Angela and I, along with our friends Justin and Melody, recently returned from our first international trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This trip was originally planned in October 2019 for July 2020 and, obviously, was rescheduled and rebooked several times between then and now.
In describing this trip, I’m going to delineate only the final itinerary and how I booked it as there were too many changes between the initial bookings and the trip’s final form for a coherent description to be provided. In addition to the typical list of activities, flights, and hotels, I’m going to describe the somewhat unique process of traveling internationally on a complex itinerary as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a concern.
In sum, we had an excellent trip even with all of the paperwork and restrictions. That being said, international travel is certainly different than it used to be.
Unlike most of our trips, I settled on a destination and duration for the safari portion of the trip (in consultation with Angela, Justin, and Melody) before I ever considered how we were going to get there. My reasoning was that booking in advance of flight schedules opening up would give us the most flexibility in transporting four people via frequent flyer miles.
The primary goals for this itinerary were:
- Travel together on as many flights as possible to lessen the chance of missed connections or other travel issues getting us separated
- Allow enough time between major location movements to account for possible mishaps (although this invariably results in some “waiting” before moving on to the next fun thing)
- Reduce the total amount of cash out of pocket for all non-lodge bookings given how expensive the lodge would be in comparison to other travel
In short, the itinerary repeatedly evolved over the course of the last twenty months. Eventually, we mostly ended up on the same flights and at the same hotels. The bookings were made using a mixture of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and cash.
Given that we were traveling as two couples, it makes sense to split the air itineraries by couple.
- Angela and Nicholas
- 200,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 52.20USD per person in taxes and fees
- LAS-LAX on AS F
- LAX-DXB on EK F
- Stopover in Dubai
- DXB-NBO on EK F
- 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage Miles + 82.65USD per person in taxes and fees
- NBO-DOH on QR J
- DOH-LAX on QR J
- LAX-LAS on AA J
- 200,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 52.20USD per person in taxes and fees
- Justin and Melody
- 120,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 52.20USD per person in taxes and fees
- LAS-LAX on AS F
- LAX-DXB on EK J
- Stopover in Dubai
- DXB-NBO on EK J
- 85,000 Qatar Airways Qmiles + 77.06USD per person in taxes and fees
- NBO-DOH on QR J
- DOH-SFO on QR J
- 68.98USD per person (cash fare)
- SFO-LAS on WN Y
- 120,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 52.20USD per person in taxes and fees
For lodging, we all stayed at the same places using the same booking methods, so it is a little easier to outline:
- Two rooms for one night at Hilton Los Angeles Airport for 27,000 Hilton Honors per room per night
- Two rooms for two nights at Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Center for 222AED per room per night (inclusive of taxes and fees)
- Two rooms for three nights at Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa for 80,000 Marriott Bonvoy per room per night
- Two rooms for one night at Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport for 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy per room per night
- Two suites for four nights at Little Governors’ Camp for the inclusive cash rate booked through Rhino Africa including hotel transfers with Cheli & Peacock and flight bookings on AirKenya Express
- One room for one night at Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport for 198USD per room per night (this was a late booking once we realized our schedule was going to require us to sit in the hotel’s lounge for a considerable amount of time before heading to NBO for our long-haul flights)
There were lots of changes and some weird hiccups along the way but I ended up happy with all the bookings and felt like I received relatively good, although not outstanding, value.
With how quickly travel requirements change, it is likely that those we encountered and are outlined in the following few paragraphs may be out of date when you’re reading this. That being said, this is what we encountered and the solutions we chose to ensure we could move between countries with a minimum of fuss.
For entry, Dubai required a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR result obtained within 72 hours of departure. I evaluated testing facilities in Las Vegas that would have allowed us to get tested before departing home, but none of them guaranteed a result within a short time frame without being exorbitantly expensive. Luckily, LAX offers several testing facilities that return results in a reasonable time frame. We opted to take a one hour test the morning of our flight from Los Angeles to Dubai. The cost was 199USD per person and the test was performed at LAX’s TBIT. We registered and paid online prior to starting our journey, so all we had to do was present our confirmation codes, get our noses swabbed, and wait for the results. They came via email approximately 45 minutes after testing.
