All Posts

Music Photography

Backstage

With sometimes literally only seconds to work with, talk about working under pressure, we always manage to build an excellent rapport with the artists and thus produce relaxed, friendly and most of all memorable backstage shots…

Capturing the essence of a band, backstage, can be both some of the most fun and the most challenging moments for a music photographer. Throughout our career, we’ve had the opportunity to see some of the biggest musicians both prepare and unwind after a sell-out gig. We believe we’ve managed to capture some of these amazing moments in the lifetime of musicians that have given so much of themselves for their art and their audience.

Music Photography

Band Shots

Promo shots, cover images, posters, books and booklets, whatever your band needs are, we will meet them in the most satisfactory and artistic fashion…

Releasing that new album? Trying to build hype for your next big show? Or simply working on your visual merchandising? We have lots of experience with capturing the essence of the artists behind the music, and can help you towards your goals of increasing awareness of your band’s brand. From promo shots, cover images, posters to books, leaflets and postcards, we can help you capture your sound and vibe.

Kenya

Samburu Special Five

While Samburu does not have the immediate allure of its more famous peers, the Samburu Special Five make it a worthwhile destination for any safari-goer…

The Samburu National Reserve will likely never attract the crowds of tourists that flood its more famous siblings in the south. However, the cryptic phrase in the title of this text, the “Samburu Special Five” is a reason enough for any visitor to Kenya to consider this somewhat remote location. We will get back to it, but let us first discuss this National Reserve and its peculiarities.

A lone elephant passing behind a doum palm tree inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone elephant walks away behind a doum palm tree – these trees are ubiquitous throughout the region and can grow a bit further away from the river

What is the Samburu National Reserve?

When talking about Samburu, most people actually refer to the congregation of three national reserves, spread along both sides of the Ewaso Ng’iro River. Apart from the most famous Samburu National Reserve, there are also the Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves. They are separate reserves, with their own entrance gates. However, you can hop between all three upon paying the entrance fee at any gate.

A solitary Grévy's zebra crossing a dirt road in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Zebra crossing has a whole other meaning in the Samburu National Reserve – we gave way to this solitary Grévy’s zebra

The Ewaso Ng’iro River and its Muddy Waters

This is a large protected area and the town of Archer’s Post sits at its fulcrum. It is a small settlement on the main road from Nairobi up north, towards Marsabit. The region largely depends on the Ewaso Ng’iro River for its well-being, because it is the only major water source in the region. The river is seasonal and entirely dependent on Mount Kenya’s glaciers. Those are unfortunately severely affected by climate change, thus causing many problems for the local residents.

A solitary nile crocodile basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, Africa
A solitary Nile crocodile basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River

The Samburu Reserve is located on the north side of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, along its left bank. The other two reserves border its right bank. This is an arid region, with denser woodlands stretched only along the river. In the local language, its name means “muddy water” and is a very apt one. Do not expect to take a swim in it. Not only is it home to countless crocodiles, but its currents are also dangerous and relentless too.

Elsa, Born Free and Kamunyak

There are only a handful of safari-goers, particularly in Kenya, who have never heard of either Elsa the Lioness or the “Born Free” movie. The Samburu National Reserve was actually one of the two areas in which conservationists George Adamson and Joy Adamson raised Elsa. This incredible, heartfelt story was since described in numerous books and films. However, the most famous and faithful are the best-selling book and award-winning movie of the same name – “Born Free”. The account was written by Joy Adamson herself and published back in 1960.

A commemorative plaque for Elsa the lioness inside the entrance gate to the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
The commemorative plaque for Elsa the Lioness inside the entrance gate to the Samburu National Reserve

Back in 2003, the Samburu was made world famous again by yet another lioness. Kamunyak, a lioness in question, “adopted” a baby oryx, against all odds and her predatorial instincts. She cared for the infant very successfully for 15 days. Unfortunately, their relationship was cut short by an elder male lion who killed the calf while she was drinking water. This has allegedly not been the solitary case of lionesses adopting baby herbivores in the Samburu National Reserve, so it pays to keep your eyes peeled for any odd pairings when on safari here.

Large acacia tree covered with weaver birds' nests, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
This large acacia tree seems to be decorated with countless weaver birds’ nests

Visiting the Reserves

I visited the region twice, both on our way to and back from Lake Turkana. The first time, we actually went to the Buffalo Springs Reserve. On our way back, we spent half a day in the Samburu National Reserve. As the topology and wildlife encountered are for all practical purposes absolutely identical, I will hereafter talk about Samburu in general.

The entrance gate of the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
The entrance gate of the Samburu National Reserve “proper”

There is only one small caveat though. While the Samburu National Reserve seem to be “navigable” in a simple safari van, my impression is that you may want to have a proper 4×4 car in the Buffalo Springs Reserve. Several tracks we traversed there were not that well maintained and posed a proper challenge to our own 4×4 vehicle.

Entrance Gate of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya, Africa
The entrance gate of the Buffalo Springs National Reserve

I visited the Samburu Region with Chris Temboh Muriuki. He is a mountain guide and a longtime friend, and we shared many adventures together. We first met on my first attempt at going up Mount Kenya, which I ultimately failed to do, but loved every moment of the trip nonetheless.

Two Faces of the Samburu – the Colour Blue

As I mentioned above, we visited the Samburu National Reserve on two occasions, a mere week apart. However, it seemed as if we visited two completely different regions. On our way up, the region was, yet unbeknownst to us, at a tail end of a long and devastating drought. The Ewaso Ng’iro River was as close to dried out as it ever was. The smallest of the children were comfortably chasing each other to and fro the opposing bank through the trickle of the once mighty river, just outside our camp.

Dried riverbed of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu region of Kenya, Africa
The dried riverbed of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, as we encountered it on our way up north

During our safari drive in the Buffalo Springs Reserve that afternoon, there was a persistent cloud coverage that gave most photos that bluish tint, with no discernible shadows in sight. Not that I am complaining, mind you. I always enjoy both the benefits as well as challenges of any particular weather and climate combination. It is only that it could not have been more different than what awaited us upon our return to the region.

Silhouettes of a young baboon and its mother, sitting on a tree branch in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Silhouettes of a young baboon and its mother, relaxing on a tree branch during an overcast late afternoon

Two Faces of the Samburu – the Golden Hue

The afternoon of our second visit was just amazing when it comes to the weather. The skies were bright blue, and the entire region was bathed in the warm rays of that glorious African sunshine. The colours were almost surreal, the greens and yellows were saturated out of this world. Little did with know what the unpredictable climate had in store for us.

Young elephant and its mother, with a couple of reticulated giraffes behind, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A young elephant and its mother, under the watchful eye of a reticulated giraffe, bathed by the golden light of a sunny afternoon

As the day was drawing to a close, the wind suddenly picked up and clouds materialised seemingly out of nowhere. Rain followed suit shortly thereafter. At first, it brought even more magic upon us as the rainbows started popping up everywhere.

A lone lioness walking towards a rainbow at dusk in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone lioness heading towards a proverbial pot of gold, perhaps in Elsa’s footsteps

As we concluded our afternoon drive and got back to the camp, the curtain of clouds got ever thicker. That night, we welcomed our first proper thunderstorm on this trip. The rain flooded our camp, and we spent half a night in our car. The car actually started sliding on an almost invisible slope on one occasion, as the entire region was turned to mud. It was a glorious experience nonetheless – experiencing the wrath of nature up close and personal. After all, both we and our equipment went through the ordeal pretty much unscathed with only amazing memories in tow.

Farewell to the Samburu National Reserve

On our way out of the park the following morning, we crossed once again the Ewaso Ng’iro River. What a difference one rainstorm could make! Instead of a shy trickle, there was a roaring current of mud, an uncontrollable beast that pummeled the very banks it could not even reach a few days ago. An incredible sight and a fitting farewell to an amazing natural destination.

The roaring current of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu region of Kenya, Africa
The roaring current of the very same Ewaso Ng’iro River, a week and one overnight rainstorm later

Encountering the Samburu Special Five

Now, let us briefly touch upon that perhaps cryptical phrase in the title of this post. What does “Samburu Special Five” actually refer to? You are probably aware of the idiom “the big five”. It does carry a number of negative connotations nowadays since it was coined by colonial hunters to list the five most desirable animals to hunt. (Do check the initiative “New Big 5” for an alternative and much more contemporary take on the subject.)

A Grévy's zebra and a beisa oryx, two of the Samburu Special Five, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Two of the Samburu Special Five, a Grévy’s zebra and a Beisa oryx, happily posing together

Nonetheless, “the big five” is nowadays ubiquitous in describing the variety of wildlife one may encounter in any given national park. It sort of “guarantees” the chance to see elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions and leopards in the park. Actually, 4 out of the big five are present in the Samburu National Reserve, only the rhinos are missing.

Single horned beisa oryx and an impala, somewhere in the bush inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Single-horned Beisa oryx and an impala, foraging together deep inside the bush

But, the relative isolation of the area when compared to the other famous Kenyan wildlife reserves further South has led to the development of a particular wildlife population here. Thus the phrase “Samburu Special Five” was coined. The five animals in question are, in no particular order, the reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, Grévy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, and likely the oddest of the bunch, a gerenuk. They are all quite common in the area and we saw all five practically within an hour of both of our visits.

A lone reticulated giraffe, eating leaves off a tree inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone reticulated giraffe, one of the Samburu Special Five, enjoying its afternoon snack

The Weird and the Wonderful

All of the Samburu Special Five are interesting in their own way and there are numerous online sources explaining everything about their genealogy, behaviour, etc. I will here only briefly mention a few interesting bits of information that piqued my interest.

Gerenuk family grazing in the bush in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Gerenuk family grazing in the bush – gerenuk is likely the weirdest member of the Samburu Special Five

Grévy’s zebras are the largest of all zebras and have a very distinct, tightly spaced pattern of black and white lines. It often really dazzles the viewer, pun intended. While a group of zebras is often called a herd, it can also be referred to as a dazzle of zebras. They are not as social as their “plain” cousins and are often seen wandering around alone or in very small groups. Solitary male Grévy’s zebras can weigh up to 430 kg and are generally even not afraid of lone lions.

A herd of Somali ostriches in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A herd of Somali ostriches – yes, a group of ostriches is generally referred to as a “herd”

Most oryxes can quite easily lose one of their horns, Beisa ones not being exceptions. It happens either in fights for territory or while running through the bush and striking a low-lying branch. Some believe that the legend of a unicorn may be related to encounters with such single-horned oryxes. I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions about it.

It Is Not All About the Samburu Special Five Though…

As I mentioned above, save for the rhinos, visitors to the Samburu National Reserve can expect to encounter elephants, lions, buffaloes and the ever-elusive leopards. The leopards remained well hidden during both of our visits, but we encountered all the other “major” animals, plus many others to boot. The elephants were plentiful, as were the lions. We came very close to a den of warthogs and could observe them being silly for quite a while.

A family of warthogs at the entrance to their den in the Samburu National Park in Kenya, Africa
A family of warthogs at the entrance to their den in the Samburu National Reserve

Numerous other smaller animals crossed our path too. I particularly enjoyed a number of sightings of the extremely cute ground squirrels. They are plentiful throughout Kenya, but very difficult to spot out in the field. The barren patches of land all over the Samburu National Reserve, devoid of any grass coverage, gave us many chances to see these lovely creatures zip around every which way.

Ground squirrel in the Samburu National Park in Kenya, Africa
This extremely cute ground squirrel stopped its frantic running around for just the briefest moment here

That would be it about this visit to the Samburu National Reserve. It is an enchanting place to come to and offers many unique possibilities that are well worth a trip. Are we going to come back? You bet we will, the first chance we get!

FAQs for the Samburu National Park

In which country is the Samburu National Park located?

The Samburu National Park, or more correctly, the Reserve, is located in Kenya, north of the Laikipia region.

How to get to the Samburu National Park?

The Samburu National Park Reserve is located approximately 350 kilometres north of Nairobi. It can be reached in about 7 hours’ drive on good roads. One can also fly from Wilson Airport, with AirKenya and Safarilink.

When to visit the Samburu National Park?

The Samburu can be visited throughout the year, but the best periods to visit would be during the dry seasons – June to September and January to February. You may want to avoid the peaks of the rainy season as the roads can get really muddy and difficult to navigate.

What are the Samburu Special Five?

The Samburu has its own, not “big”, but “special” five. They are, in no particular order, the reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, Grévy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, and gerenuk.

Here are all the photos we took in the Samburu National Reserve:

Kenya

Eagle View Camp in the Masai Mara

Eagle View Camp in Mara Naboisho, a conservancy in the Masai Mara ecosystem, is one of the world’s most celebrated ecolodges. The camp is positioned on an escarpment, overlooking the spotty Mara plains. Right below it is a watering hole which animals come to drink from throughout the day…

As the sun sets, its golden glow casts over the plains of Mara Naboisho. All through the landscape are hundreds of acacia trees, their crowns tinted red under the evening sun. The watering hole below Eagle View Camp reflects the colour of the fiery sky, its still, glassy water taking on vivid hues. The sunset at Eagle View is an incredible one. A view worth travelling to the Masai Mara to see.

The busy landscape of the Masai Mara during a golden sunset
The stunning landscape of Mara Naboisho from Eagle View Camp, lit by the golden sunlight of the early evening

However, there’s so much more than the view at Eagle View Camp. The camp is located in the wilderness, hidden among thick bushes. Plenty of animals pass through the camp premises, day and night. The lodge combines the comfort of a top-tier hotel with the experience of camping in the bush. Out here, you not just surrounded by nature, you are in its very heart.

eagle view camp at sunset over landscape
View of the endless plains of Mara Naboisho from Eagle View Camp

Exclusivity Through Low-Density Tourism

If you want to experience the Masai Mara without the crowds, we recommend staying a few nights at Eagle View Camp. The camp is located in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy which is next to the Masai Mara National Reserve and part of the same ecosystem. Unless you have a bed at one of the lodges within Naboisho, you cannot enter the conservancy. Because the number of beds is limited, you will not encounter many vehicles during your game drives in Naboisho. For visitors to the Masai Mara craving a more private experience, a few nights in the Mara conservancies (e.g. Naboisho and Mara North) is a must.

View of Masai Mara grasslands from Eagle View Camp
The grasslands of the Mara from our tent at Eagle View

We feel this is especially important for photographers who don’t want to always have other vehicles in their shot. If you are visiting the Masai Mara during peak season, when the great migration takes place, it might be a good idea to stay in Naboisho. It has one of the best ratios of beds per acre of land, and remains uncrowded even during the busiest of seasons.

Privileges of Staying in Eagle View Camp

On top of the exclusivity afforded by staying at Eagle View Camp, several other privileges also come with a night’s stay here. In Naboisho, it is possible to do walking safaris and night drives. It is also possible to follow big cats off the road (you can also do this in Mara North and the other Mara Conservancies).

Walking Safari

It is worth mentioning here that Eagle View Camp is part of a more extensive operation called Basecamp that owns a few lodges in Naboisho and the Masai Mara area. Because of this, they can do whole day walking safaris that take you from one camp to the next. Even if you choose to stay put and not move from Eagle View Camp, you can still do a walking safari. The camp can arrange this for you, with their Maasai guides.

Walking safari with three Maasai guides on the Masai Mara
Our three Maasai Ascari who accompanied us on our walking safari

The Maasai will take you safely through the bush and enrich you with plenty of information along the way. We did a morning safari walk with them and have written about it here – Walking Safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss if you are staying at Eagle View Camp. I wished we had more time to do a whole day walking Safari. We’ll be back to Naboisho to try this activity.

Photographing Big Cats Off-Road

One of the significant advantages of staying in a conservancy is that you’re allowed to go off-road to get closer to a big cat. We did this in both Naboisho, while staying at Eagle View Camp, and Mara North while staying at the Royal Mara Safari Lodge.

Two lions resting in the long grass at dawn
Two lions resting in the long grass, warming up under the warm dawn sunlight

Eagle View Camp had a dedicated and talented tracker while we were there. Wilson accompanied us on a night drive, and also an early morning ride. Both times, he took our guide, Joseph Mbotte, and us off the road, leading us right into a pride of lions. We got close to them, and this made for some truly incredible photographs.

lion and his cubs on the Masai Mara at night
Our tracker Wilson led us to a large male lion and his three little cubs who were hanging out on the road. The lioness, their mum, was not far away

Early Morning Drives and Evening Drives

Because the game drive starts right outside the lodge in Naboisho, you can see nature as it is in the wee hours. There’s no long wait to get into a reserve, which will rob time off those precious golden hours. During peak season, sunrise is around 6:20 A.M. The entry gates to the Masai Mara National Reserve open at 6 A.M., unless you are fortunate, you won’t get that sunrise shot on the savannah. The same goes for sunset – you need to leave by 6 P.M. from the Masai Mara, and the sunset is usually around 6:20 P.M.

