Originally, we weren’t planning to visit Kenya at all. We were planning our honeymoon in Tanzania, with a few days on safari followed by a few days of beach time in Zanzibar. After finding tours that started in Nairobi and visited both the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti, I started to think about whether we could realistically add on Kenya to our trip – and after our wedding and subsequently the honeymoon kept being delayed, the decision was made: f*ck it. Let’s make up for it and do both.
And so it was that our honeymoon started in Nairobi, unfortunately not our favourite place we’ve ever visited, and a destination we perhaps should have planned better to make the most of our time there.
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We did, however, accidentally book a 5-star hotel – the start to a honeymoon anyone would want, right? I booked it thinking it looked like a very nice hotel, and it was only afterwards when I looked at it that I went, “wait a sec… this is a FIVE STAR hotel…!?!” And it only cost about £100 per night, so unreal value.
Not that it should be a surprise, but the Sarova Stanley is one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. We loved it and it really made our time in Nairobi special.
I will write more about Nairobi at the end, because we didn’t have the best experience (nothing drastic, don’t worry), and I don’t want to taint this post with negativity right at the start when we had such a wonderful time in Kenya as a whole.
We arrived late, having landed just after 10pm. I was impressed by Nairobi airport – within an hour of landing, we were in a taxi on our way to the hotel. We were also really impressed with KLM, including the pilot who insisted he’d make up time when we left late, the food was some of the best we’ve had on a flight, and the connection in Amsterdam airport was the easiest connection we’ve ever tried to do. Which was reassuring, as we left Edinburgh late and had *very* little time to make the connection.
And then there were the views from the plane. We had everything – the Austrian alps, the Greek islands, the African desert, and we even flew over the Balkan coast, where I could literally pinpoint Kotor Bay and Dubrovnik. I took a photo of Dubrovnik, because hilariously my best friend happened to be there right at that moment! What are the chances? (What made it an even weirder coincidence: it was his second time abroad ever.)
And then, just as the desert views were giving way to evening, we experienced our first African sunset… on the wrong side, but still, how amazing is this?!
Honestly, as long-haul flights go, this is one of the best we’ve done. Followed immediately by one of the best hotels.
Sarova Stanley hotel
The Sarova Stanley is steeped in history, charm and character. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Africa, really. Named after HM Stanley, who travelled to Africa in search of Dr Livingstone (“Dr Livingstone, I presume…?”), this was Kenya’s first ever hotel.
Plus the restaurant downstairs has a tree in the middle, which is where travellers through Africa historically would leave notes for each other. They have a noticeboard up now for people to leave messages to this day. Such a great idea!
Everyone was so friendly, and one of the waitresses, Peris, was even sad on our last day that she wouldn’t see us again! We ended up having lunch there on our one full day, and I had a delicious traditional Kenyan beef stew. It was so good!
With our brief introduction to Kenya over, it was time to switch to safari mode. Here’s what we got up to during our time on safari in Kenya!
Day 1 – driving to the Maasai Mara
In the morning, we were picked up by someone from our safari company, and taken to a street somewhere to be loaded surreptitiously into a van, our home for the next three days.
We were joined by four other people – an American girl, a Chinese girl living in Vancouver, and a German couple, all in their 20’s and we all got on great immediately. It was blatantly a backpacking group, and even though it was our honeymoon, we were absolutely fine with that. After all, backpacking has been a huge part of our relationship, so it seemed appropriate to go back to our roots before hitting “real” honeymoon territory.
Plus it was great spending a couple of days with people on the same wavelength as us. Everyone wanted to see the same things, everyone was happy to stay out as long as we wanted, and everyone was sensible (well hey, you never know with these backpacker types. ;)) Our driver, Felix, was lovely too. Just an all-round good group of people.
The Maasai Mara is around a six hour drive from Nairobi, meaning day one was a slog to get there. It was an interesting drive seeing rural Kenya between the city and the Maasai villages, and we watched countless farmers herding cattle alongside the road, donkeys pulling carts, people selling corn, and to my delight, entire families of baboons appeared! I lost count of how many kids I waved to.
We also stopped at a viewpoint over the Rift Valley, which despite being hazy still gave us nice views. There were some good souvenir shops, which would be our only chance really to buy any souvenirs in Kenya. I bought a tiny dish with elephants on, and managed to haggle down from 800KES to 600KES. (Haggling is expected, but it’s been a while since I’ve had to do it!)
By the time we turned off onto a gravel track for the final hour of our journey, I wondered how much time we would actually get today to see anything.
Just as I wondered that, a frigging giraffe appeared out of nowhere. And then another one! We weren’t even in the park yet!!! And there’s just a giraffe sauntering by the side of the road. And several zebra! I was BUZZING.
We arrived at our eco camp, another budget option we had chosen deliberately to have two very different safari experiences. We didn’t quite go for open camps with basic tents, but more a built-up tented camp with beds and brick surrounds. If I’m not describing it very well (which I’m not), here’s a photo of ours.
We stayed at Miti Mingi Eco Camp, around five minutes from the entrance to the Maasai Mara park. It was a perfect location and although it was basic compared to a lodge, I was really impressed with what we got – a double bed, electricity in the evenings and our own private bathroom and shower. What more do you need?
With an hour of downtime to settle in and change our clothes and “ready up”, it was time for our first ever safari!
We headed into the park, and immediately saw… a dog. Just a dog, trotting over towards some zebra. Not quite what I had in mind, I have to say.
Patches of impala and zebra gave way to herds of wildebeest and the odd buffalo. We headed down one road in search of giraffes and immediately found three all together!
Minutes later, we sped off in search of something where a few vans were gathered – and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Elephants!! Actual wild elephants! I’d have been thrilled enough with one or two, but there was an entire herd, right there in front of us. Including two babies!! I almost cried. Ultimate safari dream complete.
That was it. An hour in and all I needed now was a lion and a lion cub some time over the next week, and I would be happy.
As we headed back towards camp, we suddenly veered off the road (a common thing in the Mara, it seems – discussion on that will be coming another time) and ticked off one of those. Three lionesses laying in the middle of the bush!
I was really surprised by how close we were able to get. However, the lions seemed completely unbothered by our presence.
It was an amazing end to the first day, especially considering we’d only been out on safari for a couple of hours! However in a surprise twist of events, it ended with a massive thunderstorm, and I think everyone was keen to get out of the park before it started.
Back at camp, we enjoyed a basic buffet dinner as the rain hammered down – never did I expect to experience a thunderstorm in Africa! (If you think I had Toto – Africa in my head, you’re absolutely right.)
Read more about our safari: 50 Photos From Our Dream African Safari Honeymoon
Day 2 – full day safari & hot air balloon
If I thought the mere two hours of day one were good, boy was I in for a treat on day 2.
…not that it felt like that when our alarms went off at 3.45 in the bloody morning.
Bleary-eyed, we pulled some clothes on and headed out to a car waiting to take us to a very posh lodge that we would be jealous that we weren’t staying at, and more importantly, the field next to it from which several hot air balloons would be ascending into the sky just in time for sunrise.
Booking the hot air balloon ride was a fairly last minute decision, and one that I had to really persuade Ash to agree to. He hates anything with heights, so a hot air balloon is not exactly his idea of fun. It was also incredibly expensive ($440 per person, which is at least double what it costs in, say, Cappadocia in Turkey) so I didn’t want to spend that money on something that he was going to hate every second of. Ultimately, we decided it would be worth it. We might only ever do one hot air balloon ride in our lives, and where better than over the African savannah looking out for herds of wildlife? And if we can’t splurge on something like that on our honeymoon, when would we?
Surprisingly, the two girls on our tour also booked hot air balloon rides! The German couple didn’t though – they’re true backpackers.
We were assigned to Mutra, a Turkish pilot who, funnily enough, used to fly balloons in Cappadocia.
I don’t know what I expected a hot air balloon ride to be like, but I was surprised by the complete silence. Other than when hot air was being blown, it was a serene experience floating above the savannah in whatever direction the wind would take us. Even Ash had to admit it was peaceful. (Unsure if his heart rate agreed with him.)
Unfortunately the two girls weren’t in the same balloon as us, but there were around twelve of us in the basket, which was split into four sections. I expected it to be completely open, but there wasn’t really any room to move! I guess that’s probably a good thing.