For entry, Kenya required a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR result obtained within 96 hours of departure. In addition, you must upload this test result to Global Haven, a Trusted Traveler portal, prior to travel in order to get a Traveler Code. As a final requirement, you must fill out a passenger locator form at least 24 hours prior to travel and present the generated QR code to a Ministry of Health official upon arrival in Kenya. Once in Dubai, I asked at check-in what the best option would be for a PCR test and was informed they could bring a technician on site to perform the test for us with results in 12-15 hours for 250AED. Alternatively, we could get the same test performed at a local hospital for 150AED. Given the relatively small cost difference, we opted to keep things simple and get tested at the hotel. At the appointed time, a technician came to our room, confirmed our information, swabbed our noses, and packed up the specimens. Our results arrived via email approximately nine hours after the tests were performed.
For entry, the USA requires a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR or antigen result obtained within three days of departure. However, Kenya has a separate exit requirement whereby a Trusted Traveler certified negative PCR result must be presented in order to depart from the country. Given these constraints, we again opted to keep things simple and got tested at the lodge. The cost was 150USD per person payable upon the administration of the test. We scheduled our tests for August 3 and spent about 30 minutes filling out paperwork on the evening of August 2 in preparation. On August 3 our noses and throats were individually swabbed and we were told we’d have the results in our email within 24 hours. Unfortunately, this proved to be untrue. While the camp manager let us know that we tested negative, we didn’t receive the paperwork indicating as much until an hour before we left the camp, causing me a bit of unneeded anxiety. I would say this was very clearly the worst testing experience.
Outside of testing, everywhere we visited required masks to be worn when indoors and in common areas. This was exclusionary of when meals were being eaten where masks could be taken off after seating and remain off for the duration of the meal.
Masks were also required on all flights. However, the flight attendants in premium cabins on long-haul international flights did not insist on masking at all times as I saw several people take their masks off when settling in their seat and keep them off for the majority of the flight. I happily observed, however, that any time a passenger moved around the cabin, they, of their own accord, ensured they were masked.
Las Vegas to Los Angeles and an Overnight
We started our trip in the Centurion Lounge like we do on most of our journeys. Given our dearth of air travel in the past year, this was the first time we’d visited since they expanded it. The most notable change is that there is considerably more seating than there used to be. In addition, the dining area was totally revamped during the remodel and is much less cramped than in the previous iteration of the lounge.
After leaving the lounge, we boarded our short Alaska Airlines flight to LAX. I always enjoy the LAS to LAX flights given how short they are and, on Alaska Airlines at least, how pleasant the crew is. We were served drinks and provided with snacks on the flight which, to be honest, I was a bit surprised by.
Once we landed, we walked to the arrivals area and availed ourselves of the free shuttle to the Hilton Los Angeles Airport. Once we arrived at the hotel, I skipped the huge check-in line to take advantage of the Hilton Honors check-in desk. Our two rooms were on the 15th floor and the check-in agent informed me that we would all receive the 15USD per person Hilton Honors Diamond Food & Beverage credit. I was pleasantly surprised that both rooms received the benefit given that I booked them on the same itinerary from my Hilton Honors account and didn’t expect the benefit to extend to more than one room.
After check-in, Angela and I ordered food from Benny’s Tacos & Rotisserie Chicken via Uber Eats. My rotisserie chicken burrito and carne asada taco were both delicious and Angela loved her set of tacos as well. Angela strongly suggests the al pastor street tacos.
Following dinner, I enjoyed a fair bit of plane spotting as we had a perfect view of the runway. From there, it was off to bed in preparation for a long day of travel.
Journey to Dubai
The following morning, we met in the lobby and took the hotel shuttle to TBIT at LAX for our SARS-COV-2 tests. We walked up to the test area, showed our confirmation codes, and were asked to wait in line while they procured additional 1-hour tests.
Interestingly, anyone who showed up needing a test without an appointment was asked to make an appointment online before any staff member would talk to them.
After a short wait, we were summoned one at a time to confirm our information and get a swab stuck in our nostrils. We were told we’d have our test results emailed to us within the hour. As such, we hopped on the shuttle back to the hotel, ate a delicious breakfast consisting exclusively of breakfast burritos, and excitedly checked our devices to see if we had our test results yet.
Before breakfast was over, we’d all been informed we tested negative and sent a PDF indicating as much. I went to the business center, obtained printed copies for everyone, and then returned to the room to rest for a bit.
