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"Magical Kenya -- A Once in a
Lifetime Experience"

By Denise Bonnell


At 2:00 in the morning, I suddenly woke up. My tent was moving. I heard a loud scraping noise outside. As I looked through the mesh window, I saw a very large animal scratching itself on the log that secured the guy ropes of my tent to the ground. It was a hippo. I continued observing until the hippo slowly turned around and munched the grass in front of my tent. I shivered with excitement. I was at Little Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, located in the south-western part of Kenya. This is why I come to Africa!

While the Governors’ camps are not fenced, many others in the Mara are. Fences are installed around the perimeter of safari camps to protect clients and staff from potential altercations with wild animals. I prefer camps where animals are free to roam around, day and night, whenever they like. My friend, the Hippo, was doing just that! Hippos normally stay in the marshes or rivers during the day and come out to graze at night. This particular hippo came out of the marsh directly in front of my tent. I couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It was too dark to see for sure and I certainly was not going to go venture outside for a better look. I knew better.

On this trip, I was in Kenya to not only check out some properties I had never been to before, but I also planned on visiting some of my old favorites as well. Little Governors Camp topped the list! I have been visiting this tented camp for over 16 years now, and it remains my favorite camp in the Mara! As with each safari I either lead or take on my own, I never know what I will see, encounter, confront, hear, or be amazed by. This safari was no exception.

On my first day in Africa, I found myself still awake at 3:30 in the morning. I was in my room at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. Suddenly, I heard a commotion outside in the gardens. When I looked out my window, I saw dark figures running around with flashlights. The power was out. Under normal circumstances, I would have been fast asleep, but I was still on California time. Even though blackouts are common in Africa, and usually don’t last long, this one did, and I’m not crazy about the dark! After finally finding my flashlight, I decided to check out the mini-fridge. I found a small bottle of South African chardonnay. I unscrewed the cap, made a “Welcome to Africa” toast to myself, and took a sip. When the little bottle was almost gone, the lights went back on. Yea! I was so excited to be in Africa again, especially Kenya -- “Magical Kenya” -- as I like to call it. I have loved this country from the first time I set foot on its soil! It is my home away from home.

Early the next morning, I set out for Sweetwaters Tented Camp. The drive from Nairobi to Sweetwaters took about three hours and was quite enjoyable -- in between the goats, the potholes, more goats, and the police checkpoints. Joseph, my driver, and I happily chatted the entire way there. This beautiful camp is situated between the foothills of the Aberderes and the magnificent snow-capped Mount Kenya. It was once the private domain of famed multi-millionaire, Adnan Khashoggi. Many things make this camp special but what I love the most is that all of the tents overlook a waterhole, a haven for thirsty wildlife. This time I stayed in Tent #1 which was so close to the wildlife, I could hear them breathe. A large Marabou stork stood outside the dining room the day I arrived and watched me eat lunch.

After a night at Sweetwaters I then made my way to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club. I was super excited for I had not been at this resort for almost two years and was very excited to get back to one of my favorite hotels in Kenya. Upon arrival, on my way to the reception area, I saw a male Indian blue peacock arched into a magnificent fan displaying colors of blue, gold, and indigo all for the attention of a female peacock nearby. I also noticed that the Marabou storks were back! For some reason, they weren’t around the last time I was here, and I really missed those guys! If you want to know what paradise is like, come to this place. As I sipped on my passion fruit drink, I was ready to be pampered.

The Mt. Kenya Safari Club has incredible history. When William Holden and two of his friends purchased this property back in 1959, they turned it into one of the most unusual and exclusive clubs in the world. Mr. Holden’s favorite project was the 1,000 acre game ranch which was stocked with more than 800 wild animals. Following his death, it became the William Holden Foundation. Stefanie Powers, girlfriend to Holden when he was alive, frequents her home regularly at the MKSC and is much loved by all who work there. Today, a neighboring ranch and the William Holden Foundation manage the Animal Orphanage which is my favorite place to visit at the MKSC.

