I rented an apartment in Nairobi for the month of September. My friend Will, a retired insurance executive, was staying nearby. He had been to Kenya a few times before and knew his way around. After I had visited the main tourist sites around Nairobi, Will kept bugging me to book a safari to a game preserve. I strongly resisted because I disliked organized tours and preferred to travel independently. This is the difference between a traveler and a tourist. Finally, I gave in and went to the Serena Hotel near my Nairobi apartment and booked a Safari with the concierge. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
The Serena Hotel is owned by the Aga Khan, a multimillionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims. Of Persian descent, born in Switzerland but residing in Britain, his net worth approaches $1 billion. He owns many hotels including Serena’s sister hotel, the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, located in the center of the Masai Mara game preserve on the Tanzania border with Kenya. I was able to book a package that included the flight down and back, three nights at the Lodge with room and board and included two game drives a day. The game drives, of course, were the main attraction. The great game migration was on. Literally millions of animals could be viewed up close and personal as they moved north for greener feeding grounds. Many animals fed on the grass while some, like the lions and hyenas, fed on the other animals.
Since the game reserve is a five hour drive from Nairobi, I flew Air Kenya from the small Wilson domestic airport directly to the landing strip at Mara Serena Safari Lodge. Someone had to sound an alarm when the plane landed to get the zebra off the runway. Seeing zebra grazing right next to our plane when we landed put a smile on the face of the few passengers. A good sign that we had come to the right place. Built in 1973, the lodge was designed to blend into the terrain. My ecologist friends would approve. The rooms were patterned after the local Masai people’s mud huts. Although well camouflaged, the hotel and its 74 rooms had all of the amenities, including a swimming pool, a spa and fitness center. Sitting high on a hill, it had an amazing view of the Serengeti plain and the Mara River below. An electric fence surrounded the entire area but you couldn’t see it as they had hidden it well in the brush. At night you could hear the lions roaring and sometimes it sounded like they were in the next room. Even though you knew the beast was at a safe distance and behind the fence, it was still rather startling the first time you head it.
When I heard the loud roar, it reminded me of a story that two Masai friends told me back in Nairobi a week earlier. Tom and Regina were brother and sister. They were in Nairobi working and going to school. They recalled that when they were younger, they lived in a mud hut in the Masai area of Kenya. They said their father was a famous lion hunter. He used a spear not a rifle. Very often at night the lions would come into their village looking for food. Although, their family would lock the doors, sometimes the lions would stand next to their hut and roar so loudly it would knock the cups off the shelves and chunks of mud would fall from the walls. They painted a vivid image. Hearing the lion up close that first night made their story even more poignant.
The next morning I did my first game drive. The Land Rovers they used were open at the top to allow photography. Very often they were also open on the sides which made it interesting when we pulled up within a few feet of the lions. A lion could have easily pulled one of the passengers out of the vehicle. But we soon learned that we weren’t considered food to the lions. Most of the time they looked right past us as if we weren’t even there.
We arrived on the scene shortly after a female lion had killed a wildebeest. We listened to her crunch the carcass with her powerful jaws. Eventually, she would leave and the male lion would come over and finish the meal. Female lions did most of the hunting and the male lions slept 20 hours a day. Wildebeests were easy prey for the lions and there were plenty of them, more than 1.3 million in the migration. It was stunning to stand on a hill and look out at animals as far as the eye could see.
A few hundred thousand zebra were there as well. I learned what the stripes were for. When a herd of zebras is being chased by a lion, the stripes make it very difficult for the lion to focus on a single animal. The lion gets confused by all the stripes moving around and usually ends up without a kill.
During the three days I was there, I saw nearly every kind of African animal one could imagine. I saw giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and, of course, the “big five”, which are the lion, the leopard, the rhinoceros (both black and white), the cape buffalo and the elephant. These last five are the animals that are supposed to be most difficult to hunt on foot. So now it is a term left over from the Hemingway days. Only 30 Black rhinos have survived and we managed to see one of them.
While passing through the middle of a herd of elephants, a young bull took offense at our presence. He began flapping his ears and took a few menacing steps toward us. When we nervously pointed him out to our driver, he just laughed, stepped on the accelerator and we drove off.
An even more spectacular way of seeing the millions of animals is to book a hot air balloon ride from the Mara Serena Lodge. They take off at 5:30 AM, skim over the heads of the animals, dip down near the river to watch the hippos and then land out on the plain where they serve a champagne breakfast. After breakfast, a van takes the passengers on a game drive and then back to the Lodge. The current price for that experience is $500 per passenger. Being a budget traveler for so many years, I regret that I didn’t try it. However, I did do something similar over the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt recently and it was well worth it.
Speaking of prices, high season runs from July 1 to the end of October. The peak of the migration occurs during these dates. A single room will cost US$424 per night while a double is US$638 per night. That price includes full board and two game drives per day. While considerably cheaper other times of the year, you run the risk of not seeing many animals. The lodge can be booked either directly on the Serena Hotel website or at any of the major hotel booking sites like booking.com or traveladvisor.com.
Finally, when I returned to Nairobi, I regaled my friend Will with all my safari tales, he surprised me and said, “now that you’ve seen those animals, how would you like to eat some of them?”. He was serious. A world-famous restaurant was named Carnivore was located in Nairobi. The specialty of the house was “bushmeat”. You could eat zebra, giraffe, crocodile and many other creatures from a long menu. Open since 1980, Carnivore was rated number 47 out of 50 in the London-based Restaurant Magazine’s list of the best restaurants in the world.
While I usually delight in being politically incorrect, and I am definitely not a vegan, the whole idea didn’t sound too appetizing to me. I agreed to try it, however, and we invited along Sven, a friend who was working for Ericsson in East Africa. When we arrived at Canivore, we spoke with the staff and they assured us that the restaurant only buys meat from suppliers licensed to cull wild game by Kenya Wildlife Services. Sven and Will ordered the zebra and giraffe. I couldn’t bring myself to do it and ended up getting the ostrich. I guess it was the closest thing to chicken. The bread, vegetables, dessert and the Kenyan coffee were excellent. We all agreed it was a great meal.
The following year, 2004, the Kenyan government banned all game meat in restaurants. Carnivore changed it’s format to an all-you-can-eat, Brazilian style restaurant. The only exotic dishes on the menu are farm grown crocodile and ostrich. The restaurant still receives very high ratings. Their website says, “Let the predator loose in you”. Check it out here: Carnivore Restaurant Nairobi