Before heading to the airport for check-in, we decided to get a workout in before sitting on a plane for 16 hours. Luckily, the gym at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport had a decent amount of equipment, especially for an airport hotel, with dumbbells up to 75 pounds and a considerable amount of other cardio and strength equipment.
At noon, we checked out and took the shuttle back to LAX. By the time we arrived, check-in was open for our flight and we were able to show a copy of our test results and receive our boarding passes. Surprisingly, the Emirates Lounge at LAX is currently open, so we spent several hours there prior to our flight. The lounge was well-stocked with both drinks and food and staff members were waiting and ready to assist with anything we needed. Angela and Melody enjoyed some pre-departure champagne and we all ate our fill. The lamb and chicken dishes were both delicious and the accompaniments were fresh and tasty.
About twenty minutes prior to boarding, we departed the lounge to stretch our legs before our flight. We circled the terminal once and arrived at our gate about two minutes before boarding started. From there, Angela and I split from Melody and Justin as we turned left to head to first class and they turned right for business class.
We’ve flown Emirates first class previously so it wasn’t a new product for us, but we had only previously flown it on a medium-haul flight, so the experience was a little different. As before, the seat was comfortable (although not as adjustable as Angela likes) and the food was very good. The service was attentive and friendly. Angela and I both showered in the sky, a unique experience that you can currently only have on the Emirates A380 in first class.
It is hard to wholeheartedly recommend first class when business class is so much more affordable for both award and cash bookings, but if it is something you’re able to experience at least once on a top-tier airline, I think it is worth it.
Arrival in Dubai
We were greeted by an Emirates Airlines agent on arrival in Dubai who whisked us past the SARS-COV-2 PCR result verification queue and to the front of the immigration area. Because of this, we were off the plane and into the United Arab Emirates in about fifteen minutes.
After a quick stop at the ATM to get some local currency for our stay in the country, we walked through customs and started the search for our hotel shuttle driver. He was a little late, but soon we were in a Tesla Model X headed to the Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Center. Upon check-in, I was informed that we were upgraded from the base rooms I booked to Deluxe Le Royal Club rooms. In addition, we would have access to breakfast, afternoon tea, and happy hour every day as a consequence of my Marriott Bonvoy status.
That night, we retired to our room, unpacked clothes for the following day, and got some much needed rest as we were determined to adjust to the new time zone.
We woke up early and ready to eat. At 0630, we descended upon the Le Royal Club Lounge to enjoy a nice variety of Middle Eastern and Western dishes with eggs to order, labneh, various meats and cheeses, and pastries. After getting our fill, we rested for a short while and then took advantage of one of the nicest hotel gyms I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. There were multiple full squat racks, a considerable amount of free weights, a functional fitness room with plyometric equipment, a fight room with four heavy bags, and a selection of treadmills, spin bikes, and rowing machines. To say it was a pleasant surprise is an understatement.
Later in the day, we booked a car from the hotel to the Armani Hotel where we eventually found the entrance to the At.mosphere Lounge. While Justin and Melody wandered off to explore one of the local shopping malls, we were whisked up 123 floors by a high-speed elevator to enjoy an afternoon tea experience.
I was able to secure us a window table a few months ago and enjoyed being high up and looking down over most of Dubai. The sky was somewhat hazy on the day we dined, so the view wasn’t as stunning as I’m sure it is on other days, but was still enjoyable. A violinist played for much of the time we were at the lounge, and we both enjoyed the soothing sounds of the strings.
The food was good, with the desserts being a particular highlight, but it would be hard to recommend the experience to anyone who doesn’t already know that they enjoy the delicacies and mechanisms of an afternoon tea given the expense.
When afternoon tea concluded, we met with Justin and Melody to return to the hotel. For the most part, the rest of the day was spent relaxing, although I did wander down to the Le Royal Club Lounge to see what the happy hour included. After being invited to sit and asked for my room number, I was provided with an unexplained platter of small bites and given my drink of choice, sparkling water with lime. It was a somewhat enjoyable experience, but would certainly be better with traveling companions than alone. The food served isn’t enough to constitute a full meal, but you could get by until breakfast if you weren’t extremely hungry.
The next day, we followed much of the same routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, and work out. After packing up, we were informed the test technician was en route to our room so we all gathered, got tested, and then waited for our transport to pick us up and bring us to Al Maha.
