When it comes to visiting Kenya, many visitors don’t know that it is a vibrant metropolis with over 40 ethnic groups. Home to about 30 million people, as well as many different species of plant and animals, Kenya is an incredible one-stop visit to see some of the best that Africa has to offer.
Recently, we were able to take a familiarity trip to Kenya, to experience the changes that COVID has wrought on travel and see the country for ourselves. And what a privilege! Our visit to Kenya was everything we had hoped and so much more. Their understanding and adherence to best health practices were universal, in our experience, making the trip fun, filled with wonder and, above all, safe.
This is a first-hand account from one of our directors, Sean Kritzinger. Enjoy!
My recent familiarity trip to visit Kenya afforded me the opportunity to host seven of our travel partners from the USA. We embarked on an itinerary that included Nairobi, the Laikipia region near Mount Kenya, and the Maasai Mara.
While travel in the last year has changed enormously, and clear communication is essential, our very able partners on the ground (the very same team who will be available to help you on your next trip) were in full control and nothing was left to chance. Health and safety protocols need to be adhered to and quick footwork was sometimes necessary as decisions about travel regulations are changed frequently.
For example, while we were in transit, Kenya changed their entry visa requirements. This included completing an online visa and payment, and having a negative COVID test at least 96 hours before the departure to visit Kenya. The need for a good travel partner and ground handler during this time was never more apparent as they helped us to facilitate all of these last-minute requirements.
Visit Kenya: Nairobi
I arrived in Nairobi a few hours before the group did. At the Nairobi airport, immigration and health checks were done swiftly, ably supported by the VIP service Giltedge offer all our Kenya guests. The aim is to get you out of the airport building as quickly as possible to reduce any possible infection. Masks were the order of the day and I can’t recall seeing anyone without one during my nine-day visit to Kenya. The people of Kenya are accustomed to obeying the rules and having had experience with Ebola and other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS over the years, are well versed in the protocols of keeping safe.
I was transferred to Hemingways, our chosen boutique hotel, which is in the suburb of Karen, just over an hour away from the airport in rush hour traffic. Along the way, my guide and driver, Thomas, talked me through all the places of interest in Nairobi, so the journey passed by in a flash
Hemingways is a 45 roomed, 5-star luxury boutique hotel and is one of the more sought-after hotels in Nairobi. Due to its small size, it can operate profitably during the restricted operations necessary during the pandemic, with occupancy at about 50-60% currently. This ensures that the hotel is fully functional, and the butlers assigned to each suite make for a very relaxed experience. Rooms are sanitised and doors sealed which made us all feel comfortable that the most was being done to make our trip a safe one.
Hemingways is a perfect choice for a night’s stay in Nairobi before or after a safari.
Visit Kenya: Segera Retreat
One could feel the excitement in the air prior to departing for the Laikipia region, and so mid-morning, after an inspection of the hotel, we left for Wilson airport (used for regional and local flights) to board our Cessna Caravan charter to Segera Retreat.
After flying over the Aberdare National Park, we landed in the Laikipia region near Mount Kenya. To our delight, the plane taxied almost up to the lodge! The warm welcome by the Kenyan staff at Segera Retreat was inviting, and indicative of all the hospitality and the welcomes we received at all our stays throughout our visit to Kenya. After introductions, temperature checks, sanitising and check-in procedures were completed, we were shown around the lodge.
Unique highlights at Segera Retreat are a wine cellar in a silo-style building, the incredible art collection in the old stables as well as statues and sculptures in the gardens. The Long Run Exhibition, explaining the 4 C’s around conservation, community, commerce and culture, was also a wonderful addition.
Between us, our group were able to experience all the room types, and we enjoyed settling into our accommodations. There’s something for every type of guest from honeymooners to families with children. Rooms are spacious and comfortable with stylish décor and furniture perfectly suited to the buildings and surrounding areas.
