Hotel Crashing: Mara Bushtops, Kenya

When we went to Bushtops Serengeti a couple of years back, we knew that if we ever got the chance to go to Tanzania again, we’d definitely stay there again and for a much longer amount of time. And, we did. For this trip, we stayed at Bushtops Serengeti for seven nights (Oct. 31-Nov. 8), which was a lot but also, totally amazing.

Since we were in the area(ish), we decided to check another country off our list and spent four nights at Mara Bushtops in Kenya.

We went on a “Behind the Scenes,” back of camp tour at Bushtops Mara and saw this hilarious sign hanging in the staff camp area. Hilarious because guess which tent we were staying in?

Now, even though both places are owned by the same camp operators and the two countries share a border, it’s not that easy to go from Tanzania to Kenya (or vice versa). The lovely folks at Bushtops helped us organize the transfer. Here’s the abbreviated version of that adventure: We took a very short flight from the Kogatende airstrip to Tarime near the Kenya border. Then we got in a van that drove us through Isebania, a small town straddling the border, where you get out on the Tanzania side and go through customs, drive across, then get out again on the Kenya side to go through customs. Then another very short flight from Migori airstrip to Siana Springs and Bushtops.

After a slight hiccup over whether in fact we actually needed a yellow fever card coming from Tanzania or the U.S. (both are non-yellow fever country) into Kenya (short answer: you don’t. Longer answer: But the customs officials will definitely try to shake you down for a nice little “fee” if you don’t have one), we were soon ensconced in our super-deluxe and way-too-roomy-for-two people tent, the Leopard Tent at Mara Bushtops.

The walk up to the deck of the Leopard Tent. Spa is just a short walk off to the left and the dining lodge is to the right.

The Leopard Tend has a large living room separating two large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

The living room and front entrance. To the left of the entrance is a bar area with a mini fridge and snacks.

It also has a huge wooden deck running along the back of it, with a dining table, built in sofa seating and a Jacuzzi tub.

Two master suites to choose from at the Leopard Tent.

The Leopard Tent is meant to accommodate a family, which it would do really well. As it was, we hardly ever went into the second bedroom or bathroom at all.

While we pretty much had Mara Bushtops to ourselves the first couple of days, a very large group of Chinese tourists were coming in on our last night and had rented out all of the other 11 tents (I guess there were no families to accommodate), so we were put in the Leopard Family Tent for our stay. Which was great, because the Leopard Tent is kinda off away from all the other tents (it’s located on the side of camp closest to the spa tents and is separated from the other tents by the main lodge/dining room/restaurant area – here’s a site plan if you really want to get into it). So even though the Chinese tourist group came in pretty hot and loud that last night, we hardly noticed.

In addition, our family tent had its own fire pit, so on our last night, we avoided the newly crowded dining room and asked to have dinner in our room. And we asked for our own campfire. Which came with its own Masai warrior/fire tender. Who I don’t seem to have a photo of. Grr.

Warrior-less campfire pit at the Leopard Tent.

As with our previous experience at Bushtops Serengeti, we use the term “tent” in the loosest sense of the word at Bushtops. These were some deluxe, luxurious digs. We had a butler (Frederick at Mara, Mustafa at Serengeti) who brought us rose wine, gin and tonics and homemade potato chips. They were also our morning alarms, bringing us coffee with Amarula (sort of like African Bailey’s) and shortbread cookies every morning at 5 am before our 5:30 game drives. They also made sure our laundry was done and returned every day and just generally took care of all our needs while we were in camp (and not out on a drive).

Best samosas in all of Africa.

We seriously, seriously loved Mara Bushtops. What set this camp apart, even from our beloved Bushtops Serengeti, is a couple of things. For one thing, Mara Bushtops is located on a conservancy of 15,000 acres bordering the Masai Mara National Park. Bushtops has a multi-year leasing agreement with the Masai Mara tribe and is the only lodge within the conservancy. So, along the edges of the conservancy, you can see a few Masai communities and the cows and goats they tend. Plus, since its on a private conservancy, you can do nighttime game drives, something that’s not allowed in the National Park (or in the Serengeti National Park, for that matter).

We saw these three teeny tiny baby bat eared foxes (and their mom) during our evening game drive at Mara Bushtops.

