Travels with camels
Camel trekking is a wonderful way to see Kenya – and is particularly popular in the north. Looking for a more adventurous trip to take with our kids some time ago, we headed to the Laikipia base of Karisia Walking Safaris, an outfit offering the camping “lite” experience to the full-blown luxury expeditions.
Camping – luxury? Oh yes. We started our trip at the Tumaren camp, located in the Laikipia heartlands, and our home for the night. The camp, more of a glamp, is semi-permanent with elegantly-furnished bedrooms, delicious meals and a tented living room open to the wild.
The next day, we were introduced to the camels – surly-looking creatures that deigned to give us a ride. If you’ve ridden camels before, you may agree that they are not the most comfortable mode of transport, so we alternated between camel rides and walking through the wilderness, where plains game strolled, and deadly snakes slithered across our path.
Mid-morning, we stopped for a spot of rock climbing, our young daughter proving more adept than either of her parents at scaling an apparently sheer rockface, before heading to our bush camp on a bend of a river, where we found our tents set up for us and a mess tent erected for lunch.
Elephant crossed the river during the afternoon, and we got closer on foot than we ever had in a vehicle, a viewing all the more enhanced by the solitude and peace as the only ones there.
Not a natural camper, I don’t entirely look forward to a night in a tent, associating it with uncomfortable nights on with paper-thin roll mats, or wet sleeping bags from an invisible leak, but this was quite different. Mattresses, decadently made up with copious bedding, provided a more than comfortable place to lay one’s head, and our children headed to bed with rare excitement.
While we did this trip before the pandemic, little appears to have changed. Karisia offers a full range of camping experiences from the simpler dome tents to more spacious tents. Guests have the option to stay at Tumaren base camp and head out on day trips, including visits to schools, camel creches and a baboon research centre, or take longer walking trips of up to seven days, staying at different camps. The many staff involved in these trips ensure a smooth transition at every point, with camels doubling up as pack animals on the journeys.
Prices start from around $280 per adult per night on a full-board basis for mobile safaris (minimum three nights) or $200 per night if staying at the Tumaren base camp.
Tel: 0721 836 792 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.karisia.com
Kipalo Hills, Mbulia Conservancy
The slog to and from the coast can be just that … a long slog. Particularly with children. Nevertheless, I prefer to drive over taking the plane – it’s much cheaper, for one, but it can also be an incredible road trip. We usually add one or two nights to and from Nairobi – ideally at a half-way point.
A year ago, we stayed at Kipalo Hills on our return to Nairobi. Its location close to Voi means that it isn’t quite halfway back to Nairobi, but it was surely one of the more memorable places at which we’ve stayed.
From our starting point in Kilifi, we drove north to Malindi, and then took the fast, empty and newly-tarmacked road to Sala Gate on the edge of Tsavo East. From there, it’s a beautiful drive along the Galana River to the Manyani gate on the Mombasa Road. Kipalo Hills is an approximately 40-minute drive from the gate back towards Voi.
It’s a beautiful, rugged drive to the lodge itself, which is situated on the slopes of a hill with commanding views towards the Ngulia Hills and Mbulia Conservancy. As a place to stay after a relaxed week at the coast, it was ideal. The lodge was luxurious enough to feel like we were still very much on holiday – the family tent was exceptionally spacious – and a welcoming group staying at the lodge added to the experience.
Very much part of the appeal is the swimming pool with a view, and we enjoyed our sundowner nibbles on the rockery nearby. Sadly, we didn’t take part in any activities for time was short and we wanted to hotfoot it back to Nairobi the following morning. But guests have access to both Tsavo East and West, and can also go fly camping along the Galana or Tsavo rivers.
Its rack rates are now at the higher end, but they do sometimes make special holiday season offers. Until the end of this year, full-board is Ksh 16,000 pp (low season price), sharing, or Ksh 18,000 per single. Children under six go free. From 2022, FB starts at Ksh 18,500 pp sharing, or Ksh 20,700 for a single.
Email: email@example.com or tel +(254) 737 199 870
Sandai positions itself as a place from which to access the eastern Aberdares, which of course it is. But it’s just as much of a destination in its own right if you’re looking for a place to chill and mingle with other guests.
The last time I made the journey, I went with a friend, leaving all but my youngest child behind. Which was perhaps just as well as we managed to get terribly lost during a drive in the Solio conservancy, a good place for spotting rhino. Getting lost with a friend and a baby is a bit of an adventure, but getting lost with children who can understand their predicament is usually frantic.
Situated in farmland to the north of Nyeri, Sandai is a sprawling, wooden farmhouse with eclectically-furnished rooms, communal dining and simple, healthy food provided by German owner, Petra Allmendinger. The farmstead consists of several rustic self-catering guest cottages, and six guest rooms, two of which are within the house itself. The biggest draw – for me – is dining together with other guests. I am hardly a social animal, but I do enjoy the experience, all too rare these days, of sitting round a table with a bunch of strangers and swapping stories.
Last time I was here, I went on a shopping spree at their wonderful carpet workshop. Petra employs and trains people living locally to make beautiful, simple and affordable rugs, and a large grey rug from Sandai is the centrepiece in our house in Nairobi. We didn’t ride this time, but many guests go riding on horses kept at the property and the surrounding farmland is good for hacks. Or take a picnic lunch into nearby Solio, and try not to get lost.
Pre-pandemic, Petra used to host yoga and painting workshops and hopefully those will be reinstated in the months to come.
In a country where the price of accommodation seems to be going up and up, prices are among the friendliest for residents, with a single on full board costing Ksh 9,000, or Ksh 16,000 for a double.
