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Tales from Kenya VI – How I planned our trip and a few tips

The trip to Kenya was long in the ‘must do’ list. A couple of years we had made all the plans but then the threat of Ebola came up and despite all the assurances of the travel agent, we decided to cancel the trip at the last minute.

Well, at least I improved significantly in the intervening four years as a photographer, so I guess, all for the best 🙂

During this period and especially as my dates were firming up, I read up a lot, studied many pics, met photographers who had gone there many times, took a lot of inputs. Followed some, which didn’t work out well, ignored others, which didn’t work out well either but all in all, it was a reasonably well planned trip.

So here goes….my experiences and few titbits of suggestions for anyone planning a trip.

When to travel ?

Depends on what you are looking for and what your budget is.

July – October – said to be the cool-dry season. Rainfall will be sparse, the migration will be on during the first two or maybe three months and in general sightings will be excellent. Plus, of course, you will see the spectacular river crossings unless you are really unlucky ! On the flip side….this would be the costliest time to travel and there are a lot of other safari vehicles while you are on your game drive. This aspect did come to me as a bit of a surprise. The grass will be tall during the early part of the migration as was the case when we were there but as the grazing happens, sightings become very easy. Sept onwards, it is said, you can spot the big cats from miles away. But the grass does add to the beauty !

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The river crossing during the migration is a spectacle that should not be missed !


November to May –  the wet season. This period could be divided into two actually – the first part, Nov to Feb, the rainfall will be short showers typically in the afternoon and doesn’t really hurt your game drives much. March to May the showers can be heavy and trails get slushy, vehicles can get stuck etc etc. Rates are lower during this entire period of Nov – May, this is the time that newborn animals can be seen and migratory birds too abound.

From what I have read – March to May, which unfortunately coincides with our school vacations, is possibly best avoided. If you want to see the migration then naturally the July – Aug/Sept would be the best time. If you want to see wildlife in general and want to go a little easy on the expenses, Nov would be good.

For me, apart from the fact that I badly wanted to see the Migration, the timing worked out perfectly in terms of the kids’ vacations, so July it was.

We decided to opt for the last ten days of July to maximize our chances of witnessing the migration, allowing for all the delays that could come up.

But.

The best laid plans of men and mice and all that. Well, almost. The migration was delayed. There were sites and apps that had updates about the migration but I found that at least the ones that I was looking up were all completely wrong. They showed that the migration had started when it hadn’t. Best avoided IMO.

We landed at Nairobi and we were told by Alice, who was there to welcome us that the migration hadn’t started.

Bummer.

Gabriel, our guide, driver and go to man for everything, kept a regular tab on the status and finally the evening before we were leaving for the Mara he came up to us with a huge smile and announced that he has good news. The first few animals had crossed the river and then headed back into Tanzania but he said now that they had crossed at least once, we will definitely see the migration.

Why was this delayed this year ? Nature, mostly, I guess. I read that Tanzania had heavier than usual rainfall which also continued a bit later than normal and there was no crying need for the animals to move in search for food and water. There were also some conspiracy theorists in Kenya who blamed the Tanzanian gamekeepers for creating fires which prevented the animals from migrating and extending their stay J

Where to go ?

This is important cos there are no dearth of places to see in Kenya. Its not just the Masai Mara, after all.

For the first time traveler, the usual spots to choose from will be Ol Pajeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha, Amboseli and the Masai Mara.

The entire trip will need to be done by road – air travel is an option but naturally will be far more expensive and wasn’t even considered by us – and the distances are fairly long. I finally zeroed in on Ol Pajeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara.

The reviews about Ol Pajeta, and specially Sweetwaters the resort were excellent. Had to be done.

We debated a fair bit on whether to go to Lake Nakuru or Lake Naivasha and ultimately went as per the travel agent’s recco to Lake Nakuru. Now, Lake Nakuru used to be famous for the flamingoes but now only a handful remain. The alkaline content of the water increased and most of the flamingoes left and are now at Lake Bogoria. But its still a beautiful place and I was really not very choosy between the two places. Gabriel, however felt that we should definitely do Lake Naivasha so we did a rather hectic change that allowed us a glimpse of both places.