Second, the spa. The spa was amazing, both in terms of the quality of the services provided and in terms of all the setting and treatment rooms. We just got massages (twice) but they had other cool, state of the art treatment rooms including hydratherapy and sauna. Plus the pool area with all its fountains and different pool options including the main pool, which has fiber optic “nightsky” lighting on the bottom of it, was just breathtaking. As a spa junkie, I gotta say this one was right up there with any I’ve been to.

Entrance to the spa.

The other thing that set Mara Bushtops apart is the fact that they have a salt lick a couple of hundred feet away from the main dining deck, where all the animals come throughout the day to get some nutrients. Rather than chasing animals all over the Masai Mara, you can sit at a table and watch them all come to you. It’s a destination all on its own.

Finally, I mean, have we forgotten about Harry? Because I sure haven’t. A lodge with a friendly, resident giraffe? Sign me up again and again.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops
My best bud, Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops.
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Twiga Everywhere: How We Met All of the Giraffes in Kenya and Tanzania

*Twiga is Swahili for giraffe.

The lovely and long-lashed Sir Harry was not the only giraffe we saw during our 18-day trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Not by a long shot.

We saw. So. Many. Giraffes.

All the giraffes in the Mara

Usually on safari, we see a couple of giraffes a day, if we’re lucky. They’re not as ubiquitous as say, impala or even zebras. But they’re not as scarce as let’s say a rhino (seen it – white and black) or a honey badger (seen it) or a pangolin (still have not seen it, alas).

So giraffes are certainly around and since they are my favorite (after the pangolin), I’m always excited to see them, even if they aren’t particularly elusive or rare.

The grin of a girl excited to see giraffes.

But this trip? This trip we saw all the giraffes. Like, all of them. We did a roll call and I’m pretty sure we saw every last one that could be found in the Serengeti or Masai Mara. And then some more in Nairobi, just for good measure.

We saw so many giraffes we actually learned what groups of giraffes are called: a tower is a group of giraffes standing still and a journey is a group that is on the move.

This guy is neither a tower or a journey. He’s just a giraffe.

For example, we saw a journey of about 50 giraffes on our way back to Bushtops Serengeti one evening. We had just pulled around the corner and there they were, slowly walking and grazing, completely surrounding us on both sides of the road while the sun set in the distance. We sat gobsmacked and tried to count how many there were, while they just chewed and strolled.

We also saw a tower of about 30-40 giraffes on our last game drive on the private reserve surrounding Mara Bushtops.

This group was taking a breather near a watering hole, so we got to see them bending down to take a drink from the water, which, if you’ve never seen a giraffe drink water, let me tell you: it is a nerve-wracking feat of engineering by nature. Because they are so tall and their necks are so long, giraffes have to gingerly splay their legs and carefully dip their heads down to get a drink of water. But they can’t stay in this position too long because all the blood would rush away from their hearts and to their heads. It’s an extremely delicate maneuver and the whole time they look like they’re going to tip over. Or, as this Inside Science article puts it, “defying gravity.”

Luckily, they get most of their water intake from vegetation and only need to drink water every couple of days.

During this watering hole giraffe extravaganza, we also saw some behavior that we mistook for affection but turns out to be aggressive – two giraffes rubbing their necks together. This is known as “necking” and what we saw was actually a pretty mild form of it. When it escalates, necking can include the giraffes swinging their head at each others’ necks, like fists.

Then, there was the morning we rolled up on a tiny, newly born baby giraffe that was basically born minutes before we found it in a field in the Masai Mara National Park. It was all wobbly and wet and still leaning against its mom, trying to figure out the whole nursing thing.

Before our Harry experience, this was by far my favorite moment of the whole trip. It was so beautiful and moving and fraught with worry about unseen dangers and whether the baby would survive.

Good luck, little fella.

Finally, many people know about the Instagram-famous, Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. Giraffe Manor is a gorgeous old house that has been turned into a stunning hotel where guests (rooms are steep — around $620 per person per night) can feed pellets to the dozen or so resident Rothschild giraffes, right on the grounds, through open windows in the breakfast room or out on the lawn during afternoon tea (at 5 pm). Non-guests can also come (and pay) for the high tea experience (I think it’s $50-$75 per person).

But what most people don’t know is that adjacent to Giraffe Manor is the Giraffe Center, an education and conservation site where you get to feed the exact same Rothschild giraffes for like $10 bucks. It’s open from 9 am to 5 pm and it does get pretty crowded. But the giraffes are super friendly and will do just about anything for those damn pellets, including give you a kiss.

