Luxury Vacations: Kenya – Africa 3.0

More than lions: Kenya’s tech-savvy youth, new constitution and vision for green growth and conservation offer a blueprint for Pan-African development.

Sunset on the Maasai Mara (Anchyi Wei)

Sunset on the Maasai Mara ()

The Great East African Rift Valley has sustained life for millenniums. “Lucy,” an australopithecine human ancestor ruled the roost here three million years ago. It’s now registered on Foursquare thanks to my handy opposable thumbs. How far we’ve come.

Modern impressions of Africa, and Kenya by association, remain ensnared by despots, disease, pirates, and pop-star adoptions. Slowly, like life in the Great Rift Valley, that image is evolving. Fiber optic networks, SMS money transfers, micro-finance projects, a top-performing stock exchange, a new constitution, wildlife conservation, clean energy, and Google (yes, Google) might not be sexy enough for primetime; but they are, thankfully, part of the new Kenyan narrative. Like the mighty lions of the Maasai Mara these elements warrant attention too.

A US Travel.State.Gov web page for Kenya warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel there; but, the site hasn’t been updated since a peaceful referendum vote which resulted in a new Constitution – a major milestone in Kenyan history.Travel near Somalia can be dangerous; but the situation on the Sudanese and Ethiopian boarders – site of some of the world’s most dynamic safari destinations – has improved dramatically. Travel purveyors such as The Safari and Conservation Company operate once-in-a-lifetime three-week helicopter camp safaris in the region for around US$100,000.

Day 1: Connecting in Nairobi Fourty-two ethnic groups and all the world’s major religions are represented in Kenya. You can sample most of them in Nairobi. Add sub- Saharan and East African influences as well as the Maasai, and you have a recipe for infinite points of cultural discovery. Tip: Glimpse Maasai culture by tracking down their traveling market.

The name Nairobi translates to “place of cool waters.” These fresh waters made it an ideal location at the turn of the 20th century to recharge and resupply after long trips from the coast to the hinterlands. The city also epitomizes “Africa 3.0.”A short 10-minute taxi ride from the famous Nairobi Serena Hotel and you are in the Central Business District, where the Nairobi Stock Exchange, belying its sleepy interior, is nurturing the continent’s fastest growing exchange. Another 20 minutes and you are watching, with perfect cell phone reception, rhinos, giraffe and zebra roaming the world’s only urban game park, Nairobi National Park.

Nairobi’s elevation and semi-arid terrain create dry crisp cloudless winter days (August is winter) and cool nights reminiscent of Los Angeles without the smog. I’m sitting poolside sampling curry from the Mandhari Restaurant with , director general for Kenya’s “Vision 2030,” a program focused on taking Kenya from a frontier economy to a middle income nation over the next 20 years.The MIT graduate represents a new generation of officials looking to help Kenya compete globally. “Kuala Lumpur was built based on Nairobi’s city plan,” explained Kibati with a sigh of mild exasperation. “Singapore also based its development plan on Kenya – look where they are today. Now,Vietnam is replicating some our most profitable industries such as tea, coffee and flowers. We’ve lacked the diligent implementation that has enabled these countries to succeed.” The new constitution offers a road map to change that. Will implementation be Kenya’s Achilles heel again? Check back in 2030.

Our talk echoed in my head as I headed to Nairobi National Park for late-day game drive. Tip: Entrance to the park is $40. Come with US dollars and give yourself four hours. As the sun set and I tapped in my last Safari live tweet “There’s a giraffe in the road!”, I recalled what Kibati also mentioned about “M-Psea” money transfer via text message. Since its introduction three years ago, Kenyans have used it to transfer $US4.26 billion. “This was a major development,” Kibati told me. “It has connected all of Kenya.”About 12 million Kenyans – 30 per cent of the population – were making use of the mobile money transfer as of September 2010. Like most countries, the gap between haves and have-nots in Kenya is wide – nowhere is that more evident that the Kibera slum near in Nairobi – but technology is bridging the gap.
We finished the night at the famous Nairobi eatery Carnivore. And, yes, that’s exactly what I felt like as I sampled Kabob after Kabob of different types of grilled meats. It’s a must try.

Day 2: Natural in Naivasha Lake Naivasha is 65 miles from Nairobi and makes for a great day trip. Highlights include Lake Oloidien, a volcanic crater home to flocks of pink Flamingos as well as a number of flower farms – Kenya produces 30% of the world’s cut flower supply. Hippopotamus fans can mingle in the midst of these aqua-loving giants by hiring at boat at the Hippo Point Private Estate and Wildlife Sanctuary. Nearby, Hells’ Gate National Park is great for trekking, bird watching and taking in the area’s geological formations. On the way, you’ll notice a geothermal plant – the government is looking to double power generation to 2,000 mega watts by 2013; 70 percent of which will be from geo-thermal, wind, and solar. On the way, we stop at the Karen Blixen Giraffe orphanage to see (and feed) orphanaged animals. It’s a special place.Since its founders, Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville, rescued a baby giraffe named Daisy from a heavily-poached area of western Kenya in 1974, their home has become a household name among wildlife lovers worldwide – and Daisy a star in her own right.

