Africa, Kenya, Off the beaten path, save money on travel, Travel

How going to Kenya on safari changed me: A raw reflection (Part 1- Getting to Masai Mara)

My first thrilling sighting was a graceful cheetah who acted more like a house cat than I’d imagined. By Elana Nichols 2019

So, first, I need to just take a few minutes to let it sink in. I went to Kenya! Wow. I mean, all my life, I have always dreamed of traveling the world. Now, with Kenya and Tanzania, I have logged 79 countries. I could not be more different after contact with these countries. I could not be more changed. I could not be more grateful. As I write this, my eyes are welling up with tears of gratitude. What an amazing journey and what a memory to behold! Okay, I could spend this whole article pouring out my gratitude and still not come close to showing it, so for your sake, I will stop that now. Let’s instead dive into my experience (the broad) abroad in Kenya, Africa! Don’t worry, the brain was there too, and I am sure he will give some insight in some articles to follow. Hopefully this experience diary article will help you in your decision to go (there is no other decision) to Kenya!

Getting There

Stopping over along the way was the best decision ever! We got to check out some Christmas markets. By Elana Nichols 2019

So, the brain decided that flying to Kenya from San Francisco, California was, well, undesireable. It just is. There is no way around it! On virtually EVERY airline, you have to fly across the U.S., over the Atlantic, to Europe, then down to Africa. This. Is. Hard. It just is! So, him being, you know, the brain of the operation, he decided to make it a bit easier. He found us an itinerary that included some long stopovers in Europe. I most definitely recommend this! Admittedly, when we booked this, I was like, “No! Let’s just get to Kenya a.s.a.p!” I am glad he saw the reasoning behind his decision when my fancy free heart could not. The flight to Europe was 13 hours, and then we had another 10 to get to Africa. Do the math, that’s basically a whole day of your life (without factoring in all the time changes) that you spend sitting like the letter “L” on an airplane. Yeah, no thanks!

We started our journey boarding our plane in San Francisco and landing in Munich. This was brilliant! When we landed in the early morning, we headed over to the spa for some good sauna Aufguss and relaxation. But, really, I just ended up passing out asleep in a chair, ha, ha. After that, we took a small flight to Zurich, stayed overnight there with some Christmas markets, then took our next day flight to Kenya, where we arrived in the early evening. I can guarantee you we were 70% less tired than we would have been had we not done it that way, and we were fresh and ready to go the next morning for the start of our five day safari.

The Nairobi hotel was so nice! The people there were even nicer. It was a great experience! By Elana Nichols 2019

In Nairobi, we stayed in the Four Points by Sheraton by the airport. It was truly amazing! The service was great, and the room was amazing with a lot of very nice small accents that really brought the place together. It was a great place to rest up before our adventure ahead!

December 24th: Safari Day 1

Admittedly, I was nervous about our pickup from the hotel. We had already paid Wildlife Sun Safaris in full. Did I pick a good company? Would they still come get us even though they got our full payment? Is PesaPal a real thing? All these thoughts were racing in my mind as I was getting ready. I had picked out a cute flamingo dress to show my safari spirit, complete with my Sperry Duckboots as I had read we would be having some unseasonable rain in this dry season (more on that later). I felt like I was 8 years old in line for a roller coaster I was barely tall enough to ride. “Did I prepare for this? Did I put on enough mosquito repellent? I can’t believe I forgot to get anti-malarial pills!” All these, and more anxiety-ridden thoughts were flooding my mind. But then, I looked out my hotel window as the sun was rising. All I could hear was the theme from Lion King as I stared out at a beautiful grassy land kissed by golden sun as it was rising and thought, “Wow. I am actually in Africa.” All the worries just melted away. I glanced to see a beautiful safari jeep outside being furiously polished by a young gentleman. Could that be our vehicle? “Wouldn’t that be nice?” But I knew it wasn’t. You see, I booked a budget safari. Think of budget like you just ingested a bad piece of meat that you immediately spit out. Yes, that is kind of how it ended up being, but mixed with the most amazing wonder you can ever imagine, so worth it, actually.

