Kenya: The Magical Country
By Lin Low
(Editor’s Note: Lin Low is a travel agent who frequently attends "familiarization" or FAM visits, organized and sponsored by tourism boards and travel companies. While not typical of a trip most visitors would take, these FAM outings offer a sweeping overview of an area’s highlights and most popular attractions.)
After years of watching National Geographic specials and reading books about Kenya, I have always wanted to go to there. I studied and became a tour specialist on Kenya and recently joined the Kenya Tourism Board on a 9-day journey to this amazing African country.
To know and love Kenya, one must first understand that this is a country of dramatic contrasts. Covering an area similar to the size of France (almost 225,000 square miles), Kenya stretches from five degrees north to five degrees south of the equator. Altitudes range from sea level to 17,058 feet at the peak of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain.
Kenya possesses a plethora of natural habitats and terrain, from coral reefs to open grasslands and tropical forest, from snow-capped volcanoes to arid desert. Its national parks and game reserves host the most abundant and varied wildlife in the world. Its population of some 27 million includes over 40 ethnic groups, with cultural influences from all over Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. In so many ways, Kenya is almost a microcosm of the entire African continent.
Though there are several reliable tour companies to make your journey to Kenya a memorable one, we had the privilege of going on the Outdoor Expedition Safaris Ltd. Tour , led by our host Riz Virji. For our 9 days of touring and lodging with food, the comparable price for this land package would run approximately $3,400, according to the Kenya Tourism Board.
If you decide to go to Kenya, avoid going in April and May, the rainiest time of year. Do wear comfortable clothes for your flight. The air time alone is 24 hours! Flights from SFO to Nairobi can cost $1,400 on up, according to a recent search on Expedia.com. Airlines that fly here include KLM, British Airways, and a few others.
After a van ride from the Nairobi airport, our first stop was the Nairobi Serena Hotel . This elegant hotel, lavishly decorated with vibrant local colors and fabrics, features well over 200 rooms. The outdoor swimming pool is surrounded with a variety of indigenous, exotic trees and vegetation. It also has a great spa facility, so one can be totally pampered after the long voyage. The on-site Mandhari Restaurant , underscores the fact you are in Africa with its African decor and exotic art theme. Much of the restaurant fare in Kenya is barbequed meat. Thus, this place is a carnivore’s dream- beef, lamb, pork, even alligator is served everywhere.
The first day of touring meant traveling to the region of Lewa Downs . The Lewa Downs camp is probably best known for the Grevy’s zebra. Located in the 45,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya, this charming property is perched atop a hill with stunning panoramic views of the conservancy and its rolling landscape, valleys and hills.
Lewa Downs is a unique and true Kenyan bush experience. It is a small, quaint property that can accommodate up to 12 people. It features three large cottages, each beautifully decorated with a double and a twin room.
The temperatures in April are in the 70’s during the daytime and go to the low 60’s at night. It was good that all the beds had heating pads so when I went to bed at night, it felt so warm and comfortable. In fact, I found out that all the lodgings where I stayed had this except for the Peponi Hotel in Lamu where the temperatures are warmer by 10 degrees.
The Lewa Safari Camp features tented accommodations and is a non-profit private game reserve, owned and managed by the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Proceeds from the Lewa Safari Camp go to wildlife conservation and community development programs for building schools, feeding children, as well as rehabilitating orphaned and injured rhinos and zebras.
We saw three rhino orphans due for release to the wild when they turn 18 months old. Besides seeing the world famous Grevy’s Zebras and other animals, activities include day and night game drives, guided hiking tours, and horseback rides.
MAASAI MARA, Ilkeliani Tented Camp
Going to Maasai Mara was a dream come true. Maasai Mara represents one of Kenya’s most-beloved reserves encompassing 1,039 square miles of wide savannas, rolling hills and forest. It boasts huge grazing herds, bountiful bird life, and Africa’s largest population of lions.
As our 4-wheel drive passed through the vast Mara wilderness to the Ilkeliani Camp, we felt as though we were on a National Geographic safari as we spotted giraffes, buffaloes, wildebeest, hartebeest, impalas, zebras, gazelles, leopards and many more.
As we approached the comfortable Ilkeliani tented camp located in a forest, the staff welcomed us with champagne and juices. We were then chaperoned by the Maasai to our tents. The campsite easily blends into the abundant virgin foliage providing enough solitude and privacy to hear the primordial sounds of nature.
