Security issues have shaken tourist confidence in Kenya, but safari and beach breaks can still be a big seller, discovers Katie McGonagle
The vast horizon of the Masai Mara National Reserve was streaked with pale dawn sunshine as my eagle-eyed guide spotted a lion padding quietly across the bush.
He swung our 4×4 round and hurtled over the long, dry grass keen not to miss the moment – and it was the most memorable of my Kenya trip.
Getting closer, we slowed to a crawl and a majestic pride of more than 20 lions, lionesses and little cubs came into view, lazing among the trees just a few steps away.
It was only my second day on safari and already I’d spotted elephant, zebra, antelope and dozens of other species I’d only ever seen in books. Even when I arrived, on the short journey from the Mara reserve’s Olkiombo airstrip to the lodge where I’d be staying, my red-robed Maasai guide stopped to point out more than a dozen hippos cooling off in the river. There’s a very good reason for the Mara’s enduring popularity as a first-time safari destination – big game, and lots of it.
SAFARI FIT FOR A PRESIDENT
The Mara also offers the gamut of safari stay options, from big, budget-friendly hotels to smaller, more luxurious lodges located in the private conservancies surrounding the National Park.
Basecamp Explorer is one of the latter: a 22-acre eco-friendly camp on the River Talek, comprising 12 large tents each beneath a thatched roof. With private outdoor showers, earth toilets and a back-to-nature feel (I fell asleep to the sounds of baboons rustling through the trees), it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But for an authentic experience with more than a touch of luxury, it’s hard to beat.
Barack Obama obviously thought so too when, while still just a senator, he and his family stayed at the lodge on a visit to Kenya in 2006. Those so inclined can even request the ‘Obama tent’.
Game drives take place at dawn and dusk, when the animals are most active. But agents can boost commission by offering to book customers an extra-special sunrise balloon safari, including champagne and breakfast.
In the heat of the day, guests can relax on their private terraces, take in the sweeping views across the savannah from Basecamp’s raised viewing platform, or enjoy the delicious local food – though I challenge anyone to get through the generous portions. Maasai guides also lead child-friendly activities for youngsters.
First-time safari-goers always want to see the big five, but there are plenty of unexpected pleasures too. We paused to watch an elegant crowned crane, Kenya’s national bird, drinking from a watering hole as dusk fell and it was just as magical as some of the larger game.
The Naboisho Conservancy is home to huge numbers of giraffe, as well as the Koiyaki Guiding School, where many guides have trained. They are the best source of knowledge about Maasai culture, but guests can also visit Basecamp’s on-site project that employs local women to make traditional souvenirs (maasaibrand.com), tour nearby villages or visit the local school.
Naibosho means ‘coming together’, and this new conservancy is the result of a collaboration between local Maasai and the tourist industry. Camps pay rent to Maasai landowners, who are incentivised to move their cattle, leaving the land for tourist-friendly big game. With Maasai also employed as guides, tourist pounds are trickling down into local pockets, rather than being skimmed off by big business. And it’s not just the Maasai and the animals who benefit. Tourists – welcomed with open arms by the traditional inhabitants of the area – find their experiences are enriched by extensive and authentic interactions with the local culture.
KICK BACK ON THE COAST
There are few better holiday double acts than safari and beach, and Kenya, with its glorious Indian Ocean coastline and white-sand beaches that really are as good as they look in the brochure, delivers it as successfully and cost-effectively as anywhere.
Mombasa is the gateway to Kenya’s beaches. Diani Beach is the busiest resort, with plenty of shops, banks and other facilities for those keen to venture outside their hotel.
For quieter areas, try Galu or Msambweni to the south of Mombasa, or Turtle Bay to the north.
There is plenty for those who want more than sun, sand and sea. Kitesurfing is becoming increasingly popular, along with other watersports and activities such as mountain biking tours of local villages.
The popular Wasini Island excursion packs a dolphin-spotting dhow tour, the country’s best snorkelling and diving at Kisite Marine Park, a sumptuous lunch of specialities like crab with steamed ginger, and a visit to the Women’s Boardwalk community project into a single day (£81 adults, £42 children; thomsonexcursions.co.uk).
For clients who want a quieter life, suggest they eat their way along the coast by sampling the wonderful local food. I’d recommend the seafood platter at Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant, set in a 180,000-year-old coral cave near Diani Beach. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I ventured downstairs through the rocky entrance, but I emerged into a beautiful candlelit cave with stars visible above – perfect for an extra-special occasion.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office continues to advise against travel to the luxury resort of Lamu on Kenya’s northern coast – despite last week’s release of British hostage Judith Tebbutt – following two attacks on western tourists by gangs with links to Somalia. The ban has boosted demand for resorts around Mombasa as agents switch-sell.
For properties offering Lamu-style barefoot luxury in a safer location, try Lantana Galu Beach or the Swahili Beach Hotel, a five-star property on Diani Beach. Kuoni offers seven nights’ half-board in a Superior room at the latter from £1,166 per person including flights in May.
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