Kenya & Zanzibar Fam trip – June 2016

Meeting up with a fam trip group at the airport is a bit like a blind date…..you surreptitiously check out every passenger coming past hoping that the odd looking ones aren’t going to be part of the group.

Fortunately for this group, we had a lovely bunch of agents (phew!) from Aardvark Safaris, Black Tomato, The Explorations Company, Safari & Beach, Bespoke Voyagers & The Eden Collection. Nerves were calmed & initial introductions made over G & Ts in the Star Alliance business class lounge at Heathrow Terminal 2 before boarding our Ethiopian Airlines flight to Kenya.

For someone who sadly can count the number of business class experiences on one hand, flying business class was a bit like Christmas morning as a kid. The first 30 mins of the flight just playing around with the endless buttons….there is something about a seat with buttons that brings out the kid in you!

 

We have been working with Ethiopian Airlines as their PR agency for just 8 months and in that short time have become very aware & impressed by the ambition of the airline.  They are the fastest growing and most profitable airline in Africa (making more profit than all the African ailines combined)  The average age of their aircraft is only 5 years old and they operate to 51 destinations in Africa via their hub in Addis Ababa.

The appropriately named ‘Cloud 9’ business class on Ethiopian Airlines was very impressive. We were flying on one of their daily non-stop flights from Heathrow on a Boeing 777 with fully-flat seats and plenty of leg room. I am 5ft 6 and my feet were well away from the end of the bed…even Greg at over 6 foot claimed he had room to spare. A couple of the agents who sell a large number of first class passengers commented that the Ethiopian Airlines business class was even more impressive than certain not-to-be-named British airline with far more personal space. For the first time in my life I found myself wishing the flight was longer.

We had a very smooth connection via Addis airport and within 1.5 hours had stepped off one plane and onto the next ready for the two hour flight to Nairobi.

Agent feedback: “Very generous flat bed, good entertainment system, very nice and friendly, well trained cabin crew wearing traditional Ethiopian dress. Nice thoughtful, in flight vanity pack with really useful items”

Nairobi

It was amazing to see how much better the traffic was since I was last in Nairobi since the new roads. The driving is still utterly chaotic but with less traffic it moves a lot quicker.   We stopped at House of Waine for lunch before our Safarilink flight down to the Mara. House of Waine have a brilliant day offer which includes a 3 course lunch or dinner & use of all the facilities (garden, swimming pool, showers etc) for $50. The peaceful, huge gardens of the hotel is the perfect venue to spend an afternoon.

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After a delicious lunch with unbelievable attentive waiters, we were off to a rainy Wilson Airport & onto Olkurruk airstrip and Angama Mara.

Agent feedback on House of Waine “Delicious food, fabulous service and incredibly helpful”   “Lovely spacious rooms, very clean, airy, nice tea and coffee station, quiet and peaceful.” “I absolutely loved the gardens and pool area and the fact that you have can have lunch and use the pool facilities for only U$50”

 

ANGAMA MARA

I was especially excited about seeing Angama Mara as I used to spend quite a bit of time in the area when I worked out in Kenya in 1999. Then, it was a tiny, simple tented camp in the Olkurruk area…..vastly different from the impressively slick design of Angama Mara. The South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, the designers behind Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and North Island in the Seychelles have woven their magic again and the lodge is stunning. It sits on the site—three kopjes, or hills, on the Oloololo Escarpment overlooking the Mara Triangle—where some of the most memorable moments in ‘Out of Africa’ film were shot. There are subtle references to the film woven throughout the design of the lodge although I struggled to envisage Meryl Streep amongst the red-brick cones and towers, vaulted ceilings and the Victoriana walled pool.

 

Pillars break up the large open space; fold-back glass walls allow guests to take full advantage of the sweeping view of the Mara plains below. A huge wooden veranda wraps around the front of the building, with a sunken fire pit overlooking the Mara which stretches out as far as the eye can see.

Although 60 guests can be accommodated, because the property has been cleverly split into two 15-tent camps, it feels small and intimate. A pavilion shared by the camps has an infinity pool and a gym with a drop-dead view.

 

The Swahili word angama means “suspended in midair,” and the buildings do seem to float, perched on platforms that hang over the escarpment, with glass doors that fold open completely so that even when you’re inside, you still feel inside the view. The tented suites are enormous stretching over 100sqm. Built with a combination of brick, wood and glass with canvas inserts, each has its own roll top bath, brightly coloured woven screen (inspired by Maasai shields) and elegant seating area with gin and whisky-filled decanters.

 

Determined to make the most of our only night at Angama Mara, we all met for sunrise on the deck at 6.15. Sadly it was quite a hazy morning which meant it wasn’t so good for photos but still entertaining watching the hot air balloons drift by.

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Angama Mara is a completely different concept for Kenya. A slick, contemporary design but with strong Kenyan influences running through the lodge. The views from the terrace are incredible that it must be hard to pull yourself away to go on a game drive. I can only imagine how mind-blowing it would be to be here enjoying front-row seats to one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife phenomena…..the migration.

