A matrix of gooseflesh forms along my skin as I run tempo next to Wilson Kupai, a 23-year-old Maasai guide, in the Naboisho Conservancy. Moving through the wide-open grasslands of the savannah, hundreds of zebra and wildebeest buck and gallop, baboons tramp beneath trees, jackals and stocky warthogs mince away into the tall grass. At the same time, a Toyota game viewer follows behind on the off chance of an encounter with threatening wildlife.

The only interruption to the skyline is the occasional crown of a flat-topped acacia tree or the movement of an animal. It’s my final day in Kenya, and this probably wouldn’t have happened had I not opted to experience the safari lodge as a solo traveller. I’m visiting with Hemingways, a boutique hotel group with four properties in Nairobi, Watamu and the Maasai Mara. Over less than a week visiting three destinations across the country, the sometimes dissonant rhythm of Kenya’s rich culture and wildlife resolves itself into a regular pulse.

Taking off from Wilson Airport in Nairobi


Five days earlier, at Hemingways Nairobi, dawn breaks to the trill of birdsong. At nearly a mile high in altitude, the morning air is clean and crisp in this southern pocket of the city. I lope along the garden terraces where ibis and egret bathe in fountain-fed pools, beyond a series of terraced lawns that run perpendicular to the pistachio-coloured colonial-style building housing the majority of the hotel’s rooms, between the dual sweeping staircases of the lobby and out along the red soil verges of a broad road toward the Karen Blixen Museum.

“An African native forest is a mysterious region,” she wrote in her groundbreaking memoir Out of Africa. “You ride into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvellously rich in shades.” As limpid morning beams bend around foliage to dapple the ground, it does indeed feel like a rich tapestry in the neighbourhood known as, well, Karen. As a matter of fact, much of the district was previously her farmstead.

Game drive - Naboisho Conservancy

The former residence of the Danish writer, also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, is neatly manicured with closely cropped lawns, well-tended gardens and a farmhouse with a wraparound porch and terracotta-tiled roof. The baroness had arrived in 1912 in what was then known as British East Africa to found a coffee plantation with her husband, a Swedish aristocrat who turned out to be unfaithful and poorly suited for business. When they separated in 1921, Blixen took over the management of the property on her own and led a fiercely independent life in which she grew close to the Kikuyu and Maasai people that she worked with, often ruffling the feathers of other colonists for her intimate, unorthodox relationships with the native peoples.

The memoir has aged well for the remarkably clear, non-judgmental lens through which she measures those around her, despite some of the jarring racial language of the time. As solo travel becomes increasingly popular, particularly among women, her narrative of striking out on her own and earning respect by dint of even-handedness and understanding resonates as much as ever. During my stint in Kenya I find the book to be a useful guide. Back at the hotel, there are only a few moments in which to shower before driving to Jomo Kenyatta Airport to fly to the coast.


Heat envelops passengers like a dense, wet glove when they alight from a De Havilland Dash 8Q prop jet onto the runway at Malindi Airport, north of Mombasa on the shoulder of the Indian Ocean. During the drive to the beach town of Watamu, which translates as ‘home of the sweet people’ in Swahili, trees erupt with the full prism of flowers. Kenya is perhaps best known for the wildlife of its plains, but the coastlines have plenty to offer as well, with coral gardens that support an abundance of life, and a waterfront culture that’s equally engaging. Roadside commerce is robust, from poky stands selling snacks and woven baskets to the many smallholdings and farms fanning out on either side of the drive.

The vibe is different here, on the coast, with a proliferation of mosques and men attired in flowing white robes and taqiyah skullcaps. “When you first come to the country, landing at Mombasa, you will see, amongst the old light-grey baobab trees – which look not like any earthly kind of vegetation but like porous fossilisations, gigantic belemnites – grey stone ruins of houses, minarets, and wells. The same ruins are to be found all the way up the coast,” writes Blixen. “They are the remnants of the towns of the ancient Arab traders in ivory and slaves.” At the Gedi Ruins National Monument in the primaeval Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, I get up close and personal with the archaeological residue of Omani Arab traders, who settled on this coast as early as the 11th century and viciously depleted it of both ivory and its native population, kicking off centuries of Indian Ocean slave trade.

My guide at the archaeological site is Mr Tea, who grew up in the local community and has been working at the ruins for over thirty years. Tamarinds, baobabs, figs and rocket trees loom large above the crumbling edifices. The class system was heavily segregated and apparent in how the compound was laid out, with the upper class occupying the centre of the village and the lower relegated to makeshift structures on the outskirts of town. From the 12th to the 15th centuries it was a cosmopolitan centre for the region, with coins and antiquities discovered from China, India, Egypt, Spain and Syria. In the grand mosque, Mr Tea shows me an alcove where a Chinese porcelain bowl was kept on display.

