From laid-back safaris to more adventurous pursuits, Kenya proffers activities for a magical African escape

Oh no, oh no, oh no!

My heart leaps into my throat as I feel my body flip into the air and see the water rushing up to meet me. I grip the rope and squeeze my hands and face into the rubber of the raft as I slide over the edge, water pounding my body and helmeted head. We are being tossed up and down, and I can hear my fellow travellers shouting as, one by one, they are hurled into the cold waters of the Tana River, the longest in Kenya at 1 000 kilometres.

Then it happens. The raft overturns — twice! — and eventually drifts to a more placid area. I am still holding on. I let out a deep breath and thank the powers-that-be for the life jacket tightly strapped across my body. 

Braving the rapids on the Tana River.
Braving the rapids on the Tana River.

I can’t swim, you see, but venturing to Kenya has brought out the daredevil in me. Before deciding to commit myself to river rafting, I had also, to a lesser extent, confronted my fear of heights by ziplining the breadth of the Tana. As they say in the native language of Swahili, hakuna matata, which roughly translates to ‘no worries’. Here, 

in this country of experiences, I definitely had no worries.

Two hours later, we clamber up the banks to dry ourselves in front of the embers of a fire. The staff at Savage Wilderness Safaris, a company that specialises in adventure activities, have prepared a mouth-watering braai for us and we tuck in voraciously. 

The East-African country of Kenya is situated right on the equator, wedged in the centre of Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Indian Ocean. Due to its geographical location and its diverse topography, the country experiences a variety of climates that include a humid coastline, temperate savannah grasslands, crisp forest areas, and non-arid weather around Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical freshwater lake that occupies Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. over the next few days, we would experience almost all of them.

After surviving the rapids of the Tana, we drive towards the Kenya National Reserve where our living quarters are housed in a timbered tree hotel called Serena Mountain Lodge. Although each of its 41 rooms has its open-air viewing deck that overlooks a watering hole and salt lick, there’s not much time to spot game between enjoying a hot shower, scarfing down a yummy meal, catching some z’s and heading out for our next escapade.

Although less thrilling than speeding down a river in a raft, our activities for the day start off with a visit to Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary located in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki. As we approach, we see electric fences spanning the perimeter of the sanctuary. Not even the guides are allowed to interact with the rescued chimps, who hail from the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa. Some of them even come from as far as Iraq and Dubai. 

Through the fence, we meet two eight-year-old chimps rescued by renowned primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. Like the rest of the chimps who call the sanctuary home, they cannot be released back into the wild. The guide throws peanuts through the wire fencing for the chimps to snack on but they are not pleased when he runs out and, as we leave, his face is greeted by a fistful of dirt for not obliging to their snacking requirements.

On the way to our next port of call, the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, we stop to say hello and feed Baraka, a 22-year-old blind black rhino, and view other game. Zebra, rhino and elephants pass by the vehicle so closely that I could run my hand across their skin if I reach out.

At Fairmont, a four-star estate situated on 40 landscaped hectares, guests can partake in everything from golfing and horseback riding to indulgent spa treatments. Sadly, we are not here for any of those. 

Instead, ours is a more cultural undertaking: An equatorial ceremony.

The equator runs almost directly through the median of Kenya and the club is situated smack-bang in the middle. It is the ideal place to experience the rotating spheres caused by the intersection of the equator. The ceremony itself involves pouring water into bowls on either side of the imaginary line of the equator, and I watch in amazement as the water rotates in completely opposite directions in each bowl. In order to receive our participation certificates, we need to each take part in a ritual chant and dance. It’s loads of fun and evokes screams of laughter from the group.

Engaging in an equatorial ceremony. Photo: © Zainab SvR
Engaging in an equatorial ceremony. Photo: © Zainab SvR

We rise early the next morning to catch a flight to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Our destination: The eco-friendly Karen Blixen Camp. The camp is named for the Danish baroness and author, and utilises solar panels and a green sewage system to ensure visitors can enjoy all the creature comforts of home in a sustainable way.

