Notes from the Field: Kenya

Notes from the Field: Kenya
November 2019

A&K Travel Specialist Sunny Gill recently returned from a spectacular safari adventure, spending 10 days exploring the plains of Kenya. From wondrous wildlife encounters to truly breathtaking accommodation, he took the time to share with us his personal trip highlights, and some advice for perspective travellers.

If you haven't been to the destination before, what were you expecting?
This actually wasn’t my first time visiting Kenya, but prior to my first journey I was mostly expecting chaos! Pandemonium in the streets, loads of traffic, markets, lots of colour and noise. I really didn’t expect truly luxurious tourist lodges and the amazing wildlife experience.

What was your first impression?
Both during my first journey to Kenya, and during this particular trip, I was struck by the beautiful landscapes. As well as the stunning scenery, I was struck by the incredibly generous locals and perfect weather. I never assumed that you would see snow-capped mountains against an endless dry plain dotted with rhinos, the more typical safari landscape.  But welcome to Kenya!

What wowed you?
On this trip it had to be one property in particular. I’m very lucky in that I have been on many familiarisation trips, but there is a property that truly blew my mind - Ol Jogi. It’s a private conservancy available for exclusive use, the former residence of one of the richest men in the world, it’s now their holiday home, built from scratch on over 60,000 acres of untouched land. It is the single most remarkable property I have ever been to. It’s simply ridiculous, it has the most eclectic design and looking at it online, the level of luxury can be a bit off-putting, but it wins you over very quickly when you arrive. The property sits perfectly on a hill overlooking lush landscapes broken up by rocky outcrops, the conservation work here is some of the best in Kenya meaning it is truly a wildlife haven. An underground tunnel from the property takes you to a hide in front of a reservoir, meaning you can get metres between giant animals such as elephants and rhinos, in between your courses! The food here is remarkable, as is the service, wildlife viewing, attention to detail and the price point for that matter. The gentleman that built the property was a famous art dealer, so there are lots of interesting pieces all throughout Ol Jogi, very quirky but it's just magic, absolute magic.

The Sanctuary Retreats property I experienced at the beginning of the trip did wow me as well - Sanctuary Makanyane in Madikwe, South Africa. Everything about it was excellent. Location, service, rooms, the amazing food. They catered to the needs of travellers perfectly, if you’re gluten free, if you have allergies, everything they make for the group of guests they can make specially for those with dietary needs. A fantastic experience from start to finish.

Was there something about the destination or the trip that you were not expecting?
It shouldn’t have been a surprise after decades of documentaries, but just the sheer amount of wildlife in the Masai Mara, I was only there for a few days and it was truly remarkable. I’ve been to Africa several times and you do see wildlife, but you have to work for it. In the Masai Mara it seemed the iconic cats were everywhere, and we weren’t even there during the high season.

What was your most memorable experience?
One of my wildlife highlights had to be seeing lion cubs as they came out of their den. At the time, the guide thought it was the first time they had been taken out of the den, so you just saw these cubs, ambling around, playing, falling over, bounding along, it was unbelievable. We watched mum taking them down to a river creek, across and over to a kill, and just followed the cubs for hours. The mum was trying to convince them to eat meat for the first time, but they were just not having any of it. There were hyenas nearby, baboons, jackals, so mum was getting super impatient at the cubs for not focussing on the task at hand, just walking off and playing amongst themselves. She’s trying to eat, and in between she’s just running over, grabbing the cubs from the scruff of the neck, bringing them back, the whole time you can just hear them playing and yelping. It was just amazing to witness such an incredible sight, I never expected to see such little cubs. Very cute!

Was there a person/people you met who transformed your experience?
I would have to say Joseph Koyie, the part-time Maasai, part time Sanctuary Retreats guy at Olonana, he’s a bit of a legend, he has his own lecture on TED Talks. It focusses on the Maasai tradition, where in once upon a time they would hunt lion to prove their manhood and he was part of that generational shift toward ending that tradition. He’s actually killed a lion, and the lion almost killed him, but after that encounter he started doing conservation work and his views have completely changed. Now he goes back to these Maasai villages, and convinces them that it’s more important to respect the animals and killing them certainly isn’t the way to do that. He’s now one of the lead guides at the fantastic Olonana property, and a truly amazing character, he knows a lot of people from the A&K Australia office very well.

Did you learn something special or interesting?
I would have to say that I learnt how people’s views can change so radically, after meeting Joseph Koyie. Rather than being fixed in your views, and holding strongly to your ideology and identity itself, you choose to change how you see things. It can be hard, especially if you are a part of something like the Maasai, steeped in tradition from generation to generation. It was such a big cultural portion of his identity. To grow up with the understanding that “hunting a lion will prove you are a man” and then to actually stand up and say that no, maybe we shouldn’t be doing that, and to risk his reputation by spreading that message, I thought that was quite inspirational.  And his love for his wife and his kids was amazing too.

Did you buy something special to bring home?
Being a huge fan of Latin America and some of the coffee on offer in this part of the world, I was tasked by an old African university friend with broadening my horizons and bringing home the finest Kenyan coffee money could buy. I had a slight appreciation for Ethiopian coffee, but never did I think I would love Kenyan coffee the way I do now. Fortunately, Melbourne is an excellent place for coffee lovers so a Kenyan bean is never too far away!

What advice would you give to a prospective traveller?
Take your time. It is such a huge place, there are so many different landscapes and amazing properties. Kenya is where safari truly started for Abercrombie & Kent, a lot of these hotels are of a very good pedigree, and while you can go through and  see everything in say, 2 nights at each hotel, you don’t necessarily get time to bed in and really appreciate what there is – the stunning natural habitats surrounding these hotels. When most people consider a trip to East Africa, they might want to do Kenya and Tanzania, perhaps 4 days Kenya and 6 days Tanzania. You’ve ‘done’ Kenya, but you’ve missed out on what could’ve been an amazing two or three week standalone trip. And there is SO much to see in Kenya! Obviously places like Masai Mara get all the attention, but there’s plenty more there in the likes of Lakipia for example, Old Jogi is point in proof. Before this trip our team weren’t too familiar with the conservancy as it has only opened to the public recently, and we learnt about it thanks to this trip. It moved our head guide Francis, to tears. He’s been guiding in Africa for over 4 decades with Abercrombie & Kent; he’s never been anywhere that he said had an effect on him the way this property did – after just one day on the conservancy. It shows there are a lot of unique & exciting places in Kenya that we need to keep our eyes open to.