What a trip. Such a unique experience, and I don’t just mean the sudden implosion of fake pro-Giraffe Manor comments. There’s two things you shouldn’t believe: anything on Facebook and anything positive about Giraffe Manor.
Whilst I’ve already reviewed Sirai Beach, Arijiju and Giraffe Manor, I also stayed at Angama, Segera, and dropped by Hemingways for just about enough time to figure out it was a waste of it. I never thought I’d be advising against staying in a luxury hotel, but when that stay is barely six hours long and it’s an hour from the airport, all it did was add a lot of hassle just to leave my pride intact. Actually, change of tune, totally worth it.
I wanted to turn this into one of those usual, web-friendly lists, the kind where I get to lazily compare properties that have almost nothing in common and outline which offered the best service, food, accommodation, facilities, etc. It just might be even more predictable than my usual reviews, as Arijiju was going to win all lists, other than “Best property that begins with a consonant” or “Most disgusting locations to host I’m A Celebrity”. If I started comparing Arijiju to Angama it’d be like having Dwayne Johnson fight a child in a wheelchair. Instead, let me summarise the trip and talk you through the question: where does Segera and Angama fit in?
One of the few things all properties had in common is an arrival welcome committee. Kokomo killed off my love of pompous welcomes by singing for so long that Adele had released another album in between their ballad. I don’t need a welcome party, although if everyone does wish to bow down and praise me as their new god, I’m not going to complain either. It’s nice when everyone comes to greet you, like Sirai Beach, but within 18 seconds I’ve forgotten anyone and then when I see them later I have that sense that they know we’ve met before, but I have no recollection of what it is that you do. By day four it starts to get pretty embarrassing when I have to start calling everyone “mate” or “bud” or the endearing “wanker”. Segera saved up all the embarrassment, not for the arrival, but a day later by having everyone sing for my dad’s belated birthday, even though his birthday was 23 days prior. I haven’t seen my Dad that humiliated since I told him my A-Level results. All that money on my education and he ended up with a part-time, unpaid blogger for a son.
Both Angama and Segera benefit from extreme proximity to their airstrips, making it a real zippy journey from plane to property. Depending on who is with you on said journey. Angama say they will try and put everyone into a private vehicle, but in reality we were collected from the airstrip, loaded into a vehicle with another couple and our four-minute trip took almost half an hour as they stopped and gawked at every impala and zebra. I was only here to see a hunt, yet the only thing I would be hunting for is blood pressure tablets. I have lucked out on getting a private vehicle on almost every safari, so it was time to pay up and I promptly did and only moaned about it 93 times thereafter, which is a new record low for me. The couple never spoke to us again, which I thought was unfair; I didn’t hate them, I just hated everything they believed in.
The issue with Segera is not that it’s a bad property, I just don’t see where it fits. Their entry room category, Garden Villas, are not of the standard of a $4k/n suite, so you need to upgrade and suddenly you’re up to $6k/n. If you can afford $6k/n, live a little: you can afford $9k/n. Don’t check my logic and don’t be cheap, work with me and assume I’m always right. It means if you’re a family of 4 or larger, it may even be cheaper to head to one of the exclusive use lodges, like Arijiju or Sirai House, which are only a 20-minute flight away. Segera’s grounds are stunning, the oasis setting is gorgeous; the focus on art and conservation has to be commended; the service was wonderful; the GM a rarity of having immense knowledge and experience of true luxury properties, whilst the owners were present and a delight. The food not so much. Were the viewings great then it might have a place, but they were nothing to write about, hence I’ve nothing to write about. Ok, here’s something: the area used to be fenced until around ten years ago, so the animals have been slowly moving in to reclaim what was theirs, as there’s no one shouting “geeet orrrrf maaa land” at them. It will take more time until the wildlife feels calm around the presence of the vehicle and don’t see it as death licking his lips whilst eyeballing their offspring.
Mara Plains or plain Mara?
Angama Mara does have a place. The Mara is a bloodthirsty, rip-roaring, massacre zone, with nature at its finest. It’s exactly what I want on a safari; I’m not here to stare at a bird sitting on a branch – it’d bore me into reconsidering Kierkegaard’s thoughts on nihilism. No, I want some big animal to murder another big(ger) animal. Life must be taken to ensure life – that’s the motto of my blog. The downside to the Mara is that it’s public land, with rules in place that don’t pay attention to how much you’ve paid. It’s all far too egalitarian for my liking. The end result: you spend more time queuing than at immigration in Heathrow.
