African Diaries — The Other Kenya

African Diaries — The Other Kenya

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari (the Swahili word for travel), unless you are a water-sports enthusiast. In that case, it’s the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, home to seven national marine parks alive with coral gardens, multi-colored fish and sea turtles, that will call your name.

The Serena Beach Resort overlooked the Indian Ocean with the grace of an Arabian palace.

Always ready to embrace the best of all worlds, I decided that after a twenty-four hour journey across two continents in airplanes booked to capacity to take me there, I would first catch my breath on the coast before starting my exploration of the famous games reserves of the country.

 

 

Shanzu Beach

The guest accommodations were nestled in lush tropical gardens.

Built along the idyllic stretch of palm-fringed sand of Shanzu Beach, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Mombasa, the Serena Beach Resort rose from the shoreline with the intriguing elegance of an ancient Swahili town. Inspired by the rich architectural tradition of the East African Coast, the property was divided in a number of whitewashed two- and three-story buildings nestled in lush tropical gardens.

An ornamental fish pond bordered  the plaza.

The public areas had the feel of an Arabian palace, with oriental furnishing and  rugs. The trellised terraces of its main restaurant opened onto a large central fountain, and further down toward the beach, an ornamental fish pond filled with aquatic plants bordered a plaza designed to recall a Swahili town marketplace.

 

My room opened onto a shaded balcony.

The guest accommodations had intricately carved wooden balconies and fretwork screens overlooking courtyards shaded by exuberant bougainvilleas and frangipane trees in bloom. They were clustered along narrow stone-paved alleyways winding toward the ocean. But before I would  enjoy the lure of the sea, my travel-wearing body yearned for a visit to the Maisha Spa.

 

Maisha Spa

The hallway was oulined with frangipani blossoms.

Located in a remote  corner of the gardens, the Spa was a heaven of tranquil luxury within the seclusion of brightly whitewashed walls. Although mine had been an impulse visit, the staff kindly managed to schedule an immediate massage for me. Shortly thereafter, clad in a plush white cotton robe and smart leather sandals, I was following an attendant along a marble floor hallway outlined with frangipani blossoms.

The serene treatment rooms induced total relaxation.

My treatment suite was equally inviting, with an oversized, state-of-the art massage bed and exotic fretwork sliding doors that opened onto a beautifully landscaped private courtyard. Diffused natural light bathed the entire area. And best of all, my therapist was as exceptional as the surrounding. A steel-fingered magician, she delivered a memorable treatment that had all the therapeutic benefits of a deep-tissue massage without the usual discomforts. Now fully rejuvenated, I was ready to investigate the shore activities.

Mombasa Marine National Reserve

Local sailors proposed ngawala trips to the reef.

The Serena Resort  was blessed with an expansive frontage of lawn and soaring palm grove overlooking the silky sands and gentle surf of the Mombasa Marine National Reserve, a 80 square mile (210 square kilometers) environment of crystalline waters and pristine beaches. In the distance, a roll of whitecaps announced the famed coral reef laying a short 15-minute boat ride away. Friendly local sailors in their ancient ngawalas  (traditional local trimorants made from the trunks of mango trees) and mtumbwis  (small dug out canoes) were always ready to negotiate a price to ferry visitors to the reef.

The reef was alive with colorful fish darting around the coral.

I couldn’t resist trying out a ngagwala ride, just for fun, but I booked a “proper” dive boat excursion the next day, for an organized morning of snorkeling. The sea was perfectly calm, crystalline and warm. It was a thrill to float above the busy life of the reef. Along with a couple of varieties of coral, I spotted a number marine species, including sea urchin, crabs, starfish, octopus, sea cucumbers, more varieties of fish than I could identify and even a couple of the sea-turtles in the distance, for a memorable snorkeling experience.

An Endangered Turtle Sanctuary

Yet, the most significant memory of my stay occurred later, on the last evening of my visit. Earlier on, I had expressed interest in the hotel’s involvement in a project aimed to protect the nesting sites of the endangered migratory Green Sea Turtle.

The Serena Resort’s beach was a nesting sanctuary for the endangered migrating Green Turtles.

As I was leaving the restaurant after dinner, I was intercepted by a staff member. A cache of Green Sea Turtle eggs had been salvaged that afternoon from an exposed area up the coast. They were about to be resettled in a safe nest on the property’s sanctuary. Did I care to participate? Did I ever! I was immediately escorted to the site and introduced to Dr. David Olendo, the biologist in charge of the project. Under his guidance, I spent the next hour digging in the sand and helping to deposit some 140 eggs into their new nest, in the precisely correct position to ensure safe hatching. I regret to this day that I couldn’t be there sixty days later to see the hatchlings make their precarious run to the sea. but I like to think that another fortunate Resort guest did enjoy the experience.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Moi International Airport was the international airport deserving Mombasa. It offered several daily connecting flights from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the main entry point for international visitors to Kenya. Moi International is 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Shanzy Beach. Transportation to and from the airport could be easily pre-arranged through the property. 
  • Staying there — The Serena Resort and Spa was a five star luxury resort featuring 164 rooms in two- and three-level structures scattered village-style within 25 hectares (62 acres) of lush gardens, along a 2 kilometer (1.25 mile) beach. The beach was part of the Mombasa Marine National Park and Preserve.
  • Activities — In addition to its gorgeous beach, the Resort featured a free-form Olympic-length swimming pool located in the center of the palm grove overlooking the sea.  All manners of water-sports activities including diving, snorkeling and wind-surfing could be arranged through the Resort. Additionally complimentary recreational activities included a fully equipped health club, with tennis and squash courts.