Lioness hiding in an orange croton bush, a natural insect repellent
Lioness taking shade under an orange croton bush sometime mid-morning

Night Drives

One of the highlights of staying at Eagle View Camp was the night drive. We did this with their dedicated tracker, Wilson, who took us around the Naboisho plains well after dark. Despite there being almost no visibility, he managed to find a pride of lions with three cubs in the pitch darkness. The combination of being able to do night drives and a talented tracker is priceless. The entire experience was incredibly unique and memorable. You cannot do night drives in the Masai Mara National Reserve (unless you stay in one of the hotels in the Mara Triangle, which is a conservancy owned by Narok County). 

lions cubs play fighting after dark
Lion cubs play fighting in the darkness of night – as captured during our night drive

Community Conservation

At Eagle View Camp, we met the outgoing manager, Tony Musembi, who filled our days with plenty of activity. When we told him we were interested in conservation efforts in the Masai Mara, he recommended we visited Basecamp Explorer. Basecamp Explorer is a lodge and conservation project beside the Talek River, located in the Masai Mara ecosystem. This camp is famous for its extensive reforestation efforts, and its “Obama Forest”, which is the forest planted in his honour in the land surrounding the campsite.

Sign of the Obama forest in basecamp explorer
The Obama Forest was planted in honour of the president who visited Basecamp back when he was just a senator

During our trip to Kenya, we would get to meet many local and foreign conservationists, working to preserve the country’s natural wonders. We highly recommend visiting conservation efforts during your holiday in Kenya as it rounds off the safari experience. By visiting the conservation efforts at Basecamp, we got to understand the monumental tasks Kenyans face when it comes to maintaining their natural environment. We also got to see how intimately connected the Maasai are to nature, compared to us from the west. It was a truly eye-opening experience.

Basecamp conservation green belt movement replanting effort in the Masai Mara
Teresea and her two aides – part of the team working at Basecamp Conservation. Teresea works in a nursery where they care for seedlings that will be planted in the Masai Mara, as part of the Green Belt movement

Review of Eagle View Camp

We were glad we stayed at Eagle View Camp for three nights and wished it could have been longer. There was not a moment spared while there. We had something to do every hour we were there, and each moment was special.

The deck of our tent at Eagle View camp
The “entrance” to our tent at Eagle View Camp – each tent comes with a large deck with great views of the Mara grasslands

The Premises – Restaurant, Lounge, Terrace

The facilities at Eagle View Camp are fantastic. The main area sits on the highest point of the escarpment, overlooking the never-ending Mara Naboisho plains. The site faces west, so it is a fantastic spot for sunsets. In my opinion, it was the most breath-taking sunset we experienced on our entire trip. However, the sunset over Shimba Hills on the Godoni Cliffs comes a close second.

Campfire at sunset over the masai mara at eagle view
The campfire at Eagle View Camp overlooking the plains of Mara Naboisho

There is a lovely fireplace set into the floor of the terrace, and staff light a fire there every evening. It’s a great place to have a drink and catch dusk as it falls.

The restaurant is right beside the terrace, and also has the same magnificent view. There’s always tea, coffee and home-baked cakes and biscuits during the day, which I liked. It was nice to have a little something before pre-breakfast game drives and before the late-afternoon game drive.

Restaurant with a view located in the bush of the Masai Mara
The dining area at Eagle View Camp overlooks the phenomenal view of Mara Naboisho

Comfort

Basecamp is a Norweigian company and the decor of the tents had that simple, Scandinavian look. I liked it because it was uncluttered and there was enough shelving for clothes and luggage. The bed was comfortable and provided a good night’s sleep.

bathroom in eagle view tent overlooks the masai mara savannah
The en-suite bathroom of our tent at Eagle View has an amazing view

Because the tent is high on an escarpment, it can get quite windy, so its best to put down the tent flaps at night. There is no working desk in the tent – if you have a lot of camera gear, you might have trouble getting organised. However, it is a minor inconvenience and would not deter us from returning to Eagle View Camp in a heartbeat.

Bedroom at eagle view tented lodge
The beds at Eagle View are simple but comfortable

Staff

The staff at Eagle View Camp are a stellar lot. Basecamp hires the majority of its staff from the surrounding communities (I think the only exception was the manager, everyone else was born within the county). They were friendly, personable, and open. We had a few long chats with them by the campfire which we treasure greatly. These conversations provided insight into their daily lives and their communities. Of particular interest to us was how their communities have evolved over decades, as the role of conservation in their communities continues to grow.

The Food and Chef

Eagle View Camp’s head chef, Benson, can cook up a real feast. Initially hired as an Ascari (a Maasai guard), he found his calling as a chef over the years. It took lots of perseverance and hard work, but he eventually rose to the level of head chef for one of the world’s most prestigious lodges. He’s perfectly at home cooking both western style dishes and Kenyan cuisine. The meals at Eagle View Camp are on the level of international five-star hotels in Europe.

Kenyan food- mukimo, mashed potatoes with greens and corn
Mukimo – mash with greens
tumeric flavoured rice with carrots lenyan dish
Tumeric flavoured rice
curry with garden peas kenyan food
Curry with garden peas
Kenyan greens

The staff surprised us one evening by organising a bush dinner on the premises of Eagle View Camp. It was a unique experience. They had set up a table among some bushes overlooking the Naboisho Plains. The table was lit with oil lamps, giving the scene a cosy, warm glow. Surrounded by bushes, it was an intimate yet wild, setting. The food served was traditional Kenyan cuisine, which gave the experience a real sense of place. 

The Maasai team at Eagle View Camp
The team at Eagle View Camp – Caleb, the camp’s dedicated guide, Johnson who heads the service staff and Wilson, Eagle View’s talented tracker. All the staff at Eagle View are from the neighbouring communities

Conclusion

We would return, in a heartbeat, to Eagle View Camp. The price per night is on the upper limit for lodges in the Masai Mara, but we felt it was worth it. The exclusivity on game-drives through Mara Naboisho, the ability to do night drives and safari walks, and the stunning view were all truly priceless experiences.

Jordan

Inside Petra – a Wonder of the World

Join us inside Petra, the rose-red city of the Nabateans and a Wonder of the World…

Petra is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and there is no doubt it deserves its place on the list. Inside Petra, also known as the “Rose City”, is a labyrinth of archaeological wonders that has been around for over a thousand years. It is a testament to the ingenuity and organisation of the Nabatean civilisation. Within a span of 400 years, from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st Century AD, they designed and built this incredible complex.

View of the Treasury, carved into the red limestone of Petra
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, the most elaborate tomb in the ancient Nabatean kingdom

What is Inside Petra?

Before visiting Petra, I only knew of it from photographs of the Royal Tombs and The Treasury. From these photographs, it seemed to me that these buildings were palaces. In fact, the buildings and structures are a combination of grand tombs, temples and public spaces. However, it is the tombs and temples that are the best preserved.

The Monastery, for example, was a temple which also featured a great dining room. There is also the Theatre, which, as its name suggests, is a theatre built after the Hellenistic fashion. There are also spaces that have been identified as markets, and an audience hall found in the Great Temple. Most of these buildings inside Petra were built by the Nabateans, although there are structures from Roman and Byzantine times.

Simple Nabatean tomb inside Petra, above caves that could have could have been the homes of ordinary Nabateans
Tunnels and caves in the rock underneath a simple tomb. These caves could have been the tombs of regular Nabateans, or perhaps even their living quarters

On our tour, we encountered some small, exposed rooms in the rock. At first I thought they were where regular people lived, but our guide told us that these small rooms were the tombs of regular people. However, I believe the purpose of these spaces are debatable, and it is possible some of them were used for everyday living.

A puppet dressed as a Bedouin woman selling rocks from the mountains of Petra
A puppet takes the place of her Bedouin master, manning a makeshift stall in front of the Royal Tombs, selling rocks and handicrafts

Today, Bedouins from the Bdoul tribe still live inside Petra, in caves just slightly off the tourist drag. They have livestock, but most of their living is made from selling cool drinks and trinkets to tourists. They also offer camel and donkey rides to help get you around the city faster. Please do consider the well-being of these animals should you decide to hire them. Some of them are very small and appear quite malnourished and overworked. We happily walked everywhere instead.

Who Built Petra?

Petra was built by the Nabateans. These people shared the world they lived in with two other great civilisations, the Romans and the Egyptians. Originally nomadic, they prospered off the trade that flowed from East Asia to Europe through their territories in the Middle East.

Panorama of Petra, overlooking the Outer Siq and the Street of Facades
Panorama of Petra. The start of the Street of Facades is on the left. It winds past the Theatre (top left) and turns into the Street of Colonnades. You can see the white tarp over the remains of the Byzantine Church on the right, far in the distance

They bought scents like frankincense and myrrh from what is now the southern part of Saudi Arabia. These scents they sold to the Romans and the Egyptians, who used them as deodorants, religious incense and for the burning (Romans) or the embalming (Egyptians) of their dead.

The city of Petra was built at the heart of this trade. When you visit the city today, you’ll notice how dry it is – it wasn’t much different a thousand years ago. The Nabateans were already a rich and skilled society by the time they began building it. They had the knowledge and resources to control and manage water, a very precious commodity in this area. You’ll notice this aspect of their ingenuity while walking through the Siq.

The remains of the Great Temple of Petra, only the lower portion of a few columns remain of this former government building of the Nabatean civilisation
Remains of the Great Temple, believed to be a parliamentary building. Here, the Nabateans conducted meetings on matters of state that determined how to build and run their city

Like the pyramids of Egypt, Petra was not built by slaves. Nabatean society was largely egalitarian for its time, and labour was mostly paid for. In an account by a Roman scholar, Strabo, the Nabatean King is also said to be a man of the people and could often be seen serving himself and his guests at parties.

Attractions Inside Petra

During our visit to Petra, we felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to see. I thought our two days there were simply not enough to take everything in.

Tip: Time needed to see the main attractions of Petra

You really need a full day to truly experience the Siq canyon and the sights in the city’s heart – which includes the Treasury, the Royal Tombs and the Monastery. Sightseeing in Petra is physically exhausting because it is big, it is hot, and there are many stairs. You need to take into account both the time you need, and the energy you will have. An extra day will give you more of each. With 3 days, you can explore sites like the Tomb of Sextius Florentinus, which is a little bit away from the Royal Tombs, and head up the 999 steps to the High Place of Sacrifice. If you have 4 days, and are feeling adventurous, you could also hike up to Aaron’s tomb.

The dome of Aaron's tomb can be seen in the distance on the peak of a rocky mountain
Aaron’s tomb – the white speck in the distance is the place where the brother of the Prophet Moses was buried

Visiting its many archaeological sites gave me great insight into the lives of its creators, the Nabateans. It is amazing that we can look at these well preserved sites and weave together the history of this cosmopolitan region, once the centre of global trade. A position it maintained since the early days of the Roman Empire, until its collapse during the Byzantine era.

The Siq – Defense and Irrigation in Antiquity

The first attraction we encountered walking into Petra was the Siq. It is an amazing natural landform that cuts through the mountains of Petra. Walking through the Siq is a truly incredible experience. This deep and narrow gorge winds and bends greatly, with something new to be seen after every turn. Sometimes, the gorge would open up, and a magical patch of sunlight would fall on a clearing with a tree or two. Sometimes it would close in, making the visitor feel as if they were on a secret trail to find hidden treasure.

The narrow walls of the Siq and a winding path running through them
The Siq, the main entrance into the ancient city of Petra

But the Siq was not just a breath-taking way to welcome visitors into Petra. It was also critical in the defence and irrigation of the city. The Nabatean’s engineering genius enabled them to harness clean water, a critical ability that enabled their civilisation to become a success.

How long is the Siq?

It is a long, narrow fissure about 1.2 km in length. At its narrowest points, it is no more than 3 metres wide. Because of this, the Nabateans utilised it as the entrance to their city, as it was so easy to defend. Small chambers have also been found on either side of the gorge. They are believed to be guard houses, which further highlights the Siq’s importance in the defence of Petra.

Irrigation channels running along both rose red walls of the Siq
Here, the path through the Siq winds into a narrow band. You can see irrigation channels on either side of the fissure

How does the Siq bring water into Petra?

The Siq was possibly my favourite part of our tour of Petra. Not only is it a magical place, quite unlike anything I’ve visited before, it was also a marvel of human engineering. Here, I learned that Petra city is located lower than the surrounding land. While most of the area lies at 1400 metres above sea level, Petra is no higher than 900 metres. This meant that springs from Wadi Musa and the adjacent lands could be channeled downwards into the city. Along either side of the gorge, there are aqueducts carved into the rock. Some of them were simple, covered drains, while others used to hold sophisticated pipes made of clay, used for getting drinking water into the city.

Statue reliefs of a man leading his camel decorates an irrigation channel that leads into Petra
Ancient statues decorate the walls of the Siq. Here, a relief of a man leading a camel is carved over a portion of the wall that covers the aqueduct running into the city of Petra

I noticed, as I walked along the gorge, that the water channels did not always stay at the same level with respect to the ground. At the start, these channels ran by my feet. Furthur down, as the road descends suddenly, they meandered high above my head. By keeping the descent of the channels into the city constant and gradual, the Nabateans ensured adequate water pressure in Petra.

How was the Siq formed?

The Siq was formed purely by natural geological processes. The Nabateans only repurposed and decorated it to suit their civilisation. The land Petra is built in is old. Scientist dating the sandstone walls of the Siq date it to the Cambrian period (that’s when trilobites roamed the earth). The fissure is a geological fault formed when the land was split by tectonic forces. Over time, water flowing down from Wadi Musa wore down its wall, smoothing them into their present sinuous forms.

A smoothed irrigation channel running by the walls of the Siq
A channel running alongside a wall in the Siq. You can see how years of running water have smoothed it down completely

How did the Romans exploit the water supply?

The Nabatean empire ended abruptly in just two years, having been conquered by the Romans between 106 AD and 108 AD. A popular theory is that the Romans, knowing the locations of their reservoirs (even the underground ones that had been cleverly hidden) had poisoned their water supply. This led to the surrender of the Nabateans and their annexation into the Roman Empire.

The Treasury of Petra – That Indiana Jones Moment

As you reach the end of the Siq, you’ll see the Treasury through the crack between the cliffs that surround you. The rose red facade will be lit by the sun, a contrast to the cool, dark walls of the Siq. The Treasury, or Al Kazneh, is the tomb of a Nabatean King and the most famous of all the attractions in Petra. I knew of it having watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a child. Seeing this ancient structure reveal itself, so beautifully preserved, was an amazing moment.

The Treasury, lit by golden sunlight, seen through a crack in the walls of the Siq
The magical moment when the Treasury, lit golden by the sun, comes into view between the dark, cool walls of the Siq

The architecture and design of the Treasury is heavily influenced by the Hellenistic (ancient Greece) world. Featured prominently in the centre of the upper floor is a circular pedestal on which is carved a female figure. This figure is the combination of the Egyptian Goddess Isis (one of her duties is to welcome souls into the afterlife) and the Greek Goddess of Good Fortune, Tyche. This tomb stands out from the others because of its many figurative carvings, since Nabatean art and architecture is otherwise mostly non-figurative.

Petra's Treasury, looming above, as seen from the base of this grand tomb
The Treasury looks even more impressive when you are right under it. This was about as far as we could go – tourists are not allowed inside Al Kazneh

On the tips of the “roof” are two eagles, who represent Nabatean male deities. And on the lower levels are Castor and Pollux, Greek twin gods whose duty was to protect the dead on their travels in the underworld. Towards the side of the temple, you’ll notice vertical footholds in the wall. These were the “stairs” the sculptors used to when they were carving the tomb.

When was the Treasury built?

The tomb is believed to be the burial place of Aretas IV, the most successful Nabatean ruler. He lived and died in the 1st Century AD, which is likely the timeframe when the Treasury was built.

A full front view of the facade of the Treasury, with all the statues in view and also the footholds
The facade of the Treasury. You can still make out reliefs of the gods and goddessess although much of them has been destroyed and worn out by the elements. On either side are footholds for the artisans who carved the tomb to reach the higher levels

Who built the Treasury?

You might not be familiar with the Nabatean king Aretas IV – but his kingdom was allied with the Roman Empire through the marriage of his daughter, Phasaelis, to Herod Antipas. This is the same King Herod from the Bible who gave to his daughter, at the wish of her mother, the head of John the Baptist. It should be noted that King Herod had divorced the Nabatean princess and remarried, and it was not Phasaelis who asked for the head of the prophet.

Can you enter the Treasury?

No, the Treasury cannot be entered. There are metal fences a few feet from the monumental doorways to prevent visitors from desecrating the place. Most of the other buildings in Petra can be entered, but not this one. I think the legend saying that there is loot hidden in a stone urn on the second level has something to do with the place being out of bounds. Nevertheless, you can poke your nose in to take a look. If you do, you’ll see a simple, empty square hall with rooms around it.

Colourfully dressed and harnessed Bedouin camels in front of the Treasury
There are always colourfully decked out camels in front of the Treasury. The bedouin who own them offer rides to tourists to get them around Petra’s interior quickly

Why are the statues of the Treasury partially destroyed?

Some of the earliest depictions of the Treasury were by David Roberts, a Scottish painter who made beautiful drawings of Petra in the early 1800s. The Treasury, then, was unblemished, except by the passage of time and the elements. All throughout the years since it was abandoned during the Byzantine era, its statues stood. Yet since Roberts had drawn it, to this day (scarcely two centuries) the statues of Castor and Pollux are all but gone, and the faces of the Amazons on the upper level have been chipped off in their entirety. Why? Some say it was due to the Bedouin looking for treasure. Our guide told us it could also have been the work of religious Muslims who wanted to take off the faces of these idols.

The Outer Siq

As you continue on your way from the Treasury, deeper into the city of Petra, you’ll reach the Outer Siq. Here, the narrow walls open up into a magnificent plain. The plain is often filled with camels with their colourful saddles and Bedouins in traditional dresses selling trinkets.

The view of the Outer Siq from the way past the Treasury

You’ll even notice a snack bar or two where you can have a meal and get a cool drink. The effect of all this activity made me realise that although we were surrounded by ruins, Petra remains, today, a living city. From here, your journey will now continue down the Street of Facades.

A restaurant in Petra located underneath the shade of large limestone pillars
One of the first ‘attractions’ as you enter the Outer Siq is this shop that offers cool drinks. I love the wild west feel it has, contrasted against the limestone pillars of Petra

The Street of Facades

Along the way towards the Theatre, you will see some of Petra’s oldest tombs. These tombs come in varying grandeur. Some of these are set high up into the cliff face, with no way to access them.

The Street of Facades, screen capture from Google Maps

To enter these tombs, without causing harm to the facades, archeologists hired a mountain climber, who scaled up the rock face in order to enter through their sky doors.

A simple tomb in Petra, probably meant for a regular nobleman, with a sky door
One of the simple tombs that line the Street of Facades. To explore the upper levels of the tomb without disturbing the rest of it, rock climbers had to be hired

It is here, along this street, that you will discover more about the lives of ordinary Nabateans. The rock faces on either side are filled with simpler tombs. These tombs are unadorned, save for a simple plaster pediment above their doorways and a few decorative ledges. We also saw squarish rooms carved into the caves here. Bedouins live in some of them nowadays, and you can see their everyday things inside.

Not all of the rooms are tombs, however. Many were the dwellings of regular citizens. The Nabateans did not separate their funerary spaces from their living areas, which existed side by side. Today, they are fronted by temporary looking shops made from wooden frames. With these shops in front, doing bustling trade in souvenirs, one can almost imagine what this busy market street might have been like.

Tombs or cave dwellings of regular Nabatean people
Tombs for those lesser than kings, subsequently used as dwellings throughout the ages

The Theatre

A turning to the left takes you to the Theatre. It was built in 1 AD, and is Roman in design. The engineering is excellent, and if you speak in the centre of the stage, you’ll hear your voice ring out through the space. Interestingly, the theatre is carved into the mountain, over the facades of existing tombs.

View of the Theatre with its semi-circular stage seating. Hole in the upper back wall are said to lead to former tombs
At the top of the Theatre, you can see the exposed innards of the Nabatean tombs, their facades stripped down in order to make space for the audience

The Theatre gives us an interesting insight into how the Nabateans viewed life and death, that they choose to live, and conduct grand occasions, in the presence of their dead. The Theatre stands today mostly as the Nabateans made it, with only the outer wall being repaired and reinforced by the Romans after they annexed Petra.

Tip: Getting to the High Place of Sacrifice

If you wish to go to the High Place of Sacrifice, you can do so from here. To the left of the Theatre, you will find signposts for the stairway that will take you there.

The Royal Tombs

One of the grandest sight you’ll see, as you continue along the Street of Facades, will be the Royal Tombs. They stand, side by side, high up on the rock face of Al-Khubtha, the mountain they were carved into. Their monumental stature and elaborate facades suggest that they were the tombs of Petra royalty. As you get closer, you’ll notice that they are naturally patterned by the striations found in the sandstone.

A panoramic view of the Royal Tombs as you walk in the Valley of the Kings
The Royal Tombs line along a cliff in the Petra complex called the Valley of the Kings. You will see this magnificent view as you walk down the street of facades

The climb up to these tombs is not too difficult, although the steps do deter many visitors, who prefer to admire them from below. I think the walk up is certainly worth it, as you get a great view of the plain from above. Also, they are one of the less frequented monuments, so you will get to admire them in relative solitude.

The Urn Tomb – Clues into Petra’s Geological History

The first of these tombs is the Urn Tomb. If you look closely, you will see an urn crowning its “roof”. Underneath the terrace of this tomb are two levels of arched corridors. The Bedouins used to believe that the Urn Tomb was a court and that the corridors led into dungeons.

A full view of the Urn Tomb of Petra
The Urn Tomb, fronted by two levels of arched corridors. If you look carefully, you will see the urn at the very top of its pediment

The tomb was repurposed into a church in 447 AD. You’ll notice inside that two of the rooms were combined into an arched vault where the alter was placed.

The courtyard of the Urn tomb, inside Petra, Jordan
A close up of the Urn tomb. We could go inside this tomb, and what we saw inside was well worth the climb

The most fascinating thing about the Urn Tomb is its ceiling. It is richly marbled with swirls of red and black. Here, you can see the raw qualities of Petra’s limestone. The red comes from iron oxide and the black from manganese. This beautiful pattern gives us an insight into the geological history of Petra. Since manganese is formed in shallow marine environments, we know that the land on which Petra stands was once completely submerged.

Beautiful, swirling patterns adorn the ceiling of the Urn Tomb
Beautiful, swirling patterns adorn the ceiling of the Urn Tomb

The Palace Tomb

The largest tomb is the Palace tomb. Presently it is three levels high, but during its time, it was five levels. These extra levels were created with huge slabs that have sadly since collapsed and disintegrated. Archaeologists believe that this tomb was modeled after the Domus Aurea, the palace of the Roman Emperor Nero, built in the same century, although I honestly can’t say I see any similarities between them. The design of the Palace Tomb, in my opinion, leans towards the classical Nabatean style, with its “stacked” look, something you’ll notice in the number of worn ledges between the floors of the tomb. I also thought another distinctive feature of this tomb were the many columns on the second level.

A panoramic shot of the Palace Tomb and the Corinthian Tomb, in the Valley of the Kings, inside Petra, Jordan
The Palace Tomb and the Corinthian tomb, side by side

The Corinthian Tomb

The Corinthian Tomb is stands out for its asymmetric design. Although the overall structure is symmetrical, the doorways on the lower level are of different heights and widths. If you look closely, you’ll also notice that the first story is in the Nabatean style, while the upper floor has a Hellenistic design. The doorways on the ground floor are flat, not gabled, while the upper floor has a circular pedestal similar to the one found on the Treasury.

The Colonnaded Street

As you walk farther into the city, you’ll soon start to see a marked change in architecture. The confines of the Outer Siq, with its magnificent tombs, give way to an open, colonnaded street. Here, the road is partially paved with stones. Interestingly, in Jerash, which was a Roman city, the stones are placed diagonally on the street. This was so chariots and carts would not get their wheels trapped in between the stones. This is not the case here, where the stones are placed parallel to the sidewalk. Archeologist think the columns of the Roman Cardo were added in 106 AD, after Rome annexed Petra, however, the paved street is probably older.

The Colonnaded Street, screen capture from Google Maps

The Great Temple

One of the first buildings we visited on this street was the Great Temple. Although its name suggests a religious place of worship, archaeologists believe it was more likely that the Great Temple was a parliamentary building. After climbing up some steps, we arrived at the heart of the temple. This was a theatre, with seating for up to 600 people. The design of this space is the primary reason why this building was more likely a building meant for official functions than a temple. Usually, Hellenistic and Nabatean temples have rectangular cellas at their heart.

Column stubs remain standing on the base of the Great Temple
The walls of the Great Temple. This government building had architecture that was strongly influenced by the Romans

What I found special were the columns which were made up of separate discs. Before the Colonnaded Street, almost all the columns were of decorative quality, carved into the rock face as ornamentation. Here, these were free standing. However, some pillars had fallen down quite dramatically. I mused to myself how the discs, leaning on each other diagonally, resembled an open pack of Oreos with the cookies spilling out.

Columns made up of large stone disc still stand partially in the Great Temple, inside Petra, Jordan
A good portion of the Great Temple still remains standing, inside Petra. One could almost imagine walking through this complex when it was still in use

Byzantine Church

During our visit to one of the sites on the Colonnaded Street, we noticed a covered site some distance north. All we could see of it was a white tarp stretched over the desert. This immediately fascinated us, since it it the only site in Petra we had seen that was covered to protected it from the elements. It was a bit of a meandering hike to get to it, but definitely worth the while.

Byzantine mosaics behind a wooded fence inside the Byzantine church of Petra
The mosaic tiles of the Byzantine church are protected from people behind a wooded fence, watched over by its beautiful feline guardian

Underneath the tarp were beautiful mosaic tiles from the 6th Century. These tiles depicted a variety of animals, objects and of course, humans. They were originally likely brightly coloured in the fashion of the mosaic tiles nowadays. However centuries of sun had bleached them of their hues. Nevertheless, I though they were still very beautiful in monochrome as well.

Qasr el-Bint (The Temple of Dushares)

Qasr el-Bint is definitely one of the most impressive temples inside Petra. It is the largest freestanding structure in all of Petra. The first thing that struck us was how high the walls were. If you were to look carefully, you’ll notice courses that run a third of the way down the temple walls. These courses once held wooden beams. Our guide explained that flexible wooden beams were used in the walls to dissipate shocks during earthquakes.

The colonnaded street leading to Qasr el Bint, in Petra
Here you can see the colonnaded street leading up the the Temple of Dushares – that said, most of the columns have been reduced to stone discs lining a cleared path

No one can come to a conclusions as to which god or goddess this temple is actually dedicated to. Some say it is dedicated to one of the pre-Islamic Arabian gods – Dushares, the Nabatean equivalent of the Roman’s Jupiter, or Zeus, from the Greek Pantheon. Some say it was dedicated to Al-Uzza, the Nabatean equivalent of Aphrodite. Whichever the case, it made me think religion was certainly a lot more interesting then than now!

The temple of Dushares surrounded by broken columns
A closer look at Qasr el-Bint, where you can see the empty wooded course running one third of the way down its walls

It was here, at the Qsar el-Bint that our Jordanian guide parted ways with us, for this impressive temple marked the end of our walk down the Colonnaded Street. The day was coming to a close and we decided to leave the climb to the Monastery for tomorrow.

The Monastery(Ad-Deir) – 850 Steps Up

The hike up to the Monastery was definitely one of the most memorable moments for me. Our guide had told us it is 850 steps up. This did not seem daunting, until we started our ascent. The Ad-Dier trail begins where the Colonnaded Street ends, and winds upwards for 1.6 km to the Monastery.

The Monastery, carved into the red rock of Petra, under the bright blue sky
The Monastery or Al Deir, at high noon

Tip: Best time in the day to hike to the Monastery

We recommend you do the hike to the Monastery in the morning, with the sun on your back as you climb. As always, the earlier you go, the better, as you’ll get to avoid crowds. Another reason to go early is to reduce the encounters with tourist riding donkeys returning from the top. These appear out of nowhere and jostle for space on the same road. I was almost knocked over a ledge by a harried donkey blundering down a curve!

The Trail to The Monastery

The route up was absolutely stunning. I would turn back every so often to wonder at the valley of Petra unfolding behind me, as we ascended. Seen through the frame of the cliff faces along the gorge, I could really appreciate its grand scale.

Steps up on the hike to the Monastery through the mountains of Petra
The path up to the Monastery will take you up many steps through the mountains of Petra

Eventually the path winded such that the city was hidden behind the mountain. Here the trail became more adventurous, sometimes cutting under boulders, sometimes turning into steps that were boulders. When our guide said there were 850 steps, he didn’t tell us some of them were almost three feet high! Always, the road ahead would eventually disappear around a bend, making us wonder what would come next.

View of Petra on the hike up towards the Monastery
A view back towards the heart of Petra and the Valley of the Kings

It took us over an hour to get to the Monastery. If you don’t stop to take photos and marvel at what’s around you, you can do it in 45 minutes, but that would be no fun.

Our Visit to The Monastery

At the top, I sat down in what little shade there was in the shadow of the Monastery (it was about high-noon when we arrived) to sketch, attracting the attention of two Bedouin sisters that were selling little polished rocks they had chipped off throughout the complex. They started a conversation with me to practice their English and asked to look through my moleskin. I let them have it and they went through it all, page by page, eventually coming on to a nude figure I’d done a while back. I panicked – these were Bedouin Muslim girls, would they be offended? I was surprised, but on retrospect they reacted in a way I suppose young girls all over the world would have, by giggling and nudging each other.

A full frontal view of the facade of the Monastery
Iconic view of the Monastery in Petra

What is The Monastery

The Monastery is a temple dedicated to the Nabatean king Obodas I, the successor of Aretas VI. Some people think it is a tomb, but this is not possible since Obodas I was buried in the Negev desert.

The top of the Monastery hiking trail where you see Al-Deir and also small cave homes
Panorama of the Monastery. To the left you can see little holes dug into the rock

This temple, standing high up in the Ad-Dier mountain has an architecture similar to the Treasury. Like the Treasury, it has the circular pedestal splitting the triangular “roof”. However, it it simpler and almost unadorned by comparison. One thing you’ll notice is the lack of figurines on the facade. It also has some strongly Nabatean designs, like the simple rectangular doorways and “windows”.

The rose red facade of the Monastery against the bright blue of the afternoon sun in Petra
Another classic view of the Monastery, its red rock contrasting the blue afternoon sky

I initially thought the Monastery was given its name because of its remote location and its simple design. However, it is more likely it got its name from the crosses found carved in its interior. Like the Urn Tomb, the Monastery had been repurposed into a Byzantine church much later in its lifetime.

FAQs for The Lost City of Petra

What is inside Petra?

Petra is a stunning collection of tombs, temples and ancient living spaces of the Nabatean civilisation. These are carved into the very rock the city is built on. Some main archeological sites inside the city are the Treasury – the tomb of a Nabatean king, the Monastery – an isolated mountain temple, a theatre, government buildings and dwelling for regular people. Read more…

What is Petra made of?

Petra is a city that has been carved into sandstone deposited in the area over millions of years. This sandstone is rich in iron and manganese, a mineral formed on the sea floor. One of the reasons the Nabateans chose the site was the structure of the rock – soft enough to carve, yet strong enough that it was not easily eroded. The sandstone here has been dated to the Paleozoic period, when Arabia was part of the supercontinent, Gondwanaland. See photo…

How long will it take to see the entire complex?

We bought the 2 day ticket, but felt it was not enough. You really need a full day to explore the main attractions, including the Treasury and the hike to the Monastery. But it is not enough to only have time, you also need some rest, as exploring Petra will be physically exhausting. For this reason, we recommend 3 days or more. Read more…

How big is Petra?

Petra covers an area of 263 square kilometres, roughly 50,000 footballs fields. The walk through the Siq alone, to get inside Petra, will take 30 minutes to an hour. The farthest attractions in Petra are Little Petra and the Tomb of Prophet Aaron. Little Petra is 10 km from the visitors’ centre, while Aaron’s Tomb is 5 km away.

Entrance fee into Petra

You can get passes for 1 day for 50 Jordanian Dinars, roughly €65, 2 days for €70 or 3 days for €75.

Kenya

Hike to Lake Magadi

Experience the unique ecosystem that are the salt flats surrounding Lake Magadi, a haven for the endangered lesser flamingo…

Along the Great Rift valley lies a type of unique ecosystem particular to this part of Africa. Lake Magadi, a soda ash lake, is one such ecosystem. However, the most famous one is Lake Natron, which we haven’t visited and hope to do soon.

birds eye view of lesser flamingoes on the shore of Lake Magadi
The flooded plains of Magadi – notice the flock of flamingoes feeding at the lake’s edge

The Geology of Lake Magadi

These soda ash lakes form due to volcanic activity and high precipitation in the Great Rift Valley region. Lake Magadi, Lake Natron and many other smaller alkaline lakes in the area are specialised homes for flamingoes, including the threatened Lesser Flamingo.

the salt coated salt line of an over flowing Lake Magadi
The salt covered shoreline of the Lake Magadi overflow

How Climate Change Affects Lake Magadi

However, the landscape of these lakes is changing, significantly affecting flamingo populations and their movements. Our Kenyan guides were quick to identify climate change as the culprit. However, scientists can only speculate on the exact cause.

A large alkaline pool in East Africa
The area was flooded over with caustic water that had a pretty light green sheen to it

In Kenya, the climate change experienced is not drought but rather increased rainfall. Some climate scientists have proven that this results from excessive groundwater exploitation in India for agriculture. This water, trapped under the ground for millennia, is being released rapidly and increasing precipitation levels on the other side of the Indian Ocean, in East Africa. This dilutes the salinity of the soda ash lakes which the flamingoes depend on to survive.

flamingoes and other wading birds in the temporary flood area of magadi lake
Flamingoes and other wading birds came to the Lake Magadi overflow to feed

Our Hike to Lake Magadi

In 2020, we saw for ourselves how climate change was affecting Lake Magadi during our trip to Kenya. Our hike to the lake was the last portion of our six-day trek through the Loita Hills region in South Western Kenya. I had read a lot about East Africa’s soda lakes and was very excited to get to see the flocks of flamingoes in feeding in bright pink water.

wading birds, flamingoes, herons and pelicans look for food in the lake magadi overflow
A stunning collection of wading birds feeding in the overflow of Lake Magadi

Getting to Lake Magadi

Of course, visitors can get to Lake Magadi by car, but this would take a lot away from the experience of visiting the region. The beautiful stark landscape of the area is best appreciated on foot.

a great collection of wading birds, including flamingoes along the overflow of lake magadi
The flooded salt plains were covered with hundreds of wading birds. In the distance, the Lake Magadi overflow gave way to low hills covered in golden grass

Our adventure to Lake Magadi began at the Entasopia guest house, in Kajiado, many miles away. The day got off to a rough start. After getting up at 5:30 in the morning to make sure we could complete most of the hike in the morning, our guide found out the car we had hired would not start.

