For some years, a full African safari had been at the top of our most wanted holidays, and it was this year that we finally realised the dream. We had been fortunate to have been on a short weekend safari to Phinda in South Africa, which certainly whetted our appetites. However, enjoyable as it was to track for a limited number of generally reintroduced animals within the reserve, the lure of the East African plains and the potential for huge numbers of wildlife in the open was paramount.
The decision of where to go was simplified on cost grounds. Botswana, Zambia, etc, sounded idyllic, but these destinations are restricting the impact of tourism by charging high prices. Alas, our budget this year was well outside of these destinations, so Kenya it was. Despite this, the experience we had was superb, with good lodging and food, but particularly masses of wildlife, and many species in both good numbers and also close proximity. We chose the package offered by Travel Collection (www.travelcollection.co.uk) which is a budget branch of the well established Kuoni group, and who we used for our trip to Borneo last year. The more than reasonable cost included a varied itinerary of different reserves over 8 nights, as well as 5 nights “chilling out” at a medium class hotel on the beach at Mombassa.
Many hours passed in the quest for varied habitat, although this may have been less in mileage terms, since the roads often led to very slow speeds. This is an unfortunate situation now within Kenya. Some roads were quite reasonable, with one or two short stretches being under construction. However, most roads were at least potholed, and some quite lengthy stretches were so bad that we had to drive on the roadside edges. Having a driver included was a definite boon, since directions and road layouts are poor, with the vehicle itself receiving a hammering. Time of travel between reserves was relatively high, for instance 5 hours from Nairobi to Samburu, and 6 hours from Naivasha to the Masai Mara.
This relatively small reserve (about 100 km2) is 325 Kkm North of Nairobi, and is located on the northern banks of the Ewaso Ngiro river. Buffalo Springs reserve is slightly smaller, and is situated on the opposite side (South) of the river, and we crossed the bridge to the West of Samburu Lodge on the last afternoon game drive to this area. Samburu is generally a dry semi open and arid reserve, with a reasonable amount of mainly thorn bush cover, but little grass. It thus provides larger mammals such as Elephant and (Reticulated) Giraffe with good feeding grounds. However, we had heard that the night after we left, torrential rains closed the reserve, both to outside traffic, and also to game drives within the reserve itself. Additional species which are specialities of the more northerly reserves include Grévy’s Zebra, (Beisa) Gemsbok, and Gerenuk, as well as the Somalian race of Ostrich.
There only seem to be about 5 lodges in Samburu, with Samburu Lodge lying along the northern bank of the river. It is certainly a very comfortable accommodation, with well appointed rooms (and also a tented area), and plenty of character, including reception, lobby and restaurant all being in the open air under tents. This gives the resident Vervet Monkeys a good chance to steal food whenever the guard is lowered. Crocodiles are common along the river, but the management have decided in their dubious wisdom to feed them in a safe area at 6pm each evening for closer views. A tadge too theatrical when surrounded by a wealth of wild show stoppers for my taste. A hunk of meat is also hung out on the opposite bank of the river in the hope of attracting Leopard. The grounds are worth exploring for a small but tasty variety of birds, with the pick including close Red-billed Hornbills, Superb Starlings, and White-browed Sparrow-weavers, as well as regular Nubian Woodpecker and Grey-headed Kingfisher.
It’s difficult to know how to classify Treetops. It is situated in a verdant and wildlife rich area of the Aberdare Mountains, but seems to be unique in its operation. We were only allowed to take a small backpack with overnight essentials, since the rooms are very small with no amenities. The stay is initiated with a visit to the Outspan Hotel, which is the parent hotel of Treetops. The majority of the luggage is tagged and left here, and then the guests are transported by bus in a 30 minute ride to Treetops. The gardens around the Outspan are worth a stroll after lunch, since I saw numerous Sunbirds (Variable and Scarlet-chested), as well as Yellow White-eyes and Tambourine Doves, with an unidentified large Hornbill passing through.
The Treetops experience is based around watching the wildlife visit the two water holes, and this means throughout the night as well as the last couple of hours of daylight. There is a buzzer system in each of the rooms to alert those who are interested to the presence of popular animals (Hyaena, Leopard, Elephant and Black Rhinoceros). There was a constant traffic of animals throughout the visit, with the highlights being a herd of Elephants at midnight, and a Buffalo seeing off a visiting Black Rhinoceros. Some interesting birds were seen around the pools, with the only Black Crakes, Yellow-billed & Red-billed Ducks, and Red-knobbed Coots of the trip. Speke’s Weavers and Greater Blue-eared Glossy-starlings were common, and even regularly visited the bird table within the building.
