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Trip Report Kenya Trip Report Feb-Mar/2012 with R&N Xployer

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Pre planning:

We went to Kenya and Rwanda back in Feb/Mar 2012 and here is the long overdue trip report. We had issues with our travel company and I wanted to give them a chance to resolve things before I put up a trip report. They have failed to answer any of my attempts to contact them so I feel like I’ve done my best and here goes…

We used R&N Xployer as our ground operator and they contracted with Metacor for the Rwanda portion of our trip. Let me first say that Rwanda was fabulous and I can't recommend Fidel our guide highly enough. I will do a separate report for that portion of the trip.

We have been on safari 3 times before in 2/2008, 2/2009 and 3/2011 to Tanzania with Naipenda (our guide Chris was excellent), 5/2010 to Botswana with Travel Beyond and Wilderness Safaris and 10/11 to South Africa with Smartours. We're from California so we prefer to travel in our winter or fall. The logical next choice seemed to be Kenya for our wildlife fix. We decided early on to limit it to a fly in safari to the Mara because of the on/off again political situation. (Do any of you remember Bill H's adventures in the last political upheaval? Here’s a link to his trip report. Our plan was to send 8 nights in Kenya and then move on to Rwanda for gorilla trekking.

We started planning about a year in advance and Nyagah Mbae from R&N Xployer was prompt to reply to all questions and he had good suggestions. He also had a pretty favorable reputation on these boards. He supplied references and I contacted them all. Someone had some issues with the vehicle so I asked about that and Nyagah emailed me a photo of the vehicle and our guide to be, Joseph. All was good. We wired our money as scheduled and bought our plane tickets.

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    On the ground:

    We arrived in Nairobi and hour late at 9 or 10 pm and we had a little mix-up finding our driver. No one was holding a sign to meet us when we arrived (a first for us). We asked around and the information booth put out a call and it all worked out as there was Joseph (another Joseph??? who was meeting our plane up in the Mara) within 30-45 min. We got to the Serena hotel quickly and were in our room with a beer in hand toasting our return to Africa. The next morning we were met on time and whisked back to the airport for our flight on 540 to the Mara to meet the other Joseph. One little hitch here was they insisted on weighing all of our bags including camera bags which put us overweight to the tune of $20. If I had known I would have loaded up my pockets. Flight was smooth and uneventful.

    Here is where the trouble started. "Joseph" was at the airstrip waiting for us in his 4x4 rusty old land cruiser with removable hatches instead of the STRETCH POP TOP LAND CRUISER that we had agreed upon. Well, what can you do when you're 6 hours or more away from base so we went with it. I had asked (and it was agreed) that Joseph would bring beans for my camera bean bag but he didn't have them and I let that go. He also didn't have any drinking water in the vehicle or binoculars or bird books.

    Game Drives. These started out good and we saw lots of lions. "Joseph" didn't know anything about positioning the car for photographers. OK, we'll just train him. We always had to ask him to stay back from the animals as he wanted to park right next to them, leave the motor running and race off again without ever asking us if we were ready to move on. I had to ask him EVERY time to turn off the motor. Later we learned what the problem was. At a great leopard sighting on a narrow track, it got a little busy and then the cruiser wouldn't start. Because the leopard was that close, "Joseph" couldn't get out to prime the motor and get us started. We had to wait until the leopard moved off but this was fine with us and we did get some great photos.

    We stayed at the Keekorok Lodge the first 3 nights and it was nice. They have a great hippo pool and friendly staff. I will say that it rained every evening while we were in the Mara and some of the days were cloudy and rainy too. This was probably good since we weren't prepared to stand in the full sun without our pop top all day every day. It was a pain to put the hatches on when the rain got to hard though. All in all the game in Keekorok was excellent and we saw 40+ different lions, 3 cheetah, 1 leopard and 1 rhino in our 3 night stay.

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    After Keekorok we moved on to the Serena in the Mara Triangle. I had asked to go see the lion cubs (from the day before) on our way to the Traingle but "Joseph" was in a hurry to get us to the next lodge so that didn't happen. We were pulling into the Serena at 9:45am after seeing nothing in transit so we asked him to take us on a game drive for a couple of hours before checking in at the Serena. He took us down a track that led to Serena's garbage processing area and was clearly off limits to us. We ended up nose to nose with a private camp on Serena property and we made a hasty exit. So that is when he turned around and took us to the lodge to check in at 10:30 without asking if we were ready.

    The Serena Lodge in the triangle is lovely. The views are to die for and we really enjoyed our 4 nights here. We had stunning lighting shows every evening and a few rain storms too. The food and service was great and I can highly recommend this lodge and the location if not in the rainy season.

    On that afternoon game drive is when we realized we were in real trouble. "Joseph" didn't know his way around AT ALL. He would drive really really slow hoping that someone would pass us so he could follow them or he would go down tracks and the ranger would follow and run us out. The Serena trucks did not use radios so he never knew where to go and we didn't find much. His response was that the Triangle is a very bad area and there are no animals there and that we should have stayed in Keekorok. (That isn't what Nyagah said when we planned the trip.)

    So that evening we talked to fellow guests and found out what they saw and where. We bought a map in the gift shop and studied it so we would have a plan for the rest of our days. We decided that we needed to take control since "Joseph" didn't have a clue.

    The next few days went from bad to worse. One morning on our way up to the Oloololo Gate where we had asked to go, he listened to someone on the radio, then turned around and headed out on a muddy track. He never asked us or told us anything about the change of plans. Well we got stuck, really stuck in the mud. His answer to why we turned was that there was a report of lions out there. We got out and watched carefully in the waist high grass for lions while he tried to get us unstuck. Then he called for help and we waited and waited. After 60 to 90 min he said no help was coming and that we would have to push us out. It did work but I was bleeding from brush scrapes and we were covered in mud. Back in the truck he drove so fast so he wouldn't get stuck again and we were thrown all over the place. I think hubby cracked some ribs on the armrest because they bothered him for at least 2 weeks and I had a most massive bruise on my arm. Thankfully the camera equipment survived.

