Traveling through Kenya: All your questions answered!
So many people I speak to are apprehensive about traveling through Africa. When people heard that I had traveled to Kenya (and made it back alive), I was inundated with questions. I get it; Africa seems like a scary continent of tribes, predators and civil unrest. But for me, traveling to Africa always gives me a feeling of coming home; a return to the familar and a peace with the craziness of it all.
What do you know about Kenya? Lets start with a PPG (Panda’s progressive Geography) lesson to kick off this blog post.
Kenya is located in East Africa, just along the equator. Ethiopia and Somalia lie to the north; Tanzania is in the south. Great Britain ruled Kenya until 1963. After Kenya gained independence, the country enjoyed many years of prosperity under the direction of President Kenyatta. After he died, Kenya struggled to stay united, however, recently, the country has become more peaceful and stable. The capital city of Kenya is Nairobi and Kenya has a myriad of diverse landscapes ranging from miles of coastal plains, highlands and even mountains. People in Kenya speak English, Swahili, and other tribal languages. Oh and the Kenyan Shilling is the most widely accepted currency.
So now you know a bit more about Kenya and where it is. Yet you still have a vast majority of questions that you want to fire at me so let the games begin!
-What was your plan of action in Kenya? In fact, do you need to have one at all?
Africa is not Europe. There is no metro to whisk you off to see the local sites, no easily navigatable road signage and wi-fi is as unpredictable as Beyonce’s hair. My advice is not only go with a plan- but if its your first time traveling to Africa/Kenya- go with a well thought out plan. I am not usually a structured traveler, preferring to just wing it when I get to a destination but I highly discourage this when traveling in Africa in order to avoid getting fleeced (I will come back to this later on) or overwhelmed with the crazy logistics of organising things.
Exapt Lion and I did a lot of research when planning our Kenya trip and looked at a ton of options. We knew we wanted to go on safari (her) and laze around near the ocean (me). So we tried to make our wishes work. We decided that we go on three days of safari and at the end of the safari, our transportation would drop us off at our pre-booked resort on along the east coast for 4 nights. Choosing a safari company seemed like an insurmountable challenge with the amont of operators to choose from, but we stuck to our plan of going from Nairobi to Mombabsa. Every single internet article recommnded visiting Masai Mara Park and every safari I found offered this as the first stop but I rejected the idea as it wasn’t along our route. I was starting to worry about my chosen plan when Expat Lion stumbled across Siku Njema Tours offering exactly what we wanted.
After some liasion with Benson, our safari guide, we were given a choice of national parks, a selection of accomodations to choose from as well as a detailed packing list. Plan One was in place.
Is it worth going on safari in Kenya? Do you see many animals?
Not that I am promoting myself as some sort of safari aficionado (I am NOT) but growing up in South Africa meant that I have been on more game drives in the first 25 years of my life than most people would ever see in a lifetime. Yet STILL I must admit that the safari experience in Kenya rocked my world. I surmise that this was because of our choice of locations…
Amboseli National Park
I had to really dig deep to find information about this park. Although famous in Kenya, most information online did not point me in the direction of this park but once I stumbled upon its existence, I knew I had to visit it. Why you ask? Well this is why-
Framed by the majestic Kilimanjaro,with an abundance of wildlife, this park was a photogrpaher’s dream. Expat Lion was jumping out of her seat uncontrollably because of spotting so many animals. Lets take a look shall we?
People advised me that I wouldn’t see many animals unless we went on early morning game drives. FALSE. This picture was snapped at 4pm in the afternoon:
And this one at 9am:
The elephants were living velvet with eyes of innocence, a spirit inside an animal so noble. As they moved I fell in love, smitten with their species, an embodiment of relaxed grace as their feet met the grassland. The babies’ ears waggled and shivered when the breeze caught them. I could have watched them all day and still I see them in my daydreams.
Animals aren’t bound by timings and since we did two 3 hour game drives in Amboseli, we were spoilt for choice with breathtaking views. Look at this stunning viewpoint of Kilimanjaro (not a strenuous walk at all) and this gorgeous sunset.
