Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some astonishing places. But, for me, one of the stand out continents has to be Africa for its sheer vastness and beauty. Since visiting Gambia as an eight-year-old (and learning to swim in the hotel pool), I’ve wanted to explore as many African countries as possible. Back in 2014, my friend Alex and I headed to Ghana for two weeks for a madcap adventure, and I could’ve cried when I had to return to Blighty. Not that I don’t like the UK, but there’s something incredibly special about Africa.
Kenya has been on the bucket-list for a while, and I’d been thinking about taking a solo-trip there as soon as I could get the cash together. I’d done a bit of media work for the Galana Conservancy Kenya, an amazing wildlife conservation trust, and after meeting some of its organisers and supporters at a fundraising party (held by my lovely auntie), I decided that Kenya would be right up my street. The only snag was my finances. But as serendipity would have it, Alex moved to Kenya for work at the end of 2016 and, along with her family, invited me to stay with her in Nairobi for the self-proclaimed “best holiday ever.” As a resident, she knew how to do things a bit cheaper (well, sort of. That girl likes a bit of luxe). Fighting talk for a girl who accompanied me on an eventful road-trip around Europe (nicknamed Tour O Euro) which included a robbery, the world’s most expensive fish pie, camping in a thunderstorm and a car crash.
The thing I remember most about the African countries I’ve visited, is the absolute calm. But, unlike Ghana’s capital, Accra, Nairobi has zero chill. It’s the antithesis of chill. It’s constantly on the go. It’s loud, congested and chaotic. It’s not a walking city, either – there are no pavements – so driving, or calling an Uber, is a necessity. But watch out, Kenyan driving is not driving as we know it. Rather it’s a chaotic mix of non-existent road signs (except for the random baboon crossings) and lack of courtesy for junctions/roundabouts/lanes. Much to his amusement, my Uber driver back to the airport attempted to school me in the ways of the Kenyan road. Nairobi is also, in certain places, a little bit snatchy. And by this, I don’t mean stunning. I mean it in the literal sense. The night before I was due to fly, Alex called me and asked me to pick up a new iPhone 6 at the airport. She’d been on a first-date and had her phone snatched through her open window. Best. First. Date. Story. Ever. Especially since the guy was a burly gym nut and the kid who stole it simply yanked it from his mitts and ran off into the distance. But, these things happen. Everywhere. I mean, I went through a spate of constantly being robbed in the same bar in Manchester (I’m not going to name them, but you know who you are with your black bags full of stolen purses). You just need to have your wits about you.
We didn’t stay in Nairobi long. After a trip to the stunning Kiambethu Farm Tea Plantation, where we were not only treated to a few good brews but an amazing lunch in the gardens, and a fancy (think 1930s decadence) dinner at the famous Hemingways – where far too many glasses of wine were consumed – it was time to head to the Maasai Mara.
Alex secured an amazing deal. Officially Kenyan winter, where the weather isn’t at its peak (and some of the animals have buggered off to the Serengeti) these deals can quite easily be made, you just need to ask. And it’s worth shopping around. For a reasonable price (Safari is never cheap, mind) our package included a five-hour drive from Nairobi to the Mara, two nights at Sopa Lodge, all meals, three game drives (including all park fees), and a return flight from the scenic Wilson airstrip in the middle of the National Reserve.
Our safari experience can’t be topped. Not only were our crew – Boniface and James – at Adventure Africa Expedition insightful, fun and, by the end of the trip, more like members of the family, but we were also bumped up to lodge accommodation. Think comfy rooms, hot showers, a pool (which we didn’t use) and three-course meals. If you want to go back to basics and camp, Adventure Africa are also a great company to book through. As our group was really varied and, to meet everyone’s needs, we opted for a slightly more luxury package. As a veggie, I was fully expecting to live on air during my time in the Mara (Kenya is renowned for its love of meat) but I was fully catered for (including a whole bag of chickpea curry included as a substitute for chicken on a picnic – the baboon who came to tea certainly had his eye on a bit of spice). We managed to rack up an impressive bar tab. But with my new lust for the Kenyan cocktail, Dawa (which, made with honey and lemon, is apparently medicinal as well as tasty and alcoholic – my two favourite things) it was worth every shilling.
We spotted herds of elephants (I welled-up like a numpty. They’ve long been my favourite animal and there is something so special about seeing them in the wild), zebras, buffalo, leopards (notoriously hard to spot but we saw two) cheetahs (ripping apart some creature), lion cubs and lions (including coming face to face with a male lion in a bush when my window was down. Gulp), vultures, giraffe, and an amazing walk (along with an armed park guide) to see hippos and crocodiles wallowing in a river. Without wanting to sound cliché, it was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Even driving through the vast landscape (and, out of season, you’ll do a bit of driving without spying an animal) was breath-taking.
