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Trip Report - Short and Sweet

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As a new (nervous) contributor to Fodor’s I feel some trepidation about putting this report on line but it may be of interest to someone. At least when it comes time to plan for my next trip I will able to ask for lots of advice knowing that I have some credibility by then for making a contribution.

Some history: Back in 2005 I visited Kenya for the first time since leaving as a teenager back in the 70’s. My childhood had been spent in Kenya and Uganda and I had always hoped that I would return unlike poor Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The 2005 trip was cathartic and I was able to show my children and husband my old house, school, favorite hangouts etc. Lots of wildlife, Sweetwaters, Mountain Lodge, Lewa, Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Tsavo East. Unlike some travellers to Africa though, I knew I would have to return again and again but how that was going to be affordable remained the question.

The planning: In preparation for my 50th birthday earlier this year I had been planning a big party with an Africa theme and had thought of painting stripes on our horses and having Africa at Night sound tracks playing throughout the evening. When I looked at the cost I thought “I can go to Kenya for that money!!”. No contest. With little planning time left I looked at the options available as I had 1 week to be away plus the weekends either side for flying time. I didn’t want a touristy lodge but something which would offer more in the way of conservation activity and contributions to local communities. I looked at Campi ya Kanzi (will get there one day) - closed in April, looked at Rekero - closed, Lewa Safari Camp - closed … the list was getting longer and longer. I began to feel pretty despondent. Never one to give up and encouraged by an online search which showed some excellent airfares with Qatar I gave it another try and emailed Bush Homes of East Africa to see what they could suggest as they were agents for the sort of place I wanted.

I can’t complement them enough for their efficient response and help. Admittedly, my itinerary was always going to be simple. First night in Nairobi and 5 nights at 1 place.

They suggested Wilderness Trails at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy … fine by me but they were listed on the lewa.org site as being closed. I was assured that they were open and indeed it turned out that they were opening during April for the first time this year. One of the reasons being the changing cycles of the rains, climate change?! Who knows.

Not liking people who can’t make a decision, I went ahead and booked the airfares and paid for the land component and worried about the credit card bill and over draft secretly at night.

Sorry for the long introduction but I hope it will explain why we went for such a short time and to only the one place.

Day 1 We landed around midday after an uneventful but long flight from Oz and I just felt all the stress leave my body as we walked out of the airport. We were met by Paul from Bush Homes and had a wonderful 2 hours in a traffic jam trying to wind our way over the short distance to the suburb of Karen. We made use of the time chatting about the recent elections and the aftermath of the troubles. We talked about why the various tribes in Kenya so often don’t get on when put under pressure. I would like to know how they can tell a member of one tribe apart from a member of another and asked Paul about this. A combination of bone structure, voice inflection, body movements all came into it. Was there any hope for a Kenyan to one day think of him/her self as a Kenyan first and member of a tribe second? Paul said that the children at school in Nairobi, such as his, didn’t make the same distinction between tribes as the generation before and that maybe that was a sign that there was hope.

We eventually reached Karen and because time was short decided to do some souvenir shopping (my dogs all wear smart beaded collars now), visit the giraffes (because how could you not spend time looking into those beautiful eyes) and then just time to get over to the David Sheldrick Trust for the evening feeds and to see the latest additions to our elephant family. I love those babies and it is always so hard to leave them as night falls. Shida visited whilst we were there although he is now a full grown rhino and living a wild life. He busily sharpened his horn on the nearest available object, fortunately not human as we were all happily hiding behind various bushes. Eventually he went into a yard for some sustenance. Last time we were there Shida was a bottle fed baby so it was great to see him so large and healthy.

Feeling a little weary we arrived at House of Waine and only wished we had more time to enjoy just being there. We were welcomed warmly, had a great dinner, hot bath and fell into a deep sleep. We surprised ourselves by not feeling jet lagged, but didn’t question it too hard. House of Waine is a great option for stop overs in Nairobi, especially if you are not interested in going in to the city. Lovely gardens, roomy accommodation with antique furniture and many wonderful small touches such as the home made biscuits left in the room for us. Nice and close to Wilson’s airport, Sheldricks, Nairobi National Park, the Giraffe Centre amongst others.