Al Maha Desert Resort
It took about one hour to get from Dubai to Al Maha with two-thirds of the journey on various highways and the final third spent crawling towards the resort along a gravel road in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area. That crawl is a blessing in disguise, though, as it is when you’ll most likely be introduced to the primary wildlife you’ll encounter on property, the Arabian sand gazelle and the oryx.
When we arrived, we were invited to sit in a room off to the side of reception where we were provided with a refreshing welcome drink. The hotel representative, Dinah, confirmed our full-board package included breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of our stay, either in the restaurant or via in-room dining. We then met Liam, our activity coordinator for our stay. He described the available activities and confirmed our selection of the falconry experience for the next morning.
Angela and I have been to Al Maha before, but there were a few key differences between that visit and this one. First, the activity times had been shifted considerably in light of the overwhelming heat. The falconry exhibition starts at 0530 in the summer in order to protect the birds from the absurd temperatures. Second, there were almost no flies present during this visit whereas they were a constant annoyance during the winter. Personally, I preferred the summer visit given the heat didn’t negatively affect me, but I know that opinions might differ on this.
After check-in, we were driven to our rooms and given our key. Our bags arrived a few minutes later via buggy. The room was just as nice as I remembered from our previous visit. Each has a huge soaking tub, private patio and pool, a gigantic (and comfortable) bed, and two lounges.
Given it was now mid-afternoon, Angela and I ordered lunch via room service where I opted for a grilled chicken salad and steak sandwich while Angela selected the burrata and butter chicken. Each dish was delicious, in line with my memories of our first visit.
After eating our fill, we got in the pool to cool off and alternated between the pool and the lounge chairs throughout the course of the afternoon. We met Justin and Melody for dinner that evening where we enjoyed the steak special of the night which was absolutely incredible.
Our first full day at the resort started very early with the falconry exhibition. We were introduced to a golden eagle owl, Harris’s hawk, golden eagle, and peregrine falcon. Unlike our last visit, there was no opportunity to hold the falcon on the glove because of close contact rules instituted in the United Arab Emirates but they placed a perch in the sand and allowed each individual to pose next to the falcon for photos.
After our morning activity, we wandered to the restaurant for breakfast where, unluckily for the cooks on staff, I was informed that I could order as many entrees as I wanted. Angela enjoyed her typical shakshuka, whereas I ordered an omelette and followed it up with poached eggs on avocado toast. Another difference between our visits revealed itself here as there is no longer a self-serve buffet and you must request items from an individual behind plexiglass. It was hardly a hindrance to the experience, though.
Again, we spent the day alternating between the pool and the lounge chairs. Surprisingly, Angela and I managed to fall asleep in the 120F heat and were awoken by a sand gazelle about four feet away staring at us.
Later on in the day, an oryx came near to our pool. I took a few pictures from the stairway and then decided to get a little closer by inching around the edge of the pool. As I approached the animal, Angela chided me “do not get gored by an oryx, please.”
I had time to snap a single shot before I heard an angry grunt and the beast swung his horns towards me angrily. I quickly ran away (quite amusingly if you ask Angela) to avoid being gored, thinking to myself “Angela is going to kill me if I get killed by this oryx.”
That night, Angela decided to rest while Justin, Melody, and I enjoyed the sunset camel trek. Our camels were named Tajar, Laurence, and Bashar. For some reason, Melody was placed on the tallest camel, Bashar, that was so tall that she couldn’t even reach the trailing camel’s head to pet it while we were riding out to see the sunset.
We rode to a distant dune, observed a very hazy sunset with some drinks, and trekked back to the property. After checking on Angela, I headed off to dinner with our travel companions where I started with the beef carpaccio and chose the beef biryani for my entree. Both were incredibly delicious and I’d recommend either wholeheartedly.
The following day was a dedicated relaxation day so we all ate a large breakfast and spent the rest of the day in the suite’s soaking tub and plunge pool. We opted, again, to have lunch delivered to our suite. For dinner, I chose the lamb kofteh and deconstructed tiramisu which, again, were both delicious.
Journey to Kenya
The next day saw us up extremely early. We were able to order from the full menu and have breakfast delivered to our room at 0445 before having our bags picked up and driven to reception where we checked out, paid the associated tourist taxes, and set out for the airport.
The one hour drive from Al Maha to DXB passed without incident. Check-in was a little convoluted, unfortunately, because I didn’t have printed copies of our Kenyan eVisas and the check-in agent was confused about when they expired. We eventually got things sorted out as we showed him digital copies of the eVisa and told him that they expired 90 days from issuance, instead of the 30 days he assumed.
