“Have we just died and gone to heaven?” I asked my companions when we alighted upon the deck of our safari lodge, Angama Mara, perched high above Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. We knew it was going to be beautiful, but we weren’t prepared for the splendor of the place – lush green plains under picture perfect skies as far as the eye could see.
The safari was the culmination of a trip that had been a year in the planning and included a few days spent in Dubai and in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where we visited Nairobi National Park, stayed at the otherworldly Giraffe Manor and perhaps best of all, cavorted with rescued baby elephants at the conservation haven that is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
By the time we arrived at Angama Mara, after having flown some 12,000 miles on three types of aircraft: the jumbo A380 (NYC – Dubai), a Boeing 777 (Dubai – Nairobi) and finally a single engine Cessna (Nairobi – Masai Mara) over the course of five days, we were giddy with excitement.
The 6,200-foot elevation no doubt helped fuel the levity. But as beautiful as the verdant vistas were, we (our small group included my husband, Kevin and our friend, Kelly Vitko) were there to see the wildlife. And in this, we were richly rewarded. The Masai Mara National Reserve, where our resort is located, thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the finest wildlife destinations in the world. Its 580 square miles is home to lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles and hippos along with an abundance of birds. All in all, some 95 species of mammals, amphibians and reptiles and over 400 species of birds have been recorded on the reserve.
We experienced the thrill of seeing these animals in their native habitat almost right away. After a delicious, wine-infused lunch at the lodge, our guide Sammy came to collect us for our first game drive. Within minutes, we came across an elephant herd. A little while later, it was a pair of male lions, then zebras and giraffes. There were cape buffaloes and wildebeest galore. A group of cheeky baboons also kept us entertained. Here we were, looking at wildlife that we had only seen in zoos or in pictures. These animals, particularly the elephants, giraffes and rhinos have a prehistoric look and to see them all roaming about in the same area is magical (at least for the uninitiated like us).
Not more than 10 feet away, we spotted two male lions (brothers) taking a post-prandial afternoon rest and a hyena lying in the middle of the road, all completely nonplussed by our presence. On one side of our Landcruiser, warthogs and their babies scampered here and there while zebras grazed peacefully on the other side. Giraffes crossed the road in front of us while elephant matriarchs made sure we presented no danger before re-joining their herd. There was an abundance of antelope including eland, topi, impala, Thomson’s gazelles and the tiny, elusive dik-dik.
We were also fortunate to see a cheetah and her two cubs along with the very rare black rhino. Due to poaching, there are fewer than a dozen rhinos on the reserve and less than 5,000 worldwide. Along the way, we learned an enormous amount about wildlife behavior and habits, about the native vegetation and indigenous birds. Our game drives were visually stunning in addition to being extremely interesting. For instance, did you know that a zebra’s black and white stripes act to control body temperature? The black stripes absorb heat while the white ones deflect it. We learned this and much, much more from Sammy. Not only do bush guides, after a rigorous 4-year certification program, know just about everything there is to know about African wildlife, but they have to be excellent drivers too for it is not easy to navigate the dirt roads of the reserve, even in rugged 4x4s.
Back at the camp, we were in the lap of luxury. The pavilion contains a chic library, bar, dining room and lounge areas along with an expansive terrace. The permanent tents were roomy and beautifully appointed with bathtubs overlooking the Mara, scented soaps, large, heated beds, books, a generously-stocked (and free) minibar, binoculars and comfortable chairs inside and out. The free, daily laundry was another nice perk. We all blissed out to outdoor massages on our rooms’ private decks. In the evenings, there was no lack of entertainment.
On our first night there, we were treated to a traditional Masai dance while sampling tasty hors d’oeuvres and thirst-quenching cocktails. On our second night, we went to a bush barbecue where we had the chance to mingle with the other guests and meet safari goers from all over the world. During another evening, at our request, the staff had set up dinner for the three of us in front of a roaring fire in the library so we could watch, what else, Out of Africa,starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Parts of the movie including a picturesque picnic scene were filmed on what is now Angama’s property. One day, we also ventured out to a Masai village where we met with the leaders, glimpsed the interiors of villagers’ huts and bought some beaded jewelry, expertly made by the women of the tribe.
