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Every time I’m on my way back from Africa, I tell myself that I need to return soon. There is a feeling about Africa that I can’t get anywhere else.
Africa feels honest to me. Not honest in the sense that everyone tells the truth and nobody will ever cheat you — more like it presents itself as is, forthrightly. Imagine all the tiny ways we’re dishonest with each other — white lies, saying you’re fine when you’re not, fibbing to spare a friend’s feelings, going through the hi-how-are-you pageantry with someone you can’t stand. If all those things appeared in the form of cobwebs, Africa feels like someone swept them all away.
Before this year, I had been to Africa three times…and it was always South Africa. It’s one of my favorite countries, but I always knew that “the rest of Africa” was one of my biggest travel oversights. At the same time, I wondered where I would actually go, when so many bloggers tend to cover the same destinations — Namibia, gorilla trekking in Uganda, Victoria Falls…
Then Kenya came calling. A double-billed media trip, hosted by Kenya Airways and Fairmont Kenya Hotels. Eight days in three different regions of the country. Oh, and a few of my friends were going, too — that made it even easier to say yes!
Kenya’s tourism motto is Magical Kenya, and boy did Kenya deliver the magic over and over again. I’d love to share with you the moments that made Kenya so magical to me.
Part I: Mount Kenya
Our first stop was Mount Kenya, home to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. This place was actually founded by actor William Holden in 1959 and became a gathering spot for Hollywood stars.
This was my favorite property in Kenya. Every inch of it is gorgeous. Mount Kenya isn’t an obvious destination in Kenya — it doesn’t have the safari action of the Maasai Mara, nor the beaches of the southern coast. But the landscape around here is beautiful and the resort invites you to relax.
Riding Horseback — and Getting Intercepted by Elephants
I’ve ridden horses in some beautiful locations — Iceland and Swellendam, South Africa, were particularly memorable — but never have I ever had an experience like this. We were saddled up at the resort, I was given a horse more interested in chewing leaves than walking, and we ventured on a path through the foods and across a creek.
And then two elephants walked out in front of us.
Was this planned? NO WAY. This is Africa. These are elephants. You couldn’t plan it if you tried.
We just sat there in our saddles, dumbfounded, as the elephants went on their way.
After the ride, we were treated to an outdoor brunch overlooking the mountains. Complete with champagne and servers who give you a wink and top up your glass the moment you take a sip.
Getting to Stand on the Equator
The equator runs through the Fairmont Mount Kenya — it’s actually marked with a line throughout the property! I loved this.
As a kid who grew up absolutely obsessed with maps, it was a dream to finally set foot on the equator. I actually hadn’t done that before — though I have crossed the Antarctic Circle (en route to Antarctica), the Arctic Circle (Oulu, Finland) and the Tropic of Capricorn (Shell Beach, Western Australia). Standing with one foot in each hemisphere was the icing on the cake!
They do an equator ceremony at the property with music and dancing — it’s cheesy but sweet and they give you a souvenir at the end of it.
Feeding a Rhino — and Witnessing the Last of a Species
Mount Kenya isn’t known as a safari destination, but you can visit nearby conservancy areas, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how concentrated the wildlife was. Elephants were plentiful; lions roamed the plains; I even saw some nursing baby baboons.
But the rhinos? The rhinos were the best part.
At the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, they have the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. This filled me with so much sadness, witnessing the end of a species. The two remaining rhinos are female, but neither of them are able to carry a pregnancy.
So what are they going to do? Rhino in-vitro.
They have sperm saved from a male northern white rhino and they’re going to do IVF with a different species of rhino serving as a surrogate. Isn’t that wild?!
In-vitro fertilization has never been attempted in rhinos before and they’re currently raising money to develop the technology.
Later, we went to see another rhino — Baraka. Baraka is old and mostly blind. But he loves to scratch himself against trees, snack on vegetation, and take naps.
I never dreamed I’d be able to feed a rhino. I held up the leaves and he chomped them appreciatively. I then reached out and rubbed his muddy horn. It almost brought me to tears.
How can greed destroy such beautiful creatures?
(Note: normally it’s best not to reveal the location of rhinos in Africa, due to poaching concerns, but Ol Pejeta publicizes that they have rhinos and they’re guarded 24 hours a day.)
