My first reaction to Sand River Camp, the first of the three camps on our itinerary, was surprise at how rustic the camp appeared. The primary gathering spot was a canvas tent on a platform in the middle of the bush butting up to the Sand River, marking the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
Once escorted by a rifle-bearing ranger to my tent accommodations, however, I nearly fell over in surprise at my spectacular luxury tented suite! A sumptuous four poster bed was draped with mosquito netting, a rich leather Chesterfield, Hemmingway writing desk and huge private bath and outdoor shower were straight out of a movie set.
I expected Robert Redford to show up right on cue.
We quickly settled into a routine of early morning game drives, long lunches at the safari camp, and late afternoon game drives into dusk, where we were surprised time and time again with astonishing picnic setups in the bush featuring sundowners. Sundowners is “safari-speak” for sunset cocktails al fresco.
After our sundowners, we routinely drove back to camp and were treated to three-course dinners featuring fresh farm-to-table cuisine and outstanding South African wines. Each exquisite meal was served on white linens and china. Wines and spirits were served in cut crystal glass, and service was five-star, personalized to a level where everyone knew our names and our drink of choice.
What can one expect to eat on safari in Kenya? Smoked salmon, wild mushroom soup with truffles, tandoori chicken, grilled lamb, curries, steak, garden salads, fresh local cheeses, chips, African beers, South African wines, top shelf spirits, the most unforgettable chai tea you will ever taste and rich, robust Kenyan coffee.
The lavish surprise sundowner celebrations sometimes included hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, a bonfire, free flowing wine, beer and spirits. On all occasions, I found it fascinating that a Masai warrior was present, watching and protecting us from wild animals, should they approach.
The biggest discovery for me this journey was my unquenchable fascination with African tribal culture and specifically the Masai. A Micato Safari customarily includes a mesmerizing visit to a local Masai village where travelers experience first-hand the Masai culture, including meeting with an elder to learn about their customs and current lifestyles.
On our Micato Safari, due to COVID-19 concerns, we did not visit a village, but a Masai warrior made the journey to our camp and met with our group of six for several hours. The Masai warrior, Darius, wore a sarong and a cape and carried a spear. He was the son of the Chief. He drank orange Fanta out of a bottle with a straw and spoke gently, at a volume just above the wind.
This is what he shared with us: Masai villagers maintain a lifestyle where traditions are honored and passed on from generation to generation. Only a few modern families send their children for education outside of the village. Running water is uncommon. They collect water at the rivers and in cisterns for washing, drinking and cooking.
A family’s wealth is measured by the livestock they own, including cows and goats. Marriages are almost always arranged by the parents at a young age, and a bride’s dowry is negotiated by the parents in terms of livestock and delivered to the groom’s parents on the wedding day.
A Masai warrior can marry as many wives as he can afford. The wives live in separate huts they each must build within the same family compound. The family compound is surrounded by a wall of thorn bushes and a round corral is erected in the center to protect the livestock from wild animals.
It is customary for Masai males 14-16 years to live in the bush with their elders for several months, learning tribal customs and competing in tests of endurance, courage and strength including the hunting of lions. Every young Masai moran (warrior) must spear a lion with a knife in the wild as a rite of passage. The first one to stab the lion is bestowed great honor, and the last to get to the lion is considered a coward.
The Masai carry a long spear or a dagger, not rifles, and they wear the traditional Masai sarong and cape, drink the blood of cows for supernatural strength and courage and compete in jumping and singing performances to demonstrate their prowess and athleticism. While Masai warriors are protectors of people and livestock, the tribal philosophy is to live in harmony with the wild animals.
On one occasion, we were enjoying fireside cocktails under a starlit sky up until a Masai warrior invited us to leave so that a crocodile could lay her eggs where we were conjugating. That very evening, I was escorted after dinner to my luxury tented suite and my warrior escort stopped me with a gentle warning and protective gesture to give the right of way to the python crossing our path.
The highlight of my African Safari was a magical hot air balloon flight over the Masai Mara at dawn followed by a decadent champagne breakfast in the wild. Add the unimaginable perspective of flying low over giraffe, zebra and wildebeest watching them scatter as the flame fires the balloon forward and upwards. This is a magical experience that I highly recommend be purchased at the time one books a safari with their travel advisor. The balloon ride is limited to eight guests and also limited by weather conditions, so to reserve well in advance enhances one’s chances of actualizing the dream.