Location, location, location!

Shanzu Beach, Kenya

Farewell to Africa – for now

Farewell to Africa – for now

“Once the red dirt of Africa gets into your hiking boots, you will never get it out.”  The place was Kuyenda, a tiny bush camp in the heart of Zambia’s remote South Luangwa National Park and the first stop on my first African safari. The year was 2006. The soft-spoken words came from a man who knew what he was talking about.

A LIVING LEGEND

Zambia South Luangwa, Phil Berry

Phil Berry is one of the most respected naturalists in Zambia.

Born in England, Phil Berry moved to Africa as a child and grew up in Northern Rhodesia long before it became the Republic of Zambia in 1964. And there he was still, now a living legend well beyond the Luangwa Valley, for his life-long dedication to the protection of elephants and rhinos, and as a pioneer of the walking safaris for which the park is famous.

I nodded. I was still groggy from the 48-hour journey from North America but after one single day in the bush, I already understood. The day’s game drives had taken us from elephants tearing at Mopani trees for their breakfast and hills dotted with skittish impalas ready to bounce away at the first hint of menace to a pride of lions still sleeping off last night’s feast in a shady glade. Then there had been a intoxicating African sunset and a lovely al fresco dinner under the black velvet and diamonds sky. I was already hooked.

CLOSE CALLS

Kenya highlands black rhino

In the highlands of Kenya, my first rhino sighting ever.

It took three trips before I was finally able to sight a rhino; and a close up encounter it was. I was at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the highlands of Central Kenya. My guide stopped our open land cruiser and pointed into the dense brush. “Rhino,” he whispered.

I got so excited that I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the overhead roll bars of the open-top vehicle, camera at the ready,thus forgetting one of the cardinal rules of game watching (no abrupt move). The startled black male rhino came charging out of the brush, coming straight at us before finally making a ninety degree turn a mere six feet from impact!

Okavango Delta Elephant

This old bull stares us down and out of his watery kingdom.

Who knew elephants could charge so fast in water? Also in the Okavango Delta, this large bull took exception to our boat navigating in “his” channel. He started menacingly toward us until we finally got the outboard motor into reverse.

 

 

 

BREATH-TAKING MOMENTS

Masai Mara newborn Elephant

Newborn elephant learns how to nurse.

We came across this elephant cow in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. She stood patiently while her hour-old calf tried to figure out what to do with its nasal appendage in order to start nursing.

 

 

 

 

Botswana - Leopard in the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, my first sighting ever of a leopard in a tree.

While I had seen leopards on several occasions on previous trips, I didn’t get to observe one settled in a tree until my fourth visit to Africa. We were driving in the waterlogged world of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when my ranger pointed into the tree canopy right above our open vehicle. Lucky for us that this magnificent cat had obviously already enjoyed a large dinner.

 

 

Botswana-Kalahari lion

After a blood-curdling warning roar, this old timer resumed his benevolent attitude.

We were settling in to enjoy our tailgate sundowner cocktails in a sandy clearing in Bostwana’s Kalahari when we heard a chilling moan nearby. It turned into a high-energy rumble, then escalated into a full-blown roar that made the air vibrate around us and my entire body shake.

My guide calmly motioned to me to climb back into the cruiser. I certainly remembered the “no sudden move” rule this time! We then eased at very low speed in the direction of the roar.

Having served us notice that we were trespassing, the old lion had resumed a deceivingly benevolent demeanor.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Then there are all the unique, memorable people I’ve met along the way, too many to include, so I will only mention these two:

Cobra

My great Zu/hoasi Bushman guide, Cobra.

In the Kalahari, Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet took me on a desert nature walk. He mainly spoke the distinctive clicking language of the Kalahari Bushmen, but somehow we understood each other.

 

 

 

Masai schoolgirl

Masai first-grader and her prized book bag.

In a country where the literacy rate for women is still only around fifty percent, I was delighted to meet this enthusiastic Masai first-grader at a charter school supported by andBeyond, the safari organization with which I was traveling through Northern Tanzania. She even let me admire her book bag, her proudest possession.

Location, location, location!

