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First time Kenya - a Self-Drive Safari TR to 5 parks, August 26-September 16, 2021


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“It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times” is what could be said in Dicken’s words about our first-time visit to Kenya. Well, this is of course an exaggeration, but this trip was punctuated by highs and lows; quite the emotional rollercoaster. I didn't imagine it would be that difficult, and I didn't imagine it would be that amazing. We visit the Mara Game Reserve, the Mara Conservancy (Triangle), Amboseli, Tsavo West, Tsavo East, and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. 
The highlights are the fantastic animal encounters, especially the many Big Cats, and some of the enchanting landscapes, while the lows are connected to the vehicle, the camping gear, the lack of facilities, some people, and especially to the road transfers between the five parks we visited. 
A little background: We are a retired couple from Florida, USA , 70 and 65 years old and this was our 10th self-drive safari. Before Kenya, we spent 5 weeks on a self-drive safari in South Africa’s Kruger Park. We rented a Maui Camper Van and lived and slept in comfort. We had hot water showers in the camps, picnic sites with flush toilets, and no traffic other than fellow game drivers. Of course, I did not expect the same level of comfort in Kenya. However, I quite naively believed that the level of difficulty would be similar to our two previous Tanzania trips, with non-existent hot water showers, bad gravel roads, and some exotic chaos through villages. 
Kenya, however, presented difficulties to us self-driver that we have not previously encountered. Hopefully, I can shed some light on this, but please keep in mind that different travelers have vastly different expectations and then different experiences and so all of our highs and lows are specifically the way we have seen it and judged things to be. At the end, each trip is a very subjective and personal experience. With this caveat in mind, please read my evaluation of the different accommodations, campsites, parks and reserves, the Land Cruiser, and driving in Kenya. 





Edited by KaliCA
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Wildebeest Eco Camp off Langata Rd, Nairobi 
$125 Per Deluxe Room, including breakfast.
Dinner $12 pp

Good: If only the food were better!
The location and setting of the Wildebeest Camp is quite enchanting, an oasis in the metropolitan wilderness. After the chaos out in the streets, we encounter green grass, a big flowering garden, a pool, a Koi pond, and a restaurant on a balcony set above the pond. Self-drivers can pitch a tent or open their rooftop tent at this place. There are fixed tents as well, but we opt to stay in a Deluxe Room with a refrigerator. All functional and quite comfortable. As far as the food goes, the soup is tasty, but the rest of the modest dinner buffet choices is not to our liking and the three times we eat dinner there, the food is giving us a stomachache. Breakfast is just ok with choices of eggs, fruit, yogurt, and toast. Staff is not very friendly or motivated, but eventually they get things done. Sadly, we would not stay there again and it’s only because we feel badly after every dinner and the rooster’s crowing is waking us up a few times a night. We stayed there a total of three nights.



Kili from above. I'm using some iPhone pics, so please excuse the poor quality



There was a strict protocol for immigration, presented neg. PCR test from Skukuza doctors, and uploaded to a health profile.






Edited by KaliCA
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  • KaliCA changed the title to First time Kenya - a Self-Drive Safari TR to 5 parks, August 26-September 16, 2021

WoW! THank you for posting! I am highly interested in your experience!

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I’m not a self-driver but having travelled through a fair bit of Kenya by car (with a driver) I can imagine this must have been very challenging. Lookong forward to your report, and glad to hear you had many great experiences.

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The Vehicle: A six-seater Landcruiser with the last seats removed, with a pop-up roof. Rented from Roadtrip Kenya, a Dutch outfit. 
$164 per day, including camping gear and fridge


The good part: The green 15 year old Land Cruiser has good tires and a trusty engine that takes us into and out of very steep gullies and riverbeds without any problems. No AC, but I knew that ahead of time. 
The disappointing part: Biggest problem with the LC: the brakes fail, all break fluid leaks out at Talek gate where we only narrowly miss crashing into the wall of the building, but instead go through and bend the white barrier. Very scary incident! Peter, our contact person in Nairobi, promptly sends a mechanic from Talek town (a very friendly man who lets us use his LC for the time it takes to fix ours) and upgrades us to a Bush tent at Aruba Mara Camp. But…. he never acknowledges that this incident was scary or dangerous and never says he is sorry. In fact, Peter is lecturing me for being overly upset and “dramatic” about the incident. He says, “things like that just happen to cars”. I’m bothered by his lack of sympathy for this near disaster. 
Second problem occurs one week before the end of the trip when the middle access door stays locked, this after it would not lock previously, and it becomes difficult accessing gear from front or back only. Peter forgets about our issue and never sends help to unlock the door. Our agent let us down. 
Third problem is that once we drive from the Triangle to Narok and then in Amboseli and beyond, a huge amount of very fine dust, more like powder, enters through the back doors and windows, covering all gear and us. Major annoying. The weather stripping around doors and windows is not tight or is missing and fails to keep the dust out. 
Other issues: Road Trip Kenya offers a coolbox on a second battery, but the temperature gauge would show 12 C every morning anyway, so it did not work as intended and didn’t constantly keep things cold around 3C. Peter says this is normal and will save energy. We disagree. Luckily though, our meat stays fresh, except for a pack of minced meat which smells too funky to eat. 
They do not offer any boxes or crates to store and organize things, so I brought along many IKEA bags and other bags with zippers which helped. In addition, since necessity is the mother of all inventions, I use my suitcase as the kitchen box. 