The owner of Segera is Jochim Zeitz, who is also the owner of the well-known Zeitz Mocca Contemporary Africa art gallery in the Cape Town Waterfront. His love of Africa, art and sculpture is evident all over the lodge.
Highlights at Segera Retreat
Our next two days were spent game viewing and we had some excellent encounters: three cheetahs on the hunt, as well as observing a family group of four lionesses and six cubs. Sightings were good as animals congregated around water holes in the dry season. Elephant, zebra and giraffe sightings were frequent.
5-star cuisine can be enjoyed in many different locations around the lodge, each with its own interesting vista of the lodge or game reserve. One of the highlights for us were a sundowner visit to the Birds Nest. This structure was built especially for honeymooners to enjoy a night under the stars, with stunning views of the night skies. One of our team, Brianna, got to enjoy a sleep-out and called it “an experience of a lifetime!”
One of the other highlights at Segera Retreat was spending a few hours with their anti-poaching unit and their highly trained bloodhound dogs. We performed a seek and find mission and were easily discovered by the unit. A moving experience to spend time with these dedicated people and their unique dogs.
After two incredible days on safari, we said farewell to Segera Retreat and flew back to Nairobi. Some of the party had their COVID tests, in a room in the departure lounge with no fuss. This was to ensure they met their 72-hour negative test requirement for their onward destination flight to the USA.
Visit Kenya: Angama Mara
After a 40 min flight by Cessna Caravan, we arrived in the Maasai Mara. The views were exquisite as we flew over the Great Rift Valley and landed on the escarpment. Nicky Fitzgerald, doyen of the safari industry, awaited us on the runway with her team.
Angama Mara is the creation of Nicky and her late husband, Steve. Together with their shareholders, they have created a true gem in the heart of East African wildlife and migration country.
After a welcome drink, temperature tests and sanitisation procedures, we spent time marvelling at the incredible view from the lodge on the plateau overlooking the plains of the Mara. You cannot get tired of this view and I found myself venturing back to enjoy it many times during our stay. Nicky gave us the itinerary for the next few days and took us to see our magnificently appointed rooms, all with full views from each part of the room.
Lunch at Angama Mara was a very special experience. Nicky and her team showed us around the Shamba (Kiswahili for ‘veggie garden’) where we got to pick lettuce, tomatoes and vegetables for our vegetarian and vegan-friendly lunch in the beautiful garden under the trees. Feeling refreshed but not overly full, we then enjoyed some time out to relax in our rooms before heading out on our first game drive.
The Mara was greener than I imagined, with uncharacteristic rains having fallen consistently since last year’s migration. This meant that animals were quite spread out amidst long and plentiful grass. We enjoyed a wonderful elephant herd sighting close-up as well as rhino and some plains game. On our return to the lodge, we got to see their new creation, the Angama Safari Camp, a mobile camp that can be erected for up to 8 persons in a location where the animals are plentiful at any time of the year. Classy and contemporary, it fits into a large truck to be moved wherever they see fit. It has all the modern comforts that one can imagine with the same expansive panoramic views which is a signature of Angama Mara. A perfect combination would be a few nights at the lodge and followed by a few in the mobile camp.
That first night in the Maasai Mara I slept with my doors open, listening to the sounds of the night, I felt like I could really feel the heartbeat of Africa. The stars and moon exquisitely lit up the sky from my balcony, washing the plains with silver light.
Hot-Air Ballooning in the Maasai Mara
Despite my wake-up call at 4.30 am, I was so looking forward to the big day ahead that included a first for me, a hot-air balloon ride. After the customary indemnity form signatures and COVID protocols of sanitising and temperature checks, the Australian pilot briefed us of the dos and don’t’s before his team began filling the balloon with hot air. This procedure was entertaining as the sheer size of the balloon is hard to imagine until you are standing right next to it.
