By Bobbie Banda
Our Kenya Trip
PLANNING: Some thoughts about traveling to Kenya. There really are at least two approaches. You can go to a travel agent and have them organize everything for you or you can do it on your own. The former is easier, albeit more expensive, and the latter is a bit of work, but much less expensive AND you get to customize your trip to your needs. Plus, you can choose to interact with local people more than just rubbing elbows with other tourists. If you want to plan your own trip, you have to start early and you have to do a lot of research yourself. Doing so will save you a lot of money, ensure you are prepared and that you don’t miss out on the interesting details. The JFC Brunsum Library has a lot of great resources and of course, you can find a lot on the internet.
HEALTH: A couple of months out, you need to visit your doctor, public health and immunizations. You may need yellow fever shots. They weren’t required for us at this time, but we got them anyways. You’ll need to get on anti-malarial medications. There are several options. You start them a couple of weeks before your trip and take them for about 4 weeks afterwards. You may want to pick up water purification tablets, but we never actually needed them as we always found bottled water. DO NOT drink tap water!
PASSPORTS & VISAS: You must have at least 6 months left on your passport from the time you arrive in country. Although the Kenya Embassy website says you need photos for your Visa, they weren’t required. It isn’t a big deal to get your Visa once you’re in country. Otherwise, you have to mail your passports in advance to get them, something we’re just not comfortable with. Download the forms and have them filled out to make it quicker for you. People will SPRINT off that plane to get to the Visa desk first. Currently, the price for Visas dropped by half to $25 for adults and free for kids under 16. Have correct change in US dollars. Register your trip before you leave at the US State Department’s website.
I recommend making a trip folder that includes all of your passport information and copies of your passports as well, in case of emergency. You will use your passport number every time you check into a hotel or lodge, so it will speed up the process. We also include all of our contact info for lodging and any other reservations.
FINANCES: You will be able to find ATMS pretty easily. Depending on your card (Visa is apparently preferred!), you can withdraw 10,000 to 40,000 Kenya Shilling (ksh) per transaction. The exchange rate is about 80 ksh to a dollar currently. Kenyan Shilling (KES; symbol KSh) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of KSh1,000, 500, 200, 100 and 50. Coins are in denominations of KSh20, 10 and 5.
TIPS: You will be expected to tip some people – anyone who carries your bags (30 to 50 ksh per person), your safari guide (about 500 ksh per person per day), bar tenders (20 to 30 ksh per round). Waiters – about 50 to 100 ksh. The ATM will probably dispense 1,000 ksh bills, which can be a problem to break. When you get the chance to break one, do it so that you have plenty of small coins (20 ksh for example) available. Some larger places accept credit cards, but some do not. You should expect to haggle with vendors, but try to remember that 400 ksh (for example) is only about $5 – not much to you, but more than most Kenyans make in a day. Be a responsible tourist!
SECURITY: You just have to maintain situational awareness. I recommend a hidden money belt. We also split the money up so that one of us had the bulk of the money, and the other person had what we were spending that day. Most lodging had safes. We didn’t have any problems.
PACKING: You need to be able to deal with your luggage, so pack light! A convertible backpack worked just great. Allow some room for trinkets and souvenirs because there is a lot of great stuff for sale (more on that later). NOTE: The exportation of souvenirs made from wildlife skins (this includes reptiles) and shells is forbidden.
There’s a reason everyone on safari movies wears khaki – it doesn’t show dirt so much! You can wash your stuff in the room and hang it in the shower. There is a lot of highly specialized clothing available from NorthFace, Columbia, Jack Wolfskin and the like. Some of it has built in sunscreen, is light weight and dries quickly and has plenty of pockets. We found some of these worth the money. Some other things you will want: sunscreen, hand sanitizer, mosquito repellent, a hat, extra batteries, a good book and something to write with so you can remember what animals are when you go to label your photos! If you are not checking bags remember the 100 ml rule! Most lodges will provide mosquito netting.
