When an editor asks if you’d be “willing” to go to Kenya on a safari led by Micato, an outfitter known as among the best — if not the best — in Africa, it doesn’t take long to blurt out “Yes!” And that’s how I ended up celebrating my birthday with a group of new friends with an outdoor champagne breakfast in a meadow beneath Mt. Kenya. That breakfast was just the beginning. After a visit to a chimpanzee reserve and seeing wild rhinos, my 48th birthday ended with a party in William Holden’s suite at the Mt. Kenya Safari Lodge.
For the rest of the story, at least the part that could be published, click here or read text below. Note: my story appeared in the March-April 2012 issue of Private Clubs magazine, which goes to members of a country club association. In the magazine the photos were by friend and colleague Kevin Garrett, but I took the photos in the text below.
Wild About Kenya, Again
Here’s why safari fans are migrating back to this eye-popping East Africa animal kingdom.
BY MICHAEL SHAPIRO
It’s afternoon and we’re now in the heart of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, in the northern Serengeti. I’m astounded by all I’m seeing as our Micato tour group explores this East African terrain in an open-air Land Rover. A parade of elephants stomps across the dun-colored plain, giraffes nibble the tops of 20-foot acacia trees, and hundreds of zebras trot across the landscape. As we drive deeper into the Mara, it gets even better: Wildebeests congregate by the thousands. They’re preparing for the world’s largest land migration, when 1.5 million of them thunder south across the Serengeti into Tanzania annually, a jaw-dropping phenomenon unique to East Africa each fall.
It’s a spectacle once again piquing the curiosity of adventure-minded sightseers. Beginning in the 1990s, when southern Africa’s popularity soared as new luxury resorts like Singita grabbed an ever-larger share of the safari market, East Africa became an afterthought for some travelers. Violence that followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 election led to a further dip in tourism, but those numbers have rebounded as the country has stabilized, with more than 1 million visitors and better than 10 percent growth in recent years. With this steady increase has come the high-dollar renovations of remote safari clubs and historic hotels, making those properties more luxurious and Kenya more appealing and poised for a comeback.
But the country’s big draw remains this animal-rich national reserve, situated in southwest Kenya on the Mara River. Unlike the smaller reserves in southern Africa, this park seems endless; at about 600 square miles, there’s no way we can see all of it in the three days we’ll spend here.
Back at our base, the riverside Fairmont Mara Safari Club, our wildlife viewing continues: Submerged hippos groan and crocodiles slosh through the water, in an uneasy detente. A bee-eater, an iridescent green and scarlet bird about the size of a robin, snatches an inch-long yellow bee out of the air and lands on a branch, expertly yanking out its stinger before consuming it.
The river surrounds the hotel’s 51 canvas-walled rooms on three sides. These “tents” don’t match Singita for spaciousness and opulence, but they’re well-appointed with their four-poster pillow-top beds and verandas overlooking the river. As inviting as the rooms are, nothing can top the nonstop show of cavorting hippos and the round-the-clock intimate connection with nature one feels on the banks of the Mara.
At dusk, we head out in Land Rovers to the hotel’s boma, a communal circle deep in the forest, where locals in indigenous dress entertain us with tribal Kenyan music around a blazing campfire. A sumptuous buffet and well-stocked bar have been set up in the bush – the feeling is heady and transcendent. I’d had high hopes for this trip to the Mara, and already these almost unrealistic expectations have been exceeded.
On a hot-air balloon ride the next morning, we can see for miles. Elephants and zebras cast long shadows, creating Escherlike patterns on the land. At a reserve for white rhinos, we watch young bulls spar, horn against upturned horn, from just 15 yards away. There’s no fence, so when these three-ton animals start rumbling toward us, we scamper down the hill as wardens place their bodies between the rhinos and us.
Back in our Land Rover, we traverse the savannah and hear a report crackling over the radio: A leopard is feeding in a tree a few miles away. From a distance, we see a herd of Jeeps circling a tree – the leopard is up in the branches with an eviscerated white goat poached from a nearby Maasai village. The leopard feeds on the carcass, then hops down, its stomach distended, to rest on the ground.
Years ago, this leopard would probably have fallen prey to vengeful Maasai hunters; today the Maasai understand that big cats keep the tourists coming, our guide tells us. Now that the Maasai are compensated for lost livestock and share in tourism revenue, our guide says there’s a good chance hunters won’t kill that leopard – one more sign of change in ever-evolving East Africa.
NAIROBI – GATEWAY TO KENYA AND THE MARA
Some safari tours quickly leave Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, for the remote regions, but our Micato group spends a full day exploring the city and environs with our guide George Omuya. “South Africa is like a European country,” Omuya says as we drive through Nairobi. “To see the real Africa, you have to come to East Africa.” He’s speaking not just of the city but of the seemingly boundless Maasai Mara.