We watched as the sun rose majestically behind us over the African savannah, and then looked down and saw a hyena dragging a carcass along the ground. A beautiful moment. Herds of zebra moved below us, and an ostrich wandered elegantly through the grass. We saw a couple of giraffes and a herd of elephants in the distance, but other than that it was just taking in the scene of the balloons around us and seeing the African plains from a whole new angle. It was wonderful.
I’d been hoping to see wildebeest crossing the Mara river, but that was all forgotten on the journey, so I wasn’t disappointed when we didn’t.
Eventually, we landed in the middle of nowhere, and I wondered how we would be found. And what would happen if a lion appeared after we landed??? Thankfully a question that never needed answering, and only some zebra and antelope surrounded us, before several trucks arrived to take us to breakfast.
A champagne breakfast, no less.
Landing, by the way, was a mess. We dragged along the ground at an unnerving angle for an indeterminable amount of time until the basket eventually tipped over onto its side and we had to crawl out. Apparently depending on the conditions, sometimes you have to get IN this way and then get lifted up with the balloon. Err, I’m not sure Ash would have even got into the basket if that had happened! Anyway it was all rather hilarious with everyone laughing except for the poor old Indian lady next to us who had no idea which way was up after that.
Unbelievably, the best was yet to come, and the drive to breakfast was my favourite drive yet. We followed a hyena running along the road, and once again we veered off towards… two male lions. We stopped quite a distance from them, but nevertheless they were now walking towards us. I was filming them but stopped as I was actually quite scared at this point because they came so close that I could touch them, and the vehicle was fairly open. I could see the flies on them.
We all held our breaths as they walked round the back of our truck and off into the distance. An absolutely amazing experience – and one we were about to repeat!!
We turned around to get back onto the road – but the lions were about to cross it! So they crossed right in front of the truck again, which I did film this time even though they weren’t quite as close.
It was then with horror that we realised that the breakfast was barely a minute away. As we got out of the car, we could still see the lions walking, thankfully in the opposite direction. It was a slightly nerve wracking feeling, but if they don’t want to join us for free sausages, more fool them. Luckily we were sat a few tables down too, so the lions would have to get through the first four tables first. I think we’d be safe.
To my delight, after an excellent breakfast with glasses of champagne, we all got flying certificates! I am a sucker for anything childish, so this was right down my alley. Unfortunately we did get a photo with the pilot and our certificates but the person who took our photo didn’t press the button properly so it didn’t work.
After finishing our drinks and ridiculous chat with two English guys, it was time to head back and re-join our group. The German couple had had a private safari for the past couple of hours, so quite a bonus for them. The Canadian girl had seen a hunt on the way back from her balloon!! We didn’t see a single hunt on our entire trip. It really goes to show you never know what you’re going to see.
We had a slight hiccup on the way – after stopping to watch a giraffe right beside the road, we came across a van lodged in the mud. After the thunderstorm, a lot of the roads were waterlogged (yep, not what we expected in Africa!) and we had a couple of near misses ourselves. We stopped for a while to try and help them out, and another truck even rammed it from behind several times, but nothing was working, and we left them for the lions. I hope I’m joking.
Eventually, after a risky drive through a stream and up a steep, muddy bank where I literally had to close my eyes and hope for the best, we got back to our group, who were stopped near a bull elephant. A great place to get out of the van, truly. Before I could even take a photo of the elephant, we were off. They’d clearly waited long enough.
It had been an exhilarating morning already, and now we were in for a full day of driving, which I have to admit is very full on. However, and I cannot stress this enough, the day could not have been better!
We saw loads more elephants, baboons, warthogs (including BABY PUMBAAS which were adorable as they ran through the grass!), vultures, mongeese (mongooses?), yet more hyenas, giraffes crossing the road in front of us, a rare serval cat, and a completely random tortoise.
There were also endless (ENDLESS!) herds of zebra, wildebeest, antelope and impala, to the point we barely even paid attention to them after a while (imagine!).
We stopped at the Mara river for a guided walk with an armed ranger, and within a minute we had seen hippos and crocodiles! Not something I had expected to see at all, and slightly scary walking up to a river full of crocs.
From there came two more highlights. We had seen a cheetah earlier from a distance, but now one (most likely the same one) appeared again. She walked RIGHT past us!
Then we spotted a load of vans congregated in one spot, so off we went to see what was occurring. Everyone had cameras pointed towards the trees, so we guessed it must be a leopard – but where? Someone pointed out a tail that blended in with the branches, and through binoculars and zoom lenses, we discovered it was indeed a leopard, however how anyone spotted it in the first place is beyond me!
