Written by Travel Beyond consultant Marsha Carroll
The last time I was in East Africa was in 2003. I was very much looking forward to my return and particularly keen to learn about Kenya. My trip included visits to several of Kenya’s National Parks and Conservancies, which included Amboseli National Park, The Chyulu Hills, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy and the Maasai Mara. I also went to the Island of Zanzibar to get a taste of what island life is like!
After a 2-night stop-over in Amsterdam, I arrived in Nairobi excited to begin my adventure. My first stop was Amboseli National Park, known for its large herds of elephants and opportunities to catch a glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro. The action started right away as we stopped to look at lions en route to camp, followed by a lovely cheetah sighting—all of this before lunch! The evening game drive was just as exciting, as we watched the families of elephants head back to the base of Kilimanjaro for the night and witnessed another lovely sighting of a pride of lions. I quickly realized what it means to be in a National Park: many, many vehicles at a sighting and no control over the number of vehicles (either self-driven or mini buses). I had been used to game viewing in Southern Africa where there is more opportunity for wildlife viewing in a more controlled environment (limited to 3 cars per sighting). Next, I was off to the Chyulu Hills.
The Chyulu Hills lie between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks, in front of the highest mountain on the continent: Kilimanjaro. The first camp I visited in this area was Campi Ya Kanzi, owned and run by a local Maasai Community. This pristine wilderness area gave me the chance to get out of the vehicle and hike to the Cloud Forest for sweeping views of the area. No other camp or lodge around allowed the feeling of exclusivity: just me, wildlife and my Maasai guides. The peak of Kilimanjaro poked through the clouds about mid-morning before we headed out to the next camp in the Chyulu Hills: Ol Donyo Lodge.
Ol Donyo Lodge is located on the private 275,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch in southeastern Kenya, between Tsavo East and Amboseli National Parks and next to Chyulu Hills National Park. The group ranch is owned by 4,000 Maasai and is leased from them by Great Plains Conservation. Ol Donyo Lodge was a real treat, with early morning and late afternoon/early evening game drives in a 4×4 open vehicle, wildlife viewing in an open-air hide and sleep-outs on private “star beds.” The beautiful cottages are comfortable, and the lodge has done an impeccable job of merging outdoor and indoor living. I did not want to leave, but I was off to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy!
Simply known as Lewa, the conservancy is located at the foothills of Mount Kenya and is home to some of the continent’s most endangered species like the black rhino and the Grevy’s zebra, along with a plethora of other wildlife including the elephant, giraffe, buffalo, antelope, lion, cheetah and leopard. The Reticulated Giraffe (shown above) can be seen in Lewa and other areas north of the equator. The large markings outlined by bright white lines makes this animal a lovely site to photograph and quickly became new favorite of mine! I enjoyed Sirikoi Lodge’s comfortable luxury canvas tents that overlook a very active waterhole. In addition, Sirikoi’s food was the best on my entire trip. The private conservancy of Lewa contributed to wonderful game viewing, giving me no doubt in my mind that Lewa is a “must” to include on a Kenya safari itinerary.
Road Trip! Three hours from the Lewa Conservancy gate, I was driven to the northern frontier of Kenya and the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, an area of 850,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the Mathews Range and home to the Samburu people. Sarara Camp was another highlight of my journey. The setting of the camp offers hillside views and a natural infinity rock pool overlooking an active waterhole. A truly humbling cultural experience, Singing Wells, are a tradition in which families bring their cattle to drink every two or so days. Each family has a well they have dug to reach the ground water. The depth of the water in the well determines how many people are required to be in the well with buckets. One man with a bucket was at the edge of the rim, filling the trough for the cows to take a drink, while the two men in the wells were singing in Samburu to the cows, praising them. No photographs or videos were allowed. I have never experienced a truly raw authentic experience and was so honored to have had the chance.
The final stop on my epic journey was the Maasai Mara. I have been to over 13 different African countries and have been on safari countless times, but I still wasn’t prepared for the amount of wildlife and daily epic sightings. Each day outdid the one before it! The Maasai Mara truly lives up to its reputation.
After finishing my amazing safari in Kenya, I escaped to Zanzibar for some time at the beach! I fell in love with Mnemba Island off of the northeast coast of Zanzibar. This private island delivers a complete beach holiday with swimming in the warm calm waters of the Indian Ocean, snorkeling, sailing on a Dhow and kayaking all available from the boat house, just steps away from your banda. A true tropical paradise!
Marsha’s Tips on When to Visit Kenya
A note on travel during the off-peak season: December through February is a great time to visit. Escape the North American winter and head to sun-drenched Kenya! The camps are not fully booked during this time of year, equating to fewer vehicles in the more popular areas. Even though it is not the Wildebeest Migration time (which can happen anytime between July and September), this time of year showcases more baby animals. Kenya will surely deliver an amazing wildlife safari.