The service could not have been more friendly or solicitous. From the moment that we arrived at Angama to welcome cheers from the staff, we were looked after day and night. There was Elias our butler, Ibrahim the manager and several others, not least of whom was our guide Sammy, who spent many hours with us on game drives, set up picnic lunches, breakfasts and picturesque cocktails while patiently answering all sorts of questions from us novice safari goers. At night, Masai tribesmen camped outside our tents, armed with bows, arrows and a flashlight. If we opened our door, they were right there, with the flashlights pointed to the ground, ready to assist. This was a safety precaution too as animals do roam the grounds at night. We would fall asleep to the roar of lions coming from the valley floor.
Our departure from Angama was bittersweet. We were all sad and one or two of us may have been teary-eyed as we said goodbye to the staff and boarded our plane. But, new adventures awaited and our sadness soon turned to excitement as we made our approach into Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Final destination in Kenya? Giraffe Manor.
Located in the tony suburb of Karen (named after Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa), Giraffe Manor is a boutique hotel which looks like something out of a fairytale. Its ivy-covered brick walls, huge casement windows and manicured grounds are wildly inviting, but that’s nothing compared to the main attraction – giraffes which roam the grounds and which come to the house every morning and every afternoon, in search of treats doled out by the hotel’s guests. It is quite something to relax with an afternoon cocktail in the lodge’s gardens and look out to see giraffes materializing from the surrounding forest. As with our first time seeing wildlife in the bush, the experience was dreamlike. And it gets better than that because guests actually get to interact with the giraffes by feeding them treats. If you’re lucky, the giraffes will even stick their heads into your room. The Manor’s large windows were especially constructed to accommodate their reach.
The main house was built in 1932 by the British heir to a candy fortune and modeled to resemble a Scottish hunting lodge. It opened as a small hotel half a century later. Today, Giraffe Manor is set on 12 privately-owned acres within a 140-acre forest. It shares the grounds with the non-profit Giraffe Centre, which serves as a home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes. The hotel’s profits fund the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) which runs the Giraffe Centre. There are only 10 ten rooms and not surprisingly, they go quickly. We booked the rooms a year in advance on the hotel’s advice.
It’s nice to just relax at Giraffe Manor, but if you’re looking for things to do, there are plenty of activities in the area. We visited the Karen Blixen Museumset in the author’s famed farmhouse (which was also featured in Out of Africa). And we went to the wonderful Kazuri workshop where ceramic beads, jewelry and pottery are handmade by single mothers and other disadvantaged members of Kenyan society. It was a real treat to tour of the facilities with the overseer and to see dozens of women at work making beautiful jewelry which is sold all over the world. A visit to the workshop’s gift shop is a must and it’s difficult to walk away without armloads of the colorful beads.
And last, but certainly not least, we went to what must be, without exaggeration, one of the most wonderful places on earth – the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust -where orphaned baby elephants and rhinos are rescued and raised until they are old enough to be released into a protected park. Not only did we get to play with the elephants, but we also got to meet the inspirational founder, Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her daughter, Angela Sheldrick. Stay tuned for more on this remarkable place in Part 2 of the story.
An honorable mention has to be made here about our first stop in Kenya. Before flying to Angama Mara, we had spent the night at The Emakoko lodge in Nairobi. It is located a convenient 45 minutes away from the Jomo Kenyatta International airport (where we had landed after a few days in Dubai) right in Nairobi National Park on the edge of the city. The spacious rooms are well-appointed, the setting is lush, the sunsets memorable and the wildlife abundant. Their signature cocktail, the Emakoko Dawa makes for a perfect “sundowner” as the day draws to a close. After an absolutely delicious dinner and an engaging conversation with the lodge’s affable owner, Anthony Childs, we were sorry to spend only one night there. But the wonderful reception we received at The Emakoko (along with game sightings on our way there) got us even more excited for everything that was to come. And the next morning, after a tasty breakfast presided over by a friendly staff, we headed to Wilson Airport for our plane ride to the Masai Mara.
Last but not least, I would be remiss not to mention our tour operator, Intrepid Expeditions. The South African born founder, Simon Gluckman, is extremely knowledgeable about the multitude of African safari camps and about conditions on the ground too. For instance, he knew just how we could avoid getting stuck in Nairobi’s notorious traffic. Simon put together a customized tour for us that was seamless and worry free. We were so pleased with the experience that we have enlisted his help in organizing a trip to South Africa next year.