29 AUG 2014: Bucket lists, those once in a lifetime moments you always wanted to do in your life. The sad reality: hit the back of the line with everyone else. Others have similar bucket list ideas so chances are you only get a nanosecond to experience that dream - alone. Not so in Kenya.

This compact African country the size of Texas packs in a hefty list of world wonders and moments of awe that truly astound leaving you breathless.

Call it the magic of Kenya. I’m still coming off cloud nine and can’t believe half the things I encountered.

And when did I do it? When the federal government recently issued travel advisories strongly alerting travellers to stay away from Kenya. The tourism sector is a huge spoke in the economic engine there and when travellers don’t visit the local economy suffers.

On the other hand with fewer travellers it means those vast open spaces can be sinfully yours. No crowds, no line-ups, no noise.

Here’s where the WOW happens and what to check off on the ultimate Kenya bucket list.

The great Serengeti migration

Great herds of wildebeest in their wave of black fury hit the plains to cross the Mara River hoping to arrive in one piece amid hungry Nile crocodiles and lions. The mass animal migration is the world’s largest.

Kenya’s most beloved reserve: the Maasai Mara

See the Big Five in action. While my safari missed a couple (the leopard and the rhino) I was still in awe over the family ties elephants share with their young and ecstatic to watch the majestic zebras alongside acacia-chomping giraffes which I could have observed for hours.

Ballooning over the Maasai Mara

I could now do early morning wake-ups all the time for this thrilling trip. My pilot, Aussie expat Elly Kirkman, was no nonsense about formalities and easily put everyone at ease. Sit, lean back, hands firmly gripping the basket, now feel the basket gently sway as Elly instructs the ground crew. The propane fuels the fire, the heat intensifies, and then the basket floats to the sky. The view: priceless. After you descend, the thrills don’t stop. Next, it’s a champagne bush breakfast with the elephants and wildlife you saw in your balloon fantasy earlier in view at ground level.

Reliving the Karen Blixen dream

“I once had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” forever immortalized in that silky tone only Meryl Streep could pull off in the classic movie “Out of Africa” the farm was a place I pegged on my bucket list while researching this destination. I reread the book, saw the film (again) and thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to see where she lived.

Alastair Addison, my host at the Hemingways Nairobi and CEO of the Hemingways Collection nearly had me fall off my seat on my first night. “You realize you are staying at the former property of Karen Blixen. Why her home is just up the street.” OMG – now I nearly freaked.

Yes, you can see the majestic Ngong Hills and peruse the old homestead used in the filming. Plus it helps to overnight in this new boutique hotel in the tony Karen enclave named after Blixen.

Seeing the great flamingo migration at Lake Elmenteita

A shutterbug’s dream, my other half who is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker nearly fainted (I kid you not) when I told him I’d be going to ‘some lake’. Turns out Lake Elmenteita and its neighbouring lake, Nakuru are renowned flamingo migration spots. Anytime is a good time but the best flamingo viewing is after the rainy season (June-August).

Getting up close and personal with ancient tribes

With 52 tribes and 60+ languages it’s no wonder Kenya is dubbed the cradle of humankind.

(Some countries might dispute this claim but hey I saw the famous cranium of Turkana boy at the Nairobi National Museum).  

Depending on the region prepare to be tribally spellbound. The famous Maasai warriors are legendary. These pastoralists are proud people. I visited one Maasai warrior’s village, first met his mother who was a dear as she welcomed me into her home then I later met his two wives, and saw his growing family... and don’t forget the cattle. I saw plenty of them too.

At the Soysambu Conservancy the colourful costumes and rich a cappella sounds of guys and gals singing and dancing to welcome songs made me well up.

Flying across the Equator

Nothing beats flying in a small Cessna like Boskovic Air Charters to get you to the other side.

My pilot Andy gave me an unexpected surprise when he announced, “Okay once coming up to the display with zeros we’ll all put our hands in the air.” We did and for a second it felt like time stood still. We were in sync with 0 Latitude. The plane soars past vast swaths of colour pronouncing the various terrain, hills and valleys. It’s another bucket list wonder.

