Ultimate Guide to a Kenya Safari
By Nilofar Bawa
The lights of Nairobi greeted our plane as we landed in Kenya. We stepped outside the airport into the cool December night and were met by a cheerful hustle and bustle.
It was almost 2 am when we arrived at our hotel. We were served a late dinner on the terrace overlooking Nairobi’s National Park. It was too dark to see the animals but we could hear them in the night.
We woke up well rested to a simple breakfast of toast, coffee and fresh orange juice. We could see the Park stretched out on the horizon in the light of the early morning sun.
When in Nairobi, I would recommend visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust sanctuary. They take care of orphaned baby elephants who have lost their mothers and family to poachers in the wild. They nurture the elephants until they are ready to join a herd in the wild. Visitors can also adopt a baby elephant and support its growth and development.
Next, we visited the Giraffe Centre. Giraffes graze in open fields. Visitors can also attend lectures offered by the Centre and learn about wildlife in Kenya.
We set out to Naivasha 47 miles from Nairobi. It is said if you really wish to know a country, walk or drive through it. We drove through little villages past colorful local market places, waving children and and cattle grazing by the roadside.
We arrived at the magical Olerai House and were welcomed by our hosts Iaian and Oria Douglas Hamilton. The Olerai is said to be one of Kenya’s best kept secrets: a charming and relaxing getaway on the shores of Lake Naivasha. There are open grounds and forests leading all the way to the Lake. It’s become a wildlife sanctuary for zebras, baboons, giraffes, gazelle and even water buffalos and hippos.
We stayed at the Dairy, which used to be a cattle barn when the Olerai was a farm. Today, it’s been transformed into a Tuscan-style villa reflecting Oria’s artistic tastes. The attention to detail is amazing with wildlife murals decorating the walls. Every piece of furniture was personally designed by Oria and hand crafted locally. At the heart of the home, a cozy fireplace crackled in the evenings surrounded by comfortable sofas.
In the evenings bonfires are lit outside and chairs laid out to enjoy the peaceful sunsets and and watch the zebras happily chewing on grass. The chef and his team made us delicious meals, fresh juices and cakes. All the ingredients and vegetables come from the family’s vegetable garden.
Iaian, Oria and their children have dedicated their lives to protect the environment, the local samburu tribe, the wildlife and the elephants. Iaian CBE is a zoologist known for his study of elephants and conservation efforts. Together with Oria they founded Save the Elephants playing a big role in the fight against poaching and illegal ivory trade.
Aberdare National Park
We said goodbye to our friends at the Olerai and headed in a 4WD vehicle to the Aberdare National Park. We crossed the equator and drove into the mountains. The climate grew cooler and it started to rain. We arrived at the Cedar Retreat Lodge, a peaceful getaway off the grid. We stayed in cozy little cabins heated by wood stoves. In the evening, we sat under blankets by the fire playing board games, reading and drinking tea. Before retreating to my cabin, I gazed at the starry night sky filled with millions of stars including the stunning Pleiades.
The next morning, we went for an early hike accompanied by the rangers. The Aberdare National Park is home to plenty of wildlife, antelopes, zebras, forest elephants and bongo lions who were transferred to the Park to save them from extinction. I would recommend wearing waterproof boots to cross the marshland. We saw rolling green hills, volcanic formations called the Dragon Teeth, the twin peaks and the magnificent Rift Valley.
Samburu National Reserve
From the Aberdare National Park, we drove passed Mount Kenya to the Samburu National Reserve. As the sun set and the weaver birds settled into their nests, we were welcomed by majestic elephants and beautiful giraffes. Upon arrival at the Elephant Watch Camp on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, we were warmly greeted by Saba Douglas Hamilton the conservationist daughter of Iaian and Oria. We retreated to our cosy tents with all the comforts of home. We enjoyed a peaceful sleep surrounded by the many sounds of the bush.
The next morning, we woke up to a delicious early breakfast and headed out into the wild guided by Samburu warriors. The Samburu have lived and walked among wildlife for hundreds of years. They have a deep understanding and a profound respect for nature. We started the day with a long walk by the river bank watching crocodiles basking in the sun.
We were then driven in an open air jeep to observe massive herds of elephants bathing in the river and playing in the mud. We listened to them trumpet into the distance. They were so proud and dignified. We were filled with awe. We reflected on how beautiful they were protected in their natural habitat. We were saddened to learn about the threats these elephants face from conflict with growing human populations and poaching for illegal ivory. Frank Pope, a well-known zoologist and the CEO of Save the Elephants, told us about their challenges and their impressive conservation efforts leveraging GPS technology, advanced tracking systems, local partnerships, aerial surveillance, advocacy and even ecotourism and online campaigns to raise awareness.
As we drove through the savannah, we noticed ostriches, zebras, baboons and giraffes. Just before returning to camp, our guides followed tracks invisible to the naked eye. Under the thorn trees and hidden from view, we met a pride of lions and their cubs napping in the shade. We kept our distance and admired the lions with respect.
The next day, just after dawn, our guides woke us again to track a leopard after its morning kill. After waiting in silence, we were rewarded for our patience, when the leopard jumped from a tree and walked gracefully right past us. That afternoon, I was invited by the Samburu to their village.
Like the elephants who walk beside them, the Samburu tribe is a matriarchal society that respects their elders, especially their women. They presented me with the traditional Samburu bead necklace and welcomed me inside their homes.
That night, to celebrate the New Year, we walked through the river onto a sandbank lit by a massive bonfire. We danced around the fire into the night and chanted with the Samburu warriors. Filled with gratitude and joy, we gazed at the stars and reflected on the beauty and magic that we had witnessed.
“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
Words and Images by Nilofar Bawa