Sadly, I received some bad news while visiting the Animal Orphanage the day I arrived. When I inquired about the two rhinos on the premises – Big Mama and Zulu – I was told that Big Mama had been shot by poachers a few months earlier. She had been shot numerous times by an AK-47 assault rifle. Zulu now stays hidden and is, understandably, terrified of people. The poachers were not professionals, I was told, for if they had been, they would not have riddled the defenseless rhinos with as many bullets as they did. Sadly, Big Mama died. The poachers were never found. If they had been caught, they would have been shot on the spot. Big Mama, who was only 20 years old and comfortable around people, is now gone. Zulu is traumatized now...probably forever.

After a couple of days at the “Club”, I headed back to Nairobi. I was scheduled to meet a friend for lunch at the Carnivore before flying to the Mara. As I climbed the steps of the Air Kenya Dash 7, a turboprop-powered bush plane which can take off and land on very short runways, I was excited to finally be on my way to the Masai Mara Game Reserve, one of the very best places in the world to view wildlife! After landing and taking off four separate times in the Mara, I finally arrived at the Mara Safari Club. What makes this camp unique is that all of the tents overlook the Mara River. This river, famous for its large population of crocodile, hippos, and the biggest catfish I have ever seen, flows through Kenya and Tanzania. After lunch, I was taken to my gorgeous tent. Six hippos grunted a very happy hello to me.

One afternoon, during our game drive, I was taken to see three white rhinos from South Africa that had been recently introduced to this part of the Mara. We were allowed to get out of our vehicle and walk up fairly close to them...with a guard. The baby rhino was whimpering and crying for she wanted to be fed by her Mom. The problem was that she was a very big baby and could not fit under her Mom anymore to nurse. As the baby cried and cried, the mother continued to shift her position in an attempt to accommodate her very hungry child. Finally, the baby was able to nurse. Minutes later, the baby was satisfied and laid on the ground, underneath her Mom’s massive belly, and fell fast asleep. It was quite a sight and something I will never forget.

A few days later I was driven to Little Governor’s Camp, located in the heart of the Masai Mara. I was invited to dinner one evening at Main Governor’s Camp. Late that evening, my friend escorted me back to Little Governors. After a short drive, we got inside the small metal boat that would take us to the other side of the Mara River and back to my camp. All of a sudden, something rocked our boat from underneath. When we realized it was a hippo, we tried very hard not to panic. We slowly made our way to the other side. Relieved to have made it, we almost capsized the boat by getting out so quickly!

By this time, I had been in the Masai Mara for almost a week and the game viewing had been incredible! On our way back to camp in the late afternoon one day, we saw a baby hippo an hour or so after it had been born. The baby was swimming about in the Mara River while its mother rested on the river bank. A few minutes later a male hippo appeared. The mother ran with lightning speed back into the water to protect her baby. It was amazing to see how fast this very large hippo could run. The baby was the size of a large dog and had cute pink feet.

After my stay at Little Governor’s Camp, I was picked up and delivered to Kichwa Tembo, a tented camp I had heard about but had never been too. Kichwa Tembo means “head of the elephant” and is located in one of the most beautiful parts of the Masai Mara. Situated at the foot of the Oloololo Escarpment on the northwestern border of the Masai Mara Reserve, this camp lies within a private 3 land concession leased from the local Masai people. What I liked most about this camp were the 40 or so warthogs that made their home there and the incredible panoramic views.

On the first day I arrived at Kichwa, I went into my tent leaving my bottled water on the table outside. While I observed a huge male warthog sleeping in the bushes beside my tent, I suddenly heard a ruckus on top of my tent. Three monkeys were running back and forth. When I unzipped my tent to take a look, a little head suddenly appeared right above me. And before I knew it, one of the monkeys climbed down the tent pole, grabbed my water, and ran back up the pole. On our afternoon game drive that same day we were taken to see a dead hippo carcass. Two very large male lions were feeding on it. Needless to say, there wasn’t much left of the hippo. The vultures and jackals were waiting for the lions to leave so they could have their turn. Nothing goes to waste in Africa. We also saw a male elephant that had been killed the day before by another male elephant during a fight. The dead elephant had been stabbed in the chest by the other elephant’s tusk.