Let me explain. You see, I spent about a month researching safari companies. I wanted a company that was certified and environmentally responsible. I wanted to save money by sharing with other safari adventurers. Safaris ranged in price from $100 per day all the way to $1,000 per day, depending on your vehicle, privacy, and accommodations. You see, you have your basic tented camps (including those you pitch yourself) all the way to the fancy giant treehouses and fancy accommodations where you have your own personal butler. Trying for something in the middle-ish, I ended up going on the lower end. I found five budget companies that looked legit. They were KATO certified (which means they had been certified by the Kenya Association of Tourism Operators), cared about the environment (according to their websites), and did not cost my life savings. I offered to write reviews on my blog for them, but none of them really cared for me to do that since I had less than 1,000 followers, haha. The cheapest of the five, I found on Viator. It was called Baboon Safaris. I will be writing a review of them later, since I miscellaneously ended up on their tour even though I paid more to avoid them, so be on the lookout for that. I wanted to avoid them because they had atrocious reviews. I mean, one guy had to ride the whole safari trip on the floor of the van because they crammed too many people in it. I can now attest to a similar story, but more on that later. So, anyway, to avoid Baboon, I decided we would pay $100 more per person and go with Wildlife Sun Safaris (WSS), who had better reviews.

So, I booked with WSS about six months in advance. I first had to pay the deposit, then I had to pay the remainder about a week before our trip, which definitely made me nervous. However, just like clockwork, someone was there at our hotel in Nairobi at 7 a.m. to pick us up. We checked out of the hotel and then asked if our tour guide was there to pick us up. They checked with a man in the lobby who claimed to be from a different safari company, but he had our names. This was the first red flag. But, we were already there and had paid in full, so we kind of had no choice!

Driving Mrs. Daisy

So, we got in an unmarked white van, just hoping this nice gentleman would take us to our safari vehicle and not some place scary. He was really nice and he took us to the middle of Nairobi’s Central Business District where he parked in a dark, dirty alley. It had already been raining that morning and was very dark, so we looked like we were in the middle of some Dick Tracey movie. We got out of the small, white van to see an old, green van that looked a lot like the Mystery Machine.

“This is your safari vehicle.” He said a bit sarcastically.

Then he lead us up stairs to the 8th floor of this dilapidated building. Seriously. It was falling apart.

“The elevators don’t work here.” He stammered.

This is why we had to climb stairs to the 8th floor. Every floor was like this! By Elana Nichols 2019

Luckily, we left our luggage in the first car, which was also a little nerve-wracking, being the dark alley and all. Finally we made it to the 8th floor. I mean, you have to take a lot of stairs to get to the 8th floor! I didn’t mind, since I knew we would be sitting for the better part of the next five days. We walked into an office. The sign above the door clearly said “Baboon Safaris.” I was in shock. Why were we in the very place I worked so hard and paid extra to avoid?!?!

But yes, we had been duped. Or so we thought. But again, there really was no way to sort this out so late in the game, so in we went. There were a group of workers mixed in with some random people sitting around, including two children. Right away James, the organizer from WSS introduced himself. I really was just giving him the benefit of the doubt at this point. I figured maybe he did not have a Nairobi office since the company was based in Mombasa, which is on the coast. We met him, then he told me more bad news.

“You will be staying in Miti Mingi Camp in the Masai Mara.”

Ugh. I had specifically tried to avoid this camp, which had horrific reviews. In his emails, he had told us that we would either stay in Rhino Camp or Miti Mingi Camp, so I specified I wanted the Rhino Camp. I expressed my disappointment. He asked why. I told him about the bad reviews, one being food poisoning from the food. He told me “they got a new chef.” Great. All is better now. Insert sarcastic eye roll.

So anyway, he told us they would put us in a newer and bigger tent. I just went with it. So then we were told it was time to go get in the mystery machine van. I grabbed my Scooby Snacks and off we went. I ended up stopping at the bathroom on the way. This was a bad choice. When I got to the van, all that was left was the back seat. Gross. The van was filled with the random people who were in the office. There were two women with two children and a woman by herself. No one said “hi.” No one introduced us. So much for making friends on this journey! It was stale, quiet, and uber awkward in that mystery van. I felt a bit mad. However, there were 7 of us total, which is what I was promised would be the max, so all was well. At least if we were stuck in the back, we would have some space and window seats! Or so we thought.

Suddenly, the van stopped near a shopping center and some beggars. Our driver (who also never introduced himself or said a word to us) stopped to get three big cartons of eggs which we later found out had white yolks. Every driver who went to the camp apparently brought a part of breakfast. Ours brought what I later referred to as goat eggs, only because goats don’t lay eggs, and we could not really identify them as actual eggs. Anyway, after we stopped, we did not pull away. Nope, we were picking up another passenger! I felt my face turn red. I was so mad that we would have to cram another person in the back with us. A woman appeared out of the dusty shadows and crammed in the small back seat with us.

Mystery Machine, go!

“How long is the drive?” we asked.

“About 6-8 hours to Masai Mara.” our driver, who we later found out went by Paul, replied.

“Okay, great!” Can’t wait to sit here in a smaller space than on an airplane for the next 8 hours. Cool.

There’s our green Mystery Machine Van, in all her glory! By Elana Nichols 2019

We started off on the road and it felt like we were spaceships getting launched into outer space with each small bump or divot in the road. Even better. I mean, who needs a spine or kidneys anyway, am I right? There were herds of goats and sheep everywhere. Most of them were shepherded by children. The van had no A/C, so we had the sweet perfume of black smog that was being emitted by ours and every other vehicle on the road. We all got instant tans from the black smoke that was constantly pumped into our living space through the open windows. So lovely. The perk? No cigarettes or eye shadow necessary!

One of the many herds we passed along the way. By Elana Nichols 2019

We stopped off at the Rift Valley viewing point on the side of a cliff on the way where there were curio shops and a strange coffee room. Other vans and confused tourists were whirling around. We stopped to take a picture with the cloud that was rudely obstructing our view of the valley below. “Not pictured: Rift Valley,” but we tagged her anyway. She always does get self conscious of her photos, I guess.

The gorgeous Rift Valley, blanketed in clouds. By Elana Nichols 2019

We continued on and quickly realized our mystery van was put putting slowly up the steep mountainside. It was the little van that could. Maybe. Our next stop was lunch at another Curio Shop. Among the overpiced potato chips and wooden carvings, they had set up a buffet lunch that had been made from some nonexistant kitchen in the back yard. The food was, okay. I mainly stuck with rice and beans since I figured those would be the least hazardous to wrecking my digestive system. After that, we all zipped ourselves back into our mystery vehicle.

Our curio lunch stop. Not too bad! By Elana Nichols 2019

Another gruleing, bumpy, coughing, 4 hours later, we arrived at our camp after traversing a very muddy, holey, dirt road, where we had the foreshadowing of almost getting stuck. By the way, we were promised a four-wheel drive. Mystery Van had only two. But according to the driver “It used to have four wheel drive.” so that’s good. Anyway, we arrived and no one said anything. Confused, we all poured out and were lead by a Masai tribal man to the front desk. The front desk consisted of a tree, a desk, and two couches. There was no computer or power. The man behind the desk immediately began barking orders at us, rudely.

The Miti Mingi check in…or more like boot camp ha, ha. By Elana Nichols 2019

“Who is paring with who here?!”

We all looked around. What in the actual? Apparently, some of our travel mates thought they would have a tent to themselves, but they were making everyone pair up. Right away, I wanted out of there, so I gave a royal proclamation of our couple hood to the people in the room. He assigned us a room and a Masai tribal man took our luggage over his shoulder. He lead us to a quaint, canvas tent set on cinder blocks.

We unzipped our tent to find a bed and another zipped side that lead to the bathroom. There was a schedule of when power was available and a secret combination of lefts and rights to operate the shower, depending what tent number you had. We unzipped the further end to see the bathroom. It was open air with walls and a tin roof above it. There was a toilet with some ants holding a meeting on the seat. I thought I got them all, but one bit me right in the kiester. Sorry to interrupt your meeting, little dude. There was a mirror with a sink and a shower. The bed had a mosquito net on it that was made for a smaller bed; which meant it had huge holes, or as I like to call them, mosquito invitations. The holes were “patched up” with toothpicks. This made even more holes and large gaps. What the heck. I was terrified of getting some mosquito-borne illness, so I asked for help from the front desk. A nice man came out of nowhere and gave us another mosquito net to put on top. I was satisfied with this.

Time for the first actual safari

Luckily our Mystery Mobile did this…which enabled some cool game viewing. By Elana Nichols 2019

We next headed out for an afternoon safari through the Masai Mara. We crammed into our Mystery Machine with renewed hope and high spirits. Pulling up to the gates reminded me of pulling into Jurassic Park. There were big gates guarded by men with large guns. Would raptors be waiting on the other side? Yes, but not the dino breed! After passing through the big gate, it was much like stepping into a wild dream. Right away, we saw gazelle and zebra.

