Just back from – Kenya!
When 2020 started, like all of you, I had a very different list of trips in mind. As the year went on and my original plans were not able to happen, I looked at what was possible and started making decisions. Like a lot of requests these days, I was booking my own travel for within a few weeks coming up – not months out, like normal times. This trip was a bit different. I was supposed to be in South Africa and Botswana and by late July, was starting to lose hope about borders opening. Tanzania started opened July 1 and Kenya announced an Aug 1 opening.
I am a planner at heart. I love to plan. I make lists for my lists. Yet, I also know to roll with life and take the opportunity at hand. So, when doing a training in late July and one of my hoteliers mentioned they have so few bookings for August, yet it is normally the peak of the peak because of migration, I got to work. I had a friend joining me on this trip and between our two schedules and adding in time for a covid test, we were ironically back to the exact same dates of heading to Africa as planned. Just a new location this time.
Why only Kenya? A few reasons. I don’t have a yellow fever vaccine (yet), so I couldn’t cross between the two countries and the vaccine is sometimes a bit hard to get. Even if I had, at the time I started really planning the trip in early August, there were some disagreements between Kenya and Tanzania about how tourists were to cross back and forth. (These disagreements have since been settled and both countries on one itinerary can be done.) Plus, I knew Kenya had much to offer on its own and there was no need to rush a trip to the country.
Yellow fever – always check the CDC, but what I found is you can go to Kenya OR Tanzania without a yellow fever vaccination, but you cannot go to both on the same trip. There is a bit of a shortage of the vaccines, so if you want to go to both countries, start pursuing this first.
I am a luxury travel advisor, affiliated with Virtuoso and some other titles (some of you know me as the Hyatt Prive advisor), therefore, when I travel, I am scouting locations for clients or visiting places I have sent clients. With this trip, I did want to truly enjoy the country and not just pop from place to place, so I did not go to many accommodations or locations.
The itinerary settled out to be 3 nights at Segera Retreat, 1 night at Emakoko, 2 nights at Il Moran, and 3 nights at Angama.
I had flights on Qatar Airways in business class I had purchased in January for something like $3,300 in business class. Now, I fully know that is not an insignificant amount of money, but I live in Idaho and frankly, award tickets to faraway places can sometimes be tricky for me. When I found that fare, roundtrip from Boise to Cape Town in business the whole way for September, I jumped on it. Qatar has made things very easy for guests as they have waived change fees and you can even change your destination to be within 5000 miles of the original destination. Nairobi fit those requirements, so I was able to use my original ticket for this new itinerary. I am still seeing fares in the mid $3k range for business class, pretty wide open, on both Qatar and Delta/KLM, which are phenomenal fares. Economy fares are low, under $1k round trip, depending on origin. I ended up getting AA status when this trip was over even.
My routing was BOI-LAX-DOH-NBO and return. Alaska was my flight to LAX. I couldn’t get a boarding pass in BOI for my Qatar flights and I was really hoping I could stay behind the secure barrier and not have to go through security again. Well, no dice. This is where COVID is complicating things. There were ZERO lounges open in TBIT at LAX. And with only the one Qatar flight that day, I couldn’t just go pester another gate agent. And, I had 7 hours to kill. I had a conference call right away, so I did that and left my boarding pass for later. Got off the call and still had 5 hours to go. I tried online check in again and still couldn’t get it to work. I finally resolved the only way to get a boarding pass was to go out of the secure area. When I did, I found out I was still about an hour too early for the agents to start checking people in.
Once they did arrive, I went to the business class lane for check in. They asked to see my negative COVID test, which Kenya requires to have 96 hours prior to arrival into the country. That is an important sentence – arrival into country, not departure from home airport. This changes from destination to destination, so always read carefully. A health assessment online is required to be completed and a QR code given. I printed mine, but in theory, you can also leave it electronic to be scanned. Also, have a printed copy of your covid test. Those who only had it on their phone had a lot longer of a process than I did. Qatar also gave me a health form to complete. Those were all done and I was back to security, which took maybe 5 minutes. And that was regular security, I didn’t have precheck.
I should note, TBIT was eerily quiet. There was just nobody there. I have flown out of TBIT so many times and it is busy, busy. Not today. Duty free was all closed up, no open lounges, only a handful of flights. It was a bit strange to see some of the aircraft parked like Air New Zealand.
All of this has been while wearing a mask. I work in travel and want the world to reopen, so I happily wear my mask, including over my nose. With the unemployment rate still around 60% in the world in tourism, I will happily wear a mask if that means I can travel, get back to work, and others start to work again to.