How hard could the solution be? Surely there must be another car we could use.

four wheel drive truck being loaded with camp gear in loita hills
The working car from the neighbouring village finally arrived and was loaded with our camp gear, including a blue plastic table

Unfortunately, there were no available cars in the vicinity – the nearest one was in the neighbouring village, and we had to wait until the owner woke up. By the time we took off, it was already mid-morning.

The dusty road towards Lake Magadi
On the road towards the starting point of our hike to Lake Magadi

Eventually, we got to the starting point of the final stretch of our six-day hike – a large watering area for all the villages nearby. Like something out of Star Wars, it was an interesting scene, with people and animals all gathered in this marvellous desert-like landscape filling up on the most precious resource here – water. 

watering hole in loita hills surrounded with farm anima;s
Farm animals from all around came to water in the area

Just as we were about to begin our hike, a Maasai man came up to our guides, and they started to have an excited conversation between them. We couldn’t understand exactly what they were talking about, but we guessed that there was some problem with the road ahead. 

Kikuyu kenyan guides hiking in the magadi lake area
Our Kikuyu guides hiking through the dry scrubland

The Flooded Salt Pans of Magadi

We nevertheless could not turn back and continued venturing forwards. For lunch, we would hike up to a lookout point on our way to Lake Magadi. This hike was beautiful, in a stark, alien way. I remember the dry, golden grass reaching high up my knees and the sort of tranquil silence that happens in the heat of the day when all the animals are resting. 

panoramic view from a bluff high up over the Magadi plains
A panorama of the flooded Magadi salt plains. Note the pipe that bridges the water – the Maasai had suggested to our guides we try and cross on the pipe

Eventually, we came to an outcrop overlooking the land below. The view was breath-taking, and I could not help but stare at it in wonderment. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The land below us was utterly flooded, covered with pearly green-blue water. At the lake’s edges were many pink specks – scores, upon scores of flamingoes, were here, feeding on the algae rich waters.

hundreds of flamingoes and white storks feeding on a flooded lake magadi
Scores and scores of flamingoes and white storks were everywhere, enjoying the bounty brought in by the flood

 I now understood the problem the Maasai had warned us about. The road that cut across the landscape, forging ahead towards Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries, was completely submerged. The only way across was a long pipe, about two kilometres in length. There was no way to cross the water by walking on the pipe, not with all our provisions. We would have to go around.

plains flooded with blue green alkaline water in Kenya
Another look at the flooded plains in front of us, keeping us from our destination at the other end

Lake Magadi had come to Meet Us

Interestingly, we were technically at Lake Magadi, for the lake itself had spilled out to come and meet us. Aeons in the past, when East Africa was a wetter place, Lake Magadi and Lake Natron were joined as one large water body. Some scientists believe this is what is happening to many of the Alkaline lakes in East Africa at the moment.

Grey headed gull flying over the flooded salt flats
Grey headed gull flying over the flooded salt flats

Although the day was already scorching, high up on the outcrop, there was always a pleasant breeze. There was also an acacia tree, which provided just enough shade for everyone. Under it, we all felt quite relaxed.

johnny, our maasai guide, resting under the shade of an acacia tree
Johnny, our Maasai guide, resting under the shade of an acacia tree

Extreme Cooking

All of us rested, except the cook, Steve and our guide (also called Steve). Steve, the cook, immediately took out his pots and pans and began cooking on a small clearing right at the edge of the outcrop. I marvelled at how he did things – balancing the gas canister on a rock and using exposed rock faces to balance bowls of vegetables and potatoes. With this setup, he began making our mid-day meal. For a moment, I felt like we were in a reality TV show about extreme cooking.

kenyan guides cooking on the edge of the world
Our cook Steve (behind the rock) and guide Steve (in the red shirt) preparing lunch on top of a precipice

Walking on the Salt Pans

I was reluctant to leave my shady, cool spot under the tree, but we had a long way ahead of us and had to get moving. So get moving we did.

the way down to the edge of the overflowing soda ash lake of magadi
From where we were, it was a long way down to the edge of the lake. Look carefully and you’ll see little pink specks which are flamingoes

We began by walking along the edge of the flooded salt pan. The view from below was very different from the one above, although no less magnificent. It was also a surreal landscape, with the ground covered in a thick white crust of salt and slippery clay. As we walked, our shoes crunched and squished in turn on the strange terrain below our feet.

Two plovers on a rock rising out of the water
Two plovers, stranded on a rock

A Flamboyance of Flamingoes

The most fabulous thing, however, were the flamingoes. There were hundreds of them, flying to and fro on the lake, hovering a mere few metres above the water. As they flew, they were almost perfectly reflected in the still, salty water below.

A flamboyance of lesser flamingoes, flying over lake magadi
We were treated to the sight of hundreds of endangered lesser flamingoes taking off over the flooded plains

I knew that when it came to flamingoes, this was the moment. The high rainfall that had created this beautiful flooded plain with its hundreds of flamingoes would also have diluted the water at Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries. I knew we would not find many wading birds there. As far as flamingoes were concerned on this hike, the moment was now.

A large flock of lesser flamingoes taking flight over lake magadi
Lesser flamingoes taking flight over the flooded Magadi salt plains

A unique experience

It was unbearably hot – so hot we could feel the salt from the ground steaming up into our eyes. However, the surroundings were so magnificent I did not mind the heat one bit.

A kenyan man walking across the soda ash plains of lake magadi
Our guide, Steve, walking across the desolate salt plains

I knew what I was experiencing was something entirely out of the ordinary. Usually, water did not flood the plains. None of our guides had seen it flooded like this before. To not only see it but to walk on it, was a truly unique experience. 

Maasai man with bags crossing the alkaline salt flats of the Magadi area
Johnny, our Maasai guide, crossing the salt flats of Magadi

If the Maasai can pass, so can we

Soon, we came to the very edge of the temporary new boundary of Lake Magadi. Here the land was mostly muddy, with occasional pools. Johnny looked across the shining flatland and pointed into the distance. Miles away, I could see some trees shimmering in the heat. That was where we had to go.

Maasai in colourful shukas crossing the partially flooded salt flats
Three Maasai men in colourful shukas crossing the ash white salt flats of Magadi

“Are you sure we can cross this mudflat?” I asked. I could see many shiny pools of salty water between us and the trees from where I stood.

“Sure we can.” Steve, our guide said. “Look.” He pointed to the ground. I saw there were the tracks of a motorcycle. “The Maasai have come here on motorcycle, if they can do it, we certainly can too.”

Johnny, our maasai guide crossing the salt flat of magadi lake
Another shot of the indefatigable Johnny crossing the desolate but breath–taking landscape

Despite the intense heat, the adventure of crossing the alien landscape was exciting enough that I didn’t mind it. We even came across some elephant tracks, which I got quite excited over. The thought of seeing an elephant crossing these majestic, empty expanse made such a poignant mental image in my head.

elephant footprints in the sand
Elephant foot prints in the sand

In the end, the crossing was not too challenging. Apart from having to jump over some large puddles and land on slippery mud, the walk across the flats was pretty straightforward. Our hiking shoes had soles thick enough to get through most of the pools.

the muddy salt flat of an alkaline lake - lake magadi - covered in strange white disc patterns
The muddy and salty ground was covered in these strange white disc patterns

Back on Land

Once we were done with the salt flats, we came to a raised piece of land covered in long, golden grass, dotted with acacia trees. The terrain here was tricker, as the grass-covered many high boulders underneath and we had to be very careful while walking, least we make a misstep and twist our ankles. The going was slow.

Maasai man hiking through tall golden grass
Johnny, hiking through the tall golden grass

Although we were getting tired, Johnny showed no signs of flagging. He was filled with energy and was excited to show us the land. Along the way, we spotted a couple of giraffes and some zebras grazing in the high grass. It was an incredible feeling, walking through the bush, surrounded by such majestic creatures.

giraffe spotted behind some low acacia trees
Johnny was excited to point out this towering giraffe watching us curiously from a distance

Getting to the factory at Lake Magadi

The going was slow for us, walking in the high grass, so our guides took us to the road that lead to the factory at Lake Magadi, and we walked along with it. Although the landscape was boring since we were walking along the road, I was glad for it. It was already mid-afternoon, and I was exhausted from walking in the high grass, fearing I might twist my ankle with every step. It was a nice change to be able to see the groud I placed my feet on.

The lake magadi soda ash factory, an impressive industrial structure, reflected in the pearly alkaline waters of Lake Magadi
The Lake Magadi Soda Ash factory

Following the road, we soon came to the permanent part of Lake Magadi. It was an impressive lake, with a large soda ash processing facility along its banks. The edge of the lake also harboured a few flocks of flamingoes, although their numbers were not so great, due to the recent high rainfall which had diluted the lake’s alkalinity. 

Camping in a Maasai Village near Lake Magadi

We arrived at our last campsite just before sundown. After miles on the road, I was looking forward to dropping my pack and taking it easy under the shade. After hiking for a bit into the bush, we caught sight of a Maasai manyatta. These were of a slightly different style to the ones we saw in Enkototu. The villages we had seen earlier did not have their households delineated with a fence of any border. We only recognised them as a collection because of their proximity to each other. Over here, near Magadi, the style was different.

A maasai girl posing for the camera in front of her manyatta
A Maasai girl in front of her manyatta, posing under the dreamy light of the evening sun

The manyattas were surrounded by a thick fence of thorny branches, presumably to keep wild animals from entering the compound. There are wild animals everywhere in the Loita Hills, but it was around here that we saw signs of the big ones, like elephant and giraffe.

sunset through the acacia trees, over a maasai girl
A scene to remember – this Maasai girl was curiously watching us for some time as the stunning sunset filtered through the branches of the acacia trees

Maasai children under the African Sunset

As usual, the children here came out to greet us, but they were bolder and loved to have their photograph taken. While trying to capture the lovely, fiery sunset, the children gathered themselves into the shot and began posing. We were delighted they felt so comfortable in front of the camera and insisted on having us take their photo. It was such a joyful, spontaneous moment.

Maasai children posing for the camera in their village
These Maasai children were super eager to have their photo taken

The night we spent here was an interesting one. We met a young Maasai woman who went to university in Nairobi. She was sassy and wouldn’t lay off making fun of our guides and porters. She stayed here in her village until the university reopened again after being closed for moths because of covid-19. It was an interesting meeting for me, as it revealed how Maasai culture has already begun to embrace women’s empowering for many years now. 

Maasai children playing and posing for the camera in front of an African sunset
One of our favourite moments on the entire trip with these fun-loving children boisterously posing for our camera

Reflections after Lake Magadi

Our six-day hike through Loita Hills, starting from Maji Moto and ending off at Lake Magadi, was a truly incredible experience. We truly enjoyed being with our guides and having met all the incredible people that hosted us. During the hike, I felt how dynamic the Maasai people are – they genuinely bridge both a traditional lifestyle and a fast-changing modern way of thinking. And also, of course, there was the unique landscape that will forever be seared in my memory.

A small bird, silhouetted against the african sunset, perched on thorny acacia branches
A parting shot…

Here are all the photos we took during our hike through Loita Hills:

Iceland

Dverghamrar Basalt Cliffs, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Reynisfjara Beach and Vik

Basalt hills right out of a folktale, a canyon from the land before time, and a mystical black sand beach, all on the coast of Southern Iceland…

Dverghamrar Basalt Cliffs

“Wow! What’s that? We’ve gotta turn around!”, I remember saying, as Phil drove past the Dverghamrar Basalt Cliffs. The cliffs didn’t reach too high (Dverghamrar essentially means the Dwarf Cliffs), at least compared to the average height of the other things we’ve seen so far in Iceland, but there was something special about them.

The meadow that sits literally atop the Dverghamrar Basalt Cliffs, hiding them from most casual passers-by

Apart from the unique hexagonal column structure, which we’d already seen several times throughout the trip, these cliffs rose out of ground in several layers of flat tiers. If you have an imagination, they almost look like steps to a throne that isn’t there.

The path winding between the basalt columns, leading towards just one of the oh so many cliff’s edge waterfalls that Iceland has no shortage of

Their tops are also covered in grass, making it seem as if they are hiding something. Perhaps they are. Icelanders believe that these cliffs are home to dwarves and elves – indeed, they remind me of the Shire.

The Dverghamrar Basalt Columns are layered in several levels, often appearing as some giant steps

These basalt cliffs are similar to the ones we saw at Hofsós, which is by the sea, although these are much farther inland. Apparently, they were formed during a period when the earth was much warmer and the seas were higher, and that sea waves are the reason for the shape the cliffs are in present day.

Anywhere else in the World, this would be a one of a kind sight, but these small waterfalls are so abundant in Iceland, that we could not even find a name for this one, close to the Dverghamrar Basalt Cliffs

What I really like about them is how the main mounds of basalt structures are partially hidden behind a higher cliff that goes all around them. From a certain viewpoint, it looks as if they are hidden by an ancient fortress that was built with magic. We were pretty much the only visitors at this place, so it was the perfect place to let my imagination run wild!

The view into the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, close to the main entry point

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

Fjaðrárgljúfur is definitely one of the must sees, if you get to Iceland. It’s like the Glacier Lagoon or Detiffoss/Goðafoss, there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.

Around a half-way point to the lookout spot at the beginning of the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, we turned back towards the canyon’s mouth, appreciating its meandering nature

The first thing you’ll notice about it is how epic it is. Many things in Iceland are on an epic scale, but this is in the top tier. The canyon averages about 100 meters deep and 2 kilometres long. Standing at the start, you can’t see the end, and it seems like it could go on forever, into the very center of the earth.

There are many arctic terns around the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, the lush grass surrounding it providing plentiful hunting opportunities

The sheer walls of the canyon are smooth, made from whole, smooth rock that doesn’t look like it has faced a great deal of erosion in recent times. If a sculptor had made them, he would be at the end of the project – the canyon was formed at the end of the last Ice Age – 9,000 years ago, when the glacier that covered the land retreated and a mighty river poured through this canyon, giving it its present shape. Eventually, so much sediment was deposited that the river lost its strength. Although its still got a pretty strong current – just not at the levels it had once had.

It’s best to give a few hours to see the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. We had a pretty packed day, so we didn’t have much time, which was a pity. We managed to walk a little bit by the river bed, but then opted to climb to the top and see the canyon from above. I really wished we had more time to spend in the valley though.

The view from the final lookout point, at the start/end of the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, uncovered not only these two brave sheep, grazing on the little ridge…

The view of the canyon is best from the valley I think. From here, you get to really experience the play of light and shadow across the bubbling Fjaðrá river. There are also a lot less people walking on the valley than above, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being alone out in such majestic nature.

…but also this lone tree, literally the only tree in the entire canyon and its surroundings – we tried to find out if there is any significance to it, but could not get any information

The walk to the plateau into which the valley was carved though was fun. I enjoyed ascending the hundreds of steps to the top and later walking on the undulating pathway that skirted the edges of the cliffs. From here, you get to realise what a long way down it was to the valley floor.

The view back, along the main Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon path is simply incredible, with the ever changing play of light and shadows giving its sides an amazing new quality each and every moment

We visited the Fjaðrárgljúfur cliffs, I felt, at a really good time – around sunset. I think the dramatic lighting contributed a lot to our experience of the cliffs.

The Reynisfjara Beach was covered in fine mist, giving the entire region an otherworldly quality – so easy to see why fantasy and science fiction film crews would be attracted to it

Reynisfjara Beach

Reynisfjara is truly a special place. The basalt cliffs that border it and the rocky outcrops that extend into the sea give the place a magical vibe. These rock formations look so special that it’s easy to imagine they weren’t a product of erosion but rather the result of some enchantment.

When we were there, there was a thick sea spray coming off the shore, and the main rock formation jutting out into the sea looked like a troll that was turned into stone – at least, that is what the icelandic folklore of the region tells us had happened.

Here is Isabella, walking along the seemingly abandoned Reynisfjara Beach – one has to stay away from the water, as it is apparently rather treacherous here and claims a life every now and then

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like we are (despite the ending), you might recognise it from a couple of scenes shot for the “North of the Wall” episode in Season 7. Moreover, for the Star Wars aficionados, a part of the Rogue One was also filmed here.

The ubiquitous basalt columns are perhaps at their most majestic at the Reynisfjara Beach

The basalt rocks are also home to lots of northern birds, including puffins. We didn’t see any while we were there though – maybe they were farther down in parts of the beach we could only access when the tide was lower. But certainly keep a look out for them when you get there!