The animals were just roaming wild and free. The Masai Mara is a protected area, but it does not have any fences. This is the very north tip of the Serengeti that reaches into Kenya and is known as the most bio diverse area. It is also where the great migration happens, but we were not in the season for that. I was expecting to see many different animals. What I was not expecting was a bunch of small, white vans traversing the dirt roads. As we got deeper into the reserve, we noticed a few of the other funny looking vans veer off-road.

There were a lot of other weird vehicles around on our first safari. By Elana Nichols 2019

Apparently, this is allowed in some reserves and not others. It had been raining very heavily for a few days, so the dirt was muddy and it was difficult to see through the grass where the highest mud may be. Suddenly, we saw something moving in the grass. Our eyes could not properly convey what we were seeing! Two cheetah lay in the grass. I know Cheetah are not one of the big five, but I was so excited and amazed at these beautiful creatures. I had seen silhouettes of them from afar in animal parks, but had never come face-to-face with them up close, and in their wild habitat, to boot! One of them rolled on her belly like a big house cat, playfully grazing a flower with her large, left paw. The other got up to stalk some gazelle in the near distance. We thought a hunt was about to commence, but she ended up just laying down and rolling on her back. She seemed to want a belly rub.

After we spent some time in awe at the cheetah, we quickly heard some squeeling tires and saw that there were quite a few of these hopeless vans stuck in the mud. Remember how ours was supposed to be four-wheel drive, but wasn’t? Well, apparently, many of them were “once four wheel drive.” Now, you can imagine getting a corrolla and driving through the wilderness, right? No? Well, me neither! Why they insist on this foolishness is beyond me. Anyway, our driver was one of the few who had a cable. So, while he could not actually help anyone get out, he loaned his cable to someone with four wheel drive who could. We quickly learned that when someone gets stuck (which happens often) it takes about two people to help, and about 20 drivers to stand around in their sandals and watch. What happens to the tourists, you ask? Well, we just wait indefinitely in our respective mystery mobiles. In this case, it took about two hours, so we decided to roam the grasslands a bit. It was thrilling knowing there were cheetah nearby. As it turns out, we saw them in a different area on the way out. So, they did, in fact, pass nearby when we were all standing outside.

As the sun began to set over the mountains and plains, we headed on back to our camp. Once we got there, it was time to get ready for dinner. Dinner was served buffet-style in a stale, open-air building with no decor and even less personality. The people serving the food had permanent frowns. This was such a stark difference from the amazing people we met in Nairobi! Luckily, people the rest of our trip after we checked out of this awful place were amazing. Once the food was out, we lined up to eat. We noticed a short man hurriedly putting food on a table near the back of the long line, where we were. Figuring it was just more food for all, we decided to get plates and start picking out some grub. The short man came running and yelling. He took the food off of someone’s plate and scraped it back into the serving dish.

“This is for special guests, not you!’ he yelled. So, we met the food nazi. He proceeded to guard that table each day and night. We never did really find out who the special people were, but it did not really matter. The food was okay, more rice and vegetables. There was also meat, but I could not ideintify it, so I stayed away.

After dinner, it was time to camp out. Luckily, our double netting made me feel better in the way of bugs. Just as we had fallen fast asleep, the most impressive bass I have ever witnessed jolted us awake. It was Christmas Eve, and the staff was having a party, a loud one! They were not blasting Christmas music, but some hip hop and Spanish music. This went on until about 1 a.m. We had to get up at 6 for safari. Great! We also heard some inebriated guests running around singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” off key. Needless to say the night was a bit of a sleepless one. No matter, I was just excited to see more of the Masai Mara in the morning.

Beautiful sunset over the Masai Mara By Elana Nichols 2019

Making it through the night felt like a victory. I had to use the restroom in the middle of the night, but remembering the ants carrying some unidentified bug carcass across the bathroom floor inspired me to hold it until dawn. I was still a bit scared to unzip and enter our open-air bathroom, so I asked Austin to go in there with me. All was fine, until it wasnt! I giant bat swooped down knicking my head with his left wing. That’s okay, I don’t need to use the bathroom anyway. Somehow, I was able to use it unscathed and without suffering the fate of Meredith from The Office. No rabies 5K for me!

Now, a real, full, day of safari was actually about to happen! And on Christmas Day!

I could not imagine the wonders that lay in the day ahead…

…To be continued…

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