I travel a lot in the region, and it is, of course, all on assignments and for work, attending workshops, conferences, or being part of invitational media or travel trade trips. Two weeks ago, I was in Nairobi for the AFRAA Convention and did a quick trip to the Olare Mara Kempinski and The Residences at the Leopard Beach Resort & Spa to check out their claims to be among the best there are, and indeed they were.
Of course, while at the AFRAA Convention the latest in a series of incidents happened, first as I left the coast to fly back to Wilson Airport on the Safarilink service from Ukunda and then just a few hundred meters from my hotels. Still, when some of my readers ask me why I was already back in Kenya again, and what I had to prove, and was I to be a brave fool to walk the streets of Nairobi – Nairobbery one wrote – my response was that this is the time to stand with one’s friends and stand up to be counted. A thriving tourism sector in Kenya benefits the entire region, with substantial spillover into Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania of tourists who, while in East Africa, suddenly develop the taste to see more of it and discover that we really are but one destination with many attractions.
We do not abandon friends, friends who stood by us when things were tough in Uganda, and today I am going to tell the story of a “Walk in the Park,” which a chance exchange of tweets brought about, and then some more.
There are many ways to come to Kenya, I usually fly from Entebbe to Nairobi and the growing Kenya Airways network makes sure that visitors can enjoy Kenya’s hospitality from the moment they step on board one of their flights. Deliveries of 5 more B787-8 Dreamliner aircraft, joining their sister ship which arrived on April 5, will finally make it possible to release the aged B767-300ERs which served the airline faithfully, but by common consensus far too long. The new birds, together with additional B777-300ERs will make the long haul flights into Nairobi a far superior inflight experience, though the smiles of the crew will remain the same of course.
I arrived earlier in the week on the red eye from Entebbe, which leaves Uganda officially at 0510 hours but regularly takes off as much as 20 minutes early, when the passengers are on board and Nairobi air traffic control has given the flight a slot to land. My mission this week was to attend the Kenya Hospitality Trade Fair and the Hotel Summit East Africa and the organizers, well aware of my keen interest to promote travel to Kenya and showcase the upside what the country has to offer, had prepared a special surprise for me.
No sooner had I cleared immigration, a notch friendlier I should add than on some previous trips, perhaps finally coming to terms with the fact that they are the first real point of contact a tourist has when coming to Kenya and the need therefore to be nice and welcoming, and gone through customs did I spot a man in dark suit and red tie, holding up a name board with my name on it, way ahead of the waiting tour drivers and hotel courtesy van drivers who were waiting for their clients. No sooner had I waived, was my baggage trolley taken from me and I was escorted to the nearby spot where one boards the cars, unless they are in the car park across the road. On approach I spotted a red carpet and thought to myself that surely the Kenyans know how to roll that one out for visiting celebrities before it dawned on me that this one was indeed for me. Royal Hometown Limousines and Events had pulled out all the proverbial stops to impress, impress me and through me my readers surely, as the red carpet led to the open door of a stretch limousine, 9 meters long I was told later through the intercom, ready to whisk me to The Sarova Stanley where I stayed this time. Alone in the back of this huge car it dawned on me that this was in fact an option for upmarket visitors, who come to Kenya, stay for a night or two in some of the city’s top hotels and then fly off into the national parks where they enjoy the services of Kenya’s award-winning safari camps and lodges while experiencing some of the best game-viewing there is in Africa.
The limo surely can comfortably carry two or three couples, or friends traveling together and wanting to enjoy a treat, with champagne on board, a music system fit for a disco and a hand crafted leather upholstery which just invites to lean back and forget all about the traffic outside the tinted windows.
When this super-sized car pulled up at the Sarova Stanley Hotel, again a red carpet miraculously appeared, the door was opened from the outside and the driver and co-driver stood to attention saluting, making it one of the grandest entries I have had in a long time.
Staying periodically at the Stanley, they had all the required data already at hand and, as it is a mandatory requirement now in Kenya, a picture ID has to be produced by all guests checking in, either a national ID when coming from the region or a passport. This information is now habitually shared with security services in order to have a firm grip on who enters the country and then being able to trace movements, should suspicious characters with a flag against their name appear. Normal guests though have nothing to worry about as the same ritual is then repeated when they travel across the national parks in the lodges or at the Kenya coast at any of the resorts.
Not long after check in, true to my nature swift to sign in on Twitter and the other social and professional media, of course having spread the word across my TLs to let my thousands of followers on the various media see my trip through my eyes, I received a tweet from Will Knocker of Silole Sanctuary, enquiring about the possibility to show me around, and with planned meetings swiftly pushed aside and moved to the following days, off I was and, lo and behold, Nairobi traffic was most kind and within the space of some 40 minutes we had left the city, passed Wilson Airport, the KWS headquarters in Langata and then, what is often jokingly referred to by the locals as “The Republic of Rongai” outside the capital and were on the rough road into the sanctuary which adjoins the Nairobi National Park.
