By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
In the security line at Heathrow Airport a couple heard me mention Kenya. They cancelled their trip there this past February, so they were very interested in what I saw.
“Was the violence still rampant?” the woman asked. I told her truthfully that I saw no violence and that in the most remote parts of Kenya hand-waves predominated.
Kenya’s tourism has been devastated due to some après election protests, precisely the reason for my visit.
It is hard to explain just what that means to a country that depends on visitors. It’s not just tourist bigwigs who get hurt; whole villages have suffered.
I can be somewhat skeptical when a country invites writers to come and see for themselves just what is going on. I had no restrictions on anything I wanted to see, a deal made before my departure.
I wandered alone down the streets of Nairobi and Mombassa. On the reserves that wasn’t the case, but who wants to be a gourmet dinner for lions?
Thankfully Kenya’s political situation was solved the day before I left; a cabinet was put in place. The headlines of numerous newspapers on my arrival were dismal, yet when I departed the feeling was upbeat.
I would hope to once again to visit the many places where the wild ones wander.
If flying into Kenya you will be landing in the city of Nairobi, a fairly new city. The city started out as a small settlement during the building of the train tracks from Mombasa to Uganda.
From a depot the city grew with the arrival of Europeans looking to start huge plantations.
One site to see near Nairobi that will give you an insight is the Karen Blixen House; her story was made into a movie named Out Of Africa.
The Nairobi National Park is the closest place to the city to view Africa’s amazing animals. Imagine seeing a giraffe as the foreground for Nairobi’s skyscrapers! While it may seem strange, the park isn’t a bad place to take a mini safari.
The newly refurbished National Museum is the perfect spot to begin or end a trip in Kenya. Its galleries house extensive exhibits that will provide background into the animals and peoples that inhabited what was once called East Africa.
Nearby is the Snake Park that will give you the chills. You can only hope that you will not run into mambas, cobras and adders in the bush. In any case these creatures will amaze you!
Near the Stanley Hotel is the famed Thorn Tree, a place where even today notes are pinned for travelers. The tree sits in a great coffee shop where you are bound to get some important info and meet other travelers.
While Nairobi was pleasant enough I found the lure of the bush strong and so headed out soon after my arrival.
Traveling down one of Kenya’s major thoroughfares toward several of Kenya’s game reserves was a great way to see how the rural side of Kenya lives; at least once you get beyond the truck cluttered Nairobi section.
While you can take the clear shot to Mombasa it is to two of Kenya’s premier game reserves that we are headed.
Once we cleared the traffic it wasn’t long before the occasional Maasai herder could be seen in the distance and the patterns of waves to our vehicle began.
Ostriches soon appeared as well as occasional zebras. Soon we passed through the village of Namanga for a dirt road that paralleled the Tanzanian border to Amboseli Park. The friendly waves continued.
Amboseli had seemingly improved from what I read in guidebooks. Strict enforcement seemed to pay off; within a few minutes of entering, zebras and giraffes seemed to wave at our van also.
We meandered for hours heading to the Amboseli Sopa Lodge just past the gates and under Mt. Kilimanjaro peaks.
On arrival we were greeted by Maasai people doing traditional singing and dancing and not in a Disney World way. It was real and moving. I then realized that dollars do trickle down. After stashing my goods in Hut Number 35, it was time for the afternoon game drive — morning and evening are the best times to view.
Within minutes of reentering the park we encountered tusked elephants and a pride of lions. Various other species crossed our path and baboons seemingly laughed at the people snapping photos.
All too soon the sun was setting and the cloud-shrouded Kilimanjaro faded; time to enjoy the lodge life back at the Sopa.
Hippos and Crocs
No one needs an alarm clock when verdant monkeys pace the roof above and play on your porch. It wasn’t hard to wake when the sunlight glared from the peaks of Kilimanjaro. The early bird catches the hippos.
A stop at Mzima Springs guaranteed sightings, though the huge creatures remained semi submerged. The warning signs remind you that you head to the springs at your own risk. Crocs sun on the banks and hippos pop their heads up from the springs teasingly.
Behind us Mt. Kilimanjaro once again hide its peaks but that is okay; it is all about water and what is in it.
From a submerged tank we watched the crystal clear springs vibrate with strange looking fish.
“Go west, old man. Go west” reverberated in my head as we continued on to Tsavo national park west, home of the man-eaters.
Big Bad Tsavo West
Tsavo West combined with Tsavo East make up the largest reserve in Kenya. Tsavo West is positioned between the Mombasa Highway and the Tsasvo River and is know for its particularly dangerous lions. The Park’s views are stunning and far more mountainous than Amboseli’s. The animals also seem to more prevalent.
Best of all, though, was my arrival at Kilaguni Lodge, Kenya’s oldest and the only one within the reserve.
The main terrace sits atop of watering holes that ensure great animal watching.
It was funny, but as I noticed guests heading to the lodge bar, the number of animals at the water holes also increased — cocktail time at the Kulaguni. During dinner powerful spot lights went on providing a dinner show that will never be forgotten.
The next day we headed to Mombasa with a stop at a Maasai village and what was perhaps the most emotional moment of my trip. Here is my blog entry for that stop: I couldn’t put it any better.
Maasai Enkang, Kenya
“My trip to Kenya has been remarkable and has etched memories in my mind that will last forever. A few days ago we visited a Maasai enkang or village homestead. The bright garb and telling faces will cause your heart to beat faster, the singing will make you shuffle your feet and some sadness will also enter your soul.
To gaze into a life so different from mine was very emotional. Perhaps in many ways the experience was more moving then time spent seeing the strangest animals in Amboseli and Tsavo National parks.”
Our final stop on the exploration trip was in magical Mombasa and the White Sands Resort. The hot humid air mixed with the salty air of the Indian Ocean.
Mombasa’a magic is due to the mixture of races and temperaments that inhabit the area. Arabic, African and European all have carved a place in its soul.
Perhaps the best area to understand Mombasa’s differences with the rest of Kenya is the old town with its alleys and old style buildings. Just above sits Fort Jesus, once a Portuguese fort that has seen many battles over the last 400 years.
The clothing of the city’s residents was also a display of cultural diversity: kanzu gowns and kanga outfits mixed with western styles.
The beaches of the White Sands were indeed white and it was there that I reflected on my inspection of Kenya, soothed and ready to see more.
As luck would have it a peaceful political cabinet was named and the volatile political situation was ended. The relief in the people was undeniable and hopes to resurrect Kenya’s tourism situation was on people’s minds throughout the country.
This article isn’t intended as a guide to all of Kenya just a report on the situation going at this time.
Kenya Air was a fantastic ride the planes were new and service great.
The lodges I stayed in were both wonderful places and each had character features. Both will put you within reach of fantastic game drives and provide anything a visitor could want.
Amboseli Sopa Lodge
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.