There’s something very laid back and evocative about the whole safari holiday experience, whether this is the luxury camping or just the feeling of being back to nature. It’s probably being without the hum of modern living and just being at peace; or it might be the raw wonderment of animals with such power being so close. Whatever the reason, this feature is written with a warning that once you have been on a safari, you will most definitely want to return!
There are many safari options out there, and doing them really cheaply is not much of an option. First there is safety, then there is comfort and lastly if you have paid all that money you will want to get up close and personal with “the big five”. Have a think before you go about what you want to see and how “back to nature” you really want the experience to be.
We went for five days and four nights and although I didn’t know much about safari holidays, I did know that I wanted the “back to nature” experience with just a bit of luxury thrown in.
From Dubai, Kenya is a good option as it is only a 5 hour flight away and there are plenty of options to get good deals on your flight tickets – particularly if you book independently. The cheapest option is Air Arabia, but the flight times are not so convenient. The visas are easy and can be applied for online about 10 days prior to your travel, but you can do it as soon as you know your travel dates.
Although a number of injections are recommended, it’s only considered essential to take malaria tablets; and yellow fever is considered very rare (unless you are close to the lakes) but do check the latest travel advice as it does change quite regularly.
We flew with Kenya Airways (just for the record their fleet of planes are new and mainly Dreamliner’s). The flight times with Kenya Airways meant that we would have the maximum time at our destination with little wasted waiting around time in Nairobi which I was not so keen to visit.
After much research we opted for the Governors Camps brand as it has a good reputation for well-trained guides and are listed as an “ethical company” (www.governorscamp.com). It is also the camp that was used as a base for filming the BBC Big Cat Diaries, which meant we felt sure we would see lions if nothing else! There are multiple options for safari companies out there – with options to view animals by either hiking, or by mini bus or even by small bi- planes, however the option of an open top Land Rover appealed most to our whole family.
We went in July which is one of the main seasons as it’s during the “big migration” and this was set to be a high point for us. Also, the weather is not so hot so it is welcome relief from Dubai’s heat. An African safari was something I have always wanted to do and I also ticked another part of my bucket list off with an early morning balloon ride over the Savanah, which was simply amazing and easily booked directly with the initial booking through Governors camps.
Whenever we go on holiday I always prepare workbooks about the destination for the children to complete so that they can do some research on the country we are visiting and for once they got really excited about finishing them and the list of animals they wanted to see kept getting longer and longer!
We also registered with the charity “pack for a purpose” before travelling, which meant we managed to arrange to visit a small local school which I felt was a really important experience for our children to step outside their comfort and privileges of Dubai and see another world. Meeting the children and delivering them some much-needed supplies was certainly a talking point of our trip. My children were horrified by the broken windows and packed dormitories of the school but gratified by the happiness and enthusiasm they saw for learning in poorly equipped classrooms, where they didn’t even have chalk to write on the board.
An early morning start saw us departing at 2am from Dubai Airport and flying with Kenya Airways into Nairobi arriving at 6.25am.
It is worth noting that the traffic in Nairobi is fairly intense and it took over an hour to reach Wilson Airport, where we were catching a small plane down to the Masai Mara. The airport transfer was all arranged through the safari company and very easy. We had a good chance to have a look at the city as we drove through and we even saw our first Giraffes! The small Wilson airfield is absolutely charming and somehow very old fashioned. It is only a short walk from the reception and waiting area to the plane.
The flight from Nairobi to the camp was 45 minutes away. The Pilot was really friendly and helpful. I am not a good flyer and he was reassuring and made the flight interesting circling around herds of elephants for the passengers that wanted a closer look. The scenery was amazing, (even through one eye as I was too scared to look properly as we flew over the Great Rift Valley). The kids had slept on the flight from Dubai just enough to not be grumpy and the small plane was an amazing experience for them to start their holiday.
We landed on a bumpy grass air strip and were met by our guide for our stay, who helped us into open top land rovers and told us that the camp was only 10 minutes away, (which it would have been if we had not been held up by a huge heard of elephants who effectively blocked the road), and this was our first amazing way to be introduced to life in Kenya!
On arrival at the camp we were taken to our tents; the two boys had a tent to themselves and my husband, daughter and I settled into ours. We were advised to keep our tents closed as the baboons that lived on the riverbanks were thieves and would come in and take our belongings! None of us could decide if this was cool or worrying.
