We peered at the map in frustration – once again, a T-junction turned out to be a crossroad, and the tyre marks headed in the opposite direction. “Not so much a vague map as a misleading one,” my father remarked of the hand-drawn map we had been given at our lodge a couple of hours earlier. It looked good, but it most certainly took liberties with distances and turnings. After some deliberation, we settled for a road that wasn’t on the map, but seemed to be heading in the right direction, and after a couple of miles were rewarded with a view of Elerai camp.
Located within its own conservation area, Elerai is a community lodge just east of Amboseli national park. The location is fabulous – on one side, it has sweeping views of the national park, and to the other an unbeatable view of Mt Kilimanjaro. The dining area looks down onto a small watering hole, which sees a profusion of game, such as elephant, giraffe, eland and buffalo. The accommodation, a mixture of stone cottages and tents, were particularly lovely, with good all-round views.
Admittedly, we weren’t sure we wanted to be located outside of the park – it is a 30-minute drive to Kimana gate – but its beautiful seclusion is a reason to visit Elerai in its own right. It is also one of the more affordable camps in the area, costing around Ksh 11,500 per person full-board.
Our first evening, we spent exploring Elerai’s own conservancy, a wilderness area in its own right with a elephant, antelope and giraffe all easy to spot. We ended up in our own vehicle as the camp has only a couple of vehicles for guests (book early!), which meant we perhaps didn’t see as much as we might otherwise have. But the next morning, we headed early for Amboseli and were rewarded with elephants wading through marshes against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro, hippo and of course a plethora of birdlife.
Is it better to stay in Amboseli itself? If you favour quieter spots, then probably not. The lodges outside are often more secluded, and in some cases only a few minutes’ drive from the Kimana gate. There are of course some top-end lodges in the park itself, but the most boutique of those get booked up quickly.
My brother-in-law was adamant. “Happy with pretty much everything,” he told my husband, who was presenting various holiday options over the Easter break, “except camel trekking.”
I mentally crossed the camels off the list, but then heard my husband say, “Oh, but it’s not camel trekking as you know it. With this one, you walk alongside the camels – they just carry your bags. And perhaps the children.”
A few weeks later, the camels were bearing us all, and after an hour of the jerky ride my coccyx was a throbbing hub of pain. But looking around at the Laikipia landscape as two young elephants, apparently abandoned, plodded alongside us, I thought this is really not that bad.
My stints on the camel were mercifully brief – while one parent always had to ride with our youngest, my husband mostly stepped up to the plate. And my sister’s family, including my reluctant brother-in-law, seemed reasonably content astride his sulky beast, while the kids were happiest of all. The only slightly tricky moments were during the descent, when the animal drops in several stages to the ground, pushing its passenger precipitately close to the edge.
Contrary to our first rather luxurious experience with camels, this trip with Bobong, a camel safari outfit run by hardy Laikipians John and Amanda Perrett out of Rumuruti, had fewer of the glamping aspects about it. But as I sank into my camp chair at our first bush camp with a can of beer, I found I didn’t mind that at all. An experienced team cooked up a hearty supper for us, and our kids meanwhile acquainted themselves with the tents and intricacies of the bush shower. When night fell, we climbed tiredly into our camp beds, which were surprisingly very comfortable.
Our second day took us on another long walk – most of which I spent on my own two feet – and we took the children to a dam for a swim, although lack of rain meant it was probably closer to a mud bath. If our guide was picking up rocks to throw at elephant on our way back to camp, we tried not to notice.
Our final night was the most exciting of all. Lion, having picked up the scent of the camels, stalked the camp all night, and bushfires were lit to keep them away. As we inspected their paw prints the next morning, I was glad I hadn’t known any of this at the time. After a fruitless struggle the night before, I had quite given up trying to pull the zipper down on our tent. We might have been easy prey indeed.
Cost-wise, the trip ended up costing each family around Ksh 35,000 a night inclusive of food and wine. While two nights was probably our limit with children, the Perretts offer a range of camel safari options from both Rumuruti and Soysambu, including treks lasting several weeks. Many guests choose to walk rather than ride the camels.