I was quite surprised when Qatar said everyone needed a face shield, in addition to the mask. They handed them out and said they had to be worn for boarding and disembarking.
The flight from LAX to Doha was in the Qsuites, which I was so excited to try out. Honestly, once I was at my seat, I stopped wearing my shield, but I did try to wear my mask whenever an FA spoke to me or when I would get up, such as to use the restroom. I looked on the website and they do say business class is allowed to use their discretion with the shields, but economy is to wear them during the flight, except when eating or drinking. The flight attendants all had on gloves, mask, googles, and a protective gown. Qatar is amazing in business class – they haven’t changed their service, except for a few minor details. There is no hot towel service, they hand out the packaged, refreshing wipes instead. The food is the same as pre-pandemic, only now, everything has a plastic cover or is wrapped in plastic.
I am not going to go into the minutiae of the flight, but safe to say, Qsuites rock. I was in 3K one way and 7K the other, so seated backwards but had a great window seat. I would like to say the seat could use a better sleep pad, yet I still managed to sleep for 9 hours or so. I didn’t have any ear plugs with me and they don’t put them in the amenity kits. The pajamas are from The White Company and the amenity kit was Brics. Oh, I should mention, in business class we all got a bottle of hand sanitizer. Not sure if economy did though. All cabins got a “Travel with Confidence” pack with a pair of gloves, sani wipe, and mask. Business class looked to be 2/3rd occupied.
I had a very short connection in Doha of about an hour and was met off the jet bridge by an airline employee, who was grabbing 5 of us going on to Nairobi. We were escorted through Doha and straight to our flight, which was really nice. The flight from Doha to Nairobi was a 2×2 configuration and was half full.
The flight to Nairobi was 5 hours and arrived about 11:30 pm. Business class is off first and taken by a bus not very far to the terminal. Once there, I had to give my QR code, show my covid test, and have a full body thermal scan. It all lasted a few minutes, mostly because I wasn’t up first. I did the visa on arrival and that took longer than the covid procedures, since I had all my paperwork complete.
And then I was officially in Kenya!!
Since it was such a late arrival, my ground transfer took me to the hotel, where I met my friend, for a few hours of rest before starting the day for real at 730 am. She is not a fan of small airplanes and wanted to see more of the country, so the compromise was we drove up to Segera Retreat and flew back. I really do not recommend the drive as it is extremely long, bumpy, and tiring. As in our case, since it was Saturday morning, it took near 6 hours. The only way a drive can really make sense is Segera is very near the Ol Pejeta conservancy, which has the last two northern white rhinos in the world.
I am going to digress here for a bit before getting back on topic. Everyone will tell you how safaris are so magical. This was to be my first one and I have heard this a million times by everyone in the industry and even from clients that I have sent on safari. However, you really can’t understand the feeling of being out in the bush and watching these animals in the wild until you are there. It is one of those indescribable moments that until you experience it, it just isn’t the same. If you have never been on a safari, you really, really should make it your next trip. Watching the circle of life in action really brought everything in life together. This seems so obvious, we all know how it happens, but I am telling you, seeing it in person makes a lot of things just make sense in a way you are not expecting.
Segera is amazing. A private, 50,000 acre reserve, it really is an oasis of luxury in the middle of the Kenyan savannah. Conservation is part of their core and they are remarkable at what they do. Solar power, no plastic bottles/straws/other, grey water recycling into the property, composting, a female anti-poaching ranger academy, and schools for local children are a few of the many, many things the property utilizes or creates. Nothing goes to waste.
A lot of what I want to share and help all to understand is the protocols and depth of precautions the whole country is using to keep the virus mitigated. All staff had to wear mask at all times. Every time we returned to the property, such as from a game drive, we had our temperatures taken and recorded and were given towels to wash our hands. The staff are all checked for symptoms daily and have their temperature taken and recorded before seeing guests. Our guide had his temperature taken every time ours was taken, too. In the land cruiser, hand sanitizer and wipes were available. I think I am forgetting a few, but you get the idea.
There are not enough words to describe Segera. I would suggest ending at it instead of starting at it as it is such an incredible place to relax and let everything from the trip soak in. Some people rumble about “there are no animals up north”, but don’t let them fool you. The animal sightings do look very different from the Mara, but it isn’t a bad vs good, just different. At Segera, we noticed the animals were not so accustomed to vehicles, so they acted different. Plus, there are animals north of the equator that are not in the south, like the reticulated giraffe and the Grevy zebra (though the Grevy zebra eluded us). We had to work harder to see the animals and that was definitely part of the fun. We also did some other experiences, like go out with the rangers and the dogs and learn about their anti-poaching patrol. After three nights at Segera, I feel like we barely started to settle in and it was time to go. There are things we definitely didn’t get to do as we ran out of time.
