Back home, I know that people spend a lot of time planning holidays far in advance, sometimes years in fact. I'm sure it's due to the long cold and dark winters that have to be endured over there but I remember holiday punctuation points on the yearly calendar tend to take on great importance. I remember working in an office and almost mentally lurching from holiday to the next - wishing my life away in the meantime. In England, skiing and/or one or even two hot holidays per year might not be uncommon whereas for expats here in Kenya, an annual trip home to visit friends and family is the only certainty in the whole year. (some go 'home' every other year).
Since here in Kenya we get great weather all year round, the urgent need for a dose of Vitamin D is less desperate. Perhaps the fact that there are so many incredible places within driving distance means that I'm horribly bad at planning. I tend to assume that we can pop here or there any time we like - then try booking at the last minute only to find myself disappointed when hotels/self catering houses etc are all full. This Easter weekend is a case in point, but I haven't given up yet...
I also fail to budget for holidays. This is a mistake. Even though there are world famous parks and beaches on our doorstep in spite of being a resident the cost of visiting these places can be eye wateringly steep. Even when you drive your own car, park and conservancy fees plus the price of lodges, quickly add up. I always worry that money spent on a holiday is a waste but I think I need to change this mindset and embrace adventure a little more just like I did when I was back in England.
You would think that after 12 years living East Africa, I'd be an expert on holidays around here but since I'm an inveterate commitment-phobe, I'm floundering. In spite of this (and also in an attempt to convince myself of course) I'll share a couple of top holiday tips for Kenya that I must actively try to take on board myself.
1. Accept camping as an option - even if the thought of it makes your blood run cold. Break yourself in gently by doing camping in groups either as part of organised events or with friends. There's safety in numbers - events often lay on extra facilities (loos, showers, food). Say yes rather than an ever cautious 'no', then worry about the reality of what you've let yourself in for later...it's generally turns out to be more fun that you fear.
2. If you are travelling on a budget, KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) bandas in national game parks are really not all that bad. They are generally clean and well kept, above all they offer great value for money in some of the most famous parks. You will have to bring your own food, but this needn't be as horrific as it sounds, a frozen stew that can just be warmed up, UHT milk on your cereal or bucket loads of instant noodles won't kill you.
3. Since our holiday times are now regulated by school, as a rule of thumb, book early to avoid disappointment. If you want a house on the Kenya coast in high season (ie Christmas/new year), then book at least 6 months, even better, a year in advance. Don't worry, you can always cancel later if your situation changes.
4. If a holiday costs more during peak season, then consider the premium you pay might actually be worth it. Don't always be a cheapskate like me, only to find yourself stuck at home for all public holidays with a husband saying 'why aren't we going away like everyone else?'.
4. Read as much as you can about places to go and talk to friends to find out where they have visited. There are always new places to stay, special rates offered at certain times of year etc. Make sure you are in the know.
5. As an expat, since you are undoubtedly often playing host to visitors. Use your own friend and family network to get the favour paid back by staying in friend's houses where possible. (cheeky!!)
We recently stayed at El Karama lodge in Laikipia since it offered more reasonable rates than other privately owned/rather exclusive ranches in that area. The set up was small (7 bandas) and very pretty, though it was hard to see game because the ranch was still waiting for rain and I guess that a lot of the animals had migrated out of the area in search of water. If I had one complaint it would be that the hosts were conspicuous for their absence. I think that a small, intimate set up like that requires a jolly front-of-house face to guide you through activities on offer and how to make the most of your holiday. We had to ferret out the owner when we found we had a flat tyre that we needed to fix. It was very peaceful without any mains power but with three children and as batteries for DS games and laptops (for showing dvds) gradually ran out we found ourselves twitching slightly to get back to civilisation...
Next stop was the fabulous Mike's Camp on Kiwayu Island for a very jammy trip to write about the place for Destination magazine (see link on right for Destination's own website). I was called in because someone else had dropped out and it was all pretty exciting, if a little last minute and manic. I had to leave my husband and kids at home (husband, gutted not to be able to make it because of work commitments), then at the last minute was able to take my Mum who was visiting from UK. I spotted Colin Firth with his wife and kids at Wilson Airport as they boarded the Kiwayu bound Safarilink plane with us. The actor was wearing sunglasses along with a look that very obviously said, 'I know I'm a celebrity but please, please, please don't talk to me right now.' Meanwhile his bubbly Colombian wife was shouting 'Colin darling, this way!' and we all got on the same (12 seater) plane!
Knowing that Kenya is famous for honouring the anonymity of celebs (Kate and Wills obviously - they got engaged here on Mount Kenya- but also Angelina and Brad et al) I pretended to be cool and not bother the chap (in spite of the fact that it was very exciting to see him just after he'd won his Oscar). My mum and I sat in the front of the plane admiring the view and by exercising a huge amount of control, I managed not to crane around my neck and look behind me every five minutes.
So pleased with my celebrity spot was I, that I when I got to the Kiwayu Island to a lodge called Mike's Camp, I couldn't help bouncing in excitedl, announcing to all who would listen that I'd seen The King's Speech actor on the plane. The lodge proprietor said cooly, 'Oh yeah, I think he's popping over here tomorrow - his wife is interested in Eco camps. She wants to take a look around. You'll probably see them again.'
When I saw 'Colin' once again at the Mike's Camp beach hut the next day, Mike embarrassingly introduced me to Colin by saying 'I think you guys met on the plane.'!?!?! 'Colin' understandably looked mystified. I blushed, cover blown and mortified, so mumbled something about heading straight out to do some snorkeling.
You can read more about the Kiwayu visit in the May issue of Destination. The Destination editor was understandably gutted that I hadn't managed to 'bag' an exclusive celeb interview with Col. Perhaps journalistic skills don't run naturally in my veins but I still hold out hope for future writing assignments, however last minute...let's face it, at this rate, it's the only way I'll ever get around to going away anywhere!..
p.s. Has anyone noticed how the new fuel prices have kicked in? I bought 5,000 shillings worth of petrol the other day and only got just over half a tank!! Oh dear!