Four urban attractions you’ll want to see:
1. David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphanage for baby elephants and rhinos in Nairobi National Park where dozens of the animals slurp milk from big upturned bottles and cavort through an enclosed mud pit. More than 120 have been reared here; more than half have successfully returned to the wild. On our visit, a toddler elephant with reddish mud caked on her back approaches me and lets me place my hand on her head. Her skin feels rough and bristly. “She don’t do that much,” says a handler. “She’s just starting to trust people again.” I ask the handler the elephant’s name. “Murka” he says. “They killed her mama. We found Murka with a spear 10 inches deep in her head.”
2. Giraffe Manor, a majestic 10-room lodge inside a private animal sanctuary. Wild Rothschild giraffes come around when hungry, which is most of the time since they eat about 140 pounds of food daily. Some members of our group place marble-size food pellets between their lips and get a soft kiss as a giraffe claims its treat. Not me; I put some pellets in my palm and feel the velvet nuzzle of the giraffe’s muzzle as she delicately takes the food.
3. Karen Blixen’s modest stone farmhouse, where the Out of Africa author lived from 1914 to 1931. In the writer’s study, I saw her antique Corona typewriter and imagined her gazing out at the rolling Ngong Hills and conjuring tales of romance inspired by the landscape. That’s when it hit me: It’s the hills and the visions of what’s beyond them that made Out of Africa so rich. Stepping on this hallowed soil made me feel I’d landed in this evocative place.
4. The Mukuru slum, a densely packed city within a city of mud streets, storefront vendors, rundown churches, smoky fires, stray cats, junkyard dogs – and hundreds of thousands of people. At a complex operated by AmericaShare (a nonprofit founded by Micato Safaris), an oasis in this sodden slum, you’ll find a basketball court funded by a young safari-goer’s bar mitzvah money, a computer center where kids learn tech skills, and a library full of books.
NANYUKI – A SPELLBINDING SAFE HAVEN FOR RHINOS AND CHIMPS
At a Nairobi airstrip, the loud chop of the propeller signals it’s time for our tour group’s departure. We board the 12-seater and fly about a half-hour north to Nanyuki, near the equator. Home to reserves that work to preserve threatened species, the Nanyuki region is an ideal place to witness Kenya’s efforts to preserve endangered wildlife.
We settle into the storied Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a sprawling French colonial hotel and cottage complex that straddles the equator. In the hotel’s courtyard, where proud peacocks strut, we stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere, the other in the southern.
Sunrise brings a crystal-clear view of towering Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak (after Kilimanjaro). We ride horses for an hour through lush meadows to a champagne breakfast in a clearing.
Later, driving through the protected Ol Pejeta Conservancy, we see black rhinos lumber across green fields. The rhino population had been decimated due to hunting for their horns, used for sword handles in Yemen, but slowly they’re making a comeback.
Opened in agreement with the Jane Goodall Institute, among others, the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Ol Pejeta is home to dozens of chimps that suffered unspeakable cruelty before being rescued. We watch them swing through the trees; some come to the fence seeming to greet us. I’ll long remember the intelligence and apparent resignation I saw in those chimps’ eyes.
Best time to go: July to October is best for game viewing. About 1.5 million wildebeests arrive in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in late spring and early summer of each year; they stay until fall, when they migrate south again.
Tour outfitter: Micato Safaris outfits bespoke trips to Kenya and Tanzania. The company is known for its personal touch; co-founder Jane Pinto greets arriving clients at their hotel, and she and her husband Felix invite all their tour groups to their home for lunch or dinner. 800-642-2861; micato.com
Lodging: In the last few years, $35 million in renovations have helped add to the luxury level of these Fairmont hotels.
• In Nairobi, the historic Fairmont Norfolk dates back to 1904 and has counted President Theodore Roosevelt among its many guests. Besides 165 rooms, the hotel now sports achic new wine bar; a sleek steakhouse; an opulent tea room that conjures visions of early 20th-century Africa; and an open-air restaurant under a conservatory-style roof. Head to its spa for a full range of refreshing services. Rates from $329. 800-441-1414; fairmont.com/norfolkhotel
• The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a French colonial hotel on the equator at the base of Mount Kenya, has 120 rooms in cottages, villas, and suites. Its amenities include a nine-hole golf course. Actor William Holden founded the club in the 1950s and would retreat there to get away from the Hollywood scene. Club members once included luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, Lord Mountbatten, and John Wayne. Rates from $535, including two game drives per day. 800-441-1414; fairmont.com/kenyasafariclub
• Get cozy and comfortable in luxurious tent cabins at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Its 51 tent cabins overlook the Mara River, with its hippos and crocs. All units come with private bathrooms and some have outdoor showers. Rates from $499. 800-441-1414; fairmont.com/marasafariclub