Day 2
We enjoyed a relaxed breakfast before Paul came to collect us for our transfer to Wilson’s airport. The drive was easy, traffic not too bad being a Sunday. We sat in the departure lounge looking at the few other passengers waiting for their flight and wondering about their stories. I really enjoyed the flight, small planes have their advantages if you can get past the noise. We caught glimpses of antelopes in Nairobi National Park, looked in amazement at the size of Kibera slums which had been an almost vacant paddock when I used to travel to school past the Barnardo’s sign all those years ago. We flew over the affluent suburbs of Nairobi and the valley which Wangari Maathai worked so hard to protect and onward over lush farms and huge hot houses for the export market. There was nothing which wasn’t interesting until we flew through the clouds and then it was clear blue sky which could have been anywhere. We were fortunate to see the peak of Mt Kenya and I was so glad as it was the rainy season and who could tell whether we would have sight of it from the ground in the days to come.

Our first landing was at Nanyuki where we did a quick ‘one off, one on’. There was a small bi-plane which had just landed after what was, I imagine, a thrilling joy flight for some lucky traveller. Next stop was Lewa and as we neared the conservancy I started to recognise some of the landmarks from our previous visit. It was at this point that the adrenalin really started to kick in and you finally realise that you have arrived. Stepping onto the red dirt of the air strip I felt my heart sing and I was finally back in the country that I love above all others.

All safari goers would have to agree that the guide can make or break the trip and we were fortunate to be met and guided for the duration of the trip by Silas, a Maasai from one of the local villages (about a 4 hr walk for him when going home!!). Silas had a great sense of humour, loved the conservancy, knew the animals and the birds both from his childhood experiences as well as his training as an adult and was such a pleasure to spend time with. We laughed about the exploits of little boys in my culture as much as the little boys in his, finding that they tended to do the same things … i.e. lie to their mothers about the dangerous things they were doing when they had been told not to!

Our drive back to the lodge was slow, as all such drives are because when you have been starved of wild African animals too many impala and zebra are just not enough.

Sunday is curry day so we arrived just in time to enjoy a guinea fowl curry along with lots of other delicious things before unpacking our bags in our spacious banda which comprised a living area by a small fire place, a large bedroom with king sized bed, dressing room and bathroom. So much space. We couldn’t see any of the other bandas as they were all so well placed. Ours overlooked the valley and the river and late at night we could just see the lights of Isiolo in the distance. I found this surprisingly comforting as it brought back memories from my childhood when I thought the town’s name was so evocative of all that was wild and remote … mainly due to Born Free and Elsa’s life with the Adamsons who often wrote of Isiolo.

We had company on our day light walks to and from the banda in the form of a dik dik family. Male, female and a small fawn which we just saw in the shadows. They made the bush around the farthest rooms their home, maybe they knew that predators were less likely to frequent this area.

Our first game drive was approaching fast so we headed up to the carpark to meet Silas and get going. He explained that not only were we the only visitors at Wilderness Trails, but we were the only visitors on the whole conservancy. Imagine that, all that wildlife for us to discover on our own … no sharing at all! I felt like a selfish child not wanting to share my toys but felt no guilt.

We started off our sightings with 2 magnificent male lions, spotted at a distance across a ravine. Not to be deterred, Silas drove up and across and down and around until we were totally confused but happily sitting within a couple of metres of the brothers. We had crossed boulders, scraped through thorn bushes, leaned precariously to one side as we drove along the side of the ravine then lurched to the other but it was all worth while. I don’t know how long we sat with the lions but it didn’t matter because there were no other vehicles and no other tourists and so as long as the animals were content with our presence, we could stay. I didn’t care if I didn’t see a ‘kill’, or a wildebeest crossing, or a cheetah flat out over the plains, it was enough to sit silently listening to the birds, feeling the African breeze across my cheeks and watching the lions lazily begin to stir and to be alone far from the madding crowd.

The rest of the drive was shared with elephants, lots and lots of elephants with calves and all the other plains game of which Lewa has plenty … Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebras, reticulated giraffe, eland, oryx, warthogs, impala, Grant’s gazelles, Somali ostriches, water buck, klipspringers, dik diks and so many birds. We saw white rhino, albeit from a distance on this day.

Dinner was a happy time, the 2 of us and Silas chatting about the day’s sightings. David the Askari escorted us back to our banda as the lodge is not fenced so anything could be around the next dark corner.

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