Kenya bounces back

KenyaMaasaiKenya is on the rise: msafiri assesses the country’s rebirth as a destination and selects five of Kenya’s best bucket list experiences

Kenya is resurgent: after a difficult few years of insecurity worries from its northeastern neighbour Somalia, travel advisories have been rolled back, visa fees have been cut for families and the cost of visiting the national parks has gone down. The popular former Minister of Tourism, Najib Balala, has his old job back and – flamboyant as ever – announced financial incentives for charter flight operators before paragliding onto Watamu Beach to release a turtle. With the end of Indian Ocean piracy, the cruise liners are back in port, sailing into Mombasa’s magnificent harbour. Once again, the alleys of the Old City are full of enchanted visitors browsing Kenya’s array of crafts – from carved giraffes to giant drums and from Maasai jewellery to silverware and vibrant wax prints.

Visitors to Kenya are served a rich feast of experiences: this is the country that invented the safari, and nowhere does it like here. Photographing the ‘Big Five’ – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo: the dangerous megafauna once on every hunter’s wish list – is easily achieved, and the country is a stronghold for two of the world’s rarest mammals: the black rhino and the African wild dog. With hunting banned nearly forty years ago, the wildlife in Kenya is remarkably habituated to the presence of humans: only in the national parks and private conservancies of Kenya can you achieve such close and intimate animal encounters.

Kenya’s citizens, the guardians of its wildlife heritage, are members of more than forty different ethno-linguistic groups. These tribes or peoples – each with their own language and cultural norms – are the country’s founding nations. After sharing the common experience of seventy years of British imperial rule, they have since been drawn together into a single Kenyan identity by fifty years of independence. Nobody likes to be stereotyped in terms of an accident of birth – for every spear-toting warrior counting his cows or studying to be a wildlife ranger there’s a tablet-toting tech guru touting a startup in Nairobi who could be his sister – but the dynamic variety of personal encounters you’ll have on any visit makes a forceful impression, and Kenya’s people are another key to the country’s massive appeal.

Kenya has been welcoming visitors for decades: the first big game park lodges (Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo West National Park and Keekorok Lodge in the Masai Mara) were built in the 1960s.  As a consequence of this early development, the accommodation in Kenya ranges from affordable lodges in some of the most spectacular locations to boutique tented camps in exclusive, community-owned wildlife sanctuaries. Along with beach resorts, private houses, excellent city hotels and backpacker campsites, all the options are available. Shopping and dining out are increasingly at an international level, and Nairobi has a wide and eclectic selection of restaurants, not to mention homegrown coffee chains. Getting around isn’t difficult, either. Although road journeys can be unpredictable, flying to the safari destinations, using one of the country’s small airlines, is straightforward. Considering Kenya is on the Equator, large areas have a comfortable, highlands climate, with malaria absent or rare. In a medical emergency, the flying doctors service, based in Nairobi, will come to the rescue.

This unique three-part combination – habituated wildlife, cultural contrasts and good infrastructure – has been fundamental to the successful rebirth of Kenya as a destination.

In the spotlight
Recent media spotlights on Kenya have helped, too. President Obama’s visit in July last year and the Pope’s in November were met with delight by Kenyans, who turned out in their tens of thousands to see them and to hear them speak some home truths.

Pope Francis talked about the connection between environmental and social responsibility, and reminded the government of its duty to nurture both the rule of law and a sustainable economy for the benefit of all Kenyans. “Experience,” he said, “shows that violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration.”

Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, had stern words to say about corruption and human rights, but danced and bantered like a local and was treated as a long-lost son. One new mother even named her baby AirForceOne Barack Obama in his honour.

Msafiri’s Kenyan Big 5

Our pick of Kenya’s must-see experiences to help you plan your next adventure

1 The Great Migration
Nothing in Kenya – nor indeed in Africa – can prepare you for the experience of the great wildebeest migration. Perhaps a million animals stream across the savannah, grunting and pronking, in multiple, single-file lines. From the southern plains of the Serengeti to the bush-rimmed streams of the Masai Mara, they move throughout the year. They drop their calves in the far south in February and turn to the far north in August and September, lured by the scent of rains and better grazing on the Kenyan side of the border. On their journey, they’re attacked by lions teaching their cubs how to hunt with the easy pickings of newborn calves, and by hyenas taking down the lame and the young. Leopards, cheetahs, jackals and other predators pounce on the unwary.

