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Kenya Feb 2006 - Cottars

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Just got back from, a short trip to Kenya. After a family safari (with the kids) in August 2005 with perhaps the best sightings we’ve ever had, my wife and I opted for luxury and wilderness with 5 nights at Cottars 1920’s camp (near the Mara) and a night at Giraffe Manor. Having had so many wonderful cat sightings last year we wanted to focus on walks and nights drives.

I’ve put some photos onto the Kodak share site reference

Whilst we missed leopard and cheetah, I have never seen so many lion. It was also unusual to see so many wildebeest still in the Mara at this time of year with many having of the females already having given birth. However, the biggest surprise was that, after many safaris, we saw a number of very rare animals – some of which were, for us, for the first time. In particular, the unusual animals included leopard shell tortoise, lesser bushbaby, bohors reedbuck, oribi, steenbok, genet cat (not in a camp or lodge !), zorilla, porcupine, naked mole rats, black tipped and white tailed mongooses, black rhino and rarest of all a pangolin in broad daylight – see photos !

The biggest highlight however was one of the game walks we had inside the reserve near the Sand River - strictly forbidden but the remoteness was such that there was as much likelihood of stumbling across a ranger as finding a tiger … We were watching a herd of around 500 buffalo when Nick, our guide, suddenly told us we were going for a walk…He tested the wind direction, made sure we were downwind (or is it upwind – anyway, the direction form which they couldn’t smell us !) and proceed to walk round them and up to within 20 yards of them. In all my years of safari, perhaps the most exhilarating experience yet ! By comparison the walks near the camp were tame as most of the game had moved away because of the drought (see below)

Whilst Cottars was nice, given the amount we paid (approx $1,000 per tent per night) I have to say that it did not meet expectations. Part of this may not down to them as the drought (which ended a day after we arrived – the weather gods must have heard that the Brits were coming and knew we love rain !) had resulted in A LOT of cattle invading the concession. This had the effect of driving the wildlife away from the camp and deeper into the reserve. As a result, we had to drive the best part of an hour to get into good game areas. Given the detrimental impact on the game around camp, I’m not sure whether or not they should have made a bigger effort to minimize the cattle impact…

The good things about Cottars were :

- superb tents - see from the photos; I can’t believe any other camp anywhere has bigger tents
- great views
- absolute privacy – at all our sighting we were the sole vehicle
- friendly staff
- good guides – Nick Cowell in particular was a superb guide and host
- Interesting night drives

The less good things…

- food average at best – we had much better food at Intrepids a couple of years ago at less than half the price
- tent butler non existent except first thing in morning and last thing at night
- small things missing, e.g. no hot towels after game drives and had to request snacks with drinks (except pre dinner canapés)
- poor vehicle maintenance – we had four punctures in two days which were down to poor tyre repair (same wheel each time).
- poor game density (and cattle – dead and alive) around camp
- false rumours about a swimming pool
- Calvin Cottar only makes rare appearances – didn’t bother us as Nick was an excellent host but may annoy others. I’m pretty sure he’s only in camp when someone pays the $450 per day for his services...

Overall I would say that Cottars was nice but did not have the “Wow factor” that I was expecting – maybe my expectation were too high ? I spoke to some other guests there who enjoyed the camp but also said that Mara Explorer was better and around 20% cheaper. For me, Cottars should have been priced at $300pppn as opposed to $500pppn.

When we returned from the Mara we spent a night at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. As with Cottars, it was nice but did not really justify the cost. I think a number of top Kenyan establishments are relying a bit too much on the ‘Out of Africa’ experience. Whilst the food was better than Cottars (and it was great feeding the giraffes), they could have done a lot better. The rains had truly arrived by the time we got to Nairobi and it was fun going into the cheetah enclosure at the Animal Orphanage.

In summary, a fun trip but not our best safari. We booked through a Nairobi travel agent called Gamewatchers (who own the Porini camps) who had good rates and were excellent – I would thoroughly recommend them. Cottars and Giraffe Manor a bit disappointing – next time we will save some money and go to Intrepids / Explorers. Unless of course, you want to walk through a herd of buffalo …


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