PART 1: OVERVIEW & OL DONYO

By Bert Duplessis

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June 9, 2013

My first ever flight on Kenya Airways did not start very well, with a ridiculously slow check-in process at Oliver R Tambo Airport.  It took all of 90 minutes.  The explanation’?  ‘Too few people working’.  That is the answer I got, seriously.  To make matters worse, we were delayed for nearly 2 hours.  In the end a ground supervisor promised me an upgrade to business class, but I had to take it up again with a flight attendant before I finally made it to the front of the plane.  Once we were airborne I relaxed and picked up where I last left off with Jack Reacher on the Kindle.  All good.

It was a breeze getting a visa at JKIA Airport on arrival, the immigration official was downright pleasant.  What a shock. Just as shocking but not in a good way, was the condition of the airport.  To describe it as a dump would be kind.  It was great to see the effervescent Lydia from our Kenya destination management company Origins Safaris again.  Always helpful, efficient and friendly!

DINNER AT THE EMAKOKO

Due to the lateness of the Kenya Airways flight, getting to my destination – The Emakoko Lodge – was a little bit involved as my Origins driver – the always smiling and capable Lazarus – could only take me to the gate of the Nairobi National Park, which closes at 1800.  From there, an Emakoko driver took me the rest of the way.  It was already dark so we did not see any wildlife; just some nightjars which I believe were Montane Nightjar.

I was quite famished by the time we got to the lodge; the vehicle has to negotiate a short but bumpy rocky stretch of downhill road (aka Emakoko Highway), parks on the edge of a stream and you then walk across a small bridge into camp.  Over a very nice dinner with tomato soup, a lentil stew, basmati rice and a great fruit salad the co-owner and manager Anton (aka Anthony) filled me in on the lodge and its environment.  Its best feature of course is its location right on the edge of Nairobi National Park and about 30 to 40 minutes from both JKIA and Wilson Airports, depending on traffic conditions.

There’s plenty of rhino, lions, giraffe, and all kinds of other game to be seen in Nairobi National Park during the day.  And the park has a huge long bird-list as well.  Another nice feature of The Emakoko is that all meals and drinks are included, unlike a regular hotel.  I spent the night in a spacious room with a king size bed with mosquito netting.  The lighting could be brighter, but it was adequate.  Filtered water was supplied.

For visitors coming from N. America I would recommend two nights at the Emakoko on arrival.  First night just to crash after the horribly long journey, with lots of stuff to do on the full day there.  A game drive for some rhino which are scarce elsewhere in Kenya except for Lake Nakuru & Lewa, some general game and then some other Nairobi activities such as Giraffe Center, Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Karen Blixen Museum.  This could also be done with one night there at the start of the trip and one night at the end.

June 10

I was up at 0500 this morning for an early breakfast (toast, black coffee, and some porridge), and then took off on a drive of about 40 minutes to Wilson Airport.  The Emakoko is about 20 minutes from the main or KWS Gate of Nairobi National Park and from there it is about 20 minutes to Wilson, sometimes a bit more if the traffic is really bad.

On the way to the gate we got lucky with a sighting of two lions right in the road.  We had to slow down for them to find an escape route to the left.  There were also lots of Spotted Thicknee and more (suspected) Montane Nightjars.

By 645A we were in the ‘departure hall’ at Wilson Airport where a rather perfunctory security screening was conducted before 9 of us boarded a SafariLink Cessna Caravan.  We waited in line for 15 minutes or so for a take-off slot.  Wilson is an extremely busy airport.  A burst of power, a noisy rush down the runway – and then it was wheels up en route for Ol Donyo in the Chyulu Hills, about 40 minutes south-east of Nairobi.

KENYA OVERVIEW

I had a fantastic time in Kenya.  Ol Donyo exceeded my expectations.  It is a fabulous place which just has tons of ‘Africa appeal’ right from the moment you land in what appears to be just a grassy plain.  There are the views (superb!), the people (managers Ray and Alyssa appear to be tailor-made for this place), the rooms (stunning) and on top of that the various experiences including the game drives, birding, a bush breakfast and all the others which I didn’t have time to try.  It is a true ‘dry oasis’ – paradoxical as a lot of water would likely ruin it.  I really enjoyed taking a bath, knowing that the big elephants at the hide below the hill were keenly anticipating my modest contribution to their well-being.  Water is trucked to the lodge each day and everything is recycled.  It was encouraging to hear about the great conservation strides that have been made on the Mbirikani Group Ranch.  I plan to read more about it – clearly did not have enough time to get detailed information about anything.

From there I took a sojourn with Edwin Selempo of Origins to Amboseli.  Amazing elephants!! They are really chewing up the place though.  And even more stunning views – I even had a fairly decent view of Kilimanjaro one afternoon.  I also really enjoyed Tortilis Camp, had quite a pleasant night at the Serena (as always very well managed) and took a quick look at Ol Tukai, which seems to be a perfectly good option for slightly more budget-minded visitors.

