Kenya, part 1 – Safari Time!

Our time in Asia was over, but the fun was only just getting started. There was a lot to look forward to for our 8 weeks in Africa, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit what you all already know–it’s all about the elephants! 🐘😍

Day 200: Welcome to Kenya!

Our flight from Doha was a red-eye, and so we landed in Nairobi early in the morning, ready to fight the massive lines of immigration craziness. Except just kidding…somehow the airport is totally dead and everything from deplaning to customs took 10 minutes. “Are we really in Nairobi?” I asked. From what we heard afterwards, apparently we got lucky–at peak times, the airport is a disaster. I’ll take it. Grabbing an Uber was easy as pie and off we went to our hotel for the night, the Royal Tulip Canaan. Sounds fancy, right? Eh…I was underwhelmed. But whatevs, it had a bed and shower and what else do you really need?

More importantly: we were not alone for this part of the trip! Four friends were joining us for our Kenyan safari adventure and two (Cheri and Craig) had arrived in Nairobi the night before. So, after a much needed shower, we all went out for lunch to Open House Restaurant, which is most definitely the least authentic name I’ve ever heard for an Indian restaurant. Food was great though, so no complaints here. (Sorry, we suck at taking food pictures now.) The afternoon was spent lazing about, preparing for our impending animal adventures. The last duo (Casey and Lori) arrived later that night, just in time to crash for the night.

Days 201-205: Safari time!!!

We booked a private safari, which can be expensive but was made much more reasonable by splitting the car/driver costs across 6 people. BTW we booked all of this through African Budget Safaris and we fully recommend them. They were easy to work with and gave great advice. The actual safari company was African Horizons and they were great as well–fantastic driver/guide and they took good care of us (some brownie points lost for a shambly car but would still consider them in the future). The itinerary was a 5 day/4 night trip with one day spent at Lake Nakuru National Park and the rest of the time spent at Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is contiguous with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. We also had a stop at Lake Naivasha for hippo viewing (which was a bit of a bust but that’s luck for ya). In Lake Nakuru NP we stayed at the Lake Nakuru Lodge and in Maasai Mara NP we stayed at Maasai Mara Sopa Lodge, both nice lodges with very nice staff.

On the first day, while driving to Lake Nakuru NP, we made a pitstop to appreciate the Great Rift Valley, a GIANT trench that stretches from Lebanon to Mozambique. It’s incredibly hard to properly photograph, plus the day was hazy, but here goes:

View of Great Rift Valley on the way to Lake Nakuru NP

BTW here’s our sweet vehicle set up–it was definitely not the most comfortable car of my life and had some serious radiator problems BUT it worked so… #standards

The closed van with a pop-up roof seems to be the vehicle of choice (or requirement) in Kenya (and Tanzania as we later found out)–very different from the totally open vehicles often seen in Southern African safaris (South Africa, Botswana). Slightly tight quarters when it’s 6 people all trying to stand up to see the animals, but we made it work!

Now onto the good stuff…the animals! First up: Lake Nakuru NP. There aren’t any elephants in this park (WOMPWOMP) so that was a bit of a disappointment, but there ARE rhinos which are much harder to find in comparison so definitely worth a visit. They’ve also got giraffes, hippos, buffalo, zebras, and the occasional big cats (lions, etc). One of the biggest reasons people go to this park is to enjoy the hundreds (if not thousands) of flamingos that flock to the area BUT this is a seasonal event based on rains and food availability, and we weren’t there at peak season–so just a handful of (barely pink) flamingos were around. Boo. That said, here are some of my fave pictures from this park:

We got very lucky and saw these rhinos early on in the game drive. With the dwindling number of rhinos across the world, seeing these in their natural habitat is a real blessing.