The Reynisfjara beach is also likely the only place that you may also see the basalt columns from below, at least to our knowledge

Vik

While you are in the area of course, don’t forget to drop by the town of Vik and the surrounding area. The town is very charming, like most Icelandic towns are, and it gives you the opportunity to feel what life must be like so far up north in the world.

The small church atop a hill in Vik – it was amazing to observe the weather cyclically change in mere minutes, from warm late afternoon sunlight, through light mist, thick blueish fog, back to sunny again in no time at all

I personally feel it must be really special to live in a place like Vik – outside the capital citiy Reykjavik, I felt pretty alone. In Vik. there’s a stable population of only 318 people, so you can imagine how small and isolated it must be.

Nevertheless, it was nice to get a sense of what it must be like to live so far away from large crowds and so close to nature. All in all, I thought Vik was a really pretty place.

Sheets hanged out to dry – such a pastoral scene, but in Iceland, it comes with a special background – snow and ice covered black mountain peaks

While you are there, do go to Strondin Pub for lunch or dinner. It’s got great views over the basalt rocks and serves up tasty pub food. A pan friend artic char and some viking beer made the perfect end to a day of adventure.

One of the majestic peaks above Vik, shrouded in the swirling fog
Portugal

Mysteries of the Quinta da Regaleira

The Quinta de Regaleira is carved with the symbols of cultures across time, from Ancient Greece, Free Masonry to Portuguese Romanticism…

The Quinta da Regaleira is an enchanting estate near Lisbon. Built by an eccentric Free Mason, it houses the mysterious Initiation Well and is filled with Pagan and occult symbols. I first learned of the estate while searching for fantasy world ideas on Pinterest. I was immediately captivated by photographs of this Gothic palace, rising out from the lush forest that surrounded it. At first, I thought they were scenes from a movie.

A view looking up at the palace of the Quinta da Regaleira, fronted by a grassy yard and a moss covered greek statue
The main palace of the Quinta da Regaleira. The palace is in the Neo-Manueline style, a variation on the Gothic style

There were so many mysterious things about it. Why was there such an opulent palace hidden in a forest? Who would build a well you could walk into, and for what purpose? Why were there Greek gods and goddesses in a place with distinctly Christian architecture? These were questions that made the Quinta da Regaleira captivating to me.

The Manueline-Gothic facade of the palace of the Quinta da Regaleira
The main building the the Quinta da Regaleira. Here you can see the corridors on the first basement floor that connect with tunnel from the Chapel

But what drew me to the palace, most of all, was how it seemed to have been conjured up by magic from the stones of the mountain of Sintra itself. Its towers and bridges seemed not to be man made, but created by the sprits of nature. The Quinta da Regaleira is a place half in the real, and half in an imagined world. With clever architecture, tapping into a multitude of mystical beliefs throughout time and many different cultures, the palace has managed to conjure up an atmosphere of enchantment.

Who Built the Quinta da Regaleira?

Perhaps, when we consider the man who owned the estate, its otherworldly architecture might seem less inexplicable. The wealthy eccentric who bought the place, Carvalho Monteiro, was an etymologist with a great love for lyrical poetry. He had a true passion for the natural sciences and dedicated many years of his life studying the insects of Brazil and Europe. This combination of interests, mixed in with his spirituality as a Free Mason gave rise to the magical Quinta da Regaleira.

The enchanted forest shrouding the statues and Gothic towers inside Quinta da Regaleira
The enchanted grounds of the Quinta da Regaleira, its stone sculptures half hidden by its lush forest

Its architect, the Italian Luigi Manini, was also a stage designer who created theatrical set pieces. Manini was a creative genius and well known for his Neo-Manueline style. The Quinta da Regaleira is possibly one of his most amazing works, combining mystical elements from various ages, and merging them into the beautiful forest of Sintra.

A tree with overhanging branches on one of the battlements in Quinta da Regaleira
One of the many grottos in the upper levels of the Quinta da Regaleira complex

This genius is apparent throughout the site. There are many structures that seem perfectly natural, but are not. The waterfall lake and the labyrinthine grotto are two such structures. But really, the entire place feels as if it is carved out of the very rock it stands on.

The Initiation Well

The Initiation Well is, perhaps, one of the most famous attractions in all of Sintra. Its mysterious design, without any clear purpose, is a source of fascination. From photographs taken from the bottom of the well, looking out at the circular patch of sky above, it looks like a tower built into the ground. When I first saw photos of it, I thought it was built for defensive purposes. Perhaps the stairs curving around the tower led to rooms in an underground estate built to withstand siege.

A look up to the sky from the interior of the Initiation well, with the columned staircase running around it
The Initiation Well, a subterranean tower 27 meters deep, an architectural metaphor for Dante’s Inferno

In reality, this tower is more symbolic than utilitarian. Carvalho Monteiro, a notable Free Mason, had built it for spiritual reasons. This well, it is said, was designed to represent the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. Although it is only six stories deep, the experience of walking down the well makes it feel like it extends further. This sensation is a testament to its evocative design.

The view of the sky from the bottom of the Initiation Well, with silhouettes of tree branches
View from the bottom of the Initiation Well

Entering the Initiation Well

As I stepped into the well, the world outside seemed to leave me. Its sounds became muted and I could sense the cold actively coming from the ancient looking stones. I treaded silently, trying not to disrupt the serenity of the well with the sound of my footsteps. As its name suggests, the well was used for initiation rites. I imagined myself as one of those few converts who had walked down its stairs, in what must have been a very important moment in their lives.

The entire length of the Initiation Well, with all nine levels and the curving staircase that goes around it
Looking all the way down into the Initiation Well. Notice the Templar Cross at the very bottom

At the very bottom of the well is a circular floor, simply decorated with coloured tiles in shades of ochre. Here, the tiles depict the cross of the Knights Templar, a symbol exclusive to Free Masons who believe in the Christian doctrine. Although I am an atheist, this place felt profoundly spiritual to me. Monteiro and Manini had taken an idea and turned it into a structural concept. The Initiation Well, and indeed, all of the Quinta da Regaleira, is artistic expression at its finest.

The Unfinished Well

At the bottom of the well are two main tunnels. The first of these leads to an exit underneath the Portal of the Guardians, the other splits into three separate tunnels. One of these sub-tunnels leads to a second well, the “Unfinished Well”. Its aspect is simple and unadorned, its wall looking much more like that of a regular well. Although it was easy for me to dismiss this well after the majesty of the Initiation Well, it likely had its own special purpose. I doubt there was anything in the Quinta da Regaleira that did not have meaning.

View of the tree covered sky from the bottom of the Unfinished Well, the second well of Quinta da Regaleira
View up at the tree covered sky from the bottom of the “Unfinished Well”

Exit from the Initiation Well

The main way out from the bottom of the Initiation Well is a truly magical path. Sunlight streams in through the rough arches cut into the walls of the tunnel. From the arches, you can see the Lake of the Waterfall, which separates the caverns of the wells from their exit. The lake is crossed by bridges that seem completely natural – as if nature had placed them over the water for the convenience of visitors to the park. I later found out that this was not true, they are wholly man made, although Manini had designed them to look as if they were completely nature’s work.

The Lake of the Waterfall, the Initiation Well exit in Quinta da Regaleira
The Lake of the Waterfall, and the stepping stones which we would have to cross to leave the tunnels of the Initiation Well

To get across to the exit, we had to walk on stepping stones placed in the water. This was a lot of fun as the stones were on the small side and we had to be careful while crossing them. It was exciting and made me feel like a child again. After the stepping stones, we were finally out, back to a lower portion of the park we had come from earlier.

The Portal of the Guardians, a stone alter in the Manueline style
The Portal of the Guardians. This holds one of the exits from the Initiation Well. The exit is under the semi-circular entrance beneath the central tower. Note the sea shell and seaweed like patterns which encrust the fountain – typical of the Manueline style

Promenade of the Gods

Although the Quinta da Regaleira isn’t all that old itself, the themes that run through its architecture span all the way from the Ancient Greece to the time it was completed, at the turn of the century.

Statue of the Greek goddess Fortuna carrying a vase, in the Promenade of the Gods in Quinta da Regaleira
Stone statue of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, on the Promenade of the Gods

Lining one of the main paths into the estate is the Promenade of the Gods. Stone statues of Venus, Hermes, Dionysus, and many other Greek gods and goddesses, line this pathway. The Greek god Dionysus is featured throughout the estate, and is a powerful symbol connected with the cult of Free Masonry, which the owner of the Quinta da Regaleira was almost certainly a member of. Along with the cults of ancient Greece and Free Masonry, other symbols included the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians.

The Chapel

I love the Chapel of the Quinta da Ragaleira. This beautiful, delicate building, decorated with Manuelian floral motifs is the most elegant place of worship I’ve seen. The design contrasts elaborate patterning with simple white washed walls. Inside, the alter selectively uses gold leaf such that it enhances the beauty of the chapel, instead of overwhelming it with its overuse. If the walls of the chapel seem golden at times, it is because they have been hit by sunlight.

The Chapel of Quinta da Regaleira, elegantly decorated with floral motifs, hidden behind leaves and branches
The delicate looking Chapel, its white walls half hidden behind lush vegetation

This chapel is thoroughly fascinating. Although Christian in design, it shows how no religious belief is ever truly separate from all the others that have come before. Apart from the usual Catholic imagery and statues, the chapel also spotted pentagrams surrounding the Order of the Christ Cross and the symbol of the Free Masons on the ceiling of the doorway.

The pure white interior of the Chapel of Quinta da Regaleira, with its elegant golden alter and simple pews
The Chapel’s iconography includes the life of the virgin Mary and Christ, and symbols from the Templar Order. It has a subterranean passage linking it to the main palace

The Main Palace

Underneath the chapel is a “secret” tunnel that leads to the main palace. The tunnel exits on the kitchen level, where you will have to walk past a long corridor to get to the stairs leading to the front porch of the building. The main palace is perhaps the most famous sight of the Quinta da Regaleira. Its slender Manueline-Gothic spires dancing high into the sky, its stone walls half hidden by the surrounding greenery. It is an enchanted castle in an magical forest.

Quinta da Regaleira palace looking imposing in three point perspective from below
The majestic main residence of the Quinta da Regaleira looks even more impressive when seen from below

As I stepped into the building, I was transported back to the 19th Century. The interior and its furnishings are well preserved and restored, and it was easy to imagine myself as a visitor travelling back in time.

The beautiful chestnut main spiral staircase of Quinta da Regaleira complimented by deep red walls
Beautiful staircase carved from the wood of chestnut trees

At the heart of the palace is a beautiful chestnut staircase that links its three main floors. Although it is simple in design, the wood is beautifully carved. It was a pleasure to walk up its stairs, my footsteps softened by the carpet underneath, the polished handrails smooth underneath my hands.

The Forest and the Age of Discovery

Monumental architecture during the late 18th Century in Portugal seeked to express a golden age of discovery. This extends beyond its buildings and into its parks. One of the things I love about the Quinta da Regaleira is how its gardens are a living collection. Here, there are species of trees from all over the world. There are sequoias from North America, Magnolias from South East Asia, Cycads from Central America and even the Norfolk Island Pine from New Zealand. It is not surprising that Monteiro, a biologist and an avid traveller, planted these trees to bring the world into his garden.

View from a Gothic tower overlooking the some pines on the Sintra hillside
Gothic tower overlooking the forest on the Sintra hillside

Gothic tower, battlements of Quinta de Regaleira looking over the hillside of Sintra
Stone towers hidden by lush vegetation in Quinta da Regeleira
intricate carved entrance to a tower in Quinta de Regaleira

The Quinta da Regaleira is definitely a man-made wonder, hidden deep in plain sight in its own piece of nature. What’s impressive is that this tranquil, mystical place is not so far for the hustle and bustle of Lisbon. Despite this though, it was not overrun with tourists, and our visit was both eye-opening and enjoyable.

The little garden with a pond in front of the palace of Quinta da Regaleira
Garden in front of the Quinta da Regaleira, near the entrance of the park

FAQs for Quinta da Regaleira

Who built the Quinta da Regaleira?

It was commissioned by the wealthy Portuguese eccentric Carvalho Monteiro, who was also a renowned etymologist. It was built by the Italian architect and stage designer, Luigi Manini. Read more…

What is the Initiation Well

The Initiation Well is not a real well. It is a subterranean tower in the Quinta da Regaleira built to represent the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. Read more…

When was the Quinta da Regaleira built?

The owner, Carvalho Monteiro, bought it in 1892. Construction began in 1904 and was mostly completed by 1910. Monteiro died in 1920, so sadly, he didn’t have many years to enjoy his estate.

How to visit the Quinta da Regaleira from Lisbon?

You can take a local train to Sintra. Tickets are only €2.25 and the journey is around 40 minutes. From the train station, you can walk to the Quinta da Regaleira or take bus N375.

Kenya

Walking Safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara

An experience of walking on the savannah takes us back into our evolutionary past. Here, we encounter nature in the raw, with nothing between us and the wild…

During our time in the Masai Mara, we had the opportunity to go on a walking safari when we stayed in Eagle View Camp, in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. Naboisho is not technically part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, however, it is part of the same ecosystem. While you cannot do walking safaris in the Masai Mara itself, you can do so in the Mara Conservancies.

Four Maasai ascari resting under the shade of an Acacia tree
Maasai Ascari resting under a tree while waiting for us to catch up to them

What is a Walking Safari

A walking safari is a guided walk, out in the African bush, with nothing between you and nature. The walking safari is not a physically demanding activity, although participants need to be moderately fit, as the terrain is uneven and there will be gentle uphill climbs. Walking safaris can be short strolls around your tented campsite or longer ones that take you further out into the bush.

A herd of Thompson's gazelles which we photographed while on foot in the Masai Mara
You get a lower viewpoint on a walking safari that allows for an interesting new angle when photographing wildlife

Walking safaris enable safari-goers to see nature from a different perspective. Firstly, on a walking safari, your viewpoint is lower and at a more natural angle. This was how humans had experienced nature for aeons – on foot, with nothing but our wits and some simple weapons to protect us.

An African grey hornbill in the canopy of a thorny acacia tree
Birds like this African Grey Hornbill are less likely to fly away because there’s less noise pollution when you are walking than when you are in a jeep

Secondly, the safari experience is incredibly tranquil without a jeep’s noisy diesel engine which can bother some animals. Finally, there is the incredibly liberating sensation of being on foot in the savannah. After all, we did spend millions of years evolving in this environment, and we did it all on foot. I think the experience does touch something very primal within us and is an adventure that everyone should try at least once in their lives.

Are Walking Safaris Safe

All walking safaris will have guides leading the guests. As long as you stay with your guides and follow their advice, you will be safe. Wild animals behave predictably and do not attack humans unless provoked. While we were on our walking safari, our guides stayed close to us at every moment. Everyone in the group had one Maasai assigned to them. Even if you fall behind the group, your guide will ensure your safety.

A Maasai man on the plains of the Masai Mara
A lone Maasai man walking through the open plains of Mara Naboisho, part of the Masai Mara ecosystem. Getting around by foot is still a popular mode of transport for many Maasai

The Maasai guides with us have walked freely through their lands since they were children and know how to avoid danger. They also know how to deal with threats. Many of them have been in dangerous situations before and lived to tell the tale. The truth is, most animals only attack as a last resort, as any attack brings with it some measure of risk. However, the first step is always avoidance. For example, if the Maasai see a lion, they will steer well clear of it.

Our Walking Safari Experience

Our Maasai guides walk on ahead of us, their colourful shukas floating above the tall, yellow grass. The dry blades rise to my knees, and it is as if I am walking in a sea of grass. This landscape stretches out all around us, reaching towards the horizon. Dotting the pale green fields of tall grass are many woody bushes, characteristic of Mara’s Naboisho conservancy.

Three Maasai guides standing in the bush of the Mara Naboisho plains
Our Maasai guides, Caleb, Johnson and Wilson. This photo was taken some distance away from Eagle View Camp. Closer to the camp, the grass gets significantly longer

The tall grass worries me – most certainly, there are snakes, hidden in the thick vegetation. Our Maasai guides tell us this is not something to worry about. The snakes will sense vibration from our footsteps and slither away before we get too close.

Beginning the Walking Safari

It is mid-morning, and the day is beginning to heat up as we start our walking safari out into the African bush. There is an excitement in the air, a sense of play, as we venture out from the premises of our lodge, Eagle View Camp. We are accompanied by six Maasai Ascari, three of whom were once lion hunters, as was the tradition of the Maasai. Today, they are all conservationists belonging to the community that looks after the grasslands of Naboisho. 

Three Maasai guards, wielding weapons, walking through the golden grass of the African savannah. In the distance is a large herd of wildebeests
Our three Maasai Ascari (guards) who accompanied us on our walking safari

Safari goers to the Masai Mara usually undertake an expedition in a 4×4 vehicle. Wild animals are accustomed to these large, sturdy jeeps and, for the most part, pay them no heed. As long as you are in the car, you’re safe. You can get quite close to top predators like lion, leopard, cheetahs and hyenas and be secure knowing they will not attack.