After some time and patience, the leopard finally moved from behind the leaves and stretched itself down the middle of the tree. I was absolutely delighted, and on our way back to camp we stopped for some of the best photo opportunities of elephants yet, as well as ostriches and plenty of the “usual suspects” – but the wildlife wasn’t over yet.
While we were opening our tent, several monkeys appeared out of nowhere and stole my banana!
You couldn’t make it up.
One of them even had a tiny baby hanging onto her, and I got a great photo of them, complete with banana.
My journal entry for day 2 begins “today was long, but when it’s one of the best days of your life, you don’t mind if it lasts a big longer” – which I think sums it up very well indeed.
Day 3 – Maasai village visit & back to Nairobi
We were up bright and early on day 3 to visit the Maasai tribe in the village we were staying in. I was, let’s say, apprehensive about this. Any type of tourist experience where the locals are expected to perform can go one of two ways – it’s either an authentic experience or a total tourist trap. I’d say this was a mix of both – clearly very touristy, but also really interesting, and the money goes towards helping the 200 Maasai villages in the area.
We were welcomed with a dance and encouraged to join in, which was both awkward and fun! We were given traditional dress to wear over our clothes while we were prancing around.
One thing I found a bit strange is that you always see photos of one person jumping with the group… with us, it was a chaotic free-for-all with another tour group, and a massive, awkward group photo at the end. Firstly, I’m the only person looking at my camera because there were so many! However I do really like this photo because Ash is being asked if he’s a Maasai because he’s so tall!
Afterwards, we were shown around the village. The houses are made with sticks and mud, and are rebuilt every nine years – these current ones are seven years old now. They take 3-4 months to build, and normally they would move to a new location each time, but they have decided they will stay here now.
About twenty families live in the village, so they have to marry outside the village, but men are allowed to have more than one wife so I feel this increases the chances of accidental incest, surely? They asked Ash how many wives he has and he said just the one, but it’s been less than a year so give him time!
We had the opportunity to go inside one of the houses, which had a kitchen and living area in the middle, with a nook on each side for the parents to sleep one side, and the children in the other. This house was for a family of seven, so five children tucked in the one side of the house!
There’s also an area at the front for some animals to come in at night, and I remarked that they’re very similar to old Scottish blackhouses – it even smelled like one! There were other similarities too – each family wears a different pattern, just like clans in Scotland, and some of them even wear tartan.
Lots of the older men had their ears stretched, which is becoming less common now that the children go to school. There are other “decorative” traditions too, like scars on their arms or missing teeth. And to think some people don’t like tattoos!
At the end of the tour, you have the opportunity to buy jewellery, which felt like a bit of a hard sell, and there was a circle of stalls that the women ran with locally-made ornaments. I bought a beaded bowl, as I’d wanted something in the Maasai style, for 500KES (about £3.50), and Ash bought a unique necklace.
So the jury’s out on whether it’s a tourist trap or a genuine cultural attraction, but the truth is, it’s been life-changing for the Maasai tribes. We actually asked if they mind having visitors, and our guide said no, because the proceeds from these tour groups have meant that a school has been built in the village. In fact I noticed another school on our drive back which said it was funded by various organisations, and it made me realise just how much charities really do, seeing the results of their work in real life.
Sadly that marked the end of our whole tour, which left me a bit confused as I thought we were meant to have one more game drive before heading back to Nairobi. Nevertheless we saw plenty more zebra on our way back!
It was another long drive back, and after lunch we swapped cars as our tour mates were all continuing on to other parks on the tour. We’d chosen the shortest option of a 3 day tour, but in all honesty it was really a one day safari with a couple of hours extra on the first day. If you’re only doing a safari in Kenya, I’d recommend a longer one, or visiting other parks such as Lake Nakuru or Amboseli.
It suited us fine though, as we had another four days coming up in Tanzania!
We stayed at a slightly less luxurious hotel before our travel to Tanzania the following day, and I went to go for a walk just around the block, and err, the hotel security told me it wasn’t a good idea!
So that brings us nicely back to our overarching experience of Nairobi.
So… about Nairobi.
