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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

Return to Kenya

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

Some places are magical. Every place has its unique sounds, sites, smells, but some places welcome with the air that whispers “Welcome back”. I feel that air, like a tingling on the back of my neck, every time I step off the long international flight onto African soil For years, long before my first trip to the vast continent, my husband tried to tell me about the soul-anchoring feel, about the places he fell in love with as a very young Peace Corps volunteer. After my own first experience year ago, I understood what he meant, and have gone back again and again and again, to new places, new people.

But in all those years we had never traveled to Africa together. Until May 2019 when I decided we would do a very traditional Kenyan safari. It was his first trip back to Kenya in almost 45 years, for me 15 years since my first time in the country.

For many years the long process of getting to Africa was enough to make it a one-time only destination. Travel usually involved multiple long flights through London or Amsterdam or other international capitols. This time was different—just one long flight from New York on Kenya Air. The first of many changes.

The second change—landing in Nairobi. The airport was no longer the gritty, disorganized scene I remembered from years prior. It is large, modern, efficient—our visas were handled promptly, our luggage arrived on time, the airport bustled with clusters of friends and family. Our transfer was there, patiently waiting for the entire group, and we joined him in the piercing sun. That hasn’t changed—an African sun can burn northerners from Ohio very quickly. Sitting on a bench I thought about all the sun hats I’d carefully packed and were buried in the bottom of my suitcase.

One reason for choosing this trip was our first stop, the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. Mentioned in every Karen Blixton or Beryl Markham reference, the Stanley Hotel has always been the definition of colonial East Africa, the epitome of old-world elegance, its polished wood staircases exuding a British upper-class presence.

Sometimes the reality does not live up to the expectation. Not so for the Stanley Hotel. It was as I imagined and even more. The elevators and enlarged, landscaped breakfast dining area did not exist in its early 20thcentury heyday, but it is easy to imagine the likes of Karen Blixen or Dennis Fitch-Hatten strolling up the polished wood banister from the lobby to the Exchange Bar with its long counter, elegant sofas and chairs, formally dressed attendants taking drink orders. The original ceiling fans have been replaced with electronic ones, and bells no longer ring to begin the Kenya stock exchange dealings (hence the name “exchange bar”), but the entire atmosphere is still one of being transported back in time and pretending, at least for a little while, the phrenetic modern world outside does not exist.

For my husband this stay at the Stanley was particularly nostalgic. As a Peace Corps volunteer decades ago, he and his friends ventured into the Stanley Hotel for a drink at the Exchange Bar. Staying at the Stanley was out of the question on their budget. Now back at the bar he ordered the same drink—local Guinness, brewed and bottled in Kenya, not Ireland. Later that evening we met Pablo, the hotel manager. When I mentioned Dick’s previous visit, 45 years ago, Pablo had a big grin and just said “Not much of a regular, is he?”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Up to the highlands…..

The bright and cheery Thorn Tree Café adjoining the Stanley lobby was originally site of Nairobi’s first post office and now a wonderful place for a leisurely breakfast. Everything is available, from traditional English/western fare to more traditional African specialties. I do not know if there is a real thorn tree in the restaurant, but there is plenty of greenery to lend an outdoor feeling and a promise of more to see on our first full day in Kenya.

From Nairobi and the Stanley hotel, it’s a full morning drive, north to Aberdare National Park and toward another Kenyan legend on my bucket list, the Ark. For years I’d read and heard about this unique lodge, where one can stay up all night watching the animals from a safe balcony perch. On the way, our group, as all visitors today, first lunch at the Aberdare Country Club, once the exclusive domain of colonials and now a regular stop for groups on their way to The Ark. The Indian influenced buffet might be forgettable, but the views were not—the spectacular scenery from the long porch hinting of more to come on the drive into the mountains.

From the country club it is a forty-five-minute drive to the Ark, named for its resemblance to Noah’s Ark. The drive is breathless, and not only because of the altitude and lack of oxygen. Built in the cool hills thousands of feet above the floor of the park, the views are amazing, the birds fly between the surrounding branches, and the local baboons play beneath the viewing platforms. The lodge is built to resemble Noah’s Ark, an image floating in the Aberdare Hills, connected to the outside world by a wooden drawbridge. An electric fence surrounds the property, as much to prevent poaching as to protect visitors. For years I’d seen photos taken from the balconies overlooking the salt lick and waterhole. Once the Ark’s doors close at 6:30 pm, the park belongs to the wildlife. Darkness brings out cape buffalo, giant warthogs called forest hogs, giraffe, baboons, elephants. From the outdoor viewing platform high above the watering hole, we watched the show go on for hours.


Down to the river

From the cool highlands of Aberdare, we drove to the Northern Frontier Province of Samburu and the Shaba National Reserve. Made famous by Joy Adamson and Elsa, the area is perfect for game drives. Over two days of game drives our wonderful driver guide Paul took our vehicle to great views of oryx, baboons, impala, zebra (both common and Grey’s), reticulated giraffe, elephant, ostrich. Grants gazelles, dik dik, and waterbuck. And—importantly—lions. Not only lions, but cheetahs! Even a rare black rhino. The exhilaration of game drives made up for the stifling humidity and heat of our lodge. Situated along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, the bungalow style lodge has rooms that were spacious but stifling in the heat. The ceiling fan barely moved the air; a little rain shower during our second afternoon was a short but welcome reprieve. I found myself making several trips to the one air-conditioned place—the gift shop.

Staying alongside the river provided an opportunity to see a sight not found in the expansive savannahs—crocodiles. Big and small they come at night to a point in the river, below the open-air restaurant on stilts, to feed on the scraps and discards from the careful guards. Watching those big, powerful jaws and thrashing tails at work, all my pictures were snapped from a respective distance. After dinner I was very careful when walking down the path along the river to my accommodations.