First breakfast under a single tree in the Reserve



Big mishap! Brakes fail at the gate and we avert crashing into the wall, but instead, bend back the plastic barrier. the agent had to send $180 for a replacement barrier. I'm sure many of you have passed through Talek Gate before.





Edited by KaliCA
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We love having a pop-up roof that affords us the freedom to move around for best angle photography. 


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Camping Gear: 

A disappointment: Everything we rent is old, worn, even ripped. Wooden rickety tables, thin and ripped sleeping bags, worn and thin mattress pads, tiny hard pillows, pots without lids or handles, no kettle, no towels, and a mismatched tent. The chairs, the silverware and metal dishes were ok. Thank goodness we brought along our own warm sleeping bags, pillows, a Teflon frying pan, and plastic dishes. 
After setting up the tent the first night and discovering that none of the pieces match, Peter has a man drive from Nairobi to Talek to deliver a functional dome tent to us. Good support there, but this could have easily been avoided, especially since I made it a point when talking to the Dutch agent. 
So all together we are very disappointed in the subpar quality of the rented camping gear. 

Carrefour Supermarket at The Hub in Karen

A highlight! Shopping there is a pleasure and we find everything we need from our extensive shopping list. Great bread, cheese, and lunch meat selections. I also find plastic tubs for washing, even Almond Milk for my cereal in the morning. I’m only sorry I didn’t buy a tea kettle there as well, as using their pot was cumbersome. 

Safaricom Office, also in the Hub

A highlight: It’s cheap to load data and cellular minutes on a SIM card into an unlocked iPhone. The problem during our visit is that they have an internal system bug that would not accept foreign passports. Eventually, we get it finalized after our shopping spree, but it all takes longer than expected. We are surprised to learn that Kenyans are better connected, many times with 4G, than we are in the USA. In all the Kenyan parks we have service and can send home daily messages, even pictures. 


Shopping at the Carrefour Supermarket is a pleasure!


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This is our coffee water pot. We also got a ripped rag to take the hot pot off the gas burner! Luckily, I brought along the ovenmitt. 

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Hang in there, after all the preliminaries, animal pictures will come in bunches!


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Goodness me you had a lot to contend with, with your equpmemt. 

I ready admire you both for tackling this. As Michael says those roads can be awful.

Looking forward to reading the next sections as it sounds as though,  despite all this, you had a good time.

Edited by wilddog
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oh! that Land Cruiser didn't have a stong engine, I suppose... And all that troubles around... The qustion here is if all bad experience and inconvenience were worth the animals sightings you had and the pictures you've taken! The leopard is amazing!

It looks like in Kenya one can pay a lot for the bad camping equipment and a bad vehicle. Maybe I am just spoiled by Bushlore  :rolleyes:

And the reaction of the guide to the incident can make me think that the people are not serious enough... I mean that they don't take seriously the important things. That is not good. I can imagine how you were feeling.

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@wilddogYes, awful roads, and either we were brave... or maybe stupid?:lol: I have heard that some people get anxiety on those roads, even when they have a driver!

@Elena H 

I was warned not to expect too much from Roadttrip Kenya, but it was worse than I thought. There is sadly no Bushlore in Eastern Africa. You can be the judge if it was worth it after all....

thank you both for following along...

