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Trip Report Saruni Samburu & Tortilis Amboseli - An amazing experience

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The missus and I are off for a week of bush therapy. 3 nights at Saruni camp in samburu and 3 nights at Tortilis camp in Amboseli.

Last night started of at Monikos Kitchen in Lavington. A surely waitress and most steaks not being available on the menu, lead us to La Salumeria, an Italian restaurant in an apartment building. 3 bottles off Amarone and T-bone steaks later, we were home for a few hours of shut eye.

This morning, we left home in Lavington at 6 am expecting the usual nairobi traffic, allowing an hour to get to Wilson airport, but pleasantly it only took us 20 minutes. Check in counters were being opened at Safarilink, and we encountered Monikos cafe again.

What can I say about Monikos? Aweful coffee, best described as dirty dish water and breakfast taking a good 40 minutes to be served. That being said, an airside view of planes moving, and taking off was awesome. Safarilink for me has to be the best safari airline in Kenya. They are professional, and I always feel safe with them.

The flight to Samburu was uneventful. An hour or so through clouds and stunning clear patches, and a solid 15 minute fly past Mt. Kenya, we started our decent into Oryx airstrip in Samburu National Reserve. Surrounded by stunning hills, meant that our approach was very sharp. What a dramatic arrival into Samburu.

We were met at the plane by Joseph our guide, and Sidai our tracker. Both were proudly dressed in very fine Samburu regalia. Quick interdictions, and we had all agreed to head off towards to Ewaso Nyiro river to see what we could spit, before heading to Saruni for lunch.

Samburu, and more so Joseph and Sidai did not disappoint. Within 30 minutes of arriving into Samburu, we came across a leopard snoozing very contentedly in the fork or a Tortilis tree. She had a full belly, and very now and again looked up to see us. Ours was the only vehicle (something to become a norm with Saruni) at the sighting. Contended and excited, we carried on. Close to the river was a huge herd of elephants with very small calves. They were happy stripping trees of leaves, pulling up tufts if succulent grass, and even watering themselves in this arid environment.

Samburu felt like a very warm hug. The warm air, breeze, and serenity made our 6 day adventure feel like we had been away for a week already.

As we followed the elephants, Sidai saw a fleeting glance of a lion dash out of one of the bushes. as we drove to investigate, a total of 5 lion cubs had been startled out of their hiding place, where they had been left by their others, who had gone out to hunt. The cubs if varying ages, knew that elephants signaled danger, and they should keep away,which they did.

Turning away from the river, we started heading towards the hills, Joseph spotted a Twany eagle on the ground eating. We carefully approached, and from a distance observed the eagle to be eating what looked like the leg of a Gerenk. Eagled eyed, both guide and tracker spotted in the sand spoor for a cheetah. It looked like the eagle was eating the remnants of a cheetah kill. We follows the spoor, and no more then 300 meters away, resting in the shade was a mother cheetah and two cubs. Their bellies were full, ours were staring to rumble, so a few shots (camera variety) and we started heading to our camp.

Saruni Camp is located in the Kalama conservancy, and is the only accommodation in a 95,000 hectare private community conservancy and has been running since 2008. It takes around an hour to get there, but an hour of being surrounded by Mother Nature. The drive was very fruitful. We saw huge herds of the endangered Grevy's zebra, Gerenek, Somali Ostrich, the reticulated giraffe, and the Beisa Oryx. The Samburu five had been seen. All of this plus bird life that was unimaginable, imapala, Grants Gazelle, warthog, and hundreds of Dik Dik.

The drive is spectacular. Huge rocky and craggy hills, dry river beds, fallen trees, vegetation that survives such a dry waterless environment. Words cannot describe how awesome the drive was.

We entered the Kalama conservancy, and a sign told us that Saruni was just 7 km (but a world away). I cannot emphasize enough on how stunning and dramatic the scenery is. You feel like you are the only people in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing. No cars. No lights. No noise. No stress. Just you, and your vehicle.

The people who came up with Saruni's location are raving mad. I mean, who goes in the middle if nowhere, then find a saddleback ridge between some large rocky, craggy, inaccessible, inhospitable hills, and decide that they are going to build a lodge up there? Visionaries is who. I sit here writing this in the living area of our villa, and the view in front of me is indescribable, I see Africa, as it was meant to be. The only noise I hear are birds, and the scurrying a few resident Rock Hyrax's. I am guessing it is around 32 degrees Celsius, and the breeze is undying. Gentle movements of air, breezes, best described as soft kisses keep you cool, but I digress. The owners of Saruni are undeniably geniuses.