South Luangwa

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early entrant in the race to promote its rich game population and preserve its natural habitat, Kenya boasts more than 50 national parks and game reserves as well as private conservancies covering over 10 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be seen there, as well as cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small; and herds of minivans filled with awed tourists.

Kenya - Mara Lions

“Say, who invited all these people?”

A large number of visitors is drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by the wide umbrellas of flat-topped acacias, and proud Masai in crimson robes herding their cattle in the open plains. To accommodate these visitors, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructures, including large-scale accommodations that make it a favorite destination for mass tourism. But as Kenya’s popularity increased, so did the potential threat to its environment.

 Enter Gamewatchers Safaris

It’s with these challenges in mind that Jake Grieves-Cook, a long time figure in Kenya’s tourism industry established Gamewatchers Safaris in 1989 to set up an operational model that personalizes the tourism experience while giving landowners the opportunity to improve their quality or life and preserve the land and wildlife for the next generations.

Kenya -Ol Pejeta, Tent

Guest tent at Porini Rhino Camp.

With its four Porini Camps, (Porini is Swahili for “into the wild”), Amboselli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offers an innovative solution: small tented camps (between six to ten tents depending on the camp) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the renowned Amboseli and Masai Mara National Parks. One exception is Porini Rhino Camp, located in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, one of largest rhino sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly camps, every effort is made to minimize the footprint on the environment. There are no permanent structures, power is exclusively solar-generated, and all waste is managed according to strict procedures.

Kenya - Mara Porini Staff

The Masai staff at Mara Porini Camp welcomes us with a traditional “jumping dance”.

The host conservancies are on private land leased from the local Masai tribes who receive financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Tribesmen have access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. Because of this close partnership, the guests enjoy extensive contact with the community, such nature walks with Masai Warriors, visits to the local villages where we are welcomed and allowed to observe the tasks of daily lives as well as celebration songs and dances.

Kenya - Amboselli Elephants.

Amboselli is reputed for its large elephant population.

There are also nighttime game drives (these, like the walking safaris are not allowed in the National Parks). I especially enjoy the opportunity for substantive conversations with my Masai guides about their tribes’ history, their current lives and aspirations.

 

 

Spectacularly Diverse

Each camp is located in a spectacular site with its own wildlife particularities.

Kenya - Amboselli Wildebeest.

Wildebeest at Amboselli National Park.

Amboselli Porini Camp in the Selenkay Conservancy is adjacent to the north side of the Amboselli National Park, famous for the large herds of elephants roaming its sun-baked plains. Access to the park is via the conservancy’s private road, against the eye-popping backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.

 

 

Kenya - Porini Rhino Camp

Male Black Rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Porini Rhino Camp is located on the verdant plateau of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, between the foothills of the Aberdares Range and the stately snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya. In addition to its large rhino population, it features large herds of rarely seen herbivores such as reticulated giraffes and Grevy’s zebras.

Kenya - Mara Buffalos

Buffalos in the Masai Mara National Park

 

 

 

Mara Porini Camp is nestled in a soaring grove of yellow-barked acacia within the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, ten miles from the Northeast boundary of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The conservancy is host to a large resident pride of lions that I have the chance to observe repeatedly. Early morning game drives on the way to the park in the rolling meadows filled with herbivores browsing for their breakfast in the clear morning air are a special treat.

Kenya - Mara lion

This old male looks like he never shied away from a fight.

Porini Lion Camp is in the Olare Orok Conservancy on the northern border of the Mara. The abundance of “big cats” in the conservancy and  the park is such that it is hard to keep focused on any other game! Although the sight a pair of copulating white rhinos did hold my attention, as does a breeding herd of elephants with several newborn calves; successfully tracking an elusive leopard is a high point of my visit, so is a pride of lions getting ready for their hunt. In the end, a cheetah and her three tiny cubs won my cuteness award for the stay.

Good to Know

  • Contrary to mass tourism organizations who often provide closed, air-condition vehicles for their game drives, Gamewatchers’ drives are in custom-built, open-sided land cruisers, each with three tiers of two individual seats. Although the vehicles can accommodate up to six guests, there are never more than four of us in any vehicle throughout my stay, and more than once I have the special treat of a private game drive.
  • In recent years, Porini Safari Camps and their parent company Gamewatchers Safaris have been consistently honored with various prestigious Responsible Tourism awards such as “Best for Conservation of Endangered Species outside Protected Area” at the World Travel Market in London, and the SKal International Sustainable Development in Tourism Award. They have also have also been repeatedly awarded Ecotourism Kenya’s Eco-Warrior Award in the Accommodation category for “working with communities next to the national parks and resers to create protected wildlife areas.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris Founder and Managing director Jake Grieves-Cook remains personally involved in wildlife conservation projects with Masai communities in Amboselli and the Mara.
  • Gamewatchers Safaries: http://www.porini.com, email: julie@gamewatchers.com , or call toll free: +1-877-710-3014.

Location, location, location!

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya