Christmas dinner with Billy, Amy, Joeri and G.
When our friends Jenny and Robert invited us on another Christmas Kenyan safari we couldn’t refuse. This time, the suggestion was to go a little further afield into the Masai Mara versus the game reserve we did last year. Upside - a little wilder. Downside - we probably wouldn’t see as many animals. We sure got that wrong.
After spending Christmas and Boxing Day with Billy and Amy in Singapore we jetted off to Dubai. It was our 4th visit to Dubai and to be honest, we are pretty much done with the place. It’s Singapore in the dessert without the efficiency. It also has great shopping, great food and wretched excess everywhere.
In the spirit of trying something different we stayed at The Taj rather than The Palace or The Address but also the prices for the latter were more than double what we’ve paid in past visits. Taj was not bad but nothing outstanding given how utterly amazing Dubai hotels can be. We did visit the Dubai Mall with 1,700 stores again so that Ellen could have her Tim Horton’s coffee and we had lunch at the wonderful ‘Eataly’ - Mario Batali’s homage to all things Italian. They are adding another million square feet to the Dubai Mall. Hard to figure what global brand isn’t already there.
We met up with our old friend from Singapore Derek Rossel who now works for the huge property company EMAAR. About three-quarter’s of the buildings in Dubai have a giant EMAAR sign on the façade. Tough if it’s in front of your expensive condo. Maybe there is a sign discount.
Derek took us to ‘Coya’, a contemporary Peruvian restaurant at The Four Seasons hotel; typical ‘Dubai over the top’ with several millions of dollars worth of cars in the driveway. Food good, prices over the moon.
The next night we went with Derek to Sean Connolly's at the Dubai Opera House. He is an Irish guy recruited by EMAAR Hospitality (EMAAR are in everything). On the roof of this gorgeous Rostock designed spot, it is open to the stars and the giant Burj Khalifa. Connolly does simple food: steaks, chops, lobster and oysters: by the hundreds. Very good, and again very expensive
Off to Nairobi the next morning. Uneventful 5-hour flight interrupted only a drunken Kenyan sitting next to Ellen who had 9 Johnny Walkers on the flight. We saw him in the Nairobi Airport parking lot trying to hail a taxi. No one would pick him up. He did like Ellen and kept waving at her (cue eye roll by Ellen).
Moved into Robert and Jenny’s lovely compound home at Windsor and had a lovely dinner with them and our safari mates Francoise and Christiane from Bordeaux; just enough red wine to steel us for the 7-hour drive to the Mara Engai Lodge in the Masai Mara. The trip started off on paved roads with stunning views of Rift Valley, then they told us it gets “rough” in the last 90 min. It was bone rattling. You can fly but then you’d miss seeing the villages, which gives you a real sense of Kenya.
On arrival our sturdy extended Land Rover can’t make it up the hill so guests are transported in an Austrian 6 wheel drive former military vehicle called a ‘Pinzgauer’. A little research showed this awesome beast was last produced by BAE before they shut down production forever. Another BAE winning strategy. This thing can almost go vertical and it needed to on the goat track up to the lodge. We shook so hard it broke my neoprene watchband.
The Mara Engai was not the 5 star as advertised. Maybe a 4-star at best. Food average to poor. Accommodation good enough if the shower wasn’t a thousand degrees of hot or equally cold with nothing in between. We did have to be escorted to and from our room. Lions. Our disappointment grew when their New Years Eve celebrations ended abruptly at 11:00PM. Good thing we had Robert and his endless supplies of champagne back at the villa.
The first game drive was all right but nothing special. The second morning had us up at 4:00am for the drive to our hot air balloon drive. It was raining and we knew they didn’t fly in the rain. At the site we were taken aback by the professional presentation. Three giant balloons with baskets holding 12 each laid out on the grass. A cozy breakfast spot with couches, tea coffee and pastries. Very nice.
By 6:00am the sun came out and off we went, sailing over the Mara, mostly about 200 meters off the ground and then up a bit more to take in the stunning views. We saw a pride of 13 lions, most unusual. Dozens of elephants and various other game but the view was the thing and our gentle touchdown after two hours came much to soon. To cap it off they took us to a full English ‘bush' breakfast laid on long tables in view of a herd of elephants. Fantastic!
Foregoing the game drive the next day we had our driver take us south to the Tanzania border and the Mara River. This is where the Mara becomes the Serengeti and the river is where all those National Geographic shows have the giant crocs waiting patiently for the wildebeest to cross during the annual Great Migration. 2.5 million Wildebeests do this every year and more than a few end up croc food.
But, not this time of year. The river is quiet and it is the only place where you can actually get out of the truck. There is a viewing platform in the high bank side of the river. Right below us on the opposite sand bank is a giant croc, about 14-15 feet, standing off against two equally enormous hippos in the water who are guarding their herd of mothers and babies in a pool 50 yards away. Nobody moves and then a bull elephant comes strolling down the bank. Nobody moves. Finally a group of big baboons arrives from the other side. Nobody moves. Does anybody move around here? Finally, the croc yawns, which is the only action after watching for over an hour. Still, great and to be just 30 feet away but safe was terrific.
The drive back to Nairobi was as bad or worse than the drive to the lodge. Bone jarring, teeth rattling for the first three hours and not that much better on the rest of the trip. Never again. I would fly into the little dirt airstrip next time.
We dined at the gorgeous Talisman and the next night at Lord Erroll’s. If you have seen the movie or read the book 'White Mischief', this is the Lord who was supposedly shot and killed in his Buick at midnight by Lord Delamere for making off with his wife. This is Lord Errol’s house in Nairobi and it is steeped in that history. Delamere was tried and never convicted but many years later admitted to it. Great story of English nobility escaping the war and partying their brains out in Africa.
We had a final dinner at Francois and Christian’s house after a rousing game of golf at the stunning Windsor Golf Club that is on their compound. Gorgeous and Ellen got her first par. Great trip, lovely people and to our delight we saw even more animals, in a less controlled environment than we did last year.
On to Oman.
Dubai What & Where
The Taj hotel - Indian hotel in the heart of Dubai
Coya - contemporary Peruvian restaurant at The Four Seasons hotel
Sean Connolly's - simple food with stunning view of Burj at the Dubai Opera House
Nairobi What & Where
Talisman - a high-end gastropub set in the green suburb of Karen. Lovely venue and great food.
The Lord Erroll restaurant - the history of the restaurant outshines its cuisine.
Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club - Africa's leading Golf Resort with 18-hole championship golf course.