PART 1: Nairobi and The Rift Valley

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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PART ONE:  NAIROBI AND THE RIFT VALLEY

Writing a trip report about Kenya nowadays is an unenviable task.  The country’s tourism industry has lately taken a beating because of a string of attacks and bombings in coastal areas and in Nairobi – mostly claimed as their handiwork by Al Shabaab, a Somalia-based militant group.  Ostensibly, the attacks are retribution for the Kenya Government’s incursion into Somalia to pursue and eliminate elements of Al Shabaab.  

Not only the attacks themselves but also the resulting ‘travel warnings’ issued by the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department and their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have resulted in a sharp dip in tourism arrivals.  Many hotels along the coast – notably around Mombasa – have been closed and their employees laid off, with a loss of 5,000+ jobs just in that one area.  

Having recently returned from a trip to Kenya, it is alarming to realize the wide discrepancy between outsiders’ perception of the situation in the country, and the reality of it. There may be issues in a few isolated areas but everywhere on safari (Rift Valley, Laikipia & Samburu) I felt and appeared to be totally safe.

In my opinion, there are few if any safer travel experiences than being on safari in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa, due to the almost complete absence of other people, speeding vehicles, and the usual trappings of civilization.  Almost no crime, no tension, just a peaceful and relaxed environment with friendly people totally intent on helping you make the experience the best one of your life. 

Travel warnings are a well-intentioned attempt by civic-minded governments to protect their citizens traveling abroad, but they are a particularly blunt tool.  Isolated incidents of violence and intimidation – regrettable and tragic as the consequences may be to those involved – rarely make an entire country unsafe to visit.  This is exactly the case inKenya.  Probably 95%-plus of the country – including the safari circuit – is perfectly safe, but this gets lost in the  publicity surrounding attacks and in ‘travel advisories’ which discourage all but essential travel to the country.

Travel advisories play right into the hands of the perpetrators of violence and indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians.  How so?  By discouraging travel to a specific area or country, they cause sometimes irreparable and long-term harm to the tourism sector and hence the economic well-being of mostly emerging economies.  They result in thousands of tourism jobs being lost with a ripple effect into many other areas of the economy such as transportation, food & agriculture and  the retail trade.  Stretch this over a number of years and you have entrenched and worsening unemployment, unrest, perhaps even political instability – all of which can be ameliorated with a vibrant tourism sector and strong and growing economy.  And all of which can be exploited by persons or entities wishing to harm a country or its people.  

Wildlife conservation is yet another unintended ‘victim’ of travel advisories.  It is self-evident that the presence of visitors in wildlife-rich areas act as a deterrent to poachers.  Poachers operate much more effectively and devastatingly so when there is nobody around such as when camps are closed for the rainy season or when the number of visitors dwindle for whatever reason.  Such as being discouraged by inane travel advisories.  

Discouraging all but essential travel to an area or country is  out of proportion with the intended outcome which is to protect a country’s citizens from harm or injury as a result of a terrorist event.  The specter of terrorism anywhere in the world pushes emotional buttons and the mass media exaggerate its risk and prevalence.  Deaths caused by terrorist events are tragic and shocking but they are a miniscule number compared with almost any other cause of death and bodily harm.  

If you travel to Kenya is it likely that you will become a victim of terrorism?  No.  You are about 1,900 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack and more than a 100 times more likely to succumb to the effects of contaminated food.  Worried about being crushed to death by your television or furniture or being hit by an asteroid?  Of course not – and those two events are about as likely to cause you harm as you are to fall victim to a terrorist.

So do we stop driving because driving results in accidents and death?  No we don’t.  And we don’t stop flying because aircraft occasionally (but very seldom) crash.   By the same token it would be daft to stop eating because of the potential risk of dying from contaminated food.  Avoiding all risk is not possible except perhaps by seeking refuge in a remote cave somewhere.  Which is not how we as free people choose to live.  

Which makes travel warnings all the more pernicious.  They purport to tell you how to live your life and what to do or not to do.  Are people not capable of making their own value judgement about the safety of an area?  Of course they are but ‘official’ statements made by high-profile government agencies carry a lot of weight.  Which is unfortunate because discouraging travel to disadvantaged areas of the world – which are often the areas hit by travel advisories – is a sure-fire way to stymie development and progress.  

As it is, many US states and cities are prone to chronic gun violence which results in the death of thousands of people every year, a lot of it gang-related. That, together with sporadic yet all too common and totally unpredictable mass shootings likely make large parts of the USA a far more risky proposition than the distant plains of the Masai Mara or the swamps of Amboseli.  Where are the travel advisories when you really need them?

NAIROBI

Our two most recent arrivals in Nairobi have been almost ridiculously quick and pleasant with a minimum of wait time to get a visa and to pick up luggage.  I always carp about this but lately JKIA has been the exception to the rule.  Kenyan immigration officials are now clearly authorized to smile and it is quite refreshing.  I just hope it stays that way.  When the old – horrible – international arrivals halls at JKIA burnt down a year or so ago, the airport was immediately a better place, despite the temporary inconvenience. When the new Unit 4 terminal becomes fully operational JKIA will have more parking (a real problem now!) and shuttling arriving passengers around on long bus rides will hopefully be a thing of the past. 