We also got the chance to go to a Maasai village. We watched dancing, learned a few survival tips (including the various uses of plants – always handy if I find myself lost in the wilderness) and generally had a wonderful time. Boniface took over as photographer so I could spend time with my holiday mates and he took some great snaps. He also got involved in the dancing! Later in the evening, our Maasai guide, John, came to visit us at our hotel and we chatted about his life in Kenya, and ours back in the UK. We’d bought Maasai blankets from the village and decided to wrap up for dinner. True Brits abroad.
After briefly returning to Nairobi, we packed up our beachwear and caught another flight. This time to Diani Beach, near Mombasa, home of white sandy beaches and sea views. We opted for an Airbnb and, although it needed the odd improvement (the last evening was like that pivotal scene in The Craft where bugs start coming in through every nook and cranny, including the bog) it’s exactly what you’d expect. I came to really love our little house and was sad to leave (especially since the housekeeper’s dogs came to play every day).
We spent our time reading, playing games of Heads Up, drinking, hanging about with the local wildlife (there was a hilarious incident when a monkey stole an entire pack of Digestive biscuits, only to sit on the roof and gobble the whole lot, and another where, as the world’s softest dog-lover, I became distraught that one of the pups was bleeding from somewhere quite intimate only to be politely informed by the next door neighbour that the dog actually had a sexual health issue. He wasn’t dying, like I’d originally thought. Phew), going on boat trips (where I got to hold a sea-spider. Lucky me) and eating everything in sight. In Diani, you can organise to have your own Chef. We were lucky enough to have Sammy who not only organised for local fishermen to come each morning with fresh fish, prawns and lobster (and my weird obsession with holding all the creatures was met when I got to take snaps with the lobsters. Weirdo) but cooked the most amazing spread. We even went to a fancy restaurant in a cave (Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant) and, although the food was nice (although it is entirely possible that two of our party got food poisoning from oysters there. Just saying) it wasn’t a patch on Sammy’s calamari and fries. Or his tempura prawns. Or his Rainbow fish. Or his veggie curry. Talk about being spoilt. Between five people, the cost of a private chef was extremely affordable (something like 1,000 shillings per day which is approx. £8.00) Plus, he became another great friend. As an early riser, I loved my morning chats with Sammy as I made my coffee and nosed about while he was making breakfast. Seriously, that man can cook! We loved Sammy and our housekeeper, Stella, and missed them dearly when we left.
Back in Nairobi, we spent our last few days eating more food (Nairobi is full of wonderful places to eat. My favourite is called About Thyme and it’s set in the most scenic garden where strings of fairy lights adorn the veranda like delicate necklaces) and visiting the local wildlife parks like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage – where you learn about the atrocities caused by poaching and the efforts of those trying to educate people to take care of their wildlife – and the Giraffe Centre – where you can take selfies with the long-necked creatures and even get a smooch.
One of my favourite things about Africa is the vibrant trade markets and Nairobi’s Maasai market, held on a supermarket rooftop, didn’t disappoint. After a tenuous bit of bartering – and the odd bit of Manchester football chat – and a few sneaky debriefs with seasoned-negotiator, Alex, I managed to secure some beautifully crafted gifts for my parents, plus an amazing printed jumpsuit. Well, you’ve got to treat yourself.
Kenya is a stunning country and, in terms of landscape and variety, it has more to offer a tourist than any other country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. From white sandy beaches, to glorious African plains, to busy, diverse cities, there’s something for everyone. Unfortunately, Kenyan tourism took a nosedive in previous years, but things are beginning to turn around.
Please don’t be put off by what you think you know about Kenya. Tourism has dropped over recent years because of bad press and a contentious political climate. It is a truly wonderful place. Africa always gets a slightly bad – and unfair – rap for being unsafe to travel, particularly if you’re a lone female, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Like anywhere, it’s best to keep you wits about you (I’d say that if you were travelling to London or Manchester or New York) but I know you’ll have a ball. I am certainly going to be heading back soon.
I flew with KLM airlines from Manchester via Amsterdam to Nairobi. On return, I travelled with Kenyan Airlines (operated by Air France) via Paris to Manchester.
A shorter version of this feature was originally written and published for It’s Not Grim Up North at Northern Soul Webzine.