    The next day "Joseph" convinced us that we should take our lunch and go out the Oloololo Gate and back into the park at the Musiara Gate so we could see the lions and cheetahs from the Big Cat Dairies as was suggested (and included) in our printed itinerary. We happily agreed and off we went. I should add here that it rained every evening and the roads were TERRIBLE. The black cotton soil was very slippery and a lot of tracks were closed because of this. The people staying at Little Governors and Kichwa Tembo could hardly get out of their camps. On the other side of the river they had the tractor on stand by at the air strip to ull out the stuck trucks. We also noted that water was lapping onto the bridge when we crossed the Mara River (did I say it rained every night?).

    Getting to the Musiara Gate was an e ticket ride and the stream before the gate was quite deep and fast. A couple of guys from the gate came out to watch or help if we didn't make it across - but we did. At the gate we found out that we would need to pay an additional $160 to go into this side of the park. After many phone calls we were told that we should pay the money (as the driver didn't have any) and they would reimburse us later. "Joseph" was pleased and told us that we could stay out until 7pm and that we would see everything! Off we went.

    We did see lots of the famous lions and they were great. Interestingly, "Joseph" wouldn't turn off the motor because these were scary lions! We proceeded down the road until we had to forge the creek again to get to Paradise plains or Rhino ridge where all the other animals were and this time he decided it was too deep to cross. OK by us as it looked really full and fast. So lets go back and look for more lions or ??? no he wants to go back to the lodge at 1pm. We told him we wanted to stay out until 4pm and he proceeded to drive really, really slowly through the middle of the empty plains. We did stop for some hippos and then the truck won't start for about an hour. A ranger came by but did he ask for help, no, we were just sitting in the middle of nothing looking at nothing. At 3:30 when it started to rain we gave in and let him head to the lodge. On a side note, we stopped in town for no apparent reason with the motor running and he took off to a store for quite some time. When he came back he had a coke in hand, none for us and no explanations.

    On our last morning before we were to fly out at 10am, we went for one last game drive. Again the tracks were very slippery (and he was driving too fast) and when we pulled slightly off center so another truck could pass, we slipped into the ditch at the side of the road. We didn't quite tip over but my feet were standing on the side window. He gunned it and eventually we did manage to get back out of the ditch. Of course our newly laundered clothes were now covered in mud and water that was thrown all over us from the spinning wheels.

    Coming next: the wrap up

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    Holy crow I don't know how you kept your cool with all this.

    I'm hoping in the wrap up we hear about how you dealt with R&N
    Xplorer and "Joseph".

    Thanks for taking the time to post this.

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    Agree with Kath. Sounds like you made the best of it and I much admire that. I would likely to have had a stroke - after I strangled the guide. Looking forward to more from you.

    regards - tom

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    Thanks for understanding. When things go wrong, I ask myself what did I do wrong. Was I guilty of not enough research? Given the passage of enough time, I think I did everything right. This was one bad experience after many great Africa trips.

    Tom, I’m still in shock from your recent experience and maybe time will get you back on the horse. And I agree, it’s terribly hard to write about a bad experience.

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    Final Thoughts:
    Other details to note here about “Joseph”. He was on his phone constantly. When we asked him to stop, he sat and talked or texted and even when we said we were good to go he had to finish his text or conversation. I asked him what kind of bird was out in the marsh (Goliath heron) and he glanced up and said he didn't know and went back to his text. No binoculars so he would ask to borrow my camera with the 400mm lens to see in the distance while standing on the roof! What was I thinking? And of course he used our map of the Mara triangle. He definitely didn’t spot anything so he just drove and not always following our directions. Sometimes he wasn’t ready or there at the agreed upon time and never any water. When we returned home and looked at his photo emailed to us he was NOT the Joseph that was promised.

    Tipping- We go with an amount in mind for a tip and allocate more so we can increase it if deserving. "Joseph's" tip kept going down in our minds as the days went by and by the last day it was obvious to both of us that he deserved nothing and that is what he got.

    Masai Mara in March was pretty good around Keekorok but pretty empty in the Triangle area. We did find 3 mama lions with their 8 cubs on 2 occasions and the buffs, ellies and giraffe. The grass was pretty tall and brown. Very few birds. The road conditions were appalling.

    Would I go to the Mara in Feb/Mar again, no. It is just so much better in Tanzania at this time of year. In 2011 in the southern and central Serengeti we saw lots of lions, 27 cheetahs and 4 leopards. We saw more vehicles but there were so many more sightings and the tourists were spread between them. The grass was green in the Serengeti for better photos and it only rained on us once over 3 safaris at this time of year. Also of note, the guides in Tanzania were so much more polite. They don’t cut in front of each other at a sighting (never in front of your camera). They turn off the car engines. If you get stuck in an aardvark hole (as we did one year) other guides come to help out. They also will share info on sightings.

    We were told that R&N Xployer would refund the extra park fees of $160. When we flew back into Nairobi, the good Joseph met us and laughed about our problems with us. He said the boss would contact us and settle up with us. He never has…not one word.

    Photos are here under Kenya

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    R&N Xployer were members when we booked and there had been several positive reviews on this forum (and/or on Trip Advisor). I also emailed several former clients about the services provided. They weren't the cheapest but they were the most responsive to my emails. Seemed like a good idea at the time...

    I am pleased with my photos and I have to ask myself was it that bad. It seemed OK (less OK as we went along) until we added up all the problems.

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