Kenyan Safaris are for many travelers, a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list item. However for many, Kenya is more like a long lost lover, one that grabs your heart and no matter how many miles you traverse the globe, never quite lets go.
Lake Nakuru National Park
So I found myself heading to Kenya for the third time. With my good friend, trusted guide and inspiring wildlife teacher, Daniel Kikemu, the DK of Nairobi-based DK Grand Safaris, we drove three hours northwest from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru National Park, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
Arrival to the 73-square mile park at dusk was dramatic. Beneath azure blue skies, wispy clouds shimmied above the nearly 17.5 square mile alkaline-saline lake’s still waters. Skeletal acacia trees partially submerged due to rising lake waters stood proud and tall, as though waiting for a dance partner to promenade.
Like a phoenix rising, we came to The Cliff Lodge, our home for the three days and the only lodge on the lake’s western front.
At The Cliff, 10 tents – think glamping – had all the mod cons, including hardwood floors, deep soaking bathtubs, steamy hot showers, coffee/tea-making facilities and divine homemade cookies, all gloriously facing the ethereal lake.
The main lodge had a full bar, comfortable couches and several books on wildlife making it perfect to read, enjoy a sundowner and review the day’s photographs. In the nearby dining tent, we devoured Chef Mtumwa’s deliciously prepared, several course meals, including chicken tarragon, grilled lamp chops and seared salmon, all served with excellent soups made from fresh local ingredients.
The Cliffs also has a spa, gym and a gorgeous pool, all with head-on river views. www.TheCliffKenya.com
Morning and afternoon game drives – separated by great lunches and the all-important siesta – were replete with sightings, counting several stands of shockingly pink flamingoes, zebra dazzles, Cape buffalo gangs, grooming baboon troops, impala herds and countless magnificent birds, including shiny blue-eared starlings and rainbow colored lilac-breasted rollers, Kenya’s national bird.
Two scenes tied for first place at Nakuru. First, like a breathtaking ballet, a tower of 14 Rothschild giraffes ambled and fed under clear blue skies. During countless African safaris, never have I seen so many of these long-necked beauties at once. Second, in glisteningly gold afternoon light, two rhinos slowly sauntered together as if casually heading towards a Parisian pied-a-terre.
With The Cliffs’ terrific accommodations and food, welcoming staff and an enviable location boasting quiet solitude and resplendent wildlife, staying longer would’ve been easy. However, the Mara once again beckoned.
Returning to the Maasai Mara National Reserve
There are few places on earth as magnificent as the 724-square mile Mara. This is certainly true from July to October during the great annual migration. Then in search of greener pastures and more abundant sustenance, about 1.8 million wildebeests, zebras and antelopes start their northern, clockwise, stampede-like pilgrimage of 1,800 miles that starts from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Mara and back.
While viewing the great migration is like no other experience, it’s also true that the Mara is utterly magical outside migration, such as mid-May when I traveled. Wildlife abounded, dusk and dawn were overwhelmingly beautiful and there were fewer jeeps vying for prime viewing spots.
Flying from Nairobi on a nine-seater, 208B Caravan, two passengers alit at Keekorok Airstrip, close to the Tanzanian border. We then flew another 10 minutes to Kichwa Tembo Airstrip.
On approach, I forcefully controlled my gasp upon seeing several dozen Cape buffaloes making the airstrip their personal playground with zero intention of yielding. However, akin to the biblical Red Sea parting, the buffaloes traipsed off with seconds to spare as our able captain grasped the thrust lever and smoothly brought the little plane down.
Thirty minutes later we were at Olonana Sanctuary, located on the Mara River’s west side. Olonana has 15 suites, including three family villas and the self-contained, secluded Geoffrey Kent House. With tree-covered stone pathways, floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed suites, and massive outdoor patios, this newly remodeled property is no ordinary safari lodge.
At 1,300 square feet, suites are enormous and impeccably decorated in contemporary African chic design with colors mimicking nature’s own and contain every possible amenity. There are lusciously comfortable king-sized beds boasting high count sheets, fully stocked mini-bars, including local Tusker beer and South African wines, and a coffee station that will make every caffeine aficionado jump for joy.
Suites also have indoor and outdoor sitting areas and beautifully inspired African art. There’s also a pool, spa staffed with talented masseuses and well-curated Maasai craft boutique. www.sanctuaryretreats.com
Mara sunrises are often neon-color crescendos with the river as backdrop and morning melodies are thunders of hippos snorting. Enjoying a cup of early morning java while watching the light, colors and sound shift on the horizon may be one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Safari sightings were plentiful. Several herds of elephants meandered nearby, including a group of females marshaling along an utterly adorable 3-month-old calf dominated by her outsized trunk that had me channeling Babar. There were plenty of scampering Topi antelopes, Cape buffalo herds, giraffe towers and several lion prides, including two females with half-a-dozen young cubs frolicking among them.
One afternoon a cheetah rested comfortably two feet from an impala she had taken down and partially eaten, proving once again that Darwinian theory is alive and well.
Perhaps the most remarkable sight this trip and one I had never before seen was the X-rated show of a lion and lioness mating just 20 feet away. Daniel promptly told our Maasai driver Joseph to cut the jeep’s engine. Fifteen minutes later, the king of the jungle was at it again much to our thrill and the relative annoyance of his acquiescing lioness.
Our final morning in the Mara, Daniel arranged a visit to a nearby Maasai Village. We were invited inside a traditional boma (a low-thatched hut with dirt floors, open fire pit and dung roof), met with the village midwife and some of the male elders. Polygamy is still practiced and the number of wives is distinctly dependent on wealth since the average “price” per bride is 10 cows, paid to her family.
The lesson learned
A Kenyan safari will be an unforgettable experience regardless of when you go. If you travel with DK Grand Safaris, it will no doubt be the experience of a lifetime. There is also the very real risk that your heart will make you return, again and again.
Kenya, the best way: From SFO, connecting service to Nairobi is offered on KLM, Delta, United, American, Turkish and Emirates Airlines.
Safari Guide: DK Grand Safaris, Daniel Kikemu and his talented team provides Nairobi day tours and custom safari packages including all lodges, meals, and domestic flights for all budgets throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. In the U.S. call 604/838-7736 or 604/209-9505 or see www.dkgrandsafaris.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Some vendors listed hosted the writer, however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.