Before we knew it, we had climbed into the huge basket and 12 of us were moving rapidly along the grass before lifting effortlessly into the clear blue sky; it was thrilling! We glided over the Mara River, crossing it a few times, as the base of the basket touched the top of the trees. The views were magnificent and wildlife sightings included herds of impala, gazelle, elephant, a solitary rhino, hippos and other game. The hour went by far too quickly, but will surely remain a clear memory for me. Keen to visit Kenya? No visit to the Maasai Mara will be complete without a hot-air balloon ride.
How does one end an impeccable experience like this? With a champagne breakfast, of course. Our skillful pilot put our basket and balloon down comfortably, close to a road in the national park. A short drive later and we were enjoying champagne and a full cooked breakfast including freshly made crepes! What a magnificent morning.
After this spectacular experience, we viewed a few other lodges, such as Sanctuary Olonala and the &Beyond camps of Bateleur and Kitchwa Tembo. All are good quality camps with good price points for international guests. Depending on your guest’s budget and requirements, one can select either a tent or brick and mortar lodge with air-conditioning. Giltedge will help with the perfect choice for your safari.
Highlights at Angama Mara
After returning to the lodge, some quiet time allowed us the pleasure of enjoying the magnificence of Angama Mara and all it offers. We visited the luxurious pool, the incredibly well-stocked curio-shop which delighted many in our group with gifts they could take home. The beading displayed by the local Maasai ladies is a great project where you get to meet and see them in action as well as purchase their beadworks.
The lodge has a photography room which is a special addition where guests can work on their photographs with the help of Adam, the specialist guide and consultant. One can even pre-arrange to have him film your entire stay and game viewing.
The following morning, after a delicious breakfast (we tried many of the interesting items from Shashuka to Eggs halloumi style. The recipes at Angama are world-class. Nicky has created 500 recipes during her years in the business and 50 of these special recipes can be found in her recently published recipe and storybook covering the Angama Mara chefs.
Visit Kenya: Cottars 1920
At the end of an incredible week visiting Kenya, our fun-loving and adventurous team of US agents departed. Flights to Nairobi and then onward to the USA by different carriers showed the ease that one can get to East Africa, even during the current travel restrictions.
I had one more stop and that was to Cottars 1920, a private game lodge in a concession on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. This was a good 5-hour game drive from the Mara Triangle. The lodge is built on the mountainside with great views and varying room types as well as large entertainment and mess tents, decorated and adorned with vintage collectables of a bygone era. A vastly different experience to the new contemporary style lodges, it was a memorable experience for many reasons.
Joseph, my Maasai guide in traditional dress, looked after me for the next two days. I got to see each room type from family tents and the honeymoon suite to the five-bedroomed villa with incredible views that can sleep a party of 14. Angelina Jolie and her large family have visited there a few times.
The lodge includes a large lounge, a mess tent, a spa tent, a huge swimming pool and special dining area as well as large lawns in front of the lodge where one can enjoy a lunch or breakfast under the trees in the cool shade.
Game drives were quite long as we searched out the game in the area, the highlight being 10 lions at a buffalo kill that happened a few hours before we arrived. The lionesses and cubs waited patiently for the male to have his full before it was their turn.
Every meal and sundowner was enjoyed in a different location, making each an experience. A highlight for me was sundowners whilst the Maasai cooked some kebabs on a cast iron pan out in the open. Simple pleasures that will be remembered for what they are. The staff were all incredibly friendly and could not do more to ensure a wonderful stay and experience.
Visit Kenya: Departure
After two days at Cottars 1920, it was time to depart. It was a 2-hour transfer to Keerok airstrip. I flew back to Nairobi for my COVID test and spent one night at the new Emara Ol-Sereni Hotel before flying home. The incredible view of Mount Kenya from the plane will stay with me for years to come. This was a trip to remember during a strange time in our lives, with some very special people we regard as true Giltedge friends.
We hope that your first trip away from home is somewhere as incredible as Kenya. In fact, maybe you should make your trip to Kenya. Get in touch with our team of Africa Travel Experts and make this dream a reality.