We have a flat tyre. Right in the middle of the savannah, you know, the open plains where lions, cheetahs and elephants run free. I peered out nervously. The safari guide, a native Kenyan by the name of Muhammad, senses my trepidation and chuckles. “It’s safe,” he assures me. “You can come down from the vehicle and take some photos.”
With the help of a fellow traveller, the guide proceeds to change the tyre of our Land Cruiser. Apparently, we’ve rolled over elephant poop that contains needle-like Acacia thorns. “[Those elephants] can be mean”, the guide jokes. By now, I’ve worked up enough guts to hop off the vehicle and soak in what is before us.
We are in the Shaba National Reserve in the Samburu region. Located in the north of Kenya, the arid area spans some 24,280 hectares. Blonde grasslands, sparsely punctuated with trees, stretch as far as the eye can see. Apart from being home to four of the Big Five game animals (lion, elephant, buffalo, and leopard, minus the rhinoceros),Shaba is home to rare species that cannot or may not be easily found in other parts of the country. Among them are the reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, the endangered Grevy’s zebra, desert beisa oryx and gerenuk, otherwise collectively known as the famed Shaba 5.
Our base is the breathtaking Joy’s Camp. It’s the only lodge that operates within the grounds of the reserve, which means that guests have almost the entire park to themselves. The award-winning camp sits on the site where renown conservationist and co-author of Born Free, Joy Adamson, lived, wrote her last book and reintroduced her pet leopard Penny to the wild.
What makes the place romantic is that it overlooks a natural spring. On a good day, you can witness animals, such as elephants, buffaloes and water hogs quenching their thirst or simply passing through.
A reason why lovebirds tend to favour Joy’s is the size of its site. With only 10 tents, you can be sure that the space is kept intimate and quiet. Each tent is 100sq m in size and has been tastefully decorated with fabrics of the local tribes and coloured glass lamps. Each one opens up to its own private veranda that allows you to soak in the untouched wilderness of the Shaba.
When not lounging in your tent, there are many things to do in the reserve. Game drives are conducted either in the early mornings or evenings. In the midst of animal-spotting, the camp can arrange for a romantic breakfast along the Ewaso Nyiro River or for sundowners in the evening atop one of the many rocky hills in the Shaba. We end up loving the latter as it affords spectacular views of the reserve and its tranquility reminds us how beautiful life can be.
Joy’s is also one of the very few camps in a national reserve that are allowed to conduct night game drives. In the still of the night, the wilderness of Africa is shrouded in mystery and looks completely different. With the help of floodlights, eyes of the roving animals light up, making them easy to spot (red eyes for the big cats!). It is also during night game drives that the likelihood of spotting nocturnal animals increases. One night, we’d even spotted a rare striped hyena.
“At Joy’s, you see more of Africa than just the Big Five that visitors are often so keen to see. There is more to Africa than just that,” our guide tells us.
For honeymooners with an adventurous streak, we also recommend a trip to the Magado Crater Salt Mine. It takes two hours to drive there from the camp, but rest assured the long journey is anything but boring. Like us, you may end up witnessing a group of antelopes galloping past your four-wheel-drive or a dozen teenage ostriches trotting along the dirt road, all in the first hour alone.
Standing some 200m above its crater, I’m mesmerised by the sun’s gleaming reflection dancing on the water’s surface. The Magado Crater’s pools of rainbow-coloured saline water is important to the pastoral tribes in the area. Local shepherds usher hundreds of their lambs here (through a gully), as the saltwater helps cleanse their digestive systems — a sight we were lucky to witness.
For an experience to truly remember, a trek down to the surface is recommended. All you need is a good pair of shoes and a decent stamina. The 45-minute trek is rocky and at some points, you may be besieged by donkeys transporting saline water up to the villages. (Don’t worry, after a quick sniff, the animals usually make their way around you and are off in a jiffy.)
Experiences like the aforementioned are what Joy’s Camp prides itself with and echoes the sentiment of its developer Cheli & Peacock. The safari operator has been developing luxury and eco-friendly camps since 1985 and works closely with local communities to support wildlife conservation.
Another one of its premium properties is Elsa’s Kopje. Located in the Meru National Park, 10km north of the equator, the camp is named after the lioness Elsa that became world-famous through the aforementioned Born Free.
Unlike Shaba, Meru is semi-arid with 13 rivers meandering through the park. Its natural habitats are diverse, with wooded grasslands, dense thickets and open plains. One minute, you are looking at giraffes in the grasslands munching on leaves and the next, you are by the riverbed watching a couple of crocs take a nap.
In its heyday in the 1970s, Meru was the jewel of Kenya’s national tourism. Its popularity also brought about the unexpected: Nefarious poachers. Between the 1980s and the 1990s, most of the park’s wildlife, especially rhinoceroses, were obliterated from the area.
