After you’ve packed your suitcase and your passport, be prepared with one more thing before departing for a safari in Kenya — an answer to the question, “Aren’t you scared?”
Once considered the Gold Standard for safaris, the Kenyan safari has seen the number of visitors from America plunge over the past few years, according to the Kenya Tourist Board. People with experience selling African travel insist those fears are unwarranted.
“Kenya is safe,” says John Spence of Aardvark Safaris, a California-based travel company. But he acknowledges “It has struggled through tough times,” checking off violent events that were unrelated to tourism and far from the country’s many game parks. Even Ebola, a threat only on the other side of a vast continent, scared away visitors, says Old Greenwich-based safari specialist Diane Lobel of African Portfolio.
But, she adds, “We’re comfortable continuing to send clients to Kenya,” which is starting to see a resurgence in travel.
After two weeks exploring the capital city of Nairobi and visiting two of the nation’s premium parks, I noticed security in public places is higher than here in the States, where Americans saw 372 mass shootings, including 62 school shootings, in 2015.
One can view Kenya’s beefed up security, including metal detectors at the entrances to hotels and airport perimeter screening, as alarming or encouraging.
The rest of the world doesn’t seem to be worried about Kenya like the Americans. There’s a building boom underway across the East African nation, fueled by the construction of luxury hotels for business and leisure travelers.
City hotels tend to cluster in two areas. They’re situated near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which is conveniently — if incongruously — at the north edge of Nairobi National Park. There the Ole-Sereni would be my choice, both for its stellar views of the animals and for its clubby, colonial-era décor. The hotel’s history includes two notable recent events. It was leased to the Americans after the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy, and Prince William and Kate Middleton celebrated their engagement there in 2011.
Still, many visitors opt to stay in the chic suburb of Karen, named after Karen Blixen, the Danish writer better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, whose brief and unlucky time there was the subject of the memoir and subsequent film “Out of Africa.” There former colonial homes have been turned into guest houses a short drive from the Karen Blixen Museum, the Giraffe Center, restaurants and galleries. I spent a half-day hiking the grounds of the Giraffe Center where the endangered Rothschild is being reintroduced into national parks. Nearby, the artists at Ocean Sole: the Flipflop Recycling Co. turn cast-off beach shoes into whimsical and environmentally-friendly souvenirs. And at Kazuri, a cooperative of local women transform Mt. Kenya clay into unusual jewelry and ceramics. But the bulk of Kenya tourism is about the wildlife.
Twenty years ago, trying to see more than one of Kenya’s 51 game parks and reserves meant a lot of driving as Kenya is the size of Texas. Now, several domestic airlines, Air Kenya and Safarilink among them, offer flights timed so that passengers can leave one park in the morning and be in another in time for an afternoon game drive followed by the obligatory sundowner.
I had the chance to see how ultra-high end travelers might do it, when I spent an afternoon flying over Maasai Mara National Reserve as the guest of Scenic Air Safaris, which offers seven- and 14-day tours in an eight-passenger, luxury-outfitted Cessna Caravan. Pilots like Murtaza Walijee, with whom I flew, point out the sights as the plane flies at low-level over Kenya’s magnificent terrain.
“Flying safaris are very good,” Aardvark Safaris’ Spence says, because they can minimize transit time. He cautions travelers should be careful they don’t use the plane to cram too much into a trip, because it’s important to appreciate time on the ground. That’s where interaction with locals will happen.
Because Kenya’s been in the safari business for longer than many other African countries, it has “more diversity in terms of price points,” African Portfolio’s Lobel says, with accommodations and amenities that range “from motels in the bush to very luxurious individual units.”
The camps where I stayed — Tortilis Camp in Amboseli National Park and Karen Blixen Camp in Maasai Mara — were deluxe by my middle-class standard, with solicitous service, two game drives with experienced guides each day and three delicious meals, all priced between $450 and $650 a day. One can go higher, of course, with villa-sized camps complete with spas and game drives where guests are unlikely to encounter any other tourists while watching the lions hunt or the elephants frolic.
With all the information available online or from specialists like Aardvark and African Portfolio, coming up with the perfect trip won’t be difficult. Your only challenge will be explaining to your fellow Americans why their fears won’t keep you from a Kenyan safari.
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