Following a wait of three years after canceling our 2020 Africa trip due to COVID, we finally experienced our Kenyan safari. And what an experience it was! So worth the wait and the hours of flying and driving to get there.
There are so many details I want to remember about our safari, this will be two extremely long posts. Luckily we have a ton of amazing photos to go with them. Chad brought his DSLR camera and a long lens so was able to capture some incredible shots.
Arrival in Nairobi
It took a journey of over 24 hours from the time we left our homebase in Missouri to our arrival in Nairobi. We left on a Sunday afternoon, flying Lufthansa from St. Louis to Frankfurt. We both managed to get a little sleep on the 9-hour flight. Our layover in Frankfurt wasn’t ideal. I’d been impressed by the Frankfurt airport when we flew in and out of it on our first leg back in 2018, but transiting involved numerous stairways and shuttles and the only Priority Pass lounge was on the other side of border control, so we stayed in the regular waiting area. Before long we boarded another 9-hour flight to take us from Frankfurt to Nairobi.
We arrived in Nairobi at 9:30 p.m. local time, 1:30 Monday afternoon back home, and we were completely exhausted. Luckily our safari included airport transfer to a Nairboi hotel. Our driver was waiting right outside of arrivals, in a sea of many others, holding up a sign with my name on it. And, the safari agency manager, Zippy, came to greet us too!
It was so nice to meet Zippy in person after the many emails we’d exchanged, first setting up the safari in 2019, then postponing it in 2020, then checking in each year to determine the safest time to travel (not for us, but for Kenyans who didn’t have vaccine access as quickly as we did), finally rescheduling for the summer of 2023, and then postponing again by six weeks due to a family health issue. Through it all, Zippy was kind, professional, and very generous, honoring our initial deposit made four years ago and the 2020 prices, even when we delayed for a personal reason rather than COVID. It made changing our plans so much less stressful and I’ll always be grateful for it.
The Nairobi hotel she’d arranged for us was extremely nice (review below). It seemed to cater to a primarily Chinese clientele with its location close to the Chinese embassy and all the money China is investing in Africa. But they were also very welcoming toward us.
The safari package included just one night in Nairobi but I had wisely requested we add a second before starting the safari so we had more time to recover. This proved to be one of the smartest travel decisions I’ve ever made. Having arrived exhausted at close to 11 p.m., we slept great but it was so nice to not have anything scheduled the following day.
We started our day in Nairobi with the excellent hotel breakfast that included omelets, fresh fruit, and a lot of fun Chinese dishes. I had a bit of work I wanted to finish but around midday we were free to walk into Nairobi’s central business district. Right away it was apparent that we were the only white people on the streets, a new experience for both of us and I think an important one to have. We got a lot of strange looks and endured an uncomfortable encounter with a mentally ill man, but reached our destinations and took care of our errands with no trouble. We’d been hoping to stop into Uhuru Park on the way, but unfortunately it was closed for renovation.
In the CBD we got cash and got a local SIM card for Chad, which allowed him to sign up for an Mpesa account. Much of Kenya’s economy is conducted via cell phone rather than cash or credit card and Mpesa is the leading provider of that service, connected with the cell phone company SafariCom. After depositing a bunch of cash into his Mpesa account, Chad was able to send our driver from the night before a tip right to his phone. Picking up cash before the safari also proved helpful to be able to tip others throughout our trip.
After a rest and a beer in our room, we went out for an early dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant called Abyssinia. Our meal was great, as was the service, and their house wine was drinkable. When we got back to our hotel, we enjoyed another drink at the rooftop bar and Chad played a few games of pool with one of the Chinese guests whose English name was William. A highlight for Chad was teaching William the game nine ball.
Lake Naivasha Boat Ride
Bright and early Wednesday morning, after another tasty half-Chinese hotel breakfast, our safari guide and driver, Zack, and our cook, John, picked us up. I hadn’t realized the safari would be led by two people, assuming meals would be provided by the accommodations, but as time passed it made sense that the company does it this way. Right away, they presented us with unexpected gifts – a pair of embroidered safari hats.
The second unexpected gift was that they had a pocket wifi router along so we’d have internet access in the van without needing to use our own data. I thought that was a thoughtful touch even though we already had local data access (Chad through his SafariCom sim and me through an Airalo global esim I installed before leaving the U.S.).