Safety First, Weapons Second

A walking safari is different. It’s just you, out in the wilderness, on your own two feet. There is nothing between you and nature. The Maasai that guide you are your lifeline. They are fearless and have known the land and its animals since childhood. Fearless, but not foolhardy. These men do not take unnecessary risk. They can spot a lion from miles away and will avoid getting too close. On the African savannah, the best way to prevent dangerous encounters is to go around it altogether.

Three Maasai ascari under an acacia tree
Our Maasai Ascari rest under an acacia tree. They stayed closed to us all the time and would stop often to wait for us to catch up

A few of them laugh and talk among themselves in Maa, their local language, as they scout ahead of the group. Their colourful dress and relaxed demeanour set the tone for the walk. As long as nobody does anything foolish, there is nothing to be afraid of. As we walk along, we marvel at their courage. These Maasai do not carry modern weapons. Instead, each wields a spear and a throwing club. These weapons, along with their fearless attitude, have been their defence against predators for millennia, and continue to protect them today.

A Lesson on The Mara’s Flora and Fauna

As we continue walking, knee-high grass gives way to recently grazed, green plains. Our guide leads us unhurriedly through the land, stopping us when he sees something interesting.

Maasai guide demonstrating the uses of plants on the African savannah
Our Maasai guide Caleb reaches out for a leaf of the sandpaper plant

As we pass an orange croton bush, he tells us about its insect repellent properties. Animals, especially lions, like to relax in its shade because it rids them of annoying flies. He also alerts us to the sandpaper plant, with leaves are like sandpaper. The Maasai use it to polish their spears and clubs.

The yellow fruit of the sodom apple,  hiding in the savannah grass
The sodom apple. This bushy plant can often be found hidden among the grasses

Then, there’s the sodom apple, named after the famed biblical city near the Dead Sea. This poisonous fruit is as ancient as civilisation itself, dating back to the time of the prophets. Throughout history, the fruit and its plants have had many uses. Today, the Masai continue to use its anti-bacterial stems as toothbrushes and make tea from its roots to relieve stomach pains.

A pile of white hyena droppings spotted on our walking safari on the Masai Mara
Hyena droppings are recognisable by their bleached white colour

We also encountered some peculiar while balls, drying out under the sun. These are hyena droppings, and they are white because of their high calcium content. Hyenas, after all, consume bone. Luckily for us, these droppings were made quite some time ago, and there were no hyenas around. 

Unexpected Encounters in the Bush

As the Maasai walk, they occasionally thump the butt of their spears into the ground. There’s no real reason for this; perhaps it’s merely a way to distribute weight while walking. However, once, an Ascari’s spear landed near a low bush, startling a furry creature resting among its leaves. The animal, a bat-eared foxed, jumped out in surprise and ran away at an incredible speed. It was not our intention to surprise the resting creature, but all the same, we were glad to see it. After all, bat-eared foxes are nocturnal and almost impossible to spot on safari.

A bat eared fox running away on the plains of the Masai Mara
This bat-eared fox raced away at breakneck speed when we stumbled onto his hiding place

Up ahead, we can see trees clustering along a riverbank. Unlike the woody bushes and thorny acacias that cover most of the landscape, these trees have thick green leaves and provide dense shade. Many are enormous fig trees with sturdy, thick branches. It is just the sort of tree leopards love. A grown fig tree’s branches are strong and broad, sufficiently robust for a leopard to haul her kill into. High up in the tree, her meal is safe from thieving by other predators like lion and hyena.

A lush river bank, crossing the Masai Mara
Leopards like hanging around near riverbanks with bushes and tree cover. Trees with strong branches also make good “larders” as leopards can keep eating their kill for up to seven days

The Most Dangerous Animal on the Savannah

There are no leopards today, or at least none we could see. The river, however, is filled with pods of hippo taking shade from the warm African sun. We approach them cautiously, careful not to cause alarm. All of them are in the water, so staying by the river banks is enough to ensure our safety. Nevertheless, we have to make sure we do not get too close. A Maasai Ascari takes a tentative step down the gentle slope leading into the river. Unbeknownst to us, there is a hippo right below him, and it rears its head up and grunts a warning. We back off after that, keeping our distance. 

A pod of hippos encountered on our walking safari, their faces half hidden in the sparkling waters of the Laikipia river
A pod of hippos in the Laikipia river running through Mara Maboisho

We continue along the riverbank, observing the hippos go about their day. During the heat of the afternoon, not much goes on. Mostly, they stay in the river, their heads bobbing up and down the mud-coloured waters. Once, we observed a large hippo marking his territory with a spray of excrement, fanning the waste across the banks with a vigorously flipping tale. Even from fifty meters away, the stench was significant.

Hippo giving the camera a glaring stare
This guy does not look like he’d like us to come any closer

How Scary are Crocodiles?

We leave the hippos and make our way to a drier part of the river. One of the Maasai have spotted a crocodile on the far bank. It’s almost too far away to see with the naked eye, its light brown scales the colour of the sandbank it lay upon. Through the long lens of a camera, however, we were able to catch sight of it. The creature was huge, and we approached it cautiously. Even from a distance, it sensed our approach. In a blink of an eye, it scampered down into the dry river bed and came out the other side. It was a reminder of how even the most fearsome creatures of the savannah are more wary of us than we are of them.

Large sandy coloured cocodile resting in bright green grass
This was the large crocodile we spotted. By the time we took this photo, he had already gone on to the other side of the river bank

Let Nature Set the Pace on Your Walking Safari

It was nearly high-noon, and the sun had climbed almost directly overhead. We had walked many kilometres out into the African bush, and it was now time to make our way back. Assuming we set a good pace, and we did not stop along the way, it would still take us an hour to return to camp. But we were in no hurry. In Kenya, there is a saying people are fond of. “Pole, pole”, meaning “slowly, slowly”. After all, nature is never in a hurry, so why should we be?

Our walking safari took us on one of the dirt roads, led by three Maasai guards
At some point our Maasai Ascari decided to get back on the road

A Demonstration of Masai Weapons

We make our way back, leisurely crossing the golden-green savannah. Along the way, our Maasai guides demonstrate how they use their primary weapons, the stick and the spear. We were surprised to learn how powerful their simple stick was – this tool, a mere foot and a half long could be used to defend themselves against large animals.

Masai warrior with a spear
Our guide, Caleb, with his spear

In the distant past, the Maasai also used it in warfare. All it took was good momentum, and a well-placed aim between a creature’s eyes, and the animal would be knocked out. That said, these Maasai no longer hunt animals for sport. These days, they only use their weapons in self-defence.

Maasai man demonstrating how to throw a spear
Johnson, demonstrating how to throw the Maasai spear. Johnson is university educated and soft-spoken, but like all other Maasai men, he had spent a period as a Moran – the warrior phase all boys have to pass to become men

Our guides show us how they use their spears. These weapons are longer and more massive than the sticks. Some almost as high as their bearer. Throwing them far, and with accuracy, takes skill and strength. Two of our guides, Wilson and Johnson, demonstrate the technique.

Our Maasai guides about to launch their spears, a demonstration during out walking safari
Johnson and Wilson, both about to launch their spears

There is an art to it – first the body has to be positioned in a slight crouch, giving momentum to the run, which will add speed to the final throw. After a few leaps, they twist their bodies, placing all their power in their shoulders and arms. Then, with great accuracy, the Maasai makes the throw. Despite the spear’s weight and its bearer’s lean frame, the Maasai can launch them far into the distance.

Massai spear launched into the air
The spears have launched!

A Lion in Our Midst

Entranced by this fascinating show, we did not notice the sudden disturbance in the nearby bushes. It was not until an entire herd of zebras and wildebeest came dashing out we realised there was a predator in our midst. From the way the animals were running, our guides surmised it was most likely a lion.

The plains of the masai mara with herds of animals
Herds of wildebeest and zebra gallop through the plains of the Masai Mara

The animals, about two hundred of them, came running out into the open field, making a wide semi-circle around us before stopping. We looked around, hoping to spot the predator that had disturbed them, but did not find anything. Soon, the animals, previously alert, began to mill about once more, grazing calmly at the grass under their hooves. It seemed their attacker had given up for now. 

Wildebeests and zebra running away from danger
The grazing animals remained flighty for sometime, constantly moving away from the bushes

Our Walking Safari Concludes

It was now beginning to get late and quite warm. We were all eager to make it back to the comfort of our lodge for a nice lunch and a cold drink. Together, we trundled our way across the rolling green fields that stretched out into the distance. Soon, we notice the short, green grass give way to the tall golden meadow which surrounds the campsite. As we wade into the long grass, we know we are almost home.

Maasai ascari taking us back through the long savannah grass after our walking safari
We wade back into the long grass around Eagle View Camp – the grass comes up pass the knees of the Maasai, which is saying something since Maasai are tall people

FAQs for Walking Safari Kenya

What is a walking safari?

A walking safari is similar to an easy hike out in the African savannah. The only difference to a hike is that you will see plenty of wild animals during your walk.

Is a walking safari safe?

A walking safari is safe as they are always conducted with experienced guides. These guides, who are armed, know how to avoid conflict with wild animals and deal with danger should any arise.

Can I do a walking safari with lions?

Lions are wild animals and you cannot do walking safaris with them. Our Maasai guides explicitly told us if we encountered lions we would make sure to walk some distance around them. This is what the Maasai do themselves when they encounter lions out in the bush.

Portugal

Medieval Charm in Óbidos, Portugal

A charming medieval town on the way from Lisbon to Porto, Óbidos is worth a long visit to truly soak in its atmosphere long after the other tourists are gone…

We stopped by Óbidos, Portugal on our way from Sintra to Porto. Having left Sintra a little late, we almost decided to skip it, but are very glad we didn’t. A nominee for a UNESCO Heritage Site, this charming fortress town is full of history, and a perfect prototype of a medieval city.

Castle walls and towers in Óbidos, Estremadura area, Portugal
The imposing castle walls of Óbidos, Portugal towering high above the walled town

Things to do in Óbidos

We were, sadly, only in Óbidos for a day trip, like many others. We definitely wished we’d booked at least a night, to fully soak in the wonderful atmosphere of this quaint town!

Medieval rooftops in the Portuguese town of Óbidos
The stacked rooftops of Óbidos give a sense of its old world charm

Enter the City Through the Senhora da Graça Chapel

Truly impressive, the main entrance into the city is a patchwork of exquisitely painted tiles. This archway “hides” an artfully decorated door, which is part of the adjoining Senhora da Graça Chapel. The elaborate decoration dates back to the 1700’s. It is a great example of “Azulejos”, the glazed blue ceramic tiles typical of Portugal.

An elaborate door with blue and white Portuguese tiles referred to as Azulejos
The elaborate archway of the Senhora da Graça Chapel. This archway also connects to the main entrance into the city

Walk through the ancient, winding streets of Óbidos

Inside its thick stone walls are quaint white washed houses, with terracotta tiled roofs that jostle each other alongside narrow, winding roads.

People sitting outside the Igreja de Santa Maria church, Óbidos, Portugal
Vendors and local elders sitting outside the Igreja de Santa Maria in Óbidos

Semi-permanent market stalls line the entrance to the fortress, selling everything from natural soaps to Portuguese pastries and cakes – certainly some of the best in the world. We entered the town by its main thoroughfare, cutting straight to the castle that dominates it. Along this street are lovely shops selling hand made Portuguese crafts and (you guessed it) more pastries and cakes. In Portugal, you can live by one rule – if it looks good, eat it.

Shop selling clothing in Óbidos, Portugal
Shop selling clothing made with beautiful Portuguese fabrics

Treat Yourself to a Pão de Ló

We found a no frills pastry shop that looked like it had been there for decades, which sold a traditional Portuguese cake called the Pão de Ló. The Pão de Ló is a type of custard sponge cake that is still molten in the center. We got a chocolate flavoured one covered with chocolate cream – simple, yet absolutely exquisite. It was one of the highlights of the visit and we ended up eating the cake even before we left the shop.

Cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs
Beautiful cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs

Cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs
Cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs
Cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs
Cobblestoned alleys of Óbidos, lined with whitewashed houses adorned with yellow and blue motifs

Visit the Mercado Biológico de Óbidos,

There was an impressive bookshop, Mercado Biológico de Óbidos, that occupied the first floor of a few narrow houses, with books that lined the walls floor to ceiling. The refurbishment of this former organic market was done by Ler Devagar, a bookseller from Lisbon, who transforms spaces of historical importance into book havens. It was the sort of a place anyone with a book fetish would immediately feel drawn to.

The Mercado Biológico de Óbidos, a former organic market transformed into a bookstore
The Mercado Biológico de Óbidos, a former organic market transformed into a bookstore

What was even more cool about this place was the fresh fruit and vegetable stand at the end of the store, in the cooking and gardening section. This place took the book café concept to a whole new level!

Narrow houses seen from the high point of Óbidos, Portugal
Narrow houses seen from the high point of Óbidos

Visit the Óbidos Castle

After all these wonderful distractions, we finally made it to the end of the thoroughfare, and reached the entrance to the castle’s keep. Inside the keep, there were market stalls and a restaurant, which were unfortunately closed when we were there. Nevertheless, it did provide a good impression of how daily life was structured within the castle keep during medieval times.

The walls of the Castle Keep in Óbidos, Portugal
The walls of the Castle Keep, constructed in the 14th century, and refurbished in the 1950s

Inside the keep was a lovely leisure garden full of pink blossoms in full bloom, overlooking the surrounding lands. It was trussed up against the high stone walls of the keep, and was an interesting feature of the castle’s overall architecture. From here, you could also look down onto the town of Óbidos.

The Castle Wall Walk

It’s worth mentioning here that you can walk on the walls of the Óbidos Castle. This will will provide you stunning views of the town on one side, and the beautiful Portuguese countryside on the other. There are a number of entry points to start the walk on the walls. On your way up to the castle’s market square, you’ll encounter a sign which will show you where you can being your walk.

The walk is a great way to get your bearings within the town itself. It was also interesting to see the wall standing as a division between the ancient core of Óbidos and the new houses which were outside the castle walls.

Do be cautious though! There are no handrails, and the path can be quite narrow and definitely not suitable for walking in groups.

House covered in wisteria vines
Many houses in Óbidos are covered in old wisteria wines

Ending a Day Trip to Óbidos

We ended our day in Óbidos in a little pub restaurant just off the main street, which served traditional Portuguese food. We had grilled sardines and fried squid, all fresh from the sea and very tasty. Óbidos was definitely a great stop and if we had the chance to do it all again, we’d definitely choose to spend a night in one of the apartments for rent in the town. That way, we would have gotten to see the sun set over castle keep and stroll its winding streets without other tourists in the way.

Hawk with a mouse in its beak, flying by the castle walls
A hawk living in the walls of the keep, with a mouse in her beak, taking it back to her nest

FAQs for Óbidos, Portugal

Why visit Óbidos?

Óbidos is an incredible little medieval town with quaint winding streets and a slow pace of life. Little has changed here since its heyday in the 15th Century. Visit to get a sense of what life was like in medieval Portugal.

When was Óbidos castle built?

Most of the castle was built in 713 by the Moors. However, its history and that of the town goes back to Roman times. Parts of the castle might have been around since the Visigoths conquered Óbidos in the 5th Century.

What to visit in Óbidos?

The main reason to visit Óbidos, is the city’s heart itself. It’s a charming medieval town with cobblestone streets. We spent hours walking around and visiting is many quirky shops. You should also visit the Óbidos castle.

How to get to Óbidos from Lisbon?

If you don’t have a private car, the easiest way to get to Óbidos is by bus. The Rodotejo bus company does a route to Óbidos from Lisbon which takes an hour, and there are 32 departures every weekday and 13 departures on weekends and holidays.

Czech Republic

Český Krumlov, Things to Do in This Fairytale Town

Český Krumlov captivates with its quaint medieval town and enchanting castle…

Situated along the mountains of South Bohemia, embraced within the curve of the Vltava River, is the enchanting town of Český Krumlov. There’s plenty of things to do in Český Krumlov and its mix of grandeur and small-town charm draws in visitors from all over the world.

TIP: GETTING AROUND IN THE OLD TOWN AND THE LÁTRAN

To help orient yourself, you can remember the Old Town of Český Krumlov as being the section of the city where the main municipal attractions, like the Market Square and the Regional Museum are located. The side of the city directly under the castle is called the Látran.

The Cesky Krumlov castle tower at sunset, bathed in golden light
The Castle Tower reaching high into the clouds. I love the striking pink detail and the green copper roof. If you look closely, you’ll see the Vltava flowing between the Old Town and the neighbourhood of the Látran

Explore The Old Town of Český Krumlov

One of the first things we did after checking into our hotel was to explore the old town of Český Krumlov. Most hotels are within the heart of the old town itself, and you can start exploring by simply stepping out of your door.

The Secret History of Český Krumlov’s Old Town

We enter the city in a taxi, crossing the Lazebnický Bridge into the Old Town. The Gothic stone buildings and small town vibe immediately transports us back to the city’s golden age in the 15th century. This was the century when the ruling family transformed the Castle, giving it its present day elegance.