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Road transfer from Nairobi to Sekenani 


A Lowlight: We leave the Hub at 1 pm and reach Sekenani just before sunset. It’s only 250km on an all tar road, but this is where we get the first taste of what it means to drive on a major highway in Kenya, much more dangerous than driving the Northern Circuit in Tanzania. Highway here means a two lane road, maybe short stretches of three lanes. Slow and fast trucks are the major difficulty here while sedans flit in and out of both lanes. Passing trucks is a risky maneuver as is just driving along in OUR lane. Some passing trucks coming towards us would blink their lights, meaning we should get out of their way! Then there are the exhaust fumes and driving with open windows behind those stinkers is not fun. Add to that the daily life happening along the streets: Vendors, pedestrians, motorcycles, cows, sheep, little shops….It may look exotic at first glance, but it’s also shocking to see the extend of poverty, misery, and filth. 
And then there are the speed bumps. They may or may not be marked. Even though they are effective, they are annoying and slow down progress for sure. Cows, stubborn donkeys, sheep, carts, bikes, people walking, all contribute to having to pay extra attention and having to take it extra slow. 
So, in summary, we have learned that self-driving on Kenyan roads is not for the faint of heart. It’s adventurous but also dangerous. My husband has great will power, so while concentrating very hard and driving defensively, he always gets us safely to our destinations, but is exhausted after each road transfer. 
A special mention: the Nairobi to Mombasa road is truly the road from hell. Besides the heavy traffic with many trucks, there are miles and miles of road construction going on and until this road is completed, it will only be stop-and-go until Athi. Many street vendors hustle along this stretch. Luckily, on our way back to Nairobi, we avoid this part and drive back via Mushuru, on a pastoral, almost parallel road. 
Progress is indeed a two-edged sword. It’s great that there is lots of commerce happening between Mombasa and other East African nations where all the goods get transported, but it comes at a price of overloading the current infrastructure. What will happen when more people will own cars and clog the roads even more?









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Oldarpoi Mara Camp
2 km from Sekenani Gate
$20 pppn camping

A Lowlight: Finally, we reach Sekenani at last light and are getting excited to be on safari tomorrow. Somehow our GPS misses the first left turn up the hill to this camp and we drive up the second left, via a rocky and rutted road. We are the only guests and the attendant wants $20 pppn for pitching our own tent. I’m too tired to argue and pay what he wants, probably double the normal price. It takes some convincing, but we are allowed to drive the car into the meadow. While trying to erect the dome tent with a friendly staff member, we discover our mismatched tent pieces. We have a short and restless night in a crooked tent with less space as the village dogs bark all night because of hyena yowling nearby. 





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The Masai Mara National Reserve: 
Entrance fee $80 pppd when sleeping outside the Reserve

We enter Sekenani Gate promptly at 6:30 and I pay the fee for three days/nights (This means we need to exit by 6:29 on our last day and the exact exit time is noted on the pay stub. Paid with Visa. 





Highlights: We are back in the Promised Land and the beauty of the East African savannah is greeting us. Rolling greenish hills with single trees, green bands of riverine forest and grasslands as far as the eye can see. We have the best cat sightings yet, after 9 safaris. We hire two amazing Masai guides who show us the gems of their ancestors’ land. 

Lowlights: some game drivers crowd the animals, rules are not enforced, and there is way too much traffic at cat sightings and at crossings. No toilets for visitors in the whole Reserve and the ones at the gate are atrocious. Tourists use “Bush toilets” and leave toilet paper behind, a truly unsightly practice. (As a tip, when using toilet paper in the Bush, stick it in a doggie poop bag which are readily available in Western countries, and yes, I know that single-use plastic bags are not allowed in Kenya, then maybe bring paper bags?)We ask ourselves how can it be that there are no visitor facilities in the most famous game reserve in the world? We have no answer. Across the border, in the Serengeti, the visitor center and picnic sites have good facilities. 

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Here a few shots of our first morning in the Reserve, driving from Sekenani Gate to Talek Gate, before we have the break incident. First Topi, first buffalo, first lions.... you get the idea. We are especially pleased to see the first herds of the migration.












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Edited by KaliCA
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The 'firsts' are always exciting and getting them helps us relax. nothing worse than getting home and being asked  did you see a lion.....er no. Unless your are not hoping to see one.:mellow:

Your first camping night...😱 but you found a canine friend. 

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What an adventure- not something I could do by a long shot ( flying between camps has never seemed more attractive😀) but am extremely impressed by your spirit and fortitude to undertake this journey. Your photos are excellent and really illustrate your narrative . Look forward to more and sincerely hope the rest of the trip was a bit easier than so far. 
Despite your extensive experience in self driving including in Africa, I get the sense that even the Tanzania trip was significantly easier. The lesson here is the vehicle and outfit rented from are absolutely critical - there seems to be major misrepresentations here with a vehicle not in acceptable condition being provided along with subpar and unchecked equipment. 
Your honest trip report will be of immense use to other self drivers on this board. Thanks for sharing your journey, with the highs and lows. 

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@AKR1Thank you so much for your kind words!

