A few days into my nine-day Kenya trip and I felt confident that my new zoom lens was a wise investment. Animals, I was learning, are rather fickle photo subjects, far more interested in finding lunch, or some shade, than in posing majestically for safari- goers.
I put the lens through its paces during the trip, sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board, as I tried my hand at epic landscapes, leopards on the prowl and more.
The variety we experienced wasn't limited to wildlife or topography. Between game drives, our accommodations offered enjoyable, but vastly different, approaches to the safari experience.Ol Donyo Lodge
Our first safari stop, the Ol Donyo Lodge
, was less than an hour's flight from Nairobi to a private airstrip just outside Amboseli National Park.
The lodge, located within the 275,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch, offers services and amenities befitting its Relais & Chateaux affiliation — all the more impressive considering that it runs mostly on solar power, and its primary water source is on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, about 20 miles away.
Within my room, rattan furniture and exposed wooden beams imparted an appropriate rustic-chic vibe. On the second night, I opted for the open-air star bed upstairs, taking some landscape shots and feeling rejuvenated by the brisk springtime air.
Dining was communal at set times, though as the lodge puts it in its promotional literature, "In regards to the routine, here there isn't one" — meaning guests can dine in their rooms on their own time or enjoy a private dinner in the property's wine room.
Starting rates range from $800 per person, per night in low season (April 1 to June 14 and Nov. 1 to Dec. 19) to $1,155 per person, per night in high season (June 15 to Oct. 31 and Dec. 20 to Jan. 10).
• On safari:
The lodge's conservation-minded approach naturally extends to wildlife, and education is a key component of the safari experience here. Our guide Jackson proved infectiously enthusiastic and more than willing to linger in a particular spot to facilitate that perfect photo.
An open-air star bed at Ol Donyo Lodge, a Relais & Chateaux property. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Great Plains
Elephant Bedroom Camp
Close encounters of the tusked kind are the trademark of Elephant Bedroom Camp, a 12-tent lodge at the Samburu National Reserve, but safety is paramount: Staff repeatedly remind guests never to walk the grounds without an escort, especially at nighttime, when elephants frequently stroll through a well-trodden path that crossed right in front of my tent.
The most rustic of the three lodges we visited, WiFi (available in the common areas only) was intermittent and electricity was shut off at bedtime. But few guests are likely to mind, with elephants providing the entertainment by grazing, bathing and going about their day mere yards away.
• On safari: In addition to potential sightings of the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), Samburu has its "Special Five": animals such as the distinctively patterned reticulated giraffe and narrow-striped Grevy's zebra that are indigenous to the region.
Starting with the spectacular views from its lobby and deck, Angama Mara, situated about 1,000 feet above the Maasai Mara, proved to be an impressive finale to the trip. (The view might also be familiar from 1985's "Out of Africa," as the movie was filmed on the grounds now occupied by the property.)
The 30-room lodge offered state-of-the-art amenities; WiFi, for instance, was fast enough for me to send and receive large photo files.
While my room's canvas exterior provided the requisite safari-tent look, the spacious interior offered true elegance, from the polished parquet floors to the butler's nook for discreet room service deliveries.
Culinary offerings were delightfully diverse (I enjoyed chicken bao buns during one lunch), and an open bar in the common area enabled guests to mix their own sundowner-safari libation or allow a bartender on staff to do the honors.
Angama Mara starting rates range from $850 per person, per night in low season to $1,500 per person, per night in high season.
• On safari: More than at the other properties, we frequently encountered fellow lodge guests here while on safari — it is the Mara, after all, and guides were in constant communication, tipping off one another about wildlife spottings to help satisfy guests' Big Five searches.
I completed my Big Five checklist with a rhino sighting during a hot-air balloon ride with Skyship. The gentle glide and relative silence (aside from the occasional roar of the burner and exclamations of fellow passengers) were a nice change of pace from the Land Cruiser bumps and jolts of previous outings.