More than the Mara: Kenya’s Inspiring Culture

You’re probably caught up on Elizabeth’s Kenya trip a few months ago, but she’s not the only one who’s been re-enchanted by the country. While I’ve traveled in Kenya before, my trip here last fall opened my eyes all over again to the authentic warmth and cultural interactions you can experience here in addition to the incredible wildlife! I started in Nairobi, then spent the first big portion of my trip north around the Laikipia region and in the Mathews Mountain Range. The second part of my safari took me south into the Masai Mara and surrounding conservancies before flying home. We packed a lot in, so I’ll stick to the highlights for you.

Ready for adventure. ©Kimi Christopulous

Ready for adventure. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

It’s true, I am a wildlife fanatic. It’s what initially pulled me to safari, and elephants have always held a very special place in my heart. Which is why, for anyone who loves elephants, spending some time at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is a must. They have a few ways to visit, including a daily visiting hour for the public, and daily private visits for elephant foster “parents,” which was similar to my private visit. Getting eye-to-eye with these incredibly gentle and perceptive creatures and learning all about their unique stories from the keepers and the immense logistical work necessary to save them was simply life-changing. I especially loved what an organic, unstructured experience it was. You’re free to talk with the keepers and interact with various elephants the whole time as you start to notice their different personalities and behaviors as they feed, bathe in the mud, and browse for foliage.

New friends at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. ©Kimi Christopulous

New friends at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. ©Kimi Christopulous

Learn more about the orphan project in Nairobi here. And, for our West Coast readers who want to support this mission, we’re sponsoring the upcoming Enormous Elephant Run: Freestyle Los Angeles on March 10, 2018. Get the details and sign up here!

Elephants spotted on safari. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Elephants spotted on safari. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Nairobi was just the start of my adventure, though, followed by five nights in Kenya’s beautiful and rugged north. To give you an idea, the Laikipia Plateau is a vast expanse of wild country covering over 3,000 square miles between Mt. Kenya and the Rift Valley. It’s primarily made up of privately owned ranches and communal grazing areas, with a focus on eco-tourism and conservation. If you continue further north, like I did, you reach the Mathews Range, a mountainous and forested wilderness area where few visitors go. Because of private ownership and limited visitor numbers, you typically have a much wider range of available activities that can be tailored to you. It’s the culture and emphasis on unique activities that make the north so outstanding.

Getting off the beaten path on horseback. ©Sarara Camp

Getting off the beaten path on horseback. ©Sarara Camp

Two of my favorite experiences were at Sarara Camp in the Mathews Range with the local Samburu.

The Singing Wells

The Samburu peoples are a group of semi-nomadic pastoralists who are related to, but distinct from, the Maasai peoples. Many Samburu are not used to tourists and maintain a shyness around cameras especially. (Some are fine with photographs, but we recommend always asking first!) One of the traditions they continue is their visits to the area’s singing wells, which I felt so lucky to experience first-hand with them. The wells are entirely natural holes that go deep enough to reach ground water. The Samburu men fill up troughs of water from these wells, singing as they pass the water up the well from person to person. Each group of men is calling to their specific animals, which are the Samburu’s primary livelihoods. Each group has their own family “songs,” sounds, and cues for their cattle to come drink. It’s a very intimate, spiritual experience for Samburu and felt totally authentic and uncontrived. It’s so powerful to witness this event and feel connected to cultural traditions centuries old.

Artist's rendition of the Samburu Singing Wells. ©Sarara Camp

Artist's rendition of the Samburu Singing Wells. ©Sarara Camp

Beading with Samburu women

By now I’ve been to my share of canned, tourist-driven “cultural” experiences. We all have at EJ, which is why we’re dedicated to finding, sharing, and supporting only authentic, meaningful experiences we believe in. Like the Singing Wells, Sarara also allows guests to spend time beading with a group of local Samburu women and a translator. While I was a little worried it might be awkward speaking only through a translator, this was one of my most memorable and eye-opening interactions of the trip! We spent part of that afternoon asking each other questions about life as Western vs. Samburu women, expectations, and personal experiences as if we had been friends for years – it felt so natural, organic, and non-judgmental. We were quickly laughing together and learning more about each other’s lives and cultures than in most encounters I’ve had. For anyone able, I highly encourage this experience to engage on a very personal level with another culture.

Spending quality time with Samburu women. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Spending quality time with Samburu women. ©Kimi Christopulous.

After so much time getting to know the north and its people, it was hard to leave. The saving grace? If I had to leave, at least it was for the Masai Mara and surrounding areas, which more than delivered on wildlife.

Wildlife in the Masai Mara

Wherever we were, whenever we looked, we found lions, lions, and more lions. While I was there a bit late in the season, the sightings were phenomenal! (There’s a reason the Mara is world-renowned.) One evening we were returning from a game drive as the sun was setting over the plains. There in the grass en-route to camp we found a coalition of five male lions calling out to a sixth lion further away. Those roars literally resonated through my body – it felt surreal. But that is the magic of the Masai Mara. It simply never disappoints.

Up close and personal. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Up close and personal. ©Kimi Christopulous.

My takeaway

Most people first go to Africa because of the wildlife, and Kenya unquestionably delivers, and even exceeded expectations even on this trip. That said, the smaller, intimate properties allowed for such quality, organic time with cultural members that connecting with local tribes and traditions stole the show for me. There’s so much more to this country than only going to the Mara (but definitely do that too, of course!), which I’m thrilled to share with our travelers.

Kenya is so much more than a tourist circuit. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Kenya is so much more than a tourist circuit. ©Kimi Christopulous.

Put your camera down, get out of the vehicle, and open your eyes. You’ll never look back.

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Lara Ray