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Tracking family history on safari in Kenya

How does the idea of “Safari-oke” strike you? It’s a brilliant concept coined by Simon and Peter in the last days of their safari as we rocked out to power ballads all the way up the Rift Valley escarpment.  Simon’s family heritage lay in Kenya and the two had come to retrace the steps of his grandparents’ life here… and to sing with us of course!  From the wilds of Taveta to the coast, through Lumo, Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Maasai Mara, finally finishing in Nairobi, we travelled together for two glorious weeks.

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We met at the tiny border town of Taveta at the Challa Hotel.  I approached two foreign guys and asked if they were Simon and Peter, thinking it was a safe bet they were.  “No” they replied.  Gosh how embarrassing AND what are the odds there are four foreign guys in this hotel bar?!  As I dejectedly walked away, they called me back saying they were actually Simon and Peter.  They thought they had injected plenty of irony in their tone, but it seems I’m out of practice!

The next morning, we headed to Mombasa.  As we drove through the city, we made a stop at the Mombasa Railway Station, as Simon’s mother had mentioned it when recounting memories of her life in Kenya.  It’s very difficult to imagine that it is still in use (it is!) as almost nothing seems to have changed in the 53 years since the British left.  We stayed at Stilts in Diani where we fed the resident bushbabies in the evening.  After six years in Africa, this was my first bushbaby sighting so I was excited.  Until I realised they are pretty much the same as possums in Australia.

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Simon and Peter took a half day trip to Kaya Kinondo, a sacred forest used by the local community for various rituals and rites.  In the afternoon we went into Mombasa city to Fort Jesus, crossing two World Heritage sites off in one day.  That evening we stayed at Tulia House in Nyali.  We went out for dinner to a restaurant Francis and I had discovered on our last visit and there discovered a huge number of bushbabies crawling all over the road and nearby trees!

Our final site in Mombasa was Jumba la Mtwana, an old Arab trading port used in the fifteenth century.  It sits right on the beach and the ruins are brought to life by informative guides.

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Lumo Sanctuary was the next destination.  We stayed at Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge, a spectacular-looking lodge on stilts.  With a water hole right next to the lodge, elephants are a common sight as you check in at reception; not this time though.  We dumped our luggage and headed straight out for a game drive with the goal of getting to Lion’s Bluff for a sundowner.  Sundowners are a quintessential part of a safari (simply having a drink as you watch the sun go down) and Lion’s Bluff has the best views for it.  As we look across the savannah from the balcony bar we see Mt Kilimanjaro and the sun setting behind it.  And then more bushbabies!

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During our game drive the next day, Lilac-breasted Rollers seemed to be our mascot, we saw so many.  We also saw a couple of Black-bellied Bustards but had to hurry along.  On the other side of the van, a baboon was making a move to get in through the roof.  He could smell the fruit in our lunch boxes!  The other birding highlight for the morning was a hornbill.  To cap off the morning though, we were treated with a rare spotting of a klipspringer on the rocks.

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In the afternoon we crossed the road into Tsavo West National Park.  The legend of the Man-eating Lions of Tsavo had captured our guests’ imaginations and so we headed through the park to the lions’ cave.  Together, Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Park make up 4% of Kenya’s total area, and it was a very long drive to the cave, albeit through some pretty awesome scenery.  After the lions’ cave we went to the Rhino Sanctuary which is only open in the later afternoons.  We saw a lot of giraffes and zebras, but no rhinos.  The numbers of giraffes were incredible though!  At dusk we headed to Kilaguni Serena Lodge with a fantastic bar and restaurant that opened out to a water hole.  At last we saw elephants!

