Whitcomb Family’s Safari to Kenya

We are thrilled to share our clients’ personal blog post about their family safari to Kenya. They stayed at Saruni Samburu, Saruni Wild, and Saruni Mara while on safari, learning a great deal and having some amazing cultural interactions and wildlife encounters. Enjoy reading about the Whitcombs’ experiences in their own words and their beautiful photos!

Whitcomb Family’s Safari to Kenya, Game Drive

An African safari has been on our bucket list to do “when the kids got older”. One morning in December we realized that our kids were older and that it was now or never. (Also, some previous plans fell through and we now going to spend the holidays all together.) It was a mad scramble trying to coordinate safari dates and airfare, but in the end we ended up flying out of Sydney on Christmas Eve and returning January 3rd. I counted on the expertise of a travel company who specialized in Africa to tell us where to go because we did not even know which country we wanted to visit! Every day since we have returned I have counted my blessings that we have the time and money to experience such a magical trip. Brad has posted 150 pictures on Facebook, here is the commentary to go along.

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Giraffe and Antelope

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

To get to Kenya we flew 14 hours to Dubai, had a three-hour layover, then an additional 5 hours to Nairobi, Kenya. We arrived in Nairobi late in the evening, spent the night there and proceeded to the domestic airport the next morning. I have never seen such a small domestic airport located in a big city! It consisted of a fleet of bush planes and a few United Nations humanitarian aid planes. We boarded our 12 seater for our one-hour flight to our first destination, Kalama Conservancy/Samburu National Park in northern Kenya. Our first sighting of animals were the giraffes near the airstrip and zebras on the airstrip as we landed! We were met by our guide, Joseph, who was native to the Samburu region. He would be our guide for the four days we were there. Our first game drive was the 40-minute drive from the airstrip to our lodge. Along the way Joseph pointed out much of the flora and fauna. Our home for the next three nights was an extraordinary lodge set high on a rocky hill which gave us a beautiful view of the valley floor. Our host and everyone who worked there kept calling it a camp, but in no way did it resemble a camp, I am not even comfortable calling it a lodge. We had the family suite, with a large sitting area and a room on either side. There were three walls per room with the fourth side of the room open to the view. At night you would zip down tent like flaps to close it up. After settling in and a group dinner with the host and other guests (not many of us, we all fit around one large table) it was off to bed for an early start. The following two days were pretty similar. A wake up tray of coffee or tea would arrive in the dark at 5:30am and we would be on the road by 6am in time to see the sunrise. We would drive around viewing or looking for game until about 9am when we would stop and have a picnic breakfast. We would continue the game drive after breakfast and arrive back at “camp” around 1pm for lunch. After lunch we would have a few hours to relax, then it was either getting back in the truck for dusk game viewing and sundowners (cocktails) the first day, and a hike the second day. It was a fabulous time. The highlights for us were the elephants and the wild dog. We loved the elephants! They were huge, came so close to us, and had such personality! I couldn’t get enough of them and we watched them many times. Wild dog are rare and very hard to see. We had tracked them a few times but never saw them. While on our hike, Joseph got a call on his radio that the wild dogs had been spotted. So we booked it back to camp, jumped in our truck and took off to find them. Joseph knew we really wanted to see them and worked very hard tracking them and getting us in position so they would run by us. It was really exciting when one stopped to look at us and then ran on. It was a short sighting, but exciting. We saw so many animals including the “Samburu 5″. The Samburu 5 are all endemic to the region; they are the reticulated giraffe, Beisa orxy, gerenuk (a long neck gazelle type thing that stands on its hind legs to feed off the tops of bushes), blue shanked Somali ostrich, and Grevy’s zebra.

Saruni Samburu - Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Tented Camp

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb – Saruni Samburu

Christmas day a group of Samburu teenagers and warriors, dressed in their traditional attire, came and sang and danced for us. The Samburu people are closely related to the Maasai and the warriors do that straight leg jumping. Amazing how high they can get. We also visited a Samburu village. We were invited into their huts, we were shown how they protect their livestock from predators, how they light fires, and were included in a welcoming dance ceremony. Like the Maasai, the Samburu still exist mainly on blood and milk from their livestock. There we no gardens around at all. Such a different way of life, I don’t think many of us from developed counties could live like they do.

Samburu Village - Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

After three nights in the Samburu region we took a 1 1/2 bush flight south to the Maasai Mara. The Maasai Mara is the same ecosystem as the Serengeti, it is called the Serengeti on the Tanzanian side of the border and the Maasai Mara on the Kenyan side of the border. When the Great Wildebeest Migration happens, the wildebeest travel north up from Tanzania into Kenya and then back down. So this is a very popular area for safaris. The topography was nothing like what we expected. When you think of the Serengeti, you think of tall brown grasses with a few trees poking up here and there. We, however, entered into a surreal landscape of golf fairways and manicured parkland. In Kenya, as in many parts of the world, weather patterns are changing, with long periods of drought and the rains not as consistent. Apparently, the November rains never came and the area was experiencing a long drought and everything was beaten down, dead, and brown. However, two weeks before we arrived the rain came down in buckets bringing new life and green grass. Luckily, the rain mostly stopped while we were there. So, although we experienced a bit of mud, we also experienced a beautiful park-like setting where all the animals were in full view. We felt that we arrived at the perfect time. I worried about the predators not having a chance to creep up on their prey, however, our guide told us that there were many weak animals out there, creating somewhat of a balance.

