My African Safari in Kenya DURING COVID-
by Lisa Spiller
While many were online shopping and decorating for the holidays this year, I accepted an extraordinary invitation to go on an African safari for 10 glorious days in December, 2020. This, at a time when many people were hesitant to travel due to the pandemic, and some even asked “Is Africa even open? Why travel to Africa?”
Whether seeking luxury or adventure, breathtaking natural landscapes, unforgettable wildlife encounters, new cultural experiences and insights, extraordinary photographic opportunities, gastronomy, bragging rights, an escape or a connection with humanity, Africa satisfies these innermost yearnings and timelessly beckons one’s return.
For inspiration and insight, I highly recommend watching the movie Out of Africa and reading the autobiographical novel West with the Night by Beryl Markham.
My African safari featured 10 days in Kenya, three remote luxury bush camps in three distinct locations, four bush flights, 12 game viewing drives, 90 minutes on a sunrise balloon ride over the Masai Mara, and one life-affirming day in the company of giggling African children positively impacted by a school, a library and a well.
There are several safari outfitters that I recommend, but I travelled with Micato Safaris, widely known as the gold standard in luxury travel.
With visa, health forms and passport in hand and a duffel bag packed to the 33 lb limit per African bush plane load restrictions, I boarded my flight to JFK for an overnight stay at the TWA Hotel. I wore a mask and face shield and the American Airlines flights were full. I brought my wipes and hand sanitizer, but had confidence in American’s new sanitation protocols, which include hospital-grade electrostatic and UV cleaning techniques between flights.
The TWA hotel is an easy choice, connected to JFK at terminal 4 so one never has to leave the airport. It is designed as a kitschy throwback to the golden age of flying and is modern, sleek as a 747, and surprisingly affordable.
Top tip for travelers: Micato Safaris provides you with bush plane baggage allowance of 33 lb. Packing advice: three pants, two shorts, five T-shirts with one being long sleeved, three jackets, two pairs shoes, pajamas, swimsuit, small backpack, converter and adapter.
If you want to hike, bring one pair of closed toe shoes. If you are not a professional photographer, in addition to using your smartphone for photos, I recommend purchasing a good point and shoot camera with a minimum 25X zoom capability to maximize your photo opportunities. I bought a Canon for $200 at Best Buy and the wildlife pictures I captured could rival those in National Geographic.
Kenya requires a PCR COVID test to be completed with negative results within no more than 96 hours prior to arrival. Tip for travelers: schedule TWO tests. Best to have a back up plan in case test results do not come through in time. I took one test at CVS for free and scheduled one test with a private local medical firm guaranteeing 24-hour turnaround for $250.The CVS test came through within 72 hours.
While many countries are now opening for international travel, every country has specific entry requirements. Current travel requirements are easily navigable with help from your travel advisor including completing online health forms.
Kenya requires an electronic visa and your travel advisor can provide you with the most current vaccination information. Recommended vaccinations for African travel include yellow fever, which one should pursue early, as it is limited in availability.
Kenya requires the following, and I recommend printing every document, as travellers are asked to present these documents upon checking in to the international flight:
- Your COVID-19 negative results
- Kenya Health Form QR code
- Your completed health form for the state through whichyou are connecting
- Your eVisa
Kenya Airways offers direct nonstop flights from JFK to Nairobi. I advise arriving in New York City the day before your flight to ensure you do not miss your international flight. Kenya Airways Dreamliner offers spacious flatbed seats and amenities that include satin lined blankets and pillows that make a 13.5 hour flight surprisingly comfortable. The African flight crew dressed in what looked like hazmat suits, but the warm smiles underneath their masks and earnest, gentle hospitality were unmistakably gracious.
All travelers were required to wear masks the entire flight, except when eating and drinking. We felt very safe and pampered.
Our first full day in Nairobi included a visit to Giraffe Centre, where we fed, petted and kissed the endangered Rothschild giraffes that are being bred and released into the wild. These are the same giraffes that dine at your table through open windows at the iconic Giraffe Manor. It can be seen from the Centre, but if you wish to stay at Giraffe Manor, working with your travel advisor at least 18 months in advance is necessary.
Another must-do in Nairobi is a visit to the home of Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. Watch the movie before you go and you will see that the film was made on-site in her original home in the Karen suburb of Nairobi.
There is no greater anticipation than that of your very first game drive in the Masai Mara. The quick 40 minute bush flight to our destination was a thrill because the plane flies low enough to easily view elephants, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest on open plains.
Masai villages and tribal compounds are distinguishable by their circular boundaries of tall dark sticks, round huts and gated paddies for their cows and goats. Anticipation grows with each animal sighting from the air.
We were greeted on a red dirt runway in the Masai Mara by our safari guide whose name was Kennedy. Kennedy wore a safari uniform, spoke perfect English, has a college education, two daughters, a wife who is a social worker, and he is the Village Chief of his Samburu village of under 300 people.
As Chief, he is the governor of all major concerns in his village and is the final judge of all disputes. When he goes to his village, he dons the traditional village attire which is tribal by all standards, down to the cowhide sandals and sarong.
His villagers dwell in traditional dirt floor homes composed of branches and cow dung. His village does not have running water or electricity. In Kenya, there are only a few villages that have a well. He speaks with authority and punctuates his sentences with an inflection of good humor. We trust immediately that we are in good hands.
On a Micato Safari, your safari guide is a highly trained, skilled professional who stays with you the entire journey. He tracks the animals, educates about each breed and their behavior and, almost imperceptibly, gauges what we want to see, experience, eat and drink. He senses when we are cold, warm, need massages or yoga, a bonfire or a hot shower. He is a master of reading our needs while at the same time, delivering an unforgettable experience.
In the Masai Mara, the vehicles are permitted to go “off road” which affords incredible game viewing up close. Our very first game drive in an open air six passenger Land Rover landed us underneath a towering Acacia tree where a leopard held court with his fresh kill in the branches. Both the leopard and dead warthog dangled above us as we snapped photos and gaped in awe.
The Masai Mara offers wide open plains and big sky, so it is easy to spot the wildlife wandering freely in their natural habitat. We spotted lions, elephants, zebra, cheetah, leopard and giraffe all within the first two hours of landing!
Please follow Lisa’s story in our March issue as she arrives at the first safari camp and her African adventure begins in earnest. Luxurious surroundings, exquisite dining and experiences most people can only dream about lie ahead.
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