I have never in all my years of safari across the length and breadth of Africa, come across an approach to a lodge such as Saruni. We drove up the side of a mountainous hill. On rock, there is no road. If you don't know where you are going, you would get lost a stones throw away from the lodge. With a couple of what can best be described as hair pin bends, we arrived at Saruni Samburu.

Waiting to welcome us was an army of Saruni and Samburu's finest people. An ice cold towel, and obligatory drink, we walked through the entrance way into the main mess area. When people say "the view will take your breath away", they are lying. The view took by breath, my mind, my soul and anything else left in me away. It was incredible. Every time we came back to camp, the view could never be tired of.

We were checked in by Katie, one of the managers, and shown to our room. Saruni is not for the faint hearted. The rooms are located far from each other, on long winding paths, which in the heat may not suit all people. You see an ochre colored path winding along the side of the hill, and a few roof tops of the various rooms. Saruni has 6 villas - 2 specifically for families, and can sleep a total of 23 guests. With 40 + staff service is personal.

In fact the path reminded me of the Great Wall of China. Just snaking and rising and falling with the lay of the land. We were to be housed in villa number 3. There are no signs, so you could get lost (which we did after lunch), but hey, we made it to our Villa all right.

Double French front doors opened into the living area - and the view. OMG. words cannot describe it. You can see for miles - up, down, left, right, and even if you wish upside down. There is no front wall/window. It is open, with a 100 plus meter fall. Did I feel scared? No. Did I feel intimidated? Yes, but in a really nice way. The view made me feel so insignificant.

The living area had a sofa, a dining table with chairs, and an outside outside area with a couple of chairs. Persian rugs, a large leather an ottoman, and a bar fridge with ice cold Tuskers. What more could you want? A short stair case lead up to the sleeping area, a huge room with a king bed, the same views, a walk in robe, and a deck. A few more steps, up and you enter a huge bathroom. It is a bathroom, as there is no shower. Just a stone bath built into the side of the rock face. Twin vanity's, designer toilet and bidet. Oh, and a door leading to a private outdoor deck. This is where the shower is. An outdoor shower with a billion dollar view. You can see around, and no one (except the Hyrax's) can see you.

Electricty is available 24/7, and Saruni relies on solar power with a back up generator. Hot water is solar, which you could never run out of. Water is a very precious resource here, and we tried to use as less of it as we could (so we brushed our teeth with Tusker).

Lunch and dinner and breakfast can be had in your villa or in the common dining area - where it is communal dining. Lunch at 1 pm, and dinner at 8 pm. What's that? You arrive late for dinner? That's okay. They still serve. When you want.

Food is fresh. It is a set menu, taking into account all of your allergies, dislikes, etc. Pasta, salad, quiches, soups and breads, are the usual order of the day for lunch. Served at the table by an army of waiters. Saruni includes drinks, so order once, and top ups are for ever.

We had decided that in the evening we would only go for a short game drive followed by sundowners within Kalama conservancy. We were asked what we wanted to drink. I asked about gin, and was advised that they only had Gilbeys Gin. I must have tuned my lip up, as Katie asked what gin I preferred, I mentioned Bombay, and her response was, "James (the other manager) is on a food run, let me see if he can bring back a bottle." I mean, come on. What 5 star city hotel will give you service like that?

Lunch was great. We met guests from Germany, France and French Americans from Washington. After lunch, it was siesta time. A serious waddle back to the room, via one of the two pools (I am yet to make the effort to walk to the second pool), I passed out from being relaxed (and a food / Tusker coma). Every now and again, a sound would wake me up. There is a water hole on the floor of the valley, and through binoculars I saw baboons, warthogs, and zebra come to have a drink.

The rooms are awesome. Their website does not do them as much justice as they deserve. My only downside was that there are no radios (walkies talkies) in the rooms, so if you want a drink, book a massage, etc., you have to trek back to the mess area, or find a member of staff.

4:45 pm I struggle to wake up, and head up to the car for our afternoon safari. But I/we made it.

In the afternoon, we circumnavigated the base of the hill the camp is on. It was a slow drive, allowing us to seriously drink in the breath taking beauty. Unfortunately a few weeks earlier, the Rhino Charge had been run in the Kalama conservancy, so there was some rubbish around, and animals were scarcer. However the game drive was serene. We stopped in a dry river bed for sundowners. We usually carry our own vodka - Grey Goose, as Smirnoff is not vodka. Two V&T's for me and two soda lime and vodka for the missus (and sodas for our new mates - Joseph and Sidai) we swapped safari stories, had a few spring rolls (I was not hungry, but when fresh food is put in front of me, I must sample), we watched the sun set, and then headed back to camp.

