifi, where many a foreigner has had the good sense to buy a holiday home. We broke up our coastal journey by spending a couple of blissful days strolling along the vast, empty beach and soaking up the infinity pool at The Beach House Kilifi – a state of the art home that was built with elegance and privacy in mind. Thanks to its in-house chefs, it is the ideal setting to celebrate a happy occasion with a group or spend quality time with a loved one. So if you’re looking to get off the beaten track and onto an untouched beach, look no further than this beacon of architectural design.
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About the author
MEI CAPES is half-Chinese, born in England, and South African at heart. She received a BA Joint Honours in French and German from the University of Warwick before spending a decade bumbling around Asia, Central America, Australia and Europe, then settling in Cape Town.
Tired of pretending to be a grown-up, she takes every opportunity she can to explore her new home continent, accompanied by her canine best friend and her fiancé, who will even face his fear of heights in a tiny propeller plane to stop her whinging about being bored.