When our 2019 Christmas plans suddenly changed for reasons beyond our control, we had the option of spending the festive season in Nairobi, or improvise something. Spontaneity it was!
The Kenya Coast is generally fully booked down to the last room during holidays, with insane prices. Some things are more precious than money, though.
The key to beating the traffic towards Mombasa, is to hit the road at 05:00 sharp in the morning. At 05:50, an impatient father was rushing kids and wife into the car.
There are three viable routes by car from Nairobi to Malindi. The default one goes through Mombasa, with the inevitable traffic jams through the city and up to Mtwapa. A more recently tarmacked option goes from Mariakani to Kilifi. Apparently a great alternative, according to well-informed sources. Finally, there is the bumpier, but more scenic way through Tsavo.
Tsavo East National Park
Tsavo East is the biggest national park in Kenya. With almost 14,000 km2, it is half the size of Rwanda, or 29 times the size of Andorra. The dirt roads are of a pretty decent quality, providing for a quite comfortable ride at 30 km/h or less. Most parts of the road from Voi Gate to Sala Gate haven’t been graded for a while, which is good news for motorists. Newly graded roads through the national parks tend to look like giant washboards, making the ride unbearable. More than one house in Runda was probably funded by contractors getting away with these shoddy jobs..
Tsavo (East and West alike) are better visited outside of the rainy seasons. While the roads remain motorable, the animals will find enough food deep inside the terrain, far away from eager humans with cameras. Traveling through the parks, you will find lush, green and spectacularly beautiful sceneries, but little of the stuff tourists pay to see.
Another reason to avoid the parks during the monsoons, is the billions, if not trillions of insects emerging when their habitats get flooded. Forget to apply your insect repellant in the evening, and you may find yourself scratching on insect bites for the next few days. If you are one of the tree huggers who believes that allowing insects to feed on you, is an act of kindness, then I have a holiday tip for you!
Tsavo East is the path less traveled. Divided from Tsavo West by the A109 Nairobi-Mombasa highway, it is eclipsed by the smaller western sibling, which is logistically better placed on the itineraries of most safari tourists.
The Ashnil Aruba Lodge is reputed to be the best lodge in the park. It is certainly a pleasant experience. The staff are in a league of their own, and I am saying this based on the experience of dozens of lodges in East Africa!
The lodge is located at the shore of the Aruba Dam (no relation to that lovely Caribbean island). Since we got there during the rainy season, with all the aforementioned implications, the dam had burst, giving way to a swampland instead.
Each room is a standalone cottage, with a balcony facing the dam. The season being the reason, the only animals we saw from there were the infamous insects, though. Not as exciting as the the two buffaloes killed by lions a few weeks earlier.
Buffets are the inevitable downside of virtually all safari lodges below USD 500/night. I am not a fan, to make an understatement! To the extent possible, Aruba Lodge are fairly good at theirs, though. With a mix of international/European and Indian, made by a skilled chef, this is a buffet I can actually cope with. Again, great staff makes a massive difference!
Throughway to Malindi
The distance from the Voi Gate to the Sala Gate is 85 kms, and Aruba Lodge is right on that road. A nice and slow ride towards the eastern end takes at least three hours. Just take your time and enjoy. The sceneries are beautiful, and if the season is right, you will see plenty of animals too!
From the Sala Gate, the road is newly tarmacked, with almost no traffic for 100 kms down to Malindi. This is one of the few roads in Kenya where you can cruise comfortably (and safely!) at 120 km/h or more. At those speeds, you won’t get the full experience of the lovely sceneries, though.
Approaching Malindi, the road gets more crowded, and slowing down is no longer a choice.
The new road can become a great boost for tourism. Malindi has an international airport, and has long been a legendary attraction. It is far less busy than the tourism machinery around Mombasa, though. With the option for visitors to fly into Malindi, and take their safari from there, another frontier has been opened. Up to the local travel industry to capitalize on it!