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Tuesday, 30 June 2009 20:00

Kenya’s Unending Big Five Appeal

Written by  Susan McKee
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Elephants, black rhinoceros, leopards, lions and cape buffalo are the “big five” of trophy hunters heading on safari in Africa, but not because they’re the largest animals. These mammals have always been considered the most dangerous to humans wandering the vast savannahs of Kenya.
Although today’s hunters stalk game for photographs, not taxidermy opportunities, the “big five” still draw travelers to Kenya. There is, however, much more to a trip to this East African country than animals – which, truth be told, are easier to see, up close and personal, in an American zoo.

Let’s start in Nairobi, the country’s bustling capital city and location of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It’s not an ancient site, and thus isn’t historically significant for any particular Kenyan tribe (and that’s probably a good thing).
Established a century ago at Mile 327 of the East African Railway Line heading inland from Mombasa, Nairobi was merely the site where the British colonial engineers paused to deal with the challenges of building the tracks to climb the mountains further inland (the railway extends to Kampala, Uganda).

High Quality Crafts
A leafy neighborhood in this city of more than three million is named Karen, after the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen, who wrote (among other works) “Out of Africa” about her time in Kenya using the pen name Karen Blixen. She lived there from 1914 to 1931, and her house is now a museum. An obviously well-to-do section (the large houses and expansive gardens are surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and broken glass), here (and in nearby Langata) is where you’ll find the best art and crafts in Nairobi.
Utamaduni Craft Centre (www.utamaduni.com) is located in a two-story Kikuyu-style house. Inside, there are 18 separately-owned shops selling wares made by craftsmen from across the country. Founded in 1991 by Richard Leakey, the Kenyan-born paleontologist, it was set up to benefit not only the craftspeople whose work is sold there, but also local charities. You’ll find everything from the sublime (an antique silver necklace) to the ridiculous (A leopard-print toilet seat, anyone?). I spent an hour browsing the offerings and ended up taking home a magnificent beaded mask.
Kazuri Beads (www.kazuri.com) began more than 30 years ago, when Susan Wood (the Africa-born daughter of English missionaries) set up a small bead-making business behind her home in Nairobi. Kazuri, a Swahili word for “small and beautiful” now employs about 100 women to produce a wide range of hand-made, hand-painted ceramic jewelry and household items in the factory located on land once owned by Karen Blixen. Take a tour, then browse the shop. Although the pottery and jewelry are sold in 30 countries, this is the only place you’ll see everything they make.

Closer Encounters in the Wild
Not into handcrafts? In Nairobi, you can get up close and personal with animals – something definitely not recommended out on safari on the savannah. The David Sheldrick elephant orphanage (www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org) is a unique facility. Watch your timing, because it’s open to visitors only from 11 a.m. until noon. The nonprofit organization rescues orphaned baby elephants, raising them until they are ready to return to the wild.
Not far from the elephant orphanage is the Giraffe Center (www.giraffecenter.org), open every day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. If you’ve never been licked by a foot-long tongue, this is the place. Climb up onto the viewing platform, buy some peanut pellets and get some giraffe love. It’s a non-profit project run by African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya to save the endangered Rothschild giraffes.
But, your clients want to see the wildlife in its natural habitat. There are two general kinds of tours: the first explores the vast government game preserves, where wildlife roams unfettered, attracting tourists by the busload. Of course, that’s the problem – one van driver spots a lion, and suddenly fifteen more vehicles will converge on the spot.
The second way is to book with a company working in one or more of the privately-owned game preserves. Here, there are no government-imposed rules forbidding driving off the marked roads or looking for game after dark. Here, safaris sometimes start before dawn. At sundown, you can go back out on the savannah to enjoy cocktails before heading back to camp, using a spotlight on the van to look for the animals that come out only after dark.
Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and each appeals to a different category of tourist. The first is, of course, more controlled and “safe.” Accommodations are booked at resorts with swimming pools, with three-star chefs preparing lavish buffets and reliable Internet access. There are choices of activities for each day. Professional staff takes care of guests’ needs and make sure that the wildlife stays outside the complex.
A package like this, such as the one I took with Travel Wild East Africa, is perfect for the first-time visitor or someone skittish about traveling in the Third World.
The second, such as my tour with Gamewatchers Safaris, is almost as luxurious, but the accommodations are tents (albeit with indoor plumbing). Electricity – and hot water – are generated by solar power (caution: the showers are short). Neither the meals nor the activities offer choices, because the number of guests is kept purposefully small.
Visitors are, however, much closer to the action. Animals roam through the campsites at night. The native staff mingles with the guests, giving a glimpse into the changing Kenyan tribal life.
The Amboseli Porini Camp is located in the Selenkay Conservancy, near Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania. The region, often lush and green due to the water runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro, also sustains periods of drought. The native Masai entered into an agreement with the Selenkay Conservancy to limit cattle grazing, knowing that wildlife is better adapted to survival in such conditions.
In return, the conservancy built waterholes for the livestock and primary schools for the Selenkay Group Ranch residents. Of the 183,000 acres in the ranch (communally owned by the Masai), about 12,400 are set aside for the conservancy area.
Further north, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya, another wildlife restoration project is underway. This area of the country used to be overgrazed by cattle production, and periodic drought cut into this previously profitable business. About 25 years ago, the conservancy started with about 19,000 acres with the goal of restoring wildlife to the area. The area has been expanded over the years. Now, its 75,000 acres are completely enclosed (the fencing electrified by solar power) -- except for the wildlife corridors, which are guarded 24 hours a day to keep out poachers. (It’s on a major migration route.)
Ol Pejeta also has some unique areas within its fences, including the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa protecting about 75 of the endangered species. I stayed in the Porini Rhino Camp here. In the East African language of Swahili, “porini” means bush – as in land remote from urban areas covered with dense vegetation.
Everybody wants to see the enormous Masai Mara Game Preserve in Kenya’s southwest, even if it isn’t the right time for the migration of an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra across the Mara River.
On my first trip, I stayed at the Mara Serena Resort. High on a bluff, it offers a 360-degree view of the vast grassland. Our twice-daily trips into the plains flushed out many varieties of animals, including baboon, topi, elephant, jackal and giraffe.
One morning, the resort served us breakfast at river’s edge. An armed guard led us to a creek nearby, pointing out a crocodile not more than 20 feet away. It opened its eyes in a chilling gaze, seemingly contemplating the effort versus the reward of lunging toward us, and thankfully made the decision for inactivity.
On my second, I stayed at the Mara Porini Camp in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, adjacent to the game preserve that borders Tanzania’s Serengeti. The land is leased from the Olempusia group ranch, providing its Masai owners with an opportunity to profit from tourism.
Gamewatchers Safaris was founded in 1989 by Jake Grieves-Cook, who’s been involved in Kenya’s tourism industry for more than three decades. A descendant of British settlers, he knew that wildlife in Kenya would be hunted out of existence if there were no way for the people to benefit from it. Cooperative ecotourism, he discovered, was a way to preserve the ecosystem.
Although Kenya is located on the equator, the weather on safari wasn’t tropical because of the altitude. Nairobi, for example, is almost as high as Denver. Sunscreen is a must, as is a hat and mosquito repellent. Anti-malaria pills are highly recommended (I took Malarone on both my trips to Kenya, but check with your doctor).