A quick refreshing drink and our driver came to take us on our first game drive. The experience was simply breathtaking; there is so much to see you just don’t know what to look at, and within five minutes of leaving the camp we were gasping at hippos, lions, giraffes, bison, monkeys, emus, warthogs and cheetahs.
We were all overwhelmed – not just at the animals but the scenery as well. We were taken back to the camp for lunch which is served on tables set along the river bank where you can watch the hippos and crocodiles in the river below while you eat. At the camp we stayed in the food was all-inclusive, and the chef was really accommodating in ensuring the children had food that they liked.
The normal evening dining time was 8pm but they happily allowed us to eat at 7pm so the kids could get to sleep. A five course evening meal was served in a beautiful canvas dining room and it was slightly bizarre as the waiters were all in whites and the table was laid beautifully yet it was still effectively a camp.
As the camp is open with no fences, all guests are provided with guards who are armed with torches and riffles; they collect you in the evening from your tent and escort you to the dining room or bar and ensure you don’t encounter any dangerous animals on the way.
They are positioned outside your tent all night, and with the boys in a tent 100 meters away from us I found this a very reassuring baby-sitting service!
We stayed in Il Moran by Governors where there are only 10 tents, but all very spaced out. If you go with a family it may be worth looking at Governors camp itself as the tents are closer. I should explain here that tent is not quite the right word; canvas chalet may be more appropriate as each “tent” had large comfortable double beds, a tiled bathroom with a shower and roll top bath and lots of hot water! So we certainly had our slice of luxury while getting back to nature!
A typical day
At 6am you are woken with an early order of coffee, tea or hot chocolate and cookies being delivered to your tent, (although it is likely that you will have been woken by the dawn chorus of hippos, crocodiles and whatever else wanted to belch and roar loudly from 5am). My daughter and I had been snuggled up in the big comfy double bed for a few hours attributing the various snorts to her brothers which intermingled with my husband’s snoring meant we couldn’t stop giggling from the early hours!
The early morning coffee was a welcome sight. Just a note to remember bring warm pyjamas as it is cold at night and in the early morning. We pulled on jogging trousers, and sweat shirts and headed down to meet the guide. The sun was just breaking over the vast expanse of endless land and was later rising over the mountains casting shadows over the savannahs – it was sImply stunning. The animals were waking slowly and the area felt at peace and in anticipation of the day ahead.
The kids were delighted to be find a warthog by the jeep and we all excitedly clambered into the land rover with high expectations of what would follow. We headed to a river bed and followed the river up towards a crossing and then on up a hill towards a group of cheetahs who were watching for their next meal silently through the long grass. The cheetahs sat on the front of the land rover for a while which was intense and amazing all at once as the sun rose fully.
The driver headed to flat stony area and laid out an amazing picnic for us to enjoy close enough to watch the cheetahs on one side of the valley and the bison on the other as we munched on our breakfast we could see the cheetahs eyeing up their next meal.
At 11am we returned to the camp and gratefully showered before changing into cooler clothes and then we headed down to the bar for a cold drink and then to the dining area for a BBQ lunch. The dining area is stunning and we relaxed over our meal while the kids watched the monkeys, crocodiles, hippos and giraffes which kept them amused while we soaked up the atmosphere. After lunch we returned to our tents and just chilled on the verandahs in hammocks for about an hour while the kids explored the campsite with the help of an armed guard.
At 3pm it was time to head out again and this time we headed off towards the forest areas to find a leopard. We saw so many animals but alas, no leopards! One of the highlights of the afternoon safari was having sundowners looking out over the beautiful views and having a makeshift bar set up on the front of the land rover this became quite a highlight for parents and children alike.
At around 6pm it’s time to head back to the camp in time to change and head to the bar for a few drinks before dinner. It is amazing how tiring all the fresh air is even though you are not moving around too much.
My children were 9, 10 and 16 when we went on safari and I think they would have enjoyed it a few years earlier as well. We celebrated their birthdays when we were there and the camp set up dinner on the verandah at our tent and served us there bringing a cake out at the end which was an epic end to their holiday and such a great birthday celebration.
