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Into Africa: A thrilling two stop exploration of Kenya’s abundant wildlife

Into Africa: A thrilling two stop exploration of Kenya’s abundant wildlife

STORY: Giannina Smith Bedford

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In my 30 years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to more places than most people can claim in a lifetime. But I’d never been to Africa. I always wondered about the world’s second largest continent the people, the wildlife and the culture so different from my own. When the opportunity arose to explore a small part of this vast land with a trip to Kenya, I jumped at the chance. As I held my boarding pass with its final destination of Nairobi, butterflies gathered in my stomach. This bucket list dream was finally coming true.

CHAPTER 1: Amboseli

After a lengthy flight across the globe (17 grueling hours in the air) I arrived at Nairobi’s elegant Villa Rosa Kempinski, an ornate pink hotel that opened in 2013, and met the small group of journalists I’d be adventuring with. It was a quick overnight at the city center lodgings, which resemble a luxurious fortress with a high security gate and metal detector at the front entrance not a rare sight for Kenya’s capital. The next day started with a 6:30 a.m. departure to Wilson Airport to catch a Safari link flight to Amboseli National Park near the Kenya Tanzania border, the first stop. After a one hour flight, the 12 seat puddle jumper descended to the dusty airstrip. I gasped at the view of zebras, gazelles and wildebeests prancing across the savannah grassland something I didn’t expect to see before the wheels of the plane even touched the ground. I took a closer look at the welcome party during the ride in the open air Land Rover to Satao Elerai Camp. At one point, our guide had to stop to let a group of about 10 slowly strolling elephants cross the road in front of the vehicle. An incredible sight: so different from my typical rush hour.


The next two days in Amboseli National Park were filled with moments like this. Each morning started with coffee and biscuits brought to my tent before breakfast (heavenly) and game drives to see elephants, giraffes, gazelles, zebras, ostriches, hippos and even wildebeests many stragglers from the great wildebeest migration, one of the Natural Wonders of the World. From the Amboseli’s elevated Observation Hill, where we stopped for lunch one day, you could see nearly the entire animal kingdom in one breathtaking view, as well as the delineation of the park’s ecosystems from swamps to savannah.


When not out on safari, I relaxed on the porch of my thatched roof tent taking in striking views of Mount Kilimanjaro, and swimming in the camp’s pool while listening to elephants drinking at a nearby watering hole. Evenings were filled with leisurely dinners and fireside “sundowners” in the bush where a Maasai tribesman (from the seminomadic ethnic group that inhabits the area) kept the wildlife at bay as we socialized and sipped traditional Dawa cocktails a strong concoction of vodka, lime juice and honey while watching the sun set behind acacia trees.

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CHAPTER 2: Maasai Mara

While Amboseli National Park is known for its herds of elephants, Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwest Kenya is the place to see the “Big Five,” including the head honchos themselves: lions. We started our adventuring through its 580 square miles as soon as we got off the plane. Our gregarious Maasai guide and driver, Martin, confidently navigated the park’s bumpy, rocky terrain as he told us about his exciting morning, which included a lion chase through Rekero Camp, our destination. As our group became engrossed in the story, Martin used his expert tracking knowledge to drive right up to three lionesses napping under a tree. We were astounded by the sight of the majestic creatures just 15 to 20 feet away. Although I’d seen lions in zoos before, nothing compared to seeing them in their natural habitat. I was so awestruck, I almost forgot to get out my camera. Martin assured us there would be plenty more cats to come. As if this wasn’t enough arrival excitement, the remaining drive took us past a hippo carcass that had been mangled by these very cats not the most appealing sight, but a memorable one for sure.

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We arrived at Rekero Camp to the cheerful greetings of the camp managers and Maasai staff. Situated on the banks of the Talek River and veiled in vegetation, Rekero caters to just 20 guests in nine luxurious tents adorned in wood furnishings and local crafts and textiles. The well appointed accommodations may lack running water, but they are outfitted with decorative glass bottles of H2O for drinking and “bush style” bucket showers that are filled with perfectly warmed water upon request. A true “glamping” experience, the camp is ideal for guests looking to step just a little out of their comfort zone, but remain completely pampered. Thanks to the riverside breakfasts and lunches, delicious afternoon teas with homemade cake and the four course candlelit group dinners in the mess hall, after just 24 hours, the camp felt like home.


Outside camp, we took long game drives through the plains to spot the residents of the reserve. And spot them we did. From a lone male lion and a group of three young cheetahs lounging lazily under a tree to intimidating buffalo, the wildlife was mind-blowing. We continued to come across elephants, giraffes, zebras and wildebeests at every turn and even spotted a huge crocodile and a noisy group of hippos during a riverside sundowner.


And the close animal encounters didn’t end with the game drives. Rekero has no fence or wall (the reason nightfall comes with armed Maasai escorts). In fact, I had an on-foot animal encounter the first day with a large male baboon that walked up from the river to the observation deck, where I remained very still until he decided I wasn’t interesting. At night, you can hear the call of the wild through the canvas tent walls. It proved a soothing bedtime lullaby for most of the trip.

After a short stay at Rekero, we headed to its sister property, Naboisho Camp, located in a private conservancy right outside the borders of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Not for the faint of heart, the “bush walk” (an on-foot hike) was led by Naboisho’s manager, Roelof Schutte, a burly South African who packs an enormous rifle. We’d heard rumors that the previous day’s game walk included a face-to-face encounter with a female lion. Thank goodness we didn’t have a similar occurrence during our two-hour jaunt, but we did come across the vulture covered carcass of a recently devoured gazelle (the reason for the previous evening’s loud cat calls). As we walked in single file and remained completely silent, we listened to galloping wildebeests, gazelles and zebras, and learned about the plants, insects and birds, which are difficult to spot when traversing the plains in a motorized vehicle.


Another exciting perk at Naboisho was the nighttime game drives, where a red light (less intrusive to the animals after sunset) reveals wildlife in their predatory behaviors. After our sundowner in the open plain, we hopped back on the Landcruiser to discover that a pride of eight lions was beginning their evening patrol only a five-minute drive away. We were also lucky enough to see lion cubs hidden in the grass while their mother was out hunting for dinner.

Between bush walks, day and night game drives and fabulous dinners of African cuisine (goat stew, traditional maize bread and sticky toffee pudding were some of my favorites), there was little time to relax in Naboisho’s simple elegance. When I did carve out a few moments, I took pleasure in unwinding in my canvas suite’s lounger and sipping tea on the porch of the main lodge. Naboisho’s eight luxury tents, while similar to Rekero’s, had the extra perks of running water in the sinks and a dreamy outdoor “bucket shower.” As I bathed beneath the Kenyan sky on my last night on safari, I thanked all the lucky stars above for bringing me to Africa, a place everyone should be able to experience at least once in a lifetime. As for me, I’m hoping I can make that at least twice in a lifetime.



Villa Rosa Kempinski:

Satao Elerai Camp:

Rekero Camp:

Naboisho Camp:

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