I think I’ve found perhaps the most expensive house in Kenya. Correction – the most expensive house when you are bringing your own food. By my goodness, is it worth it.
Over the Easter holidays, we joined two other families at Olerai on Lake Oloiden, barely separated these days from the larger Lake Naivasha. While the house is sometimes available per room, by far the nicest way to enjoy this beautiful property is to take it on an exclusive basis with none but your friends and a collection of zebra, giraffe and antelope to share your oasis.
At Ksh 100,000 a night, the price nearly made me weep. Split three ways, it wasn’t nearly so painful, but there was still the food (and the temptations of the nearby farm shop) to contend with in our budget.
Set in acres of exceptionally green and well-watered grounds, where ponies and plains game roam free, Olerai is a beauty. The Douglas-Hamilton family, who live on the same conservancy, have created a gorgeous and colourful house with decadent rolls of Indian fabric, arresting paintings and a very liberal use of paint.
The six rooms – four doubles, another room with four singles, and a sixth with three singles – are each so individual and lovely in style that you can safely ditch that urge to arrive ahead of your fellow guests to bag the best room. But the highlight is the grounds – an expanse of lawn merging into grazing where the beasts get close enough to nibble on the creepers tangling around the house.
At night, the hippos roam up close to the house but are fortunately fended off by a wispy roll of electric fencing. With a good torch, the night-time viewing is almost as good as that during the day.
The house is as bit further from the main attractions than most other lodgings on the lake, with the Hell’s Gate entrance a 40-minute drive away, and the well-stocked La Pieve farmshop a 25-minute drive along a rutted, dirt road. But that’s no matter if what you really want is some true solitude in extraordinarily peaceful and beautiful surroundings – that you’ll get at Olerai.
On the same conservancy are two other lovely properties – the Studio, and the three-bedroomed Dairy, both of them an explosion of colour too. All guests can use the main pool, situated next to the owner’s home, Sirocco. Eggs and sometimes milk are available from the management, as well as ready-cooked meals. All houses come with a cook on request. Guests are charged a daily conservancy fee (Ksh 1,500 per adult) on top of the house rental.
For bookings, contact Catherine on firstname.lastname@example.org
When Captain Hamed sauntered up to us at breakfast one morning, he seemed so experienced – and so reassuring. Dolphins and snorkelling – hell, yeah! But the next day, I wasn’t feeling so sure. It turned out that not only did our “captain” not have his own boat, but his other promises fell short too. The boat that he did hire had no lifejackets for our children, refreshments or any of the other things that he had promised. It was a less than auspicious beginning.
From our starting point in Shimoni, we motored out for about 90 minutes (after we picked up buoyancy aids still several sizes too big from a ‘friend’) to the dolphin-spotting area. We were in luck that day, and several dolphins frolicked around the bobbing boats.
Our next destination was to the snorkelling area of the Kisite Marine Park – a shallow and glorious spot for sighting all sorts of colourful sealife and, if you’re lucky, turtles. It was here that the lack of tiny buoyancy aids was most noticeable, as our youngest children could only snorkel while holding onto an ageing lifebuoy.
Still, there was the much raved-about crab lunch to look forward to. Except that it turned out that our fee didn’t include crab. Hamed did finally persuade them to provide a few claws, but it was a far cry from our lovely seafood banquet on the island of Funzi a couple of days before.
I admit that I am not selling this trip very well. But I do know that I am itching to do it again – but this time with a reputable operator. Flicking through the brochures back at the beach house, I saw the company Pilli Pipa selling the same trip for a similar price, but with drinks and snacks on board, and an all-frills lunch with crab, wine and beer in a private garden. I know where I’ll be putting my money next time.
Thanks to a last-minute cancellation by other guests, we recently found ourselves at Jinchini, an old-style coastal house in Msambweni. From Diani, where we had stayed the previous few nights, it was just a short hop south. The beach itself is lovely – all the more so because it is mostly lined by private houses, giving it a more intimate and peaceful feel that its more popular neighbours to the north.
Jinchini, the beach home of the Orr family, is an old-fashioned stalwart with homely appeal, a large garden and direct beach access. When I think of Kenyan beaches, my mind drifts to Watamu or Diani, but Msambweni really deserves to be more popular than it is. It is a long stretch of golden sand with lots of pools and shallow swimming at low tide, and there is almost a complete absence of pestering beach boys.