From there, we headed through immigration and security and made our way to the lounge level. While Justin and Melody went to the Emirates Business Lounge, we were able to enjoy the Emirates First Lounge.
Service in the Emirates First Lounge was uniformly great. The woman who checked us in happily printed our Kenyan eVisas for us after we asked about printing services. There is a full restaurant available but given the recency with which we had eaten, we stuck with a few drinks and a small bowl of granola.
I was genuinely shocked by how large the lounge was. There is a full kitchen that was working hard and a sushi chef on staff making rolls and nigiri, even when we were there so early in the morning.
We left the lounge with about ten minutes left until boarding and walked to our gate at which we were subjected to a pre-boarding screen where our passports, boarding passes, and Kenyan Ministry of Health codes were confirmed. We walked directly onto the plane after the outer screen as first class had already been boarded.
Flight attendants offered drinks and slippers before takeoff. Angela chose a glass of Dom Perignon 2008 and I opted for sparkling water with lime. Full service started immediately after the climbout. Angela and I both ordered the ginger and carrot soup and chicken biryani given it seems to be best to order very boldly flavored foods in the air. I greatly enjoyed the soup and liked the biryani although the rice seemed to get crisped a little bit when they warmed it up.
Throughout the rest of the flight, I was kept supplied with cappuccinos on demand and spent much of the time writing this various blog post or reading.
Upon arrival in Nairobi, we disembarked at a remote gate and were taken from there to the arrivals area where a doctor checked that we possessed a Kenyan Ministry of Health arrivals code and then an assistant scanned the code for logging and took our temperature. From there, we stepped up to immigration where we presented our eVisas and passports, answered some basic questions about the length of our stay and where we would be staying, and were stamped and allowed entry into the country.
Because we carried all of our luggage on the plane, we walked through baggage claim to customs where our bags were subjected to scanning, and then walked outside where we met a representative from our hotel who brought us to where our driver would meet us.
From Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it was a five minute drive to the Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport where our car was sniffed by a dog, our bags were X-rayed and disinfected, we underwent a temperature check, and then were able to check in. Angela and I were upgraded to a large suite while Justin and Melody were limited to a base room.
I visited the gym that night and made use of the small amount of equipment that was available. After a quick shower, though, it was time for a good night’s sleep.
The Masai Mara
We met up for breakfast the next morning and consumed our fill of eggs, meats, and pastries. Shortly afterward, we checked out, met our driver, and were taken to Nairobi Wilson airport for the short flight to the Masai Mara on AirKenya Express. Our bags were scanned and weighed, we passed through an X-ray machine, and presented our passport to receive our boarding passes. From there, our driver departed and we waited about an hour before boarding our flight.
The flight to the Masai Mara that we took makes four short stops on the eastbound leg before turning around and returning to Nairobi. We disembarked at the third stop, retrieved our bags from the cargo hold, and met Solomon, the gentleman who would be our driver and guide for the entirety of our stay.
We boarded the jeep and started the most anticipated part of our entire adventure. We saw a few animals on the short drive to the camp and, from the selection of wildlife and the surrounding landscape, it was clear to me that we were in for a treat in the coming days.
Once we reached the camp (and after we crossed the review separating the camp from the surroundings), we were given a very brief overview of how things would work during our stay. In addition, we were gifted a reusable metal water bottle to use on property and to take with us when we went home. We were then acquainted with our tents before heading for our first lunch.
In general, the outline for any given day at Little Governors’ Camp is:
- Receive a wake up call with coffee, hot chocolate, or tea at your preferred time
- Drive out into the bush for a game drive
- Return to the camp and eat breakfast
- Hang out around the camp and eat lunch
- Drive out into the bush for a game drive
- Return to the camp and eat dinner
- Go to sleep and repeat the next day
We did not strictly follow this itinerary because we were willing to spend literally the entire day on a game drive in order to maximize our available time.