Tel: 0721656699 / Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Tapendoi Log Cabin, Lolldaiga Hills
When we plan a break, it usually involves a frenzied search on Airbnb. With three children, hotels and lodges are getting increasingly out of our financial reach, and a house is often the most economical of the offerings out there. Yes, yes, we could camp… but we are not natural campers.
And so – to Nanyuki. We had our eyes on Tapendoi for a while – but on the main house, which was only occasionally up for weekend rentals. Then the Hurt family did up a neighbouring cottage on the same property, adding two safari tents to expand the space, giving us the opportunity finally to stay there.
The house itself has been very well done – it has a country cabin feel, thanks to the main wooden structure, a log fire and comfy armchairs. Accommodation is in the two fairly fancy safari tents to either side – one a twin which suited the kids, and the other a pretty spacious double, both with ensuite bathrooms.
While I might have been content to stay at the cabin unwinding, our kids required something more stimulating. Tapendoi enjoys an enviable position just 10 minutes’ drive from Lolldaigas, a private game conservancy that is accessible via prior arrangement. It is a spectacular piece of country, and thankfully recovered from the wildfires that ripped through here in 2021.
Meanwhile, our children wanted to ride horses – desperately. After we rang round all of the lodges – guests only, sadly – we found Everything Altitude, a rustic but well-run stable just outside Nanyuki with some good riding in the surrounding area. For those looking to surround themselves with horses, then Everything Altitude also has its own cottage, also on Airbnb.
Most surprising was the facelift that Nanyuki has had in the last couple of years, not least the addition of the Mt Kenya climbing gym, an outdoor wall (we spent quite a few sessions there), and the deli restaurant Shop 14, a serene little spot selling fine foods, most of them locally-sourced. It has a playground, too. By contrast, Cape Chestnut, which we tried for lunch one day, felt a bit dated by comparison. And if we didn’t fancy cooking, then there are several options to buy ready-made, home-cooked dishes for collection, our favourite being the Food Fairy.
At the end of a hectic day, it was always a pleasure to return to the warm hearth of Tapendoi.
Tapendoi is booked via Airbnb. There's a minimum two-night stay. Expect to pay in the region of Ksh 35,000 a night after service charges and bank fees.
More things to do around Nanyuki: The blue pool at Ngare Ndare is well worth a visit and has exciting canopy walks. Ol Pejeta, just south of the town, is a game conservancy with very reliable game sightings. Of course, Nanyuki is the base for ascents of Mt Kenya, and a good place to acclimatise. For mountain bike hire, contact Nixon on 0708 499 875.
Illawana house, Makueni County
Illawana House is straight out of the Italian countryside. The house – arches, distressed furniture, and dusty mirrors – feels like something born out of someone’s wistful imagination.
Although it’s not much from the outside, the house itself has a unique charm. I imagine that it’s a house for congenial, grown-up parties. There is much attention to detail to lift the ambience. Ornate candle holders adorn the long table on the verandah, wispy white curtains hang artfully over the blue shuttered windows, and vintage lamps dotted all over the house bestow a warm glow. The house is also well-stocked with board games, which we played in the evening in front of a roaring fire.
Despite its European feel, the location is very Kenyan. The house is owned by the Marrian family and several of artist David Marrian’s pictures hang on the walls. A Jacaranda tree – in bloom during our stay – is a beautiful sight to wake up to in the gorgeous master bedroom, by far the loveliest room in the house. Two more bedrooms adjoin – both airy, with light streaming through the windows.
The aim is lofty, and more than partially achieved, but the execution is marred by some maintenance issues, such as missing or loose floorboards in the bedrooms. Then for a family, there is not a huge amount to do. We made use of the swimming pool at Kilima Kiu manor a kilometre down the road – the actual hotel was closed when we were there, but is due to reopen soon – and walked and cycled (we brought bikes) in the surrounding area. One morning, we made the trek up to Ulu forest conservancy, although we saw no animals on our drive.
It would, though, make an excellent weekend getaway for those content just to relax and potter around the neighbouring area, or a stop on the way back from the coast. The house is a two-hour drive from Nairobi.
The house is booked via Airbnb, and is advertised at around $130 (Ksh 14,500) a night for a family of five. That sounds pretty reasonable, but once service, cleaning and bank fees were added, the total cost came out at Ksh 58,000 for three nights. At nearly Ksh 20,000 a night, it felt a little pricey.
Things to note: The house has three main bedrooms, and one smaller bedroom. The house is not on mains power, so a generator is turned on at dusk until the last guest goes to bed. The gas-powered fridge is semi-effective at keeping food cool, but the freezer works well. The kitchen is very well-equipped.
How it began...
It was always the same - holidays were approaching, and I was all out of ideas of where to stay. There was that place in Laikipia that a friend had mentioned - what was it, "Ole, Ale, Ome.. something" and no amount of Google searching would bring it up. By now, all that remained on Airbnb were cramped, down-at-heel dwellings that held little appeal. Searching for hotels brought up the same tired booking sites aimed at mass tourism. What I really wanted was a quirky little place to rest up for a few days. There was a need, I felt, for a website that listed all these places - whether it's laid-back coastal spots, hotels set up for young children, or a super lodge for that large family gathering planned for next year.
I warn you - this a highly subjective list. Every place listed here passes some kind of chaotic checklist, whether it's charm, value for money, location or something a bit more unique. It's a curated list of the very best places that we think Kenya has to offer. Search by category or simply browse by destination. Many places are not listed - either because we haven't been there, or we just didn't like it that much. But those that we do like - well, have a look. We are not a booking site - we don't take any payment from any of the places listed - and we pay our own way. If we don't, then we'll tell you. But it won't make any difference to how we rate it. We are always on the road, and our list will keep on growing.
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.