KIDS: We found a tough digital camera that our 6 year old really enjoyed. We also read a lot about Kenya before we ever got there, so our son was prepared. There’s a really great book called Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. It’s just great and available at the GKES library and for sale at scholastic.com. Additionally, any children’s atlas will provide a lot of great info for the little ones. (http://content.scholastic.com)
ITINERARY: We definitely recommend our safari guide company, Sardius Safaris and Tours. (http://www.sardiustours.com/ T. 254 20 201 5094). They will work with you to tailor your itinerary. And, you will have the van to yourself vs. being elbow to elbow with a bunch of other tourists who may or may not enjoy traveling with children. We choose to start and end in Nairobi as our daughter was there for college and had made friends with her home stay family. But you could just as easily go through Mombasa. Because we also wanted to include some time in Mombasa, we chose to visit Amboseli and Tsavo West. There are many great parks and ranges to choose from, each with their own distinctive traits. Research to find out the ones that appeal best to you and your family (http://www.kws.go.ke/). Your safari fees will likely include: park entrance, airport transfers and water while on safari (although bear in mind that Americans apparently drink WAY more water than anyone else! You may want to keep an extra bottle of water just in case!)
Here was our itinerary: Nairobi, Amboseli, Tsavo West, Tiwi Beach, and then back to Nairobi, a big loop. (map from http://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/africa/kenya/)
We spent the first night in the Kenya Comfort Hotel t020-317606. (www.kenyacomfort.com). The room was centrally located, inexpensive and ok, but there is a night club across the street and they were rocking until about 2 AM. We were exhausted from the flight so it didn’t matter too much!
DAY 1: Our guide, picked us up at our hotel and we were off to Amboseli National Park. It was a pretty long drive and the roads are rough. Bring something to entertain your kids. When you stop for gas or to get into the parks, you will probably have a lot of people trying to sell beaded necklaces and wood carvings. It can be a bit intimidating, but if you see something you like, just negotiate for it. A rule of thumb – they generally ask double what they really expect.
Upon arrival at the lodge (www.sopalodges.com T 020-336088) after our long, dusty drive, we were greeted with moist, mint scented towels and fresh mango juice. So refreshing! The food was very good. Drinks other than coffee or tea are generally extra, but you can charge them to your room and then pay with a credit card upon departure so that you can save your cash for other purchases. There is a nice shop with some local Maasai ladies selling their products – mostly beautiful bead work and wood carvings. It’s a nice low-threat atmosphere, much easier than being swarmed upon by a lot of vendors in a market or park entrance. We did game drives all morning and again in the evening.
That night, we enjoyed a beautiful dinner with outstanding service. Afterwards, we sat around a fire pit and watched the bats come out. The evening sky was just amazing, since there were virtually no lights obscuring it. We got our first view of the Southern Cross.
DAY 2: After breakfast, we are off for a full morning of game drives. We saw incredible herds of elephants. Our guide, Enok, told us there were about a thousand elephants now in Amboselli. We even saw an infant, about 2 weeks old. It was so little that it didn’t know how to use its trunk to pull up the grasses from the marsh to eat. We saw a momma washing her “toddler”
We stopped by Ol Tukai Lodge. Wow – it is really beautiful and located right near the marshes (during the wet season) where many animals converge. We then went to Observation Hill where we had an absolutely stellar view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Mt Kili is called the world’s largest free standing mountain.
Back at the lodge, we enjoyed the pool with Mt Kili in the background. Our rooms were beautiful. The parents had out own room and the kids had an adjoining one.
DAY 3: Our next stop is Tsavo West National Park and Ngulia Safari lodge (http://www.safari-hotels.com/nguliasafari/?flag=nsl). We were once again greeted with moist towels and fresh fruit juice. I could get used to this! Ngulia is an older lodge with lots of character. Each room as its own balcony and you can see some amazing wildlife. An entire troop of baboons traveled below us on their way to the watering hole. An elephant hung out in a mud pit all afternoon.
DAY 4: We started out the morning with an early game drive right after breakfast. Our guide took us deep into the woods on a rather obscure trail. We started to smell something foul. What was that? Only a huge family of hippos who lived in a muddy, stinky poop filled pond. Wow – we were so close to them! One definitely does not get out of the van, btw, while on safari. Hippos are probably the most dangerous animals encountered on safari. Later, we went to Mzima Springs, which is absolutely beautiful and crystal clear. Is this were they got the name for that 90s alcoholic beverage, Zima? After lunch at the lodge, we headed out for Tiwi Beach (near Mombasa). It was a long drive; we didn’t arrive at our cottage until about 7 PM. Our cottage is rustic, but comfortable. There is a decent restaurant next door that we went to for dinner. Our little one was fascinated with the hermit crabs on the sidewalks. We dined under the stars listening to the surf. Lovely end of a long day.