Moving from Singita or Wilderness properties to the Mara is like going from Harrods on a Tuesday morning, to later that afternoon inciting a riot and kicking the shit out of someone’s grandparents during a Black Friday sale at Walmart. The former almost exclusively own the land, so you will rarely if ever, see another vehicle, to the Mara where your chances of avoiding a vehicle are about the same as avoiding mass hysteria whilst working for a newspaper. There’s probably nothing the camps can do about this, but if I don’t complain endlessly for you, we’ll never know. If you see a good sighting, be prepared to have to leave it so other vehicles can come in. It’s the complete opposite of the sacred Finders Keepers rule that I believed we all abided by.
Even ignoring the land share, you’re not going to find luxury accommodation in the Mara, especially if you’re comparing to a past visit at Singita or Wilderness camps. Your options are either Angama Mara or Mara Plains, neither of which offer impressive facilities or accommodation, but neither issues will particularly bother you, if, like us, you’re out all day on safari. That’s not to say Angama is some squalid homeless shelter, covered in piss-stained walls that cockroaches wouldn’t even shit in, for fear of picking something up. They even impressed in two areas: food and the guide. The food at Angama is awesome; maybe even in the top two resorts we visited, and it’s competing against exclusive use properties Arijiju and Sirai Beach. That deserves a solid nod of approval.
However, elsewhere it lacked those touches of luxury that say “remember how much this cost? This is why”. A ceiling fan doesn’t normally cut it, nor did have some interesting design decisions, like chairs that would require me to rearrange my vertebrae to sit in, and then remove my skin and throw it in the shower to cool down, as they were inexplicably made of metal. The facilities weren’t going to win architects digest awards either, with the swimming pool looking like some builder was inspired by a 1970s council flat that had recently been demolished, and that was one of the better places. The location has a real pro and con behind it. On the positive side, it has a view that looks like a van Gogh painting, on the other, it takes 20 minutes to get into the reserve. That’s like having to pick between going to the National Gallery or watching the Lion King. Simba wins every day. I suspect the focus of uninterrupted gorgeous views restricted the opportunities to the architects; Angama may only have 15 rooms per camp, but the main area is too small and tightly packed together that there are times you feel it. Like when someone on the other table overhears your private conversation and says “Oh yeah, I have the same rash”.
I last visited Mara Plains three years ago, so a comparison may not be fair, but you’re kind folk so I’ll tell you anyway. It suffered from low-end, buffet food choices that smelt almost as bad as the hippos stench we asked to be moved away from on one side of the camp, so if you’re not a fan of fermenting turds and there’s no other rooms available, you might be in trouble. However, the intimacy of Mara Plains is superior and I found the service better there too. I’d likely flip a coin between Angama or Mara in the end: better food at Angama, slightly better room at Angama (albeit it gets so hot that you might even consider going to that swimming pool to cool down), but worse location and less intimate.
Whilst I do love my luxury, there is one purpose and one purpose only, on safari: the hunt. Angama was the last stop of this trip, the last opportunity, the last remaining straw-clutching moment of hope. We had let our guard down and ventured out sparingly at Arijiju, knowing that the Mara would deliver, but even being pushed to 10 hour-a-day safaris, it only delivered the dreading sense of inevitable disappointment.
It’s the final drive on our final day. With rumours of some cheetahs around, we drive for an hour in search of them. Our eagle-eyed guide spots two empty-bellied cheetahs, eyes darting around, looking for prey. We stick with them for two hours, enjoying the unprecedented loneliness that the Mara rarely offers, waiting for them to strike. Time is against us, for our flight departs in just a few hours. With just thirty minutes to spare, and now a squadron of vehicles in pursuit, they spot a gazelle and break into a sprint, only to disappear behind the hill. From static to a full charge in a matter of seconds, it was not as much blink-and-miss-it, but blink-and-gone. Close. So close. After going through every stage of grief in less than two minutes, we decided to make our way back to Angama, taking home with us the memory of the chase, just not the hunt. As we made our way to the other side of the hill, we cheer as we see two, hungry-looking cheetahs. Twenty minutes to spare. As we’re anxiously looking more at the clock than the cheetahs, they start making their way to a herd of impala, only for an oribi to suddenly appear out of nowhere. The cheetahs react only as they know: the hunt is on. It lasted barely 20 breathless seconds, but it felt like time slowed down as my excitement levels peaked whilst the oribi’s heart rate flatlined. The cheetahs had their catch and we had our victory.
Now that’s how you finish a safari.
So, Tom, what would you do for the ultimate safari? Thank you for asking, voice in my head. I would do the following: 4 nights at Serengeti House, 5 in Arijiju, and 4 on Thanda Island. Ok, so your budget suddenly crept to $200k, but you did ask, oh wise and benevolent voice. If you’re restricted to only Kenya, due to some unforeseen circumstances that could never happen, like border closures, then pick either Angama or Mara Plains, stay 5 nights Arijiju and 4 in Sirai Beach. Finish the trip by tipping the person that recommended the trip to you, say 20%?