Up for a round of golf? Try The Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort, one Kenya’s top country clubs and a haunt for local and international power players (it has a private air strip, so it’s easy to get in and out of.) The 18-hole championship golf course has sweeping views of the Rift Valley and is intermittently lined with a series of luxury vacation homes with modern amenities, four-poster beds, handmade wooden furniture, and large glass windows for taking in the magnificent views. The resort is an ideal weekend base before heading out on safari.

Day 3: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Spanning 62,000 acres, Lewa, in Northern Kenya, is home to over 10 percent of Kenya’s black rhino population, over 14 percent of Kenya’s white rhino population and the world’s largest single population of Grevy’s zebra. It might not offer as stunning and dramatic an experience as the Maasai Mara, but it does provide visitors a more private and high-end safari experience. There’s also the feel good factor – it’s a non-profit; a portion of your dollars goes directly in to the surrounding community to build schools, provide access to clean water, healthcare, and employment. At the award- winning Il N’gwesi Lodge in the heart of Lewa, safari chic is De rigueur, but so is conservation. Notable guests have included Bill and . “They enjoyed the privacy and our community involvement,” said Lewa Wildlife Conservancy CEO, Dr. over lunch.

As a warthog waddled by ten yards away, the Oxford-educated Moss explained, “In 1983, Lewa founders David and set aside 5,000 acres of their cattle ranch as a sanctuary. At that time, the black rhino population in Kenya had dropped from 20,000 to below 300. Now the park alone has 111 rhinos; but poaching is a constant concern – a poacher can get up to $US45,000 for a horn.”

Besides stunning beauty and unbelievable access to wildlife, Lewa is a blue print for community-based wildlife reserves. After lunch, we toured a local school and a well, funded by the conservancy. We also stopped by Siroki Lodge. The high-pitched thatched-roof lodges are tastefully appointed with stylish mix-and- match African interiors, exquisite furniture and modern amenities. Having zebra graze in your back yard and elephants saunter by in the distance add to the mystique. Rates start at $310 per night depending on the season. Tip: Don’t travel here during the rainy month of November.

Days 4 & 5: Doing the Mara Each year, starting in June, roughly 1.3 million Wildebeest migrate through the great Serengeti Plains. In Kenya, the place to witness what’s been considered the “8th Wonder of the World,” is on the wide-open grassy piedmont of Maasai Mara a.k.a.“the Mara.”This is quintessential Africa – as far as the eye can see burnt yellow and beige prairie grass landscapes punctuated by expansive valleys, buttes, and lots of wildlife.

Even our jaunt from the dirt runway to the plush mara Serena Safari Lodge was amazing – we passed herds of Wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. Our Maasai guide must laugh at seeing the same looks of amazement from tourists each day.

During peak season, July 1st to October 1st, a double at the lodge runs $575; but it’s worth every penny. Guests can take up to three game drives daily in custom-built open-sided six- person safari vehicles with professional guides and refreshments. Tip: Try a cold Tusker Beer on safari. The goal is to see the Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino. I saw the Big Four (no leopards for me.) Those, and the other 95 species of mammals and 550 species of birds, keep you ever on the lookout for “the photo.”

The “traffic” was the only drawback; there can be up to 20 other safari vans around a pack of lions. If you have the right guide, he’ll know how to avoid human herds. Staying in the Mara means being eco-conscious. Power is turned off after 10PM and guests are asked to be mindful of water consumption. Tip:Travel light! If your bags are too big or heavy you might not be able to bring them on smaller chartered planes.

Day 6: Melting in Mombasa I ended my trip at the Indian Ocean coastal city Mombasa. Long a crossroads for trade between Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia, Mombasa pulses with a variety of cultural influences.The food especially leans toward delicious curries and more, dare I say, Moroccan-esque dishes.

The Serena Beach Hotel and Spa keeps this feeling alive by replicating the winding lanes and colorful market places of a traditional 13th century Swahili town. At its heart lies the coral- built “Fortress of Tranquillity” and Maisha Mind, Body and Spirit Spa. After a blissful 45-minute treatment, I found a comfy chaise longue to soak in the sun and ocean breezes. Soon, a camel strode by on the beach mounted by man offering rides. I reached for my phone to send a TweetPic but stopped … sometimes enjoying the moment in a “1.0” way is all you need.


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