It’s the animals, those beautiful magnificent creatures that brings everyone to Africa. But increasingly, the diverse cultures of Africa are gaining more attention from even the first-time visitor. One hot evening in Shaba we listened to a young warrior named Billy talk about his nomadic tribe and their customs. On another morning we traveled to a women’s cooperative where the community had built a school, living quarters, and a medical facility with money earned from weaving beautiful table coverings and clothes. And of course, we met the carvers sitting behind the roadside rest stops creating and selling their wood souvenirs.


To the savannah

If there is one iconic place that defines the safari experience, the one must-do place on any trip to Kenya, it is the Masai Mara National Reserve. Encompassing a large area in southwest Kenya and extending into Tanzania, it is the domain of the Big Five, ringed with some of the best known and beloved lodges and elegant accommodations in all of Africa. My stay was in a charming tented camp, not especially elegant, but with a patio where we sat and enjoyed the sounds and sights of the Mara in between game runs and animal sightings.

And animals there were: elephants, cape buffalo, lions, hyenas, wild dogs, rhino. Impala, zebra, giraffe. Beautiful birds: hawks, splendid starlings Cori bustards, ostrich, and the famous lilac breasted roller. The highlight were the cheetahs. Not just one cheetah, but several. We watched for as long as possible as they stalked their prey, only giving up when we would be unacceptably late getting back to camp.

Any time spent in the Mara region always includes a trip (pre-arranged by the guide and tour company or lodge) to a Maasai village compound. These visits all follow a specific format. First there is the formal greeting, and payment for the visit to the village chiefs. There is the introduction of the elders, with a spokesperson explaining the group’s organization in perfect English. Housing, schooling, and community life are explained in, hopefully, not too long a narrative while everyone stands in the unforgiving heat. Like village encounters everywhere, it is always possible to spot curious little ones staring at the weird looking foreigners and waiting to have their picture taken.

The photo ops may vary, but for the Maasi it always involves a demonstration of the jumping dance. Traditionally the dance is a competition between warriors during their coming of age ceremony. On a hot afternoon surrounded by sweating westerners, it is done for the photographs everyone will take home. Regardless, it is still impressive, with ramrod straight-backed young men holding their hands (and spears) at their side and jumping as high as possible, landing only on the balls of their feet before catapulting again into the air. It is not a formal competition, but there is still plenty of friendly jostling among the jumpers.

Once the jumping is finished, once the visitors have crawled into the dark and smoky village huts, once we have heard about the Maasai culture and the cooperation between village traditions and modern Kenya, the all-important shopping begins. Years of tourist incursions have honed the Maasai’s already sharp selling skills. It’s pretty much impossible to enter the circle of tables covered with brightly colored beads and carvings and clothing, without buying something. Or, as in my case, multiple things. Each table is owned by a different woman, and the items are all her creations. I can’t just buy from one, but after about a dozen I had to quit. My basket was full and my arm sore from carrying it all. Of course, that’s only the beginning. Then the bargaining starts. The chief’s son had attached himself to me, guessing (accurately) I was serious about shopping. We convened in another area of the compound, treasures in the basket, ready to begin the serious work. He offered his price, and I had my own prices. Once he realized I’ve done this before, that this was not my first village or bargaining sessions, it was easy to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. I figure I only overpaid by about 50%, not the 400% he was first asking. Besides, the money is supposed to be for the children’s education. How can anyone quibble about that?



It is a long drive back to Nairobi, back from the bush, back into the crowded big city of Nairobi. The outskirts are different than I remembered from my first trip years before—big stores, wider streets, more traffic. But there are still street vendors selling intricate beadwork and other crafts to passengers (especially tourists) in cars stopped in traffic. Always with a smile and friendly banter. Back in Nairobi, to fill the time before the late evening flights to Europe and America, there can be stops at the Kazumi bead factory or the Amani ya Juu clothing coop, or the overly done Karen Blixen house and museum. Too many choices to make before the late evening flights. There is always something more to see and do. That’s why one visit to Kenya is never enough.



o With the equator running through the country, Kenya is more defined by rainy seasons than temperature. Traditionally the “long rains” with wildlife harder to see, are from April through June, the “short rains” from October-November. But at any time, there is great game viewing (I’ve seen all Big Five in May). July is high season, perfect for viewing the great wildebeest migration, but also the most crowded and expensive.


o Nairobi—Sarova Stanley Hotel dating from 1902 exudes old style colonial elegance with modern conveniences. A definite must. Have a drink at the Exchange Bar followed by a delicious dinner at the Thai Chi restaurant.

o Aberdare—The Ark, perched high in the Aberdare hills it is an amazing place to see all sorts of wildlife at night. Stay for the ambience, unique experience, and well-presented food. Ignore the small rooms—you won’t spend much time in them anyway.

o Masai Mara and other game reserves—a combination of lodges and tented camps provides the best overall experience of Kenya, including game viewing. There are properties to suite every budget and comfort level. Be sure to work with an expert who has some first-hand knowledge of the differences.


o This is the time to try new dishes. All the lodges and hotels observe the highest level of hygiene, but you do want to drink bottled water, or one of the delicious local beers. A lot of the food at lodges have an Indian influence. Try to find the more African dishes to experience the different flavors.


o Some of the best values are on the street, for beaded bracelets, bark pictures, small trinkets. Do patronize local hand craft stores. These are often run as a women’s cooperative featuring beautiful garments, jewelry, or decorative household items. Purchases from these support local organizations.

o Do NOT buy anything made of ivory or certain animal skins. This is not only illegal but encourages poaching of the engendered wild animals.

o The shops at roadside rest stops have handmade carvings, but at highly inflated prices. Bargain heavily and be prepared to walk away.

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