It is hard to describe this safari without this post becoming a litany of animals we saw on each day we were in the bush. As such, I’m going to get that list out of the way up front and then then I’m going to do my best to describe the structure of each day and the most important sightings from that day while interspersing some of the best photos we took. With that being said, here’s a partial list of the wildlife we saw:
- African elephant
- Banded mongoose
- Black headed heron
- Blue starling
- Brown crested eagle
- Grand gazelle
- Grey headed heron
- Lappet headed vulture
- Marabou stork
- Masai giraffe
- Masai lion
- Nile crocodile
- Rosy longclaw
- Secretary bird
- Superb starling
- Thomson’s gazelle
- White backed vulture
- Yellow billed stork
- Yellow throated longclaw
Our first few hours were interesting. During lunch, two warthogs wandered around the general dining area, eventually ending up getting shooed away by the camp manager and a staff member as they tried to put their snouts up on his table.
A few hours later, we started on our first real game drive. The highlights from this game drive included spotting a troop of baboons, three different vultures perched on a single tree, and a rush of banded mongoose. In addition, we saw a few vultures picking the meat from a buffalo carcass.
We drove by a large herd of elephants, including many young, and stopped to observe them for a while.
The best part of the drive, though, was stumbling upon a female lion eating a hippo at the edge of a watering hole. Eventually, she got extremely irritated by the flies buzzing around her and walked past us before flopping down on her side to rest. She then got up again and went and laid in some taller grass to get some rest away from prying eyes.
With our day almost at an end, Solomon drove us towards the camp to enjoy some light refreshments. On the way there, we saw our first jackal.
Finally, we parked by the river, alighted, and enjoyed some sparkling water and soda to finish the day to the sights and sounds of a pod of hippopotamus.
The following morning was an exciting one. First, we spotted a hyena tracking a kill to scavenge right before the sun rose.
Afterwards, we spotted a lilac breasted roller nearby a pool full of hippopotamus.
Then, we spent some time observing two lionesses and their cubs in a spot safe from buffalo and elephant. The cubs were playing and then nursing from one of the lionesses. It was almost too cute to handle.
Later on the drive, we encountered two other lionesses perched on a mound observing the grass for their next meal.
Moving on, we saw several different herds of zebra and impala making their way across the landscape.
The most exciting part of the drive, though, was watching a number of crocodiles devour a wildebeest in the river. While we did not see the actual kill, we were lucky enough to stumble upon the crocodile’s meal getting started. The river water, in spite of its generally brown and murky nature, was bright red from the blood of the kill and the crocodiles repeatedly rolled in the water as they ripped the wildebeest apart.
Slightly upriver, the scene was repeated on a small scale as a very large crocodile attempted to finish off a gazelle’s head, antlers and all.
On the way back to camp for lunch, we saw a beautiful trio of zebra, another lilac breasted roller, a very serious looking buffalo, and an even more serious looking giraffe.
After lunch, we started off for our third adventure in the jeep.
The afternoon game drive was spent searching for cheetah. We drove a long time to a spot where cheetah are seen with some frequency but could not find one. We saw some other wildlife on the way, though, including a female lion with blood on her muzzle, a pair of warthog, and a male ostrich.
Eventually, Solomon received a tip and we raced off to see a female cheetah and her three cubs laying on their side relaxing as the day turned to night. Given the late hour, we stayed briefly before heading back to camp.
Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we saw a female lion carrying her cubs from one den to another. We observed this as long as we could, including following the lion back to her original den to pick up further cubs, before heading back to camp.
On the way back to camp that night, the road was repeatedly blocked, first by jackals looking for mice to eat and then by elephants heading to where they would spend the night. This caused Solomon to rev the engine to get them to move out of the way. This worked, for the most part, and it gave us an appreciation for the behavior of elephants and their sheer size.
At dinner that night, there was an elephant family that wandered into the camp and a juvenile got separated from its mother. This caused quite a bit of commotion as the elephants tried to regroup and we were able to enjoy it while calmly eating dinner.
The next morning, Angela’s birthday, we started with nose and throat swabs for our SARS-COV-2 PCR test. Shortly thereafter, Angela and I took to the sky in a hot air balloon for a ride over the Masai Mara. We saw some wildlife from the air, mostly elephants, and were able to more fully appreciate the landscape as the sun rose over the savanna.
Justin and Melody followed us in a jeep and, after our balloon landed, met us for breakfast in the bush. They were lucky enough to spot a hyena nursing her young while we were in the balloon.
After getting our fill of eggs, sausage, and assorted bread goods, we were off for a game drive that would last all day. We saw thousands of wildebeest and zebra as we drove through the park.
We also saw several interesting birds, including a marabou stork, superb starling, and secretary bird.