A shower in the open - I turned off all the lights, and had a shower under a gazzilion stars. Their bathroom products are luxurious. Local Eco friendly pump packs of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gels. My skin felt soft. The cool breeze, and hot water made for a shower from heaven.

We were late for dinner. No worries at all. We had a drink by the fire, and joined the main table when we were ready. We fitted into their rhythm. Italian Merlot, sirloin steak, potato wedges, and cheese cake. Laughter, and story telling. Could a night on safari get any better.

Service is fabulous. Always being asked what we wanted to have - to drink for a wake up call, in the vehicle, to eat, massage? And whatever we asked was always responded with a smiling "yes".

The wife and I sat by the fire, for a few post dinner bevvies, and chatted to our waiter - Benson. We caught up like old friends on whom we all commonly knew, politics, and life in general. Knowing that the Great Wall of China was ahead of us, we asked for an escort to our Villa.

At night, a mosquito net is drawn around the bed, the mesh netting is all closed in the rooms, and your bed turned down for you to crawl into, to pass out listening to the true sounds of Africa. A gentle breeze literally lulled me to sleep, to dream of lions, bears and tigers.

Around 5 am, I was half awake, anticipating the day ahead, when I heard the all to familiar cough of a leopard. The sawing of wood. Lasted very briefly, but set the tone for the day. Coffee was brought at 5.30 am, and we were ready in the land rover by 6 am to head off to the Ewaso Nyiro river for our morning of viewing.

It takes approximately an hour to get there, with viewing along the way. I am going to combine the next few days safaris into one.

Our sightings were incredible. What I like about the tracker / guide combo is that you have two experts in your car who are looking. I feel so sorry for the guys who come by mini van and rely on radio to find animals.

We tracked lion for an hour, following their spoor, and listening for tell take signs. We found two females, who looked like they were laying in ambush. We watched them for an hour with not another single vehicle in sight.

Another morning, one of the Saruni vehicles tracked wild dogs for over 5 km, to find them, and then have other vehicles come. We arrived later, as we had seen an old male leopard very close to camp at 6.15 am. He was not shy, and we followed him for a good 10 minutes till he disappeared into a lugga.

The wild dogs were seen again near the river. A pack of 12. We followed them, and then the chase was on. They saw a dik dik, and chased it relentlessly. We could jot keep up. When we got to them, even before we saw them, we could hear the poor Dik Dik being quartered alive. We found the dogs, and they wee demolishing this Dik Dik as if they had not seen food in a long time. 5 minutes and there was not a scrap to be seen.

Elephants were everywhere. Being so dry, we always found large herds near the river, with loads of calves of varying ages. They were playful, and our sightings were immensely satisfying.

We also saw a Honey Badger - a first for the both of us. A leopard tortoise, warthogs, Gerenek feeding on their hind legs - straight as a post, Grevy's, and the list can go on. The bird life was amazing. From Eagles to vultures, owls to Hawks, Kingfishers and Herons. There was an endless variety of bird life.

Our second sundowner was on the side of a hill, up some rocks. Again, a view to absolutely die for. An ice cold bottle of Veuve, the world at your feet, anyone would feel like they were the king of the world.

The third and last sundowner (for this trip and not the year) as usually did not disappoint. I love these short afternoon 'game drives' as they are an excuse for a well deserved drink.

On our second night, we had in room dining. Our table was set up, candles lit, and our fridge full of drinks. It as a romantic evening, with food being shuttled from the kitchen along the Great Wall to us. It was truly a special experience. The only down side was that the food got to us warm, and if the plates were heated, or would stay hotter longer. Again having a radio in the room would help should you want to order anything extra.

We also had a massage at the Saruni spa. In all honesty it was not all that special. You could hear a clock ticking in the background, and I don't understand how you can enjoy the view while having a massage. It was a trek from the rooms to the spa, so any relaxation you may have had can get wiped out by the trek back in the scorching heat. Some people may like it, it was not for us.

On our last morning, we had a lazy one. Woke up to no alarm, or wake up call. Just the birds wanting to wake everyone up. Dawn broke ever so gently. It was like turning a dimmer switch on ever so slowly. I keep on saying this, the views are breathtakingly stunning. You can never tire of them.