In June this year we were inside our hotel room at the Ole Sereni in less than an hour from when our aircraft taxied off the runway.  Not bad anywhere in the world!  The Ole Sereni has a good location very close to JKIA and the happy hour Tusker draft at KS340 (about US$4.00) for 2 is definitely a bargain.  Beyond that, there is not much that would distinguish it from any other run of the mill city hotel.  The room itself was quite small, and it looked out over a construction site – a major road project which will likely take some months to complete. The rooms facing Nairobi National Park can apparently be very noisy at night due to boisterous bar patrons, so pick your poison… I found the bathrooms & shower arrangement to be a bit odd. Like so many other hotel rooms, it is impossible for one person to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom without disturbing the other (sleeping) person, due to the location of the lights.

Perhaps we made the wrong menu choices but our experience at the main restaurant was sub-par.  Kathy’s medium fillet steak ended up being neither medium nor fillet.  I guess fillet steak in Kenya is not what we know as fillet mignon in the USA.  It was tough and overcooked.  To their credit the restaurant offered a replacement sirloin steak which unfortunately was just as tough and likewise overcooked, but at least they tried.  Order something else, not steak.  

The Ole Sereni staff were friendly and helpful – and we will continue to use it as a good and convenient option for a day-room for visitors flying out of JKIA.

I was happy to recognize our good friend and guide extraordinaire Edwin Selempo – who would accompany me for the first few days in Kenya – in amongst the sea of faces as we exited the temporary international arrivals facility.  Edwin has few rivals as an all-round superb guide and a traveling companion.  Always courteous and mindful of others’ needs – and often anticipating what you might need well before you become aware of it.  Edwin is also well-informed and not shy to express an opinion which makes for great conversation and interaction.  Being on safari with him is a rare treat.

Edwin arranged a day tour of Nairobi for Kathy which turned out to be one of the highlights of her Africa trip.  Amongst others she visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, the Giraffe Center and the Kazuri Bead factory where a range of hand-made and hand-painted beads are for sale.  

LAKE ELMENTEITA SERENA CAMP

Meanwhile Edwin and I negotiated some unavoidable Nairobi traffic and headed out west towards the Rift Valley.  Less than 3 hours later – and including a bird-watching stop for White-backed Duck at the Limuru Ponds – we made it to the Serena Elmenteita Camp, on the edge of Lake Elmenteita.  

I was pleasantly surprised by this property, anticipating a large hotel-like structure only to be shown to a beautiful tented room, one of 24 – all with lake views –  to the left and right of a spacious, elegant tented lounge and dining room complex.  We will definitely be using this property to accommodate our clients on future visits to the Rift Valley.  Like all Serena properties I have ever been to in Africa, it is exceedingly well managed, everything works (including fast WIFI), there is good lighting and charging facilities in the room, the food is well prepared and attractively presented, everything is super clean and the service and hospitality are impeccable.  Can’t do much better than that.  

The room itself was very comfortable with deluxe bedding, a small desk, a chest, ample clothing storage space, a bathroom with shower and a good hot water supply and a separate toilet.  There is a well-lit pathway to the main area and the entire camp is inside a guarded and electrically charged fence to keep out buffalo and other unwelcome intruders.  

Edwin and I soon sat down to a delicious lunch with two starter options, three main course options (fish, poultry and vegetarian) and a couple of desserts to boot.  Like our dinner later that day everything was delicious, attractively plated and presented and with a good choice of wine by the glass or by the bottle.  We tried a fine South African merlot.  Drinks are extra. 

Edwin – who had previously spent several years based at Lake Elmenteita as a guide – took me on  an afternoon game drive along the perimeter of the lake.  Almost immediately we started seeing various mammal and bird species and in less than 3 hours racked up some impressive sightings including good numbers of waterbuck, zebra, eland, impala, Rotchchilds Giraffe, a leopard tortoise, black-backed jackal, gazelles and buffalo.  Notable birds included Greater and Lesser Flamingo, lots of pelicans, yellowbilled stork, Augur buzzard and various others.  

Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp is just half an hour from Lake Nakuru so over the course of a 2-day stay it would be easy to make a side-trip to Lake Nakuru National Park to see rhino & more buffalo and giraffe and perhaps a few other species.  

The next morning, while enjoying a nice al fresco breakfast, I was struck by a feeling of being in a very remote spot with the lake right in front and a large rocky ridge protruding into my field of view, towards the left.  It was deceiving because there is a highway just a few hundred meters away, and of course the property is barely 2 hours solid driving away from Nairobi. Even so it is a great spot for a couple of days of low-key game-viewing and exploring some of the Rift Valley lakes and national parks. 

From Lake Elmenteita Edwin headed north to Nyahururu on a good asphalt road,  stopping at Thomson Falls to take a few photographs.  This 74 meter (243 feet ) waterfall in the Ewaso Nyiro river is quite impressive and the Thomson Falls Hotel – right next to the Falls – has a sparkling clean restroom facility.  It is a very short walk through a small park to the edge of the falls – entry fee required.  I was not impressed by the guy with the chameleon and the various hawkers.  Just ignore them or have your pic taken with the chameleon and buy some cheap trinkets.  The choice is yours.  

Continue to Part 2

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