While I wish I had more time to explore the tented camp with its open-plan lounge area located on the banks of the Mara River, there’s no time to linger. Our group is hoping to catch the annual wildebeest migration from the Serengeti, an occurrence that many travel from far and wide to witness. We pass other visitors hoping for the same but are too late.

On the way back to camp, however, I am cheered up by an incredible scene.

A warthog’s narrow escape from being dinner. At first glance, there’s no hope for the little Pumbaa as he is caught between two lion cubs.

But, surprisingly, the lions are too slow and he manages to run the other way, towards a thicket of trees. Phew!

No trip to the Mara is complete without a visit to a Maasai tribe to learn more about their culture, traditions and lifestyle. It is estimated that the population of this Nilotic ethnic group, who reside in Kenya and Tanzania, currently numbers 841 622 and 800 000, respectively. 

The Maasai live a nomadic way of life with age-old customs and — after performing the adumu, or jumping dance — invite us inside their homes. Clay huts with no windows and the barest of essentials such as kikois (rectangles of woven cloth) and earthenware pots. While the tribe has maintained Maa, their language, and traditional pastoral lifestyle of herding cattle and hunting wild animals, many Maasai in Kenya have also started getting an education and participating in the monetary economy. Those who have gone to school and learnt to speak Swahili often gain employment as guides, security guards and farmers. 

The Maasai people of Kenya live a nomadic, pastoral lifestyle. Photo: © Zainab SvR
The Maasai people of Kenya live a nomadic, pastoral lifestyle. Photo: © Zainab SvR

Although we are sad to leave the plains of the Mara, we are back on a plane the next day, headed to Shimoni, a fishing village located close to the resort town of Diani. The air is stifling — a far cry from the cool mountain air in Nanyuki and not as dry as the Mara — and I immediately start peeling off layers of clothing. 

Just in time, too. We are shuttled on to a boat headed for Wasini Island, which lies three kilometres off the coast of Shimoni. The island is approximately seven kilometres long and three kilometres wide, and is untouched by many modern influences: There are no cars, carts or bicycles; everyone here walks along the paths or via the beaches. As there is no place for our boat to dock, we disembark in smaller groups onto dhows. In a small alcove, we are able to climb out and splash our way through shallow water to shore, where we feast on fresh fish and crab — cracked open by hand — and fruit before heading back to the boat.

Freshly caught crab is steamed and eaten straight from the shell on Wasini Island. Photo: © Zainab SvR
Freshly caught crab is steamed and eaten straight from the shell on Wasini Island. Photo: © Zainab SvR
Fresh melon, oranges, banana and coconut on Wasini Island is served as dessert. Photo: © Zainab SvR
Fresh melon, oranges, banana and coconut on Wasini Island is served as dessert. Photo: © Zainab SvR

I’m elated to be returning to the mainland but it seems that our captain is going in the wrong direction. The water is rough and my stomach churns, reminding me of our time on the Tana.

A guide sees my sickly pallor and offers me a life jacket. It is small and pink with tiny puppies on it

— a kid’s jacket. I quickly strap it on as we come to a standstill, the boat gently rocking back and forth on the waves. 

The rest of the people on the boat all disembark into the water and I patiently wait for my guide. We are going snorkelling but as I can’t swim, he will pull me through the water on a life preserve. I’m slightly embarrassed as I see young kids jumping bravely off the boat and into the ocean but my companions urge me to take my time. 

I pull my mask over my face and climb over the side of the boat. I’m in! Clutching the life preserve, I kick out my feet and stick my head beneath the water above the coral reefs. It’s absolutely beautiful and, with the help of my guide, I submerge myself even more. Fish surround me as i explore the wonderland beneath the waves.

When I come up for air, my fellow travellers are waiting. We all smile as we slowly drift back to the boat. Hakuna matata for another day in magical Kenya.

Flight plan

Kenya Airways offers flights from Cape Town via Livingstone, Zambia, to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Interior flights to the Maasai Mara are offered by SafariLink.

A version of this article first appeared in Edition 3-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.