Sitting by the Fire with Wine
At the resort we stayed in the William Holden Cottages. Each cottage has a large shared living room with a fireplace and each side has a bedroom with its own ensuite bathroom. This was the perfect setup for two friends — you get your own privacy (not to mention bathroom privacy) but you can hang out together in the main room.
My favorite amenity? The fire. You leave a sign out to signal that you’d like your room attendant to build a fire, and the flames will be licking up the edges by the time you get back.
I shared my cottage with Katie, a travel journalist on her first trip to Africa. She was jumping out of her skin with excitement (not to mention blasting The Lion King soundtrack nonstop). And one night, we got into our robes, poured some wine, and sat in front of the fire, gossiping like crazy. It was a perfect cozy night in!
Pretending to Be a Real Housewife at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
This is one of my favorite design resorts ever. I loved how elegant it was, paying homage to its 1950s beginnings but being completely modernized. I had to do a photo shoot around the resort in my zebra dress!
Yes, I did it all by myself with a tripod, and yes, I had SO MUCH FUN. I mean, how perfect is that zebra bar?
Can I please have my own Bravo show? I’m pretty good at flipping tables.
Part II: Maasai Mara
If you’re going on safari in Kenya, chances are you’re going to the Maasai Mara. This enormous game reserve in southwest Kenya is one of the best safari destinations on the continent.
We spent our days at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, where we followed the standard safari schedule: up and dressed at 5:30 AM, on the road at 5:45 AM, and a sensational morning game drive. Next, breakfast at the hotel, optional activities or time to relax, and lunch. Finally, a beautiful afternoon game drive, followed by sundowners, sunset, and dinner. My eyes would be closing by the time they served dessert.
Falling in Love with Baby Warthogs
I’ve seen a lot of warthogs on safari — but I’ve never seen babies as tiny as these ones before. I fell madly in love! They’re like puppies!
Warthogs — or pumbaas as the locals call them (seriously, pumbaa is Swahili for warthog) — aren’t the prettiest creatures around, but I like them. They stare at you when you drive by, they eat while doing a downward-facing dog, and they run in the goofiest way.
It took all of my willpower not to bring a baby warthog home in my suitcase.
Sleeping Next to a Pod of Hippos
I’ve stayed in safari camps before, and as much as I love them, I don’t like that you need an escort to walk you to your tent at night. Thankfully, you don’t need an escort at the Fairmont Mara. There are barriers in place against large animals and it’s safe to walk around the property 24 hours a day.
Small animals are around — I heard there were monkeys, though I never saw any myself — but you never have to feel unsafe about it.
One of those natural barriers is a drop-off leading down to the Mara River, where hundreds if not thousands of hippos spend their days, pressed up against each other and grunting.
For the most part, they were quiet, only uttering the occasional groan — but occasionally they got into fights in the middle of the night and would roar at each other! That’s interesting to wake up to!
Everyone at the Fairmont Mara stays in safari tents. They fit a queen-sized bed in front, and in the back there’s a desk, a place to hang your clothes, a shower, a sink, and a toilet. The beaded curtains were a lovely touch.
And yes, there was a hot water bottle waiting in your bed at night, and my steward kindly woke me up with coffee and biscuits each morning.
Visiting a Maasai Village
I’ll be honest — I was not comfortable with all of the Maasai activities we did, nor the way some of my fellow travelers behaved with the Maasai. Cultural visits are a difficult line to walk — you don’t want to be exploitative of the local people in any way, but doing the song-and-dance for tourists is also how they make a living. It’s even more complicated when the people in question are as stunning and “exotic” as the Maasai.
I’ll be writing about this in depth at a later date, because it’s a topic that deserves to be written about with care rather than pushed out immediately.
What I did enjoy was having conversations about Maasai life with the chief, both on my own and with the group. He led us into a hut and answered the questions we had — and because there were primarily travel journalists on this trip (as opposed to bloggers or self-publishers), the questions were interesting and thought-provoking.
I was glad to purchase beaded jewelry directly from the village. Maasai beaded jewelry is for sale throughout Kenya, but you should try to buy direct from the artisans, rather than a gift shop or airport shop, because they’ll get to keep a far greater portion of the proceeds. This is how to spend your money sustainably: close to the ground.