I decided against Amboseli. Amboseli is famous for its elephants, the beautiful vistas with the Mount Kilimanjaro providing a stunning background. Its supposed to be incredibly beautiful but Amboseli is quite out of the way. It required a rather long road trip ( 8 hours plus ) and I decided not to spread our trip too thin. It was going to be a tiring trip in any case and I felt that a long road trip after the Masai Mara could be avoided. The trip had to end with the high of   Masai Mara.

One last bit. One could fly in to Masai Mara and fly out.

Personally, I would suggest you avoid doing that for your first visit. A visit to a country includes understanding a little bit more about the country, understanding its history, its present, its culture and nothing is better than a road trip to do that. Flying in and flying out of the Mara alone really takes away that educational opportunity away. For my next visit, thats definitely an option for me, cos I wouldn’t want to do the other places again. But if you are considering this option, keep an eye on the luggage restrictions.

From every perspective, Ol Pajeta is a delightful place. All of us simply loved it. We were amazed at its spread and the wildlife it had. But it was our first stop. Would we have loved it as much if we had gone there after experiencing what Masai Mara had to offer ? I very much doubt it.

So, this is how our final plan looked like :

Day 1 : Land at Nairobi around noon and drive to Ol Pajeta ( drive time 6 hours ). Some itineraries might say that you will do an evening game drive….not possible, if you land after noon.

Day 2 : Ol Pajeta

Day 3 : Drive to Lake Nakuru ( drive time 5+ hours )

Day 4 : Drive to Masai Mara taking a slight detour for a ride around Lake Naivasha ( really long drive, started at some 6 am and reached Masai Mara at 3 pm )

Rest of the trip was spent at Masai Mara before driving back to Nairobi which took around 8 hours after getting caught in some dreadful traffic.

The roads were by and large fairly decent with the exception of the last hour or so into Masai Mara. Don’t go by the time that most sites indicate between places, add at least an hour to what they show. Traffic, road construction amongst other things slow you down.

Ol Pajeta :

Wow.

What a place.

We stayed at the Sweetwater Tents and it was simply splendid. Sweetwaters is located just next to water hole and animals trudge upto the hole regularly. You can hear them at night, you could get up in the morning and step out to see zebras and giraffes just a few hundred meters away. We once returned from a drive to see a rhino and a huge elephant just opposite our tent. In case, you are getting alarmed, there is an electric fence separating the wild area and your tents. Some athletic impalas nevertheless jump over it, but the more dangerous ones cannot. So, rest easy.

The tents are luxurious. The food is lip smacking good. The staff is courteous and really make you feel welcome.

For your first step into experiencing Kenya, this is possibly the best place. The game drives are good fun and you can see quite a few animals.

In the first hour or so, we saw a pair of jackals feasting on a zebra carcass, a few rhinos – two of them got into a mock fight too – elephants, giraffes and lots and lots of birds. And, of course the gazelles and the impalas.

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One of our first sights….a pair of jackals having an early breakfast


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Yawwwnnn….he certainly wasn’t impressed by our presence !


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A giraffes is such a lovely, gentle oddity…love the manner in which they walk across looking down at you with an air of idle curiosity


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One of my fave pics…looks a sunny happy pic, completely reflecting how we felt


Other than the game drives, there is the chimpanzee sanctuary. You can easily give it a miss. I am sure its doing lovely work in terms of taking care of these lovely animals but it was quite a boring visit. The chimps are behind fences, naturally, and while it had a large area to roam around in, I just didn’t enjoy the visit. An extremely uninterested ranger who took us thru the sanctuary only added to the feeling.

The rhino camp on the other hand was far more educational. We saw only one rhino, Barak the blind one, we could feed him, touch him and feel the toughness of the hide but we were taken around by a ranger who really loved the animals and took a lot of time to educate us about the work they do.

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A rhino fixes us with a baleful glare


They also have a night safari. I am not a big fan of those. You definitely cannot get any memorable pics there and generally don’t enjoy watching the big searchlights roam around looking for the animals. But the rest of the family had an awesome experience. They saw a pride of lions plan a hunt of the buffaloes and spent an hour or more with a few cheetahs. At night. It’s a great experience.

Don’t miss this place. Absolutely must visit.

Lake Nakuru :

The lake is incredibly beautiful. It has a very eerie feel to it when we saw it from a distance. There weren’t too many vehicles when we reached the lake and this is one spot where you can get off your vehicle and roam around clicking the birds. I spent an enjoyable 90 minutes here. Quiet and enjoyable time.

