Escape to Kenya: Photo Tours During Covid
So, I have just got back to the UK after around a month on a Kenya photo safari. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to escape the doom and gloom of Covid and politics and answer the call of the African bush. Below I’ll let you know about some of the highlights of the trip, but first I have to address the elephant in the room…
Covid-19 restrictions here in the UK have meant a 2-week self-isolation period for me on arrival back to the UK – we have all grown used to living in lockdown now, and for me at least, this did not act as a deterrent, and so the wheels were set in motion. Kenya requires a negative Covid-19 (PCR) test, to be taken within 96 hours of arrival into the country. They also require a passenger locator form to be filled in, which provides each visitor with their own unique QR code. This form takes just 2 minutes to fill in. That’s it. From check-in at London Heathrow, on very reasonably priced, flexible date return tickets (British Airways), all the way through to arriving in Kenya and leaving Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, everything was very smooth, well organised and really easy.
In detail, this is what I had to do: The flights that we booked came with flexible dates as standard, meaning you can change the dates at no extra charge with ease, if needed. Next step is to apply online for a Kenyan Evisa. All pretty straightforward, but you can do this on arrival if you wish (just having it ahead of time means it’s quick when you get to Kenya and reduces contact through your travels).
You must have a Covid-19 test done within 96 hours of your arrival into Kenya. This is something that does need to be carefully planned, as some flight routes especially from the States can take a while to get you to Kenya. Most labs, however, can provide you with results within 24 hours of the test being taken, so this is very doable. An email receipt of results is all you will need, but this will be checked a few times (I was checked 3 times airport to airport), so having it printed out is a good idea.
You will also need to fill in a Passenger Locator form before you arrive, via the Kenyan government website, where you will receive an individual code straight to your phone that can be used throughout your trip. The next stage was of course mandatory; wearing of a mask for the duration of the flight (except for when eating) which really is not too bad at all, and is something people are very comfortable with. You are also provided with hand sanitiser and an anti-bacterial wipe on the flight. Interestingly there has been a study on the likelihood of catching Covid-19 on a flight, which you can find here.
Getting into Kenya was very quick and efficient. We disembarked the plane in small, socially-distanced groups and then just had to produce our negative Covid test results, the QR code from the Passenger Locator form (on your device is fine) and then the Kenya Evisa as normal. Once through the airport you will then be met by a private vehicle with the driver wearing a mask, and then out into the vast open spaces and fresh air of the African wilderness.
Back to the photo safari. First stop was to head up into central Kenya and an area known as Laikipia, to the west of Mount Kenya. More specifically, we spent our time here at Laikipia Wilderness Camp. This is a particularly good area for leopard and wild dog (much more on the dogs later!), as well as elephants, and various different activities such as walks and bike rides, and sleep-outs in the bush.
On the first night there we were all spoiled with an amazing sighting of a pack of wild dog hunting small antelope. Little did we know the best was yet to come. On the way back to camp after dark we spotted a leopard in the spotlight. Quick as a flash it sprinted after a pair of dik-dik (smallest antelope in Africa) and just miscalculated his ambush. I managed to get about two seconds of this on film, but it was so quick it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on. After the failed attempt, we followed him for another 5 minutes through the bush until he flushed an African hare from its hiding place and caught it with lightning quick, cat-like (!) reflexes. It was incredible to see a leopard kill from start to finish, something that has taken me 10 years in the bush to see properly. My luck was in this evening it seems, as while he was wandering off, a dik-dik bolted from its hiding place, darting right out in front of the leopard, who swiftly took the opportunity to upscale his dinner and set off in a short-lived pursuit. The upshot of this was one big male leopard with multiple options for supper. He chose the larger of the two, the dik-dik, and slunk off into the bush to enjoy it in peace. What a start to the trip and what a way to immediately take my mind off the all-consuming new normal that we have all found ourselves in under the restrictions and pressures of Covid. The best form of escape!
