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January 7th 2014
Published: January 28th 2014
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For my third trip to Africa, I decided it was time to see some big animals up close and personal in the wild. My British friend Caroline and I settled on a trip to Kenya; in part, this was because I had a friend who had lived in Kenya, and had great information on the ready for where to go, what to do, and who to contact. Two weeks is never long enough, but our "budget" trip ended up costing a fortune, although it was indeed worth every shilling.

We flew direct from Dubai to Nairobi, and, with the help of a Christmas deal on, got a "cheap" room at the Hilton hotel in a slightly less dodgy area of town. The building looked straight out of the 70s. The AstroTurf hallways and furnishings made even more 70s. When we asked if it was safe to walk around the block at 7 pm, the receptionist's eyes widened, and he stared at us in shock, then laughed nervously. "No, definitely not. No." We opted to head to at least stand on the steps outside and assess the situation. The guard looked anxious.

"Where can we go if we want
Masai Mara GiraffesMasai Mara GiraffesMasai Mara Giraffes

They ARE real!
to walk a little?" we asked, hopeful.

The guard scratched his head. "You want to walk? No, not a good idea. Here it's dangerous. Better you go inside. Yes, better you go inside."

Undeterred, we did walk around the block (let me be clear: we were within only a few yards of the hotel, and there were plenty of people and lights). Just in front of our hotel there was a concert happening. We wandered over; people were watching the DJ and dancing, and from the signs and box on stage, it was a charity event raising money for both AIDS and women's hygiene products. Interesting combination.

After a few minutes of watching and bopping, Caz turned to me. "What have you noticed about this place so far?"

"We're the only foreigners. You're the only blonde."

"What else?"

I surveyed the park. "We're the only women." Yup, there were no women whatsoever. Not even cruising on the sidewalk. I started feeling uneasy. Caz and I decided to walk the few hundred meters back to the hotel, but were accompanied this time by a young man who really wanted to "be friend." We politely brushed him off and hightailed it back to the hotel like skittish cats. I'm sure we probably overreacted, but the receptionist's reaction, the guards reaction, and then the realization of the absence of women all left their impression. We were relieved to have a beer in the lobby and then head for an early bedtime.

The next day we met Mohammed, the guy recommended to me (by a friend who had lived in Kenya for two years) for independent safari trips. If you're looking for an independent budget safari, Mohammed is a great, reliable way to do it. His website has more information:

He sent us off with Big John (driver/safari guide) and Little John (cook) on our 6 hour journey to the Masai Mara. We drove through the mountains into the Rift Valley, winding our way into the savannah. About an hour outside the gate, we saw our first giraffes.

"Pull over, please! Giraffes!" We pull over.

"Sandi, you idiot, they're fake."

I groan and slap my forehead. "I can't believe I...Caz, you're the idiot! Look, they're moving!"

The Johns in the front seat enjoyed a good laugh at our expense.

Once we arrived at our bungalow (a sparse room with thatched roof and some manner of rat running through the ceiling all day and night), we started to head out for our first glimpse of the Mara. As we pulled out, we were overpowered by a horrible stench...the stench of death. Okay, I'm being a bit dramatic, but I'm not kidding--it turns out that in the last month, there was a serious drought that brought the buffalo back from Tanzania at a time they shouldn't have, and they brought with them hoof and mouth disease. Many of the domestic cattle died, and their corpses are rotting in the heat all across the Masai land and throughout the first thousand meters or so of the Mara (where the cattle are brought to graze at night). We must have seen--not to mention smelled--at least 200 dead carcasses that first day alone. It was sad to see, and also shocking. Some of the fresher corpses weren't for the faint of heart. There were a few moments where we weren't sure we were going to keep our meals down.

Anyway, aside from the dead things, the Mara is--of course--FULL of living things. In

Like mother, like daughter
our three-day excursion there, we saw giraffes, elephant, hyena, antelope and all manner of antelope-types, a leopard eating a vulture, a cheetah, lions, lions hunting warthog, hungry hungry hippos (shout out!), and even the elusive black rhino--which no one had seen for four months, and which we were told was so shy we would only see it in the bush if we saw it at all...well, like every animal listed here, it walked within 5 meters of our car, and we got a good long look at it.

Once we finished that safari (spending one afternoon in the pouring rain touring the Masai dilapidated English elementary school, and another in a Masai village), we headed toward Lake Naivasha to chill out for a couple of days. We stayed at a place called Camp Carnelley's, which has camping spots and bandas (converted campers). It was clean, and had a restaurant with good food, but it got really cold there at night. We took an early morning boat tour to see the lake and watch some hippos (interesting to see them from a different angle than the one we saw in the Mara), then rented bikes and biked through the Hell's

Pitstop in the Mara
Gate game park to the canyon. We road alongside zebras, buffalo, antelopes, and warthogs, down dusty roads and pretty bluffs. The canyon was a buzzing, busy place; you have to hire a guide to take you around, but we opted for an unofficial one because he was cheaper. He was in flip flops and about 20 years old. We literally had to slide down rock and walk in the basin of the canyon (at that point dry), with warning signs about flash floods everywhere. Anyway, we made it (I may have had several small panics about heights and slippery ledges), and road back in the wicked heat...all in all 26 kilometers of biking and a couple of walking. We slept well that night.

After viewing flamingos and the massive white rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park, we left the Naivasha area and headed to the coast, to Watamu, a small community that is centered around the Malindi Marine park (and possibly the Watamu Marine park. I feel like the two are one in the same, but I'm probably wrong). We were there for four days of diving. The diving was average (low visibility, unfortunately, but some pretty coral, and we saw three octopus all in the process of colour/texture changes), but the town was neat. There are a lot of expats who have set up shop there (literally), and the majority are Italians, so there is amazing Italian food and gelato all over the place. There was a good vibe in general in Watamu. On our last night, we went to the local "disco" (Come Back Bar) and made friends with a Masai Amboselli in his full traditional dress. I bought him a beer and we ended up dancing together all night. He was really nice--his nickname was Lemon, but he mostly only spoke Swahili, his own language, and Italian, so I didn't find out much else.

From Watamu, we went to Tsavo East National Park, to Sarova Salt Lick lodge. It was the splurge of our trip, and it was stunning. The lodge is situated around a watering hole, and the look of it has a weird Hobbit-Harry Potter feel to it. Elephants, buffalo, vultures, and baboons take turns drinking throughout the day, and you're right there, watching it all. The park itself is quite pretty landscape-wise (and at certain times you can see Mount Kilimanjaro), but there aren't a lot of animals to be seen (aside from the hundreds of elephants we saw, all congregated together); we did, however, get to see two lions mating about 3 meters directly in front of us. It almost seemed like they were putting on a show!

Our last stretch was one day in Mombasa before an eternity at the Nairobi airport waiting for our connection back to Dubai. Mombasa had an interesting vibe to it, seeing as there were so many Kenyans of so many diverse backgrounds--I guess for some reason I hadn't really expected such an eclectic mix of people. It's because of the history and its location along the was unique. Good photograph opportunities.

There are plenty of stories I'll keep to myself from this trip (we made a list of 100 things we wanted to remember)--but those are a few of the highlights!

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