Pre-Departure Details and Dining
Small planes are the fastest way to get around in a country with mostly substandard roads. You’ll be buying airplane tickets for your clients to travel between game preserves.
If your clients’ medical insurance doesn’t cover them overseas, suggest purchasing a policy for the trip. Another good idea is signing up for a tourist membership in the Flying Doctor Service (www.amref.org/flying-doctors/). With a control center open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, the Flying Doctor Service provides a range of services, including evacuation by air ambulance, in medical emergencies. Cost per person for 14 days’ coverage is from $15 to $30, depending how far you’ll be traveling from Nairobi.
A word about the unrest in Kenya: it doesn’t affect tourists. The dispute is tribal, mainly between the Luo and Kikuyu tribes, and hasn’t spilled over into the game preserves. If your clients stay out of the Rift Valley and avoid the dicey sections of Nairobi, they should see few signs of any lingering crisis, and they won’t be in any danger except the usual pickpockets, common to any area of the world.
Americans going to Kenya need visas, but this is a straight-forward transaction easily taken care of at the airport in Nairobi upon arrival. Download and print out the visa form from the website of the Embassy of Kenya (www.kenyaembassy.com/visa.html) for each client, who also needs exactly $50 in U.S. dollars per visa.
The currency used in Kenya is the Kenyan shilling (at the time of this writing, $1 was worth about 78 KES). There are ATMs in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and alongside branches of major banks in most of the market towns in the country (including, of course, Nairobi).
Locally owned hotels that meet Western standards include those in the Serena chain. I’ve stayed in the Serena Mountain Lodge, Mara Serena Lodge and Samburu Serena Lodge. Visit www.serenahotels.com
In Nairobi, there’s also a Serena Hotel, but another popular choice for tourists in the capital is the Norfolk Hotel, part of the Fairmont chain (www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel). In the Karen district, consider the small but elegant House of Waine. Visit www.houseofwaine.co.ke).
I’m especially fond of two restaurants in Nairobi. The “don’t miss” spot is Carnivore, certainly the most famous eatery in Africa. Needless to say, meat is the main attraction. It’s all-you-can-eat with a twist: carvers roam the dining room offering slices of the expected (beef, lamb, chicken, pork) and the exotic (camel, crocodile, and more).
More sedate is Talisman, in the Karen district. Set in a former colonial bungalow it has a certain blowsy charm and excellent Kenyan cuisine – a mélange of British, Swahili and Indian. Suggest that your clients order the feta and coriander samosas as appetizers.
For more information on Gamewatchers Safaris and its Porini Camps (www.porini.com). The North American Representative is Kate Daniel. Call 877-710-3014; E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; www.travel-wild.com
For more information on Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourist Board, www.MagicalKenya.com

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