Frances visits Kenya and Zanzibar

All creatures great and small, from elephants and whale sharks to coconut crabs and flying foxes, my trip to the Masai Mara and the Tanzanian islands in March really did cover all bases, both on land and in the water. It was an incredible trip and reminded me that the combination of safari and beach just works so well, but it also demonstrated that the beach can sometimes offer much more than just a chance to wind down.

I began my trip with a three night stop in the fantastic Masai Mara in Kenya to catch up on developments in the past few years. It was fantastic to return to the open plains and I just couldn’t quite believe how much wildlife was around. I spent three nights across three conservancies; Naboisho, Olare Motorogi and Mara North. I saw leopard with a cub, multiple lion, including lion hunting a zebra, five cheetah all together and such abundant plains game. Travelling at this time of year was superb for a couple of reasons. The camps were quiet in terms of guests which means that the actual game viewing was extremely exclusive – I often would have a sighting all to myself. There were also just so many young animals around at this time of year – young wildebeest frolicking, fluffy zebra staying close to their mothers, groups of young giraffe poking their heads above the treeline. It was delightful to see so much new life, enjoying the bountiful plains. At all times of year a highlight of a safari in the Masai Mara has to be the guiding. My three Masai guides that hosted me had such a charming and gentle nature. Their unfailing eyesight will always amaze me. Nixon of Naboisho camp was engaging and it was fascinating to learn about his journey from being a young boy seeing the tourists come to Kenya on safari and waving at them on the side of the road, to being an excellent guide at one of the best safari camps in the Masai Mara.

From the Masai Mara, I used the SafariLink flight connection through to Zanzibar with a brief wait in Wilson Airport. I was enjoying a bush breakfast with elephants in the morning and sipping a sundowner cocktail on the white sands by the afternoon. The connection was seamless and makes the Mara and Zanzibar combination so much smoother than it used to be. I spent a couple of nights on Zanzibar, re-visiting hotels and discovering new ones. Zanzibar had certainly developed in the four years since I had last been. The roads were being improved, and more hotels had been built. The variety of hotels on Zanzibar really does cater for all tastes – from private luxury villas, contemporary and trendy resorts, sleepy boutique hotels and down to earth lodges.

I then took to the water and enjoyed a boat transfer over the tempting turquoise waters and arrived on Chumbe Island, a private nature reserve with a fully protected coral reef sanctuary and a forest reserve. The coral reef has been protected from fishing and diving since the early nineties which has meant that the reef is extremely healthy and diverse in comparison to other locations. The main function of the island is to protect the reef and marine life but as part of that, the island is open to tourists with a small eco lodge. The seven bungalows are designed to have zero impact on the environment and have a “Robinson Crusoe” feel to them. The snorkelling was the absolute highlight of my stay, with my guide pointing out the reef sharks, the leatherback turtles, the trumpet fish, the parrot fish, the bird fish – the list and inventive names go on! My day ended with a climb up the old lighthouse which rewarded me with a stunning vista over the ocean and a sunset that took my breath away, followed by a delicious candlelit meal of fresh fish on the beach, with only the sound of the waves lapping on the beach to distract me.

After Chumbe Island, I continued exploring the islands and spent my time split between Pemba Island (north of Zanzibar) and Mafia Island (south of Zanzibar). Both are well known diving and snorkelling locations. Pemba in particular blew me away. It is lush, fertile and green, with rolling hills and little villages, and is virtually untouched by tourism in comparison to the other islands. There are only three hotels to consider on the island – Fundu Lagoon, the Manta Resort and the Constance Aiyana. I absolutely fell in love with Fundu Lagoon – the safari tents are tucked away in the forest, with the hillside rooms up on the hillside with views over the ocean, and the beachfront tents and suites affording you the luxury of being able to wake up and roll straight out into the ocean. This is barefoot luxury at its very best. The little touches are really thought about here – sundowners are served on the jetty every evening and we enjoyed fresh ceviche from the days fishing and delicious roasted cashew nuts whilst witnessing one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The snorkelling at Mesali Island made me ever more determined to learn to scuba dive – the clarity of the water, the exclusivity of it just being us, the sheer number of fish, the professionalism and sense of fun with the guides was just fantastic, I would return in a heartbeat!

Mafia Island is a diver’s heaven – many dive sites with extensive diversity of marine life to keep even the most experienced divers excited. Again it has an untouched feel to it, the airport is literally one small room, and as you drive across the island you can see all the locals going about daily life and getting around by bicycle. I spent a night at the intimate Pole Pole on the Chole Bay side of the island and enjoyed a snorkelling excursion, jumping off the traditional wooden dhow boat into the clear blue waters. I also spent a night at Butiama Resort which is located on the west coast of the island. The real highlight of the west coast of Mafia is the whale sharks that take up residence from November to the end of March. If you visit during this period, you have the chance of heading out on a boat and diving into the ocean to swim side by side with these impressive marine giants.

My whale shark trip coincidentally coincided with my birthday so spirits were high as we set off that morning. The captain of the boat said it would take around half an hour to locate them. Unfortunately we were at the very end of March so the majority of whale sharks had moved off, so three hours later with no sightings, and the hot beating sun slightly getting the better of us, spirits were a little lower. We all got to the point where turning back to land seemed like a good idea when the skipper suddenly spotted the mystical dark shape moving towards the surface. It’s honestly hard to describe how exciting it is to jump in the deep blue water next to a whale shark. We spent an hour snorkelling as he moved from the shallow surface into the deep water below and back again. At times he would go so deep that we would struggle to see him through the murky dark blue and then just like that he would be almost next to you. It’s a fantastic wildlife experience and combined with the rustic charming character of Mafia Island, it’s a beach experience offering that bit more than simply rest and relaxation.

Frances stayed at Naboisho Camp, Kicheche Bush, Ngare Serian, Zuri Zanzibar, Matlai Boutique Hotel, Chumbe Island, Fundu Lagoon, the Manta Resort, Butiama Resort and Pole Pole.

Frances inspected Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Hotel, The Tamarind Tree, Ol Seki Hemingways, Encounter Mara, Kicheche Valley, Mahali Mzuri, Olare Mara Kempinski, Mara Plains, Mara Expeditions, Offbeat Mara, Kicheche Mara, Karen Blixen Camp, Gemma dell’Est, Riu Palace, Next Paradise, Shooting Star Lodge, Pongwe Beach Hotel, Breezes Beach Club, the Palms, Baraza Resort and Spa, Zawadi, Xanadu Villas, White Sands Luxury Villas, Sea View Lodge, Unguja Lodge, the Residence Zanzibar, Zanzibar Palace, the Serena Inn, the Park Hyatt, Shamba Kilole, Kinasi Lodge, Mafia Island Lodge, the Southern Sun Dar es Salaam, the Slipway, and the Oyster Bay.