Last year November, Buzz (Yes, that is my fiancé’s nickname) and I took a road trip to the tiny, but incredibly special Kimana Sanctuary.
This small piece of land with its picturesque views is an incredibly untouched piece of heaven. How small you ask? 5700acres. (I had to google this!) It is actually JUST 23 square kilometres. Now, bring to your mind the size of Maasai Mara in its entirety which is an impressive 1510 square kilometres. Definitely comparing a mole hill to a mountain.
Kimana Sanctuary serves as an extremely important wildlife corridor linking the greater Amboseli system, Tsavo National Park and Chyulu Hills National Park.
The first time we had heard about this intimate haven, was when we came across The Kenyan Camper‘s blog about Kimana Sanctuary. He obviously did a fantastic job in enticing us to head down there. A fun fact: Just two weeks prior to our trip, some of our friends had also gone to the sanctuary and regaled us with great stories about their wild encounters. The fear of missing out (FOMO) got the better of me! I had to head down there and experience it for myself. I’d say it was a somewhat spontaneous trip, highly fuelled by FOMO.
The plan was to leave on Saturday afternoon at 1pm after work and drive down to Kimana for one night – it would be a 3.5hr drive. After a day filled with looking into patients’ mouths (I’m a dentist, incase you were wondering), I was ecstatic about our first camping getaway alone! We’ve been on numerous, amazing camping trips with our friends before, but never just the two of us. This should be interesting…
The traffic heading out of Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon was crazy as usual. BUT, we were in high spirits; taking a small detour to get fries from KFC and off we went. I must admit that the drive is pretty scenic, if you look past the hundreds of trucks on the road.
We reached Emali after about 2.5hrs, breezing through to Kimana! Surrounded with surreal views of the verdant Chyulu Hills to the left, we kept our eyes peeled for Mt. Kilimanjaro in the horizon and didn’t even realise that it was peeking above the clouds way up high, towering over everything below. It was an awe-inspiring sight.
Checking in at the gate around 4.30pm, the ranger informed us that we were going to be the only two people in the sanctuary tonight. Eeeekkk, how exciting! There’s a selection of 3 campsites – Elerai, Olchani and Oltepesi and for those looking for a bit of luxury – Kimana House. We had chosen to pre-book the Elerai campsite which is right by the river flowing through the sanctuary, completely unfenced and also serves as a pathway for elephants (YES! Elephants!). He informed us that we had to keep our campfire burning all night to keep the animals away. This would certainly be a WILD experience.
Regarding big cats – he told us there were four cheetahs and a very shy male lion but no leopards at the time. And gave us a little heads up not to pitch our tents too close to the river as there were hippos. YIKES! We got our map and off-road permit from the ranger and made our way to the campsite via the network of rugged, bumpy roads running through the sanctuary. This is also one of the very few places in Kenya where you can experience a night game drive! The concentration of game here is incredible, having already encountered a number of warthogs, impalas, baboons and wildebeests in the 10-15mins drive between the gate and the campsite.
First things first, we had to set up camp and get the fire started before nightfall. I was in-charge of pitching the tent (A few years ago, this was not something that I enjoyed. But now every time I pitch the tent, I experience a very comforting sense of familiarity making me reminisce about all our previous camping adventures) while Buzz was handling the fire – he is a champion at lighting up campfires. The firewood had already been organised for us, thankfully.
As I was pitching the tent, I noticed this magnificent big boy elephant, a few metres away, heading straight towards our campsite. I froze. I whispered (a little too violently) to Buzz, who was busy getting the fire started, to look in the direction that I was pointing. The ellie definitely didn’t seem like it was here to cause any trouble, heading straight through the campsite and into the river to quench its thirst. Standing shock still, stunned beyond belief, we weren’t sure what to do. I dashed to the car to get my camera but, it was too late, the ellie had crossed over to the other side. That was the only elephant we’d see in Kimana – the ranger informed us the next day as we were exiting that they had all migrated out of the sanctuary the previous day (BUMMER!). What an exhilarating experience that was, to be so unguarded and yet in such close proximity to these gentle giants – almost like a safari fairytale.
After taking a few minutes to regain composure, our luxurious five billion star accommodation for the night with the magnificent Mt. Kilimanjaro as our backdrop, was ready. I say luxurious because we have a very comfortable air mattress. As you can see, the fire is supposed to act as our shield against any hippos or crocodiles that may decide to pay us a visit.
Looking forward to the night game drive, we decided to start preparing for dinner early.
Dinner consisted of roasted veggies (Potatoes, onions and capsicums thrown into the fire, wrapped in foil ofcourse), halloumi, some corn and a delicious secret sauce prepared by Buzz. We devoured our well deserved feast listening to the rather amplified sounds of nature by the crackling campfire, keeping our ears open, listening intently for any animals wandering nearby.
An owl actually swooped over our heads as we were eating, startling me so much I almost fell into the fire. I’m pretty sure I heard hippos in the river too, but Buzz told me it was probably my wild imagination, which was absolutely running a mile a minute.