The accommodations are stunning and the watering hole near the villas made for amazing animal watching in the afternoons. I went to take a nap and was super distracted by the sight outside!
Bush flights are in/out of Nairobi are from Wilson Airport, WIL. We sadly left Segera, flew a quick 50 minutes in a teeny tiny plane, and arrived into Wilson. Before we boarded our plane to Nairobi (and this happened again later in the trip on the way back to WIL), we had our temperature recorded by the pilot. Timing to go into and out of areas is always a puzzle to put together and, in our case, we stayed one night very near Nairobi at a boutique lodge, The Emakoko, for a very short night. Emakoko is unique as it is on private property on the very edge of the Nairobi National Park. You cross through the National Park to get to the property, which has a lot of game viewing. It is a lot to grasp, seeing these amazing animals while also seeing a very large city, all at the same time.
After a quick 14 hours, we were off again, seeing some animals in the National Park, as we headed back to Wilson. Since we were entering Wilson this time, we got to experience all of their covid protocols. They had a hand washing station outside that everyone had to use. They also had the thermal scanner for temperature readings. Masks had to be worn at the airport and on the flight.
I don’t remember what airport we went to as there are many little air strips all around the Mara. We were met by our guide, temperature checked, and off we went. The Mara is spectacular. So many animals. We were super distracted, so it took us a bit longer to get to the property than planned. This is common in Africa – the term, African time is a real thing and everyone is used to it. Why hurry when you can stop and watch something cool happen. Hakuna matata. You get there when you get there. It is a nice change of pace to settle into.
We had a lovely two-night stay at a camp called Il Moran. It is the luxury camp in the Mara of the Governor’s Camp collection. I did see the tents at Little Governor’s and the tents between the two camps are mostly the same, just Il Moran are much bigger – at least 50%, if not more. Governor’s Camp has three properties within a few minutes of each other and are all, right on the Mara. When we first arrived, it was the formalities of washing hands and taking our temperature. The hand washing station was really cool and was fabricated (metal and welded) by some of the locals. We also had the camp to ourselves for the 2 nights as the only guests. It would have been fun to see it with other guests as the common space is set up so well.
Being on the Mara meant we spent the time at camp listening to hippos. Fun trivia knowledge, a group of hippos is called a bloat. They make the funniest noises. Because the camps are right on the river, where the animals are abundant, you do walk everywhere with a ranger. You are not to leave your tent without getting your escort, which they are always nearby. They are there to keep you – and the animals – safe. At night, the animals will even feed on the grass by the tents and I definitely woke up the second morning to a hippo eating grass, just outside our tent wall. Pure awesome. This is a good time to note, no matter where you stay, if you are a super light sleeper, bring ear plugs. The animals are loud at night. I loved it and enjoyed going to sleep hearing them, but ear plugs can be needed, depending on the day and person.
There is one place offering a hot air balloon ride in the Mara and it is through Little Governor’s camp. I highly, highly, highly recommend it. We hadn’t planned to go originally, but then was suggested by my contact to do it and we did. It is exceptional. Yes, the crazy early wake up time is rough, even on safari, but so worth it. The balloon company at Little Governor’s is top notch and even have seat belts in the balloon for take off and landing, which I have never seen before. When we arrived, it was the same theme as everywhere, we had to go to a hand wash station, wash up, then have our temperature taken and recorded. Masks had to be worn, but once we were up in the air and moving, we could take them off, if we wanted. I am sure you are picking up the theme here, protocols are in place for every single thing. If I don’t mention it, it is likely because I forgot to, not because they didn’t have them in place.
We had about an hour ride and dipped down at one point over the plain. Seeing the animals from above was so much fun. At one point, we were over a tower of giraffes and could hear an absolute ruckus being made by hyenas. After we landed, it was a really lovely, hot cooked champagne breakfast. There was a small group of us, 5 guests, and we, with the pilot had the best conversation. And that cackle of hyenas? Just as we finished, all 18 of them went running by us.
After breakfast, we had a game drive on the way back to camp. We kept the afternoon free as we wanted to take a nap and do a bit of work. Yes, we had wifi at every camp we went to, and it worked well!
