Going on safari in Kenya ranks right up there with other once-in-a-lifetime experiences like doing a bungee jumping, seeing the pyramids and driving Route 66; it’s at the top of many people’s ‘must-do’ list.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I’d seen all of the Attenborough wildlife documentaries and they offered my first glimpse of wildebeest migrating, of a cheetah dragging its prey into a tree and the first time I watched a lion hunt. But these glimpses through a TV screen, thousands of miles away would be insignificant compared to witnessing these animals in real life.
Safaris broadly fall into two categories -‘road safaris’ and ‘fly-in’ safaris, with a few variations on these themes. Each will try to show you the ‘Big 5’ - a term that historically refers to the five African animals that were hardest to hunt on foot; the Cape buffalo, African Elephant, Black Rhinoceros, African Leopard and the African Lion
A road safari involves lots of overland driving with stops along the way to view the game. You’ll usually be driven in an overland vehicle which is essentially self-contained mobile accommodation. These kinds of trips have passenger numbers of up to 40 and you drive as a group and usually camp along the way. Smaller road safaris travel in a 6-8 seater mini-van, with a pop-up roof that gives each passenger a 360-degree view. It’s an authentic but a very rugged way to travel.
Road safaris are less expensive, but if you don’t have a great deal of time, can feel like you’re driving more than you’re ‘game driving’. Additionally, many overland safaris are ‘on the beaten track’ – so when animals are sighted, there can be several vehicles queuing to take their turn to get up close.
I opted for a fly-in safari in Kenya where you fly direct to the heart of a game reserve. From this point on, you’ll have minimal travelling, you’re often the only vehicle in sight and you'll mostly have the game to yourself. These types of safari are offered inTanzania and South Africa as well as Kenya. I chose the Governors Camp in the Masai Mara, where the animals live in their traditional habitat as they have done for thousands of years.
Flying direct from London into Nairobi, I then took a 50-minute connecting flight on to the Governor’s camp. Nothing could have prepared me for the amazing experience of getting into a 10-seater light aircraft where the pilot was within touching distance and I could see every instrument! During the flight, every kilometre beneath you is visible as you fly over savannah and grasslands – it’s a spectacular way to begin your African adventure!
The drive from the airfield to the Governors Camp is around 15 minutes, so it’s not long before you arrive at your comfortable accommodation.
The Governor's camp accommodation is tented - but before you stop reading and decide it’s not for you – these are permanently fixed tents with electricity, hot and cold running water and beautiful hand carved wooden beds, not to mention the traditional safari trunks and décor. You’ll enjoy all the comforts of a 4* hotel, but you’ll be situated right in the middle of the Masai Mara.
As the animals have free reign, safety is paramount and each tent is guarded in the evening by an armed member of staff. They’re not armed against humans (after all you’re in the middle of the Kenyan savannah!) but against inquisitive animals – remember there are no fences!
You can choose a river view or plains view for your tent, and mine had a view over the Masai river. On arrival, I took a little stroll along the river. As I peered down, I felt comforted that the camp itself is twenty feet higher than the river; I could spot crocodiles and hippos just feet away from where I was sleeping!
It’s worth mentioning that game drivers here need to be qualified to do the job, so they each have an excellent knowledge of flora and fauna. The better trained and the more experienced game drivers cost a little more; so when you see cheaper alternatives, do bear this in mind. Governor’s only employ the best-qualified game drivers and it really makes a difference to the quality of your experience.
Our game drives were incredible; I saw herds of elephants, buffalo and zebra. I watched a herd of giraffes ‘strolling’ across the savannah (that’s what they do, apparently) and their gait really is something to behold; you really can’t grasp the scale of these animals, they’re massive!
We watched a pride of lions against a breath-taking backdrop of the setting sun and I saw some young males gathered around the body of a small hippo they were feeding on.
A cheetah and her cubs walked in front of our truck, which blew my mind. Later, my driver asked me to climb out and walk a few metres to the river’s edge. No more than 6 feet below us we watched as around 15 hippos jostled for position, all making a deafening noise.
On the second morning, I’d booked a hot air balloon ride. Waking before dawn to a pot of coffee and a croissant delivered to my tent, I was taken on a short drive to the balloon launch site.
It was still pitch dark as I approached, but all of a sudden, the world was illuminated by the flame from the balloon. Once the balloon inflated, I climbed into the wicker basket and we set off, bobbing along just above the tree tops.
The first thing I saw was that warthogs seemed to be scattering in front of us; every time we approached a group of them sleeping, they would dart off in different directions. The pilot varies your altitude so that one minute you’re soaring high with the Masai spread before you, and the next – you’re only just above the height of a giraffe.
On landing, we walked a short distance to where the table had been set for our champagne breakfast - in the middle of the Masai Marai! In terms of impactful experiences, the hour I spent floating above the Masai Mara is one I will remember for the rest of my life; what a view, what a fantastic place.
The camp employs mainly local Kenyans, but European chefs regularly visit to train the staff. You can expect beautifully presented 4/5 star European fare including three-course lunches and dinners, a fantastic range of wines and spirits and sun-downers each evening.
The dining room at is situated out on the Mara Plain, where you’ll be able to watch elephant and zebra grazing in the distance. How often do you have the chance to dine with a view of wild animals and still feel safe?
The time I spent at the camp and the myriad of experiences I was privileged to enjoy are beyond my powers of description. I can happily recommend it to anyone looking for a truly ‘once in a lifetime’ safari experience. This little story sums up an experience of the Governor’s Camp:
On the last night, I had a few drinks around the fire. The owner, Philip, makes a fire every night and encourages guests to sit with him and share stories of the day’s sightings over a tipple or three. Time had gone on and as he had been generous with the whiskey, I stood up to leave and head back to my tent an in the dark, you’re accompanied by one of the guards.
As we walked, we were halted in our tracks by a huge elephant stood in our path. He was helping himself to some fruit on a tree and the guard suggested we should wait until he has finished (who was I to argue?). The owner overheard, brought another drink to where I was standing and all three of us watched as the elephant stripped the tree bare, devoured the fruit and went on his merry way. The guard then escorted me safely to my tent and I wondered if I would ever experience anything like this again.
Flights to Kenya vary depending on the season: UK holidays (summer, Easter etc.) affect the price but nowhere near as much as the wildlife migration season. From June to September, the hoofed animals such as gazelle, buffalo and zebra move from dry areas to places that offer more water, usually from Tanzania to Kenya and these are key months to see dramatic movements of the wildlife, so flight prices are higher.
The Governors Camp operates on a full board basis, so the price you pay includes accommodation, transfers (flights) to and from Nairobi, plus breakfast, lunch and dinner every day during your stay. Soft drinks, water, tea and coffee are all included, so you’ll only pay for any alcoholic beverages.
Included in your stay are two game drives per day, usually operating in the morning around dawn and in the afternoon around dusk as these are the best times to spot the wildlife. Additional Game drives can be arranged locally.
The hot air balloon ride is optional and can be booked locally or in advance, but I would strongly recommend asking us to book this at the same time as your accommodation as spaces are very limited.
If you’d like to book a luxury Kenyan safari or to visit the Governor’s Camp, Travel Nation can arrange every aspect of your trip, including flights, transfers, accommodation and the safari itself. If you’d like to extend your trip, we can recommend add-on destinations, for example, a 5-day Luxury Zanzibar beach stay. To start planning your trip, call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.