I spy a hungry giraffe!
Black-backed jackals have become one of my favorite animals–look at how cute he is!
Buffalos are not exactly attractive animals, but I can never resist a mom/baby duo.
Lilac breasted rollers can be seen throughout sub-Saharan Africa and more beautiful every time you see them–their colors are incredible and seem to change in different lighting.
Secretary birds – kind of hideous but honestly I’m obsessed. It’s basically a bird wearing leggings!
Lions are not as easy to see in this park and we got very lucky towards the end of our game drive. He had just finished a veryyyyy large dinner (the giraffe carcass was nearby but I’ll save you that image) and his leftovers were being scavenged nearby. (Hyena not pictured.) 
These vultures were waiting for their turn with the carcass too.
No safari is complete without an adorable family of baboons crossing the street.
Tiny group of (barely pink) flamingos 😭

The next day we started out with a brief stop at Lake Naivasha for some ‘guaranteed’ hippo action. While we did in fact see hippos, the action was minimal and unexciting. We did however get to see a pretty sizable eagle swoop down for some breakfast and I suppose that was worth $30 🤔

Putting 7 people on this boat (6 of us plus the captain) was a real test of physics.
The only hippo action we got on Lake Naivasha…which was no action at all.
This eagle was pretty legit though.
Swooping in for a snack.

The drive from Lake Naivasha to Maasai Mara NP was long…very, very long. If you ask our driver though, it was like ‘an hour, hour and a half’. #africatime And of course, because no trip is complete without car trouble, the car’s radiator was having a real life struggle:

This was not the only time that we had to pull over to let the engine cool down and refill the radiator. Fortunately there were always people around to help.
At least this meant a break from the confines of the car!

But we did eventually make it! And now’s when we get to the good stuff. Lake Nakuru may have rhinos, but Maasai Mara NP has SO. MANY. ELEPHANTS. (And other cool animals.) I really can’t recommend this park enough. There are literally 5 million pictures so I will try to limit myself to the best ones:

These lions couldn’t be more picturesque if they tried.
Baby monkeys are SO CUTE!
Ever wonder how giraffes bend down to drink water? Well, here you have it. I bet this is some sort of yoga move.
Here we have the Topi…a very not-cute antelope that most have probably never heard of but appears to be quite common in Maasai Mara & Serengeti NPs.
Would you like to die of #cutenessoverload? You’re welcome.
A pitstop at Keekorok Lodge for a bio break ended up giving us the most hippo action we’d had yet–they have a lake behind their property with a overlooking, aptly-named Hippo Bar for endless hours of hippo viewing. They didn’t do much besides grunt but they are hippos after all…
Would you like your elephant #cutenessoverload in small, medium, or large? Here’s all 3.
It wouldn’t be right to post about safaris without featuring two of the most commonly seen animals: impala and wildebeest. Here’s a harem of females (and perhaps some young males who haven’t been kicked to the curb yet) with their wildebeest bodyguard–the alpha male impala with his big horns won’t be far away, contemplating how to keep this many women happy.
Cheetahs! Difficult to spot and, just like all cats, always sleeping. So so cute.
One day I would like to sleep with such freedom. One day.
Definitely contemplating how she can get in the car and eat us for lunch. 
Plenty of ostrich to be seen in parks with plains/savannah.
Pumba and Pumba Jr! So many warthogs in these national parks, and they’re not necessarily very cute, but they’re pretty adorable when they run away–their little tails stick right up!
Playing lions are the best…
….until you find the lion that’s playing with a lone flipflop and you’re simultaneously “awwwwww”ing and “uh oh”ing 😂
This owl is VERY annoyed about his interrupted nap.
Finally, hippo action! Also this was the smelliest body of water of my entire life. Hippos are disgusting.
Special shout out to weaverbirds, who build THE cutest nests I’ve ever seen.
And another special shout out to Tony, our awesome driver and guide for the trip. (We promise he liked us too.)
We saw so many elephants in Maasai Mara NP that I basically died 1000 deaths and went to heaven. One day, we saw over 150 in one single panoramic view (counted them with help from the binoculars). Is there anything better???? The story behind this GIF is pretty great–we were observing a large family of elephants who were all spread out, thoroughly enjoying their food, when suddenly a younger elephant (featured here at the front of the crowd) let out a “MOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!” wail when he noticed the car nearby (mind you, we hadn’t moved, he actually moved towards us). Within seconds, every elephant from the family came running and formed a tight group around the baby, staring us down, ready to protect their young. It. was. INCREDIBLE. Elephants are literally the best animals ever.