Stomachs satisfied, we cleared up and embarked on a night game drive. We went in search of the four cheetahs. Glittering eyes looking back at us when our torches shone on them, we came across herds of impalas, a few warthogs and a giraffe too. This was my first ever night game drive and I was fascinated. We drove around for a while, a few imaginary glittering eyes here and there, some mistaking rocks for wildlife, we decided to try and make our way back to camp using a slightly different route. We were probably around 15 minutes away from the campsite when we spotted the elusive cat. It was stretching gracefully, completely oblivious of our car. Initially we thought it was one of the cheetahs or a lion sub-adult until we could clearly see the beautiful, dark spots – shaped like roses, on its golden brown fur – WE HAD JUST SPOTTED A LEOPARD IN KIMANA SANCTUARY! This was an undeniably incredible and special sighting not just because we spotted the elusive cat, but because of where we were and the fact that we spotted it at night. We spent about 20 minutes following its movements – absolutely enthralled. It definitely put on an epic show for us making this the best sighting of my whole life.
I’ll be the first to admit that night wildlife photography is a whole different sport on its own. These were the only decent shots I had managed to get in our span of 20 minutes with this beauty.
We settled back in at camp with the raging fire providing us with warmth and protection. The sounds of the wild still echoing all around us. The night was clear and crisp with the temperatures having dropped significantly and the chilly wind keeping us glued to the toasty fire.
I set up my tripod and camera hoping to capture our camp setup under the night sky. A few night shot attempts are compulsory on every camping trip for me, and now Buzz too – he’s gotten the hang of night photography now (The only type of photography that he is interested in). There’s just a certain thrill that comes with being able to capture the night sky with the millions of twinkling stars in a single frame, despite it taking a million attempts to get those pretty images. I’m still learning this art so my astrophotography shots are nowhere near perfect, but I still find it rather enjoyable.
I barely slept a wink at night for fear of waking up to a hippo trampling our tent. Buzz slept through it all, he isn’t a scaredy-cat like me. However, dawn came quickly and we set off on an early morning game drive, munching cereal bars for breakfast. Unfortunately, Kilimanjaro was concealed at the time due to the heavy cloud cover. But the sunrise was still beautiful and refreshing.
Luckily, the cloud cover covering the mountain started clearing up allowing the snowy peak to slowly become visible. I set up my tripod again. We were surrounded by beautiful wildlife, some wildebeests, zebras and impalas in the distance and Mt Kilimanjaro serving as a magnificent backdrop. I wished we could stay here forever.
As we continued our leisurely drive through this gorgeous sanctuary, Buzz thought he spotted tiny heads peeking sneakily in the far distance. We tried to get a bit closer to confirm what they may be, and sure enough, we saw them seeking shade under a bush from the scorching sun – 4 cheetahs. We were thrilled! We were alone, in the wild, observing the cheetahs and enjoying a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro – this was everything that any wildlife enthusiast could ever want.
We turned the car around. And voila – I managed to get a bucket list shot!!!! How often do you get to see a cheetah with Kilimanjaro in the background? I’LL TELL YOU! Very few times.
We followed them around for a while, being cautious not to disturb them or disrupt their path. They even attempted to stalk a few impalas in the distance however the impalas already sensed danger and sprinted away leaving the cheetahs frustrated.
All these fascinating and thrilling experiences made this a trip like no other. Never have I ever experienced wildlife the way we did at Kimana Sanctuary, unspoiled and undisturbed. If I may be so bold as to say, it was definitely better than any Maasai Mara experience I have had so far (Lovers of the Mara, please don’t kill me).
After a fabulous morning spent tracking the cheetahs and other wildlife, we were really keen on spending time with some elephants now, especially big boy tusker, Tim (who unfortunately passed on in February this year at the age of 51. His passing was absolutely heartbreaking as he was one of the biggest tuskers in Africa and one of the gentlest of these giants). At the time, we were informed by the warden that Tim, the Tusker, was in Amboseli – he generally migrates between Amboseli and Kimana and never strays any further. We made a quick dash to try and find him and his other tusker friends. It was about a 40mins drive on corrugated road from Kimana Sanctuary to the Amboseli gate.
Big Life Foundation in partnership with the local communities, protect these elephants and the millions of acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem.
It would seem that our luck had finally run out. We didn’t manage to find them, but we did encounter some of these majestic and massive elephants upon entering Amboseli National Park. Just observing their absolutely calm and collected nature was a treat. I personally have never seen elephants as big as these ones – we just watched them quietly save for the sound of my shutter clicking away, completely in awe.
I will tell you this though, being in the company of numerous other vehicles, some of whom were getting a little too close to the ellies for my comfort, made me wish we were back at the little sanctuary.
Kimana holds an extremely special place in my heart and I would recommend everyone to head down there and experience this surreal piece of heaven themselves after we get through this pandemic. I, personally, cannot wait to be back there.
Until the next one, love and light everyone.
Stay safe, social distance and wash your hands and we’ll soon be able to experience the outdoors again.