We went up to have a look at the second pool. The views are amazing, the actual pool area is not a shadow on the rest of the property. You can see a very different building style that does not suit Saruni. I would not return to that area again.

We had breakfast in camp on the last morning. It was delicious. A perfect place for a long lazy Sunday lunch, with excellent coffee. Mid breakfast two male Dik Dik decided to have a territorial stand off including an incredible head butting session.

Overall there wee very few negatives - these being constructive and not complaints. The mattress was too foamy - you would sink into it not in a good way, more bins are needed in the room, some form of communication is needed in the rooms, get rid of the second pool area - it is an arid a environment and to have two pools in my opinion is a waste, the food is good - not brilliant when compared to Rekero, Shompole, Loisaba, Elsa's Kopje) it needs some work on, the spirits served are very cheap when compared to the price you are paying.

The positives are many and make up for all the negatives. The people are brilliant, the location is stunning (location, location, location), the owners are visionaries, the rooms are very individually architectural masterpieces, the game viewing is great, and the sundowners truly refreshing.

Sadly we had to say goodbye. The drive to the airstrip was somber, until Joseph spotted a cheetah in the bush, stalking some Gerenek. Unfortunately some Samburu goats (illegally) in the area startled the cheetah off. She had two young cubs with her.

We will be back to Samburu, more so back to Kalama, and even more so back to Saruni.

An uneventful flight from Samburu to Nairobi's Wilson airport, and we were met by the Safarilink staff. For our first time ever, there was confusion win the staff, one telling us to follow the other, and the other not knowing what to do. As we were transferring to Amboseli, we were given luggage tags for our checked in bags, and told to apply them ourselves. We did this diligently and were asked to wait for a while to be shown back to the Safarilink departure lounge. As we knew our way, we just walked around the corner ourselves.

Lunch was to be had a Monikos again. What can I say - it was blah. Boarding announcement was made, walked to the departures area, through security, and onto our next flight. 35 minutes later, we were descending into Amboseli.

We were met at the plane by our guide - Erik Ole Kalama. The vehicle was brand new and very comfortable, with six individual seats, charging points, plenty of storage spaces, bean bags, and guide books - all on Erik's iPad.

As usual the park fees took a while to pay Kenya Wildlife Services at its bureaucratic best, and we were given a very comprehensive briefing by Erik. We were off into Amboseli. We decided we wanted a game drive before heading to Tortilis Camp, so we went off to the swamp areas.

The wildlife in Amboseli is incredible. The bird life was teeming, and we had so many photographic opportunities. The highlight was the huge families of elephants. Swimming, wallowing, feeding, and playing - all in the swamps. We could at one point see in excess of 140 elephants. So many young. All content and free to play and feed in peace.

Amboseli has many accommodation options, and this was evident by the number of vehicles we saw. They tend to come out after 4 pm, so there are pockets of opportunity to have the area to yourself.

Tortilis is around 30 minutes from the airstrip. We passed large herds of zebra,Wilde beest, hippos wallowing, more elephant, Grants. Gazelle, Impala, Thompsons Gazelle, and other plains game. We also saw another honey badger - 2 in two days.

Tortilis camp is located In a private conservancy just on the edge of the park. It is a fenced camp with 16 tents plus two family tents. It was not what I was expecting. It felt more like a large lodge. The staff were warm and welcoming, and we passed a massive vegetable garden, and bee hives. All of that was promising,

From the main lounge area, you have a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, with a water hole in the foreground.

We were checked in, given a brief, and then shown to our tent. The tents feel dated, all close to one another, and very small when compared to other properties in the Cheli and Peacock portfolio. Honestly, it felt like a let down.

The tents are 4x8 meters with a small bathroom out the back. They all have a deck with a day bed and a couple of safari chairs. They are practical and comfortable, but there is no wow factor. Electricty is available 24/7 and there is one Electricty plug for charging all of your devices (more points available at the bar). Hot water is on demand. Our tent had a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but with cloud cover we are yet to have seen it.

The saving grace for Tortilis is their food. Excellent fresh Italian food served at the table in the evenings and buffet style at lunch. It was very very good. As usual the drink menu for the all inclusive package was a let down. The wine was mediocre at best, and when we had a look at the wine list to buy wine, it was a serious disappointment. Why can't such high end places serve decent wines? Why????

On our first night, as we were getting ready, the all to familiar belly deep rumble of an elephant was heard. Looking from our deck, we could see the silhouette of several elephants heading towards to camp's water hole. We went up to the fire pit, and watched a family of 20 odd elephants come and have their sundowners with us.

