This trip was two weeks in Kenya in October 2022. It was booked through Tracey Campbell of www.travelbutlers.com who had organised our South Africa trip in 2019. We had our own Reward flights with BA, booked almost a year beforehand. As we did not know whether or not it would be cancelled, we did not get round to booking the safari holiday until 10 weeks before the departure date. Many of the camps and lodges we liked were fully booked, especially as people were still taking holidays rolled over from the pandemic restriction times.
So our two weeks was an overnight in a Nairobi airport hotel, fly to Laikipia for four nights in Ekorian’s Mugie camp, fly to Masai Mara reserve for four nights in Ilkeliani Camp, fly to Diani area at the coast and five nights in The Sands at Chale Island hotel. Then home.
The BA flight in Club was straightforward and comfortable. We were met by Edith from local travel company Gamewatchers. Edith took David to the main airport terminal to buy a local sim card and then we called it a night at the Eka hotel, a functional place close to the airport.
The flight to Mugie Conservancy in Laikipia was with Governor’s Air. An excitingly small aircraft, just us and one other passenger going to Mugie. We were met by Bobby our guide and Sammy the driver.
At the 6 tent camp, we discovered we would be the only guests for two of our four days. George the manager and Donna the owner welcomed us to what would be a unique and personalised safari experience.
Even the garden of the camp was a marvel of nature with birds galore right in front of us. Blue eared and splendid starlings, lilac-breasted rollers, white-bellied Go Away birds, hammerkops, hornbills, kingfishers, woodpeckers. All from the deck of the tent.
The red earth of the roads and the smell of woodsmoke that signifies being in Africa again.
There was no shortage of wildlife sightings. Bobby and Sammy made sure we had plenty. Lion prides every day on morning and evening drives, a cheetah mother with five cubs, jackals, warthogs, Grevy’s zebras with Mickey Mouse ears, elephants galore, giraffes, buffalo, impala harems controlled by a stressed-out stag, topis, elands, bushbuck and waterbuck.
We kayaked in Mugie dam to see elephant herds drinking and bathing. Demoiselle cranes, sacred ibis and storks on the bank. It was so fantastic to do this as the only guests, our private hot lunch set out for us when we wanted it.
On another day, we were taken past the local cattle herders to meet Tala, a semi-tame young giraffe who had been orphaned and looked after but was so far refusing to be re-wilded. It seems she prefers a life of human attention with shortbread biscuits and bananas. She likes to investigate and make friends.
Our most exciting day was when camels were brought to the garden and off we went to the platform on the dam, accompanied by our support vehicle. The camel herders came from a different tribe and had historical links with Pakistan. They controlled the camels with whistles and gentle prods as we swayed along on the saddles and enjoyed the high up view.
A small tent for two on the platform. A drop loo with a view. The guys set up the camp fire and our potje supper began to cook. We sipped our gins and chatted about what it was like to fly in an aeroplane, a subject they were all interested in. We slept under the stars, woken only briefly by a close lion roar from just below us and the bright light of the watchman’s torch. The next morning we had a bush breakfast with a camp kitchen just for us. Hot pancakes, fresh fruits, bacon and eggs cooked to order while we dined at a table under the trees.
Ekorian’s Mugie had only one problem and that was it spoiled us for anywhere else. Up at 1800m, mosquitos were not a problem and the air was cool. It was exactly the caring, authentic and boutique place that we value and the whole experience was first class.
ILKELIANI CAMP IN MASAI MARA RESERVE
Flying into the Olkiombo airstrip was a culture shock. Our little Governor’s Air plane landed in front of a row of vans and jeeps. Too many jeeps. We missed Mugie already. We were taken to the camp across open plains, crisscrossed with roads. We saw hyena, warthogs, wildebeest, hippos and a leopard high in a tree.
Our first impression was the crowds and the more impersonal hotel-like atmosphere of Ilkeliani. The huge tent was comfortable and beautiful, in a luxury hotel way. But there was no library or any bird books and we missed the gardens and the knowledgeable staff of Ekorian’s.
We settled in to a new safari routine. Getting up as the first dove starts to call and set off the others like minarets in Marrakech. Rattling along with local driver/guide, John. A man of few words or commentary but mostly a rally driver at heart. We saw lots and lots of animals but did not enjoy the jeep scrums.
As we were in a reserve, there were no bush breakfasts or sundowners. We saw the Fawlty Towers view of herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically.
We saw two cheetah brothers hunt and kill a female topi. But too many jeeps at a sighting, a culture of bribes and tips and not enough respect for the animals. The Mara delivers, but is in need of more regulation and a change of culture.
On the plus side, we did more deck birdwatching from our tent in Ilkeliani. Bee eaters, kingfishers, paradise flycatchers, village weaverbirds, social weavers, purple grenadiers, barbets and bulbuls.
Eric, the Masai camp manager, took us on a nature walk around the camp and helped us identify the birds. He told us how the camp and been rebuilt to a higher spec after the recent flood. He was interested in how we lived, particularly how we did laundry for some reason. He told us how young warriors were branded by their betrothed and how they caught birds for the feathers.
The food in Ilkeliani was excellent and service was good. David had a relaxing massage on the deck. We could not fault the accommodation which was luxurious.
THE SANDS AT CHALE ISLAND
We flew to Ukunda airstrip on the Kenyan coast, close to Diani. From there, Felix the taxi driver took us to the Chale jetty. Another culture shock. I remembered how much this coastal area reminded me more of Sri Lanka than Africa. The coconut trees, tuk-tuks, blue skies and hot sun. Roadside fruit stalls, monkeys on the roads. Women wearing hijabs and schoolchildren with heavy satchels.
Chale island is 600m from the mainland, an island of coral reef. A boat at high tide and a tractor-trailer when the tide is low. Some local people walk over to fish or work on the hotel. The island land is owned by the local community.
We stayed in Banda 9, a round thatched hut near the dive centre. A leopard gecko darted around our ceiling and all three local monkey types liked to visit. Paul the diving instructor took us on daily tours : a forest walk, a snorkel trip and a kayaking tour. We also left the island one morning and visited the Colobus Trust to learn about local wildlife conservation.
We took a walk around the island with Patrick the beach seller who showed us eels, brittle stars and coloured starfish.
Andreas the hotel manager showed me how to feed bananas to the bush baby ( galago) who lives in a tree above the bar.
We swam in the warm pools and read on the beach or the terrace. There were egrets, storks, ibis and fish eagles to see. We learnt the difference between Sykes, Colobus monkeys and baboons. The latter were sometimes chased by a guard with a slingshot. The colobus liked to hang out at the pool in the afternoons. It is a peaceful place. No harassment from beach sellers, a beautiful small beach and mangroves to explore. Plenty for us to do as we cannot sit around all day. Finally, we packed for home.
Taxi to Mombasa airport, flight to Nairobi then through the night snoozing our way back to Heathrow.