In busier times, it is possible to fly direct to “the Mara” from Samburu, however with more limited flights operating at this time due to COVID, my travels South were via two short flights, from Samburu Kalama Airstrip to Wilson, Nairobi and then connecting out to Mara Naboisho Airstrip for an early afternoon arrival. This was all very straight-forward and I was met at Wilson by Irene and Godfrey of the Big Five team who took me to the nearby Air Force Club for lunch.
Arriving at Naboisho, I was met by Patrick, who was to be my guide/driver at Ol Seki for the next couple of days. This is the first of the three properties in the Hemingways Collection I am staying at during this trip. Ol Seki is a wonderful boutique property with just eight tents for a combined total of 20 guests set on a triangular escarpment in the Naboisho Conservancy providing every tent an amazing view and a great deal of privacy. After a short time at Ol Seki, Patrick and I left for an afternoon/early evening game drive. Melinda Rees, the Operations Manager for the Watamu property who was covering for the resident Operations Manager, also joined, having asked if I would like her to come or if I preferred to be in the vehicle alone. Knowing the protocols in place, I was very happy for Melinda to join me as I would then learn so much more about the Hemingways Collection!
The Masai Mara is very different from the Northern Rangelands, and as a good friend and partner described it, “you go to the Mara and just see miles and miles of Africa”, which personally I never tire of experiencing. Naboisho Conservancy is also a part of the Mara that has a resident Lowland Wildebeest herd which means that there is constant prey for the big cats. During our first afternoon, we were lucky enough to see a cheetah and her cub, as well as part of the lion pride, two lionesses and their six young cubs. This was just the start of many amazing sightings in the next four days.
Ol Seki also has many rock hyrax, the closest land relative to the elephant, who are really fun to watch and were nice to have around the property, and they spend quite a bit of their time enjoying the pool deck along with the guests!
Over the next two days, I continued to enjoy some great wildlife sightings, including a second cheetah and her three cubs, as well as a lion and lioness doing their part to increase the lion population of the Conservancy! Of course, there are many wonderful animals to see on safari and the giraffe has always been one of my favorite as they appear so graceful and have such beautiful eyelashes!
One of the highlights of my trip to Ol Seki was the visit to a local Masai community whose village is on the edge of the Conservancy. Sadly, often when having a ‘community experience’ while on safari guests are taken to a ‘show village’ that is not actually lived in, but the community members go there to provide clients with an experience that ultimately isn’t real-life. This village was! It reminded me of my time working on public health programs in many African countries. The poverty and third world living conditions are still VERY REAL……. Living in ‘homes’ built by the women out of wood and cow/animal dung, they have no electricity, no gas and therefore no light, and although it may be a two ‘room’ home, one room is often for their livestock to share with them. The Masai villagers still mostly practice polygamy/polyandry, and in this particular village there is one man with seven wives and each of them have three or four children, creating a single village ‘unit’. The man and his older sons take their livestock to graze each day, while the women and girls stay home with the younger children. Unfortunately it is still quite common for the girls not to attend school. That said, the wives were extremely happy to have visitors to show their bead necklaces and bracelets and other handcrafted wares, and hopefully make some sales. I learned that during pre-COVID times, guests at Ol Seki visited the village almost daily providing them with some income, unfortunately the past seven months have been very hard on these villagers as without the visits they have had no income, so many were looking quite malnourished. This is a perfect example of where tourism and communities can work together, and the need for us all to be comfortable with traveling again soon!
After two wonderful nights/days at Ol Seki, I transferred to Keekorok Airstrip via road, where I was met by Joel, the Head Guide for Elewana Sand River and we proceeded to the property, while incorporating my first (of this trip) game drive in the National Park of the Masai Mara.
One important note is that there are several differences between a Conservancy and a National Park, with two of the most distinct being that in a Conservancy, the only vehicles will be those that belong to the lodges within the Conservancy and within a National Park, safari vehicles are required to stay on the roads and tracks already in place. With this in mind it is very important to select the best destination and safari lodge for a client as each are unique and provide quite different experiences!
I was very fortunate to have Joel as my private guide/driver for my stay at Sand River. With more than 20 years guiding experience, he was brilliant at locating the best sightings in the Mara with the fewest vehicles. Although I was a little too late to experience seeing a river crossing as part of ‘the migration’ that many will have heard about, I was fortunate to have so many brilliant sightings, with most being with no other vehicles around, which is rare with the Masai Mara National Park!!
Highlights in the Mara included some really wonderful lion sightings, including the joint leaders of the Sala Pride walking away with the sun-setting behind them, several elephant sightings, including one on the final day of a young elephant (less than a year old) feeding from its mother, the size of the crocodiles sleeping on the banks of the Mara river, having feasted over the past weeks on the crossing herds, a pack of hyenas wallowing in mud puddles and ultimately the vast expanses of the Mara and the multitude of wildlife that included so many young. It was truly an amazing four more days in Kenya!!
Importantly, one of the many reasons this trip has been so enjoyable is that the Kenyan Government took COVID very seriously from the outset, resulting in lower case numbers than in many countries. Even more encouraging is that anyone working at the safari lodges and hotels has to be tested for COVID prior to returning to work, minimizing the risk for guests. Additionally, I was spending most of my time in the wide open spaces of the Conservancy and National Parks in a private vehicle with a guide. While the guide will continue wearing their mask, I was able to remove mine, so enjoying these brilliant experiences without having to wear a mask. Of course, it was my individual choice and I asked each of my guides/drivers throughout the trip if they were comfortable with me removing it, which they were. At each of the camps there was plenty of hand sanitizer available and temperatures were taken on arrival at the camp. I did feel very comfortable that all precautions were being taken throughout this entire trip, particularly as the staff at the safari lodges all lived at the lodges and if they did go on leave were required to be tested again prior to their return. Understanding these protocols is so important in my role as a travel advisor, as I want to be able to inform any client traveling what they can, and should expect. This is another reason why booking with a travel advisor going forward is going to be so much more important to your enjoyment of your trip!