On our first full day, we headed back to the park for our game drive. We saw hyaena family's, elephants galore ( if you want to see / photograph elephants, Amboseli is the place to be), zebra. Ostrich, wildebeest, and lots of other plains game, we also saw hippo out of the water, grazing less then 3'meters from us. Erik was an excellent guide.

Being a KWS managed park, you cannot have your picnic breakfast anywhere except at the airstrip or observation hill. We set up our folding table and chairs in the litter strewn car park, with mini vans, drivers and other tourists. The breakfast box was basic.

This afternoon we will return back to the park to see the elephants in the swamp again.

After a fabulous lunch of home made tagliatelle, egg plant parmigiana, salads fresh from the Tortilis gardens, spinach quiche and roast turkey, I had a siesta and we headed out on our game drive at 4 pm.

There were reports of a honeymooning lion couple near by, so we went off to investigate. We saw them, but the road was getting crowded. We let them be, and by guess would be more then 60 vehicles would have come there between 4.15 and 5.15. The road was super dusty, as most of the mini van drivers couldn't give two hoots.

We spent close to 90 minutes with our first time witnessing an elephant family sleeping. 5 mothers and 5 calves, between the edge of a swamp, and the road. The calves slept mostly lying down, between bouts of short playfulness. The mothers all slept standing, resting their trunks on the ground, and gently rocking. It was an amazing experience, another 7-8 vehicles came to see what we were seeing, and spending so long at, took a few shots and sped off again.

We also had our sundowners with the elephants, and headed back to camp accompanied by an amazing sunset.

Tortilis is not a hosted camp. There are two Italians who pretend to be the hosts, but do not engage guests at all. They are awake when we leave first thing in the morning, and you do see them at lunch and dinner, but that is it. No asking how your day has been, how your meal was, etc. They eat, and disappear. I just did not see the point of them being there.

On our third day, we headed into the conservancy (after seeing the lion honeymooning couple who looked knackered and disinterested in each other). Only Tortilis vehicles are allowed there, so if you drive in with your own vehicle, you need to book one of their game drives. We drove across Lake Amboseli, and came across herds of elephants. When I say herds, I mean many but one herd that included 120 plus individual, living, breathing elephants. It was magnificent. It was beautiful. Impressive. Awesome.

Unfortunately our time was cut short - 2 hours later :) as we were late for our bush breakfast. We hurtled across the dry lake bed, to a breakfast set up under a huge acacia in the middle of nowhere. A full fry up plus fruit, cereal, toast and hot beverages. We were late, but welcomed whole heartedly and sat down to a good breakfast. We wolfed it down, and were back out on the flats in no time, back to our herd.

Eric our guide is an ex elephant research assistant. He was making notes all the time for the elephant research project, and had a file full of photos identifying individual animals. We met Pizzero born in 1974. At one point, we were 60-90 meters away from this mega herd, we alighted from our vehicle, and sat on the ground photographing and observing. It was a truly life moving experience. Words cannot describe what we saw, and how humbled we felt.

Lunch interrupted, and we headed back to camp for an Italian feast. What a feast it was. The food is seriously amazing. Wine topped up regularly, we had a short snooze, and then back out on the Lake with the same mega herd of elephants.

We spent the whole afternoon with the elephants. They slept, ate, played, and moved on. As they came closer to the swamp, they split into several family groups, and some went into the swamp, and others hung back.

Overnight at Tortilis, after a memorable dinner. We had asked our guide to join us for dinner. We had a great conversation over many wine’s, and called it a night.

Our last morning, we decided to head out into the conservancy again, and see what elephants we could find. Only Tortilis guests in Tortilis vehicles can go to the conservancy. If you have your own vehicle, you cannot. This includes the bush breakfast, sundowners, etc. We found more herds of elephants, and spent eons with them. We even had a picnic breakfast sitting in the middle of Lake Amboseli with elephants 200 meters away. It was such a surreal experience.

Our safari was coming to an end. We headed back to camp. We had been given a late check out, which was fantastic. We packed and showered, and went back to the mess area for our last lunch. Pasta, breads, salads and sweets. All washed down with wine. Sadly our safari was coming to an end. We said goodbyes to all the staff, and headed off with Eric to the airstrip.

Safarilink sent us a Cessna 206 that they had sub-chartered from Yellow Wings. We had our own plane to take us back to Nairobi.

We landed, and the noise of Nairobi hit us like a semi -trailer head on. Our fantastic trip was sadly over.

Till next time soon :)

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