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In the morning we went to Mzima Springs, complete with lush vegetation after the arid landscapes of the previous day.  We were amused by one information sign about one palm whose “dates make a passable wine, but otherwise unpalatable”.  There’s an underwater viewing chamber there as well where you can see fish and probably hippos if they move up that end of the river.  The best we got was a German man telling me (in German) how to use my camera (i.e. put it on auto was his advice!).  Downstream was the main hippo pool with plenty of hippos grunting and smelling.  We spent quite a while watching monkeys playing in the trees above the river holding our collective breath wondering if they would fall in the water.  There was a crocodile parked very close to the viewing platform, letting the water rush over him and disguising himself quite well.  We had to join a security convoy to take the back roads to Amboseli so we headed to the gate.  The drive took us through lava fields from the last time Mt Kilimanjaro erupted.  We also saw elands, hyrax and vervet monkeys on our way.

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We got to Amboseli in good time and checked into Kibo Safari Camp.  An afternoon game drive resulted in sightings of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, elephant, hippo, gazelle, baboon, ostrich, secretary bird, eagle, blacksmith plover, crowned crane, and weavers.  Most surprising though were the flamingos!  One doesn’t usually go to Amboseli for flamingos, and indeed it was Francis’ first time to see them there.  But Lake Amboseli can turn up all sorts of surprises.

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In the morning we set out early and were blessed with the picture of elephants in front of Mt Kilimanjaro.  Simon and Peter had spent a few months living in Kilimanjaro’s shadow in Moshi, Tanzania and we had been skirting the base of the mountain the past couple of days.  But now it was time to say goodbye to the mountain as we left Amboseli and headed to Nairobi.

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We arrived at The Stanley Hotel, one of Nairobi’s original hotels located in the centre of the CBD.  Disappointingly, the staff were not very polite and insisted on sighting the guests’ passports before doing anything about checking them in.  There was also a great rush from the doormen for the guests to get their luggage out of the van and for Francis to move the van, despite half a dozen other vehicle parked there!  It was a surprising way to treat guests in a five-star hotel.  But there was no time to dwell as Simon had a long list of places to see that his mum had talked about.  Augustine from MCF PaNairobi took them on a walking tour of the city centre showing them the main sights of Nairobi and helping Simon identify some of his mum’s landmarks, including his grandmother’s shop on Moi Avenue.

We went to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage to see the baby elephants that have been rescued after their mothers have been poached or died of other causes.  And then, after lunch, Simon and Peter when to the Karen Blixen Museum, made famous by the movie “Out of Africa”.

Simon and Peter wanted to spend a night at Giraffe Manor despite our warnings that it is probably the most expensive accommodation in Nairobi.  But it was definitely the highlight of their trip by a long shot!  When we arrived in the morning to pick them up, Simon was feeding a giraffe in the breakfast room and his whole face was lit up with excitement.  Earlier in the morning, they had been brought coffee to their room and as they sat on their first floor balcony, a giraffe wandered up to them looking for his own breakfast.  And although they had gone downstairs to eat some breakfast themselves, they didn’t get a chance because it was much cooler to give the giraffes their breakfast instead.  It was clear they didn’t want to leave this haven.

But to Nakuru the itinerary dictated we must go.  We enjoyed a picnic lunch in the park at the Out of Africa lookout where you get sweeping views of Lake Nakuru.  We descended to Makalia Falls and continued with the afternoon game drive which showed up zebras, a woolly-necked stork, a tawny eagle and a dead buffalo.  Then, on the other side of the lake, rhinos were grazing very close to the road which was super exciting.  And as we were just about to leave the park, we spotted several lions in a tree.  As we approached the exit, we took a quick detour to the old gate, which flooded a couple of years ago.  It has been completely taken over by baboons, almost Planet of the Apes style.  We spent the night at Kembu Cottages.