Formerly housing 3,000 residents over 45 acres, its remaining walls, constructed of coral and lime mortar, now play host to two rival troops of Sykes’ monkeys. At one point, they face off against each other in gang violence that would put Goodfellas to shame. At another, when I bend down to sneak a picture of them, a particularly large monkey leaps onto my shoulders and relaxes there for what feels like a long time.

Back at Hemingways Watamu, a breezy tour explains the destination’s history. The hotel is of course named for the famous novelist, who favoured its waters for the bounty of enormous blue marlin and swordfish. Hemingways is spread along Turtle Bay, where emerald-coloured shallows sweep eastwards toward a coral break. The tidewater washes in over a dozen feet; mushroom-shaped rock formations are denuded when it’s out and nearly swallowed by the sea when the tide is in.

Sykes’ monkeys face off against each other in gang violence that would put Goodfellas to shame

I get a taste of the ocean on the hotel’s 90-year-old dhow, a type of boat believed by scholars to have been invented in India sometime before 600 AD. Its single, white lateen sail is pot-bellied as it catches the breeze. We coast beyond the thick mangroves on the banks of Mida Creek. Admittedly, I’ve had a couple of gin and tonics, so it could be drink that inspires me to dive headfirst into the, er, drink, from the second-storey platform ten feet above, not long after seeing a nearby fisherman standing shin-deep (I was encouraged by the captain, a man named Kenga). By the time I emerge from the water, the dhow is already speeding out of the tidal inlet and I’m being swept in the other direction by a powerful current. I grab hold of the rope bound to the sailboat, towing a bright orange lifebuoy, and pull myself in against the flow.

On another excursion, I board a brightly painted pleasure boat with an outboard motor and cruise along beige beaches, stopping off to snorkel the reef, ogling stingrays, grouper, butterflyfish and angelfish. A pod of bottlenose dolphins hunt nearby and boats jostle in to get a glimpse of the cetaceans as they surface for air. At other times of the year, you might happen upon spinner dolphins or humpback whales migrating from Antarctica.

I feel migratory myself, having visited this coastal community only briefly, but the sense of adventure here could keep one captive for months. I’ve been travelling with a few other journalists until this point and, salty and sunburned, say my farewells in the evening for an early-morning departure to the Maasai Mara by way of Nairobi.

Ol Seki Mara

The 15-passenger Cessna 208 Caravan takes off at a 45-degree angle. It swiftly ascends above the capital’s sprawl, soaring over the skyscrapers and shantytowns of the inner city and the colonial farmhouses of the suburbs into a wild country of red and green, striated with ridges, valleys and escarpments so straight and neat that they could be geometry homework. Peering down at the earth, you can just make out narrow green circles and rectangles, often circumscribing a structure. They are bomas planted by the Maasai to protect villages and livestock from predators, utilising the ol seki bush.

We soar over a wild country of red and green, striated with ridges, valleys and escarpments so straight and neat that they could be geometry homework

As the Cessna bounces and then grips the unpaved surface of a dirt airstrip, kicking up dust devils, two men in traditional Maasai garb lean against a Toyota game viewer. Raffy and Wilson will be my guides for the next few days. As I’m the only guest that they’re currently saddled with, we go for a spontaneous game drive, tooling past hippopotamuses and crocodiles wallowing in a mudhole (we hold our breath when downwind – the flatulence is extraterrestrial), to catch a pride of lions waking up after an afternoon siesta, and a shy male cheetah crouching in tall grass.

We continue past a group of eland – moose-proportioned antelope that can weigh up to a tonne. “They never fight to mate. Do you hear that?” Raffy asks after a resounding click. “Whichever eland makes the loudest clicking sound when it walks is the dominant one.” Considering the crepitus in my ankles and knees, I feel like I’d make a decent eland.

Carrying on beyond a field busy with Kenyan football players, zebra and wildebeest, we eventually reach the lodge. Hemingways Ol Seki Mara is perched on a scenic bluff in the nominal conservancy. It is named for the bush that has been so central to the Maasai tribe, used since time immemorial. Ol seki translates as ‘blessed’ in the local language. In addition to protecting villages, it was considered a peace tree, with the branches used to settle disputes, similar to an olive sprig in ancient Greece or Rome.

Football pitch, Hemingways Ol Seki Mara

At present, there are eight double tents and a private villa, lending the camp an intimate, exclusive feel. I’m staying in Nina Tent #5, perched above the Isupukiai River Valley, where eland wander languidly across the floodplain. A rock hyrax, with the appearance of an elongated hamster, peers in through the window inquisitively. I can empathise. The tent is a beauty, with an indoor and outdoor shower, a swooping bathtub, a perfect desk for writing, and a bed that’s difficult to rouse oneself from when it’s time for early morning game drives.

