The sundowner has become as big a part of the safari experience as spotting the first big cat. You are driven to a beautiful elevated spot and watch the sun go down with the cacophony of bird call and, if you are lucky, an animal or two joining in.
It is a humbling and elevating experience, a reminder that not every habitat in the world has been wiped out by man. Any of these game reserves will have three times as many varieties of birds as we have in the whole of Europe.
The search for the best sundowner would keep any travel writer happy for a couple of decades but I might just have found it.
It happened in Kenya in October, in Tsavo West where I downed a glass of two of 40pc Kenya cane rum and tonic and watched the sun go down, first over the tree-speckled plain of Tsavo and, just beyond striking the horizon just by the left elbow of the looming, imposing, gigantic hulk of Kilimanjaro, sacred to the people here and to the thousands of adventurous tourists who have scaled the summit, (the current Taoiseach amongst them).
Tsavo is different, greener and more dense than many of the other safari parks in Kenya and the encounters with animals way more intimate. It has a migration of its own, not as famous as the Serengeti but a work of nature nonetheless.
In Finch Hatton’s Lodge it has one of the most luxurious accommodations on the circuit. The path to my bedroom has a crocodile crossing sign, and indeed there is a family living under the bridge like the trolls in the Billy Goat gruff story.
My bedroom is on a platform jutting out over a river pond and as I sleep another baby crocodile is doing the same underneath the wooden foundations. A hippo at the far side of the riverpond sounds like he has a broken exhaust, but we didn’t complain.
Finch Hatton’s Lodge has 31 tents and 56 staff, a classic safari luxury experience, and if I have found an experience to compare with it, I cannot remember.
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Before you book, before you get your shots, let us repeat the mantra to first time safari seekers of all ages:
1 START at the Masai Mara, if you have never taken a safari holiday. Don’t consider anywhere else for your first wildlife adventure, especially the pretend wannabe safari stuff they have in South Africa. IT can get crowded out there, and the wildebeest must surely by now recognise there is a lion or cheetah coming by the hum of 4×4 vehicles chasing them, but it is still important to go the Mara for the appetiser and to get the big five out of your system.
2 NEVER GO TO THE MASAI MARA BY ROAD. This is still true too, despite what they try to tell you about how much the road has improved.
Since I was last in Kenya in 2007 everyone tells me that about the revolution on the roads, how they have gone from impassable to passable.
They are right, single lane paved highway brings you three quarters of the way to the Mara until you hit the potholed mess that is the road across the Loita plains. Roads are better, but still not good enough. Fly.
Fly with Safarilink and admire the scenery as you travel.
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Another advantage of Tsavo is that it is a day trip from the cheapest place in Kenya to base yourself, Mombasa. Mombasa, or rather the coast to the north and south of it, has a ribbon of beach resorts which handle Kenya;s mass market tourism and send them by bus to the Tsavo.
There are also less expensive options in most of the national parks, such as the Serova group. Their lodge in Mara has 75 rooms for example and the beginnings of the trappings of bulk tourism, such as a cabaret artist playing American folk songs.
Masai village visits are almost a mandatory experience, and Masai dancers come in to the lodges for after dinner dances, propelling themselves skywards with gusto, and to tell people of their lifestyle, much maligned by the authorities until the smell of tourist lucre softened their stance.
In the amazing Tipilikwani lodge, our Masai hosts Kamanka Koshal (Jonathan) explains that all the cattle in the world belong to the Masai.
No need for a herd number then.
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Even if you don’t have much time in Kenya, you can still get the taste of the world’s greatest holiday experience.
An extraordinary thing about Nairobi is you don’t have to leave the city to see animals.
On a stopover in Nairobi airport you can visit Nairobi’s amazing safari park, rich in rhinos which are hard to find elsewhere after decades of depletion by poachers. You can see giraffes form the departure lounge or the aircraft window.
A most bizarre sight – animals with skyscrapers in the background. Habitat wars.
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