Just Back From

Just Back From: Kenya

When I want to conjure my safari in Kenya, it is the night sounds I remember. Yes, we saw five lions cubs scrambling over each other on the Mara plains, elephants wading through the rich green grasses and shimmering blue water of the Amboseli marsh, hundreds of flamingos silhouetted in the afternoon light, and even rhinos from a helicopter as we traversed the colorful hills of Laikipia. But it was waking up in my tent at Finch Hattons just before dawn to the sound bath of dozens of southern masked weaver birds, all gathered in a fever tree outside my tent, that I always go back to: The tapestry of music as they flitted and swooped, the richness and harmony that washes over you and into you.

Each landscape has its own nighttime melody, and when you are under canvas or thatch, you hear everything. There is always an underlying rhythm—at Segera in Laikipia, the thrum of frogs, at Ol Donyo in the Chyulu Hills, the chirp of cicadas so loud that it hurt your ears to walk between the bushes at night. Layered atop are distinct calls and the punctuation of activities that send your imagination galloping: soft footsteps, a faint rustle, a splash. Then a predator loudly announcing itself, shooting a primal frisson of fear through your body. Hyenas give the long low tone of a foghorn that lifts at the end into a whoop. The lion roar is a heavy, guttural, intense vibration that sounds like exertion, like lifting something extremely heavy.

Swaddled in sound, rocked by the lullaby of the bush, you feel for a time that you are part of the fabric of all living things. You are pulled back into a state of belonging with the natural world, once again part of the conversation of the wilderness. You are also fully present and alert to everything, following the trail of every sound. As my fellow traveler South African photographer Sean Gibson put it, “I like that a hippo could be right on the other side of the canvas and I can hear it. I love the excitement of feeling that I’m laying my head somewhere totally different and maybe a bit dangerous.”
This extends to the days, too. The Maasai Mara, on Kenya’s southern border, has the highest concentration of big game in the world. Going there is like living in a small rural town your whole life and suddenly visiting Manhattan. There’s so much going on, so much action, variety, drama and majesty to watch with total absorption.

Our ten-day itinerary started in the south near the Tanzania border at Mara Expedition and Mara Plains, two Great Plains camps with exceptional game-viewing. Owned by National Geographic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, the Great Plains camps have nostalgic furnishings and walls adorned with their gorgeous photography, blown up to enormous size—so it is like staying at a photo gallery.

We then went northeast to the mountains of Laikipia, where we stayed at Segera, one of the most spectacular lodges on the African continent. Owned by former Puma CEO and Zeitz MOCAA founder Jochen Zeitz and set on 50,000 private acres, it is a passion project that reflects a strong personal vision. Food is farm-to-table, much of it grown on-site, and Zeitz’s impressive art collection surrounds you. A highlight was going out for a morning bush walk with the anti-poaching team. We got to meet East Africa’s first all-female team of rangers, including the charismatic Mercy, who was also Segera’s first female guide.

After Segera, we went to Ol Donyo, another Great Plains camp, the only lodge on 275,000 private, Maasai-owned acres near the Chyulu Hills. The landscape is iconic, with endless fields of tawny grasses, roamed by zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and cheetahs, ringed by a cluster of blue mountains, with Kilimanjaro looming above it all.

Then a stop at Finch Hattons, near Tsavo, a magical lodge with so much personality and charm that I didn’t want to leave even for game drives. We ended with a few nights at the brand-new Angama Amboseli, from which we got to visit another iconic landscape: Amboseli National Park. Here were marshes, lakes, vivid greens and blues, flamingos, egrets and elephants, all with the backdrop of acacias and, again, Kilimanjaro.

Our itinerary was such a good mix of activities and adventures, I would be hard-pressed to want to change anything, except to add more time here and there. Every night we were under canvas or thatch. Every lodge had soul and personality and managed to balance ample comforts with wilderness immersion.

A highlight of our trip was going to Reteti, a sanctuary for orphaned baby elephants in Northern Kenya. We got to go into the ring with them while the Samburu handlers were feeding them, chanting and singing to call and soothe them. The baby elephants are hairy and highly emotional, with clear personalities, loyalties, rivalries and friendships. And at Finch Hattons, we did a fun Olympics-style competition with a group of Maasai warriors at sundown, including archery and a ring toss, while laughing hysterically.

The people were incredible. At Ol Donyo, our group was completely taken by our guides Jackson, a wise old soul whose insights on game carried over into life advice, and the hilarious Isaac, whom we referred to as The Legend. (Isaac cemented this lofty status for good when he rescued one of our group's iPhones from the middle of the plains, after it had flown out of her saddlebag while riding.)

Ol Donyo’s equestrian manager Laura Hutchinson, an impeccably self-possessed 24-year-old, had us riveted at cocktails with tales of facing down a charging lion while she was on horseback. “You can’t break eye contact,” she cheerfully explained. “You have to charge back and not show fear.” (As our group liked to say, “Only food runs.”)

Similarly, the staff at Segera was exceptional. The masseuse Roseann doled out such wise words that she had one of our group in grateful tears. Meanwhile, the food at Angama Amboseli was so good that we had the entire kitchen staff come out so that we could cheer for them and praise specific dishes. We needed to know who made the coconut-crusted fish tacos, the insanely good oatmeal cookies, and the tangy, fresh pomegranate and arugula salad. A party of eight who liked to taste as much as possible, our standard move was to say, “We’ll take two of everything on the menu.”

Back when I first went to South Africa in 2011, I thought safari was something that you did once: you saw the big game and checked a box, and then you were on to other experiences. Now, having also been to Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, I understand that spending time in the bush is something to be done multiple times, in multiple ways—every year or two, if you can—and that big game is only the start of it, the thrill that draws you in. You come for the lions and stay for the southern masked weavers. You stay for reconnection with the natural world, that sense of homecoming that is not specific to a place but to the universe. Once you have felt that, you never want to feel any other way, and you begin to dream of how soon you can return to the bush. The joke at Indagare is that once you go on your first safari, your bucket list is suddenly all safari destinations: Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, South Africa. I will be back soon, but until then, I have a recording of the birds at Finch Hattons that I can play and remember.

Contact your Indagare Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a trip to Kenya, with stays at these amazing properties and more.  Plus: Click here to learn more about the Indagare Safari experience.

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