Kenya: Hakuna Matata and Me

From mango-stealing monkeys and wildlife safaris to the welcoming Maasai and Samburu people, Kenya left an impression that I’ll never forget.

Safari in Kenya - Elephants in Kenya. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
Elephants in Kenya. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

Like many African itineraries, our trip was designed as part game park safari and part beach resort. Our trip ended at the beach – but either way would work well. Flying into Kenya’s capitol city of Nairobi, most opt, as we did, to spend one day there visiting the local Elephant Orphanage and the Rothschild Giraffe Sanctuary.

The next day, we were on a bush plane (DON’T forget your motion sickness meds if you even THINK that might be a problem – take it from ME.) Off we were to Samburu Intrepids, the Heritage game park lodge. At Samburu, we slept in large constructed tents which were very comfortable, cozy and well-equipped, in good beds surrounded by romantic mosquito netting. It was even more romantic since I never had one mosquito bite in or out of the tents during the whole trip.

My cabin looked right onto the gently flowing river, in front of which mischievous, determined little black-faced monkeys scampered up and down trees and watched me intently, hoping to get inside of my tent. The staff told me they’ve caught monkeys inside of the tents (when guests accidentally leave them unzipped) trying to apply lipstick and attempting to use cameras!

Travel in Kenya: African Safari

No trip to Kenya would be complete without safari time. Game-viewing jeep tours with skilled African safari guides are typically offered two or three times a day at the game parks, always at about 6:30 a.m. sometimes again at 10:30 and last at 3:30. The rides are in incredibly sturdy 6-7-passenger Land Rovers or others of the type, and they get through terrain that is the kind I was sure we’d be stuck in – but I was wrong.

Rather like a bucking bronco ride at a wild west park, we’d set out in peaceful hunt of the so-called Samburu Special Five – Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches, long-necked gerenuk antelope and Beisa oryx along with elephants, lions, leopards and others. It isn’t difficult – we spotted plenty on every ride, although some animals, such as zebras, eluded us throughout the entire trip.

Giraffe in Kenya. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas
Giraffe in Kenya. Photo by Irene Middleman Thomas

There’s nothing quite like seeing giraffes’ graceful forms far off in the distance – and knowing they are wild. One time, seeing about six species all together – ostriches, wart hogs, Thompson gazelles, Topi antelope, dik diks – it reminded me of the opening scene of The Lion King. It was something I’d certainly never seen at my local zoo.

As thrilling as seeing the wild animals are the cultures of eastern Africa. I was fascinated by the Maasai and Samburu peoples living in their ancient lifestyles of dung huts and herding cattle, dressed in what must be the most colorful and flashy costumes I’ve ever seen. No number of beaded necklaces and bracelets is too much – and somehow, it works!

The guides from the lodges arrange visits to a nearby village, and can usually accommodate a primary school visit as well. The villagers have adapted to tourism while keeping their culture virtually intact (although you might see a wristwatch or cell phone peeking out of a pocket.)

They invite visitors to enter a hut and hear a short talk about their lifestyle, while the women outside lay out their handicrafts for sale. Everything is priced for bargaining – that’s the norm. There are always a few villagers who speak enough English to translate for the rest, and usually, a dance or song will be performed to honor visitors as well.

I sometimes tired of the game drives, what with the pot holes and getting tossed about, so on one afternoon, I decided to just stay at the camp to sit by the river and see who or what might come by. To my delight, I pulled over a deck chair and saw a large gray rock that looked too smooth and different from the others to be just a rock.

It was inside of a protected small eddy that looked quite like the whirling waters of a Jacuzzi. In fact, it was an enormous hippo – just a few yards away from me, and basically right beyond my own tent’s ‘back yard.’ I sat there for about three hours, watching it play ‘peek-a-boo’ (or so it seemed) just lifting its eyes and forehead out of the water every few moments, then once in a while giving me a good rear shot.

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