We did what more or less amounted to a slow drive through along the southern shore of this famous lake. The prime reason for any visit is usually to see the millions of flamingos, and they were certainly abundant when we were there. All the birds that I looked at were Lesser Flamingos, and it was possible to get quite close to them on foot when the bus stopped on the alkaline shore for a short time. Many Black Rhinoceros have been relocated here, but the species that we saw were the more exposed grazing White Rhinoceros. The area was also good for the Rothschild’s subspecies of Giraffe, as well as regular White-fronted Bee-eaters.
After an enjoyable lunch at Lake Nakuru lodge, we stayed for an evening and the following morning at Lake Naivasha Country Club, which is a rather impressive accommodation on the shores of the lake. The grounds themselves are both spacious and of a birding interest. The real wildlife action is at the head of the gardens, where there is a jetty protruding into the lake. The walk to here found African Paradise-flycatchers, Black-headed Orioles, and Long-crested Eagle, but there was even more to be seen along the shoreline of the lake. Waders included Three-banded Plover, ducks Hottentot Teal and Southern Pochard, and 2 magnificent African Fish-eagles were perched on a bare tree alongside the jetty. Pelicans were coming and going constantly, and the multitudes of Great Cormorants contained the odd Long-tailed Cormorant.
Even more enjoyable was the discovery that it is quite safe to walk on the adjoining grazing land adjoining the hotel gardens. Here we walked past Wildebeest, Waterbuck, and saw herds of Zebra and Giraffe in the distance. White-fronted Bee-eaters played around the isolated bushes as we progressed, and we also chanced upon a small group of Grey-backed Fiscals.
For sheer numbers of wildlife and the wide open vista spectacle of the African Savannah, perhaps the best of the safari was left until last. We spent 3 nights here, with game drives in the morning and evening of the first full day, and a full day's game drive on the second. The rough tracks crisscrossed the open plains in a relatively subtle jigsaw, and the animal numbers were dominated by the antelope, headed by Wildebeest, and supported by Thomson’s & Grant’s Gazelles, with other cast members of Topi and numerous African Buffalo. Due to the nature of the safari, many birds were passed by to allow for the interests of the group, but many others were locked on to and enjoyed by all. Even the non birding fraternity seemed to enjoy Ostrich, Secretary Bird, Ground Hornbill, varied vultures, Lilac-breasted Rollers, and many more.
Our accommodation in this idyll was the Keekorok Lodge, which surprisingly has no outer fences. The beauty of this was that it created a more open and natural feel, highlighted by a small group of Zebra feeding on the front lawns one evening, but the dangers (which are apparently rare) exemplified by a Buffalo attack near to our own cabin later on. That being said, there is a rich mixture of birds which can be found by wandering the grounds through the day between game drives. The open grassed area seems to attract regular Superb & Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Purple Grenadiers, Grey-capped Social-weavers, and White-bellied Canaries amongst others. The trees throughout are even better, and finds here included Mariqua & Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Chinspot Batis, White-browed Scrub-robin, Cardinal Woodpecker, White-throated Bee-eater, and Bare-faced Go-away-bird. A path through the edge of the trees leads to a Hippo pool, which unfortunately was too dry for Hippos during our visit, but did hold Wooly-necked Storks, White-headed amongst Black Sawwings, and a Bateleur overhead.
Mombassa Beach Hotel
The last 5 nights of our Kenyan sojourn were spent here. The hotel is on the beach to the North of Mombassa, and has potentially some very interesting and well vegetated grounds. These did have one or two interesting species, but it was evident after a few days that the same birds were being seen, including Golden Palm Weaver, Speckled Mousebird, Purple-banded Sunbird, African Palm-swift, and the noisy and unfortunately introduced House Crows. The fun came with a couple of early morning walks along the beach. This found two main habitats – a rocky shoreline which was good for waders (including a brace of long awaited Crab Plovers), and a scrubby area just to the rear of the sandy margins. The latter habitat turned up goodies such as Tropical Boubou, Fischer’s Lovebird, Zanzibar Red Bishop, Lilac-breasted Roller, and White-browed Coucal.
There are two wet seasons in Kenya. The main one is in the Spring, but there is also a “mini wet” season at the end of the year, just when we decided to visit. Despite the reports of Samburu being flooded just after we left (heavy rain fell at the same time as we were leaving Treetops) we were very lucky in that no rain fell during the day at any of our locations. The nights on safari were pleasantly cool (to downright cold when watching wildlife from the terraces during the night at Treetops) due to the altitude, but Mombassa reminded us of our proximity to the equator with very high temperatures during all hours.
Various inoculations are required for Kenya, including Yellow Fever. We only really experienced insect bites at Mombassa, where mosquitoes didn’t seem to a problem apart from the odd itchy patch which appeared. However, this is also the main area of the country where malaria can be a problem, making anti-malarials essential.