1 September 2009 by Pete Mathers
Pete Mathers talks to Wexas Africa experts Amit Khadka and Rui Ribeiro about their recent safari through Kenya’s finest game reserves.
If every great city deserves a great hotel, Nairobi’s is unquestionably the Norfolk. Completed in 1904, the stone-built landmark was the vision of an English major. When it opened on Christmas Day, the Norfolk had 34 bedrooms, a French chef poached from the Waldorf in London, a dining room, sitting room, billiard room, bar, and – a first in Kenya – electricity throughout. Over the years it became a meeting place for the who’s who of East African travel, from actors and actresses to presidents and prime ministers. In 2007 it gained the appendage of a Fairmont hotel, and though enhanced by a £6 million refit – adding new public rooms, restaurants and an outdoor terrace – the Norfolk has retained its half-timbered Edwardian iconic exterior.
It’s also the starting point of our nine-day Kenya Royal Safari, a classic safari route from Somak Holidays, the company voted ‘Best Operator to Africa’ by UK travel agents for the last four years. Wexas Africa experts, Amit Khadka and Rui Ribeiro, were among a group of Wexans to follow a near-identical itinerary in June this year, courtesy of Fairmont, Somak and other industry partners. I caught up with them upon their return.
“From the Norfolk we travelled to the slopes of Mount Kenya, the second highest peak in all Africa,” explained Rui. The highest, of course, is Mount Kilimanjaro, but what Kili lacks is a hotel at its base near half as luxurious as the Fairmount Mount Kenya Safari Club.
“The history of the place is what grabbed me first,” continued Amit. “William Holden was a Hollywood great, an Oscar winner and the best man at Ronald and Nancy Regan’s wedding. In 1959 he bought Mawingo, meaning ‘clouds’ in Kiswahili, from an American heiress, and turned it into the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The guest list reads like a red carpet roll call: Churchill, Mountbatten, Lyndon Johnson, Bing Crosby and Ben Hope have all stayed here, no doubt transfixed by the views of Mount Kenya.” “Incredibly,” said Rui, “the equator runs straight through the hotel’s 100-acre estate. There may even be suites where in one room you’re in the northern hemisphere but in another you’re in the southern.”
The suites/cottages are incidentally quite something, complete with parquet flooring, private verandas, comfortable sofas and log fires. And though absolute privacy is easily had, shutting out the views by drawing the curtains would be verging on criminal. There’s plenty to do too. “I went mountain biking and we all went horse riding in the morning,” said Rui. “There’s also bowls, croquet, swimming, golf and nature walks, so it’s an ideal place to have a day to relax in.” All well and good, you might say, but where are the animals? The slopes of Mount Kenya have their share, but things really hot up when you head north to Samburu. Running through the heart of this dramatic and rugged landscape is a precious ribbon of life: the mud-brown Ewaso Nyiro River. Graced by tall palms and shady acacias, the river is essential to the region’s endemic species, including gerenuk, reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra. There are predators too. Leopards and lions leave their tracks in the dust. But above all, Samburu is elephant country.
“I’d never seen so many elephants,” said Amit of his arrival at Ashnil Samburu Camp, a brand new camp boasting luxury fixed tents with showers and terraces. The river runs right through the camp, which is built on an elephant migratory path. “All day long they’re walking up and down, drawn by the promise of water.”
“The best part,” said Rui, cutting in enthusiastically, “is being able to sit in your tent, watching African elephants come to drink from the river just 30 feet away.” Outside the camp, game drives come twice a day. Amit saw a lioness with two cubs, Rui a cheetah with a kill. They also visited a Samburu village, learnt of their cattlebased culture, the impacts of recent drought and the tribe’s determination to preserve its way of life.
Finally it was on to the game-stocked Masai Mara. For Rui, the hour-long flight from Samburu to the Mara was a definite highlight. “You take off with Mount Kenya to your left, fly over the Rift Valley, look down on Lake Nakuru and its flocks of pink flamingos, and land on the plains of the Mara.”
Amit continues: “We got off the plane and were greeted by the Masai. After cocktails by a bend in the river, we drove in to Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Immediately I thought, ‘Wow, this is the real deal: the bar, the décor, the Masai furniture, this is really really special’. Then I walked outside and found myself right on the riverbank, with 50 or so hippos going crazy below me. It blew my mind.”
Fairmont Mara Safari Club is on an oxbow bend of the Mara River, in a private concession next to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Tents all have river views, as well as four-poster beds, private verandas, baths, showers, hot running water and luxury toiletries. Being outside the main reserve actually has many advantages. For one, vehicles on the game drives are allowed to track wildlife off road – prohibited in much of the Mara – and where, elsewhere, you’ll have 15 vehicles surrounding a lion kill, Amit and Rui never saw more than two other trucks. The vehicles themselves are better too; open-top jeeps as opposed to the mini-vans prevalent in so much of Kenya.
The camp’s also next to a Masai village, which as Rui explains, can lead to some surprising encounters. “The last thing you expect when photographing game is a Masai villager, cycling across the foreground, driving his cattle before him. Neither us nor the wildlife seemed to faze him.”
It was clear from speaking to Amit and Rui that their time in Kenya had been truly remarkable. Between local culture, wildlife encounters and historical bush camps, they had a lot to take in. Amit, however, made time to reflect on it all.
“Sitting by the Mara with a good single malt, bathed in the moonlight and listening to the hippos … that’s when it sinks in: the game drives, the wildlife, where you are. You forget everything else. I couldn’t have been happier.”
We’re happy to tailor any Kenya itinerary to suit your needs. You might want to stay longer at Mt Kenya – perhaps even make a bid for the summit – or extend your stay with a few days relaxing on the coast. Anything is possible. Amit, Rui and our whole team of experts are on hand to help. Call them on 020 7838 5968 or email [email protected].