That said, it’s worth investing in anti-malarials this far south – on a trip a few years previously, my husband picked up malaria, a reminder that not all of the coast is malaria-free. Sand flies can also be a nuisance, making it wise to slather on insect repellent. Even with all that, it remains one of my favourite beaches in Kenya.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure of what to expect at Jinchini. We had been staying at a much more upmarket resort further up the coast, and the cost of a three or four nights at Jinchini was equivalent to a night for a family elsewhere. Surely there had to be a reason it was so reasonably priced, I wondered. The reason is, I suspect, that Msambweni doesn’t spring to mind when it comes to a coast holiday – it remains very undeveloped and is that bit further from the nearest airport in Ukundu. I would strongly argue, however, that it should be on everyone’s list.
The house itself was built many years ago, and is much simpler than the newer, rather chic houses built further up the coast. For me, the simplicity is part of the charm. It feels like I’m returning to a family home, and not a fancy hotel where I look around in terror every time my toddler picks up a breakable object.
The owners have made various improvements added over the years. The rooms are fairly unadorned – oldish furniture, single beds pushed together to make a double, showers that could do with upgrading – but for us, it was just what we were looking for. Kassim, the house manager, runs a tight ship, and the cook rustled up delicious seafood dishes. Helpfully, the owners’ information pack, suggests recipes that they know he can do well.
Our young kids spent considerable time on the beach, or in the pool situated away from the sea on a terrace above the house. It also provided us with a very convenient base for exploring the south coast islands, meaning that our five nights at Jinchini really felt much too short. A night at Jinchini costs around Ksh 20,000.
When I think of Sabache, I think of the night that could have been. Friends visiting from the States invited us to join them on a trip to northern Kenya. We had heard many good things about Sabache, a community-run budget camp in the shadow of Mt Ololokwe, and started to enquire. I contacted reservations and arranged for our two-night stay. All done. Nothing more to do. Or so I thought.
Dusk was approaching when we arrived at Sabache – Google maps took us a bit off course – and the staff greeted our two families in a friendly enough matter. The niggling worry began when they showed my husband and I, and our three children, to our room – a large tented dormitory at the back of the camp with basic single wooden beds, some with nets, some without.
This didn’t seem right, but nevertheless, we went to have a quick look at where our friends were staying – it was the most beautifully situated of the ensuite safari tents, overlooking a gorge with its own verandah. But, wait! Hadn’t we booked at the same time? Weren’t we paying the same price? Hadn’t we asked for a safari tent, too? Why did we end up with a DORM?
My efforts to explain all this to management fell on deaf ears. The tents were all taken, they said, and we hadn’t booked. But I HAD, I cried (almost, ok, actually in tears at this point), look at my emails, I said. Problem was, I had liaised with an offsite reservations department based somewhere outside of Kenya, and between them and the lodge, the booking had apparently got lost. As it happened, there was one tent available, the beleaguered manager explained, but the guests, a family of five just like us, still hadn’t arrived. But it’s late, and they’re not here, I began, couldn’t we…? Nope.
Defeated, we sloped off to our camp bunks, our friends to their lovely double bed and a view. My mood was somewhat improved come morning, although it was on the verge of deteriorating when I learned that the guests in the one empty tent never did arrive the previous evening.
At which point the young female manager paused. Could the other guests, she said tentatively, have been you?
Oh God, no. I cast my mind back to my booking. I had used my maiden name to make it as – much to my husband’s dismay – my email, my passport, my bank cards, all of them remain in my maiden name. When we arrived at Sabache, we gave them our married name – and somehow none of us made the connection.
Despite that inauspicious start, Sabache did grow on me. The lodge sits in a thoroughly beautiful location overlooking the Matthews Range, quintessentially northern Kenya, and we were quickly moved into our new family tent. The Samburu guides kept us entertained with learning how to make fire and take part in makeshift games. The food was simple, tasty fare - perhaps a little too simple for my husband, who maintains a long-standing aversion to beans.