Agent feedback “I really loved this property, but would probably combine it with another camp in the heart of the Mara”  “Great place for the less abled as you can see a lot from the terrace, read books, watch films, beading etc.”

Angama view1

Our transfer to Naibor took us past some Masai villages where we were entertained by Greg  from Black Tomato getting involved with the Masai dancing….a compulsory experience for first timers to Kenya!

 

NAIBOR

Naibor is hidden in a grove of riverine woodland right on the Talek river. The camp is so well hidden that you don’t realize you are there until you drive into the main camp.   We were greeted by new management couple Craig and India and one of the three owners of Naibor, Nigel Archer. Craig has been running camps in Kenya for 7 years and India, originally from NYC, has been working for an NGO in Nanyuki. Having 8 UK agents descend on them for their 2nd day at work was certainly a baptism of fire but they coped admirably!

A delicious lunch of salads, quiches and fresh home made breads greeted us under the trees which we enjoyed whilst watching the hippos wallow and snort in the Talek river beneath us.   Once we had all indulged in home made ice cream and lemon meringue pie, we waddled to our rooms.

Naibor - lunch

 

The design of the rooms in Naibor manage to have a contemporary feel about them but still retain the traditional tented safari experience. The tents are really spacious with king size beds made from lovely chunky fig wood which had been made and brought over from their big-sister property, Shompole (sadly now closed down). Each room is concealed under the trees so that there is real privacy between each tent.

There are three different elements to Naibor:

  1. Naibor Wilderness which consists of 3 tents and a mess tent which can be book and used for a private group or for couples whose budget doesn’t stretch to main Naibor. The key different between ‘main Naibor’ and ‘Wilderness’ is the location (wilderness doesn’t have the river views) and style (Wilderness is slightly more simple in terms of interior design)

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    Naibor Wilderness
  2. Main Naibor – 7 spacious en suite tents
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Main Naibor
  1. Little Naibor – Little Naibor is made up of two spacious suites which are uniquely designed to blend in effortlessly with the surrounding riverine forest. Each tent contains 2 double or twin rooms both en-suite with their own spacious bathrooms, inter-joined by a communal lounge and dining area.  Both of these stunning tents have their own private bar and fire places set up strategically along the Talek River with complete privacy and spectacular views.
Little Naibor
Little Naibor

Naibor has a great vibe to it and the location on the river is perfect….. the favourite spot for the agents quickly became the beanbags on the wooden decked area overlooking the river and the grassy plains on the other riverbank. With the nearest Wildebeest crossing only 10 minutes away, we all commented how incredible it must be to be completely surrounded by millions of animals in the height of the migration.

Naibor red bean bags 1

 

After a quick rest, the team were raring to get going on their first game drive. Out of the 7 agents on the trip, 3 had never been on safari before, one had only been to South Africa 5 years ago and the remaining 3 were quite experienced. For me the highlight of taking these kind of fam trips is not only the chance to stay in amazing hotels/lodges but also the opportunity to see Africa again through the eyes of someone seeing it for their first time. I have been lucky enough to go on many safaris but my favourite safari companions now are the ‘safari virgins’. Their wide-eyed wonderment helps me experience the safari through fresh eyes and reminds me to not get blase about what we are seeing.  The game viewing at Naibor didn’t disappoint with lots of eles, a pride of 8 lions led by a magnificent black maned male.

Naibor - Gina
Gina Carter from Safari & Beach

Naibor is located in the much quieter southerly plains which are often too far for other camps to get to. It is in an area of black cotton soil which means that only 4 x 4s can drive in the ground…..and none of the minibuses for which the Mara is tarnished with are seen anywhere near the area for fear of getting stuck. The location is only 10 minutes drive from the nearest Wildebeest crossing which means that in the migration, you cannot get a better spot from which to experience it.

After an eventful game drive and sundowners, we all tucked into a yummy dinner butternut squash soup, of sizzling steak & chocolate mousse before settling down in front of the fire exchanging stories with other Naibor guests game sightings they had seen through the day.

I woke up in the middle of the night to loud snuffles and snorts. Completely disorientated in the pitch black, I thought that my husband had suddenly taken to snoring. Falling back fast asleep, I discovered in the morning that a hippo had fallen asleep against my tent….interesting to think that I had exchanged my husband for a slightly louder sleeping partner!

The mornings drive was a perfect wake up call….

Naibor - victoria asleep

…although some were still half asleep!

We enjoyed a stunning, if slightly fresh, morning and had an exclusive audience with a herd of eles and a pride of Lion.  A cheetah was spotted sitting on an ant hill in the distance and in our excitement to get there, we ended up getting stuck in the mud. (much to Nigel’s embarrassment as he was driving!)  Getting stuck in a vehicle provided much exhilaration & excitement ….& was one of the highlights of the safari trip!