While in the Maasai area, we also took the opportunity to visit a Maasai village to learn a bit about the people and the culture. Definitely a valuable experience! So much fun to observe the dances, see their homes, taste their food, and learn about their traditions. But full disclosure: some of their traditions are ridiculously antiquated…like the one where a man looking to marry a woman (a loose term since girls as young as 16 years old can be married off) has to ‘pay’ her father a certain number of cows to be able to take her away. The best part: the older she is, the less cows he has to pay. When I asked what the price would be for a 30 year old, I was basically laughed at…in other words, I’m so old that I’d be free. Good thing I already locked Ben down. 😂 A way more intense (and slightly insane) tradition? When boys reach a certain age, they leave their village to live together as a group out in the bush for FOUR years, where they will learn how to ‘be men’, which includes learning how to LITERALLY fight off/kill a lion with a spear and your arm as a shield. I am not joking. Their arm, wrapped in a cloth, is the shield. Western men are DEFINITELY not that manly 😂

Male Maasai dance. Part of the dance includes having the men jump up as high as they can to show their worthiness…the higher the jump, the better the man. Ben and Craig got a chance to try it out and didn’t jump very high, but they get some slack given the lack of practice 😆 (The female dance was far less exciting and us 4 ladies looked just as dumb trying to do it.)
Ben and Craig also got to practice starting a fire with a stick and their bare hands. They’re now ready for the apocalypse. 
Of course, once we were ready to head back to the lodge, the car was blocked by a herd of sheep and goats. #africa

No safari is complete without some funny moments, mostly brought to you by adorable and brilliant monkeys:

Monkeys are truly brilliant. I left an open bag of chips on a little table by the pool while I went in for a dip, and by the time I got back, the bag was gone. (No trouble for me because the chips honestly sucked.) Who was the culprit? This little vervet monkey. He ran to the table, grabbed the bag, and ran away just a few feet to feast. He ripped the bag wide open and then very daintily started grabbing one chip at a time and taking tiny bites. Like a person. I have never loved a monkey more.
Same hotel, same monkey (or at least monkey species). This time he snuck into the dining room during breakfast and climbed along the walls until he was by the yogurts…grabbed one and ran for his life. I wish I could have seen him open it and enjoy his spoils of war.

Special shoutout to Cheri, who had a birthday shortly before the safari and got a celebratory cake:

Just in case there were TWO Cheris in the dining room, better make sure the full name is on the cake 😂

On our last day, after the “hour, hour and a half” (😂) drive back to Nairobi, we made our last stop of the trip: lunch at Carnivore. The restaurant name pretty accurately describes what they serve…meat. Lots and lots of meat. All kinds of meat. Sure there’s chicken, beef, pork and goat, but let’s add in some crocodile and ostrich, and since those are still pretty “normal” meats, let’s make things really spicy by adding in ox balls. That’s right…testicles. I OBVIOUSLY didn’t eat them but they smelled pretty damn horrible and those that did brave the mystery meat concluded that they were pretty damn disgusting. Ick. The normal food was good though!

Carnivore grilling area. So. Much. Meat. Honestly, the smell is a bit overwhelming.
The final feast.

And so ended our Kenyan safari! Cheri and Craig went back home later that evening, and the rest of us relaxed at the hotel for the night. I had a tragic experience with a ‘pepperoni’ pizza covered in vegetables and no pepperoni that left me missing America, but life must go on. Though our safari was over, our time in Kenya was just starting–next up, Nairobi and Diani Beach!

P.S. Tips for your Kenyan safari:

  1. Go to Maasai Mara. Gorgeous park, beautiful views, so many animals. Just do it.
  2. Bring a good camera (with a zoom lens) and binoculars.
  3. Don’t forget bug repellant and safari appropriate clothing (we had to wing it a bit on the latter since our packing was for a trip with various locations and weather expectations). Aim for neutral colors, comfortable materials, and proper coverage for sun AND bug protection. Don’t forget a hat.
  4. Learn some key Swahili words–they’re not hard to pronounce and the locals appreciate it. If you’re really into it, learn the Jambo song. So so fun and you’re very likely to hear it somewhere along the way.
  5. Bring your bargaining skills. This often makes Westerners uncomfortable because we’re used to set prices when we shop, but that’s not how it works in Kenya when stopping at those curio shops along the way. If you pay the first price they ask for, you’re getting ROBBED. You MUST haggle them down to about 10-20% of the original price (not 10-20% DOWN, I mean down TO 10-20% of the first price). This means you have to work for your souvenirs but you won’t regret it. Your biggest weapon is to walk away…if they follow you, then you know you can knock them down even a little lower.

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