Sky Safari: Flying high on Kenya's ultimate big game experience
Award-winning travel writer Isabel Conway takes the trip-of-a-lifetime on a 'Sky Safari' in Kenya.
Coming in to land on a red dirt airstrip in the shadow of Mount Kenya, I have a romantic girlish flashback. Those of a certain age may remember a swashbuckling Robert Redford landing his bi-plane on similar strips in 'Out of Africa' (1985).
In the original novel, Danish author Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) immortalized the privileged lifestyles of Kenya’s pampered ex-pats.
Already divorced from her philandering husband, Blixen exited Africa heartbroken after her lover, Denys Finch Hatton (Redford), fatally crashed his small plane.
And now here we are - at remote Meru National Park, where the lovers admired heavenly sunsets, stunning landscapes and a roll call of wildlife.
We have also come in search of the Big five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo), shooting all except the ever elusive leopard with our zoom lenses and iPhones. In the bad old times, safari – the Swahili word for a long journey - meant wealthy white trophy hunters massacring African game. Today, it's rather different.
My last journey to Meru, located in Kenya’s northern frontier district, involved a bumpy ride in a little plane up from Nairobi. It dropped off and picked up passengers here and there, and treated us to a four-hour ‘African Massage’ – a bone-shaking ride on endless rutted tracks.
This time, our nine-seater Cessna Caravan is better described as a limousine-in-the-sky, with its roomy leather seats and chilled bubbles aboard.
During a five-night safari, we drop into the elephant rich salt plains of Amboseli in the foothills of Kilimanjaro en route to scenic Tortillis camp. Landing at Meru, we stay at the beautifully located Elsa's Kopje - overlooking the runway but invisibly set into the crags where Elsa the Lioness, star of the movie 'Born Free' was hand-raised.
Our last night is spent at Sand River Masai Mara - whose ‘Out of Africa’ style manager Tim Allen-Rowlandson relayed great close shave wildlife stories.
African Safaris represent the trip of a lifetime for many, and they're rarely cheap unless you are prepared to seriously rough it. As with many things in life, however, you get what you pay for. The 'Sky Safari' concept is one of those.
The game lodges we stayed at were beautifully situated and super-friendly. Think four-poster beds, sunken baths and gloriously coloured textiles, perfect for honeymooners and anyone who wants to splurge on an unforgettable holiday experience. An extended family can fill the plane and children from the age of 5 are welcome.
Here, in ‘Lion King’ country, prides of lions, herds of elephant, dozens of varieties of antelope, journeys of giraffe, crossings of zebras and numerous bird species (to name just a few) are viewed on morning and evening game drives.
Creature comforts at the game lodge include infinity and swimming pools, good wines, excellent cuisine, massages, superb bush breakfasts, exciting bush walks and sundowners (drinks at makeshift bars in glorious locations) galore.
Peter, our pilot, tells us to look out for Africa’s tallest mountain - Kilimanjaro - on the right hand side of the aircraft as the grasslands of Amboseli come into view 40 minutes after a speedy transfer from our overnight flight from London.
The benefits of the Sky Safari – hassle-free and time efficient - were instantly apparent. Flying low over the grassy swamps of Amboseli, we watched numerous elephants and hippos cooling off in grassy swamps fed by the snows of Kilimanjaro.
Here, next morning, we visit a traditional Masai village of mud-covered straw huts with a hearty welcome by warriors dressed in bright red and adorned with colourful beads and jewellery. The married women (equally bejewelled) wore blue.
Mulanti (the future chief) explained: “My first wife was chosen by my family, we must marry out of our village to bring new blood. I am allowed to choose my second and third wives myself but it costs five cows for each wife and a cow costs $500”.
We crouch down and pray together with the villagers for good crops and many cattle. Warriors then do a dance, leaping high into the air, inviting us to join in.
Nobody manages to rise more than a foot.
Maybe that's because we hadn’t started the day the way they did - with a mixture of fresh cow blood, extracted from the neck of the beast, and milk.
Our own bush breakfast – bacon and eggs with the trimmings - is preceded at Meru by the awesome sight of up to 70 elephants marching shoulder to shoulder.
Here, I had my own personal (out)house leopard - who arrived in the dead of night (although I only heard her), and whose prints were found in the soft clay beside the outdoor shower. She stalked for hours around the tent-style bungalow, making a sound like soft sawing.
Next morning, the area smelled like the Big Cat house at Dublin Zoo.
Sitting beside Peter the pilot on our plane, I quiz him on engine failures and what to do if we land in crocodile invested swamps.
“No worries, be happy,” he purrs.
“Luckily, we caught those hyenas trying to chew off our wheels a couple of nights ago. We coated them (the wheels!) in oil and put guards on watch."
I wonder did Robert Redford and Meryl Streep do the same?
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) flies from London Heathrow to Nairobi daily. An eight-day safari with SkySafari (skysafari.com) costs from $6,520/€6,141pp including internal flights, accommodation, transfers, meals, drinks, activities and fees.
The five-star safari starts with an overnight in Nairobi’s elegant Hemingways hotel (hemingways-nairobi.com), followed by two nights at Tortilis camp, Elsa’s Kopje and Sand River (elewanacollection.com). Trips can be extended to Zanzibar or Tanzania.
For more on Kenya, see magicalkenya.com.
Your GP can advise on shots and malaria precautions.
Pack plenty of insect repellent. Insects are a feature of the bush!
Bring lightweight clothing in neutral and khaki colours so as not scare away the wildlife. A scarf, hat and fleece are useful for chilly early morning drives.
A good long lens camera and powerful binoculars are essential to get the best from safari - spare batteries may help for long game drives.
The Sky Safari luggage allowance is 20 kilos.
You'll need US$50 cash for a visa on arrival in Nairobi. Otherwise credit cards are widely accepted, but take US dollars for tips to guides and lodge staff.
When to go
Kenya is a year-round destination. Prices are cheaper and parks prettier during the Green season, however - i.e. April, May and late-October until mid-December.