Discovering that Mongooses are Real
Well, I’m pretty sure this was my friend Scott’s favorite part of the trip, considering that he laughed harder than I’ve ever seen him laugh before. We passed a bunch of mongoose and thinking of cartoons, I said out loud, “Really? They exist?”
YES, KATE. THEY EXIST. They don’t just fight snakes on Looney Tunes — they do in real life, too, and they’re fairly evenly matched. And yes, everyone is still laughing at you.
Seeing Cape Buffalo Get Their Noses Picked by Oxpeckers
I’ve been on safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa a few times, and I found the two regions to be similar, with one exception: Kruger has far more Cape buffalo.
But here on the Mara, we got to witness something even better — these buffalo were getting their noses picked by birds!
The oxpecker and the Cape buffalo have a mutually beneficial relationship: the birds eat the insects on the buffalo, which comforts the buffalo and provides food for the birds. And some of the tastiest birds lurk inside the nasal cavity of the buffalo.
I’ve got to admit, this was hard to watch without scrunching up your face. But the photos came out great!
The best part of the safari? Without question, the sundowners. When you’re finished with your game drive, you drive out to an animal-free clearing and have drinks, toasting each other and watching the sun set.
Safari is amazing, but it takes a lot out of you. If you’re a photographer, there is SO MUCH PRESSURE to get good shots. And safari photography is difficult — you’re wielding a large lens, it’s harder to get sharp shots with a long zoom, and you’re held to the whims of the animals. Frankly, as much as I adore safaris, they stress me out, too! I put so much pressure on myself all the time, and safari is no exception.
Which is why it’s so lovely to relax and kick back with a drink. You can’t fight nature — the sun is going down and you won’t be able to see the animals any longer. You might as well enjoy it. Oh, and ask for Stoney Ginger Beer with rum — that’s my favorite Kenya cocktail.
Sunrises for the Ages
And then there were sunrises. On the Mara, our sunsets were usually cloudy, but the sunrises were outstanding. Brightly colored and clear. We asked our guide Abdi if he would be willing to take us out earlier so we could be there for the sunrise, and it was absolutely worth the earlier wakeup.
One morning before dawn, we saw a leopard walking down the road! Unbelievable! Leopards are very difficult to spot in the Mara, so we felt extra lucky. The leopard rounded out our Big Five, since we had already seen elephants, Cape buffalo, rhinos, and lions.
I should add that the staff at the Fairmont Mara were so awesome about helping us crazy photographers get the photos we needed, whether it was finding the perfect tree for silhouette shots or setting up adorable picnic baskets on checkered tablecloths.
And we had some Moet with our breakfast as well. Talk about a decadent way to start the day!
Part III: Nairobi
The only African cities that get much tourist attention are Cape Town, Cairo, and Marrakesh. Other African cities are usually dismissed — a necessary evil before getting into the countryside.
Well, I’ve been known to enjoy less-lauded cities, from Colombo to Johannesburg, and I really enjoyed Nairobi. My time there was brief, but I got to experience a few of the city’s specialties.
In Nairobi I stayed at the Fairmont the Norfolk Hotel, pictured above. This was an oasis of gardens and greenery in the heart of the city. And the restaurants served up shockingly good food.
Standing Atop a Skyscraper at Sunset
One of the coolest things I did was stand atop the KICC, the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. If you come to Nairobi for a convention, there’s a decent chance that it will take place in this building, and the views above Nairobi are scintillating!
We actually got to go up to the helipad on the very top of the building. And to my great surprise, Nairobi glittered in purple and gold. There’s a stereotype that all African cities are dusty and dirty, but the top of the KICC told a very different story.
Meeting with Climate Activists
Once I arrived in Kenya, I got an email from a reader named Alise (third from left) inviting me to visit the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre. She had been working with them for the last few months. Their goal is to help entrepreneurs operate their businesses more sustainably. They specialize in assisting people with water management, agri-business, and renewable energy.
This visit turned out to be a highlight of my trip. To my surprise, the team asked if they could interview me. We ended up having a lengthy conversation about every topic within sustainable travel — everything from cultural sensitivity and economic sustainability to climate change, voluntourism, animal welfare, and ethics in travel choices. I LOVE these topics and I talked their ears off.