At dinner, I catch up with Melinda Rees, who has worked for Hemingways for decades. She mentions that she’s seen an uptick in the number of visitors travelling alone since the pandemic, especially among women. Soon after, Sophie Gloag and her partner Henry Dent from Darlington, Yorkshire say hello. I get to know them better before lunch the next day, when I inadvertently order a pint of White Cap lager at 11am next to a scenic swimming pool, complete with giraffes in the middle distance. Henry seems a little stressed about the beer warming in the sun; he encourages me to drink it quickly. As I do, Sophie explains the pouch slung around her hip and the tube running from it into her chest.

Sophie was a keen equestrian until the age of 21, when during a show jumping competition she fell from a horse and broke her back. After just three months, she was back in the saddle again, but her coach noticed that she’d picked up a cough. This turned out to be a rare condition called pulmonary hypertension in which her blood pressure is so high that her lungs cannot keep up with her heart. The tube in her chest is an intravenous Hickman line which drip feeds the medicine she requires.

“At least it’s not cancer,” she had said. But it turned out that with cancer there’s at least a course of treatment, while for Sophie, there’s no cure. The life expectancy prognosis she was given wasn’t optimistic. In spite of it all, Sophie seems positive and healthy. “They gave me five years to live. It’s been ten and I’m still out here. That’s why I’m in Africa. I want to see everything I can.”

Henry is obsessed with a showdown at a river crossing. A pride of lions has been waiting for a week for a 1,000-strong herd of wildebeest to cross. “Wildebeest are incredibly stupid animals,” explains Raffy. Zebras will go around, but wildebeest will only cross a drainage at the same place every year.” The lions seem pretty unbothered, but we’re told they’re getting hungry. In the evening we head out on a game drive, using an infrared torch so as not to bother the animals’ eyes. We find the pride of lions. The cubs have round bellies. Fat and happy, it’s apparent they’ve recently killed.

The red light lends a certain seediness to the coupling between a male lion and a lioness. He seems despondent afterwards, as if he’s trapped in a situation out of his control, and throws himself comically onto the ground, like a melodramatic teenager flinging himself onto a bed.

The male lion throws himself comically onto the ground, like a melodramatic teenager flinging himself onto a bed

In the morning, we initially surmise that a spotted hyena cub is playing dead, but as we draw closer and realise that it’s lying on its back and eventually spot the blood around its abdomen, it becomes apparent that it was killed by lions the evening before, probably for interfering with a carcass. When I ask why the cats didn’t eat the young hyena, Raffy tells me they’re not to the lions’ taste, and it’s likely that a pack of hyenas will return to cannibalise their own.

On the way back to the lodge, we pass Maasai shepherds herding goats through the prairie. One of the unique features of Naboisho Conservancy is the opportunity to see humans and wildlife living in relative harmony. It’s illegal for shepherds or residents to carry firearms, but they instinctively have a feel for how to avoid confrontation with big game, even driving hundreds of goats within eyeshot of lions.

Running in the Kenyan savannah

“It’s hard work,” says Raffy. “They’ll walk thirty miles through the day without food and water.” I mention that they must be good runners. “The two top running tribes in Kenya are the Maasai and the Kalenjin peoples.” Wilson ran to and from school for many years – three miles there and three miles back almost every day; but this is nothing new to the Maasai. We’re due to go on a walking safari, but I half-joke that perhaps we should run it instead.

“I’ll run with you,” says Wilson. Because I’m travelling by myself and alone on the game viewer, they’re able to make a statement said in jest a reality. When Raffy signs it off, it dawns on me that I’m going to have the opportunity to tick off two bucket list experiences in one: running in the Kenyan savannah, and running with a Maasai. Half an hour later, Wilson turns up wearing running shoes, light trousers and a cotton t-shirt. We stride past wildebeest, zebra, baboons, black-backed jackals, bat-eared fox, impala, and Thomson’s gazelle.

A massive cloud of smoke envelops the horizon line. There’s a controlled burn in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where they’re trying to create healthier grasslands for the Great Migration. When I estimate it’s 30 miles away, Wilson correctly asserts that it’s closer to 100. The distances in this wide-open terrain bend the mind. Finally, we arrive at a local Maasai village under a sweeping green ridge.

Blixen wrote of the Maasai in Out of Africa that “They die in prison if they are brought there, within three months, so the English law of the country holds with no penalty of imprisonment for the Maasai: they are punished by fine.” Maybe that’s something we should all aspire to, an indomitable will to freedom, the “stark inability to live under the yoke.” Out here under a cooking sun on a neverending plain with an elevated heart rate, one feels pretty free. The yoke of contingency evanesces. It’s just you, the animal and the acacia tree. And, as the writer famously made a point of observing in her memoir, “You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions.”