Home to some of Africa’s most iconic sights and the host of ASTA’s Destination Expo 2017, Chris Moss learns Kenya is a thrilling proposition
Agents are in for the experience of a lifetime when the ASTA Destination Expo heads to Kenya in February 2017. In the grand tradition of ADEs, attendees will have the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the best Africa has to offer, learning the best ways to sell the destination while networking with colleagues from all over the world. They’ll be in good company, as Kenya is becoming an increasingly popular destination.
Americans visit Kenya mainly for the wildlife. In the past two decades, safari camps have become increasingly luxurious. Gastronomy, wine and overall service have improved no end. Of course, this type of vacation, in often remote environments, comes at a premium and the typical demographic for Kenya and across East and Southern African are senior travelers. That said, tour operators are now noticing a rise in multi-generation trips. ASTA tour operators are also seeing growth in bush-and-beach combinations (Kenya has an extensive Indian Ocean coast), slower travel to fewer places, and active safaris (including horseback riding, canoeing and biking).
“For many people Kenya remains the iconic safari destination, with the sweeping plains of the Maasai Mara what they see in their mind’s eye when imagining themselves in Africa,” explains Julian Asher, founder and managing director of Timeless Africa, explains. “American visitors consider the following priorities: wildlife viewing, convenient logistics — both good international flight connections and ease of intra-country travel — the cost and ease of obtaining visas and security, particularly in the cities.”
The fastest one-stop flights from New York to Nairobi take 20-24 hours. In 2015-16, there were constant updates on proposed direct flights between the US and Kenya, subject parliamentary approval in Nairobi. At the time of press Delta Air Lines and its SkyTeam partner Kenya Airways were both in the mix.
Kenya shares borders with Tanzania and Uganda and is within a four-hour flight of Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. This makes twin-destination holidays attractive. “Travelers love the combination of a East African safari experience and a few days on the beach in Zanzibar,” says Gigi Becker, who works at Los Angeles-based Empyrean travel and represents African Wholesale company, Travel Exclusively African. With independent travel and self-drive rare among non-Africans, almost all visitors rely on agents for planning and booking; most visas required in the region are e-visas or issued on arrival. But travelers often need reassurance on this, too.
Even before they spot a single large mammal, Kenya beguiles visitors. Arriving, as so many do, from colder and drabber climes, the first things that impress are the light and the huge blue sky. Kenya is, outside of the main rainy seasons (March to early June), a fair-weather country, with small clouds floating at an impossible height, providing breathtaking long-distance visibility.
This, in turn, opens up the mesmerizingly beautiful landscape. From a mountain top, a hot air balloon or from one of the light aircraft routinely used to ferry travelers to their safari camps, the sight of vast expanses of savannah peppered by acacia trees, huge lakes and water holes, densely forested mountains and cloud-topped volcanoes, is scintillating.
Then come the encounters. Kenya is a huge repeat-traveler destination. Those who’ve seen a lion kill on the Serengeti, or a nimble cheetah on the hunt in Tsavo East, or an elephant herd roaming across the sandy plains of the Samburu National Reserve, want to see those spectacles again and again. Individuals, couples and entire families come year after year to explore different national parks (there are more than 20, as well as scores of state-run and private game reserves) and compare notes on camps, guides, food and drink — and compete over who saw the most impressive kill and took the best shot of a leopard.
But, in a sense, novices are even luckier than the gossiping veterans. The first sight of an animal as common as a giraffe striding across Amboseli in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, immediately enters the wonder-hoard of even the most seasoned global traveler. What seems unimaginable from the vantage point of a zoo visit in London or New York, or unlikely while listening to the suspenseful susurrations of David Attenborough, suddenly becomes utterly real. The Kenyan bush is akin to an ancient lifeline: you realize, suddenly: ‘ah, the world was once like this, a Biblical paradise of nature and wildlife, of beauty and beasts’.
Then come the spectaculars — the teeming wildebeest on their mega-migration, lions on a hunt at sunset, cheetahs on a chase in the sultry afternoon. Or a nocturnal safari, when a zebra’s stripes suddenly become a surreal vision and you begin to find respect for the mean-looking hyenas as they circle prey. The birdlife is as stunning as any of the big mammals: witness the massed millions of pink flamingos high-stepping in Lake Nakuru or Lake Bogoria.
Parks and conservancies, camps and climbs
Choosing where and how to ‘do’ Kenya is fun — but can be confusing for those who don’t know the lay of the land. Most of the national parks and reserves are watered by seasonal streams and occupy classic thorn-tree savannah on the fringes of the highlands that lie in the southwest. Among the most popular regions are the Greater Mara Ecosystem (shared with Tanzania) and Laikipia, which occupy the western and northeastern reaches of the Great Rift Valley, respectively.
In the former, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is home to some of Kenya’s most established — and lavishly appointed — lodges, including Governors’ Camp, Masai Mara Sopa Lodge, Mara Serena Safari Lodge and the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Bordering the reserve are a number of less touristy wildlife conservancies, former cattle ranches that boast a range of lodges and tented camps. Sometimes, limited grazing is still permitted. New properties open every season; Great Plains Conservation opened the five-tent Mara Expedition Camp this year, in prime leopard territory in the north-central section of the Maasai Mara. It will be open from June to October to facilitate migration-watching.
Laikipia County, which boasts plenty of endangered species, including around half of Kenya’s black rhino population, is home to well-managed estates such as the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, as well as Solio Game Ranch and El Karama Ranch, all of which rival the Maara landscapes for wildlife viewing and all of which boast accommodation ranging from comfortable to luxury.
