A few weeks before the long weekend we each had to fill in a questionnaire about our previous horse riding experience and Jon got a little worried about the questions they were asking.…
We were about to join 8 others (we had only previously met one of them) for a long weekend of horse riding on the Laikipia Plateau. And as you are riding through the bush and across the planes where the wild animals of Kenya roam freely, your horse might get spooked at any time or you might need to leave an area quickly for safety reasons. So there were questions like “are you able to control a lively horse…”.
Jon prepared for the weekend by taking some riding lessons in the little time we had left and Jude discovered she still had her old riding jodhpurs from 25 years ago (and they fitted perfectly!).
The weekend started well with drinks by the huge fireplace where we met everybody, followed by a gourmet dinner in the grandiose dining room of the lodge. We discussed riding histories, tried to remember people’s names and listened to Leszek play the piano.
The next day started with a leisurely breakfast on the veranda before walking over to the stables. We were all given our horse and mounted eagerly. Jude’s Ethiopian pony came with red tape around the tail as a warning for others as Bella bucks. Jon’s ex-polo horse Alfie was chilled-out and made Jon feel in control.
We set off on the road but were soon into the bush. It was amazing to see the wildlife from a horse’s back. Getting relatively close to giraffes, zebras, antelopes and even the occasional elephant is just awesome. Apparently in the Maasai Mara, where they run 8-day horse riding safaris, you can even get very close to lions!
A delicious lunch was served in the bush on a purpose-built platform overlooking a watering hole with the horses scattered around us, resting a few hours before we jumped back on again for the next 3 hours of riding through the bush to the northern stables. We got there just as the heavens opened and after riding through a huge herd of about 50 giraffes.
We left the horses at the stables for the night and jumped in the safari vehicle that would take us to our overnight fly camp. Only 2 people had fallen off during the rides that day, Ruby being very unlucky as her horse slipped during a river crossing causing him to sit down on his bum, leaving poor Ruby sliding off into the river. Luckily both riders and horses were unharmed and the riders jumped straight back on to continue the ride.
The fly camp was seriously impressive. They had erected a shower tent and a toilet tent, created a bedroom made from hessian nets, provided shelter for our bags and things, set up a bar (!), a perfectly laid dining table, and built a great fire. Now that is what you can call proper glamping! (glamorous camping)
We enjoyed the hot (!) shower, had a few sundowners around the fire and then had beef fillet cooked on the open fire for dinner. Some said it was the best steak they ever had (don’t worry, they had a beautifully roasted butter-nut pumpkin stuffed with lots of delicious flavours for Jude too).
After a few more drinks around the fire, people went to bed and we asked if it was ok to pull our swag out of the ‘bedroom’ and sleep around the fire – with nothing between us and the animals.
Leszek also joined us and the 3 of us slept around the fire that night, watching the shooting stars and listening to the mating lions nearby. It was a night to remember forever and we hope we will be able to enjoy many more like that.
The next day we weren’t even that sore, so we happily got back onto our horses for the ride to breakfast before returning to the lodge for lunch served by the pool.
That afternoon some people wanted to relax, others went fishing and we chose to go on a game drive. Unfortunately it rained whilst we were on the drive and we didn’t see many animals. It seemed they were all hiding for the wet weather. Luckily we had spotted 2 leopards, a hyena, reticulated giraffes and rare Grévy’s zebras on the drive in through the Laikipia plateau so we didn’t feel like we were missing out completely.
We couldn’t find the wild dogs or the lions on our game drive (they have several groups with collars so they can be tracked by radio signal), but we did see a few hyenas on the carcass of an elephant that had recently been shot (poached). Strangely the lions hadn’t found the carcass yet.
The wild dogs, the Grévy’s zebras and the reticulated giraffes are all unique to the Laikipia plateau and it was the first time we had seen the Grévy’s zebras. They are distinct from the plains zebra and so cute with their oversized ears! We’ll have to come back one day to see if we can find the wild dogs…
That night we played snooker with Mark and Ruby on a full sized table. Who knows how they got it to the lodge in one piece? We had a great time trying to remember all the rules and of course trying to get the balls in the pockets. It’s not easy!