Tourism plummeted and was only revived when Cheli & Peacock obtained the license to build Elsa’s Kopje. Through park fees and lease payments to the Kenya Wildlife Service, Elsa’s has greatly contributed in the restoration of the place. This includes the rebuilding of the park’s infrastructure and security networks, including 24-hour surveillance of the rhino sanctuary.
Its contributions have, in turn, given its guests a great privilege. While at Elsa’s, make it a point to visit the gated rhino sanctuary. Entry is controlled and every vehicle is registered at the security posts manned by rangers with rifles. It feels like you’re about to embark on a clandestine mission, except that the secret is out in the open plains.
As the guide navigates through the rugged terrains of the 84-sq-km sanctuary, chances of spotting either the black rhino or the white rhino roaming the grounds are high. If you look hard enough, you may even spot a rhino cub with its mum — just as we did.
Apart from the sanctuary, the beauty of Meru can also be observed from the comfort of Elsa’s. Perched high atop Mugwangho Hill, it affords a bird’s eye view of Meru. To give guests an authentic African experience, the property is not gated. Animals know better and usually stay away, but once, at the height of summer, a leopard so desperate for water made an appearance by the camp’s poolside — in full view of guests having lunch.
This makes Elsa’s special (though no leopards showed its spots during our stay there). Just like the previous camp, it is an idyllic getaway with just nine cottage suites, making it the perfect property for couples looking for privacy.
We recommend couples to check into Elsa’s Private House. Like its other cottages, it is built into the side of the rocky terrain and presents little interference to the natural environment. From the house, the savannah looks like it is dotted by fluffy cotton balls (that are actually leafless trees) that have been carelessly flung across the terrain. If you can, bring a pair of binoculars to watch wildlife from a distance.
With two bedrooms, a living room, two en suite bathrooms and an outdoor shower, the cottage is spacious. What we love most, is the private infinity pool that overlooks the savannah. A word of caution: Expect to have peering eyes watch you while you swim! But don’t be alarmed, for they belong to a harmless colony of hyraxes and brilliantly coloured agama lizards that reside by the rocks.
Despite the wondrous discovery of wildlife and unique activities in Shaba and Meru, a visit to Kenya would not be complete without a visit to the Maasai Mara. The Mara is truly a special place. For one, it is adjoined to the Serengeti National Park in neighbouring Tanzania. Together, the two reserves form the site of the world-famous Great Migration — the annual movement of some 2.5 million animals, including wildebeests and zebras — that has been cited as an experience of a lifetime.
Its popularity, however, has brought visitors to the park by the droves. During peak season the Maasai Mara is often congested with vehicles, a fellow traveller tells me. The majority are often led by unqualified guides transporting clueless tourists in non-four-wheel-drive vehicles and, over time, have become the bane of other travellers.
Due to the expertise of Cheli & Peacock, we had no such encounter. To ensure that the experience at the reserve remains sublime, they connect us to their trusted partner — the Cottar’s 1920s Camp. Established in 1919, Cottar’s is said to be the pioneer of the safari industry and is apt at creating exclusive experiences for guests.
The exclusivity begins with the camp itself. What makes it unique, is that it stands on Kenyan community land in Olderikesi, southeast Mara, making it a truly private enclave. It is just a 1-km drive to the border of Tanzania and to the Maasai Mara reserve.
Staying in a camp located on community land not only gives guests additional game-viewing area, but also, an insight into the lives of the Maasais (ethnic people). On our drives, we spot them shepherding hundreds of lambs and cows across the land. They always have a smile for you and wave each time you pass. Do wave back because it’s only polite.
Making the entire African experience more exceptional are the Cottar’s guides. Hand-picked by fourth-generation owner, Calvin Cottar, they are engaging and have a wealth of safari experience under their belts. We were hosted by Ken, a good-humoured Kenyan who had many interesting stories to tell (once, he was pooped on by a startled elephant) and is blessed with the incredible ability to suss out the most exclusive sightings away from the crowds.
Together with Paramelia, a Maasai animal-spotter, we, among other things, were treated to the rare sight of a pride of lions feasting on a giraffe. There were 18 of them, including a lion cub that was intently licking a giraffe leg clean.
Animal-sightings aside, a truly unique experience, is a visit to a nearby Maasai village. On ours, we were hosted by a handsome Maasai, fondly called Superstar. He earned the name when he was chosen to be one of five to visit the US on an exchange programme. He’s the lead liaison at the village and takes his role as a host seriously.
To feel how it’s like to walk in their shoes, make it a point to enter their humble homes. Save for a small opening the size of your palm, the houses have no windows. Built from mud and cow dung, they are smoky and dark inside. This may cause breathing difficulties for the uninitiated, but get around this by taking a seat quickly. I find that the lower you are, the easier it is to breathe. The smoke comes from a fire that the women of the house ignite to generate heat and keep their homes warm at night.
