Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Allure of Lamu

It was April and I set off to explore one of Kenya’s most talked about coastal locations: Lamu island. If I wasn’t a nervous flyer, I probably would have enjoyed the scenic flight from Nairobi to Manda Airport. But I am a gibbering wreck on small, shaky airplanes so in fact I kept my head down, praying that I would survive and listened to my trusty boyfriend 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over whatever brilliant landscape was passing by thousands of meters below us. Three hours later we landed in Lamu and I breathed a massive sigh of relief!

The air here is thick and hot – just what you would expect when landing anywhere along Kenya’s toasty coastline. But what really set this spot apart for me was walking through the airport and meeting the man with the wide smile and bare feet. He grabbed my bag from me and chatted away about monkeys and Kenyan politics whilst we walked to the seaside to catch our connecting transfer to Diamond Beach Village on Manda. Lamu island is technically an island, but on all sides bar one it is entirely surrounded by land. To the east it looks across to Manda, beautiful thick mangroves dominate the north and north-eastern edges and then desert-like dunes look great the ocean to the south. So, we hop aboard our water taxi and what happens? Of course the only pair of flip flops I have brought along with me snap! Did I bring an emergency pair of lip flops? Nope. Did I bring any other shoes at all? This is the beach. Obviously not! “Hakuna shida,” says our boat driver. “Hakuna ina viatu katika Lamu.” (Nobody wears shoes in Lamu).

Twenty minutes later we are marshaled onto some sort of fairytale on Shela beach where Rachael, the owner of Diamond Beach Village meets us. Diamond Beach is not actually a village but this low cost, character filled ‘lodge’ is set up like a small village, with alleyways leading to an array of rooms from single, semi detached bandas to multi room treehouses. Our room is the nearest to the beach (brilliant!) and we washed the sand from our feet before entering into the rustic banda. Everything here seemed totally in tune with its beachy environment; seashells decorated nooks and crannies and bougainvillea flowers brought colour to the doors and walls. We spent one night here, hosted by Rachael who was full of great stories and the chef whipped up a delicious seafood curry. The next morning we strolled along the beach, exploring the exposed coral rock formations and laid our white bodies out to bake on the beach. Bliss.

The next day we transferred to Peponi hotel in Shela (directly opposite) by boat and were shown to a room that was discretely tucked away along the beach under the hotels breakfast deck. The room and its veiled beachside location were agonizingly beautiful. It was immediately apparent that the hotel owner, Carol had gone through each element of these rooms in fine detail and her laid back, stylish personality shone from the ornate four poster beds to the unique brass coffee pitchers. Her personal style was not what drew me in the most though; it’s how superbly this hotel was tucked away into the island. Blink and you might miss it. Stop and look and you will never regret it. Later that day Carol took me back stage to explore some of the hotel private suites – I never even knew they were there. It all just blends in so well!

In recent years I have heard great stories about the food at Peponi, and it certainly lived upto its reputation! Dinner here was one of my favourite meals of this whole trip. The following morning, after popping into the back streets of Shela to purchase a pair of emergency flip flops we took a boat to Lamu town. This place is totally incredible and walking the streets of this ancient port, it was hard to imagine that Lamu town had been the source of so much controversy of late. I have spent a lot of time in a lot of dodgy back end towns in Southern and Eastern Africa but Lamu town is not one of them. In fact, I have never felt safer! Islamism is strong here and incorporated into nearly every element of the town. I was requested to cover up as I walk the streets to show respect and I was happy to oblige. On Lamu there are no cars, only donkeys and the narrow alleyways and polite smiles at nearly every turn made us feel a little claustrophobic, but totally at ease. Our trusty guide Bob (also known as Mohammed!) takes us to his house on the fringes of Lamu’s old town, and the Arab architecture along the narrow streets is breathtakingly beautiful. We finish up the trip sitting in the town square drinking coconut milk fresh from the coconut and watching the world go by. 

After our second night at Peponi a speed boat picked us up from the beach below the hotel and transferred us to the southern tip of the island where we were met by the Van Aardt’s and show us to what is now my new favourite place in Kenya! Kizingo is the epitome of wild, beachside living. Beyond our bedroom the room opened out onto what could be the most private beach in the world! We walk up and down and swim and lie out on the sand and build sand castles all afternoon and see absolutely nobody. It’s exquisitely secluded and hopelessly romantic. I am sad that we have only spent one night here as we don’t get the chance to enjoy any of their brilliant activities: sea fishing, snorkeling and swimming with dolphins. All the more reason for us to go back I’d say. 

The next morning, after breakfast I am so sad to pack my bag and leave this castaway paradise. I immediately mark Kizingo on my ‘favourite places of all time’ list and recommend it to almost anybody who asks me about Lamu.

Ever since the 2011 kidnapping Lamu has been bombarded with red tape. But I have never felt safer or slept better anywhere in Kenya and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this fantastic, friendly island as a beach destination to anyone.