However, Český Krumlov is older than the 15th century. Settlers first came here in 1240, building beneath the castle. Back then, the city was a medieval town. However, the ruling Rosenberg family, who were greatly influenced by artistic trends in Italy, turned it into the beautiful Renaissance city we see today.

The Gothic windows of St. Vitus Cathedral in Cesky Krumlov, with restored Renaissance buildings in front
The tall, gothic windows of St. Vitus Church, as seen through the buildings of the Old Town. Its winter, that’s why the branches of the tree are bare

Radniční Street – A Charming lane with historical buildings

Our taxi driver expertly manoeuvres his way up Radniční Street, a narrow cobblestoned lane lined with colourful buildings. Along the way we pass the Fairytale House and the Museum of Commerce, which catch our attention with their evocative storefronts. Our hotel, Ú Malého Vitka, is located in the three gothic buildings beside the Museum.

The crucifix and the Castle Tower. This was taken on one of the bridges crossing the Vltava, leading up to the Krumlov castle

We step out of the taxi, and I feel a cold drizzle on my face. It was winter in Český Krumlov, and showers are not uncommon. We hurry to enter the warm interior of the hotel.

A cobblestone street in Cesky Krumlov, with shops and bars, lined with historic buildings
The start (or end) of Radniční street, a truly historical street in the Old Town. This type of cobblestone street is what I used to image all of Europe looked like

Medieval Archaeology hidden in the buildings of Radniční Street

Like all buildings in Český Krumlov’s Old Town, Ú Malého Vitka has an interesting history dating back centuries. In fact, medieval archaeologist discovered and dated a number of artefacts from the 1400s and 1500s in the buildings of the hotel. However, there was no need for the archaeologist to dig. The researches found many items simply stored away in the vault, untouched for 600 years. They found a wooden spoon, parts of a leather pouch and numerous other household items and pottery.

After checking us in, our receptionist leads us through a labyrinth of wooden stairs and brick corridors, to our room. Along the way, we pass the dining hall, with its high ceilings, spacious interior, and solid wooden benches harking back to a bygone era. Already, I was immersed into the living history of the city.

A beautiful Gothic church in Cesky Krumlov is surrounded by red roofed houses from the medieval era
The quaint Medieval buildings of the Old Town with their red tiled roofs cluster around the impressive St. Vitus Cathedral

Lunch at The Christmas Market in Český Krumlov

During the Christmas week, there is nothing like a cup of mulled wine in the market square to feel properly welcomed to Český Krumlov. One of the things to do in this charming town is to lunch in the market square. There’s quite a few choices for food here, mostly cuisine typical of central Europe. The stalls here make a potato pancake called Bramboráky, it’s one of my favourites and resembles a large hash brown. Most stalls serve it, along with sausages and picked cabbage.

A Market Stall in the Krumlov market square. As you can see, the main offering here are Christmas drinks like hot wine and grog

Explore the History of the Český Krumlov Market Square

In the past, Náměstí Svornosti was not only a marketplace, but also a place for the execution of justice. For many centuries, a gallows stood in a prominent location on the square. Here, executioners hanged the murderers. Thankfully, this antiquated instrument of justice is no longer there. Instead, a market selling traditional hot meals and the ever present chimney cake can be found during the festive months of the year.

A row of beautiful buildings line one side of Český Krumlov's market square, which dates back to the 14th Century
Beautiful medieval buildings line one side of Český Krumlov’s market square, which dates back to the 14th Century

Standing in the middle of the square, I marvel at the quaint beauty of the restored houses that surround me. Once these belonged to the most respected members of society. The officials working for the government in the 1500s conducted matters of parliament in the building that is now the Tourist Information Centre and the Museum of Torture.

Check out The Marian Column and Fountain

In the 17th Century, a plague swept through the city of Český Krumlov, killing many people. When the spectre of death had passed, the Schwarzenberg princess, Marie Ernestina, erected this impressive column to give thanks. Restorers in the the 19th century moved the fountain from the middle of the square to its present position where it encircles the column

Merry-go-round and the Marian Column, which was erected between 1712 and 1716, and topped with a statue of the Virgin Mary
Merry-go-round hides the far more sombre Marian Column, which was erected between 1712 and 1716. It is topped with a statue of the Virgin Mary

Beside this opulent monument, tourists queue for food and amble around, unaware of its grandeur. Perhaps in a city where every detail is of historical importance, it becomes difficult to pay attention when the smell of frying sausages and spice wine bekons.

Take in the View of the Castle Tower and Streets

A little ways up Horní Ulice is a little garden that is part of the Český Krumlov Regional Museum. Locals call it the Seminární Zahrada, or the Seminary Garden, as the Regional Museum was once a seminary for Jesuits. On any day, regardless the weather be fair or foul, you will see a small crowd gather in front of the low stone wall facing the river. This was one of my favourite lookout points in the city.

Wide angle view of Cesky Krumlov Old Town with the castle tower and medieval houses in the foreground
View of the Český Krumlov Castle Tower, the Látran neighbourhood below, and the little medieval houses on street Parkán in the Old Town

Looking down, over the wall, I could see the quaint medieval street of Parkán, lined with charming, simple houses winding around the Vltava. Just beyond the river, the little red roofs of the Látran neighbourhood mushroomed at the base of the castle tower. The scene is right out of a storybook.

Buildings of both Renaissance and Medieval character are crowded against each other in the Old Town of Cesky Krumlov
A Renaissance house with a peculiar detail - a corridor that joins it with another building
Incredibly cute medieval houses in Cesky Krumlov's old town. These houses line a curving street.

Sticking my head out as far as I could, I made out the silhoutte of a cute medieval building with a wooden balcony right at the very end. Perhaps more charming buildings like it lay just beyond the bend of the street. The view from the garden was a tantalising teaser to the rest of the town.

A charming hotel with yellow walls in a historic building in the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov
One of the many ‘Pensions’ or hotels in Český Krumlov

Stroll through the Historical Buildings of Český Krumlov

As I spent more time walking between the tightly packed facades of Český Krumlov, I began to notice surprising and unique details preserved on many of them. Quite often, especially in the case of the buildings in the Latrán, I would spot new paint work around an image dating back to the Renaissance period.

A Gothic residential building in the Latran
A charming corner and the meeting of two cobblestone streets in the Latrán. I love the overhang of the building in the picture, with its carved wooden supports that have a Gothic style. A great example of Gothic architecture in an everyday building.

Spot the Sgraffito Paintings from the 15th Century on the Buildings of the Látran

These paintings mimic the artwork in courtyards III and IV of the castle, and have an illustrative quality about them, like something you might see in a children’s storybook. Also sometimes, instead of people and animals, they would mimic brickwork. Like the paintings in the castle, they utilise the sgraffito technique. To create the painting, the artist would make a layer of paint and then cover it with another. Scratching through the topmost layer would reveal the paint underneath. Like this, artists created the decorations on the facades.

Sgraffito paintings from the Renaissance era on a building in the Látran neighbourhood in Cesky Krumlov
Portraits of people done in the sgraffito technique painted on the side of a building in the old Látran neighbourhood

However, The craftsmen did not create all the decorations in this manner. Sometimes, they simply painted them on. Many are portraits of saints re-enacting a moment in their lifetime, or the coat of arms of the ruling families of the city.

A faded Sgraffito painting of Jesus and several coats of arms on the side of a building in Cesky Krumlov
Most of the paintings on the walls of the residential buildings were of a religious nature. Many of them also depicted coats of arms of prominent families that lived in Český Krumlov

Stay in the Hotel Ú Malého Vítka

In entering our hotel, Ú Malého Vitka, we stepped back into another time. A time before the digitisation of the world, when life was simpler and slower. I could not imagine a better place in Český Krumlov in which to stay.

The owner of Ú Malého Vitka has taken pains to recover the history of the buildings and has published the research in a book displayed in the lobby.The artefacts the archeologists have uncovered in the building’s vault, and the record of the people who bought and sold the buildings, play a role in understanding Český Krumlov’s history.

The hotel’s architects have built it from three historic Gothic townhouses and the owner has furnished it with sweet smelling wood. He has also added nice touches like decorations of animal and human characters from a famous Czech fairytale.

Sunlight hits the Cesky Krumlov castle tower, viewed from a narrow cobblestone street in the old town
View of the Castle Tower from the historic Radnicí street, where hotel Ú Malého Vitka is located

Discover the history of those who lived in Ú Malého Vitka

The rooms are all decorated with simple, handmade furniture – I could imagine the people who used to live here using furniture just like the ones we saw. In the cosy foyer of the hotel there are some books detailing the history of the buildings through the centuries.

Account of the People who Lived in the Buildings since the 1500s

This history goes back to the 1500s, when the oldest record of a buyer was found. He was a butcher. The houses passed through many hands throughout their lifetime. It was mostly people who had a skilled craft or trade that owned the properties – besides the butcher, there were two tailors, a court chef, a teacher and quite a number of gingerbread bakers. I didn’t think it was possible to be so specialised in the Middle Ages, but there you go!

Low arched ceilings in a Gothic residential building in the Czech Republic. A short flight of stairs connect the interior of one building to the next.
The strange layout of the hotel’s interior is due to it being three different buildings connected together

Medieval Style Dining Hall

The room that stands out the most is the dining hall. This impressive rectangular room with its high ceilings and solid wooden tables and benches really made me think of a medieval beer hall. I thought it was a bit of a pity it was only used for breakfast. I would have like to have a jug or two of ale in it!

A medieval style dining hall in Cesky Krumlov, the Czech Republic
The charming breakfast hall of Ú Malého Vitka, with its handmade wooden furniture. When I had breakfast here, I felt like I was in an inn back in the 1500s!

If you really want to experience life in Český Krumlov during its heyday, I would highly recommend Ú Malého Vitka. The traditional ambience is a great experience and the staff are very friendly and knowledgeble about the history of the city.

Visit The Museum of Commerce

The Museum of Commerce is a window into a world only recently gone. Beautifully decorated metal plates, wind up musical boxes and other retro items fill the shop front. The items glint under the bright lights of the display window, inviting us in.

The entrance to Cesky Krumlov's Museum of Commerce - it has an art deco sign with decorated metal plates from the era entirely covering the door
The facade of the Museum of Commerce in Český Krumlov. I love the quirky Art Deco sign and the metal plates from the 1900s which completely cover the door

Walking inside, I felt like I’d stepped into a Disney movie in the 1940s. I don’t recall any actual items from Disney inside it, but there was just something. Maybe it was the music that was being played, or maybe it was the bright colours of the items on display… I also noticed that things from that era tended to have more figural representation on them. There was always a woman, man or animal used to advertise the use of a certain product.

A diorama with mannequins of a scene in a pharmacy set in the 1950s
One of the quaint dioramas inside the museum. This scene is of an apothecary in the 1950s

Contemplate over the Dioramas Depicting Life in the 1900s

In the first room, there stands a diorama of a scene from a grocery store. In it, the sales woman is tending to a shopper and her child. Beside her on the counter is a large and beautiful decorated cash register like I’ve never seen before. Behind her are boxes of produce.

Retro style metal dispensaries from the 20th Century on display in the museum of commerce in cesky krumlov
Examples of dispensaries from the 20th Century – back then our products did not come individually packaged

In the next hall, there is an exhibit of beautiful metal containers that were once used in shops for dispensing items like coffee beans, grains, nuts and other dried household goods. Both these exhibits really struck a chord with me. In today’s society of waste, almost all our food comes packaged in plastic. These colourful canisters were a reminder of how people lived more elegantly and less wastefully in the past.

Vintage brass machine in the Cesky Krumlov museum of commerce from the 1920s that dispensed oil for fuel
A large metal tank on example in the museum of commerce from the 1900s that dispensed petroleum
A diorama in the museum of commerce of a man selling draft beer in bottles, from the 1920s

Reflection on the Pace of Consumption in the early 20th Century

We spent more time than most would in this museum, I think. But I absolutely fell in love with all the items. Things, back then, were passed on from generation to generation, and as such, people took the effort to decorate them. To make their value more than just their utility.

Mannequins depicting a scene from a leather workshop in the Museum of Commerce
Diorama of a scene from a leather workshop. Note the beautiful but faded tiles on the arched ceiling above…

I also loved all the marketing posters. This is the other defining feature of the era, I think. When advertisements were illustrated and not photographed. The posters in the museum are very imaginative and beautiful, and I left wishing I had the space in my luggage to transport a few delicate posters.

Visit the Castle of Český Krumlov

Rising over the red roofs and colourful houses of the Látran, dominating the quaint townhouses built around it, is the Castle of Český Krumlov. On first impression, this castle projects a strong Renaissance character. However, it is not from any one era. Instead, it is a mix of medieval, Gothic and Renaissance styles, acquired throughout the 700 years of its existence.

A narrow stretch of the river Vlatava, running towards the Cesky Krumlov castle
A scene which captures the essence of Český Krumlov – the quaint houses, the Vlatava and the pink and green castle tower…

Thoughts on the Barbers’ Bridge across the Vltava

Standing on the wooden bridge by the former mill, the river rushing below me, I crane my head to look up at the castle walls. Built into the cliffs that bank the nothern bend, its buildings rise high, high up into the sky. Along the rock face, vegetation creeps and climbs, the crowns of some trees higher than half the walls. Many of these trees are old, like the castle that lies behind them.

The Cesky Krumlov castle and tower reflected in the still waters of the Vlatava river just before dusk in Cesky Krumlov
Views of the castle are spectacular from any angle. This shot is taken just before dusk, when the waters of the Vlatava were almost still. There is something almost magical about the castle complex reflected in the river…

View of Český Krumlov Castle Tower

Standing loftily above the surrounding buildings is the castle tower. With its pale yellow base, pink arches and copper green arcade, it seems right out of a Disney movie. As a finishing touch, three golden ornaments adorn its Renaissance spires. As the sunlight hits them, they gleam and sparkle magically. The tower, and the Little Castle under it, are the oldest buildings of the castle complex. By dating the wood inside the Little Castle, scientist have determined that it was built at the end of the 13th century.

Little Castle and the Castle Tower, elegantly Renaissance in design, rise above Český Krumlov, seen through a narrow street
When it was built, the Little Castle and its Tower were of simple Gothic design. Today it is elegantly Renaissance, its upper floors decorated with arches and paintings

Climb up the Castle Steps

From the Old Town, I cross the Barber’s Bridge into the Latrán. Turning right, I see that the road splits into two. The left fork leads up some narrow steps that wind around a quaint restaurant. The delicious smells of lunchtime cooking waft out from gaps in the windows.

The Český Krumlov tower and castle sitting on the solid graphite rock the land is made of
Worm’s eye view of the Český Krumlov castle and tower from the bottom of the Látran, the neighbourhood that sprung up at its base. From this angle, you can see how the castle sits solidly atop the mountainous rock of the region

The Arch at the Top of the Castle Steps

From the restaurant, the steps turn farther to the right. I keep walking up Zámecké Schody street, my curiosity drawing me towards each bend. At the very end, the steps pass below a double arch. Here, the Rosenberg family who ruled Český Krumlov for over 3 centuries had commissioned a wood relief bearing the five petaled rose, a sigil of their house.

Mural of the Cesky Krumlov bear painted on a house at the top of the castle steps. The bear is looking out towards pedestrians climbing the stairs.
A charming mural of the Rosenberg bear looking out a window. This painting is on the last house at the top of the castle steps. I love the curious expression on the bear’s face, as he looks out for pedestrians walking up the stairs

Here, at the very last landing, I turned back to look at the winding path I had taken. To my surprise, there was a whimsical painting of a bear looking cheerfully out of a window, illustrated onto the side of the very last house on the street.

Spot the Bears in the Bear Moat of Český Krumlov Castle

Around the walls of the Castle’s outer couryard and its entrance bridge is a tall metal fence. I peer between its bars and look down. At the same moment, a little brown head pops up over a fallen trunk. One of the castle bears was awake! His sibling, who was sleeping, joined him a few moments later.

Bears of Krumlov castle picking on some leftover orange
The two bears of Krumlov castle, listlessly picking at the leftover food from their Christmas party

Christmas Feast for the Bears

On the other side of the bridge, I noticed various bits of festive food lying around. Apparently, every Christmas, locals can come and offer pastry and honeyed sweets to the bears. The amounts offered are not small – about 120 kilograms (although I’m not sure if this is per bear or for both). The keeper of the bears put the animals on a diet for the month before, to accommodate for the calories from this yearly feast – no fat bears here!

The Christ nativity scene depicted with teddy bears in the Krumlov Castle
The nativity scene, as depicted with stuff teddy bears, a truly creative take on an ancient story…

Bear keeping in the Český Krumlov Castle stretches back to the Rosenbergs in the 16th century. Some people criticise this tradition, but I’m quite alright with it. The current enclosure is designed to modern zoo specifications and gives the bears plenty of space and refuge. The old bear couple also gave birth to two cubs, which signal that the bears feel safe and happy enough to reproduce.

Wander Around The Castle Courtyards

The Český Krulmov Castle has many courtyards. The Courtyards all played an important role in the lives of the people who lived and worked in the Castle complex.