DAY 5: Our cottage is right off the Indian Ocean. (Cover Cottages, Kerstin Handelman; email: email@example.com www.coralcove.tiwibeach.com). You can hire a cook when you book the cottage. It’s only 700 ksh a day and ours was amazing! Fish mongers come by the cottage with their daily catch, which your cook can then prepare for you! Tiwi Beach is not nearly as developed at the more touristy Diani Beach. What we really liked about it were the tidal pools. They were just brimming with sea creatures and were so fun to explore!
During the day, we went for a walk on the beach while the kids napped. When we returned, our college-age daughter informed us of a break in. Here is her account of it, entitled, “Cheeky”
DAY 6: We took a taxi to Mombasa (the owner can arrange it easily) It’s about a 30 to 40 minute drive. Luckily, we were able to check our luggage into the train station where it was kept safe for a small fee (100 ksh per bag). While in Mombasa, we visited Fort Jesus and Old Town. (http://www.mombasainfo.com/)You really have to watch out for people who try to escort you or act as tour guide. They will want money, so if you don’t want their services, make it clear. If you do, negotiate a price right up front. We then took a tuk-tuk (ha!) to the famous Tamarind restaurant (http://www.tamarind.co.ke/index.php) Book online. Unfortunately, the Dhow (Arabian sailing vessel) didn’t sail for lunch (low season – not enough people!), but the restaurant is fantastic. Tuk-tuks are 3 wheeled vehicles that speed through the town in defiance of any known traffic laws. Fun and scary at the same time. Again, negotiate the price for all passengers in advance!
Later, we did some shopping and found some amazing kanga and kokia. The kanga are a colourful garment similar to kitenge, worn by women and occasionally by men throughout Eastern Africa. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric, about 1.5m by 1m, often with a border along all four. And, we bought several kikoi – which are basically like kilts or sarongs for the men. They are not as crazily colored as the kanga, often have a checked pattern and a fringe on the edges. Both the kanga and kikoi are beautiful – they are a set price and very reasonable – 250 to 300 ksh. We are going to use them to decorate a bedroom.
TRAINS: The night train from Mombasa to Nairobi only goes about 3 times a week, so you have to check this out (http://www.eastafricashuttles.com/train.htm. I am including this link for information only – their prices are about double what you will pay if you book directly. Your guide may be able to do this for you. There are also some videos of the train on you tube. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rng-PHTazYI&NR=1)
Amazingly, it left on time (7 PM). It is a retro experience. The trains look like they are right out of the 1950s, complete with old silver tea services. We took a 2d class cabin, which sleeps 4 (2 up, 2 down). Do pay the extra money for the bedding and meals. It’s still a bargain. With the train fare, bedding and meals for 3 adults and 1 child, it came to about 8,000 ksh (about $100). When we returned to our cabin after dinner, our beds were made for us. Unfortunately, as is apparently often the case, we encountered delays and didn’t arrive in Nairobi until 4 PM the next day, 7 hours later than planned. Such is life in Africa.
We went to the Langata Giraffe Visitors Centre, where we hand fed Rothschild giraffes both big and small. They have incredibly long sticky tongues.
David Sheldrick Orphanage for Rhinos and Elephants T 020-891996. They are only open from 11:00 to 12:00. That’s when the animals get their mud bath and feeding. Minimum 300 Ksh per person donation ($5). The elephants are so adorable. They also had a tiny rhino infant! So incredibly cute. Check out the website to learn more about this outstanding organization. http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/contact_us.html.
Afterwards, we headed to The Carnivore for lunch. (http://www.tamarind.co.ke/index.php). It’s owned by the same people who own the Tamarind Dhow restaurant. You can book on line. They will keep bringing your grilled meats until you lower your little white flag in surrender.