How could you work a trip to Lamu island into your safari? See an example here.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Kat journeys to Northern Tanzania (Nov 2014)

I flew to Tanzania from Kenya, and Kilimanjaro airport is only a forty-five minute flight from Nairobi. So first off, it’s a totally bizarre experience to spend longer checking in than actually flying! And then, just as we were about to begin our descent into Tanzania I saw Kilimanjaro rising up over the clouds through my window. I got that giddy, excited feeling in my stomach: the one where you are witnessing something magical for the first time!

On landing I transfer to Arusha Coffee Lodge, looking longing out my window toward the tanzanite mines in the distance. The drive to Arusha was and hour and a half through Maasai land and then, closing in on Arusha, the road skirts the boundary of Mt. Meru National Park giving way to a teeming green forest. Arusha Coffee Lodge is a coffee lover’s paradise! I eagerly step out into the coffee plantation, where I am greeted with an iced coffee and shown to my room: a spacious cabin out in the plantation. The room is entirely coffee oriented! From the coffee scented hand cream to recycled coffee sack cushions. It’s true, I do have a moment where I seriously consider the possibility that I have died and have somehow found my way to heaven. Coffee heaven!

The meals here have been nothing short of excellent and after a delicious breakfast I head off with my intrepid group of travelers and our trusty guide Esto bound for Tarangire Treetops. It’s about an hour and a half by road and the landscape changes dramatically along the way – it moves from lush forests and coffee plantations at the foot of Mt. Meru to open, barren land teeming with Maasai goats and cows. We turn off the main highway onto a dodgy-looking side road and wind our way through a managed wildlife area that is comfortably cohabited by people and wildlife to Tarangire Treetops. This lodge looks out across the scrubland that skirts Tarangire National Park and all the rooms are neatly slotted into large baobab trees that dominate the area. The lodge’s charismatic manager, Johan, meets us and explains the ways on which Treetops fully supports and encourages guest's involvement in Maasai culture. Each evening, having dinner round the fire, guests are treated to a song and dance and are invited to join in. We are only here for lunch, and I’m sad because I would love to see how beautiful this lodge is in the dark.

It’s a forty five minute gate to the less used lower park entry gate and then another hour to our destination: Little Olivers Camp. I am unsure what to expect, because my knowledge of Tarangire is embarrassingly minimal, but the beauty of the terrain here blows me away. We are barely ten minutes in when the semi arid countryside breaks away into the vast, green Silele swamp with elephant, zebra and wildebeest mingling about in abundance. Life in Tarangire is centered around this swamp so game viewing in the dry season is pretty easy. However, we have arrived and brought the rain with us, so later that afternoon the wildlife scatters. Just my luck.

The next day we explore Tarangire on foot, by vehicle and then indulge in a night drive. It’s exhausting and incredible in equal measure, and the team at Little Olivers has made us feel like we are part of their family. When we pack our bags the next morning it is a sad goodbye.

After popping into Olivers Camp (the equally beautiful big brother) for a quick visit we head North, following the Tarangire river to the main gate. En route we spot endless herds of buffalo, a very sleepy bat eared fox and what is possibly the smallest elephant I have ever seen. Esto estimates it to be less than a week old. Every five minutes it lies on its side and falls asleep. I want to cuddle up next to it but I decide that is probably inappropriate (and dangerous), so I hold back. But just look at that little face!

It’s about a two-hour drive up to Karatu and the landscape changes once again from dusty scrubland to evergreen forest in almost the blink of an eye. Then the towering wall of the great rift valley rises overhead and as we ascend we are treated to spectacular views across Lake Manyara and beyond.

Our second stop today is lunch at Exploreans. It’s the closest hotel to Ngorongoro gate and views from our lunch table are brilliant. Then we stop in for tea at Plantation Lodge. This famous coffee estate now boasts elegant rooms spread across evergreen gardens at the base of the crater. The owner here, Renate, has kept the place in impeccable condition and although the farm has been around for years its age doesn’t show. Our final stop is at Gibbs farm where we overnight. The manager, Joseph, gives us a tour on arrival and explains the unique concept behind the farm; the guests are encouraged to interact in every aspect of day-to-day farm life here. From milking cows, to grinding your own coffee and baking bread, it’s an organic food lover’s haven. Each meal is freshly prepared using their homegrown produce, from the meat to the cheese to the crunchy salads. Needless to say, I eat my weight in dinner that night and politely request for wheelbarrow service to my room. (They said no.) After dinner we are shown back to our rooms where a roaring fire is lit, beds are turned down and when I go to take a shower something magical happens: the fire connects the bedroom and bathroom. So there I am, showering under the light of the fire, feeling totally spoilt! 