Next stop was Lake Naivasha and we went straight to Hell’s Gate National Park where we met local guide John for a cycling safari.  In the afternoon we took a boat to Elsamere, home of Joy and George Adamson of “Born Free” fame.  We had a terrifying boat ride – not for any justifiable reason, just that I’m terrified of hippos.  But the boatmen have keen eyes and there’s not much to worry about in truth.  Elsamere unfortunately, was disappointing.  The afternoon tea used to be amazing, but on this day, the 3pm tea didn’t appear until close to 4.30 and the video documentary of Joy Adamson has deteriorated (perhaps time to digitize it?!).  But we were treated to a show by the Black and White Colobus Monkeys who suddenly all decided they needed to be on the other side of the lawn and leapt through the trees overhead to get there.  We had dinner at the cosy restaurant at Fisherman’s Camp but spent the night at Camp Carnelleys.

Before the grand finale of the Maasai Mara, we met John again in the morning for a walking safari at Wileli Conservancy – a final leg stretch before big cats restricted us to the vehicle.  At the Maasai Mara, we stayed at Aruba Camp enjoying an afternoon game drive on the way there.  We were there for two nights and so Simon and Peter got a full day to explore the park thoroughly.  They saw a cheetah with her cub teaching him how to hunt.  And an incredible amount of topis!  They had taken over the Mara!  You don’t notice all the different moods and personalities until you are surrounded and indeed we did spot one topi who we nick-named Marvin the Paranoid Topi (hat tip to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).  We also saw zebras, gazelles, hyenas, jackals, a Kori bustard, ostrich and lions.  But I think my highlight was Simon and Peter donning matching shirts, that also matched Francis’ shirt!  Go Team Safari!

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To wrap up the safari, Simon and Peter had two nights at the Norfolk Hotel, another of Nairobi’s original hotels.  Despite the mess at check in at The Stanley, according to Simon and Peter The Stanley was better than the Norfolk (for those of you considering which one to stay at).  They spent their last day in Kenya visiting various sights significant to Simon’s family.  His mother had attended Loreto School but he couldn’t take photos as the Israeli embassy was right next door.  His mother lived in Woodley Estate, but there are such big fences you can’t see anything now.  His mother attended St Austin’s church but it was closed.  At the Ngong War Cemetary finally some success: he found his great uncle’s grave.  After visiting Amani Kibera, a community-based organisation working toward peace in Nairobi’s largest slum, we continued to City Park.  When Simon’s grandparents were courting they spent many dates walking in the park, but nowadays it’s not so nice.  His grandparents married in St Francis Xavier Church in Parklands and Simon and Peter humourously attempted to recreate the wedding photo on the church steps.

It was too much fun!  Was it really only 13 days?  Our only regret is that we didn’t get a chance to catch up a few months later when we were visiting Australia.  So Simon and Peter will just have to return to Kenya again someday to continue our Safari-oke dream!

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Simon described his safari as “One of the highlights of my life!” and continues:

Tracey and Frances are an amazing team. During the planning phase for our 13 day Kenyan safari extravaganza, Tracey was responsive and flexible, coping very well with my many requests and changes – and the fact that we were happy to stay in backpackers’ in some places yet wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in Nairobi. During the trip, she and Frances worked tirelessly to ensure that we had an incredible experience, saw the best sights, got the best treatment at our accommodation and didn’t miss anything we wanted to see.

For instance, my partner and I had been volunteering in Moshi, Tanzania, so we met Tracey and Frances at the border town, Taveta, a 12 hour drive from their home base in Nairobi. My grandparents had been living in Taveta when my mother was born and our safari was as much dedicated to following in their footsteps as to seeing the many wonders of Kenya.

From Mombasa to Tsavo West to Amboseli to Nairobi to Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha to Masai Mara and back to Nairobi, the absolute highlights (of my life, not just the trip) included:
– a night at Giraffe Manor, possibly the greatest hotel on Earth
– hot air ballooning over the Masai Mara at sunrise
– the abundance of wildlife at Amboseli with Mt Kilimanjaro forming a dramatic backdrop

I cannot wait to get back to Kenya and I highly recommend OTA to anyone heading there!

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About overlandtraveladventures

A philanthropic tour operator, creating positive experiences both for travellers and the local communities we interact with. We provide quality tailor-made tours that visit the sight-seeing highlights as well as community-based organisations.

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