Kenya epitomizes Africa. From its densely populated urban centers like Nairobi, to its vast savannas and mountain views populated more by wild animals than people, Kenya should be near the top of your travel agenda. Here is my review of my trip to Nairobi and the Maasai Mara region of Western Kenya in June 2018.
Travel is in my blood, and I travel quite a bit. Both for work and fun. Invariably, friends always ask me where my favorite trip has been. In the past, I have typically answered something to the effect of “It’s difficult to say, they are all so unique!”. However, I have to say that my trip to Nairobi and the Maasai Mara region of Western Kenya in May 2018 would definitely rank near the top!
While most of my trips are funded by points and miles, or some combination of cash, points and miles, this trip to Kenya did provide some unique challenges. Fortunately, I was able to find a killer flight deal and an “off season” rate at the safari camp. Below are the details of my booking and trip!
Booking: The Flight Deal!
I was fortunate to find a sweet flight deal to Nairobi, courtesy of an airfare notification from Scott’s Cheap Flights. The airfare was USD 550 on KLM. In addition, I was able to apply USD 150 in Delta Gift Certificates to the airfare, bringing the total down to only USD 400!
Tim’s Tips: I got the gift certificates from my American Express Platinum and Premier Rewards Gold cards, both of which provide annual reimbursement of “airline credits”. While these credits are designed to cover ancillary services like bag fees and in-flight purchases, you are also able to purchase gift certificates directly from your chosen airline (in my case, Delta). AMEX Platinum offers USD 200 annually and Premier Rewards Gold offers USD 100 annually. These benefits seriously offset the respective annual fees!
The flight deal was from Chicago O’Hare to Nairobi via Amsterdam. Since I’m based in Dallas, Texas, this meant a positioning flight. I opted to book a flight on American Airlines (AA), using British Airways Avios. BA Avios are a great option for short-haul domestic flights, since they are a “distance based” award chart. For example, AA requires 12,500 miles for a one-way flight from DFW-ORD. Booking that exact same flight with BA Avios only requires 7,500 Avios!
Tim’s Tips: If you don’t fly British Airways often, you likely won’t have any Avios to spend. Fortunately, you can transfer to British Airways from American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio! I opted to transfer some of my AMEX points in order to book this flight for 7,500 Avios each way + USD 5.60!
But enough about points and miles, let’s get to the trip!
Day 1: Getting to Nairobi!
The flight from ORD to Amsterdam was originally slated to be on KLM’s 747 “Combi” configuration. This configuration has a large section of the passenger cabin dedicated to cargo, thereby reducing the number of seats for passengers on the plane. However, a late equipment change resulted in a 100% passenger configuration, resulting in a TON of empty seats! I was, literally, the only person in the mini-cabin of economy on a 747!
As is the case with most “cheap flights”, I was hostage to a significant layover in Amsterdam (9 hours!). Fortunately, it was a layover in Amsterdam and not, say, Newark! Amsterdam, like most of Europe, is VERY connected. A quick 20-minute train ride from AMS to Amsterdam Central Station had me perfectly situated to explore Amsterdam!
Tim’s Tips: The trains from AMS to Central Station run approximately 7-8 times per hour, and are very clean. The cost, at the time of this writing, was under €10 for a return journey. You can buy the tickets online, or via many ticket vending machines at AMS. Additionally, the Information Desks can sell you a ticket if you are unsure which one to get.
I would highly recommend this option to transit from the airport.
Onward to Nairobi, I was presented with the option to upgrade my seat to business class for USD 250. For an 8 hour flight? Sold! I was also able to snag the throne seat, 4E, also known as the “Captain Kirk” seat. It is positioned in the rear of the business class cabin, center aisle. Definitely a “commanding” view of the cabin!
Touchdown in Nairobi!
Arriving in Nairobi late at night, I was very glad that my itinerary included airport transport. My driver met me directly outside of customs and drove me the 15 miles or so to the Nairobi Tented Camp in the Nairobi National Park! Arriving at camp in the middle of the night, I was surprised to have dinner available. I was offered a cold beer, shown to my “tent”, and settled in after an exhausting day of flying.