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Lion

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

Like our accommodations up north, we would be staying the next 4 nights in a conservancy adjacent to the national reserve. The conservancy model seems to have been a success in Kenya. Local communities have come together and converted a large portion of their cattle grazing districts into conservation areas for local wildlife. As the wildlife increases, so does tourism. Safari lodges and camps pay lease fees and bed fees to the local conservancy, who then, in turn have been spending that money on healthcare, education, and water management. The conservation group is audited once a year by an overarching rangeland trust. We saw a lot of cattle on our safari because most of the local communities have negotiated rights to graze cattle in some of the areas. It was always interesting to see the shepherds herding their cattle through country we had just seen large predators in. Some of the benefits of staying in the conservancies is that we were able to take night drives and do bush walks, as well as the vehicles were able to go off road. Night drives are not allowed in the national reserves because they clear them out of tourist so the rangers can more easily patrol for poachers.

We spent our first two nights in a tent. After our luxurious accommodations up north, the tent felt very rustic. But we were really “glamping”. We had running water (a cold trickle), flush toilets(sometimes they flushed), hot showers (you needed to wait for the water to be heated over the fire), and the most comfortable four postered bed I’ve ever slept in. Each morning our guide would ask what we heard in the night. We would tell him the noise and he would say “that was hyena,..baboon,.. bushbaby,.. elephant”. The next question was always “how close were they?” They were always very close. None of our camps were enclosed so there was the standing rule that you could not walk around at night by yourself, you always needed an escort for protection. Our second two nights we spent in the lodge associated with the tent camp. Again it was a whole different style, very “Hemmingwayesque”. There was a lot of dark wood and artifacts from the colonial times. The building was one solid wall and roof, but with tent material on three sides. You could open portions of these walls to take advantage of the view and deck, but need to close them when you left to keep the baboons out. One night I awoke to sounds of munching, munching, munching right next to our room, and tree branches breaking not too far away. I was told that it was buffalo and elephant.

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Elephant

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

In the Mara area we were able to sleep in a bit more. The plains were a bit of a drive away, so we would breakfast in camp and then go out all day. We would bring a picnic lunch and stay out from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was very nice to have our own guide, because we could tailor our day to what we wanted to do. One day we decided to come home early, another day we went out at 6 a.m. to catch the sunrise and dawn activities. This particular early day we decided we wanted to stay out longer, so they brought a picnic lunch out to us as well. Not an easy task, there was much chatter on the radio as they tried to pin point our position. Our camp director said it was one of the longest game drives, we were out from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.! For those wondering, there are no bathrooms, outhouses, or port-a-potties around. If nature calls, you find a bush, or if no bush is around, you just go behind the truck.

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Cheetah

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

The highlights in the Maasai Mara were the cats. We spotted three lionesses with ten cubs that we watched on two different occasions. So cute!…and so close! At another time we watched as a lioness who was in heat tried to get the attention of a big male lion. He was trying to walk along and she was rolling around in front of him, flipping her tail at him, rubbing up to him, but for some reason he was not interested and had to keep growling at her to get her away. We also spent probably about 10 hours with a pair of cheetahs. Cheetahs are day hunters, and our guide could tell they hadn’t eaten in a while, so we were convinced they were going to stand up and start hunting any minute. We found them three different times, dawn, dusk, and during the day, and while they were fascinating to watch, we never did see them in full hunt. We watched them stalk (although cheetahs don’t do the crouching thing, they just walk right up to the prey), but we never saw them run. A couple other interesting things were the hyenas feeding on a dead hippo and the white rhinos. The rhino situation across Africa is very grim. We were told one rhino horn can be worth up to $300,000US. So we wanted to see one before they were gone. There were two white rhinos that were introduced to one of the conservancies nearby. These two rhinos grazed where they wanted during the day with three armed guards, and then were moved to a heavily protected pen at night. They were so much bigger than expected!

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb, Lion and Lioness

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

It all came to an end too quickly. We had six full days of safari, and I could have gone for six more. Our two guides we had were a wealth of knowledge and we learned so much, not only about the animals and their behavior but also about the way of life of the people living there. The countryside was beautiful, and the animals were so fun to watch. We took a late morning flight to Nairobi and had almost a full day there as our flight home was not until 11:30pm. One thing we did was visit the Karen Blixen Museum. Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. The farm house where the story takes place has been turned into a museum. It has many original furnishings as well as props from when the movie was filmed. My and Brad’s first date 30 years ago was watching Out of Africa. So we had a bit of a soft spot for this museum. Our last big highlight was visiting the Sheldrick Orphan Elephant project. This is a private trust that rescues orphaned baby elephants, raises them, and then reintroduces them to the wild. It is a very big undertaking to raise a baby elephant. Not only are baby elephants dependent on their mother and her milk for a very long time, but their social and psychological needs must be met as well. A wild herd will not accept an adolescent who cannot fit in. Their website goes into detail on how the trust manages this, but basically they create a one on one relationship for each baby. Each of the 30 orphans we saw had their own human keeper. A keeper stays with them for minimum of two years, they feed them milk (every 3 hours), take them out to forage every day, and sleep with them (there is a bunk for the keeper in each paddock). Before we left we fostered two of the orphans for a year and we were able to see them when we arrived. It was a very well run place and we definitely felt our money was being put to good use. The herd of orphans seemed quite happy to be together.

David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage - Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb

Photo Credit: Forrest Whitcomb – David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage