That Time We… Honeymooned (Part 1 – Loisaba, Kenya)
Part 1: On Safari in Kenya (Loisaba)
Little did we know then, we’d come back from Honeymoon with a completely altered view of Africa, and the inhabitants of this little planet. Safari was never my first choice but I’d find out how wrong I was…
- Entering the Loisaba tent for the first time with THAT view over the valley
- A stand-off with an angry elephant
- Gin & Tonic in the conservancy as the stars come out
- Private dinner & champagne
- A ‘Tuska’ lager by the Mara river
- Getting our marriage blessed by a Masai Chief
- Breakfast in the bush and camel riding
- Learning a board game invented by the Masai
- Spending a night in the Starbeds
The stress and nerves of our recent nuptials were only starting to recede when the tide of worry for the honeymoon decided to kick in. Y’see, this was MY honeymoon – the one I’d planned with no input from Kate (
Miss Mrs-Talent-For-Getting-Shit-Done), the one where everything rested on my (non-existent) planning skills, the one where if anything went wrong (and there was a hell of moving parts to this honeymoon) it’d be on me.
#Pressure. (OK, I did have a
bit lot of help from Laura & Hayley at Africa Exclusive who were actually the masterminds behind this ridiculously perfect honeymoon)
6.30pm. We’re in the Boeing Dreamliner. We’re on the tarmac waiting to make our way to Nairobi. Everything has gone to plan and the worry melts away with each passing minute, everything has gone off without a hitch. Now we can truly start enjoying the ‘moon.
Truth is, everything – despite all the worries over the past few months – has gone perfectly. The Stag and Hen parties, the wedding. and so far, the Honeymoon. We’d been taken to the airport by Kate’s parents. We’d already checked in online and baggage drop off was quick. We’d shopped and spoilt ourselves (Go Pro accessories for me, Ted Baker dress for her). We’d fed and watered ourselves (well, beer and Prosecco). We didn’t need to worry about a thing – hindsight is wonderful.
We didn’t sleep much on the 8hr flight but that did allow her to catch up on her reading and me to watch Deadpool (excellent) and Joy (OK) in between short naps.
Day 1 – A Camp Kinda Life
We’re not the least bit groggy when we get picked up and chauffeured to Nairobi’s tiny Wilson Airport for tiny planes. We’d learn that traffic in Nairobi is mad and starts around 5am – just the time we’re being picked up! Still, it’s interesting to see how this part of the world works, and my presumptions are blown out of the water when I see just how built up and modern it is as we crawl towards the domestic airport.
It’s a pretty long wait for our short flight to Laikipia and we see a lot of safari tourists (people who look a lot more prepared than us!) come and go. We get called and escorted to our single propeller plane and make ourselves comfortable. We’re surprised when they start the plane up as there is no one else on here – I’ve never flown privately before so this is a cool turn up for the books! I’d like to say I made the most of it but tiredness starts kicking in and I slip into a nap.
Sometime later Kate pokes me, and though I can’t hear what she’s saying over the engines, I see we’re coming into land. In a field. (where’s the airport?!). Out the window I can see a bright red figure with a feather coming out of his head standing next to a table and shed. This is going to be interesting…
Despite landing on grass the landing is fairly smooth and we’re allowed to disembark with no messing around (it’s really like a taxi that flies). We’re met by Brown, a member of the Masai tribe who welcomes us with drinks (“prickly pear” juice) and fruit and tells us a little about the scenery around us. This guy is to be our guide for the next 4 days – a really friendly, funny and knowledgeable individual who really knows the area.
Its a short jeep ride to the Loisaba Camp (which we’ll later learn “Loisaba” means “Seven Stars” or “Seven Sisters” depending on who you ask), during which we get to see a bit of the landscape and learn about some of the birds and plants en route.
Upon arrival, the staff are at the front to greet us with a hot towel, a friendly smile and help us with our bags. We’re led to the main communal area of the camp where the landscape beyond the decking drops away and we’re presented with the valley below teeming with life, particularly around the water hole around 400m away. This place is insane…and we’ve not yet checked in!
We’re given a quick brief about the camp over coffee where we discover this camp is actually brand new (there was a fire that destroyed the original camp) and we’re one of the first couples to walk the decking under our feet. In fact, for the four days we’re there, we’re only joined by one other couple so we’ve basically got the entire place to ourselves!
There’ll be enough time to chit-chat and meet them later. Right now it’s time to check out the room. And I use that term lightly – this “tent” is a palace. Someone clearly got the memo that we’re on honeymoon! While the exterior is canvas, the inside is all wood, furs and ceramics. Best of all, the bed looks out beyond the insect netting onto the same valley where in this point in time elephants are enjoying a mid-morning bath.
There are plenty more hours in this day to come so after unpacking a little we curl up on the bed and let our eyes close for an hour or so. 3pm comes round far too quickly and the bags are still there but lunch is being served and we’ve heard good things about the food here. We’re not disappointed and neither is the wildlife as a couple of cheeky birds help themselves to the leftovers while several shy capybaras look on jealously.
We get a chance to meet and chat to the other couple who turn out to be safari veterans but first-timers to Kenya (apparently Tanzania is the place to go next) over afternoon tea and around 4pm its time to hit the dirt tracks again. We jump in the jeep, eager with anticipation for what we’re going to see on our first game drive of the trip. Brown edges the open truck down a fairly steep escarpment and suddenly we’re in the wilderness surrounded by trees and bush with no idea what lurks within. It strikes me just how different this landscape is to the wide open expanses peppered by the odd tree you see on nature programs; this land is lush and rocky with plenty of hiding places for animals that don’t want to be seen.
Just as we’re wondering how on earth we’ll see anything Brown has spotted something in the distance and is hot on the trail while Kate and I are on tenterhooks. This guy has eyes like a hawk. Over hills and mounds we go, rounding bushes and then there they are – a family of giraffes curiously eyeing us over bushes and through tree branches. These guys are huge but chilled and graceful. They won’t be the last giraffes we see but they will be my favourite animals of the trip, I could watch them munching on leaves and hearding their young all day.
Half an hour later we’re crawling past a small pond where lizards, capybaras and terrapins are sunning themselves on the rocks. Brown tells us all about the colourings of the lizards (which I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember much of but put that down to sleep deprivation catching up) and we’re soon on the move again weaving around small herds of female Impalas.
I have to say, nothing wakes you up and gets you on high alert more than a pissed off adolescent male elephant. By early evening we had tracked and entered a small elephant parade. You can practically feel the ground shake when these guys move and while many had scarpered as the noise of the engine drew near, one youngster took it upon himself to show us how daunting the species can be. Brown is well accustomed to the protocol; turn off the engine and make as little noise & movement as possible until the elephant gets bored and sulks off.
The problem was, this guy wasn’t getting bored. Stamping his feet, charging and trumpeting every time we turned the engine on, we thought we’d be stuck there all night! Eventually he went behind a treeand even though he was still staring at us, it gave us enough of a gap to swiftly take off. I guess the aprehention simply comes down to not knowing what these 5 tonnes of leather and tusk are capable of it they take a severe disliking to the vehicle. In any case, by the time our heartbeats had got back to normal we were pulling up at a giant granite rock – funnily enough called ‘Elephant Rock’ – where Brown pulled out a sneakily hidden picnic bag and led us through the brambles to the top with views of the landscape and the sun setting behind the clouds.
Light was fading fast and it was time to head back. By now the drowsiness was back but I do remember thinking how impressed I was with our guide’s sense of direction in the pitch black. It was such a fun and unusual day but we were glad to see the entrance to the camp coming up in front of us with the prospect of a good night’s sleep not too far away. Hot towel and hot chocolate in hand we were led by torchlight to our tent (we weren’t allowed to roam at night without a guide) to find that the room was decorated with candles and champagne on ice sat in the middle of the throw rug. Well, it would be rude to not have a pre-dinner glass or two, wouldn’t it!
Popping the bottle, this really felt like we were on honeymoon. *Clink*
The time seemed to melt away and we begrudgingly left the rest of the bottle in favour of getting some food inside us. It was getting late and the champagne was going to our head. We headed over to the dining area only to be told that they had finished serving. Oh well, it’s our own fault – we’ll just have to have a liquid dinner and extra breakfast tomorrow!
Five minutes later there was a knock at our door just as we’d climbed into bed with a fresh glass of bubbles and the waiter was there ready to take our order. This really was the icing on the cake of a fantastic day being treated like royalty. We finished the evening on a high eating lamb shank in bed.
Day 2 – Meet the Tribe
Here’s a piece of advice; when it is windy outside, don’t leave your tent flaps undone just because you can’t be bothered to tie them down in the dark for fear of “weird bugs and spiders”. We fell asleep around 10.30 after an exhausting day. We awoke at precisely at 1am thanks to the buffeting wind scooping up and slamming our heavy wax-linen tent flaps against the tent every 20 seconds creating noises that can only be described as some discharging a canon right next to our bed. I resorted to sleeping with my ear phones in – god knows how Kate got through it. Day 2 was gonna be tough…
(Well as tough as a day in the gorgeous sun being waited on hand and foot while experiencing lots of extraordinary new things to tingle the senses really can be).
A tray of tea and coffee was delivered to the tent at the (hesitantly) agreed time of 6am – which coupled with a luke-warm shower soon saw us awake and out the door by 6.30. We jumped in the jeep where Sam had laid out some blankets for us to swaddle ourselves in – turns out the African plains get mighty chilly in the night – and we descended down into the valley from a more northerly point than yesterday.
First animal we see out for breakfast was a family of shy warthogs, a momentary glimpse before they shoot off on their little legs into the bush. We drive deeper and deeper into the valley past a small lake immediately adjacent to the road track where a herd of Elephants are having a bath and as the noise of the engine draws nearer they lethargically meander off into the field opposite. While we’re watching this Kate sees something “sandy coloured” move behind us which could be a leopard so we backtrack on spend 15 minutes slowly circling around to see if we can get another glimpse of the second of ‘the big five’.
To no avail we continue down the road stopping every so often as Sam spots things in the distance and alters his route – by this stage he is routinely hopping out of the vehicle every few hundred yards with his aerial device he uses to track lions which we’ll later find out have tracking collars to help the conversationalists monitor their movements.
We pass zebra on our right which in a herd is quite impressive. They make odd noises and look like small, fat horses. The stripes are an unknown evolutionary outcome which is still debated today but there are a number of theories that I won’t bore you with but instead point you to this article if you are interested. Despite our evident fascination, Sam shrugs them off as the ‘ugly kind’ and it is not long before we encounter the rare Grévy Zebra (or imperial Zebra) with thinner, more delicate stripes and Kate and I have to agree with Sam that these are infinitely more impressive. This species is only found in parts of Northern Kenya and Ethiopia so we’re pretty lucky to have seen them.
While we’re busy taking photos, Sam’s aerial is making beeping noises to the south-east and he fires up the jeep, bounces through a small river and we’re in hot pursuit. We pass ponds with terrapins, rocks with lizards, numerous Waterbucks and other things on our near-manic search for these elusive lions but there will be plenty of time to appreciate these later.
By now, I am glad we’re zooming around on and off-piste because the local population of flies has decided to join us in the hunt for the lions – there’s millions of them! There’s around 20 just on the camera i’m holding alone, and what feels like a small army has decided to dive-bomb my ears every 4 microseconds. Even so, the anticipation of spotting our first lion is high and almost without warning we see not just one, but a family of females and cubs chilling out under a bush.
They sleepily stare at us without much interest as we stare back at them with much interest. Kate is falling over my shoulder trying to get shots on her cameraphone while I am furiously clicking away on my DSLR. Sam is completely unfazed and is looking in the opposite direction with a pair of binoculars for the next point-of-interest. We move several yards further on and see that this pack isn’t alone and almost by psychic communication, several more grown female lions get up and walk across our path and off into the thick bush to our right. We count 11 lions in total and follow their lethargic strolls for another 20 minutes or so and once we’ve filled our cameras we’re on the move again.
Sam takes us to the edge of the conservancy, passing rangers on the hunt for poachers as we go, to the river that marks the border. We stop by a picturesque bank framed with old (acacia?) trees and Sam opens his magical bag of drinks and snacks, and we chill out as we learn about how the locals obtain the honey from the beehives in the trees above and watch the local farmers on the other side of the river herding their cows.
After breakfast we have a few hours to ourselves to chill out. We head to the infinite pool overlooking the valley passing the lodge bar – it’s never too early for a cold beer right? – and have our pick of the sunbeds as once again, we’re the only people around. Kate braves the icy pool for a quick dip but despite the sun beating down, a toe dip confirms there is no way I’m getting in!
Lying on the sunbeds reminds our bodies just how tired we are after and we head back to the tent for a quick birdsong-soundtracked snooze and then a lunch consisting of lasagna, salad and other interesting morsels. Sam is soon back in sight walking to-and-fro loading the jeep with provisions. The objective for this afternoon is to track down and spot some wild dogs…or so he says.
I have a faint idea of what might be going on (as I arranged it with the travel company), the first clue being that we leave the conservancy and drive over rickety bridges and into the heart of rural Kenya. 40 mins later we pass smiling kids playing outside their farm homes and park up next to a village (several huts ringed by a log fence) and are greeted by Sam’s cousin who after a quick catch-up with Sam, ushers us into the Samburu village where around 20 women are arranged like a choir and start singing and dancing. I barely have time to get my Go-Pro out of my bag before Kate is dragged into the circle, donned a traditional tribe necklace and encouraged to join in the festivities.
Incidentally I should add at this point, ‘Sumburu’ translates to mean “butterflies,” the name was given to the Samburu tribe by other tribes because of their layers and layers of bead-covered jewelry, fascinating face painting, and colorful dress [source].
Next it was my turn to be center of attention as I’m ‘encouraged’ to join the boys for a spot of… well, jumping on the spot! One of the ways the boys attract the attention of the girls is by a show of strength and in this case, by who can jump the highest. While the others stand back chanting, each takes their turn to step forward and bounce as high as they can without bending the knees. This was followed by a kind of procession around the grounds as the girls attach themselves to their chosen boy by linking arms and marching alongside them. While I suspect this was mostly done for show for our benefit, it is not entirely innacurate as to how man/wife partnerships are chosen in this tribe.
As we were watching on with fascination, Sam and his cousin were telling us about the various nuances of the tribe and little details about their way of life and we were floored to learn most of the younger generation carry mobile phones on their belts nowadays and thus, are connected to the internet. It is incredible to think that even though the girls can watch a Beyoncé video and the boys can indulge in a binge of Breaking Bad (connection permitting), the traditions and styles of life have remained largely intact.
Next we were ushered over towards a couple of older gentlemen who offered us a couple of handmade acacia stools as we watched them finish off a game involving moving stones around a board into positions that prevented the opponent from taking a turn. As a game of strategy and maths, naturally I was lost within seconds but Kate kept up with everything, which would incidentally prove useful later on in the trip…
The friendly man (that we took to be the tribe chief) had several instruments in front of him and via Sam’s translation explained what they all meant and their origins and conducted a short ceremony that involved, among other actions that are a bit of a blur, spraying us with water by flicking a water-dipped horsehair stick at us while saying some words. He was blessing our recent marriage in the traditional way and wishing us a long and happy life together (so far so good, we’re still together!). Although a strange event, it was a very cool experience.
We concluded the visit with a tour* of one of the living huts where I had a go on a hand-built musical instrument – much like a guitar, and a gander at their market that they’d set up selling local-made jewelry, carved animals and wooden utensils where we bought a few souvenirs (a carved giraffe stands proudly in our hallway and my mum is the proud owner of a lizard brooch made from beads).
*Tour consisted of entering an almost pitch black room too low to stand up, sitting on a bed and being shown a ‘keg’ of home-brewed traditional cocktail of some sort to be drank on the following Saturday for some form of inter-tribe celebration.
A chatty and contemplative drive back meant a quick journey and before long Sam was meandering the jeep up a hill that resulted in the most astonishing view over the valley (again) as the sun set. Out came the magical bag of drinks and we sat on a rock, G&T in hand, discussing the traditional way of life. By the time we got back to the camp, a BBQ was sizzling away on the decking (perfect timing huh?) and the biggest pork steak I’ve ever had coupled with a very full day of activities to process and hot water bottles in the bed meant we were dead to the world within minutes of hitting the pillow.
You can check out our review of the Loisaba Tented Camp on TripAdvisor here.
Day 3 – Starbeds (along with a few other surprises)…
At 6.15am we we’re woken by the usual cheerful shout of “Morning!” signalling arrival of tea and coffee. It is chilly this morning and getting in the open plan shower is a mental struggle but by 7am we’re packed an ready to head off – for today we leave this camp to spend a night in the unique Loisaba Starbeds on the other side of the conservancy.
The day begins like any other; a pre-breakfast game drive, although it seems the chilly air has encouraged many of the animals to stay tucked under t1heir cosy bush as we don’t see a lot other than the spectacular scenery including a secret lagoon/oasis with beautiful waterfall.
Just as we’re wondering when we might get a bite to eat, Sam takes the jeep down the side of a hill, through the long grass and turns off the engine (maybe he’s lost?)
“Surprise!!!” Comes a shout to our right – several of the staff are emerging from behind a low tree, jugs in hand and it’s only then we notice the BBQ behind them and the table laid out with plates and cutlery! Now, private game drives and camp lodges are one thing, but this gesture makes us feel like we’re the most important people in the world and it’s among many moments that blew our honeymoon expectations out the water!
At some point while we’re finishing up, Sam starts talking about the trees around us, the birds flying above our heads and the camels descending the ridge…
Wait, what!? Camels?
Slightly bewildered, we watch the camel masters position two sandy-coloured camels next to the jeep – the former are to replace the latter as our mode of transport the rest of the way to the Starbeds it transpires. I finish my coffee, Kate her juice and we clumsily climb into the seats strapped to the camel’s backs and on cue, the camels stand sending us in turn lurching forwards (almost over the handle) and level again and directed by the masters up the hill we’d just descended in the jeep.
