Kenya Safari: A Flying Visit To The Big Five

27 September 2015
Read Time: 4.7 mins

In the good old bad old days when Kenya was known as British East Africa, going on safari was akin to mounting a minor expedition. In 1907 the Nairobi outfitters Newland & Tarlton recommended taking 30 porters, two askaris (guards), two gun-bearers, a headman, a cook and a tent boy.

Provisions should be ordered in advance from the Army & Navy stores in London, with champagne preferable to wine – the latter does not travel well when carried on the head.

A century on, the safari is a much leaner, greener and, thankfully, less murderous affair.

Back then you could be away for months, with hunting the Big Five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo) a key objective. Today we venture into the bush armed only with binoculars and zoom lenses, making brief forays to purpose-built lodges with expert local guides and camp staff offering warm-hearted “Jambo!” greetings.

But what will come next?

 The salt flats of Amboseli are home to herds of elephant (Image: Alamy)

These are impatient, fast-paced times where travellers want to see and do everything instantly – and enjoy superlative experiences to boot.

Such demands have inspired a new style of fast-track safari, one designed to maximise time in the bush, with sensational landscapes and thrilling wildlife sightings a given.

“Elephants to the left!” Peter announces as we come in to land on a small sealed airstrip – and goodness, there they are, wallowing in a glossy green swamp with trunks waving and ears flapping.

Amboseli is a small park, but it has been in existence for more than 40 years and many of its 1,600 elephants are known by name. The wows start straightaway as the transfer to our home for two nights, Tortilis Camp, turns into an engrossing game drive.

By the time we reach this tranquil oasis, which has 17 thatch-roof tented rooms and a very welcome swimming pool, I have seen zebra, buffalo, hippo, giraffe, hartebeest, Maasai ostrich, a warthog, a pair of crowned cranes and countless Thomson’s gazelles.

This trip is not simply about ticking the wildlife boxes, though – throughout the week we are accompanied by engaging and knowledgeable Kenyan guides who help explain the bigger picture.

That vicious food chain,  how the bateleur eagle gets its name (from the French for “tightrope walker”, on account of its rocking motion when in flight).

Banquet In The Bush With Wines Included

This may be an intense and compact safari, but there are spells of downtime too. The heat of the African afternoon is such that every creature seeks shade and a siesta, including me, especially after lunch at Tortilis – a banquet of Italian dishes with wines included.

Maintaining civilised traditions amid the savage anarchy of the bush has long been a cornerstone of the safari, and so it is that, after a scintillating afternoon game drive crowned by the sight of lion cubs tearing across the plains after wildebeest, we drive up to Ilmerishari Hill for a sundowner.

 For pilot Peter Wachira the biggest problem is not losing sight of Kilimanjaro but keeping the hyenas from chewing his aircraft's wheels (Image: Nigel Tisdall)

Here fold-up chairs have been set up beside a bar. Add a view of elephant herds, acacia-dotted plains and the icy peak of Kilimanjaro, and there’s every reason to say yes to that second drink.

On our next leg, the advantages of using a shared charter like this become apparent.

Flying the 315 kilometres north to Meru takes just 80 minutes, while to make this journey on scheduled services would require a return to Nairobi and possibly a long wait for a connection. In addition, such flights often call into several airstrips.

To fly our complete itinerary using scheduled airlines would take nine days rather than seven, and a further bonus is that we can depart at times that suit us (i.e., after a civilised breakfast), with no hanging around at hot and dusty airfields.

We can also land at private strips, such as that beside our next lodge, Elsa’s Kopje, where the transfer time is a mere two minutes compared to 45 from the commercial alternative.

Set on the Equator, Meru National Park proves well worth a visit on account of its diverse, river-laced habitats and a flamboyant vegetation that includes euphorbia, baobab trees and the beautiful, Y-shaped doum palm.

 Holidaymakers spend time at Elsa's Kopje camp (Image: Elewana)

As one guidebook puts it, “the whole park is uncontaminated by tourism”, and during our two nights here we only see one other safari vehicle.

Meru’s wilds are famous for being the home and burial place of Elsa, the lioness rescued by Joy and George Adamson in 1956, which gave rise to the Born Free books, film and conservation charity.

Straddling an isolated rocky outcrop, Elsa’s Kopje has nine superbly-designed rooms where you can lie in your four-poster bed beholding the glory of the African dawn, then set off to discover a whole new box-set of wildlife, in particular Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, the lesser kudu and beisa oryx – and also white and black rhino, thanks to the presence of a 80-square kilometres sanctuary protected by armed anti-poaching patrols.


Roughing it on a sub-Saharan safari. Spring Break Safari In Africa

This way to Kilimanjaro. Marangu: The Gateway To Kilimanjaro


Lumbering Postcard From Prehistory

When we finally track one down – a 30-year-old white – it is like receiving a great lumbering postcard from prehistory.

Our third destination is the Maasai Mara. Landing at Keekorok airstrip brings a shock – other people!

Yet again, we have a complete scenery change, this time to seemingly endless undulating grasslands speckled with butterflies and wildflowers.

 A new safari by plane touches down in three very different ecosystems, including the salt plains of Amboseli (Image:International Photobank/Alamy)

A northern extension of the Serengeti, the Mara hosts the climax of the year-round migration when 1.5 million wildebeest come charging through. We can hear their primordial grunting as we arrive at Sand River, an opulent 16-room camp strung along the river bank.

Its faux-colonial decor is not to everyone’s taste, and the food is a notch down, but the off-the-beaten-track location is excellent.

“We want to maximise the wildlife experience here,” explains Tim Allen-Rowlandson, its British manager, which is one way of saying there are no fences.

The next morning a fellow passenger reports how a hippo broad-shouldered her tent in the night, while another tells of a genet (like a cat crossed with a mongoose) romping on her roof. Then Tim shows me a nearby tree where a leopard once dragged a zebra it had killed…

There are no set meal times at Sand River, something we put to the test on our final game drive the next morning.

For an hour we see nothing, which seems uncanny given that the previous afternoon we had found so much, including two lionesses snoozing in a tree like stoned-out rock divas.

 The Maasai Mara has seemingly endless undulating grasslands (Image: AP)

Then our guide, Daniel Sayialel, spots a cheetah more than a mile away. Tracking it down, we find it has two cubs, after which we rapidly clock up a family of warthogs, some splendid ostrich, dazzling lines of zebra, a trio of giraffe, hundreds of wildebeest and a magnificent five-metre lion lying in wait for them.

In the end, there is so much to see our game drive lasts five hours.

“Sorry about the delayed breakfast,” Daniel says – but we don’t care.

Today, as on every day of this whistle-stop tour, I have seen so much, in such quality, with such ease, that I feel I’ve racked up enough bucket-list wonders to keep me smiling for years.

And all in the space of a week, and in grand style too. If that’s the future of safari, bring it on.

Safari tips

  • To get the best from game drives take your own binoculars with a 7x35 or similar magnification.
  • Take clothes in olive and khaki colours, including a scarf and warm top layer for early morning drives and at night.
  • The SkySafari luggage allowance is 20 kilograms.
  • Malaria precautions are required.
  • Kenya has inspired a wealth of great books.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Kenya.


This article was written by Nigel Tisdall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Nigel Tisdall

Nigel Tisdall has been writing travel stories for the Telegraph for more than 25 years. His globetrotting career began one wet Monday morning when he took a train from London to Hong Kong, and since then he has been everywhere from Antarctica to Zanzibar via Nottingham.