I named my son Kenya for several reasons, one of which is that Kenya is my favorite country in Africa. To me, Kenya is the epitome of the safari experience; big herds of animals, inspiring landscape and a unique cultural experience lacking in other parts of Africa. You may not know it, but if forced to conjure up images of safari, one is often seeing Kenya. Its classic images of massive herds, acacia studded savannas, views of Kilimanjaro, spear bearing Maasai warriors and big sky landscape are all classic Kenya. It’s that iconic…
You can see heaps of wildlife all across East and Southern Africa, but what makes Kenya so unique is it’s progressive approach to sustainable tourism that’s been making quite a surge. Kenya used to be synonymous with mass tourism and crowds of people; to an extent, this still remains the case, but the real gems can be found in remote wildlife corridors where local communities benefit directly from the introduction of micro tourism projects. Further, Kenya’s steeped in history with multi-generational families operating passionate safari camps/lodges; this hands on approach has a trickle-down effect through their staff which elevates one’s experience. This then becomes much more holistic than just “seeing wildlife”.
I was back in Kenya this past January and had the opportunity of visiting new properties and revisiting some old favorites. Over the course of the past 12 years being “on safari”, I’ve become a slightly jaded, but what struck me on this past trip was my renewed sense of excitement and lust for the industry. The properties under the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) included a specular camp called Sarara in the remote northern Mathew’s Range. This intimate camp managed by Jeremy Bastard (son of Piers and Hillary Bastard who started the project) is owned by the community with exclusive use of 850,000 acres of pristine wilderness. Jeremy’s love for this land was infectious and his stories and insight were enlightening – I will never forget this visit. Aside from great hiking and wildlife sightings, this area is home to one of the most authentic cultural experiences in Africa. I’ve never been to a village where photography was prohibited, not sold trinkets nor forced to be the center of attention. In fact, the only people who acknowledged my presence where the smiling and cheerful children; for the rest, I was a silent observer entranced by the simplicity of life. I was moved in a way that I hadn’t felt in years.
In northern Laikipia, I visited another great lodge which exemplifies a multi-generational family owned operation. Colin and Rocky Francombe are living legends and their son Andrew and his wife Chyulu joined ranks to operate Ol Malo; a working ranch on the edge of the Laikipia plateau. They’ve lived and worked on this land for decades, their intimate knowledge cannot be taught, and have been witness to some dramatic changes in Kenya. My short visit with the Francombe family makes me yearn to return with my own.
I also discovered my new favorite “Big 5” destination in the whole of Africa. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, recently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, affords superb game viewing and is a sanctuary to black and white rhino. Beautiful views of Mt. Kenya (to which the country is named after) serve as a backdrop to this area with a range of activities to keep you active and interested. Lewa Wilderness is owned by the Craig family who started the Lewa Conservancy, and members of the family can still be seen casually having drinks with guests. This sort of informal discussion with the people who started the most successful rhino conservation project in Africa is a rare opportunity.
Another surprising revelation I had was in Nairobi. I’ve never been a fan of big cities and always viewed Nairobi as a place to overnight at the start of a safari. However, I stayed in Nairobi National Park, one of the very best places in Kenya to see rhino (and other game) which took me by surprise. Fifteen minutes after leaving the airport, I was on a dirt road in a 4×4 safari vehicle on my way to The Emakoko, another owner-operated lodge in the heart of the park. Owners Anton and Emma Childs left the bush after years of operating safari camps to afford their kids the best education in Nairobi. Their experience is evident and I had a refreshing time in what I’ve traditionally wrote off as a “stop-over” point.
And of course, you cannot visit Kenya without seeing the Maasai Mara. Arguably the best wildlife viewing area in Africa, “The Mara’s” abundant wildlife is captivating. It’s like having front row seats to the filming of National Geographic – there is no such thing has a “slow” day in the Mara.
It’s a common phrase for us safari folk so say, “people go to Africa for the wildlife, but they return because of the people”. Wildlife can be seen in many parts of Africa, but if you want to experience a life-changing journey, head to Kenya. The only downfall is at the expense of your bank account as you will want to return time and time again…