And if you are travelling as a large group, then I must confess that the dorm is actually very decent, and the beds perfectly comfortable. Looking at another guest’s photo of the dorm online to remind myself of how it looked, I thought, “Gosh, that’s really quite lovely.” I guess it’s all about one’s expectations.
I don’t like to think of myself as someone who can only stay in luxury places. After all, as a gap year traveller in India, I saw my share of manky mattresses speckled with blood – presumably from bedbugs – and worse. Sometimes I was lucky to have a bed at all. As I have got older, my expectations have risen, but sadly I don’t have the salary to match my now-exacting standards. So I’m perpetually on the hunt for lovely and quirky places that don’t break the bank. Of which Kamboyo Guest House is one.
The Kenya Wildlife Service has a variety of accommodation, varying quite substantially in standard, probably dependent on the tourism traffic it receives. In Rumo, for instance, a little-visited national park in Western Kenya, the house is so dingy and run-down that I’d have to be pretty desperate to stay there. But I was very pleasantly surprised when we decided to stay at Kamboyo (sometimes called Komboyo), a former warden’s home, in Tsavo West.
First off, its location. It boasts its very own watering hole, frequented by large and small game alike. Secondly, it is airy and spacious with four bedrooms, sleeping nine, and has a remarkably inviting dining / sitting area with log fires in the evening. Another bonus, in my view, is that it’s just 10 minutes from the Mtito Andei gate, so after a long drive there isn’t much further to go.
We have stayed here on several occasions in the past few years, most recently last month on the way back from the coast. It has its downsides – the mosquito nets and frames are flimsy and barely fit for purpose; its kitchen is a little difficult to work with thanks to a lack of small pots and a fridge that doesn’t close; and at certain times of year, the insects can be a nuisance.
But it’s terrific value for money – Ksh 15,000 a night, easily sleeping two families – and has a very convivial communal area and is a superb sundowner spot in its own right. Book through KWS reservations.
Tel: 0726 610 533
Lockdown dashed our plans to stay at Kinondo Kwetu on Kenya’s south coast last Easter. I was gutted to cancel. It had never been on our watchlist, but visiting friends from South Africa invited us to join them there, and as I read up on the lodge, I relished the possibility more and more.
But surely it would cost an arm and a leg, I realised, as I looked at their rates. But to our surprise, they had a stand-alone house, the residence of the Swedish owners when in the country, at a fraction of the cost of the main hotel. At that time, it was Ksh 24,000 a night, a steal when compared to other coastal villas. (Sadly, that rate is no longer available, and it now costs Ksh 44,000 a night.)
We finally rebooked it for December, and packed our car and kids for the long drive down to Kinondo, which sits round the headland from Galu beach. As the manager reeled off the list of activities we could do – from horse riding along the beach to morning yoga to tennis on a floodlit court – I found myself wondering when we would get any downtime.
But downtime we got – in this lovely, lovely lodge right on the beach, the rooms, dining areas and pool spread out over the huge property. Although the lodge was full when we stayed, it is pretty small in terms of beds and never felt busy. There was enough room to barely make eye contact with the other guests, even when it seemed we spent hours in the pool, a large chunk of it pleading with our seven-year-old to get out NOW.
We haven’t done a whole lot of beachfront activities with our kids on previous holidays – when I arrive at the coast, an apathy steals over me, and I rarely raise my eyes from my book. This time, I took my eldest daughter for her first “free” canter along the beach, waded our horses into deepish waters and played an uninspiring game of tennis with my middle child. The highlight was a roughly 90-minute sail in a galowa, a traditional trimaran from Tanzania, where the kids were towed along. “What’s the word for when you’re both excited and scared?” asked Rosie, my eldest. “Thrilled?” I suggested. After that, everything was thrilling.
Although we had planned to exclusively self cater (well, we did for our kids), we couldn’t resist a grown-up dinner in the hotel, with one night becoming two and so on. Indeed, the food was some of the best I’ve encountered on the coast.
Would we go back? If the price was right, yes. But I fear we may be priced out in future, as travelling with children comes with a hefty additional price tag. But it was fabulous, and I recommend it to those looking to splurge in a place that’s actually worthy of the cost.