Sometimes I'm thinking that I'm focusing too much on details, so I'm glad to hear your positive feedback that this may help others avoid some pitfalls.

Yes, flying seems so much more attractive now, how true! Yes, the TZ trip seems easier looking back at 2018. I never imagined Nairobi to be such a huge metropolis. Should have googled it! Tanzania was more pastoral and laid back...

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Highlight: Early on, I made the decision to hire a Masai guide for two days in order to maximize our cat encounters. George Kiriama came highly recommended, formerly worked in Malaika Camp, and I was in touch with him before the trip. He could not guide us himself as he was busy on a week-long photo safari, but he sends us Ken, his mentor, a guide, and a photographer in his own right. Both men grew up in Talek and know the area and its animals intimately. Ken is guiding us for two full days, and later George is guiding us for a third day. Neither has a radio in our car, but both of them are connected to their fellow Masai guides by phone and receive sightings tips all through the day. 
With Ken, who sometimes shoots with our second camera, we find three male lions on a wildebeest kill, a serval hunting, two separate cheetah mothers with cubs, each on a successful gazelle hunt and then sharing the kill with their offspring. We meet the 4 Cheetah Brothers Coalition twice, being very active in the morning and lounging under a tree in the evening. Also, Ken finds a few regal male lions, the leopard Luluka, and for a cherry on top a pride of lions with many cubs in the golden light, waking up and interacting. We are also present at the one and only crossing of this trip and watch how a Croc is making a kill. It's not our first kill, but when we hear the little wildebeest cry out bitterly, we tear up, even though we know, "it's just nature..."


The man on the right is our Ken, a little flamboyant, a little arrogant, but a great guide.IMG_6763.JPG.bcb70a1466207a1773a64dd303c64e56.JPG


The game drive starts before sunrise and just after the sun is up, we shoot some wildebeest and zebra in the golden lightDSC_7654.jpg.4e87fed460d2dcd09db8bcf720c8b15d.jpg

three lionboys on a kill are nextDSC_7706.jpg.00739c8e98181ad667e5db06672c0326.jpg



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One highlight follows the next... hunting serval, hyena on a kill, and the leopard Luluka in all her beauty, sadly, her cub stays hidden.



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The next few minutes are a first for us: We watch a successful cheetah hunt. First, we meet a cheetah with her three subadult cubs, just lounging under a bush. It's almost 10 am, time for breakfast.  After a nice viewing of sleepy cheetahs, we leave them to have a picnic breakfast a little below their bush. 


Pile of cats



a little more alert



We set up and start our breakfast



Not five minutes into our meal, Ken yells out, "She is hunting!" grabs my husbands camera and shoots the next shot. All I see is a gazelle and a flitting shape following it. Ken urges us on, "Let's go see... " he hops in the car and we follow, leaving our breakfast things behind as he races up the hill making his own track. And this is what we find:

The mother is panting heavily, the kill is barely visible under the bush and two cubs are with her. Where is the third cub? In my iPhone video, I see later, that the third cub was actually very close to us, trying to help in the hunt by running left instead of to the right. So he now appears, meowing and calling his family. Finally, the group is reunited and the feast can begin. 














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Lowlight: By Lookout Hill, we watch a truly chaotic crossing. The game warden is so agitated by all the misbehaving drivers, that he is leaving his car to yell at game drivers who park right at the crossing point. So his being on foot and the many illegally parked cars chase some of the wildebeest back while others cross. Later, they regroup and cross further south. Cars are creating mayhem and the losers are the animals who are prevented by idiots who block the river access to do what comes naturally. Ken is furious with the warden and his fellow - mostly Nairobi- game drivers. Ken is telling us that this is a relatively low number of cars present because of COVID. But it looks like a veritable parking lot to me. How much worse will it be after COVID? I shudder to think. 
If you have a similar or better experience regarding a crossings, I would like to hear your thoughts. To me, this was a major turn-off to ever going back to the Reserve. 


They bunch up above the river





They jump, swim and hop across the river en masse.



The game warden is yelling at game drivers telling them to move back. He is out of the car walking around. Some cars are driving between the animals and the crossing stops!!





The animals are confused



They bunch up further south, then cross in smaller numbers



The sequence of two crocs making a kill








The sequence of an unsuccessful kill. It got away!










All this before lunch! We are astounded.

To be continued....




Edited by KaliCA
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1 hour ago, KaliCA said:

If you have a similar or better experience regarding a crossings, I would like to hear your thoughts. To me, this was a major turn-off to ever going back to the Reserve. 


this is what a typical crossing looked like 9 years ago



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