Kenya re-visited: Christmas and New Year with a difference
Anna looks after the concierge side of things at Aardvark Safaris, working with properties to ensure clients are well looked after and generally making sure our holidays just offer that little bit extra. She and her husband used to run a lodge in Kenya and have just returned from a long overdue visit.
In recent years we have found it increasingly difficult to keep our teenagers off Instagram and tuned into family holidays. The days of lying around a pool are long gone and each year we get more adventurous. The latest summer holidays have been sailing in Croatia and backpacking in Morocco. Both of which challenged and inspired the kids in equal measure but were far from relaxing for their parents.
This year we decided a trip back to Kenya was long overdue. Fourteen years ago, when the kids were toddlers, we ran Ol Donyo Lodge (Ol Donyo Wuas as it was in those days) in the Chyulu Hills and it had been seven years since we’d been back. We’d been in regular contact with our old bosses – the Bonham family and had repeatedly promised we would revisit. We don’t normally go away at Christmas but this year the timings/holiday days etc. all collided to make it the ideal time to go.
As with all good holidays we wanted a mix of adventure, relaxation, new experiences and friends. We stayed our first night in Nairobi with friends in an old colonial house in Karen. The kids marvelled at the avocado and mango trees, the Kuni boosters (woodfires that heat the water), the team of house staff, the mosquito nets and the sheer exoticness of their surroundings. My husband and I reminisced and tried to remember why we’d ever decided to leave.
The next morning there was a powercut so we had our first ever candlelit breakfast – full English of course and complete with silver candlesticks and linen napkins. The kids were hooked. From Nairobi we headed for the Masai Mara. As we had never stayed in a tented camp this was a must do and we decided on an Aardvark Safaris’ family favourite; Offbeat Mara in the Mara North Conservancy.
From the moment we arrived the kids were excited by the sights and sounds of the bush. They adored the family tent, the bucket showers, the hot water bottles, the Askari escort and the constant pampering by the numerous friendly staff. At night it got even better with hyenas whooping, lions grunting and the kids’ imagination running wild – what was happening beyond the canvas?
There were no complaints when the hot chocolates were delivered at 6am and they were all in the jeep and ready for more at 6.30am each morning. Animals were practically dripping off the trees and the kids happily scanned the horizon for hours on end. We repeatedly turned and headed for home only to be diverted by stalking cheetahs or mating lions or warthog babies or hyenas or herds of elephants – the list went on. They adored our guide and tracker David and Capren and in the late afternoons when we stopped for a sundowner David and Capren were given rugby coaching. Three G&Ts later we drove home singing “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot” feeling like a million dollars.
We were very pleasantly surprised when the kids individually and almost daily thanked us for taking them on such a wonderful holiday. So much so that I was tempted to check their temperatures. After four blissful days we said our goodbyes and headed back to Nairobi.
Since we last visited Kenya there’s been heavy investment in Kenya’s infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on by-passes in the north, east and south of Nairobi and a new road linking the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the city centre. The Nairobi-Mombasa road has also been restored and a brand new railway linking Mombasa to Nairobi has recently been completed. All around there was a sense of progress and optimism and it was joy to behold.
We drove on the new Nairobi – Mombasa road as far as Emali where the enormous cement plant was in full production. We turned off the highway and headed for the Chyulu hills. It was Christmas Eve and it felt like we were coming home. The hills were green and verdant and so beautiful. Remote and exclusive, Ol Donyo Lodge nestles in the trees overlooking vast savannah – hundreds of thousands of hectares of it punctuated by Kilimanjaro as the backdrop. The peace and serenity here is beyond compare. We spent our days visiting our old sundowner spots, seeing the old team and meeting the new, and horse riding. Ol Donyo is possibly the most beautiful place to ride with incredible horses and facilities. Cantering on the plains with the sun setting towards a waiting G&T is probably my favourite thing in the world.
Our decision to drive to Watamu from the Chyulus was considered “punchy” by our Kenyan friends. Under normal circumstances the kids get twitchy within 30 minutes of a road trip so we were in two minds. The estimated journey time to Watamu ranged from seven to nine hours and a number of different routes were suggested. Back when we lived in Kenya in 2006 the roads were terrible so we flew everywhere but this time we were keen to see more of the country and consequently opted to drive.
We were lent the Bonhams’ 15 year old Nissan Terrino and set off at 8am with a packed lunch. We opted for a “short cut” that took us through Tsavo East National Park along the Galana River. It was stunning. The doum palms fringing the river, the beautiful rock outcrops and dark red soil that turns the elephants a deep red was a glorious sight. Seeing them walking along the luggas (seasonal river course) brought all of our cameras to attention. It took us three hours (!) to cross the park and we didn’t meet another car until we were within two kilometres of the other side.
There were many moments when I thought we may have made a mistake driving. It was 37C, my husband claimed he was on the verge of sunstroke and I did wonder if the Nissan’s spare tyre was operational – it was definitely bald. We had a single bottle of water and I didn’t dare check to see if we had any mobile phone network, neither did we have a map. The kids meanwhile continued to take it all in and didn’t complain once. We celebrated our successful exit at the Sala Gate with a round of Sprites. The frozen bottles exploded in our faces and we barely noticed. We finally arrived at Watamu at 6.30pm – 10.5 hours later. We were like astronauts leaving their spacecraft and could barely walk but we all look back on that road trip as a highlight of the holiday.
In Watamu the Bonhams had rented the beautiful Dhow House. A Moroccan inspired fortress of a house 300 metres from the beach. Watamu is the New Year’s Eve mecca for Kenyan families and Ocean Sports is the place to be – particularly for teenagers and we had a house full. Here they can have independence thanks to the availability of inexpensive TukTuks that ferry them around from beach to party to ice cream parlour. A team of four house staff looked after us at Dhow House and we ate like kings. Days were spent on the beach, around the pool, fishing and snorkelling on the reef. It was the perfect end to the best family holiday we’ve ever had.
Any questions on family holidays to Kenya?
Although we use the safari properties mentioned in Anna’s holiday we don’t generally recommend driving the long distances she and her family did. Apart from that, this combination of beach and bush is a classic example of a superb family holiday in Kenya. If you’ve got have any questions please ask in the comments section below, or pop us an email. We’ll be sure to reply and may amend the article to include our answer.
We would be delighted to help you plan a holiday, whether to the Masai Mara, the Chyulu Hills or Kenyan coast. Our team of experts have travelled widely throughout Africa. They can offer expert advice on every type of safari from family and beach holidays to riding and primate safaris. If you would like to talk to someone who has been there and done it, please just send us an email or give us a call.