Seeing giraffes in the wild is always my favourite; I couldn’t get over how large their eyes were, like pools of chestnut gloss. When they stuck out their tongues to take in some leaves I couldn’t help but smile. On the TV they are elegant, enchanting, but in real life they were simply bewitching. Their splotched fur lay perfect over the lean muscle below and if anything their legs were even longer than I’d been expecting. After a time I pulled out my camera and began to take pictures, none of them would do them justice, I knew that – but at least I could try.
Amboseli was incredible but we decided to move to a smaller game reseve for our next round of safaris. My reasoning was that a smaller area offered us more opportunties to see the Big 5. And I was not disappointed at all. Just look at Expat Lion’s African cousins:
In the dappled shade of the only tree lay the lion, his face framed by his gold and brown mane. He had all the equipment necessary to rip the traveller apart but none of the intention. In the early summer daylight he was simply golden, the sleek fur laid over his elegant frame and lean muscle. His nose was broad and eyes a soft yellow-brown, large and dark rimmed. Out of nowhere he yawned like it had been a tiring day waiting for dinner to be caught. There was a flash of pink and the sight of his long tongue. Then in one fluid movement he was up and stretching just the same as a house-cat.
The excitement of seeing the lions during our evening game drive was exhilarating even though I had seen lions so many times before in South Africa (spoilt, I know). Our morning game drive in Taita Hills introduced us to some buck, birds and elephants.
We were lucky enough to have arrived in Kenya after some heavy rainfall so the plains were lush and animals were roaming freely looking for full watering holes. I had never seen so many wildlife over the course of the three days we were on safari in Kenya- it was really a worthwhile experience.
But going on safari is just SOOO expensive and I can’t justify the cost…
There are safaris for all budgets and after traveling to 39 countries I can safely say that all-inclusive Africa trips offer good value and compare very favourably to the cost of a do-it-yourself European trip because everything is included: all meals, hotels, gratuities, transportation and park fees.
Taking a safari doesn’t require a second mortgage. But luxury accommodations and environmentally responsible eco-lodges built in the remote, undeveloped wilderness don’t come without some cost. Much of the cost goes towards conservation, anti-poaching teams, animal welfare and veterinary science research. The price you pay also pays for the meals and accommodation of your guide and driver as well as leaves them with money for their family. Somehow I see this as a better way to spend my money than chugging away beers in Germany or buying mass produced souvenirs in China.
How did you travel around Kenya? You seem to drive everywhere so did you drive?
I laughed when I heard this one. Yes it seems that I do drive everywhere and even though I deny it, I think a part of me enjoys the long drives in unfamiliar landscapes. But I am also VERY fussy about where I drive and I knew my Kenyan holiday would not consist of me getting behind a steering wheel. Oh yes they drive on the same side of the road that I learnt to drive on but that is where the similarities end. After traveling to a few places in Africa I quickly learnt that driving in Africa is HARD and can easily ruin a trip. The roads are often in poor condition with petrol stations few and far between; signage is confusing if visible at all and distances between cities are vast. With that in mind, we were completely content to allow Benson- and our driver Haroon, to battle the traffic, off roading, potholes, wildlife roaming, military checkpoints and general havoc on the roads of Kenya.
We had this super cool safari vehicle all to ourselves and we were thankful to our hosts for allowing us peace of mind as they navigated and kept us safe on the roads of Kenya.
I want to travel to Kenya but I don’t want to rough it… do I have to camp?
As I keep telling people, in the country I come from, sleeping outside means that you’re homeless- its not something we do for fun. SO to answer that question- NO you don’t have to camp and we most certainly didn’t. For our first night, we were glamping in this fully equipped tent with a bathroom, hot water and even a closet.
Our second night was even more luxurious as we stayed at this clifftop lodge that took my breath away with its incredible views and sumptuous interior:
Expat Lion (a loon who likes camping) agreed with me that camping after long days of being on the road as we were tossed around the safari vehicle due to potholes, would not have been ideal. A hot shower and comfortable bed was much needed.
When we moved on the coast, we spent 4 nights at this beautiful resort in Watamu overlooking the Indian ocean.
The resort organised us a day of snorkeling, dolphin viewing and beach shenanigans along the coast.
Truthfully, unless you WANT to sleep on the soil of Africa, you don’t have to. Kenya offered such beautiful accommodation that it was better than most places I stayed at in Europe or Asia.
I am afraid of how I will be treated in Kenya… will I be safe? Will I be scammed?