Highlights of our Safari
The Masai Village
We decided to visit a local Masai Village. The government is encouraging Masai tribes to stop hunting and turn to tourism to earn their living. Although the whole event was definitely a spectacular event, and really interesting from seeing the tribal clothes, dances, houses etc, we did all feel it was a bit too staged and we came away feeling as though we had been slightly ripped off. We had brought sweets for the local children and my kids enjoyed interacting with the local children as they passed out sweets far more than the whole village visit experience. While we recognized that these villagers now earn their income this way, the cost of souvenirs at the village was very high.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
On our third day we were woken up really early (4am) and transferred to Little Governors Camp which is the center where the balloon trips take off. This is something that we were really excited about, although when we arrived the noise and fire and general excitement was all too much for my daughter, so my husband kindly agreed to miss the balloon ride and both of them travelled in the ground vehicles while myself and my two sons took part in the balloon ride.
I have never been in a hot air balloon before and although I am terrified of flying, I felt completely safe. It was an amazing experience rising up over the immense landscape, watching the sunrise and feeling the cool fresh air. From the air we saw herds of elephants, antelopes, buffaloes mass around watering holes. The landing is a bit bumpy, do beware it is not for the faint hearted and you will get jolted as you bump along the ground prior to stopping.
Once safely out of the balloon basket, a breakfast is served in the middle of the nowhere which was so amazing. If you get the chance don’t even think twice and go, as it is an experience you will never forget. I would suggest only suitable for children over 11 as it is quite scary and you need to be able to relax and not be worried about your childrens safety the whole trip.
The day just got better and better our guide picked us up and we travelled in a different area of the park and got to see a rhino and it’s baby, a crocodile fighting with another, and some amazing close-ups of hippos just wallowing in the mud among many other sights.
Give something back and “Pack for a purpose”
Through “Pack for a Purpose”, we had made arrangements in advance to visit a local school and bring some supplies. The aim of this charity is that you use any excess weight you have in your luggage to pack supplies to pass to recipients that they have vetted.
They have sites all around the world and are very easy to contact, (www.packforapurpose.org) so we simply filled our bags with text books, pencils, chalk and books to deliver to the school. It was a really amazing experience and the part that I took away was just how happy the children were to be taught and to just learn without electronics, as these children had such a thirst for knowledge and questioned us all about our lives and the children about their school.
While my children were completely taken aback by the differences, they certainly took back with them how fortunate they were to have clean shiny schools and computers!
We had only booked for five days, but would have happily stayed for a few more. The pace was laid back, you simply did not get bored as the scenery changes all the time, even from the tent, which was luxurious and relaxing. We were all really sad to leave and the whole family keeps nagging to return to do the whole trip again!
Top Packing tips
Pack light, most camps do your laundry for you on a daily basis.
Bring a few warm tops and some long light weight trousers.
You will need sunglasses and a sun hat as most land rovers are open top.
Also a scarf to lift over your mouth and nose is useful for very dusty areas.
A sports bra is essential and added comfort to bouncing across bumpy tracks!
Take a good camera with a long distance lens so you can really get some good shots.
Layers of clothes are good, it is very cold in the morning but soon warms up.
Ensure you have comfy robust shoes as you cannot be sure what you will stand on, although it is unlikely you will walk far.
Take a pack of cards for the evening or a board game to amuse children.
Ensure they have learnt a few animals and their names before coming so they can also enjoy spotting them.
Make sure you have a list of what you want to see, there is so much and it makes it easier for the guide.
Our Holiday Highlights
Hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara (and the champagne breakfast)
Sundowners in the wilderness every evening
Hearing the animals at 5am in the morning
Breakfast watching the cheetahs.
Visiting a local school
Holiday Cost – Total AED 26,000
Flights AED 5,100
Kenya Airways For 5 (3 adults & 2 children)
Dep Dubai at 2am Arrive Nairobi at 6.25am
Dep Nairobi at 18.55 Arrive in DXB at 1.00am
Governors Camp – AED 12,000
Transfer to and from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta Airport to Wilson Airport
Flight to and from Wilson to camp (45 minutes)
Accommodation for 4 night (full Board in one double and one triple tent)
(Bar Bill came to around AED 700)
Gratuities (AED 1000)
Hot Air Balloon Flight & Champagne breakfast for 5 AED 4,500
Masai Mara Local Tribal Village – AED 700
Visas for 5 – AED 1,000
Written by British mum Heather Harries.
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