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Trip Report Solo female, safari rookie, and now a member of the Porini family

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After months of planning, packing (and overpacking, and repacking), daydreaming, and scouring these travel forums with the kind of zeal usually reserved for religious fanatics, I made my visit to Kenya. Thanks to everyone for their invaluable advice, some of which I wisely followed, some of which ... well, you'll see.

Top level details:

Departed from Washington, DC (IAD) on British Airways on November 30th. Transferred through LHR on December 1st, arriving in Nairobi at about 10:00 that night.
2 Nights in Nairobi - Macushla House
Drive to Selenkay/Amboseli
2 Nights in Selenkay Conservancy - Amboseli Porini
Safari Link transfer to Nanyuki
2 Nights in Ol Pejeta Conservancy - Porini Rhino
Safari Link transfer to the Mara
2 Nights in Olare Orok Conservancy - Porini Lion
Safari Link transfer back to Nairobi for BA flight back to Washington, DC (via LHR)

Quick caveat: I'm adapting some of this text from a blog I set up for family and friends, none of whom have been on safari. As a result there may be some extraneous detail here; it's from my explanations to them and in no way reflects my opinion of your expertise! :)

So, what does a person need to do when she decides to set out for Kenya by herself? Answer: surprisingly little.

Maybe it was the fact that I’m usually cooped up in an office with no windows. Maybe it was living in a city whose “wildlife” consists only of squirrels and pigeons (or rats). Maybe I had just seen Out of Africa one too many times. Whatever the reason, I made up my mind several months ago to book myself onto a safari, and I think the biggest hurdle was just deciding to do it. I went with a Porini safari that I booked through Go2Africa because I’d read good things about the Porini camps and their operator, Gamewatchers, while Go2Africa was able to offer me assistance and good rates on both the safari and some excursions in Nairobi. After taking a deep breath and paying the deposit, it was just a matter of getting trip insurance, a renewed passport, and an array of shots and vaccinations that made me feel like a pincushion for a few weeks. I think that was probably all I needed to do.

As to what else I actually did, well, that’s a different story.

What follows is a long digression into my preparations (also known as “insane overthinking”), so read on at your peril.

They say that planning for a trip is half the fun, and that’s probably true. But it’s easy to get carried away when you’re planning on your first safari, and it’s just possible that I may have gone a little bit nuts during the months leading up to my trip.

As most of you know, the weight limit on the internal flights in Kenya was 15kg (about 33 pounds). That sounds like a pretty generous amount, but when you consider that a lot of bags can weigh 7 or 8 pounds before you add a single item of clothing to them, you start to realize that throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a bag “just in case” — my usual M.O. — might not be an option. Since I also had an inexplicable but persistent nightmare vision of myself arriving in Kenya only to discover that all my luggage had been lost along the way, I decided to do the whole trip from a carry-on bag. This seemed plausible primarily because I knew I’d be spending most of my time “in the bush”, meaning I could get by without a lot of the toiletries that usually make carry-on travel such a nightmare for women. So on the plus side, “make-up” on this trip was going to be sunscreen and lip balm. On the down side, certain essential gear like a decent camera and binoculars were going to add weight, no getting around that.

So, the bag. Did you know that there are whole websites devoted to people who travel with only one bag at a time? There are. And they’re dizzying. Some of these people are really hard core; they drill holes in their toothbrush handles to keep the weight of their bags low and react with horror at the thought of wearing anything as heavy as denim while traveling. Not everyone is such a diehard, but reading sites like onebag.com or onebagger.squarespace.com or whatnot could leave you a bit stunned if you take it too seriously.

I'd had some back issues earlier in the year (a phrase that's guaranteed to make a person feel geriatric even if she's still a "thirtysomething"), so I decided against anything that had to be carried on one shoulder and bought myself a convertible backpack that’s just about the maximum legal carry-on size (the MEI Voyageur, if you care to know). It worked beautifully, and nobody ever gave my luggage a second look when I arrived at the airstrips with it and the smaller daypack that held my camera’s spare memory cards, animal guidebook, small pharmacy (Dramamine, antimalarials, allergy meds, Immodium, Cipro, Vicodin in case my back blew out again, etc.) and so forth.

Now, what to put in the bag? I’ve mentioned some items that went in my daypack, but imagine, if you will, the near-obsessive consideration that went into every item and you’ll end up ready to burst into hysterical laughter at how I’ve spent the better part of my autumn. For example, I mentioned the spare memory cards for my camera, well, first I needed a new camera. My old one is one of those point-and-shoot deals that can fit in your pocket; hardly the sort of thing you’d want on a safari. That meant I had to research digital cameras: how user-friendly are they? How much do they cost? How much do they weigh? How long do their batteries last? What kind of batteries do they take? What level zoom do they feature? What do people who have owned them say about them? Do I need special filters? How many memory cards do I need? How tough are they? Do they have decent image stabilization? Should I also bring the old camera as a back-up? That’s just some of what I had to decide before buying the camera — think what I had to learn when looking into binoculars, which seem to have a whole different vocabulary.

Consider, too, the clothes it’s “suggested” that you bring. It’s the start of summer and the end of the “little rains” in Kenya at this time of year, so I had to dress for rain and for African summer. One of the camps I was booked at is on the Equator (hot days!) but at elevation (cold nights!), meaning clothes for both temperature extremes were necessary. Layers were a must, but only what would fit in a carry-on bag. And, as nearly everyone who’s ever met me has pointed out at one time or another, I didn’t really own many “play clothes” so I had to buy almost an entire wardrobe.