Then it was on to Mara Toto in the Olare Orok Conservancy.  From the word go I experienced unbelievable game-viewing there:  on one afternoon game drive of barely 2 hours we saw 17 different mammal species with at least 8 of them within view at one stage.  Not to mention great lions and a final morning with brilliant cheetah viewing.  Just Edwin, me and the 2 cheetahs for more than an hour, no other vehicle close by!

How can anyone not like being in a camp with Lorna and Kim – and Richard.  I did not see a photographer from Vogue around, they are missing out…  The rooms are perfect for the setting; maybe a tad close to each other but as long as people know about that, it would be ok.  We took a quick look at Mara Plains but it was difficult to get a real ‘feel’ for it without all the interior stuff in place.  It doesn’t matter though, I know where it is, how close it is to the park, the quality game drives in the conservancy, and so on.

From there it was off to Lamu (fascinating area and lovely people at Manda Bay). I did not spend a lot of time in the town itself there but a short walk in search of Ali King’s confirmed what I had been told: Lamu is rather dirty and smelly. I prefer nearby Shella by wide margin – have to go back there some time when the Peponi Hotel is open.

I also spent a night each at two really interesting new properties in Nairobi, so different yet both appealing.  Lions on the road on my way out of The Emakoko on Day 2, and the most advanced state of the art security barriers at Hemingways, very impressive.  Massive hunks of meat being served for dinner there, all very manly as one would imagine.  Fantastic room at Hemingways, complete with motion detected light in the walk-in closet.  Wow.  Plus a large-screen HD TV that appears out of a faux travel trunk.  Really.  As for the Emakoko it would be perfect for 2 nights, for people that can take an extra day at the start of a trip.  Do a game drive, see some rhino, great birds, lions, who knows what.  Get a bit of a taste of what a safari camp is going to be like – and then go on to where-ever.

I am also very happy to have finally done the ‘tourist’ circuit in the Karen area.  Loved the baby elephants at Sheldrick’s and the giraffes at the Giraffe Center.  The guide at the Karen Blixen Museum was very thorough.  I know almost as much about Ms Blixen now as I know about my own mother.

BACK TO OL DONYO

The scheduled flight from Nairobi arrives in Ol Donyo quite early, so my guide James Seki and I had quite a bit of time for a game drive en route to the camp.  There was a lot of plains game around.  In less than an hour we saw Fringed Oryx, Grant’s Gazelle, Thomson’s Gazelles (lots!), Zebra, Wildebeest (plentiful!) Giraffe, Warthog, and a good variety of birds including Coursers, Lapwings and lots of Superb Starlings.

On the drive into camp we had a really close encounter with a solitary elephant bull, who seemed to be screening new arrivals.  I must have gotten the nod – and was checking into my room at Old Donyo Lodge shortly afterwards.

From the lodge patio, there is an amazing view over the plains and twin hills in the background.  On a clear day Mt Kilimanjaro is the main attraction.  I received a very friendly welcome by the young managing couple Ray and Alyssa, who are both US citizens.  The cell phone coverage at Ol Donyo was spotty but ok, unfortunately the WIFI never worked.

Due to some lingering issues with a foot injury I did not get to try any of Ol Donyo’s many activities beyond game drives, which include mountain biking, horse-back riding, and foot safaris.  For active visitors who want to get out of the vehicle and extend their experience beyond just game drives, Ol Donyo would be ideal.  In the dry season – which is most of the year except for March and April and perhaps early May, there are several large elephant bulls to be seen from a well-constructed hide overlooking a few small waterholes right in front of camp.

During the time of my stay at Ol Donyo one of the other guests saw both lions and cheetah in the area, so it appears that many years of conservation in the Mbirikani Ranch Conservation area is paying off handsomely.  I concentrated on some bird-watching and over the course of two full days in the area racked up more than 100 bird species, including several ‘life birds’ and many colorful and exceptionally interesting ones such as Gymnogene, Narina Trogon (in camp), African Hoopoe, Secretary bird, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Martial Eagle, Gabar Goshawk, and Hartlaub’s Bustard.

The area around Ol Donyo is dry with no ready access to water for man or beast.  It is a curse and a blessing.  Every day a tanker has totravel a long distance from Mbirikani all the way to the lodge, transporting a valuable load of water for the bathrooms with bath & shower, and even a pool.  Would it be easier to drill a borehole closer to the camp?  Probably yes and less expensive too, but that would inevitably lead to more people moving into the area, which would change it completely.

On the day I left Ol Donyo – by road to Amboseli – we stopped a ways out of camp and standing outside the vehicle, I realized that I could not see a building, a house, a car – not even another person –  in any direction.  Using binoculars.  360 degrees of nothing, except beautiful grassy plains, zebra and wildebeest in the foreground, a couple of giraffe in the background, slowly moving in front of and then past some hills.  This is the Africa of old, of true undisturbed wilderness.  There is not much of it left but you can still experience ‘old Africa’ at its best at Ol Donyo.  Go there.

Continue to Part 2

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