With the grass always greener on the other side, the broad meanders of the Mara River provide numerous futile challenges that the instinct-driven wildebeest seem unable to resist. We find a herd of perhaps 2000, jostling and groaning with anticipation on a high section of the far bank. Eventually two individuals take the plunge, hurling themselves five metres down into the river to gamely beat through the fast-flowing current towards our side. Hundreds of other wildebeest topple in after them, some breaking legs or getting trampled. Three huge crocodiles churn out from the near bank to meet them mid-stream. Fearsome jaws gape and snap shut, and one of the flimsy, wild-eyed wildebeest goes down immediately. There’s a great thrashing and commotion. The leaders reach the near bank. They struggle through the mud, past the vulture-picked carcasses of previous contestants, out onto the plains behind us.

Tomorrow many of these winners are likely to repeat the performance in the opposite direction, and many others will be dead. To us, the human observers, in an environment over which we have no control, the migration is a natural phenomenon of such gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring magnitude that it feels almost historic in its significance, as if we were caught up in a revolution.

2 Up, up and away
Huddled in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness of a clearing in the Mara River’s fringing forest, a group of sixteen safari-goers are catching the warm glow from the burner’s flame, as the ground crew inflate a giant balloon. By the time we’re all briefed and in the basket, the sky has lightened to blue steel. And then we’re up and away, rising in a swift silence broken only by bursts from the burner, the click of cameras and the occasional awed murmur from one of the participants as we pass a vulture’s nest or baboons chasing through the branches. Below, hippo roll in the river, impala dart through the forest and we hear the creak of breaking branches where elephant are feeding.

It’s the low-level flying that captures our imagination the most. Balloons over the Masai Mara often rise for hundreds of metres and then drift with imperious majesty across the serene landscape. But on this occasion, our pilot brings the huge envelope of warm air down towards the savannah, and propels it with immense skill across the plains at about the speed of a bicycle, just a couple of metres above the sea of oat grass, rippling in the slanting sun. Periodically he makes a 180-degree turn, allowing the passengers on each side of the basket a forward view. In a marshy part where no 4WD could venture, we pass a skittish pair of reedbucks, a surly gentlemen’s club of old bull buffalos chewing the cud and a gang of loitering hyenas. Travelling like this is intoxicating, and when the basket settles near a table laid for breakfast, we’re heady with the experience even before we’ve taken a sip from the flutes of bubbly being proffered by the waiters.

@Saruni Lion, lion everywhere! #WhyILoveKenya

@NiamhHoran The single greatest mental detox I’ve ever had #WhyILoveKenya

@TheLDNChatter Back at my happy place, with Daisy at Giraffe Manor #SafariBug #WhyILoveKenya

@iAmCynthiaMuli This is Mount Kenya. Like seriously, who wouldn’t fall in love with this??
#TourismKE #WhyILoveKenya

3 The ways of the warrior
It’s war. The warrior hurls his weapon at me as I run to the side, ducking behind a boulder. I hear the whoosh as it skims past my shoulder. Another weapon whistles towards me and slaps into my calf. I’m under attack, in a mock battle with Maasai warriors, half a dozen of us on each side, laughing and taunting each other as we dodge through the trees. We’re exchanging not real spears or clubs, but the rubbery basal shoots of aloe plants, known as ‘elephant toothpicks’. The play weapons are about 30cm long – you grasp one end and throw them overarm, causing them to propeller through the air, creating a whirring, warning sound – and just heavy enough to sting like hell if your reactions aren’t fast enough.

The battle is the culmination of an afternoon of walking, bow and spear training, and Maasai storytelling, learning about the plants and wildlife of the Masai Mara ecosystem, and finding out about the lives of our hosts. Truce is declared and we regroup to admire each other’s war wounds and learn songs and dances around the campfire (yes, lit with fire sticks) as the sun drops behind the hills. I discover that the Maasai’s vertical leaps, which seem so effortless to them, are impossible to reproduce: my frame makes a meagre upward lurch in a display that generates gales of laughter.

@AsiliaAfrica Misty Mara mornings #WhyILoveKenya #MaasaiMara

@InterfaceItaly L’incredibile Grande Migrazione: cinema en plein air tutto da vivere in Kenya! #WhyILoveKenya #magicalkenya

@greyworldnomads Best cooling system – swimming in beautiful swimming pool #Mtwapa #Kenya #whyilovekenya

@RealStanDavis #karisiawalkingsafaris: Hooray! Looks like it’s going to be a very green Christmas here in Kenya #whyilovekenya

@50Treasures Mt Kenya’s Batian and Nelion peaks towering in a halo of mist in the late afternoon #WhyILoveKenya #TembeaKenya

4 Radio cats and dogs
In recent years increasing numbers of Kenya’s endangered predators have been radio-collared, enabling wildlife rangers to ensure their safety and track their movements, and biologists to keep tabs on their progeny and behaviour. With the social animals it’s common to collar just the dominant female – the pride or pack will follow. A number of lionesses in the Maasai-owned conservancy areas outside the Masai Mara reserve have GPS satellite collars, allowing them to be monitored, while in the northern region of Laikipia, VHF radio collars are used to keep tabs on the more elusive prides that are less habituated to humans.