Clearly not afraid of a little giraffe slobber.

It’s a wonderful place, even if it’s bit of a stretch to call it an education center, but the docents on the grounds handing out pellets are very nice and informative. They do, however, limit you to just a couple of handfuls of pellets, so be judicious with your pellets. I was pretty excited and gave all of mine too quickly, but one girl was nice enough to give me an extra handful as long as I promised it would be the last.

All in all, I thought we’d be there an hour, but turned out, 30 minutes was enough time to run out of pellets and get your full pet giraffe fantasies fulfilled. Plus, I had already met and hung out with Harry at Mara Bushtops and he didn’t even require any pellet payoffs. My giraffe expectations were pretty high by the time we got to the Giraffe Center.

Poe’s Packing Panic: Safari Edition

We leave in a few days for Africa. So, you know what that means.

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Packing panic. It’s a thing. And for me, it’s a repeat thing.

It’s not like this is my first African safari. Or even my second. No, this is the third time we are going on safari. You could say, we really, really, really like it.

I should know the drill by now.

Even still, in the last few months, I’ve vacillated between, “Nope, I have gobs of clothes, I don’t need to buy a single thing for this trip,” to “Oh my damn, I have nothing appropriate to take on safari, I better buy a whole new wardrobe.”

I have a few excuses. First of all, it’s a really long trip. We are going back to Serengeti Bushtops in Tanzania for eight days and Mara Bushtops in Kenya for five days (plus a couple of days in Zanzibar and one day in Nairobi on our way home, and a whole lot of time on very long flights). All told, I have to pack for 18 days, which is a LOT of days.

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(Oh, and I have actually packed for an 18 day trip before).

Secondly, I’ve lost a little weight since our last trip two years ago. Not a lot but enough to go down a size or two.

Third, I’ve purged my closet several times since our last trip and got rid of things I thought I’d probably never wear again, ie: clothes bought specifically for a safari. (Except my safari jacket. I wear that thing all the time).

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Warthog approved: My safari jacket in use in an actual safari in 2016.

And fourth, I also tend to buy really cheap items to take on safari (t-shirts from H&M or Old Navy, linen or cargo pants from Gap Factory or Kohl’s), and well, those don’t generally hold up that well. Which is fine, but obviously necessitated some shopping.

In case anyone is wondering, the reason I buy cheap, fast fashion stuff for safari (besides the cost, obviously) is that these clothes are going to take a bit of a beating. It’s not that safari is extremely physical (it’s not like your climbing a mountain or something) but you are getting in and out of a very tall Land Rover multiple times a day and walking through some dusty brush, primarily, at least in my case, to squat and pee.

You also really only need a couple of outfits since they do daily laundry at the safari camps we stay at. So the cost per wear is actually pretty high. Plus, if anything does happen to my safari clothes during the trip, say a laundry mishap or a tear from getting in and out of the truck, I won’t be bent out of shape about it.

I actually learned this lesson the hard way on our first safari to South Africa, where I bought these really nice $100 hiking pants from Athleta. I was so excited about these pants, I can’t even tell you. I ordered them online and put them right into my suitcase, still encased in plastic and everything. When I went to put them on our first morning in Sabi Sands, I saw (or felt, actually) that there was a big tear in the fabric, right across the right butt cheek. I was crushed. I used my little in-room sewing kit and stitched them right up but they were ruined, in my book. Lesson learned: no expensive, fancy safari clothes.

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These were my fancy pants on safari in South Africa in 2014. 

A few other considerations:

Colors: White and light colors are a bad idea since they show dirt so easily. And dark colors like black and navy attract mosquitoes and even tsetse flies, which hurt like hell.

As for agitating the animals with bright colors? Animals are mostly color blind, so the sight of bright colors doesn’t send them into a tizzy at all. Plus, you’re in a truck most of the time, so they just see you as part of a large, dark mass, and most likely think we’re all just another large animal. But, having said that, I tend to stick with neutral colors like gray, tan, olive. Especially if you go on a walking safari, when you definitely need to blend into the surroundings a bit.

Weather: It’s going to be pretty warm while we are on safari, highs mostly in the mid to upper 80s, lows in the upper 50s, low 60s. Still, I wear long pants and bring long sleeve shirts to help avoid bug bites. And a hat for sun protection. But not a pith helmet, or any other colonialist gear that smacks of racism and oppression.

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Nope. Just. Nope. 