Later that evening, the owner of the Ilkeliani Camp lavished us with a wine reception including an outdoors bush fire under the exhilarating starry night sky. We were entertained by a group of Maasai dancers. Dinner was served following the show inside a huge, nicely decorated dining room tent. It was quite an evening!
NAKURU, CONGREVE CONSERVANCY, MbWEHA CAMP
Next, we headed for Nakuru, Congreve Conservancy and the MbWeha Camp . Not many know that Africa is also home to geographic natural wonders. On this day, we traveled through The Great Rift Valley, one of the most dramatic geological formations in the world, stretching for more than 3,600 miles through the heart of Africa. Just west of Nairobi, this truly grand canyon effectively separates Western Kenya from the rest of the country.
The drive took us along the rift floor where we could appreciate the rich geography with its diverse countryside and lush valleys. After our picnic lunch stopover, we continued to be awed by the vistas of the Rift Valley with its unique geological formations such as the steep valley walls, extinct volcanic cones, and a multitude of both fresh and soda lakes. The scenery is breathtakingly spectacular!
After lunch we by passed the town of Naivasha and ultimately arrived at Nakuru National Park to look for wild game. Lake Nukuru is a shallow soda lake, and its water level can vary by as much as four meters (13 feet) annually. Sometimes the lake dries completely, leaving behind a white dusty plain of soda. When this happens, dust storms and dust devils can whip the soda deposits way up into the atmosphere.
When the weather and water conditions are favorable, one can see millions of flamingoes at Lake Nukuru, as Lake Nukuru provides an excellent source of spiralina, a type of blue green algae that these beautiful birds love.
At dusk we headed to Mbweha Camp . This property, tucked away in the 6,400-acre Congreve Game Conservancy at Lake Nakuru National Park, provides excellent views of the Ebrru and the Mau mountain ranges.
The property is dotted with nine cottages, each with a private veranda and spacious circular-shaped rooms. These cottages are constructed out of local volcanic rock, which erupted from the earth‘s crust during the formation of the rift valley. At night, you can enjoy the sunken bar and spacious lounge that has a large open fireplace to warm you up when the weather is cool. For more information, write to them at P.O. BOX 66229 – 00800. Call them at TEL- 574395 or FAX 574669.
After rugged trail excursions and safaris, we finally had a chance to wind down at the beach resort area of Lamu Island , off the north coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. Lamu is considered to be one of Kenya’s greatest treasures. Since the 1970’s, Lamu and its neighboring villages have been a prime destination for the rich and famous. With a population of 13,000, Lamu represents one of Kenya’s oldest Swahili settlements dating back to the fourteenth century. It has remained largely unchanged by history. Here one finds a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. There are very few western influences visible- no cars, just narrow winding streets full of exotic charm.
When we first arrived, I felt like I was in another world. The culture is so different from those in the other parts of Kenya we had seen. Time seemed to stand still. We arrived by dhow (local small sailboat), softly gliding through the warm Indian Ocean. All our senses were overwhelmed….amazing seafood, smells of intoxicating tropical flowers, and the call to prayers in the setting sun. It truly felt like a step back in time, to a place where " time " had become a meaningless word.
We stayed at the Peponi Hotel , located on the Shela beach of Lamu Island. This boutique hotel operates 27 rooms, most facing the water. I, like other guests, savored a late afternoon of relaxing on one of the lobby lounge chairs. How wonderful it was to feel the gentle blowing of the trade winds while sipping a glass of wine and listening to the waves crashing on the distant coral reef.
At around 5:00 PM, our group took a sunset dhow tour around the island. The ride was very calm and soothing. We enjoyed watching the sunset, singing song after song.
Back at the hotel, dinner didn’t start until it was late, but time seemed so irrelevant… When we finally did sit down for supper, the feast was unbelievable! Seafood drenched our table-lobsters, crabs, jumbo prawns, oysters calamari. Everything was delicious with a capital D. It is no wonder that this hotel restaurant has the reputation of having the best seafood in all of Lamu!
Sadly enough, our trip was over all too soon. If you ever decide to come to Kenya, I’m sure you will also have plenty memories and stories you will share with generations to come.
NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES AND ADDITIONAL INFO:
Outdoor Expedition Safaris Ltd.
C/o Riz Virji
P.O. Box 44406
Kenya Tourism Board
P.O. Box 59159
Minneapolis, MN 55459-8257
Lewa House, For more information, contact: Gustavo Romano
PO Box 10.607, 00100
This article is Lin Low’s second story on foreign travel. She would like to thank Outdoor Expeditions and Safari and The Kenya Tourism Board for making this trip a memorable one. Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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