Only place in the world to see two sunsets in one night

Yes – I couldn’t believe it myself. There I was sitting in our safari jeep in the Mara. It’s magic hour when the light filters through the sky shimmering in brilliant tones of reds and copper and then it hits me. I’m in the Maasai Mara National Reserve (pinch me). I’m witnessing my first sunset in the Maasai Mara (pinch me again).

Scared to blink I’m wide eyed drinking everything in until I hear a reassuring line, “If you think you saw this one wait another minute because the next one is a reflection in the clouds of the real one and it’s on the other side.”

OMG, yes I witnessed another fabulous African sunset. Maybe it’s because I was along the equator and the horizon is so flat but WOW was it fabulous!!!

Helping to save African wild animals

If it’s not on your bucket list it should be. Tourism in Kenya is so dependent on wildlife viewing.

Meet Daphne Sheldrick, a wildlife ambassador whose heart wrenching story on saving her first adopted baby elephant Aisha in the seventies will nudge you to become an animal conservationist if you’re not already.  

Visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust located outside Nairobi or better yet become a foster parent. See http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.

 Or meet Jim Justus Nyamu with the Elephant Neighbors Center. Jim’s calling is to save the elephants of Africa one step at a time. He’s crisscrossed wilderness, pounded the pavements with lorries zipping past him come rain or shine. I met him just before he walked 377 km on a 21 day #ivorybelongstoelephants campaign.
Heading to the bottom of the Great Rift Valley

This massive prehistoric geological footprint covering Africa from the Red Sea to Mozambique has made the most fabulous accident in Kenya. Insiders describe it as pure heaven on earth. Nowhere else can you see the diverse melange of wilderness, communities and fabulous backdrops.

One of the nicest perches to see all this activity is in Lord Delamere’s playground at the Soysambu Conservancy. (Yes that Lord Delamere, the same guy portrayed in Out of Africa).

Chopper riding through the Uaso Nyiro River Valley

If you were drawn to Robert Redford’s character in Out of Africa as I was, then prepare to meet the 21st century version in Andrew Francombe.

A bonafide wilderness maverick he is ready to show guests the surprises in his backyard. His family owns Ol Malo, a fabulous secluded luxe lodge overlooking a vast valley in a private game sanctuary.

Morning views from your lofty perch include a zeal of zebras, a tower of giraffes, and a herd of camels beautifully juxtaposed in the valley. But it’s the out-of-Africa experience being transported in a chopper flying across brilliant landscapes that makes you pine for more. A wonderful teaser from this most idyllic birds’ eye view you get an ideal introduction to understanding what lurks beneath our feet.

Camel riding sundowner

I thought the chopper ride was glory in itself but the adrenaline inducing experiences haven’t finished at Ol Malo. I exited the chopper only to be whisked away on camel into the blazing sunset. Dusk brings calm, relaxation and with it the legendary sundowner.

African tribal-tartan blankets dress the bulging rocks with a matching blanket for the cooler and instantly there’s an outdoor lounge, seats and bar that could easily compete with a chi-chi downtown lounge.

Sleeping outside in the wilds

Take your pick. At Ol Malo sleep in an intimate tree house built for two or at a campsite under the stars down the river. At Sleeping Warrior in the Soysambu Conservancy head to their ensuite tents situated atop ancient lava outcroppings. The views are beautiful. On the edge of the famous Masaai Mara National Reserve there’s a new conservancy and a luxe glampy safari known as Ol Seki Hemingways Mara. A night in an Ol Seki private tent will make you wish you could stay longer.

Seeing wild animals in their natural homes for the first time

Wildlife viewing to me is always a sacred encounter, something we need to embrace and covet closely to our hearts. It involves stillness, being in the moment, something in our techno driven culture we often ignore but once you’re dropped in the middle of nowhere I can assure you the gizmos will not be missed. You’ll be pining for the animal memories once you’re home. I know I am.



Magical Kenya
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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