Eventually, we came upon some wildebeest massing at the river and parked, with ten other jeeps, to wait for a crossing. The wildebeest went back and forth from the river and, while the other jeeps all left, we stuck around, ate a picnic lunch in the jeep, and waited for the right moment.
It was the right decision. Soon enough, some of the wildebeest moved down into the shallow water at the edge of the river. Eventually, one decided it was time to go and we got to see one of nature’s most stunning sites as the wildebeest crossed en masse.
The sights and sounds were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The wildebeest, and a select few zebra, threw themselves into the water with wild abandon and swam their way from bank to bank. As the crossing gained steam, other wildebeest started running towards the river, flinging themselves off an embankment to get to the river and follow the herd.
We thanked our lucky stars for the opportunity to witness a crossing and set off in search of additional game as the wildebeest settled. Solomon soon spotted a line of zebra approaching another section of the river and wondered aloud whether they would cross as well.
He found an excellent vantage point that gave us a view of where the zebra would approach the bank. We saw a few crocodiles near the bank and wondered if they would prevent the herd from crossing. Luckily, the zebra paid them no mind and calmly approached the river to cross.
During the crossing, a lone crocodile made several attempts to snatch a zebra for dinner but was unsuccessful. It was stunning to see nature in action, though, as the crocodile opened its mouth wide and attacked, bouncing off a zebra’s midsection as the zebra subsequently fled.
After seeing this second crossing, we stumbled upon a lone buffalo looking very grumpy, a herd of elephants with a few juveniles in their midst, and a yellow billed stork unsuccessfully eating a large catfish.
We stopped for some evening refreshments next to a pod of hippos and were soon caught in a torrential downpour that seemed to come out of nowhere. We had to enclose the jeep as Solomon raced out of the rain back to camp to finish the day. We may have been soaking wet as we entered our tent, but we were elated to have seen two river crossings in one day.
The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast, the only day we slept past 0530 on the entire safari, and were joined by an elephant walking through camp searching for some morning nutrition and another family as we exited the camp.
After breakfast, we set out in search of a male lion. First, though, we passed by a large herd of elephants.
Shortly thereafter, Solomon received a tip and we were able to see two male lions, a female lion, and four cubs. The male lions were beautiful and massive. One of them walked so close to our jeep that it seemed like he brushed the grill on the front.
One of the highlights of this viewing was seeing the female lion physically and vocally reject one of the males. A loud roar and a swipe at the face made sure he knew that his attention was unwelcome.
After leaving the lions, we had a picnic lunch in the midst of thousands of wildebeest. They politely gave up their shade tree for us to stand under while we ate. We took a picture with Solomon given this was our last day.
After lunch, we saw a wildebeest nursing her young as well as a zebra laying flat on its side sleeping.
The rest of the day was spent searching for a rhinoceros that had been reported to be in a specific area. Unfortunately, in spite of hours of close examination, we were unable to find the rhino. We did see a few cool birds and some eland, though.
On our final day in camp, we woke up early to take an abbreviated game drive. Solomon returned us to the lionesses and their nursing cubs that we had seen earlier in the week. We watched them play for quite some time before moving on.
As we drove through the park, we saw a hyena approaching. Our driver stopped the jeep and turned it off and the hyena walked right past us, likely within a dozen feet. Melody, who had decided at the start of the safari that hyenas were her favorite, was quite pleased.
From there, we returned to the camp, collected our SARS-COV-2 test results, ate a filling breakfast, and set off for the airfield after saying goodbye to the staff.
A Long Journey Home
We eventually boarded an AirKenya Express flight back to Nairobi. As I mentioned previously, we were the third stop eastbound, which meant flying back to Nairobi meant heading east for about ten minutes, making a brief stop, and then turning around and going east.
We landed after about an hour and collected our bags. Unfortunately, our driver got stuck in traffic on the way to pick us up so we were not greeted by anyone. The situation was resolved by texting the transfer company and getting some information about what was going on.
After a two hour drive through Nairobi traffic, we arrived at the hotel. We had originally planned on slumming it in the atrium during our ten hour stay there and had previously cleared this plan with hotel management, but I changed my mind in consultation with Angela the night before and booked us a room that was upgraded to a large suite because of my Marriott status. Given the relatively low cost, this was a good idea because it gave us a private place to relax for the nine hour interim period.
