For a nature destination, nothing quite beats Africa, and Kenya is a gem among jewels: The East African country has a high concentration of migrating and native wildlife as well as upwards of 50 indigenous tribes and sub-tribes, most of which maintain their traditions and dress. Plus, there's a lot of love for Americans on account of President Barack Obama's family ties. For a well-rounded Kenya experience, consider a bilateral approach: Visit the northern region for authentic cultural immersion and the south for tried-and-true animal viewing.
Lemarti's Camp, Laikipia Plateau
Nestled underneath a massive, centuries-old fig tree, within an oasis of the banks of the Ewaso River, is Anna Trzebinski and Loyapan Lemarti's “Africa-chic” camp. Trzebinski, an acclaimed Nairobi-born fashion and furniture designer, and Lemarti, her Samburu warrior husband and one of the area's best nature guides, opened the camp two years ago with a focus on cultural integration.
Lemarti and his Laikipia Masai and Samburu warrior pals are in charge of the day-to-day at the camp, and since there are only five tents, the genial and colorfully dressed tribesmen often outnumber the guests. Visitors can spend days lounging around the tents, which are richly designed with reclaimed hardwoods, lush native textiles, and an overall nod to Africa (including found elephant jawbone toilet seats!). You can also wander to the river for some fruitful tilapia fishing, take a “Rites of Passage” nature walk with just you and the warriors and their spears, track elephants via Land Rover, and visit the manyatta (or village) of a friendly staffer. Meals are locally sourced, simple and gourmet.
Late afternoons are spent on nearby hills watching wildlife, which is more skittish here than in the south since they are unaccustomed to humans. As night falls, wildlife viewing turns to star gazing. End the evening by sitting in with Lemarti and his friends as they sing native songs by the fire.
Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp, Masai Mara National Reserve
While you can still get face time with locals here, the experience is really about the animals — thousands upon thousands of them. You'll be hard pressed to want to spend time away from the animals once you've been in their proximity. Guests staying at Cottar's, Kenya's oldest photo safari camp, are especially lucky since it’s located on its own private concession—several thousand acres’ worth—which means exploring portions that are exclusive to the camp and at more flexible hours (sunrise breakfast in the savannah, perchance?).
Hit the camp during migration (generally July through October) and you'll be in a well-stocked grocery store for predators. Lion prides feast frequently on game plucked from fields congested with wildebeest, antelopes and gazelles. With elephants, hippos, hyenas, giraffes and more, it's easy to overlook the other wonders like massive bird, insect and plant diversity, but take those in too, because where else will you see a rainbow colored lilac breasted roller? (It's a bird.)
Fourth-generation owner Calvin Cottar is ranked as one of the best guides in Africa as are his staff guides, including ethnobotanist Douglas Nagi, who lectures at universities and for five years worked with conservationist Kuki Gallmann. When you aren't out in the field, open bedrooms in colonial elegant style offer vast views of the area. Guests can also enjoy daily post-safari massages and outdoor late afternoon baths in oversize tubs. That's a heck of a way to watch an African sunset.
You may have to stay a night arriving or departing in Nairobi, which is a not a bad thing. Elegant Giraffe Manor is located in the Karen district, named after “Out of Africa” writer Karen Blixen. The manor’s six rooms overlook verdant grounds that are home to endangered Rothschild giraffes, which pop their heads into rooms looking for a nibble.
Also in Nairobi make time for to visit the world-renowned Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where visitors can meet and foster one of many orphaned baby elephants and rhinos. Dame Sheldrick, who lives on the grounds, has created this haven for young elephants and rhinos and to date has hand-reared nearly 100.
Getting there and additional resources
Lemarti's Camp: Prices start at $750 per person per night this includes all meals, activities, beverages and laundry. Prices do not include conservation and reserve fees, village visits, transfers, internal flights, staff gratuities or premium liquor.
Cottar's 1920s Camp: Prices start at $670 (low season) to $780 (high season) per person per night, and includes all meals, activities, beverages, spa treatments (one massage per person per stay) and laundry. Prices do not include conservation and reserve fees, transfers, internal flights, staff gratuities or premium liquor.
While you can book stays at these camps directly, due to their location and planning involved (transfers, inland carriers, visas, etc.), it is recommended that you book your trip through a reputable travel company. Santa Fe-based Uncharted Outposts is one of the oldest and most reputable travel outfitters specializing in authentic adventure travel with emphasis placed on nature conservation and preservation of indigenous cultures. Currently Uncharted Outposts is offering a “4 nights for price of 3” package valid through March 2010 at Cottar’s and Lemarti’s.
Animals: Mara 1/Flickr
Nairobi: ActionPixs (Maruko)/Flickr
MNN homepage photo: lensbug.chandru/Flickr