Before the safari, we had one full day in Nairobi, and for once I had messed up. We’d booked a driver to take us to the Sheldrick elephant orphanage and the nearby giraffe centre, and about a month before our trip I realised I hadn’t booked entrances to either place. I looked up the elephant orphanage, and it was completely sold out. For the rest of the year.
I contacted the people I’d booked with (the same company that we also did the Maasai Mara safari with, so it wasn’t a complete cancellation on them) and they helpfully said they would look out for cancellation tickets, however the reason it’s so hard to get hold of tickets is that larger tour companies bulk-book them. Sadly we never did manage to get hold of any, so we cancelled our day out and settled on a day in Nairobi instead, to see some of our surroundings and have a quiet day to settle in to our trip.
Unfortunately, it was Sunday, which meant it was really quiet. I don’t think we’d have had quite the same experience if we’d tried to explore Nairobi on another day. The problem was, as soon as we walked down the street, people approached us begging for money. This isn’t usually something that would bother me, and whether it was the lack of travel in the past few years that’s made me forget how to deal with this, or I was just keeping my guard up because it was our first day and I didn’t want everything to go wrong right at the start, it was relentless to the point we felt uncomfortable and almost unsafe. I had to watch my bag instead of where I was going as people tugged on my arms and clothes, and I kept smiling and saying no. At one point, we had to stop walking because we were surrounded by an entire family. It was, frankly, overwhelming.
I took two photos in Nairobi, and then we decided to go back to the hotel.
I feel awful writing about this as I know so many people who have had wonderful experiences in Nairobi and I felt almost naive, like I was a new traveller who didn’t know how to deal with these situations. Maybe we were too tired to firmly walk away from them without knowing where we were going. I feel like if it had been busier, the people bothering us wouldn’t have been so intense, as they wouldn’t have *only* had us to approach. That was the problem. We were the only people on the street, so they swarmed to us the second we appeared. I think we just didn’t expect to be the only tourists!
For what it’s worth, this didn’t happen at all when we were back in Nairobi – very briefly – at the end of our safari, when the streets were much busier. Before our bus to Tanzania, I went for a quick walk and nobody approached me. People even smiled and said hello on their way past. So I do really think we just got unlucky. “Unlucky” in the best way, of course, because nothing actually happened to us.
However, even outside of Nairobi the hawkers could be a lot, but at least they’re selling things. At the border, we piled back onto the bus after being stamped into Tanzania, and our bus was surrounded by women knocking on the windows and shoving jewellery into our faces. They only left me alone when I completely ignored them. Telling them no only encouraged them because the interaction meant we had acknowledged them and they could carry on. Honestly, though? I could deal with that!
I don’t want our entire experience of Nairobi to seem negative, so I’ll tell you about my favourite thing: watching the local buses. They are all completely insane, and I don’t think I saw a single one that didn’t look like it’s falling apart! A lot of them have mad murals on them too; we saw loads of Chelsea FC ones (??? Do they have a Kenyan player?), lots of music-themed ones, WWE wrestling ones… they were nuts!
There were also platforms on many of the street corners with elevated seats, and it turned out these were for shoe shining – big business, it seems! I think these would make for a fantastic documentary premise. Again, on our full day in Nairobi all of these were closed and empty; as we drove out of the city, they were all full and busy. It really goes to show the difference on the day we chose to explore.
So although we definitely did not make the most of our time in Nairobi, I’m glad I at least managed to make a few observations before we left.
And as for the rest of our short time in Kenya – well, nothing can take away from how incredible it was!
USEFUL INFO ABOUT THE SAFARI
We booked our safari with Explorers Wild Adventures, through safaribookings.com where you can compare thousands of safari companies and request quotes. For this one, we chose a shared tour with camp, however there were options to upgrade to a lodge. Because we were doing a private safari with fancy accommodation in Tanzania, we just went for the cheapest, partly because I was curious about what the different experiences would be like!
The 3 day safari cost $295 per person, including all accommodation and food, but excluding tips (recommended $10pp per day for drivers, $15 per night for accommodation), the Maasai village tour ($10pp), the balloon ride ($440pp) and any other spending money.
If there’s anything else you’d like to know about our safari experience, please just ask in the comments below!
Stay tuned for a full write-up on our Tanzania safari!
In the meantime, you can check out 50 of my favourite photos from our safaris in this post.