Sweetwaters Tented Camp – Welcome to Kenya
Alison and I have just returned from an unbelievably amazing trip to Egypt and Kenya courtesy of Adventures Abroad, the Canadian company we recommend to all adventuresome travellers. Dollar for dollar I’ll put AA, as frequent return guests call it, up against any mid-range travel company going. While the Egypt portion of the trip was everything I hoped it would be in terms of actually seeing the Pyramids and Sphinx, Abu Simbel, Karnak, Luxor and many other lesser known sites, the Egyptians themselves didn’t exactly endear us to them. In fact, they seem do to everything possible to make visiting their absolutely incredible ancient monuments as unpleasant as possible. Thank goodness for Ahmed Hashem, our combined guide, Egyptologist and guardian for making sure ‘his family’ as he called us, got the absolute maximum out of every visit. He really made all the difference between a “Been there, done that, no need to go back.” trip and a real experience, where dealing with the hawkers, hucksters and scam artists became a game as much as anything. I would go back to Egypt thanks to Ahmed and plan to, once the new Cairo museum opens in Giza in a few years. However, for now it’s safari on my mind starting with Sweetwaters Tented Camp. Please join Alison and me on the trip of a lifetime.
We said goodbye to all but one of our Egypt companions and boarded an overnight flight to Nairobi landing there around 4:00AM in a deserted and surprisingly small terminal. Clearing customs was no problem and despite the late (or early) hour, our Adventures Abroad guide and driver, Richard Warukira was waiting outside with his Toyota safari van that would be our second home for the next week. Along the boulevard leading to and from the airport there were a number of life size animal sculptures, including giraffes, wart hogs and zebras. Alison commented in jest, “I hope these are not the only animals we’ll see this week.” and not ten seconds later we passed a real zebra grazing on the side of the road. Richard observed that animals frequently wandered into the city from nearby Nairobi National Park.
Within 30 minutes we arrived at the quite luxurious Serena Nairobi, and after checking in, hit the sack. However, I was too amped to get much sleep. Waking up just after sunrise I saw this fellow staring intently into our room from a treetop outside the window.
It’s a marabou stork, one of the creepiest birds you’ll find anywhere and a harbinger of death in some societies. Good thing I’m not superstitious. Looking past Mr. Creepy, I saw the Nairobi skyline which surprised me with its modernity and vibrance. Also, unlike Cairo, no smog.
I really didn’t know what to expect of Nairobi and after a really good buffet breakfast, which was to be the standard at every Kenyan stop, I decided to hit the streets and find out. What I saw completely changed any negative preconceptions I might have harboured about Nairobi as a third world crime ridden city. Most people on the streets were very well dressed, the traffic was sane with drivers obeying the traffic signs and the downtown was clean. The contrast with Cairo could not have been greater. Most importantly, the drivers were not incessantly honking their horns. Over the next week we were to learn that Kenyans are very soft spoken and seem to abhor noise. Maybe this has something to do with a tradition as hunters where quietness is the secret to success, but in any event it was welcome and unexpected. During my two hour stroll I never once felt threatened or received any disparaging looks. Stopping into a pharmacy to get some cough syrup, I was asked the same questions as I would have been in a Canadian pharmacy, before a recommendation was made.
Unfortunately Alison wasn’t feeling too great and spent most of what was a free day, in the room. I spent the afternoon by the pool enjoying the equatorial sunshine and heat as well as a few of Kenya’s signature beer, Tusker Premium Lager. At 4.2% it’s a bit light for my tastes, but it’s got a great label.
The next morning Richard was on site and ready to go to our first overnight stop, Sweetwaters Tented Camp in Ol Pejeta private conservancy.
The final couple in our five person group, Brian and Lynn Palardey from Ottawa had arrived and we were all anxious to get on the road. Over the next week we would develop the type of lasting friendships that are common on Adventures Abroad tours.
Nairobi to Sweetwaters
The drive to Sweetwaters Tented Camp took just under four hours and as with all first journeys through a new country, offered up a myriad of interesting sights as we sped along the very good highway leading out from Nairobi. One thing I was not aware of in advance, was the elevation of Nairobi, almost exactly a mile above sea level. As we left the city we climbed even higher, first through the very wealthy suburb of Karen and then into a country side that was quite thickly forested. I didn’t see any of the clearcuts that are ubiquitous in my home province of Nova Scotia. Getting up the steep hills wasn’t easy for cyclists, unless they hitched a ride, like this guy.
We passed through numerous small towns where many businesses lined the roadway, many brightly painted.
Just as Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, so Kenya is Christian. Signs of religion or maybe religiosity are everywhere with the name of Jesus predominantly displayed everywhere.
I first ran into this Jesus obsession phenomenon years ago in Ghana. It is beyond me how a white, Jewish guy from the Middle East could supplant the hundreds of local gods that served the various tribes of Africa very well for thousands of years. Way to go missionaries, you really showed those pagans the way to salvation.
If Kenyans profess love of Christ, their love of beer is maybe even greater. For every ministry, there are probably two or three pubs, often with very amusing names and often nothing more than a small windowless room behind a corrugated metal front. The Deep Sip Pub would count as one of the more upscale country establishments.
About three hours out we stopped for a pee break at a roadside stop that had clean, colourful and free bathrooms and an unbelievably huge inventory of really excellent African carvings of every size, shape and cost.
Richard advised us that the prices were entirely negotiable and that if we wanted something, to bargain hard and not be afraid to walk away. I decided to just window shop, but was amazed at how good most of these items for sale really were.
Unlike Egypt where the items being hawked were mostly Chinese made junk, the handicrafts here were African made and solid. Clearly there is still a connection with the carving tradition that lives on today in Kenyan craftspeople.
I did think of trying to buy this hideous baboon mask, but thought it might freak the kids out when I put it on for Halloween.
Back on the road the magnificent sight of Mount Kenya soon came into view. This is the second highest mountain in Africa at just over 17,000 feet and the source of the name for the country. Because it is of volcanic origin it rises dramatically from the high plains and can be seen from many, many miles away. It has an aura of mystery about that has captivated people for thousands of years.
Here is a closer look at the main peak that I took with a telephoto later that day at Sweetwaters. There are apparently still small glaciers near the top. You can clearly see snow, despite the fact it is literally on the equator.
Many people who come to East Africa for the first time claim that there is something inherently mesmerizing about the sight of the great equatorial mountains, Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Hemingway wrote about it in Green Hills of Africa after his first visit in 1933 and I have heard it first hand from friends and colleagues that have visited. Now I know that it is real. Sitting at my desk in wintry Nova Scotia writing this post, the image of Mount Kenya is implanted on my inner eye and will draw me back. I won’t wait twenty years between visits, like Hemingway.
While I’m in this semi-reverie gazing at Mount Kenya, I notice the ride has gotten a lot rougher and we are now on a dirt road with fewer and fewer signs of civilization. Michael handles the vehicle expertly over washboard and avoiding the occasional cattle or goat herd being led along the road by Masai herders dressed in their traditional robes. Now I know I’m definitely in Africa.
Eventually we come to the gates of Ol Pejeta , the 90,000 acre private conservancy that will be our home for the next two days and for three game drives. After clearing the gates it’s not that far to Sweetwaters Tented Camp which is operated by the Serena hotel chain.
At long last I’m about to find out what it is really like to ‘go on safari’. Join Alison and me in the next post when we experience life at Sweetwaters Tented Camp.
Here is a link to the photo gallery from all the reserves we visited in Kenya.