The appearance of the bush changed as we drove along, it got visibly drier and game was seen, impala and gazelles quite common, the occasional ground squirrel racing across the road in front of us and birds, notably a pretty African Hoopoe which sat quite concealed in a thicket, preventing to take a picture but seen nevertheless. Nairobi National Park is home to some 60 mammal species and plenty of birds and much of the game of course does not know about park boundaries, which are constituted by the various rivers on this side of the park, open, not fenced, offering a migration route for the game.
Will went out of his way, when we arrived at his home, to explain his game sightings, an Aardvark a few nights earlier right outside his bedroom window, buffalos wandering about at night – and careful now when walking the bush during the day very likely too – talked of leopards in the vicinity and regular sightings of the Eastern Black Rhinos on the other side of the river, inside the national park.
With the cottage at Silole rented out and locked by the guests who had gone “exploring” for the day, there was the Silole Villa left to see. The view from the terrace into the park was immediately calming, the safari chairs invited for a sit down and a chat over the merit to live in the bush on four hundreds of acres of land, with the city on the horizon on one side, the Ngong Hills on the other and not a soul in sight, other than the staff who are looking after the accommodation. The rooms were simply furnished, comfortable arm chairs and sofas inviting to take a book or just gaze out of the window and soak up the sights and sounds of the African bush, less than an hour from Nairobi’s central business district.
The luxury here manifests itself in seeing the city in the distance and yet being an age away from it, silent but for the sound of planes overhead descending into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), the rustling of leaves in the breeze and bird song.
Accommodation is entirely adequate with the essentials one needs for a weekend to get away from it all, leave phones, tablets and gadgets at home (there is a full strength signal of course for those who simply cannot leave those contraptions behind), a weekend of quiet contemplation, a weekend to write or just think, daydream with the Ngong Hills looming a few miles away or of course a weekend for two like-minded individuals who seek solitude in nearly total isolation from civilization.
Only a few hundred meters from Will’s place is the gate to the Masai Lodge, which presented itself in much better shape than I remembered it from my last visit, but then that was some 25 years ago and the defunct African Safari Club had sucked the life out of it through overuse and under-maintenance.
But the trip down memory lane was not quite over yet as Will took me to Rolf’s Place, the former rural residence of Rolf Schmidt, a celebrity chef in his days with such restaurants to his name as the Red Bull and The Horseman, his fame as caterer to the film teams from Hollywood, starting off with “Out of Africa” and the most recent one I remember being the “Last King of Scotland,” both Oscar winners of course with the former shot on location in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi and the latter on location in Kampala, Entebbe, Jinja and Mbale.
I indulged in that famous dish of old, Rolf’s “Zuericher Geschnetzeltes” and was not disappointed – he did leave a legacy behind and it is kept well by his son and family.
At the end of the day I was truly humbled, by the individual efforts of so many people to make my first day back in Kenya so memorable, to showcase the goodness in the country and the hospitality Kenya affords her visitors and friends. Everyone went out of his or her way to make sure that Kenya was getting a good critique, and while I did it First Class, chauffer driven from the stretch limo to Will’s 4×4, it can be done at far less such expenses and even outright budget travelers are getting their bargains especially during the low season and even more so at the coast.
This narrative is my personal reaction to the ludicrous British anti-travel advisory, which saw hundreds of tourists being pulled out of their resorts and flown home yesterday and this morning under the headline of “evacuation,” leaving them dumbstruck going by first hand reports received from Mombasa. In fact, several repeat guests literally cried when they were told to pack and go according to one hotel manager who probably himself had to swallow a few bitter tears, seeing his last guests whisked away and him to make a choice to stay open and lose money or close down too, lay off his staff and wait for better times to return. These tourists were literally carted away against their will and while they may have had no other option, I do.
Kenya deserves better and it is up to the likes of myself to tell the world that the country has not descended into anarchy, into chaos and into a self-destruct mode. The country is up and running, our regional hotel conference is taking place, the Kenya Hospitality Trade Show is unfolding and business is being conducted there and people from the region continue to fly into Nairobi and Mombasa for business and leisure.
Kenya got what it takes to offer a complete holiday package, with specialty niches thrown in for good measure like mountaineering up Mt. Kenya, fishing Lake Victoria or the Indian Ocean, diving along the fabulous reefs, swimming with dolphins or whale sharks, doing horseback safaris, walking safaris, “hunt” for the over 1.000 species of birds or enjoy watching the game from the open roof hatch of the safari car. Kenya is culture, history, a melting pot of the new and the old, a country for big game safaris and for lazing on the sundrenched Indian Ocean beaches. Simply put, Kenya IS… and it not only got what it takes but has a lot more to offer than most visitors would ever know. Karibuni Kenya, the place where tourists are treated to Hakuna Matata, cold Tuskers, steaming hot freshly brewed tea (and coffee), fresh food of largely organic ingredients and smiles galore. Visit www.magicalkenya.com for destination details and the latest security updates.