It’s collared wild dogs, however, that provide the most exciting quarry. We’re bouncing along a rough track in Laikipia’s high country with the radio telemetry kit (a simple aerial and speaker set that chirps with increasing rapidity as we approach a wild dog pack), with Steve Carey from Laikipia Wilderness Camp at the wheel.

Steve, robust defender of the bush and everything in it, does not mollycoddle his guests. He suddenly slams on the brakes, raising his hand at the same time: “They’re here,” he announces, before leaping from the vehicle with his gun, bounding across the rocky landscape in shorts and sandals, his Maasai tracker in tow. We guests follow more hesitantly, waiting to be told what to do. In vain, as it turns out, as Steve is a man of few words and a great believer in instinctive behaviour. We all end up on a rocky escarpment, sipping beers and G&Ts in the evening sun, crouched in observation as the multicoloured dogs play with their new pups across the gorge. It is an enthralling experience.

After they’ve vanished, we take off after them again, Steve halting every couple of minutes to wave the antenna. With a staccato of signals on the receiver the dogs reappear, hunting this time, fanning around the vehicle to launch an assault on a herd of empty-headed impala. As the painted wolves surge through the bush, the panic-stricken antelope fly in every direction, leaping above the scrub as if on springs. The dogs take a fawn, devouring it noisily out of our sight in the thicket. We drive on, the pauses between the clicks lengthening with the evening shadows.

5 Lost cities in the jungle
We arrive at Gedi in the late afternoon, and find the ruins almost deserted, with butterflies flitting through the glades. Hacked out of the coastal jungle in the 1940s, Gedi was a flourishing Swahili trading town from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, before its inhabitants mysteriously deserted it and the jungle invaded for 300 years. The buildings that have been revealed include ruined mosques, walls and arches, a palace and large houses, many with evidence of sophisticated plumbing, and all constructed out of carved coral rock. The tentacle roots of giant forest trees still wrap themselves around some of the unexcavated areas: it’s a spine-tingling place to explore.

Leave the shady lanes and climb the tree platform mounted in the middle of the site for an overview of the whole area. Down on the forest floor, where Gedi citizens once walked, cable-like columns of ferocious siafu ants cross the paths and disappear into the old walls. Bushbabies and duiker antelope live among the trees, as does, according to local legend, a disturbing sheep-like animal that follows you like a shadow down the paths. Gedi’s undergrowth is the home of the golden-rumped elephant shrew, a strange mammalian mash-up with long legs and a probing proboscis. It has barely changed since the time of the dinosaurs, and is invariably accompanied by a bird, the red-capped robin chat, that warns it of danger and is rewarded by scraps from the shrew’s excavations in the leaf litter.

Gedi isn’t the only lost ruin on the Kenya coast – there are the ruins of Mnarani at Kilifi Creek, and Shirazi in the jungle south of Mombasa. The coast has sacred groves too – the old forests or kaya where early coastal villages once stood more than a thousand years ago. They are scattered the length of the coast, and today serve as refuges for forest wildlife. The best-known sacred forest is Kaya Kinondo, tucked away near Diani Beach and happily welcoming visitors: there’s even a ticket office and local Digo guides who will describe its mysteries and brief you on how to behave.

@TravelMombasa Kenya just voted the Best Safari Destination in the world at World Travel Awards 2015. Kudos #whyilovekenya

@Reiseknipse No words can quite describe viewing #Kenya. You see it & feel! #whyIlovekenya #africa

@niallmeany #Kenya you are amazing! Rain on the right, sunset on the left #whyilovekenya

@AfroChicDiani  The beautiful blue skies of #Diani. #whyilovekenya
@Tembea_Kenya  Hiking at Elephant Hills, Aberdares #TembeaKenya #WhyiloveKenya #KenyaOutdoors

Love is in the air
Whether you’re tying the knot, renewing your vows, planning a honeymoon or simply dreaming up a special holiday for two, Kenya can deliver romance like nowhere else on earth.

Start with a night in the ‘Betty’ room at Giraffe Manor, a mansion in the leafy Nairobi district of Karen where the gentle giants will visit your patio to be fed. Then take a small plane past the slopes of Mount Kenya (where Prince William proposed to Kate) to Meru National Park, where George and Joy Adamson released Elsa the lioness, in Born Free. Stay here at the achingly lovely Elsa’s Kopje – a place of private views across the bush, with wonderful wildlife and perfect food, served wherever you like. Take another plane up to Tassia, a remote cluster of open-sided rooms on a rocky ridge, run by a paraglider pilot who rescues birds of prey and will take you out on foot, looking for elephant and other big game along dry riverbeds, protected by his Mukogodo tracker and his trusty elephant gun. Then fly across the Rift Valley to the Masai Mara and absorb the panorama of wall-to-wall wildlife from the stunning decks of the best camp in the region, Mara Plains, with its opulent bathrooms and sumptuous furnishings. Finish your romantic sojourn at Kinondo Kwetu, on the Indian Ocean, far from the busy resorts, with a crystal-clear lagoon behind a coral reef, and horses to ride on the almost empty beach.

If you’re getting married in Kenya, you must arrive a minimum of three working days before the wedding. Check further details with your nearest Kenyan embassy or high commission. Most camps and lodges can make arrangements.

Fact File
Warrior-training
Many safari camps offer a range of short Maasai cultural programmes.
Try Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. (www.majimotomaasaicamp.com).

Balloon safaris
There are several ballooning sites across the Masai Mara and you can take a dawn balloon flight from any tented camp or lodge in the region, arranging to be collected at around 5am.

Gedi ruins
You can easily visit the ruins independently, or as an excursion from a beach hotel. The
low-key resort of Watamu, 7km away, is the nearest base.

Tracking predators
You can track wild dogs at several camps in Laikipia, including Laikipia Wilderness (www.laikipia-wilderness.com)  and Sosian (www.sosian.com). Track lions at Kicheche Laikipia Camp (www.kicheche.com/our-camps/laikipia-camp).

The great migration
The herds are usually at their most dense in the Masai Mara between late July and early October, with late August and early September often providing the most frequent and frantic river crossings.

Kenya 2016
Festivals & events
The following listings are firm fixtures. Also look out for the Kwani LitFest and Nairobi Fashion Week.

19-21 May   
Marsabit Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, Loiyangalani
Jamboree for northern Kenya’s peoples. (www.laketurkanaculturalfestival.com)

28-29 May
Rhino Charge
4WD cross-country rally raising US$1m-plus for conservation. (www.rhinocharge.co.ke)

1-6 Jun   
Meru Show Agricultural show. (www.ask.co.ke)

25 Jun
Safaricom Marathon
Marathon race in the Lewa Conservancy. (www.lewa.org)

5 Jul
Id al-Fitr, north and coast
The festival at the end of Ramadan.

6-10 Jul   
Nakuru Show Agricultural show
(www.ask.co.ke)

27-31 Jul   
Kisumu Show
Agricultural show (www.ask.co.ke)

TBC, August
Kenya Music Festival, Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi
Competitive schools and colleges festival.

Maralal International Camel Derby, Maralal
Kenya’s most prestigious camel race.

29-31 Aug   
Rift Valley Festival, Lake Naivasha
Global music festival. (www.riftvalleyfestival.co.ke)

14-17 Sep    
Central Kenya National Show, Nyeri
Agricultural show.
(www.ask.co.ke)

24-25 Sep
Concours d’Elegance, Ngong Racecourse, Nairobi
Classic car show. (www.alfaromeOwnersclubkenya.com)

26 Sep-2 Oct
Nairobi International Trade Fair, Jamhuri Park, Nairobi
East Africa’s biggest trade fair. (www.ask.co.ke)

26-29 Oct
North Rift Show, Kitale
Agricultural show. (www.ask.co.ke)

November   
Lamu Cultural Festival, Lamu
Lamu life at its most exuberant! (www.lamu.go.ke)

12 Dec    
Maulidi, north and coast, especially Lamu
The prophet’s birthday.

12 Dec    
Jamhuri Day, also known as Republic Day and Independence Day.
A national holiday.

KQ Holidays
Book a safari in one of Kenya’s national parks or a house on the beach with Kenya Airways’ own holiday shop, KQ Holidays. Mara West Camp, which offers fabulous views across the Masai Mara from the ridge where some of the scenes in Out of Africa were filmed, has two nights in a tented bungalow on full board from US$470 for two sharing. When your safari appetite is sated, top-rated Diani Beach property The Villa has double or twin suites from US$161 per night, including breakfast.  www.kqholidays.com for more info