While most travelers are happy heading out on 4WD drives and occasional walking safaris, there’s also the chance to do more substantial hikes, whether in the forests and moors of the Central Highlands or up to the summit of Mount Kenya — at just over 17,000ft, the highest in Kenya — while others might prefer a horseback safari at a luxury property such as the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club.
Kenya abounds with options, from the Lake Victoria region in the west, with its tea plantations and gentler countryside, to Kakamega, on the Ugandan border, which boasts the country’s only tropical rainforest, to the elephant-rich Amboseli NationalPark, close to Tanzania. All offer a variety of topographies and wildlife options plus a huge variety of accommodation types.
Travelers increasingly like to consider the ecological impact of their vacations. The survival and richness of Kenya’s wildlife owes a lot to the dynamic conservation ethos of the country’s diverse communities. Careful planning allied with ‘tough love’ — such as the use of armed rangers to protect some species — has nurtured an environmental legacy that neighboring countries greatly admire. Moreover, tourism has been shown to be a positive force for conservation.
Take, for example, Porini Rhino Camp, a tented camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia. It’s emphatic about sustainability, managed by African staff and its Maasai guides are wildlife experts. On a typical drive — even during arrival from the airstrip at Nanyuki, a 40-minute flight from Nairobi — it’s not unusual to see 30-odd species, including giraffe, zebra, warthog, impala, eland, ostrich, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, secretary birds, crested cranes, tawny and fish eagles, buffalo and cheetahs.
The setting is truly magnificent. To the east is Mount Kenya, its jagged peak rising through the haze. Low mountains and hills, and a mix of farmland and game reserve ring the 90,000 acres, which stand on land formerly owned by Lonrho mining magnate Tiny Rowland. The estate was used for cattle ranching but in the 1980s began to function as a game reserve.
So far, pretty good. But the raison d’être for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is the endangered black rhino. There are only between 500 and 550 black rhino in Kenya, and 108 of them are living at the conservancy — making it the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. Tourism and donations help sustain the conservancy, but Ol Pejeta also has 6,000 head of rare purebred Boran cattle.
During game drives visitors see these herds, always confined to a restricted space and guarded by a spear-carrying herder on the lookout for predators. Keeping the cattle makes economic sense, and belies the accepted idea that wildlife needs to be separated from traditional stock-raising.
The rhino is Ol Pejeta’s signature species (including 11 southern white rhinos), while common sightings include jackals, rare Grevy’s zebra, the endangered Jackson’s hartebeest, cheetahs, elephants and gazelles. There are also monkeys, baboons and two large troops of chimpanzees, rescued by famous British primatologist Jane Goodall from Burundi and Rwanda — where they were being trafficked for the pet and circus trades — and transferred here to live out their lives in peace, albeit in the wrong habitat. From the camp, while dining on superlative steaks and sipping the best South African vintages, giraffes and buffalo can be seen stalking through the long grass, and there are sometimes leopard prints in the soft, dewy earth at breakfast.
What adds value to the whole experience is the human story that surrounds the wildlife-watching and the home comforts of a luxury camp. The people of the region — the Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, Swahili, Kikuyu — have been here for centuries and know more about the land and its natural beauty than anyone else. Interaction with guides, as well as visits to villages on the borders of reserves and parks, afford many opportunities to learn about family life, customs, music and dance, food and festivities.
After submerging themselves in the heart of the African safari experience, some visitors may want to dive into the sea. Kenya has almost 300 miles of coastline on the Indian Ocean, with spectacular coral reefs close to the shore — it’s regarded by many seasoned divers as one of the world’s top destinations after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea. The reefs also keep the inshore waters shallow and protect the white sand beaches from waves.
Once they pass beyond the Tsavo East National Park — the easternmost nature reserve for most safari-goers — travelers find themselves in a distinct coastal culture, signposted by mosques, tombs and the ruins of ancient towns cut from the jungle and the predominance of the Swahili language.
Mombasa is the regional capital, served by a busy international airport. An island city, its beating heart is found in the old town, down spice-scented, narrow winding streets lined by Arab architecture. The construction of Kenya’s first standard-gauge railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi, for $3.2bn, is expected to be completed by March 2017. The 293-mile route will be operated by newly acquired locomotives, passenger coaches and wagons, with 56 trains set to arrive before the end of the year. Travelers may well choose this option as a ‘slow travel’ and green-minded experience of the bush. For those seeking R&R, there are many other beach idylls, including luxurious Lamu Island, kitesurfing favorite Diani, and Watamu — which boasts the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve, known for its three nesting turtle species and impressive corals.
Finally, don’t overlook Nairobi, whether staying in a funky boutique hotel like Tribe Hotel or a classic such as the Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel . This is the place to learn about Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial history, experience its vibrant cultural life and meet its people. The city has an elephant orphanage and its own national park, with black rhino and giraffes strolling around Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
A horseback safari in Botswana and South Africa
Ride from the Dinaka Game Reserve in South Africa to Botswana on horseback, where you can stay on the banks of Kipling’s ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River’. Close encounters with the Big Five are
Rare wildlife in Tanzania
Serengeti National Park is home to a rich group of predators including lions, cheetahs and hyenas, while elephants, giraffes and rivers full of crocodiles are among other draws. Hop on a hot air balloon for thrilling aerial views, then head east to Ngorongoro Crater to spot a rare black rhino.
Crocs and hippos in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is the largest inland delta in the world. Its immense wetlands are home to crocodiles and hippos, while lions and cheetahs hunt on its plains. After exploring, travel to the Mahango Game Reserve and the villages of Caprivi in Namibia. End at the mighty Victoria Falls in Zambia.