I’m so glad I took the time to meet with these brilliant women. They’ve inspired me to make 2019 the year that I begin doing serious work to make up for all the flights I take.
Dining at Talisman Restaurant
As good as the restaurants were at the Fairmont the Norfolk, I wanted to see a bit of Nairobi’s restaurants too. For me, the culinary highlight was Talisman in the Karen Blixen neighborhood (yes, she has a neighborhood in Nairobi named after her).
This restaurant has a bohemian style and it’s half inside, half outside. Stained glass windows, carved wooden tables, and gauzy curtains add to the atmosphere. But the true standout is the food — spicy Thai prawns that were so authentic. A spicy prawn and calamari curry. And because this was Kenya, there were awesome beef samosas. Plus hibiscus lemonade.
Definitely make sure to stop here for at least one meal in Nairobi. I would have gone back multiple times.
Feeding Giraffes at the Giraffe Centre
Nairobi is home to the Giraffe Centre, an animal sanctuary in the middle of the city. The goal is to protect several species of giraffe, which roam freely on the extensive grounds. The Centre also puts on educational programs for children. And you get to feed the giraffes!
Visiting Giraffe Manor, the tiny hotel where giraffes join you for breakfast, is on many travelers’ bucket lists — but at $1000 per night and booking out six months in advance, it’s a tough dream to realize.
Well, the Giraffe Centre is on the edge of Giraffe Manor and these are the same exact giraffes! You can even see Giraffe Manor from the platform!
It’s not quite the same as sitting down to afternoon tea in an elegant gown, giraffes surrounding you, but it’s a nice way to see them up close for far less money. And it’s still plenty Instagrammable.
The Giraffe Centre also has a nature trail and a coffeeshop.
Flying Nonstop to Nairobi and Saving Hours of Travel
It was amazing to be able to fly direct from New York to Nairobi. This is a brand new route on Kenya Airways. It might not sound that consequential, but I assure you it is. Getting to Africa from the US takes a LONG ASS TIME. Most of the time you need to fly through Europe or the Middle East, which can add on eight hours or longer.
If I have any opportunity to skip that wasted time, I will. I can’t believe this flight didn’t exist until now.
We literally flew from New York to Nairobi in just 13 hours, thanks to some strong tailwinds. (The flight is billed at 14.5 hours from New York to Nairobi and 15.5 hours from Nairobi to New York.)
We flew business class, which was so nice to do on a long flight. Being able to lie flat (and on Kenya Airways you lie completely flat!) makes a major difference in getting yourself adjusted to the new time change as soon as possible. I wasn’t jet lagged in the least.
And even if Nairobi isn’t your final destination, it’s one of the biggest African hubs. On Kenya Airways alone, you can connect in Nairobi to destinations like the Seychelles, Namibia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.
You can take the same trip I did!
Does this trip sound good to you? You can do the same exact trip I did! There is a package available from Fairmont Kenya.
It’s called the Fairmont Magical Safari Package. The package includes two nights at the Fairmont the Norfolk in Nairobi, two nights at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, two nights at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, and one more night at the Fairmont the Norfolk in Nairobi.
It includes internal flights between Nairobi and the other two resorts (very important!) as well as all meals, soft drinks, all game drives, all entrance fees, an English-speaking driver guide, a meet and greet, and all airport transfers.
It does not include international flights to Kenya, visas, travel insurance, gratuities, beverages beyond soft drinks, or incidentals.
The cost is $8,000 per person and the prices are valid through June 30, 2019.
This won’t be my last time in Kenya.
I want to return so badly. And I especially want to make it to the coast next time. Roughly half the people in our group went on to the coast instead of safari, and I was ogling all their beach photos. Kenya is home to white sand beaches that rank among the best in Africa, and bright blue water that feels like bathwater.
I must go there.
But even if I didn’t, I’d go back for the baby warthogs. For the chance to feed a rhino and rub his horn. For the chance to stand atop Nairobi, glittering in every direction.
Essential Info: I flew from New York to Nairobi nonstop on Kenya Airways. I bought my tourist visa upon arrival and it cost $50. Do be sure to check visa guidelines before you arrive, there’s always a chance this could change. Kenya technically requires a yellow fever vaccination but I was not checked for this.
In Mount Kenya I stayed at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. Rates from $290 per night.