For the full breadth of experience, it is important to visit several camps in different areas of Africa. I travelled on four bush planes to experience three different safari camps in three distinct areas of Kenya. Each area features unique topography, different climates due to elevation changes, different animal populations, and an interesting variety of safari camps.
For example, in the Masai Mara, because there is a huge population of lions, you will not find rhinos. They are one of the Big Five, so you definitely want to see rhinos!
At Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, there are hundreds of black and white rhinos but less than 25 lions, which is a result of the conservancy’s effort to preserve the rhino population. In Tsavo National Park, there are many monkeys, baboon and ostrich, but you will not find it easy to spot large herds of elephant crossing the vast plains, for instance, because the topography is hilly with lots of low bushes and trees which makes them hard to spot.
Another difference due to location is the climate. The Lewa Conservancy was significantly cooler at night than the Masai Mara due to a higher elevation and proximity to Mount Kenya. A 60 minute bush plane flight from the Masai Mara is Tsavo National Park, where we checked into the glamorous Finch Hattons camp. Finch Hatton was played by Robert Redford in Out of Africa, and was a real-life character who was the original luxury safari guide back in the 1920s.
My tented suite featured a broad outdoor deck with a huge lounging pit, and an enormous crystal chandelier hung over my custom upholstered king bed. A copper tub and dual outdoor shower sprawled across the back of my tent.
After our game drive the next morning, I lounged on my deck, drank Tusker beer and cracked open my journal. A fat hippo lumbered out of the bush and dumped himself into the pond with a big splash.
Monkeys squabbled with each other and avoided making eye contact with me when I stripped and exhaled under my outdoor shower.
Finch Hattons has a spa, yoga platform and two pools. The spa featured a hammam (a steaming bath) and private massageca banas. We took full advantage of these amenities one rainy morning in place of a game drive. The massage was a great way to relieve the achy muscles and soreness from bumpy rides in the safari vehicles.
From Tsavo, we took a 50 minute bush plane flight to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where we checked into yet another vastly different safari camp. Here, I truly was camping. My tent was a tent, and I was transported to my Girl Scout camping days in Wisconsin.
At Lewa, we had the most amazing wildlife encounters, including coming within 20 yards of a black rhino and her newborn; witnessing a jackal stalking a cheetah, and an enormous male lion who showed up for the sunset and stole the show.
Trekking through the wild on camel or horse is an exciting option for safari guests, and an experience that really appealed to me. However, there is a limited number of camels and horses available for safari, and if not reserved far enough in advance, one stands only a slight chance of securing a beast for transportation. We requested this too late.
Hot tip: As soon as you reserve your safari, opt in to these special safari options so that you don’t miss out.
Finally, I urge anyone who is truly interested in the animal encounters and gastronomic surprises to not skip out on any one of the two daily game drives. Each is a unique opportunity to observe animals and their behavior in the wild, and each game drive will offer experiences that can never be repeated.
With COVID-19 looming in the air, travel restrictions continue to evolve daily. During our safari, we learned that travelers transiting through New York would require a negative COVID-19 test. As only travel advisors can do, we arranged to have COVID-19 tests performed by a doctor on a dirt airstrip in the middle of Kenya. Results all came in within 48 hours via email and we were all negative. This, of course was our expectation, because hand sanitizer was distributed like candy at every opportunity, and masks were required 100% of the time.
We travelled in a bubble and all our domestic flights and transportation were private. The private experiences may cost travelers more money, but we found that the added assurance allowed us to travel safely and live well. Our Micato Safari experience was punctuated by a final days pent in Nairobi visiting America Share, the philanthropic arm of Micato Safaris. For every safari sold, Micato Safaris puts one child through school for a year. It is through Micato Safaris and some generous safari guests that a well was built in the middle of a slum neighborhood, followed by a library, a computer lab, a basketball and soccer court, and now a work program for young girls.
It was an eye-opening experience after coming from a luxury escape featuring lavish meals and moments such as we had. Travelling with Micato Safaris will spoil a person. I only realized how spoiled I was when, upon returning home from my safari, the 4:00 hour rolled around, and I asked my baffled husband what he was serving for sundowners. I was disappointed that there was no gift left on my pillow when I turned in for the night. And I climbed into bed and was shocked there was no hot water bottle under the covers warming up the sheets. At least I brought Kenyan coffee beans home to brew a bold cup of Kenyan coffee and dream about my return.
Lisa Spiller is an independent luxury travel advisor with Preferred Travel of Naples. www.PreferredNaples.com For further information and assistance with travel plans, contact Lisa@PreferredNaples.com or 800.523.3716