Meru National Park
Next up was a trip to Meru National Park, home of the famous lioness Elsa back in the 1950s. Meru is much hotter and drier than a lot of Kenya, yet it is a hugely diverse park with open savannah intersected by endless streams, and the thicker, taller vegetation that grows along the riverine forests. Meru is renowned for its exceptional birdlife, with lesser seen species like Golden Pipit and Golden Palm Weaver being highlights. There is a dedicated, well secured rhino sanctuary within Meru National Park, which virtually guarantees you great sightings of these rare and iconic animals – and gives you pretty good chances of seeing all of the Big Five. We had some good elephant sightings, amazing herds of buffalo, and saw hippo and crocodile while fishing for dinner in one of the pools in the rivers. Proceed with caution!
We did manage to find a small group of lionesses after closely following the tracks that one pride had made, and seeing tracks everywhere including going right past our camp! Though it did take hearing some monkeys alarm calling to give us the direction to go and look in the end. At the end of the search were three lions, a real treat after putting a lot of effort into finding them. Possibly descendants of Elsa, or perhaps I’m being a bit nostalgic. Either way, it’s always a good day when you end it with a lion sighting!
On to the world famous Masai Mara. One of my (new) absolute favourite places on Earth! Now I know it is unlikely to ever be as quiet as it currently is again in our lifetimes, but wow, it is indescribable just how amazing the quality of wildlife viewing is here, and the absolute lack of other vehicles was a real treat! If travel is at all in your mind for the near future, I would say grab the opportunity for a Masai Mara photo safari with no one else there while it exists, this one special time. Having spent a week there, I can’t even come close to describing all the incredible sightings we had. But just to name a few: four lion hunts from start to finish, one crossing of thousands of wildebeest and zebra dodging crocodiles, three different cheetah sightings, more elephants than you can shake a mouse at, a black rhino mother and calf, more hippo, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, more lions than I can count, one lion kill, where the mother caught a zebra and then went back to find her 2-3 month old cubs and brought them slowly and carefully back to us, and then to top it all off, over an hour in the company of a very relaxed female leopard and her 3 month old cub, just breathtaking.
Having headed out early from the lodge one day, we were specifically looking for leopard and headed straight to the known territory of a female we knew had a cub. Female leopards have small territories and will stay especially close to one area if they have a small cub. Saying that, if a leopard does not want to be found, you won’t see it (though you can be sure it will have seen you!). Our luck was in that morning, as in the heart of her territory, there she was, with her cub walking along a track, avoiding the long, dew-laden grass next to them. We watched them both for over an hour, playing together, grooming each other, and we even had the little cub learning how to stalk some spurfowl (a small, ground-dwelling game bird) though her over-excited tail gave the game away here! Benja, my local guide, told me that a sighting this good of a leopard in a normal year would have attracted a lot more vehicles, which would potentially have changed the dynamic and the leopards may have been more reluctant to come out into the open and spend as much time with us. But as it was, we topped out at 4 cars. It really was unbelievable!
I have to quickly mention a real stand-out lodge here in the Mara, it has gone right to the top of my list of best lodges in Africa (slightly behind Mwiba where I was Head Guide, of course!) and that is Angama Mara. It is truly spectacular, and surpassed the very high expectations that I already had of it. They are about to launch an exclusive use mobile tented camp which will go into the real quiet and unexplored corners of the Masai Mara. I was lucky to see a dry-run of the tented camp, and can say categorically that it looks amazing and will give its guests the perfect balance of Angama luxury with a true bush elegance.
After the most amazing Mara experience it was off to another iconic park, Amboseli, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Amboseli is all about the huge number of elephants that call this park home. It is generally a very dry, flat landscape with the impressive Kilimanjaro looming above you, ever-present (as long as it’s not too cloudy) making for some fantastic photographic opportunities. The rules inside the national park itself are very strict in terms of staying on the road and not being able to go on walks etc. But there are a couple of great private conservancies that border the park that have a lot more freedom in terms of photographic opportunities. I was able to get out of the vehicle and on the ground as a herd of elephants drifted past me and off into the setting sun. Amboseli as a park really is very special, and incredibly photogenic. If you are after footage of these gentle giants in all their glory, with stunning backdrops like the iconic views of Kilimanjaro, then it is a must. It really is a photographer’s dream.