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I think this is a Northern Masked Weaver


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Was good fun to see these pelicans floating around in a solemn manner….


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…and then suddenly, as if on command, all of them dive in :). Kept happening


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A painted stork goes a-fishin’


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A Southern Ground Hornbill hurries past us


We caught a glimpse of the endangered Rothschild giraffe but didn’t see too many other animals other than, of course, the zebras and the impalas.

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The Impala is such a graceful animal…this one was keeping an eye on a few other males in the vicinity


Its really an extremely beautiful place with a lot of birds. Its not a very large place, is fenced more to protect the rhinos inside. I had read that there are loads of baboons here but we found only one crowd as we started our game drive.

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Baboons !!!! Had read that there are lots of them, but we saw only this herd


We stayed at the Sarova Game Hill Lodge. Not in the same league as the Sweetwaters  – actually nothing was ! – but fairly comfortable rooms, not overly spacious but definitely not cramped.

The staff as we found out everywhere, was excellent. It was my sis in law’s birthday and they put together an absolutely smashing song n dance routine to celebrate it as we were having dinner. Came as a complete surprise and that added to the overall memory !!

Lake Naivasha :

We spent an hour on a boat ride here. It’s a fairly large lake. Everyone loved the ride. Personally, it was a bit bleh. I am not such a big fan of the water birds and we had a boatman who was more familiar with people who take pics with their smartphones. For him, to go close to and disturb a few pelicans was doing the guests a wonderful favour. Other than the fact that the act itself was terrible – why disturb the poor birds ! – the fact that he took us so close meant that my lens could hardly take a good pic.

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Why did that fourth pelican have to look the other way and spoil the shot 🙂


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That irritating moment when the boatman purposely scared the birds for our supposed benefit !


Then there are the fish eagles. The boatman would throw a fish into the water and the birds will come swooping down to pick them up. Good photo ops but I sorta screwed up the chances and the boatman was quite reluctant to throw more than a 3-4 fish which I thought was being rather miserly 🙂

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But then, this was the place where I got my first pied kingfisher pic. Of all places.

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A pied kingfisher ruminates about life while keeping an eye on ’em fish


Overall, didnt enjoy it much but I still cannot give a recco between the two lakes. Too little to go by.

The Masai Mara :

What can one say that is not said about the Mara ?

Its pure heaven. Even if there were no animals just driving thru that vast expanse with just the golden yellow grass swaying in a gentle rhythm, the blue sky above and the occasional acacia tree standing as a solitary sentinel of all that it can survey…heavenly.

The animals further add to the experience. And we were lucky. Four river crossings. A failed hunt. Two large prides of lions. A pack of hyenas feasting on a wildebeest kill. Hundreds of zebras, wildebeest, gazelles……

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The Mara version of a traffic jam


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Zebras do provide a wonderful opportunity to be creative after taking a pic 


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The maniacal wildebeest run…and boy, do they gallop !


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We were fortunate to witness a continuous stream of these animals thundering past us


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A bloodstained face of a hyena peers at us. About four of them finished off an entire wildebeest in minutes…just minutes. An entire wildebeest. Wow.


Picnic lunches in the grasslands. Its an out of the world experience. Tho the feeling that there could be a big cat lurking in the tall grass never really goes away !

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You feel all alone in the wide world …there’s absolutely nothing to be seen all around you


A few points, however, that would be worth keeping in mind :

  1. The visit to the Masai village : Found it terribly touristy. Felt it was completely stage managed with a very low real and natural feel to it. Stepping into their huts seemed like a grotesque invasion of their privacy for the plain purpose of satisfying our prying touristy eyes. The money would definitely help them but I frankly didn’t enjoy a single moment of the visit. Eminently missable. You can spend those two hours on a game drive.

  2. The location of the lodge : There are lodges that are inside the Mara. That might be better cos it gives you additional luxury of starting really early in the morning. Our lodge was outside and quite far from the place where river crossings take place. Just reaching the gates used to take us around 30 mins and another 30 mins to be really inside the Mara. The prices, I am sure would be higher but please do check where your lodge is located. I hadn’t and if I had, I might not have chosen our place.

