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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Wild About Harry, Mara Bushtops’ Giraffe

I have a new boyfriend. His name is Harry and he is a giraffe.

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It’s ok. My current, longtime, long-suffering boyfriend, XFE knows about him. He’s even met him. And I gotta say….he seems a bit in love with Harry as well.

I realize that this is all a bit nonlinear and out of context and is in no way the proper manner to start writing about our most recent African safari. But, meeting Harry at Mara Bushtops really was the most exciting part of an overall incredible trip to Tanzania and Kenya in November and, well, I’ve been busting at the seams to talk about him. That’s how love goes, right? You just want to gush about your object of affection to everyone who will listen.

And when I say that meeting Harry the giraffe was the most exciting part of our trip to Tanzania and Kenya, let me assure you that that is no tall order (giraffe pun: INTENDED. Thank you, you’ve been a great crowd and don’t forget to tip your waitress.)

 

This trip, y’all. This trip. I’m still not fully recovered from the awesomeness of this trip. I’ll get into it a bit more in some upcoming posts, but let me assure you, there was no shortage of amazing moments.

But meeting Harry was definitely my favorite. Perhaps because it was so unexpected.

Me and Harry 2

We had just gotten back early from a morning game drive. We’d been going pretty hardcore, full on, all day safari mode for the previous 12 days, leaving at 5:30 am each day and staying out till 5:30 or 6 pm. On this particular day, we decided to come back to camp early to have a late breakfast, enjoy our room, and get massages at the spa in the afternoon. We had just gotten in our room and set our stuff down when we noticed a giant giraffe hanging out right off the porch, peering in at us.

Mara Busthops giraffe Harry through our Leopard tent doorway

Turns out, his name is Harry and he’s pretty well known. Harry is a super chill, super friendly giraffe who likes to hang out at Mara Bushtops. He seems to really enjoy watching us humans. It’s like a safari in reverse: we came to see him, and he comes to see us. Except, instead of having sundowners and samosas like we did, he chews leaves. Acacia, I think.

Needless to say, I totally geeked out when I saw him. I know I sound pretty cool and calm in the video but I was squealing inside like a little kid. He must have hung out just watching us watching him for like 10 minutes. We started to get a bit antsy about getting to breakfast, but we didn’t want to disturb him by tromping off our porch and onto the path that connected our tent to the main hall/kitchen. So we went back out the front of our tent and around the other side to backtrack over to the trail. He still stood there, just watching us stand in awe on the trail for a while longer before he finally grew bored and walked away.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops, Kenya
Bye, Harry

Then, a couple of hours later, we headed over to the Amani Spa for some wonderful massages (Best Spa in Africa according to the World Luxury Spa Awards for three years running and I wholeheartedly agree), and on the walk over to the spa, who do we see on the side of the road but our good old friend Harry! And, of course, neither of us had a phone or camera on them. But we were able to get really, really close and just marvel at his size. He was so, so big. And not at all bothered by us walking by and gushing.

Then I had what has to have been the world’s most exciting and not-at-all-relaxing massage (not because of the massage technicians, who were wonderful, especially Caroline).

You see, the massage room at Mara Bushtops is a tent, similar to the rooms, so it’s open sided. It’s really nice. You can hear the spa pool’s fountain gurgling, see animals at the salt lick off in the distance, and you get a nice cross breeze.

Amani Spa at Mara Bushtops
Photo from Mara Bushtops website. 

I had just settled in for 90-minute Afrique Gold massage when I heard a weird noise, sort of a snapping, tugging, chewing type of noise. The sound of leaves being ripped off a tree and ground into a pulp. I snuck a peek and there he was, on my side of the tent to my left, near the entrance to the massage tent….HARRY!! He came to watch us get massages!

Did-You-say-Massage

I tried to relax but every time the chewing would stop, I would lift my head and open my eyes to see if he was still there. He must have been there for like, 20-30 minutes, just eating and watching us. I could not believe it. We had gotten a massage with a giraffe. Bushtops Camps motto is “Wild Luxury” and this experience really was the epitome of that. It’s something I’ll never forget. Oh, and the massage was excellent, as well.

"It was the most relaxing massage I've ever had."

 

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.

A-lot-o-luggage

(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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