 

After another delicious light lunch under the wooded trees, we ventured out at the slightly earlier time of 3pm as the guides wanted to take us further down to the Tanzanian border to see the start of the Wildebeest migration. We were pretty bowled over by seeing a few thousand wildebeest….it makes me think how incredible it must be to see the migration in its full flow.

 

Dinner that night was as delicious as the first with red snapper on the menu. A couple of the agents had come out to Kenya a week before the rest of the group and exclaimed that Naibor’s food was the best they had had. Winston the chef, who has been at the camp for 7 years was brought out of his tent to enjoy his well earned round of applause.

I always say to agents that Naibor is a ‘safe sell’ in the fact that it delivers on all levels….location, style, food, guiding & service. However I think I underestimate it by describing it in that way. Naibor has the ability to work magic as we saw before our own eyes. We saw someone who was nervous to go into her tent because there was a bug in there morph into someone who relished listening to the lions roaring outside her canvas in the thick of the night.

Agent feedback “Felt at home instantly. Lovely laid back atmosphere” “This camp runs like a finely tuned clipper ship – 45 staff everyone knows there job and can fill in for every one else, coordinating the drinks runs etc.”

Naibor fam trip group 3

 

ZANZIBAR WHITE SANDS LUXURY VILLAS & SPA

We left Mara on the 11.15 Safarilink flight and enjoyed another relaxing, delicious lunch at House of Waine. We dragged ourselves away from the swimming pool to head JKIA for our Precision Air flight to Zanzibar. Despite our delayed, very late arrival into Zanzibar, we soon all woke up when we were met by the beaming Xperience Tours team who were the perfect hosts making the hour transfer into a fascinating insight into Zanzibar.

Arriving at your destination in the dark is so disorientating but there is something quite lovely about waking up to a surprise view in the morning….especially when the view is of clear, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean! I had only been at ZWS in January but even since then it had changed with the gardens looking even more lush and the flowers in full bloom. Their new French manageress Linda was the right mix of friendliness and efficiency whilst also being very organized behind the scenes.

2 bedroom villa exterior

 

A delicious, relaxing breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and pancakes set the tone for the day and the rest of the morning was spent enjoying the sun by the main pool and taking it in turns to head off to the spa to enjoy our complementary massage…..sometimes this job is seriously hard work! My massage was incredible with the right mixture of strength and relaxation, soothing out my tired, knotted muscles from travelling.

Spa room
Amazingly having done very little in the morning, we had built up an appetite and enjoyed a delicious sea food bbq on the beach. This was my favorite kind of Zanzibari food. Simply cooked, over a fire with a mix of delicious salads….& a chilled glass of rose.

Fabrice, the constantly cheerful French Marketing assistant took us on a site inspection of the property and a chance to burn off some of our lunch. The agents were really impressed at how spacious the villas were and how private they were.   Included in the tour was a look around the carpentry workshop, the gardens as well as the kite surfing school.

 

We had a couple of precious hours of down time, before getting our glad rags on for a ‘full moon’ drinks party with the owner Andre Niznik, and his wife Katarzyna Kuzminska.  Andre and Kata are very hands on and Kata did all of the interior design herself so it was fascinating for the agents to get a real insight into the background story of the property.  The rooftop bar was the perfect spot to watch the sun go down and the moon to rise whilst appreciating the traditional music serenading us.

 

It seemed fitting that our last night in Africa was a traditional Swahili feast with delicious local seafood curry, chapatti and a melt-in-the-mouth desert.

ZWS - final meal

 

Our last morning in Africa was spent either getting pummulled on the massage bed, absorbing the last rays of sunshine or venturing out on the hotel’s beach bikes.  The bikes are especially designed to cycle on sand and are great fun….although its worth noting which way the wind is blowing as the return journey was rather more arduous when peddling hard against the wind!

 

We flew directly from Zanzibar with Ethiopian Airlines via Addis. Our 4 hour wait in Addis passed in a flash with many enjoying the business class lounge…..and others enjoying the footie on TV!

Prior to departing on this fam trip, some tour operator friends said that I was brave about twinning the new flash kid-on-the-block, Angama Mara with Naibor as they are catering to different markets. I was also told that they normally recommend Angama at the end of a safari. I think that the joy of Africa is that no matter where you stay, or how high the price tag, its all about the experience. That experience may be sitting in your bathtub overlooking the endless Mara plains with a whisky from your crystal decanter. Or it might be sitting in your tent in the dead of night hearing a Lion roar so loud that you feel it reverberating through your bones. Naibor may be 10 years old and Angama 12 months but for our group they offered such different, yet complementary experiences that they were in comparable & therefore worked brilliantly.

My son asked me today what do I think is the best job in the world. My answer was that if you do something you love, it will become the best job in the world for you. We are very lucky to work in an industry where you are paid to go on holiday (sorry…I mean a fam trip) with a bunch of agents that become your friends.  If you can share exhilarating experiences which bond a group like no other. …that to me is the best job in the world.