The next morning was our last ride and this time they had decided to split up the group in 3. Jude, Mark and Leszek went for a fast ride with some cross-country jumps. Jon joined the group that went for some trotting and cantering whilst another group took it easy and went for a slightly shorter ride before all meeting at the same time next to the river for another breakfast in the bush.
Hippos in the river, beautiful yellow fever trees around us and with a fantastic swimming hole with waterfalls just a 5 minutes’ walk from the breakfast table. Most of us went for a swim, but as you had to jump off a 7m waterfall to get in, not all were keen. The fact that there is a perfectly safe swimming hole right next to a river with hippos made it even more special. What a way to end a fantastic weekend!
It’s 333km to Kakamega Forest, Kenya’s only remaining rainforest, and it takes between 6 and 7 hours to get there depending on traffic. But it’s worth the drive. Kakamega is well known for its huge number of birds (367 species) and butterflies (489 species) and even though we aren’t real twitchers, we do enjoy spotting animals, all animals, including birds and we were excited to go. The forest is only 238km2 and is at about 1500-1600m altitude. As it is a rain forest it gets a significant amount of rain, between 1200 and 1700mm a year, and the heaviest rains fall in April and May during the long rains.
We timed our stay well and were there during the long rains… but we were very lucky with the weather. All our hikes and runs stayed dry and the rain (and some hail!) only came down at night and when we were in the dining room. One night Jon got surprised with a heavy downpour on the way to the cottage as he went to pick up the wine for dinner. The heavens literally opened with no warning! But that was all the rain we had when outdoors.
The place we stayed at is called Rondo Retreat, a lovely place owned and run by the local nuns. We didn’t see any whilst we were there, but we did spot some on our drive in at the local church. We had our own little cottage, complete with veranda and of course a great fireplace for the cooler evenings. They even come and light the fire for you. Right outside our cottage were some huge trees where we spotted many colobus and blue monkeys.
We weren’t very good with spotting birds, but we managed to find (and identify!) some outside our cottage, in the grounds of the retreat and on our walks. They even have a nest with a pair of African Ground Eagles nesting in the gardens of the retreat. We saw them fly off, they are beautiful and huge!
Kakamega Forest is probably most famous for the Great Blue Turaco and we were very lucky to spot 5 of them on our sunrise walk, as well as 2 Black and White Casqued Hornbills. The great blue turacos live in small groups of 4 or 5 birds, so when you see one flying you can start looking around for the others. Makes it a little easier…
On 2 of our walks we took a guide. He was much better in finding birds and identifying them, even just by hearing them he could tell us which birds were around us (many), although we didn’t see all the ones we heard.
But we did find the snake that was harassing some Banded Prinias in a tree. We heard the noise the little birds were making as they were trying to chase away the danger and then got the binoculars out to see if we could find the intruder. The snake was very hard to spot, but eventually we did see it gliding up the tree. It looked like a branch, it was amazingly well camouflaged!
The walk we saw most of our birds was the early morning sunrise walk to the highest hill (Lirhanda Hill) in the Forest. This hill is made of volcanic rock pushed up and due to the lack of soil has hardly any trees growing on it. Perfect for a lookout and a sunrise spot.
There is also a man-made cave halfway up Lirhanda Hill, hacked out many years ago when they were digging for gold. Two types of bats now call this cave home. One species is there during the day, the other at night.
In the whole weekend we only positively identified 11 types of different birds, a handful of plants and 3 types of monkeys. We might have to come back another time to see if we can add a few species to this list!
What would you do if you lost your sight from one day to the next? What would you do if you lost your sight after an accident, or because of untreated type I diabetes? Or if you lost it gradually over a period of a few years?
These were some of the stories of the guys and girls we met on a Saturday night. Not very happy stories to start with, but you should have seen their smiles as the evening went on! After losing their sight, through various reasons, they all lost their independence. They also lost jobs (there is no social security in Kenya), some even lost partners. But on this particular Saturday night they were the experts once again in what they were doing, they have a job again, they have some of their independence back, their dignity and they were smiling.
It was Nairobi’s first night of ‘Dinner in the Dark’ or ‘Gizani’ which means ‘in the dark’ in Swahili and we went their with Kate and Neil. We weren’t really sure what to expect, but it sounded very interesting. We bought tickets and on the opening night we found ourselves surrounded by cameramen and photographers and a bunch of other people without phones and watches. The phones and watches had to be handed in at the door as no source of light is allowed into the dining room.
When it was time for dinner we were all lead into the room by our (blind!) waiters, we were going to be served by Evans and Ignatius. We were the first table to be lead into the room, very exciting. The 3 vegetarians on our table were placed at the front of the row (Kate, Jude and William) followed by the other 6 people at our table.
Placing our left hand on top of the left shoulder of the person in front, we were lead into the room through a series of 5 curtains. Ignatius lead us in and Evans closed the line behind Jon. The curtains made sure no light entered the room and soon we were walking in complete darkness having to trust our competent waiters completely for guidance and direction! There was no waiting for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, there was simply no light whatsoever…
Once seated at our table we were told what was on it: a napkin, cutlery, a water glass and a wine glass in front of each person plus a basket of bread (round was brown, flat was white) and some water jugs.
And then dinner was served. We weren’t told what the dishes were, all we knew is that the vegetarians had something vegetarian and the rest didn’t… It was a delicious 3-course meal with accompanying wines served expertly by our waiters. We have no idea how they did it, but they always managed to find you, serve and remove plates, bring you drinks, ask if anything was missing, if the food was good, if we were enjoying ourselves. They were extremely attentive and somehow were always on hand when needed.
Eating with knife and fork can be a bit of a challenge when you cannot see your food (or your plate or your cutlery….), so fingers were regularly used to assist in the eating, but especially in the exploring phase. Just by feeling a shape we could guess some of the things on our plate, but a lot of it was left to our taste buds for final confirmation. They were working overtime that night and were in for a treat!
Conversation can be interesting too, particularly when you don’t know the people at your table well. Without the visual cues, you can’t tell when it is appropriate to speak, if someone is agreeing with your views or even whether someone is even remotely interested in what you are talking about. It takes some getting used to.
Spoiler alert…! If you want to go to Gizani and want to be surprised by everything, don’t read the next 2 paragraphs…!
Somehow we managed not to knock over any glasses, get the food into our mouths and have some conversations with our neighbours. And when we were just enjoying the final spoonfuls of our delicious dessert, our waiters all of a sudden broke out into song! They were all standing near the tables they served and we enjoyed a few beautiful and uplifting songs sung in a capella with different voices coming from all around us.
The food and the songs were both an amazing experience. It seems true what they say that when you can’t see anything your other senses are heightened, perhaps making the food taste even better and the songs sound even more beautiful…
These ‘eat in the dark’ restaurants exist in a lot of places all over the world. We have heard they are in London (a favourite of Prince William and Kate), Paris, Stockholm and even in Sydney. So if you find yourself in one of these cities and fancy a different dining experience for a change we can highly recommend it. Let us know what you thought of it and if it was similar or different to the one in Nairobi!
Gizani will be on every Saturday night at the Tribe Hotel, check it out if you are in Nairobi!
Update 19 June 2015 – Dinner in the Dark in Nairobi is doing well and now available at 4 restaurants and they are looking into drinks in the dark… there will also be one night organised in Mombasa where they will have a one-off dinner in the dark option. Keep spreading the love!
Kenya is blessed with a large number of national parks and we feel it is our duty to try them all during the time we are privileged to be living here. Now that we have both been granted resident status, we have an added bonus of very affordable entry fees.
We used a few of our long weekends to explore some of the parks that are a bit further away: Tsavo East and Amboseli NP. Three days off gives you enough time to drive that little bit further from Nairobi. The first long weekend we decided to go to Tsavo East. Kenya’s largest national park is located about 350km from Nairobi, just off the road to Mombasa. In fact, the road to Mombasa cuts Tsavo into Tsavo East and Tsavo West.
That distance should only take about 3-4 hours driving, but unfortunately that is not the case on Mombasa Rd. Traffic on Mombasa Rd is diabolical with many, many trucks transporting everything that arrives into the country at the port of Mombasa to the rest of the country and beyond into the rest of East Africa. Some of these trucks reach a top speed of 10km an hour on the hills (due to overloading, sometimes 4 times the allowed weight limit) and overtaking is not easy as it is just a single lane going both ways… It doesn’t help that some of the buses (obviously in a hurry) overtake without checking if the road is clear… Mombasa Rd is quite an experience, requiring nerves of steel.
We planned accordingly as people had warned us about traffic, so on Saturday morning we hit the road at 4.30AM. This meant we arrived at the park entrance just before lunchtime. The plan was to cruise slowly to our camp and have lunch there once we arrived. And we hadn’t even driven 2 km when we spotted our first cat: a lioness sitting in front of some scrubs. It was a good omen for the rest of the weekend and we ended up seeing a lot of (unusual) animals.
Our camp was amazing (Satao, meaning giraffe in the local language), the best we have seen anywhere. It only has a relatively small number of tents, is not fenced off, has a fantastic waterhole with some resident hippos, a small lookout tower and a good restaurant with great views also over the waterhole. At night there is always a guard to escort you to and from your tent to make sure you are safe. A herd of impalas makes the central area home at night, realising they are quite safe there from lions as they rarely make an appearance with humans and guards around. Giraffes and hippos also venture into the central area regularly. We almost had to push one giraffe out of the way on returning from dinner as he was blocking the entrance of our tent whilst eating from the acacia next to our tented bedroom.
When we say tent, don’t think of a small tent with inflatable mattresses on the floor and a sleeping bag. These are luxury tents that come with their own 4 poster bed and even a full ensuite bathroom. From our bed we could see the waterhole and all the animals coming in for a drink, including the 3 lions who came for a middle of the night drink (the guards woke us up for this, as requested!).
Tsavo East is absolutely vast and even over the 3 days we didn’t manage to see everything. And we were only able to visit the southern half of the park, as the northern section is not open to the public (our blog on Umani Springs explains why). One of the things Tsavo is particularly famous for is its red elephants. They love to cover themselves in mud and dust for protection from the sun and insects, and such is the colour of the soil here the elephants appear to be red.
The other thing Tsavo is well-known for are the maneless male lions, also known as the man-eaters from Tsavo. If you are interested you can read the book ‘The Man-Eaters of Tsavo’ from John Henry Patterson (1907). It recounts his experiences while overseeing the construction of a railroad bridge in what would become Kenya. It is most widely known for recounting the story of a pair of lions that he killed, known as the Tsavo man-eaters. It has also been made into a movie called ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas (1996).
Tsavo really is Africa personified: huge open plains full of wild animals of every description. We’ll be going back here for sure.
Another long weekend was spent in Amboseli NP, together with Jon’s colleague Rob. Again the distance to the park (about 230km) doesn’t convey how long the drive really takes (about 4-4.5hrs), but an early start again made sure we were there on time for lunch (after entering through the gate it still takes a few hours to slowly drive to our camp).
Amboseli NP is famous for 2 things: its elephants (not red this time) and the impressive backdrop of Kilimanjaro just across the border in Tanzania. The first day we didn’t manage to see Kili as it was covered in cloud, but the next 2 days we had some good views in the morning before the clouds moved in later in the day.
The elephants here love the swampy areas and we spotted one small herd near the road. It is a beautiful sight. Only the backs of these huge animals are visible as they slowly move through the swamp, taking huge mouth-fulls of the water plants. They must love it, being cool in the water with so much food around all at mouth height. Fantastic! The babies have a bit of a tougher job in the swamp as it is quite deep, so we were very lucky that one mum decided to stroll out of the swamp right in front of us to feed her precious baby boy before leading them back into the swamp again. We watched them for hours!
After a fantastic 3 days here, we had fallen in love with this national park too. And with each park being beautiful and unique we will definitely be going back in the future. Just let us know which one you want to ‘do’ when you get here! (we’ll write about other parks too once we have visited them).
Kat had signed up for an overland trip from Nairobi to Vic Falls and decided to grace us with her presence the week before her departure date. What she didn’t realise is that she would be used as a mule on her way to Kenya as we ‘needed’ a few items brought over from Australia… more than 10kg of candles, a desk lamp and some vegetable stock cubes and her bag was pretty much overflowing before she even added her toothbrush!
As Jon needed to go to Tanzania for work, the girls took the car and headed off on a mid-week adventure to Lake Baringo and Lake Nakuru National Park. Lake Baringo is one of many in a string of Rift Valley lakes, complete with resident hippos, crocs and a huge variety of birds. We went on a boat ride to explore the lake and see the mighty fish eagle swoop down to catch a fish (that our guide had bought from a fisherman, cleaned and stuffed with some wood to make it float). Their accuracy is pretty amazing!
At Lake Nakuru we were very lucky to bump into 3 white rhinos right next to the road and then, as we were deciding which track to take, a ranger asked us if we would like to see a leopard… is the pope catholic?! So down this tiny track we went until we arrived at the place where 3 other cars were already parked. The very well camouflaged leopard was hidden in the scrub, but it was still possible to see her (or him?). We watched her for about half an hour, one of Africa’s most majestic sights.
Its a great National Park (for those planning a visit) and we enjoyed the monkey cliffs for the views and the lakeside for the pelicans and the greater and lesser flamingos and to top it all off spotted yet another white rhino, a lioness and a very rare black rhino on the way back to our guesthouse.
With Jon back for the weekend we decided to hike to the top of Mt Suswa and camp on its rim. Mt Suswa is another volcano in the Rift Valley, this one has a distinct outer and inner rim. In the outer rim many Masaai families graze their stock and collect water from the steam coming out of the volcanic vents. Without these steam vents the families could not live here as the area is very dry and has no other source of water.
Our guide and his brother are from one of those families living in the outer crater. They have another 50 brothers and sisters or so, all from one father and his 4 wives, a rich family as the father can afford more than one wife…
We hiked to the top of Mt Suswa, a gentle walk for a few hours before returning to our sensational campsite. It overlooks the inner crater, a sacred and lost world rarely visited and completely covered in ancient forest. It’s unique in this part of the world where forests are under threat to feed those fuel stoves. Definitely a place we’ll return to.
That night the heavens opened (very rare on Mt Suswa) so we pitched our tents in one of the bandas (shelter). The rain stopped overnight and in the morning the 2 brothers came to pick us up to explore the lava tube caves on the other side of the crater.
The BBC made a documentary about one particular area of these caves: Baboon Parliament (2.29m video). A place where the local baboons spend the night, very unusual for baboons who normally stay in trees. Before they all go to bed, the leader of the troop hangs out on top of a pile of rubble in the middle of the cave (the collapsed roof), making it look like he is addressing parliament. Through many years of use the surfaces of the cave are now completely warn and smooth. Whilst it looks beautiful it must be pretty treacherous for the baboons. We didn’t see the baboons as it was daytime, but had a look at the bats that use the caves to hangout during the day instead.
Sunday night we dropped Kat off at a hotel in Nairobi where she met her new friends before leaving very early the next morning for her overland adventure.