Laikipia Take Two
Back up to central Kenya and Laikipia again. The drive from Amboseli and up meant I got to take in Africa’s two highest mountains in one day, sunrise over Mount Kilimanjaro and then sunset glinting off a very snow-capped Mount Kenya. I met a few people who have climbed both now, a very intriguing future prospect for me, but I digress. Back to Laikipia and a personal quest for myself of seeing one of the ultra-rare melanistic (black coloured) leopards that inhabit the area. I unfortunately missed out twice before now, having visited the area last year and once already this year, but two separate other groups did see one of the leopards while I was there. I’m very happy for them of course, and not at all jealous!
Moving on though, onto one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life. The pack of wild dogs that we had seen a week or two previously regularly hang around Laikipia Wilderness Camp, and have been followed, filmed and studied for years. They are the last surviving pack from a bad bout of canine distemper that wiped out a lot of dogs in central Kenya back in 2017. So they are a special pack of the rarest large carnivore in Africa that are quite used to people and being watched, and because of this, they just get on with whatever they are doing. They don’t change their behaviour because of humans and are not at all bothered by human presence.
One morning we found the dogs early (though by this time they had already hunted and had full bellies) at a waterhole where they were drinking, playing and generally relaxing after their early morning success. With our guide knowing my extensive guiding background in Africa, he dropped us off out of the vehicle at the opposite side of the waterhole and reversed a few metres back. This enabled me to get low down on the ground and try for some low angle photographs of the dogs. This is not a regular occurrence, and was only possible due to where the dogs were and how they were behaving. It was incredible. Soon after they saw these ‘new’ objects on the ground they came over to investigate. They were sniffing around us until, curiosity satisfied, they went back to playing their games all around us. The puppies were playing, and the adults were running around, jumping into the waterhole and generally having a lot of fun.
I was absolutely in my element loving every second. They played around for about 20 minutes before slowly drifting off to find some shade to rest under for the hotter part of the day. There are a few very special photos that I am quite happy with from this experience, though admittedly I did take rather a few, so still need to go through them all properly. Below is one I particularly like.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
After another unforgettable time in Laikipia, it was time to head further north around the base of Mount Kenya and into a favourite spot of mine, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. One of their key initiatives is the conservation of both black and white rhino, and have been so successful they are now exploring how to carefully drop the boundaries into some of the surrounding conservancies and ranches. The game viewing here is always amazing with rhino guaranteed, really good lion, elephant, buffalo etc as well as the special ‘northern five’ of Kenya (Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk, Grevy’s Zebra and Reticulated Giraffe). All of this is seen with a spectacular backdrop of Mount Kenya, and a good degree of exclusivity, as there are only a handful of properties here. Another dream place for some incredible photographic opportunities.
From Lewa it was on up further north, past Samburu National Reserve, to the barely explored Matthews Range. These are an incredibly wild and pristine range of mountains with very few people around. The communities that do live around here are largely traditional Samburu tribespeople, continuing with their normal traditions and lifestyles as they have for generations. This is where the fabled ‘singing wells’ are. In the dry season, people dig down, sometimes metres deep into dry riverbeds to source the water below. This is mainly to provide water for their cows, and they sing to their cows by name who are then attracted to the wells – hence the singing wells.
In addition, there are some really good leopard sightings to be had here, as well as a number of elephant. Better than this is the chance to go and explore, on foot, some really remote and unmapped wilderness areas. This is a real rarity and something I absolutely loved. There is a brand new camp, exquisitely finished, called Kalepo Camp. This really is a special place, off on its own, and wonderfully located with the ability to explore local villages, walk up into the mountains, explore and swim in mountain streams, and see the milky way appear over you in a dry river bed while sipping on a G&T, with zero light pollution. I really found this to be a very special place. It is also a fantastic base to explore the mystical Chalbi Desert, fabled Lake Turkana and meet the wonderful people that reside here.
And now I sit here, back in the UK with grey skies and driving rain thinking about this last Kenya photo tour and very much looking forward to the next one and more!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a few highlights from my latest trip to Africa. Let me know if you have any questions about some of the places I went to or how I found international travel. I’m always very keen to talk about my passions; safaris, wildlife, photography and Africa. I know how much even just reading about adventures in Africa can lift spirits – this is certainly the case for me!