Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some astonishing places but one of the stand-out continents is Africa for its sheer vastness and beauty. Since visiting Gambia as an eight-year-old (and learning to swim in the hotel pool), I’ve wanted to explore as many African countries as possible. Back in 2014, my friend Alex and I headed to Ghana for two weeks, and I could’ve cried when I had to return to Blighty. Not that I don’t like the UK, but there’s something incredibly special about Africa.
Kenya has been on the bucket list for a while, and I’d been thinking about taking a solo trip there as soon as I could get the cash together. But as serendipity would have it, Alex moved to Kenya for work at the end of 2016 and, along with her family, invited me to stay with her in Nairobi for the self-proclaimed “best holiday ever”. Fighting talk for a girl who accompanied me on an eventful trip around Europe (nicknamed Tour O Euro) which included a robbery, the world’s most expensive fish pie, camping in a thunderstorm and a car crash.
Unlike Ghana’s capital, Accra, Nairobi has zero chill. It’s the antithesis of chill. It’s constantly on the go. It’s loud, congested and chaotic. It’s not a walking city, either – there are no pavements – so driving, or calling an Uber, is a necessity. But watch out, Kenyan driving is not driving as we know it, rather it’s a chaotic mix of non-existent road signs (except for the random baboon crossings) and lack of courtesy for junctions/roundabouts/lanes. Much to his amusement, my Uber driver back to the airport attempted to school me in the ways of the Kenyan road.
But we didn’t stay in Nairobi long. After a trip to the stunning Kiambethu Farm Tea Plantation and a fancy (think 1930s decadence) dinner at the famous Hemmingways – where far too many glasses of wine were consumed – it was time to head to the Maasai Mara.
Alex secured an amazing deal. Officially Kenyan winter when the weather isn’t at its peak (and some of the animals have buggered off to the Serengeti) these deals can quite easily be made, you just need to ask. And it’s worth shopping around. For a reasonable price (safari is never cheap, mind) our package included a five-hour drive from Nairobi to the Mara, two nights at Sopa Lodge, all meals, three game drives (including all park fees), and a return flight from a scenic Wilson airstrip in the middle of the National Reserve.
Our safari experience can’t be topped. Not only were our crew – Boniface and James – at Adventure Africa Expedition insightful, fun and, by the end of the trip, more like members of the family, we were also bumped up to lodge accommodation. Think comfy rooms, hot showers, a pool (which we didn’t use) and three-course meals. If you want to go back to basics and camp, Adventure Africa is also a great company to book through. As our group was really varied, to meet everyone’s needs we opted for a slightly more luxe package. As a veggie, I was fully expecting to live on air during my time in the Mara (Kenya is renowned for its love of meat) but I was fully catered for (including a whole bag of chickpea curry included as a substitute for chicken on a picnic – the baboon who came to tea certainly had his eye on a bit of spice).
We spotted herds of elephants (I welled up, they’ve long been my favourite animal and there is something so special about seeing them in the wild), zebras, buffalo, leopards (notoriously hard to spot but we saw two) cheetahs (ripping apart some unfortunate creature), lion cubs and lions (including coming face-to-face with a male lion in a bush when my window was down – gulp), vultures, giraffe, and an amazing walk (along with an armed park guide) to see hippos and crocodiles wallowing in a river. Without wanting to sound cliché, it was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Even driving through the vast landscape (and, out of season, you’ll do a bit of driving without spying an animal) was breathtaking.
We also got the chance to visit a Maasai village. We watched dancing, learned a few survival tips (including the various uses of plants – always handy if I find myself lost in the wilderness) and generally had a wonderful time. Boniface took over as photographer so I could spend time with my holiday mates and he took some great snaps. He also got involved in the dancing. Later in the evening, our Maasai guide, John, came to visit us at our hotel and we chatted about his life in Kenya, and ours back in the UK. We’d bought Maasai blankets from the village and decided to wrap up for dinner. True Brits abroad.
After briefly returning to Nairobi, we packed our beachwear and caught another flight. This time to Diani Beach, near Mombasa, home of white sandy beaches and sea views. We opted for an Airbnb and, although it needed the occasional improvement (the last evening was like a scene from The Craft with bugs coming in through every nook and cranny) it’s exactly what you’d expect. I came to really love our little house and was sad to leave (especially since the housekeeper’s dogs came to play every day).
Little tip? If you’re prone to mosquito bites like me, buy a load of Deet but try not to worry. Bites are inevitable. If you take your anti-malarial tablets, you’ll be fine.
We spent our time reading, playing games of Heads Up, drinking, hanging about with the local wildlife – there was a hilarious incident when a monkey stole an entire pack of Digestive biscuits, only to sit on the roof and gobble the whole lot – going on boat trips, and eating everything in sight. In Diani, you can organise to have your own chef. We were lucky enough to have Sammy who not only arranged for local fishermen to come each morning with fresh fish, prawns and lobster, but cooked the most amazing spread. We even went to a fancy restaurant in a cave (Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant) and, although the food was nice, it wasn’t a patch on Sammy’s calamari and fries. Talk about being spoilt.
Between five people, the cost of a private chef was extremely affordable. Plus, he became another friend. We loved Sammy and our housekeeper, Stella, and missed them dearly when we left.
Back in Nairobi, we spent our last few days eating more food (Nairobi is full of wonderful places to eat – my favourite is About Thyme and is set in the most scenic garden where strings of fairy lights adorn the veranda like delicate necklaces) and visiting the local wildlife parks like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage – where you learn about the atrocities caused by poaching and the efforts of those trying to educate people to take care of their wildlife – and the Giraffe Centre – where you can take selfies with the long-necked creatures and even get a smooch.
One of my favourite things about Africa is the vibrant trade markets and Nairobi’s Maasai market, held on a supermarket rooftop, didn’t disappoint. After a tenuous bit of bartering, and a few sneaky chats with seasoned-negotiator Alex, I managed to secure some beautifully crafted gifts for my parents, plus an amazing printed jumpsuit. Well, you’ve got to treat yourself.
Kenya is a spectacular country and, in terms of landscape and variety, it has more to offer a tourist than any other country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. From white sandy beaches and glorious African savannahs to busy, diverse cities, there’s something for everyone.
Emma flew with KLM airlines from Manchester via Amsterdam to Nairobi. On her return, she travelled with Kenyan Airlines (operated by Air France) via Paris to Manchester.