The next day, the house photographer for Governor’s Camp went out with us to help me tune my photography skills. If you ever want to be a better photographer, whether cityscapes or safari, hire a photographer to spend a few hours with you. I learned so much in two hours from Will. He is a great teacher and photographer and can be found on Instagram @willfortescue or www.williamfortescue.com.
After a morning out, we then left our Il Moran guide and met our Angama Mara guide. Most people wouldn’t do a combination of the two properties because they are so close, but it was actually really great. They don’t go on drives in the same area because of the river in between them. We had different experiences at both properties. Angama Mara uses the same hot air balloon company though, so if you are going on the hot air balloon, it is at Little Governor’s.
This is the time on the trip where we had finally settled down and into the experience. We were now starting to do things like, park by the herd of elephants or cape buffalo and just watch how they interact. Don’t feel like on safari you have to do the traditional, sunrise and sunset drives only. We had such different experiences each day and no two days were formatted the same. We were tired by now, so we were doing the experiences during the day more, not the early wake up calls.
Angama means “suspended in mid-air” and the property is high above the floor of the Great Rift Valley, overlooking the Maasai Mara. The property is two camps of fifteen tents each, though one side was shut down from the low tourism numbers. Each camp has its own lodge for dining, bar, etc. and they are identical to each other. The tents have fantastic views over the valley and are a great place to sit and stare at the vast plain beneath you.
Angama Mara is another fantastic property. From enjoying the views over the plains, making your own beaded bracelet, game drives, walking game drives, and other activities – there is so much to do and the tents are incredible. There are many similarities to Segera with having a room attendant and a high service level. They too had a fantastic bath set up in the tent.
Our one goal for this part of the trip was to try to see a crossing. The Maasai Mara and Serengeti are well known for the wildebeest migration, which is when they and the zebra make their yearly appearance as part of a large, circular migration they do all year. It is roughly June to October each year and then the wildebeest and most of the zebra are no longer seen in the Mara until the next year. The zebra are the eyes for the wildebeest and lead the way to the river. Once at the river, they usually pile up and at some point, one of them gets brave enough to cross the river that they know has crocodiles in it, to get to grass that is greener on the other side. The whole situation is fascinating to watch. If one wildebeest gets an idea to take off running one way, they all follow. And mostly in a single file line that stretches for so far and so long. We watched this scene for a couple hours and even had a picnic under the tree. The wildebeest never did cross, likely because of the vehicles on the other side distracting them. I can honestly say I can’t imagine the insane number of vehicles during a normal migration because I counted 35 on the other side of the river. We had 4 on our side, all keeping back, letting the animals do their thing. Even though we didn’t see a crossing, watching the wildebeest behavior was very satisfying and captivating.
Angama Mara has a few different activities you can partake in as part of the rates. Three, I want to call out specifically: Out of Africa breakfast or lunch, the sundowner, and the bbq.
The Out of Africa breakfast or lunch, is a picnic at a special spot on the property where a scene from the movie was filmed. It is so very romantic and special, even for two platonic friends on vacation together. 😊
Angama Mara has a dedicated setup to watch the sunset with dawa in hand. Since you can’t go out into the local communities with covid, they have a few come and do some of their songs and high jumps. The view is stunning. It isn’t nightly, or at least wasn’t when we were at the property.
The BBQ is another option that doesn’t happen nightly, but so worth going. It is a meal on the property, but in the bush and trees, totally lit by lanterns. I am not giving all the details away, just enough to know what it is I am telling you to do!
Kenya was magical and completely lived up to or even exceeded the hype. I know I am leaving out a ton of details so hopefully, the bigger picture of protocols and experience comes through. I am always open to conversation and questions, so please do reach out. I got to see Kenya in a way I honestly hope doesn’t happen again and that is with no one around. I don’t want over-tourism to ever be an issue and I haven’t dug into if that is an issue in a normal year (though it isn’t a country in which I hear about it), but I also don’t want it to be a secret. Right now, if you are ready, you have an opportunity to go when few others have returned to the skies. You won’t regret it.
Lastly, I thought I would share my re-entry into the USA. My friend and I flew different airlines with different re-entry points, but the experience was identical. We were not asked where we had been, nor had our temperature taken, nor any health form when entering back into the country.
Katie is a luxury travel advisor and curator of custom itineraries around the world, including Africa. She is also an elite advisor with hotel programs like Hyatt Prive, Four Seasons Preferred Partner, Belmond Bellini, Mandarin Oriental Fan Club, Dorchester Diamond Club, and Marriott STARS, to name a few. She is taking on new clients currently and would love to send you on a trip, especially to Africa. Reach out to schedule a time for a consultation.
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