  3. The driver/guide : Conventional wisdom is that a local guide is better to have since they know the lay of the land better and that they get more inputs from other drivers than the outstation drivers. I didn’t get that feeling. Our driver and guide, knew the lay of the land like the back of his hand. Thru the radio you get a constant stream of info – or it could be simple chatter since you anyway don’t understand the lingo J – and we didn’t feel hamstrung by the lack of knowledge at any point. However, many lodges advertise that they have the Masai as their guides as a plus point, and our guy kept underplaying the Masai’s capabilities as drivers, so there definitely is some competitive stuff going on between the two. If you are driving around Kenya, like us, you obviously don’t have an option but to go with the same driver.

  4. Hot Air Balloons : Decide early if you want to do one and book it much in advance. Its bloody expensive, around 450-500 USD per person. We booked it a day before we reached the Mara and while we had thought everything was confirmed and we were told to be ready at 5 am, no one came to pick us up. They are usually over booked and we got royally ignored. We tried to arrange for another ride really desperately but in vain.

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The guy who jumps the highest has the chance of winning the woman….the Masai village visit was a disappointment


We stayed at the Azure Mara Haven. A relatively new place. They bungled up on our reservations, came up with some cock and bull story about another guest having some medical emergency and hence requiring to stay on in our room but finally we got upgraded into a lavish suite.

The staff ? Lovely people. I loved the way after each game drive, they would come up to chat with you about your experiences, what you saw  etc. They appeared genuinely interested in knowing if you have had an enjoyable day. Makes you feel good.

And very prompt in keeping those packed lunch boxes ready in the morning when you are about to leave.

Food :

Again, not my area of interest :). Sweetwaters undoubtedly had the best and the widest fare to offer. And the tastiest. The other places were definitely a couple of notches below. Vegetarian food is not a problem at all. Indian food is widely available and dal roti is almost part of the staple Kenyan cuisine !!

But it would be a good idea to take some snacks for those game drives

Weather :

Definitely take a couple of jackets with you. Another must have –  a bandana to cover your ears. Layer up so that you can peel off those top layers if it gets hotter.

It can get sunny during the day so sun cream, sun glasses etc would be good to have. You rarely get off your vehicle so footwear is unimportant but very often you will be standing on your seats peering outside, so if you are the fussy sort, then its easier to have sandals that can be kicked off when you stand on your seats.

In July, the mosquitoes are less. We rarely saw any so that’s one big nuisance we didn’t face.

Camera :

Ah. The big one. And sadly one where I made a few mistakes.

If you are into wildlife photography, then take two cameras. Easier to manage than to keep changing lens. I had two but pretty early in the safari, my daughter and then my son, took over the ownership of the second camera ! I am not complaining tho, was nice to see them get involved in it.

I had a 200-500. It’s a lovely lens but there are so many occasions when the animals come far too close for that lens to be effective. A 70-200 would have been a lovely one to have with me.

Someone had suggested that to me but I ignored it. Big mistake.

Someone else suggested and I rented a Tokina 11-16 mm. Big mistake too.

It was just too much and I barely used it. Maybe I missed all the right opportunities but overall, I thought it was the wrong lens to take.

Other bits :

Listen to your guide. Trust him. He knows far, far more than you. Let him know what you want to see, if you are into photography, let him know that you want the best angles ( actually best to tell the agency well before so that they get the right guide for you ), let him know which animal interests you. But, bottom line – do as he says.

Stay quiet. Especially when you are observing the animals. There are those groups that are incessantly chattering and this disturbs big time.

Both local currency and USD work quite well. Always best to keep a little of the local currency handy ( best to change at the airport itself, you get better rates than the hotels ) Check with the guides right at the start of the trip about the tips that need to be given at each place.

The guide typically gets anywhere between 5-8USD per person per day.

Take a local SIM card at the airport itself. Easiest place. Go for Safaricom. You usually get coverage deep in the Mara, not that thats a good thing !

Take empty water bottles. The vehicle will have a large water canister which is replenished regularly. Very environment friendly.

In summary :

Plan a trip.

It was the most fabulous and memorable trip that we have taken as a family. Its tiring. It can be exhausting. Each day you wake up at 5 am, the day ends after sunset and you are in a vehicle most of the time in between. But its just too rich an experience to ever miss. My wife was talking about our next visit when we were driving back to Nairobi.

Plan it well. I hope all this helps you that little bit in your planning.

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We shall be back !


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