FB rates vary from 20,500 pp per night for the cottages to 52,500 pp per night for a larger cottage or superior room. The Alex House costs Ksh 44,000 per night with a mandatory full-board supplement of Ksh 6,500 per adult and Ksh 4,500 per child.
Tel: 0710 898 030
We like driving to the coast – driving back, not so much. Leaving Nairobi, we’re filled with anticipation, our car is fairly clean, and the kids haven’t yet broken out into World War Three. The return journey is a different story – a sand-filled car, food that’s starting to smell, and some seriously disgruntled kids.
While we did hit it straight in our childless days, experience has taught us that a well-timed break makes the journey a little easier to endure, and we have taken some interesting detours off road that make it an adventure in its own right.
Time, on this occasion, was short, however, and we decided to take the journey as directly as possible. There are a few options for overnighting on the route (Kamboyo in Tsavo West – lovely, but self-catering; Nyika Bird Sanctuary – inexpensive with rustic charm, and again self-catering; Voi Wildlife Lodge – big, lacking in soul; Hunters Lodge – a bit too close to Nairobi on the route down with unimpressive food).
This time, we settled on Ngutuni Lodge. It’s a big, rambling lodge, built in the old double-decker style overlooking a watering hole in a private conservancy. In dry season, you might see herds of elephant – but in the wet season, the pickings are slimmer.
Since our last visit, the hotel has been much improved with the addition of a swimming pool, for it was blisteringly hot as we clambered hot and dusty out of car. The rooms are fine and have their own private verandahs, facing, too, towards the watering hole. What it lacks is a central living room area, with the large dining room and platform over the watering hole doubling up as an area for relaxation.
The hotel has been built with tour groups in mind, one suspects, and in pre-Covid times would have played host to safari-goers from overseas. But this time it was quiet, probably for the best when in a moment of desperation we allowed our three children to huddle behind their devices over an early (and quite tasty) dinner.
Non-stop, it takes around between five to six hours to reach the lodge from Nairobi, and is a handy stop-off for both the north and south coast. Cost-wise, it doesn’t break the bank – for a family of five, we paid 22,000 Ksh for B&B.
Tel: 0733 311 141 (for the main office in Mombasa)
Kembu is a super chilled spot just north of Nakuru – all the better for the dearth of decent accommodation in this part of Kenya. The accommodation is situated on a horse breeding farm, and is an eclectic mix of wooden cottages, wagons and newer pied-à-terres.
Little has changed in the years we have visited Kembu. We visited last year when Kenya’s government limited travel for Nairobi-ites to just five counties at the height of the pandemic and so our plans – along with many others’ – to head to the coast at Easter fell through. Kembu was a lovely alternative – we headed up with some friends, and ended up not minding at all about that missed beach holiday.
Perhaps the loveliest of all of the cottages is Beryl’s Cottage, named after intrepid aviator and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham, who spent much of her childhood on the Njoro farm. It’s spacious with bags of charm, and an open-plan kitchen and seating area. Meals invariably take place on the long verandah overlooking its own private lawn.
The other cottages are also charming – although I haven’t seen in all of them – and are of varying sizes to suit their guests’ needs. Not all are as well set up as Beryl’s Cottage though in terms of cooking facilities, so it’s always worth checking that out beforehand. If you decide not to self cater, there is a convivial restaurant and bar area with its own pizza oven where campers and cottage dwellers alike can meet, or meals can be brought to where you are staying.
We had feared that our kids might find it difficult to stay on a horse farm when they couldn’t ride the horses, but just being around them seemed reward enough, and they would spend hours grooming and chatting to them at the nearby stables. We, meanwhile, took ourselves off on walks around the farm, or tried a spot of archery with the kids. There is not a huge number of things to do, but it’s a decent base for day trips, and if you’re just up there for peace and quiet, then it’s really quite perfect.
Prices (without meals included) start at $65 a night for the smaller accommodations, such as Cobb’s Carriage and the Treehouse, going up to around $165 a night for the larger cottages, sleeping four (although extra mattresses can be added).
www.kembucottages.com or Tel: +254 722 361 102
About the Author
I'm a former travel magazine editor, focused on Kenya, before which I covered news in Africa and beyond. These days, I travel with my kids.