And even though it’s the short rain season in the Masai Mara and Serengeti while we are there, we don’t need to bring waterproof gear. They usually have rain ponchos in the trucks (along with binoculars, which is why we don’t bring our own).

Dinners & downtime: This one is tricky and all over the map. Each camp has its own vibe and the dinner attire varies. Sometimes people wear the same clothes they wear on the game drives, which is fine. At Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands, people (including the staff) got a bit dressed up for dinner (sundresses or linen pants and camisole tops for the women, pants and button up shirts for the men).

I try to just go with a happy medium and bring something nice, then wear it over and over and over again.

Here’s my safari packing list

Clothing

  • 3-4 t-shirts
  • 2 long sleeve shirts (I’m taking two lightweight button downs to wear over t-shirts in the morning)
  • 1 sweatshirt/fleece (I’m taking my olive cargo jacket)
  • 2 pairs of cotton trousers/pants – a pair and a spare while the other is being washed.
  • 2 light dresses/2 dressy tops/1 pair of jeans – for dinners while on safari and time in Zanzibar & Nairobi.
  • A scarf – good for blocking dust or sun or bundling up on a chilly morning.
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 6 pairs of underwear (I also bring a net lingerie bag for our socks and underwear to keep them together and it just to make it a bit less embarrassing.)
  • 3 bras (including one sports bra – VERY bumpy roads. I wash this by hand before dinner and let dry overnight.)
  • Sunglasses (for the dust as well as bright sun)
  • Pajamas/linen pants for hanging out in our tent.
  • Hat
  • Swimsuit
  • Lightweight, durable, waterproof shoes (I’m taking this tennis/hiking shoe hybrid pair I already have. Not terribly lightweight, but durable.)
  • Sandals for around camp/wedges for dinner & city

Toiletries/First Aid

  • Anti-malarial medicine
  • Sunscreen
  • Antihistamine (for bug bites/stings and allergic reactions)
  • Aspirin for pain/headaches
  • Mosquito repellant (I especially like the wipes or toilette versions)
  • A couple of large Ziploc bags (to keep things like your camera dry or free of dust)
  • Pepto Bismal plus something stronger (we travel with Cipro after the Great Peruvian Giardia Adventure of 2013)
  • Band aids/antibiotic ointment for blisters, cuts, scrapes
  • Personal toiletries in small travel sizes, including hair and skincare products, or formulas that aren’t liquid, ie: powder or stick sunscreen, solid shampoo/conditioner)
  • Minimal makeup – really, just the basics: tinted bb cream, mascara, tinted lip balm.
  • Prescription medications/spare glasses and contacts, in my case.
  • Tissues — (I found having little packs of these in the pockets of my jacket VERY useful when “checking the tires” — ie: peeing – during those 6-hour game drives.
  • Antiseptic gel or wipes (handy for washing your hands when there’s no water around)

Gadgets and Gizmos

  • Converter plug to fit local sockets (if needed. We did not need one on our last trip to Bushtop. All the plugs were universal.)
  • Camera (with zoom lenses/tripod/whatever. I just use a Canon point-and-shoot)
  • Extra memory card for your camera
  • Binoculars (Again, we found we didn’t really need them and our safari trucks had them)
  • Spare batteries and/or battery charger for electronics (Bushtop’s safari trucks even had USB ports to help keep batteries charged)
  • I-Pad or Kindle for all your entertainment needs
  • Cell phone. I don’t take my computer but I will take my cell phone. But, while the camps do have wifi, but it’s always a bit iffy. I try to just unplug and be in the moment, which is what safari (and any vacation, really) should be all about.

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Hotel Crashing, Bushtops Serengeti, Tanzania

Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.

And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.

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Not at all like a Real Housewives camping trip. Except the rusty fire barrel. That’s fairly universal.

We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.

It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.

Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.

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And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.

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There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.

We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.

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There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).

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Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.

Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.

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The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.

(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area) 

The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.

(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot). 

The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.

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My excellent photography skills at work again: That’s John cut off on the right and Juma cut off on the left. But look how well I captured the truck!

Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):

  • Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
  • Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
  • Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
  • Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
  • Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
  • Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
  • The outdoor shower. And that outdoor tub!

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Just waiting for a refill.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was blown away by the tub. Bushtops Serengeti made it onto this list of “10 of the Best Bathtubs on Earth that are Totally Worth Traveling For.”

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Let’s have a better look at that tub.

Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.

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