After checking in, we dropped our bags in our room and headed to the rooftop grill on the fifth floor to enjoy an incredible meal with teriyaki chicken and barbeque goat skewers, onion rings with spicy mango sauce, sirloin steak, Kenyan quesadillas, crocodile meatballs, and a delicious chocolate cake with coffee to finish it all off. Once we’d had our fill, it was back to the room to shower and wait for our shuttle to the airport.
Shortly after we arrived in the room, a hotel representative arrived with a plate of fruit and a plate of chocolates. Of course, we’d all just spent the last hour stuffing our faces so there wasn’t much demand for the treats on offer, but it was still very much appreciated (and I did end up eating many of the chocolates anyways).
Angela and Melody were able to get some much-needed sleep and, at 2300, we made our way to the lobby to check-out and secure transport to the airport. Each couple rode in a separate sedan and we were dropped at the international terminal where we had to contend with a Ministry of Health official checking our paperwork, a crowded initial security screening, and some nonsense where Angela and my ticket had to get revalidated before we were all issued our boarding passes so we could navigate passport control.
After passport control there was another security screening before we were finally in the gate area. We walked to the temporary Turkish Airlines lounge that we had access to through a combination of flying business class and using our Priority Pass memberships. The lounge was much nicer than the terminal, for sure, and the staff were attentive and happy to provide us with whatever we wanted. I imagine it is usually self-serve, but because of COVID-19 protocols, you have to request each drink or dish from a staff member who will then serve it to you.
We left the lounge about 20 minutes before boarding was slated to start, went through another round of document checks, and finally arrived at the gate where we had a short wait before our flight boarded via a remote gate.
Settling into the Qsuites we had booked was a delight, especially after such a long day. I ordered the So Jennie, Qatar’s non-alcoholic luxury drink. I love that they have this option and find it so delightful. I ordered a very small meal consisting of a salad with beef filet alongside a small tiramisu to be served after takeoff and promptly fell asleep after consuming it. Others skipped the meal, but similarly rested.
The attentiveness and friendliness of the service in Qatar Airline’s business class hasn’t changed a bit, but there has been one change in service because of COVID-19 in that the meals are served covered with plastic lids instead of coming to the seat uncovered.
Upon arrival in Doha, we disembarked and made our way through the transfer protocol which included yet another scan of our bags. From there, it was a short walk back to the gate we arrived at where Justin and Melody would get back on the exact same aircraft for their journey to San Francisco. Angela and I walked another hundred feet for our flight to Los Angeles.
Because the DOH to LAX flight is a long-haul, we were provided with pajamas which I find to be incredibly comfortable. Service was, again, attentive and proactive. After a small breakfast meal, I requested a mattress pad and slept for about three hours before waking and determined to force myself to adjust back to Pacific time. During the rest of the flight, I drank a number of cappuccinos and sampled their afternoon tea selections, which I found to be tasty but Angela did not like.
We arrived at LAX, went to the Global Entry kiosks, and discovered I was randomly flagged for secondary screening. After waiting for about thirty minutes, I was eventually asked a couple of questions about where I had been and why and then my bag was looked at for about twenty seconds and I was allowed to go on my way.
Our boarding passes issued by Qatar for our American Airlines flight didn’t have TSA preCheck on them, so we reprinted our passes once I ensured that our Known Traveler Numbers were added to the reservation. We sailed through TSA and then stopped at the American Airlines Admiral’s Club to wait out our long layover before heading home. Unfortunately, it appears that Angela and I got food poisoning from something in this lounge as we both started to display symptoms within a few hours.
The short flight from LAX to LAS should have been an easy way to end the trip, but American Airlines repeatedly delayed the flight on a 15 minute rolling basis, boarded the plane, then sat us at the gate for three hours with no updates other than a standard “we should be underway in 15 minutes, folks” announcement from the captain. At midnight, the gate agent came on and informed us the flight was not going to head to Las Vegas that night and deplaned everyone, asking us to go to the customer service desk to figure things out. 20 minutes after that, however, they decided they’d found the maintenance log book and boarded the plane again. We landed at LAS at 0150, ordered an Uber, and finally made it home at 0225. Suffice to say, it was not a great way to end our vacation.
Even with the mishaps at the end, though, we had an excellent trip and experienced things that will stick with us forever. It was nice to return to the world of travel and we look forward to our future trips.