One cancelled trip later – thanks or rather no thanks to Hurricane Harvey – I found myself back in Kenya in early February.
Every time I return to Kenya I grow fonder of the place. Kenya is like your favorite leather jacket. It may have a couple of rough patches on the elbows but it feels more comfortable every time you wear it. Dependable, great value, a little dated but one of the best investments you’ve ever made.
Is Kenya the best overall safari destination in every respect? Maybe not – but it is certainly the best one for a first safari. Year-round and regardless of the status of the wildebeest migration, Kenya is a jewel. Friendly people, lots of animals and birds and all of them easily seen – with more diversity than any other safari destination or country. Venture out on your first game drive on the Masai Mara and marvel at the fact that you may be looking at six or seven mammal species all at the same time, or stare at the elephants seemingly posing between you and Mt Kilimanjaro in the background, at Amboseli. Your first view of a Reticulated Giraffe, or a Grevy’s Zebra, or ducking into the low entrance of a Samburu manyatta hut to be confronted with how little some people get by with. It is all astonishing, often life-enriching and almost always utterly fascinating.
Much improved roads – compared with a decade or two ago – also make it quite easy to get around Kenya by car. But be careful though as road safety standards are likely not as high as where you come from. Flying between areas in Kenya has always been relatively easy and the country likely has the best network and schedule of charter flights of any African safari destination. And for the most part not outrageously priced either.
I’d be among the first to acknowledge Kenya’s shortcomings which are well known. Corruption, poor governance, traffic congestion in Nairobi, pollution and seemingly unchecked population growth are among the chronic issues, some of them intractable. Fortunately, few of these negatively impact a visitor’s experience. Burgeoning population numbers create other issues such as over-grazing due to unrealistically high numbers of cattle and other livestock. Hand in hand with that goes erosion, loss of habitat and growing incidence of human-animal conflict.
Even so, the long-term outlook is not all bad. There are many positive things happening in Kenya in the conservation field. Anti-poaching activities have been stepped up and there is increased focus on cooperation among safari operators, local government bodies and the people living in and around the wildlife areas. There is a growing realization that unless the people themselves are invested in the well-being and survival of the large mammal species, the well-meaning efforts of outsiders, conservation groups and wildlife authorities often fail to produce the desired results.
The bottom line? A well-planned Kenya safari, with the logistics in the hands of a competent destination management company like our long-time partners Origins Safaris, is an immensely satisfying and rewarding experience. Add excellent guiding, the friendliest and warmest people you can imagine, an amazingly wide range of activities and habitat diversity and you have the supreme safari destination.
Discovering some of the areas of Kenya beyond the ‘usual suspects’ like the Masai Mara, the Rift Valley and Samburu has increased my admiration for the country even more. On this most recent visit I was keen to explore two areas which I had not been to before, namely Meru National Park and the Mathews Range. More about that to follow. My first few days were spent back at Amboseli, at Tawi Lodge.
TAWI LODGE, AMBOSELI
Third time was definitely the charm for me at Amboseli. I’m a huge fan of the park for reasons that become obvious pretty quickly once you get there. The elephants of course. Plus other wildlife – sometimes a lot more and a greater variety than you might expect. And the mountain: Kilimanjaro – often seen looming in the background in all its sky-piercing glory. Often, but not always. Over the years, I’ve caught some half-decent glimpses of Kilimanjaro – from Amboseli – but nothing like this time. This time I could see Kili from a rear seat in the Cessna Caravan charter flight, long before we landed at the Amboseli airstrip, having departed from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport about 50 minutes earlier. From just a speck on the horizon Kilimanjaro grew increasingly closer and more prominent until it totally dominated the skyline. The passengers in the window seats were getting even more excited than me. Lucky them: first timers and they get to see Kilimanjaro in all its glory. As it turned out Kilimanjaro remained clearly visible for the duration of my 2-night visit.
Tawi Lodge hit all the right notes from the accommodation to food & beverage and most importantly the guiding. My extra-large brick and mortar room – with a tented entrance – was comfortable and inviting even though it could use a fan. It did cool off nicely at night though. Fittingly for a room as big, there was a large bath tub and a separate shower. Plus, a king size bed with mosquito net and a fireplace. The best feature of the camp was of course the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro from the exceptionally well-maintained and pleasant garden. Which is a great birding spot, by the way. I also enjoyed seeing some animals come to the waterhole in front of camp; among these were eland, giraffe and elephant. Tawi also has a large pool. The food which was served plated was good and ample with plenty of choices: usually a starter, a choice of two main courses and dessert. Drinks were extra in my case but can be included in the rate. The South African-born managing couple were around all the time and very approachable.
Activities at Tawi include camel-back riding which I did not get around to enjoy this time. I did have time for a solid afternoon walk, turning around at a pleasant sundowner spot with – no surprise – more views of Kilimanjaro. This time with a frosty Tusker beer in hand. From this vantage point the soft, golden afternoon light turned Kilimanjaro into a beautiful painting, complete with a very prominent snowcap. I was reminded of the saying that Tanzania has the mountain, but Kenya has the view.
My several game drives with Tawi head guide Pili Pili – he also goes by Julius – were superb in every way. Julius knows Amboseli as well as anyone in the area, and demonstrated an uncanny ability to find animals and to predict and anticipate their movements. The hallmark of a good, experienced guide. As a result, I enjoyed numerous good opportunities to see and photograph lots of elephants with Kilimanjaro in the background. Every keen Africa wildlife photographer’s dream!
What really surprised me about Amboseli this time was seeing such a wide variety and large numbers of other mammals: wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, Boho reedbuck, Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, warthog, hyena, gerenuk (on the Tawi private concession), hippo, countless birds, dik-dik, buffalo, lion and cheetah. I think I should stop there for fear of creating the impression that Amboseli is the Mara. it is not. It is a relatively small reserve with a limited road network and spending two nights there is optimal. You can experience the elephants in and around the swamps, hopefully get a nice view of Kilimanjaro, and with some luck see a good number of other animals, in the space of a couple of days at Amboseli. If you are a super-keen photographer and just ‘have to’ get that once in a lifetime shot with a large mammal between you and the open mountain, then yes, a bit more time would be advisable.
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