In the Maasai Mara I stayed at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Rates from $403 per night.
In Nairobi I stayed at the Fairmont the Norfolk Hotel. Rates from $177 per night.
Visiting the Giraffe Center costs 1,000 KES ($10) for non-resident adults and 500 KES ($5) for non-resident children.
See here for the Magical Safari Package, which is essentially the same trip I did. Rates from $8,000 per adult through June 30, 2019.
Travel insurance is essential for trips to Kenya — whether you fall and break a bone in the Maasai Mara, or get pickpocketed on a matatu in Nairobi, or if you have to cancel your trip due to an emergency, travel insurance will sort you out. I use and recommend World Nomads.
This content is brought to you by Kenya Airways and Fairmont Hotels Kenya. All opinions, as always, are my own.
10 thoughts on “This is why they call it Magical Kenya.”
Thank you for sharing your East Africa travels! Would love to hear if you ever travel in neighboring Tanzania!
Btw, pumbaa is Swahili for “foolish,” not warthog (which is ngiri). The word pumbaa is used in the tourist industry to appeal to mzungu who grew up watching the Lion King (much like saying “jambo” or “hakuna matata”). ?
Love the picture where the buffalo is getting nose-picked. It looks quite relaxed! I have been in Kenya for about 3 months now, living and exploring the western side. As much as I love its people and beauty, Kenya has been, unfortunately, one of the most expensive countries I have travelled to so far and I have been to Switzerland :). I really hope this beautiful country sees a lot more tourist especially to its lesser-known destinations which will hopefully result in affordable infrastructure for tourism overall.
And those pictures with the Masai tribe! I am so happy you recognize the issue there. People take all sorts of weird pictures of and with them. Recently, I saw a picture where a similar Tanzania tribe was literally made a background and the blogger posing in the front 🙁
I didnt have a chance to visit Africa so far but its definitely on my bucket list! And after reading your experience I wanna go even more!
I have not been to Kenya, but it’s definitely one of the places I’d like to visit in Africa. The itinerary sounds amazing, especially the hotels you stayed at. Is Kenya safe for solo female travelers?
Kate, this was a great post, as usual; I will say, though, that I really don’t know if it’s wise to make sweeping generalizations about Africa and African culture when you’ve spent time in two of the 54 countries – it promotes the idea of a homogeneous pan-African culture. I agree that parts of Africa are forthright in the way you described, especially in that people will be upfront about weight, race, and appearance, but in some places there are also complex social structures dealing with respect and politeness that would fall more closely in line with what you described as the ways in which we’re dishonest with each other. In some areas politeness takes precedence over honesty. It’s also worth noting that the majority of people that Western tourists interact with in Kenya are tour guides and workers in the service industry, and that’s a small sample size to extrapolate from, especially when forming judgements about what the people of a given country are like.
I completely agree with you! You shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations when you’ve only seen a small part of an area. I will tell you this, though — that’s a feeling that I have only had in Africa, and only while out in the bush on safari. I hope to feel more of it across the continent.
This post is so amazing! I just want to pack my bag and start to plan my own trip to Kenya! I’ve never been in Africa before, so this must be a wonderful adventure. And I hope one day it will be true! Thank you for your inspiration!
So glad you enjoyed your time in Kenya! I lived there for 6 years and loved it dearly. You should definitely return and spend some time at the coast, and even go to Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) if you have a chance, as Stonetown is a unique place.
In Kenya, there are also some smaller reserves that are not as touristic as the Mara, and that have some different fauna – the grevy zebra, the gerenuk (or antelope giraffe). It is fascinating. Samburu, Shaba, the Aberdares, to name a few.
You’re right. Africa (not only Kenya) is magical!
I visited Masai Mara and Nairobi but I never knew I could stand on the equator or feed rhinos in Kenya. I guess I need to start planning my return trip right now.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Great post! I’m looking forward to your blog about the Maasai activities you weren’t comfortable with. I’ve experienced something similar when I did the catamaran tour in Belize and landed at Tobacco Caye. l too understood the drumming, song-and-dance was how they made their money but I wasn’t pretty uncomfortable and was quite embarrassed by the other traveler’s behavior. Cultural sensitivity indeed is a very tricky, sensitive thing and it tends to go over some people’s head.