Suddenly it seems, the day’s temperature has risen 20 degrees and in all the excitement we’ve both forgotten to strip out of our hoodies, body-warmers and other cold-weather clothes – the next hour or so on camel-back gets pretty sweaty let me tell you!
The ride is bumpy but we soon get used to it and apart from the heat and copious flies chasing the camels, the highlights include passing ‘Pride Rock’ (a rock formation that looks just like Pride Rock in ‘The Lion King’) and a herd of Elephants that seem to be as surprised at the sight of camels in this terrain as we were.
After a friendly welcome and tour around the camp, we’re shown to our room where the concept of the Starbeds is explained (in the evening they’ll push this bed-on-wheels onto the large balcony where we sleep under netting and under the stars – assuming it is a clear night).
“But what if it rains? Or a lion climbs onto the balcony?”
“The guards on duty will pull the bed in while you’re sleeping and keep a look out for opportunistic wild animals” (I paraphrase but this is basically the conversation). Satisfied with the answers, we chill out on the balcony reading about the Laikipia wildlife in a book from the 80s and scoping out hippos by the lake with our binoculars until lunch.
Lunch is a buffet of pizza, quiche and salad on a balcony overlooking the lake at the bottom of the valley. We’ll get up close to this later but right now we relax in the cool lounge bedecked in typical 1900’s drawing room decor where it only seems right that I teach Kate how to play chess.
It seems only a moment later when teas and fresh baked chocolate cake is being offered round and then it’s back in the jeep to get close to the hippos…well as close as we dare. Hippos can be super aggressive so the key is not to get between them and the water. Today they are being quite shy and are mostly submerged so every now and again we’ll see the eyes, ears and snout rise out the water for a breath before sinking again like a very slooooow game of whack-a-mole.
Before the rains set in (the only time while we’re in Kenya) we see warthogs and ostriches but one of my stand-out memories is of later on that drive when we get to the ultra-flat terrain out of the valley. We’re driving through an uncharacteristically dense patch of trees with the sun breaking through the clouds, a faint rainbow to our left when all of a sudden we see a giraffe’s head peek above the trees as it nonchalantly looks for the source of the engine noise. Then another further ahead. And another, this time a calf…and its mother. All of a sudden there’s giraffes everywhere munching on the tree tops and I’m reminded for some reason of that scene in Jurassic Park.
Half an hour later, as the sun is starting to fall behind the clouds we come to a stop beside a lake just in time for the sun to give us one last HURRAH before going to bed. The gins and wine are back out, just like the moon and we couldn’t be more relaxed. I’m getting a real taste for these G&Ts…
We ride back in almost total darkness – save the headlamps – and almost drive into a dozy elephant crossing in front. That sure wakes him up and we’re once again in a deadlock with an adolescent male, eyes eerily reflecting moonlight back at us. Eventually he gets bored and we get back for dinner and eat while we go through the day’s photos.
The log fire is roaring and I sink into a beanbag chair only too eager to get to the room and make the most of the Star bed but Kate has other ideas. One of the smiley guides we were talking to at dinner (learning a little Masai & Swahili) has brought out the game we were watching the Samburu chief playing the day before and takes us through the rules. I’m completely at a loss with how it works and quickly and convincingly lose. Kate, who has been watching over my shoulder steps up and within two games has drawn and won. I’m not sure who is the most surprised around that table but the guide has lost his smile.
As the wife gets ready for bed I do a few bug checks and clock a ghostly white spider the size of a cherry tomato clinging on to the side of the bed’s netting. Now I’m not sure if Kenya has any poisonous spiders but I’m not taking any chances. I take a quick photo as “proof” (read: something I can freak Kate out later with – I swear to God it is smiling at the camera) and flick it off with the nearest object (I think it was a guide to Kenyan spiders and insects) and hop into bed. It’s only now I realise that it has mostly clouded over apart from a small slither to the north – so much for stargazing.
But I have a plan. I set the alarm for 4am and SUCCESS! A cloudless night with some of the brightest stars I’ve ever seen. We take in the view until we succumb to tiredness and wake next when the morning is breaking and the hyenas & hippos are making a racket. We watch the sun rise from our wooden platform in the middle of the wilderness and all seems right with the world. I could have laid there for hours but breakfast and a ride to the airport beckons.
The next stage of the honeymoon takes us to Elephant Pepper Camp in the Masai Mara – Read about it soon!
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