After a brief roadside stop to view the Great Rift Valley, we arrived mid-morning at Lake Naivasha for a one-hour boat ride to see hippos and an enormous diversity of water birds. We also saw some land animals on Naivasha’s Crescent Island. Our favorites were the waterbucks grazing on the shoreline and we also got a great closeup view of a giraffe. Our guide, Steve, was very knowledgeable about all the birds, though it was impossible to absorb all the names he pointed out to us.
Lake Nakuru National Park
After the boat ride, we drove the rest of the way to Lake Nakuru National Park. When we arrived at the entrance, John extended the roof on our van in case we came across any animals on our way to our accommodations for that night. And we did! We saw a bunch of warthogs and several other hooved animals.
Chad told me when we approached a large house in the park, he thought, “the people who get to live there are so lucky.” Then our van turned into the driveway and it turned out this was our guesthouse for the night. It was really nice (review below) and we had it all to ourselves other than a couple of park rangers who shared the gated grounds. We had enough time to bring in our stuff, have a simple lunch cooked by John, and settle in a bit before going on our first game drive in the late afternoon.
Before leaving for our game drive, we were alerted by our driver/guide Zack that he had spotted a black rhino that was viewable from our house. I grabbed my binoculars and Chad grabbed his camera. There are only a couple of them in the park and they’re an endangered species, so seeing it in the distance was pretty special. Though we learned later it wasn’t entirely unexpected because it was within the rhino’s usual territory and actually the job of the rangers who shared our compound was to keep tabs on the rhino. We were told they’re supposed to put eyes on it every five hours and know generally where it is at all times.
Zack encouraged us to hop into the van for our game drive a little early so we could beat the rain in the forecast. We first drove closer to the black rhino for a few more photos then headed deeper into the park. We had an extremely successful first game drive, seeing so many animals. My favorite moment came when we were waiting in a line of vans and jeeps to get a better view of some female lions who were resting by the side of the road. Suddenly Zack backed up and started driving the other direction. He’d heard a leopard had been spotted in another part of the park. He drove like a racecar driver across the rough roads and we finally pulled up to another line of vehicles. A nice British man standing up in the next jeep helped us spot the leopard and Chad got some great photos of it.
Apparently the leopard is the most difficult of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, cape buffalo, and elephant) to see and many people leave their safaris without having encountered one. We felt very lucky and actually ended up with four of the Big 5 on that first drive, which was the best we could hope for since there aren’t any elephants in Lake Nakuru National Park. After the leopard photos we went back to the lions who had moved away from the road and onto some trees. Chad was able to capture this photo, which Zack said could be a poster (I agree):
And here are a few more great photos from our two Lake Nakuru game drives:
Back at the house, John made us a tasty dinner that we enjoyed with a couple 250ML bottles of wine we’d bought in Nairobi. If you’re like us and like a glass of wine with dinner, it is helpful to stock up before leaving on the safari since there’s no place to buy it near the accommodations we had. The next day Zack was kind enough to stop at a liquor store in Narok so I could buy some for our two nights in the Maasai Mara (though I think I saw him get a little kickback through Mpesa for bringing us to shop there, so it was a win-win for everyone).
In my next post, I’ll share our transition from Lake Nakuru to Maasai Mara and many more game drives and experiences. And lots more photos. Stay tuned!
Swiss Lenana Mount Hotel Nairobi – Clean, comfortable and very welcoming – My husband and I stayed two nights in this hotel ahead of our safari. It was chosen by the tour operator but we thought it was a great choice. We enjoyed the Asian influence, especially the interesting foods at breakfast. We were able to walk to the CBD to pick up cash, snacks, and a SafariCom SIM card, but chose to take an Uber back. We also used Uber to go out to a restaurant for dinner, which was very easy. Everyone on the hotel staff was welcoming and professional toward us. We enjoyed the rooftop bar on the second night, including the pool table. Overall a great stay!
WCK Guesthouse – Great experience – It was really cool to get to stay in a house inside the park. The house was very clean and well-kept by the caretaker who was there to greet us. We loved the upstairs terrace. We saw baboons, a black rhino (through binoculars), zebras, and tons of birds from the comfort of the terrace. It was a great place to spend a night at Lake Nakuru National Park.