It’s an early start the next day as we climb the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater to make an early morning descent. I have had a consistently cynical view of Ngorongoro over the years, imagining it as an overpopulated, over-touristy nightmare that makes a mockery of East African tourism. But in fact the opposite is true! I am so blown away by this bizarre, remarkable landscape that I’m soon asked to shut up… apparently my continual exclamations of awe are becoming annoying. But it is totally and utterly bizarre! Flamingos frolic in the wetlands next to whooping hyenas, with expansive wildebeest and zebra herds painted across the background. Next to our vehicle there are two buffaloes eye-deep in water and weeds, munching on whatever goodness is concealed there and about ten meters away a pod of hippos lie asleep in the shallows with pelicans cruising between them. Behind me lions, flamingoes, hyena and huge herds of Zebra; it’s all happening. It’s a glorious kind of chaos.

After lunch we lock the landcruiser into 4WD and slowly ascend the crater wall, bound for the open plains of the Serengeti; the land of lions. It’s not a joke - this really is the land of lions. Our two-hour transfer to Namiri Plains in the east produces sixteen lions. Sixteen! And these lions are Lion King standard - fat, golden and so easy going that my new Norwegian friend in the next door vehicle taking loud selfies doesn’t faze them, she’s merely a publicity burden. By the time we have arrived I have decided that this is one of my favourite places in Africa.

The next twenty-four hours only cements my love of the Eastern Serengeti. This is big cat country like you cannot imagine. And Namiri Plains is one of the most laid-back bush camps I have ever stayed in; I very quickly feel like I am part of the crew and part of the scenery. On our last evening here, after watching a cheetah kill (casual Wednesday game driving experience at Namiri Plains) we head off back to camp and discover something magical: the alcohol gods have prepared a table adorned with sundowners at the base of a kopje out on the plains! Just when I think it can’t get any better, two smiling faces appear from behind the rock, and once I have wiggled out of the vehicle our pro guide, Blessed, hands me a gin and tonic (with a slice of fresh lime, excuse me) without me even asking. Yes, I could get used to this!! That night my roommate, Catherine, wakes me at some ungodly hour to look at the moon – it is setting right across the swamp, streaking the surrounding bush silver and lighting up our tent. Gorgeous!

We spend two nights at Namiri Plains before the long drive up North to Olakira Camp. En route we meet up with no less than twenty lions: cubs playing, males lying around looking effortlessly magnificent and a cheetah with her fluffy young cub. We stop in at Migration Camp for lunch; it is a welcome break in our long journey. After lunch, with full bellies, we dip our feet in the pool and laugh at the rock hyraxes lying out in the sun like sleepy cats before reluctantly dawdling back to our vehicles to begin the last leg of our drive north. Of course, this is the Serengeti so half an hour into our journey we meet two sets of mating lions and the tail end of the famed vast wildebeest migration that has descended from Kenya. It has been a long day, so by the time we arrive at Olakira, on the banks of the Mara river, we are hot, dusty and exhausted. We want a shower and a bed! But, from the moment we get off the vehicle the warm welcome from the staff at Olakira turns us all around. I have yet to experience such effortless enthusiasm anywhere in East Africa!

When we head off on our morning drive I feel relaxed and have low expectations, because this trip has yielded such incredible game viewing already. I already feel like I have seen the absolute best the Serengeti has to offer. It can’t get better than this, can it?  Ten minutes in we come across a lioness with four of the smallest cubs I have ever seen. The mother, who seems to be the Marilyn Monroe of lionesses, comes upto our vehicle and checks us all out before giving her young ones the green light and allowing them to come nearer and inspect us for themselves. Lion approval is the best kind of approval! At one point the cubs are so close that I actually have to put my camera down because my 300mm lens just isn’t prepared for this kind of intimacy. We hear on the radio that the rest of the pride is just around the corner so we head off and discover that one feisty female has just being introduced to the pride and is having trouble accepting the two males. The interaction between them all is thrilling to watch and, after what feels like hours but is actually only about 90 minutes, we settle down for a picnic breakfast and try to recall what just happened to us. This one of the best lion encounters I have ever had.

Lamai Serengeti hosts us for lunch and Jana is probably one of the most attentive hosts I have met. She is on point with everything that is happening around us as well as superbly entertaining our table of eleven. After a delicious salad based lunch we wind our ways across the green savannah toward Sayari Camp. Everything at Sayari is clean cut and super smart. I love the understated Asian influence in the bedrooms and probably my favourite feature here is a stylish central bath looking out across the savannah. Of course the first thing we all do is strip down and hit the pool with gin and tonics. It’s hot, and it’s been an emotionally and physically draining week. But it was sensational and I can’t think of a better spot to wind down than looking out across the Serengeti from Sayari’s infinity rock pool. That evening we enjoy sundowners on the banks of the Mara river, looking across to Kenya on the other side and listening to the hippos snort and grumble. Driving back it only seems appropriate to play the Lion King theme track, so Catherine’s iPhone comes out and soon even our guide is singing along to Hakuna Matata. Back at camp we tuck into a delicious three-course dinner recalling some of our favourite memories from the past few days and feeling sad to have come to the end of our journey together.

Big thanks to Asilia Africa for showing us their spectacular properties and hosting us throughout. Also thanks to Esto and Martin for their great driving and guiding skills and to everyone in the group for their energy, laughter, pen-lending and caramels. 

More on Tanzania Safaris on our site