And then there’s the matter of color; there are quite a few points that most safari outfitters will make when advising newcomers. Black and dark blue attract tse-tse flies (there went most of the t-shirts and casual clothes I did own). Bright colors are a no-no; they might startle the animals (doubtful — lots of them are colorblind, and they’ll hear you coming anyhow). White’s not a good idea because it’s so dusty in Kenya (true). Camouflage is actually illegal in some parts of Africa because it’s for military only (I wasn’t about to challenge that). My conclusion: there’s a reason people in those old safari movies were always wearing khaki. To REI and Sierra Trading Post and other online outfitters I went, and they got a sizable portion of my budgeted vacation fund when I had to buy a number of articles of clothing in sun protectant, insect-repellent, breathable, quick-drying fabrics in colors ranging from “sand” to “British tan” to “blacken pine”. Toward the end of this charade, I bought a lightweight shirt in bright red out of sheer obstinacy.

Witness the level of paranoia: I had a "to pack" pile in my spare room a couple of weeks before I left. Among other things, the pile included two ridiculous hats and guidebooks (I ultimately took only one of each), too many shirts (one in the very risky dark blue, which I later removed from the bag), lots of antiseptic wipes and toilet tissues (hey, we've all been warned about "bush breaks"), a raincoat (didn’t use), travel pillow (barely used), and much, much more. Binoculars, my eReader (a Barnes and Noble Nook), a converter for my battery charger, spare batteries, sunscreen, insect repellent … these things add up surprisingly quickly. When I finally weighed my bags, I was just under the 15kg weight limit, and that was after I’d ditched one of the books and a number of articles of clothing.

Not to worry, though, I had bigger things on my mind. Chief amongst them: it was only in the days immediately preceding my departure that I noticed I had only an hour and 25 minutes between my connecting flights in London. I don’t know how many of you have had to travel through London’s Heathrow airport in the past, but my recollection was that it was a nightmare, and the fact that I was connecting to another international flight meant I’d have to go through security all over again in London. Calls to my travel agent and British Airways resulted in assurances that even an hour was sufficient to make the transfer and that BA would put me on another flight if I missed the connection. This was somewhat less than reassuring, as I wanted to be able to experience my whole trip as it was then planned, not just what could be squeezed in after flight delays.

Salvation came, oddly enough, in the form of the snowstorm that hit the UK. I was watching my flight information 24 hours before my departure when I noticed that it had a projected snow delay getting into Heathrow. The good people at British Airways might just have been getting tired of hearing from me by then, but when I called again and mentioned the storm, they agreed to put me on a flight leaving DC three hours earlier than originally scheduled. I had to hustle to get to Dulles on time to catch my flight out but, finally, all that obsessive packing and re-packing paid off; I was ready to go at the drop of the proverbial hat.

The flight to London was pretty low key; it’s never fun to be on a plane for hours, but there weren’t any real hiccups. I started to feel like I was really getting somewhere when I got on the shuttle for my connecting flight to Nairobi. The shuttle was packed and I was afraid I’d sat on my neighbor’s coat when I sat down, so I apologized. He turned to me with a face-splitting grin and exclaimed with all sincerity, “Family!” We shared a smile and headed for the plane. (Sadly, that leg of the flight was less fun than the previous one. This was due to the screaming child sitting in front of me. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I lost patience, but I believe it was right around the time the oversized giraffe-shaped beanbag came flying over the seat back and onto my head.)

When we finally touched down in Nairobi some eight hours later, it was about ten at night, and I was directed to a line to get my Kenyan visa. There were four of these lines, and I was behind an absolute scrum of passengers; I was probably 40th or so in a line bunched up in a crowded, overheated immigration area. If (when) I go back, I’ll consider getting my visa in advance; I could only watch glumly as the family with the screaming child was led to the front of one of the lines (probably because the airport staff loved them about as much as I did) while everyone else waited in the lines that seemed to be moving at a speed rivalled only by glacial ice floes. I think I counted five people getting through in the first 22 minutes. Mercifully, the airport staff finally took pity on us and started directing the people awaiting visas to any open desks, whether they were designated for Kenyan citizens only or not. I made it out of the airport about an hour after landing, which, all things considered, was better than I had hoped. On the plus side, the visas were only $25, not the $50 I'd expected (rumor has it that the cost goes up after the New Year).

I was picked up just past immigration by Gamewatchers, who had sent both a driver and another guide (Gideon and Victor) to take me to Macushla House. It was only about a 20 minute drive and they were very friendly, telling me about the city as we went. To be honest, even though I really appreciated the friendly faces and chatter, I can’t say I retained much of that conversation, as I was pretty sleep-deprived by then. And it was dark outside, which limited what they could show me. Still, I was able to catch glimpses of flora unlike what we’ve got in DC, and it was great to pull into the drive at Macushla House to be greeted by a smiling man named Walter who offered me some dinner (I declined) and took my order for the next day’s coffee and breakfast before showing me to my room. I think I managed only a quick tooth brushing, barely remembering in time to use bottled water, before all but passing out.

In the morning, I woke up greatly refreshed and had my first cup of genuine Kenyan coffee (sublime), made my way to breakfast, and had a brief look around the grounds. The vervet monkeys were out in force, leaping about on vehicles, woodpiles and so forth. It seemed like no time at all had passed before my driver was at the door, and it was time for the next step of the adventure.

As we drove off toward the Giraffe Centre, I thought about the woman who had served me breakfast and spoken with me briefly. She had noticed me staring out at the colorful area near the pool and smiled when I told her how much I'd been looking forward to getting out of the city (Washington) and back to where there was some actual nature to see. In reply, she nodded and said, "You can feel yourself coming alive." Yes, and a thousand times yes!

Sightseeing in Nairobi (well, Karen) to follow ...

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