My stay at Bataleur Camp, an upper scale property belonging to Kichwa Tembo, was unforgettable! I had heard about this camp before and was very happy to see it for myself. Imagine this. You are delivered to your tent which is the size of a small restaurant. As you unzip the front of the tent, two large leather chairs sit on a raised wooden deck just waiting for you to fall into one of them. You can’t help but do this because you can’t stop looking at the view in front of you – hundreds of acacia trees spotting the landscape until they become little black dots on the horizon. Just when you think it can’t get any better, your personal tent attendant stops by to see if you would like a cold drink. “Of course” you hear yourself say, “A coke would be great!” After relaxing and letting the coke bubbles pop all over your nose, you are then escorted to the lounge area for lunch. When I say lounge area, I mean a setting that looks like it was taken from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. There are linen covered dining tables, a private bar, several book lined shelves, and cozy comfortable sofas. At night a fire burns in the massive stone fireplace. Top this off with the most incredible food you have ever eaten. And, best of all, homemade strawberry ice cream!!

One evening, after sundowners on our afternoon game drive, we were told that there was a surprise waiting for us. We were taken to a clearing on the banks of the Mara River. By the time we arrived, it was completely dark. As we drove into the clearing we saw bright yellow lanterns; tables set with linen tablecloths; crystal and silver; a separate bar table; and three chefs cooking on large barbecues. Best of all, there was a huge campfire in the middle of it all. As we sat around the campfire, with a drink in one hand, and hot roasted cashews in the other, the Masai began singing and dancing all around us. Add a couple of hippo grunts from the river below, and you have magic! This was truly an evening I will never forget!

After my incredible stay in the Mara, it was time to leave. As our plane began its descent, I saw below me all of the vibrant colors of the bougainvillea plant...burnt oranges, pinks, purples, yellows, and brilliant reds. This flowering vine grows so thick in Kenya that it actually covers the treetops. It looked like someone had spilled paint all over the African landscape. When we landed, I already felt a bit melancholy. I wanted to be back in the bush. I thought of what Ernest Hemmingway once said “All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I feel this way all the time.

As I got off the plane I saw the friendly face of my driver. We were soon on our way from Wilson Airport to downtown Nairobi where I would once again stay in my luxurious room at the Norfolk Hotel. It would be the first time in many days that I would have real walls around me, instead of canvas. Since my British Airways flight didn’t leave until 11:30 that evening, I decided to go to Karen which is on the outskirts of Nairobi. This beautiful residential area was named after Karen Blixen. As I always try to do, whether with members of my safari group or with my friends in Nairobi, I have lunch at Karen Coffee Farm. This is where Karen Blixen’s farm manager and brother, Thomas, once lived. It is now a museum and restaurant. This particular time, however, I went there by myself. I sat at my favorite table outside on the veranda and ordered the same thing I always do when I am there...penne pasta with tomato and basil, a basket of rolls, and a coke.

As I looked out into the gardens, a gentle breeze blew at just the right time, when I was beginning to feel a little warm, and I thought about all that I had experienced during my time in Kenya. I wondered about the baby hippo I had seen just the other day, only an hour old, and the female leopard who roamed along the banks of the Mara River with her two cubs. I secretly hoped that all of the little warthog piglets, one of my favorite animals in Africa, would be safe from cheetahs and other predators who always seemed to find these little creatures when they least expected it. The very last thing I saw before leaving the Mara was a female cheetah munching away on a baby warthog. I was happy for the cheetah for she finally found a meal, a small one at that, but sad for the unsuspecting warthog. I sighed contentedly, however, at the end of my own meal knowing that I would one day soon be back in Kenya to not only experience the bustling noises of the city and the warm smiles of the people who lived there, but most of all, the calm and peaceful serenity I always feel while I am on safari.

Denise Bonnell is a safari guide in East and South Africa. Her website is



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