Traveling to Kenya made me feel privileged for the first time in a long while. With my brown face and South African passport, I waltzed into Kenya visa free through the citizen’s queue at immigration. When I walked into stores. people assumed I was local or they asked me where I was from and when I told people I was from South Africa, they didn’t pester me to buy goods. People didn’t stare at me or be rude to me in any way. As much as I enjoyed this bliss I was experiencing, Expat Lion- with her white face and American passport did not enjoy the same experience.
She needed a pre-approved $50 visa and waited patiently in the ‘Other Passports” queue at immigration. Children shouted at her to give them sweets as we drove by and while walking around the marketplace, men shouted “MZUNGU” which literally translates to “White Person” (This would be considered extremely impolite and sometimes offensive in South Africa which is why I was taken aback to hear it being shouted publicly). Eventually we reached an unspoken agreement that when I said I was from South Africa, she would keep her accent locked away and instead just nod. I was surprised at how much this helped matters.
That’s not to say she had a bad experience. Goodness, no. When people were staring at her as we traversed the roads of Voi, she felt like royalty. We both bargained hard when we wanted to buy souvenirs and we stayed together at all times. I felt safe and at peace in Kenya- with the exception of the time we heard that there was a leopard patrolling our lodge at Taita Hills.
I just don’t know if I am the right kind of traveler for Africa?
Is there such a thing as a right or wrong kind of traveler? Well yes and no. Traveling in general requires a certain level of flexibility and open-mindedness. Traveling in Africa requires you to leave your brain at home! Let me outline some of the things that happened to us on our Kenyan jaunt:
– Our safari vehicle was stuck in mud for 2 hours in the middle of Amboseli National Park, leaving us open to all kinds of wildlife.
– We had to evacuate our vehicle at a military checkpoint and have our passports checked while we were questioned by soldiers.
– A Masai warrior escorted us to and from the lodge restaurants due to the roaming leopard as mentioned above.
– We were taken on an unwanted tour of the nearby reef by two pushy touts along Watamu Beach whom we then had to pay even though we never asked them to do anything for us.
Embrace the uncertainty and go with the flow. A lot will make no sense and will confuse you. Just accept it all. As the locals say, “Hakuna Matata!”
So should I go to Kenya?
Yes, yes and yes!! No matter how you spend your time, Kenya is a land of contrast and diversity that offers volcanic landscapes, wide open savannah plains, majestic mountain peaks, winding rivers, deep blue ocean, dense forests, white sand beaches, intriguing woodlands, lush wetlands, vast deserts and so much more! As you travel through the country, you experience some of the world’ most precious creatures – abundant fish and marine life thriving amidst coral reefs, tiny reptiles and amphibians skittering across the ground, small and large mammals foraging and hunting alongside incredible fauna of every shape, size and color! Whether you want to observe the Big Five, locate rare and endangered species, interact with fascinating cultures or trail into the depths of a forest to find ancient ruins, Kenya is your dream destination in Africa.
Brilliant gold and orange hues bled like fire in the east over the ocean. The first slither of the sun peeked over the horizon in a radiant, white form. Gradually it raised, a defined circle in a vibrant backdrop turning the water liquid gold and silver, leaving me feeling dull in comparison. As the sun fully revealed itself it seemed to swell; an easy breeze picked up and lifted to my vantage point, caressing my face and softly blowing loose strands of my hair. I knew I was in Africa… I knew I was home.
And just so you know:
-Africa’s biggest enemy is the international media who represent all 46 African countries as a single entity and not as unique and individual countries with their own characteristics. Think about that next time you ask me if I encountered Somalian pirates in Kenya.
-Avoid those pictures hugging the local kids. I think of myself hugging a random kid from one of London’s slums for a photo and it feels weird. Likewise, when you see you do this in Africa, this makes us cringe.
-You don’t need a million vaccinations before traveling to Kenya. Or Tanzania. Or South Africa. Most holiday destinations in Africa really. Not everyone is disease-riddled and not everything is bacteria infested (Shocking I know!)
-No one cares about cultural appropriation in Kenya… rock those cornrows, wear the traditional prints, flaunt the ethnic jewellery and buy the beaded sandals. As long as you aren’t offensive, you’ll be fine!