The Maasais are delightfully hospitable and love taking questions about their community. Their children are oft-present during your introduction to the village and will accompany you throughout your time there. When you first arrive, many will run to you with their heads down, seeking your blessings. You reciprocate by placing your palm on the top of their head.
A group of them are elated when I attempt to take a selfie with them. Even though they live seemingly simple lives, the children showcase genuine happiness. At the end of the visit, expect a little market to spring up for your shopping pleasure, where for a small fee, the ladies will offer you their handmade wares as mementoes.
Calvin, who now runs Cottar’s together with his wife Louise, shares: “The visits are a way for our guests to support the local community. It has always been a commitment of ours to operate and simultaneously benefit them.” This they also do, by paying land lease to the community and funding the 2,430-hectare Olderekesi wildlife conservancy.
The magic of Cottar’s doesn’t end there. Large white marquee tents, widely used in early safari days, are what guests call home during their stay. Each is outfitted with antique 1920s furniture and silverware, making it utterly reminiscent of the golden age of African safaris.
For a romantic sojourn, we recommend the Honeymoon tent. Located furthest from the main reception and closest to the camp’s stunning pool, the tent gives you absolute privacy. A butler is assigned to you and can help with your every need including in-tent dining and laundry.
One thing you must ask of him is to draw you and your significant other a traditional bush bath. He will set up a pair of 1920s-styled bathtubs at the edge of your tent and fill it up with bubbly bath that contains essential oils. The best time to indulge is after your evening game drives. Or if you are strapped for time, like I was, have a soak before bed. You may get a little nervous that everything around you is in darkness, but herein lies another adventure in itself: You never know if, perhaps, a cheetah is watching?
When at Cottar’s, also dine at its mess tent among new friends. This is the centre of social activity and the chances of meeting likeminded individuals are high. Another thing you should do is flip through their massive guest book. Keep your eyes peeled for somewhere in there, you will find thank-you notes penned by Angeline Jolie, Brad Pitt and their children in September 2009.
Just like Pitt had written, the experience at the Mara left an indelible mark to be remembered for a long time to come. Kenya, as a whole, is so magical that it almost feels like a place that you visit in your dreams. A place of such refined beauty that for now, we are certain there is nowhere else like it — no place at all.
Till next time, Africa, till next time.
PLAN YOUR ADVENTURE WITH ASIA TO AFRICA SAFARIS
As its name suggests, this bespoke travel agency specialises in visits to the exotic land of Africa. Established in 2002, it boasts a wealth of knowledge on 13 African countries, including Kenya. The reason is simple: The company is founded by two gentlemen who, for their love of Africa, left their high-flying corporate jobs to find a way to introduce it to the rest of the world. Some 12 years later and after arranging thousands of trips for their clientele, the pair and its team are experts on Africa, its wildlife and local community. They have offices in New York, Philippines, China, Hong Kong and most recently chose to open in Singapore due to the increasing interests from this region.
In partnership with safari specialists — such as Cheli & Peacock — Asia to Africa Safaris is able to draw up a list of recommended camps in the most pristine areas. This is done by meeting clients face-to-face to gain a better understanding of their needs and adventure appetite. An itinerary is proposed and is open to discussion. Regardless of the agenda, be it a honeymoon, family or adventure trip, you can count on experiencing rare and sublime encounters through the expertise of the agency. Representatives are easily contactable and queries are often addressed within the hour, if not the day. They are also familiar with the usual concerns of the Asian clientele, such as safety, vaccinations, sanitation, hygiene and shopping options.
Asia to Africa Safaris also helps to ensure that you are well-prepared for the trip via its detailed pre-departure documents (Kenya’s was 19 pages long) on what to expect. Don’t forget to read it.
FLY WITH QATAR
The best way to get to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya is with Qatar Airways. The airline will ensure that the some 13-hour journey to the city is comfortable and goes smoothly. It did, after all, score the accolade of “Best Airline in the Middle East and Africa” for the fourth consecutive time at the 2013 Business Traveller Asia Pacific Awards.
Furthermore, it also recently won the Best Airline in the World for International Travel for the fifth consecutive year by Business Traveler USA. In just 17 years, Qatar has set the bar for business class travel. The seats easily provide a good night’s sleep for the long haul traveller, while the cabin crew is extremely attentive and accommodating.
As of March 31, Qatar will also be operating the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (the first for a Southeast Asia route), in addition to its 777s on the Singapore-Doha route. The new planes boast features such as dimmable windows and improved cabin pressure. The flight to Africa requires a transit in Doha but rest assured that it will be hassle-free.
Upon embarking from the plane, you will be transferred to the premium terminal at the Doha InternationalAirport. Built at a cost of US$100 million, it features concierge-style check-in counters, bedrooms, a spa and nursery. It has impressed travellers so much so that the airport has earned the title of Airport of the Year 10-30 Million Passengers at the 2014 Air Transport News Awards.
And if you have a transit time of five to 12 hours, Qatar offers a complimentary city tour that takes you through important spots, such as the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif.