The Great Animal Migration Like No Other
The Masai Mara is nature’s stage for what must be the most spectacular wildlife pageant on earth. Each year when the rainy season ends in May, hundreds of thousands of wildebeests mass together, moving in search of greener pastures and vital sustenance from the Serengeti (Masai for “endless plains”) in Tanzania north to the wide-open grasslands of Kenya’s Masai Mara, where they arrive in July and August.
Along with migrating herds of zebra, antelope, and gazelle, there are at times more than a million animals on the move, and a horseback safari affords you a remarkable vantage point to view an animal kingdom unrivaled anywhere in Africa. (The core of the Masai Mara Game Reserve is closed to those on horseback, but you can reach it in a four-wheel-drive for a glimpse of lions, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, and elephants).
Riding through the unspoiled Loita Hills and the great rolling plains of the Mara, you’ll pass through manyattas (villages) of the nomadic Masai people, who protect the game they believe to be “God’s cattle.” Some ascents will reach 8,600 feet, providing spectacular views and open vistas. And while you marvel at the views, the staff proceeds ahead to set up camp in a lovely setting and has dinner and a hot shower ready for your arrival. They also keep watch throughout the sound-filled night to keep the wildlife at bay.
You can also view the endless expanse of the Masai Mara from God’s perspective – in a hot-air balloon safari. Nothing can compare with sailing above the rolling plains of Africa in a hot-air balloon. At dawn, you ascend into a sky all shades of rose and orange. Masai villagers stand rooted as they watch you drift across the still sky. Skim over an enormous herd of skittish wildebeest that dodge the shadow of your balloon; a toy-size chase vehicle fast upon their trail leaves a flurry of dust. The awesome, magical stillness, punctuated by the erratic blasts of the hot-air burner, envelops you.
Only the promise of a delicious Champagne breakfast in the bush can take the edge off the disappointment of your return to earth.
Locked in Time on the Swahili Coast
Not quite undiscovered, but still relatively unspoiled, the tiny island of Lamu in Kenya’s oldest living city and a fascinating place in which to explore the country’s ancient Swahili and Islamic cultures. There is just one car on the island – its streets are too narrow to accommodate any conveyance other than donkeys.
You are in the Indian Ocean, but much is redolent of the Middle East – this was once Africa’s link with Arabia. Like Mombasa and Malindi, farther south, Lamu is one of a string of port towns founded by Arab traders in ivory, spices, and slaves. The men still wear full-length white robes and caps; the women are draped in the Islamic black purdah; and travel is by dhow, the traditional wooden sailing vessels that ply the waters off the coast.
You can rent one of these boats (be sure to negotiate) for a romantic day trip around the Lamu archipelago, with a fresh grilled-fish lunch thrown in. Most of the hippies have gone, replaced by younger European backpackers and a growing mix of the curious and the beautiful. The latter invariably check into the charming Peponi Hotel, located on a 12-mile strip of virgin beach.
Full of international eccentrics, villagers, and Nairobi ex-pats, the hotel’s public bar hums with life and color. There is deep-sea fishing and windsurfing, but you can also just relax in one of the whitewashed, open-terraced beach bungalows, which are separated from each other by flame trees and tangles of bougainvillea. The breezy rooms exude a faint colonial feel; there are revolving fans, mosquito netting, and colorful Zimbabwe-print throw pillows on the traditional Lamu-legged wooden beds.
The Danish family that has owned and run Peponi for thirty years has created a special, intimate hotel known as much for the spontaneity of the staff’s smiles as the sophistication of its simple, market-fresh menu that hints of Swahili influence. The trade winds rustle the palm trees and carry the call from the minaret of the town’s 19th-century mosque.
In the Shadow of Mount Kenya
In the foothills of Mount Kenya in the Central Highlands, a few fortunate guests can revel in spellbinding views of ridge after ridge and the freedom to see wild game on boundless private properties – vast herds of everything from elephant and giraffe to zebra and antelope.
Borana Lodge and Wilderness Trails, two neighboring cattle ranches comprising more than 100,000 acres in northern Kenya, offer game drives led by excellent native trackers and guides; you’ll rarely see another vehicle, an almost unheard-of luxury in the comparatively crowded national parks of East Africa these days. Both offer horseback expeditions on patient steeds that allow very close encounters with the resident wildlife, and exhilarating night game drives under a canopy of stars to spot what you may have missed during the day. The conservation-minded Craig family, owners of the sprawling 60,000-acre Wilderness Trails at Lewa Downs, has transformed a parcel of their farm, along with some adjacent government land, into the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary for that endangered species.
Thirty-six black rhinos and white rhinos are now protected from poachers by guards with walkie-talkies. Neighboring guests at Borana Lodge are welcome visitors.
An Unspoiled Corner of Kenya
Set amid a quarter of a million acres of the open plains of Masai land and offset by the dramatic Chyulu range of volcanic mountains, this privately owned property offers exclusive access to one of Kenya’s few remaining wilderness areas.
The owner and occasional resident personality, Richard Bonham, who was born in Kenya, chose the site of his stunningly situated home for its view of rolling wooded grassland and the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro looming across the Tanzania border. The lodge is perched high on a ridge, and four double-thatched rondavel-style (circular) cottages, some on stilts, offer privacy and verandas with views of Kilimanjaro. Beds with a view make for an unforgettable afternoon siesta. This is Africa as it was in the early 20th century.
The vast, mainly uninhabited panoramas are broken only by the sight of young Masai herders with their cattle, serenely at home among the animals. Bonham himself occasionally pops up, happy to head out with guests on horseback, by foot, or in an open-top Land Rover for day safaris, bringing along his wealth of experience and inimitable style.