Thomas Bristow discovers the magic of Kenya – from the wildlife of the Maasai Mara bush to the gorgeous beaches of the Indian Ocean
Picture a place where the world’s most incredible animals roam freely and safely. Where you can bed down in the heart of a wild, untamed landscape and sun yourself by the waters of the Indian Ocean.
Well, there’s no need to imagine it. This is Kenya.
After the restrictions of Covid, many people are looking to travel bolder, experience continents, take that ‘big trip’ they had put on hold.
Combining ‘big five’ safaris in the bush with hitting the beach on a twin-centre trip to East Africa is high on any bucket list of travel experiences, and I couldn’t wait to get started on this epic adventure.
After flying into Nairobi, I picked up a transfer (an hour by plane, or a four-hour car journey) to the sweeping plains of the 579 square-mile Maasai Mara National Reserve, which joins with the Serengeti across the border in Tanzania.
Where animal favourites from the Lion King wander at will and the annual great migration of 1.5 million wildebeest, antelope and zebra takes place, this vast protected grassland dotted with flat-topped acacia trees is often called the eighth wonder of the world.
Fiercely protective of its wildlife and landscape, the reserve has been setting standards for sustainability and ecotourism for years.
The carbon-neutral Emboo Camp is one of the pioneers.
Situated in a forest on the Emboo River, it uses a closed loop system where biogas is created from food waste, man-made lagoons filter water and electricity is generated from solar panels.
Along the river bend there is luxury under-canvas accommodation which opens fully for views over the water.
The posh tents come with double beds, cosy throws, handmade furniture crafted from natural materials, and decking.
Sinks are on wooden washstands and rainfall showers are perfectly placed for privacy to wash with a view. There are no fences, which means you can spot hippos in the river, elephants wandering by for a drink and zebras grazing in the twilight.
Even the game drives are eco-friendly, using electric safari vehicles powered by solar panels. They’re silent too, so you hear the sounds of the savannah and can get up close to the animals without disturbing them with noise or exhaust fumes.
Starting early in the morning, when the animals are moving around the most, my fellow campers and I drive out to their favourite hangouts then simply watch, listen and wait.
There are few times in life when you witness something that gives you an entirely new feeling.
Seeing a lion stroll inches from the safari jeep unlocked this for me.
Moments earlier two giraffes had galloped gracefully past. Only then did we realise why – their eyesight to spot the lion is much better than ours.
Two back-to-back wow moments, and they didn’t stop there.
During my three-night stay in the Maasai Mara I managed to see the entire ‘big five’ – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos.
On the daily game drives I also witnessed the glorious sight of cheetahs sunbathing, lion cubs play-fighting and buffalos cleaning themselves in mud baths.
Between the highlights you almost take for granted the dazzle of zebras grazing, warthogs shuffling and hyenas circling. On the way back one evening we bumped into a hippo having dinner.
After all the excitement of the animal encounters, nothing beats a sundowner in the bush. Cold beers taste so much better when a wild giraffe ambles past. Then when the sun has set, you can bask in the glow of the campfire, gaze at the stars and listen to the tales of the Maasai.
Dinner is served in the lounge area by the river or on the decking of your tent. The camp has its own organic vegetable and herb garden all under a monkey-proof cover.
The menu is mainly focused on veggie dishes, with a limited number of meat options to reduce the impact on the environment.
Rhinos are especially rare in the Maasai Mara so the best way to search for them is in the sky.
I took a hot air balloon ride with Governors’ Balloon Safaris, tracking the Mara River. What an extraordinary experience, catching sight of rhinos, hippos and elephants going about their morning routine – and a champagne breakfast is included.
Emboo Camp is a proud member of the Maasai community and guests get the opportunity to learn about the culture, history and life of the Maasai tribe.
I joined a camp excursion to visit the neighbouring Maasai village where tourists are welcomed by the entire community – chief included – who perform traditional songs and dances.
They talk about their day-to-day lives before opening their homes, which are built by women.
If you don’t have the time to go out as far as the Maasai Mara, the Nairobi National Park is around four miles from the capital, so within 20 minutes of touching down at the airport you can be on your first game drive.
With a backdrop of city skyscrapers, its wide open grass plains are home to lions, rhinos, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, buffalos, giraffes and diverse birdlife.
They’re all quite happy where they are and don’t go roaming into the city on a Friday night.
The Nairobi Tented Camp is the only camp within the park and is another true wilderness experience. I stayed in one of the nine safari-style tents, complete with shower and loo. Water is heated over a log fire.
The camp offers game drives and excursions to the Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Centre, as well as the Karen Blixen Museum, the farmhouse once owned by the Danish author who wrote the memoir Out Of Africa.
After three days and nights of action-packed safari, it was time for a change of pace.
The east coast of Kenya shares the same warm, clear waters as the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives – and its beaches are just as fabulous.
Often voted the country’s most beautiful, Diani Beach has white sand, palm trees and beaming blue sea, and it’s just a short plane ride away from the Maasai.
I stayed at The Sands at Nomad, an award-winning boutique resort set within 26 acres of coastal forest.
There are 30 luxurious rooms and seven beach cottages, all unique in design with traditional Swahili carved furniture, air con and private bars. Some even have their own Jacuzzis.
There’s also a spa, a la carte dining, a Thai restaurant and pool bar, perfect for relaxing with a Kenyan Tusker beer. The hotel makes the most of its beach location by offering PADI diving courses, windsurfing, kayaking and deep sea fishing.
The town itself is bustling with nightlife options, with easy-going bars and restaurants. One night I ended up at a disco at a Diani Beach backpackers hostel and shared a dance floor with a couple of Maasai warriors.
I also took a day trip to Wasini Island just down the coast from Diani. This idyllic, car-free island with just 3,000 residents has pockets of white sands and the beautiful waters of the Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park are ideal for snorkelling – I even spotted the odd dolphin.
Combining the very best of Kenya – a wild adventure in the bush and time chilling at the beach – is the perfect pairing for that dream trip you’ve always wanted to make.
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