Day 2: Nairobi Tented Camp
As exhausted as I was from flying the entire day prior, I was up before dawn, sitting on the porch listening to the stirring of unknown critters and creatures. The hosts were quick to point out that I was, under no circumstances, to leave the immediate camp … 45 minutes after breakfast I spotted a rhino and her baby within sight of the camp. I heeded the warning!
Tim’s Tips: I should mention that I booked this safari through Gamewatchers Safaris. I can’t say enough about this group of professionals. From booking to pre-trip Q&A, to the final handshakes goodbye, Claire and the people at Gamewatchers had absolutely everything lined up for me.
David Sheldrick Elephant & Rhino Orphanage
As part of my itinerary, I had the option of choosing either a morning safari ride or a trip to the local elephant orphanage. Since I was going on an afternoon safari, I opted for the orphanage. It is a great option, allowing me to learn a bit about the local struggles with poaching and resulting rehabilitation of these incredible creatures!
Following lunch at the camp and a quick nap, I set off for my first of many game drives, this one in the Nairobi National Park. Though the Nairobi National Park is within eyesight of the city of Nairobi, it still maintains an isolated feel. Nowhere near what I was about to experience in the Maasai Mara, but it was certainly not a “zoo”. I was able to spot many unique and majestic animals on this 2-1/2 hour drive.
Returning to camp, I ate a huge chicken dinner and retired to my tent, eagerly anticipating Day 2 … The Mara!
Tim’s Tips: A quick trip the Nairobi National Park would be a great way to spend a 7-8 hour layover at NBO. It is a mere 20 minute drive from NBO to the park, and there are many options for day trips with companies who will provide transport to and from the airport. Just make sure that you have plenty of time, as we saw more than one driver get stuck up to their hubs in the rainy season mud!
Day 3: Maasai Mara, Kenya!
Early on Day 3, I departed the camp to catch my flight to the Maasai Mara region of Western Kenya. Maasai Mara is a small corner of the Serengeti where it juts into Kenya from northern Tanzania. It is a pristine, lush, and enchanting part of the world, and I can’t wait to go back!
The flight from Wilson Airport to the airstrip in the Mara was an event in and of itself. If you have never flown on a small aircraft, you haven’t flown. You experience every single bump and shift in the air currents, so it is definitely not for those with a weak stomach! Cruising altitude was right at 10,000 feet, so the views over the plains and wildlife were incredible.
A short hour later, and I was landing at the Olkiombo Airstrip, advertised as barely 1 degree south of the equator. Gamewatchers drivers met me at the plane, and I was whisked into the Landcruiser for the short journey to the Porini Lion Camp … my home for the next 4 nights.
Porini Lion Camp
The Porini Lion Camp is nestled in a bit of a horseshoe of trees with a ravine and creek running behind the camp. The trees make for a great backdrop when approaching the camp, and the creek makes for a great destination for lions and hippos. Yes, that is why it is called the Porini Lion Camp. It is one of only 5 camps allowed within the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, and with this being the off-season, I had the entire camp to myself for the first 2 days!
The remainder of my days in the Mara consisted of 3 game drives per day, more food than I could possibly consume, many (many) Tusker beers and some very special, and unexpected, sightings. In short, I saw not only the Big 5 but the Big 8, plus a hot pursuit between a cheetah and an impala. Below are only a fraction of the photos that I took while on this safari.
Return: The Long Journey Home
The end of a great trip is never fun, and the prospect of a long series of flights home is even worse. These sad facts were slightly mitigated by the “day room” that was included as part of the itinerary upon my return to Nairobi. It turned out to be a full-service hotel room that was mine for a few hours. Plenty of time to take a long, hot shower, and prepare myself mentally for the trip home. Also included in the itinerary was a final meal at Fogo Gaucho Brazilian Steakhouse, where I gave myself the meat sweats in advance of my flight at 11:00 PM that evening.
The Gamewatchers crew in Nairobi picked me up at the steakhouse when I was ready and transported me to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) for my return flight to the US. We said our goodbyes and snapped a quick selfie to cap the trip!
Recap: Total Cost
While this was one of the most expensive cash trips I have ever taken, the value was also very high. In total, my out of pocket costs, including full board lodging, were:
- Airfare (including international upgrade): USD 650
- Safari with Full Board Lodging: USD 2250
- Total out of pocket: USD 2900
Certainly not a trip for those on a tight budget, but I would certainly recommend saving up for this once in a lifetime experience!