Castle Courtyard I

Courtyard I serves as the grand entrance to the castle grounds. This Courtyard is before the bridge that crosses the bear moat. Regular folk, including people working in the castle lived around this courtyard. It was common back then for households to own domestic animals like pigs, and some of them would run into this courtyard. The ruling family did not like the presence of farm animals here, and the recalcitrant creatures would be punished by being caught and slaughtered!

Castle Courtyard II

As you enter, you’ll notice the entrance to the Lower Castle and the tower. The opening here is Castle Courtyard II. It’s a casual, open space where you’ll also find the entrance to the Castle Tower. If you look carefully at the houses around you, you’ll notice that no two chimneys are built the same.

Straight ahead, past the fountain in the middle, is the entrance to the Upper Castle.

Courtyard II, the first courtyard right after entering the main castle gate. This courtyard was used mostly by the folk that worked for the castle

Castle Courtyards III and IV

The next two courtyards serve to divide up the Upper Castle. I suppose they were created to let more light into the buildings. These courtyards are notable for the sgrafitto artwork on them. Paintings of stonework cover all the walls of the courtyard. I suppose it was cheaper and more convenient to paint the masonry rather than make walls out of perfectly cut stone blocks. Or maybe it was simply more fashionable at the time.

Decorative Renaissance courtyard with Gothic windows and Italian sgrafitto murals
Castle Courtyard IV, with its richly decorated facade in the Renaissance style combined with elaborate Gothic windows. Note the elegant alcove in the centre of the facing wall – it was built as a decorative element of the courtyard as opposed to a functional feature of the interior

The paintings here are mostly faded, so it’s difficult to make out who the human figures are supposed to represent. I later found on that they were Roman gods and goddesses.

Cesky Krumlov's Castle Courtyard III as seen from below, opening up to a cloud covered patch of sky
A patch of sky above – as seen through Courtyard III. Courtyards III and IV are symbolically and stylistically connected through the paintings on the walls

Castle Cellars and the Miroslav Páral Exhibition

Walking onwards takes me through a dark stone corridor. A passage opens up to the right, with steps leading down. At first, I thought the stairs would take me to the castle dungeons. On closer look at the poster advertising the space inside, I realise that it is actually the castle cellars. No food is stored there now – instead, a permanent exhibition of a famous Czech surrelist is on display.

Stone castle cellar in the Český Krumlov castle, lit by warm yellow lamps
The Český Krumlov Castle cellars converted into a permanent gallery space featuring the tortured surrealist figures

The work inside is absolutely magnificient. If you like Salvador Dali, I think you might appreciate the works of Miroslav Páral. Unlike Dali however, there is nothing light-hearted about Páral’s works. Although there is humour, it is all dark. Very dark. I thought the Castle Cellars were a fitting place for his works.

Wooden handrails guide visitors around the stone labyrinth in the castle cellars of the Krumlov castle
The rooms in the cellar are connected by stone corridors with wooden guardrails. This art space is a labyrinth of strange oddities – without the guardrails to guide visitors, one could so easily get lost

The Cloak Bridge

Eventually, the dark corridor that runs under the Upper Castle opens up onto the Cloak Bridge. Its white walls reflect the cold winter sun onto every surface and the lightness that engulfs you is magical.

The Vltava curves tightly around the old town of Český Krumlov, with its cute red roofed houses
A cute view of Český Krumlov’s old town from the Castle’s Cloak Bridge – you really notice the tight bend of the Vltava from this point of view. The town looks so charming with all the red roofed houses packed together

Lookout Point and Panoramic View of Český Krumlov,

A beautiful scene unfolds to your right. The city of Český Krumlov, framed under the arches of the bridge, is like a tilt shift photo of a toy town. The scene is picture perfect. From here, you can see how the Vltava winds around the city. A few thousand years, and the lobes of land that hold the heart of the city will become islands.

The view from here is high up, but not too high up. When you look into the distance you’ll see houses almost merging with the landscape. But when you look at the river bank right across, you could almost make out the main details on the window frames.

Just a quaint Czech village in the bend of the Vltava river with its little houses and prominent church
When the Vltava is still, you can see the village reflected in its waters. Description
Český Krumlov is such a charming town from another time

St. Vitus Church in Český Krumlov

Looking past the Marian column, the tall, thin Neo-Gothic spire of the St. Vitus church rises over the buildings cornering the square. Although it was a cold, rainy day, we did not want to miss a moment, and made our way up the slippery cobblestones of Horní Ulice. Three doors down, the street opened up, leading to the entrance of the church.

Gothic tower of St. Vitus Cathedral and the the grey roof of the nave rising into dark, cold skies
The Gothic tower of St. Vitus cathedral, rising up into the foreboding winter sky

From the bottom of the stairs, the church towered over us. Although not very long or wide, St. Vitus stands twice as high as the surrounding buildings. Its height is accentuated by the fact that the narrow streets around can only provide a close up view right at its base.

Stone steps leading towards the Gothic Cathedral of St Vitus in Český Krumlov
The stone steps leading up to the entrance of St. Vitus Cathedral can be found just off a main street running around the Old Town

We happily walked into the warmth and serinity of the church’s interior. Inside, it is lit by the soft winter light, filtering through the glass of its tall, thin windows. Slender stone columns rise up towards the ceiling, forming an elegant net vault.

The Gothic ceiling of the St. Vitus Church with light coming through the windows
The elaborate ceiling of the St. Vitus Cathedral. Note the keystones at the centre of these arches – a key architectural invention of the Gothic period which enabled engineers to build incredibly tall cathedrals

The Gothic Interior of St. Vitus Church

Dark pews fill the central nave, providing a solemn contrast against the church’s pure white walls. Walking among the pews, I spot the occasional choir book. I cannot help but pick one up and flip through its thin, delicate pages. Although the songs are in a foreign language, I know they are familiar ones, many of them sung throughout the Catholic world.

A red hymn book on a plain wooden pew in the simple Gothic interior of the St. Vitus church
St. Vitus has quite a simple and elegant interior, I loved how its plain white walls and un-decorated pews juxtapose the ornate golden alter

Architectural Elements over the Centuries

Like most churches, St Vitus is not the product of any one particular time. It has seen many architectural evolutions since its initial construction in the 1400s. The oldest part that still stands is the stone loft which currently supports the organ, itself dating from the 20th Century. Between those times the red roofted stone sanctuary was built and the main alter within it completed in 1683.

Egon Schiele Centrum

The Egon Schiele Centrum was definitely one of the highlights of our Prague and Český Krumlov trip. Once the former town brewery, it has now been refurbished into a modern art space. Schiele’s work, and contemporary art about the artist and his influence, is limited to the top floor. The rest of the floors host art by contemporary artists.

Contemporary architecture interior with stone walls and free standing wooden staircases that span many floors
The modern stone and wood interior of the Egon Schiele Centrum

Exhibition of Egon Schiele’s Art Works

To get to the exhibition, I had to walk up a narrow flight of stairs that to the building’s attic. As I neared the top, I could hear jazz music playing. The music immediately set the time period, and I felt I was back in the early 1900s, when Schiele was still alive and making his revolutionary art.

Ego Schiele paintings of Český Krumlov on display in a low wooden gallery
A few of Egon Schiele’s paintings were displayed as prints on light boxes in this evocative wooden room

The attic is dark, with low ceilings supported by magnificient wooden beams. The floor in the entrance hall, interestingly enough, is cobblestone and brick. Here, I discover the source of the music, a video, framed by a stone doorway that has since been walled over.

Ego Schiele's sketchbook with the sketch for the poster design of the secession exhbition of 1928 and trees along the Vlatava
Ego Schiele’s sketch book – note the poster design for the Secession Exhibition of 1918 on the left page

I love the erotic artwork of Egon Schiele, but was unaware he did anything else. In this museum, I became acquainted with his whimsical yet sophisticated paintings of Český Krumlov. One item that I particularly loved was his notebook. It was left open to a page with his sketches for the poster advertising the 49th Secession Exhibition in Vienna, in the year 1918.

Poster of the 49th Secession Exhibition in Vienna
A print of the poster for the exhibition in 1918 – this was a notable year as it was the year World War One ended and also the year of the artist’s death

The Centrum also has a lovely café on the ground floor. Even if you’re not interested in the works of Egon Schiele, you should still drop by. The Egon Café is the perfect place for a bit of tea and cake after exploring the town.

View of the Český Krumlov Castle’s Cloak Bridge from a hidden window in the attic of the Ego Schiele Centrum

Český Krumlov has lots of restaurants, but this was the only café I remember coming across. It has comfortable chairs, a nice relaxed vibe, and really great cake.

Mango mousse cake and Czech brandy in a cafe
Mango Mousse Cake and Czech brandy (Silvovitz) in the café of the Ego Schiele Art Centrum

Regional Museum in Český Krumlov

While walking around Český Krumlov, we spotted a poster with a beautiful ceramic model of the city. “Regionální Museum”, it read, on the poster. Immediately, we knew we had to pay the museum a visit to see this impressive piece of art.

The Celtic room in the Český Krumlov Regional museum
The room in the museum featured artefacts from the period when Český Krumlov and its surrounding areas was inhabited by Celts

Ancient History of the Český Krumlov Region

The museum turned out to be so much more. On the very top floor, there was an exhibit about settlements in Český Krumlov in prehistoric times. I was excited to discover that the area around Český Krumlov had accommodated settlers as early as 800 BC. Archeologist identify the culture that settled in the region as the Hallstatt culture. This later evolved into the Celtic culture. In the museum, there were on display some bronze age pieces of jewellery with clearly Celtic decorations on them.

A wooden model of the Český Krumlov castle
A model of the Krumlov Castle hill and surrounding area

The Famous Ceramic Model of Český Krumlov

The ceramic model of the town, which was our main reason for visiting the museum was very impressive. It was large and detailed enough so you could see all the important characteristics of Český Krumlov’s historic buildings.

A close up from the ceramic model of Český Krumlov in the regional museum
This close up of the ceramic model shows one of the main entrances into Český Krumlov
Close up of the Český Krumlov ceramic model - the castle tower tower
The streets of Český Krumlov Old Town in the ceramic model of the city
The ceramic model of the town is very detailed, right down to the murals from the 1500s - they are all depicted in the model

All the streets of the city were featured, even the little alleys that most visitors to the city might pass without ever knowing they were there. The coolest thing about the ceramic model for me were the depictions of the sgrafitto paintings on the buildings in the Látran. They were so well done and easily recognisable!

A renacment of a Czech pharmacy from the 1800s with a statue of the virgin mary on the wall
An ornate room in the regional museum depicting an apothecary from the 1800s

Contemporary Czech Folk Art

In the final floor was an exhibition featuring the artworks of Martin Šítal and his wife Marie Šítalová. The artists were a working class couple who found each other in their 50s (rare for the time as people married early in those days).

Sculptures in the naive style by Czech folk artists
The amusing sculptural work of Martin Šítal and Marie Šítalová depicting themselves

Their style, although naïve, is truly heart warming. Through their innocent paintstrokes, these two artists have given us a picture of the life of ordinary people living it the country in the middle of the 20th Century.

A simple and graphic painting of Český Krumlov, featuring the castle
A graphic interpretation of of Český Krumlov

Monastery Church

East of the castle is a monastery complex consisting of the Monastery of the Poor Claires, the monastery of God’s Body and the former Monastery of th Minorities. There were plenty of activities in the gardens for most of the year – especially during the advent period. Quite unfortunately for us we were a few days too late for the baking workshop hosted by the monastery!

Empty courtyard of the Krumlov Monastery church
The empty courtyard of the Monastery church – usually there’s lots of activities, including village fairs, taking place here, but we visited a few days after Christmas so it was quiet

Festival Activities at the Monastery

If you enjoy baking, this sounds like a unique activity you should try out! I certainly wished I had the chance. When we were there, the monastery bakery was open to visitors on the 21 and 22 of December. It could also be useful to note that visitors and locals are allowed to donate pastries to the bears living in the castle moat for the 24th of December.

The riverbanks of the Vltava along the Old Town of Cesky Krumlov
A charming view of the Old Town from the river banks on the Látran side

FAQs for Český Krumlov

Is Český Krumlov worth visiting?

Český Krumlov is a five star location and a definite must see if you are already visiting Prague. Some visitors who are short on time even opt for Český Krumlov over Prague. It is a unique town with a beautiful castle and charming medieval townhouses.

What to do in Český Krumlov?

There are lots of things to do in Český Krumlov. The city itself is very picturesque. To simply walk around it and soak in the atmosphere could take up an entire day. If you wish to visit the interior of the castle and the museums, you might need an additional day or two. One thing is for sure, it is impossible to get bored in Český Krumlov.

Where is Český Krumlov?

Český Krumlov is in the Czech Republic, located in Southern Bohemia. It is right between Prague and Vienna.

How to get from Prague to Český Krumlov?

There are buses that depart daily from Prague to Český Krumlov. Depending on the season, departures might be more, or less, frequent. Check out Omnio or Minibuzz.

Is there a train from Prague to Český Krumlov?

No, there is no train from Prague to Český Krumlov. To get to Český Krumlov, you have to take a bus.

How to get to Vienna from Český Krumlov

To get to Vienna from Český Krumlov, the easiest way would be to hire a mini-van. The service we used, MiniBuzz, was very comfortable and we highly recommend it.

How far is Český Krumlov from Prague?

Český Krumlov is about a two and a half hour drive from Prague

Iceland

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – Blue Ice and Black Sand

A magical place, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon bewitched us with its black sand beach and brilliant blue icebergs…

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach is an extraordinary place made of blue ice and black sand. These phenomenal landscapes are created by the Vatnajökull Glacier. Even in a land filled with incredible sights, this lagoon stands out. Like the glaciers that surround it, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is continually shifting and changing with the seasons and with time.

The road approaching the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland, with power line pylons along it
The road approaching the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is itself extremely photogenic – the stark black gravel contrasting the saturated blue skies, silhouettes of the power line pylons breaking the distant blue horizon

Black Sand Beach

The first thing that will strike you is its black beach. I love black sand beaches, and there’s something moody and enigmatic about them. When I visited my first black sand beach in New Zealand as a child, I wondered why the sand was coloured the way it was. Now I know – the sand is made from basaltic magma, which is black. So the fine black grains of sand on the beaches of Jökulsárlón start their life as liquid magma, spewed out of a volcano.

Panorama of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland, with its blue ice icebergs
The first sight of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is genuinely breathtaking, especially on such a bright sunny day

The Secret Life of Glaciers

Because the Earth is continually moving, it creates unique landscapes like the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Iceland’s exploding volcanoes created the raw material for the fine black sand thousands of years ago. Once the magma cooled, glaciers started to form. All glaciers start their life as snow that piles in on itself year upon year. Over long periods, the compressed snow then becomes glacier ice.

Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The still waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon perfectly reflect each iceberg. Well, as long as the tour boats are not messing it up

Although glaciers seem like unmoving things to us, they are continually moving. The daily cycles and seasonal cycles all affect significant change on them. And, as they move, they grind the ground beneath them.

After millennia of being ground underneath the weight of the glacier’s blue ice, the rock below slowly, but inevitably turned into the fine sand we see today.

The Blue Ice Giants of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

The glaciers do more than create fine black sand for us to sink our feet in. (Ok, admittedly the sand was way too cold for us to take off our shoes, but one can imagine!) They also, ever so often, break off into smaller chunks and fall into the lagoon.

These icebergs of varying sizes, floating in the crystalline waters of the Jökulsárlón lake, make up one of the most impressive and unique sights in all of Iceland.

Though environmental processes can take a long time, in a land of extremes, like Iceland, they can happen over quite short timespans. Scientists had dated many of these brilliant blue ice structures back to the 1930s when the industrial age was well underway in Europe. Maybe they were the result of glacier melt due to global warming.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the glacier that produces the blue icebergs
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the glacier that tirelessly feeds it with fresh icebergs
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Climate Change in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is both a beautiful wonder and a harsh reminder of the damage we are doing to our Earth. The pace with which the lake enlarges every year has accelerated since the 1970s and is a definite sign that global warming is taking its toll on our fragile arctic environment. Nevertheless, this did not detract from its beauty. Now, for someone from a tropical country, seeing an iceberg was a milestone. The last and only time I had seen an iceberg before visiting this lagoon was when I watched Titanic.

Panorama of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon inIceland, seen from the water level
Incredible expanse of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, seen here from the water level

Why is Blue Ice, Blue?

The icebergs are scattered over the beach and float in the ocean, coming in many shapes and sizes. Many were huge and had exciting colouring. The coolest ones had striations all along their sides like they were cross-sectioned so we could see the story of their formation laid bare. All were brilliant blue at their core.

Many of the icebergs had brilliant white tops sometimes followed by bright blue or blue-green centres, striped occasionally by black sediment. The brilliant blue/blue-green centres were what fascinated me the most. I’ve never seen ice that blue, what makes it so? How can something, like water, which we usually perceive as white or transparent, become this richly coloured?

Blue ice icebergs in various shades of blue, reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland
One could not even imagine that many shades of blue, particularly the ones in the middle that appear like cutouts from some 50s science fiction flick

The Optical Science Behind Blue Ice

So, here is the puzzle – if glaciers are formed from compacted snow, why are icebergs that fall off the glaciers blue? When we look at the glaciers themselves, they are white. What is the reason for the glacier’s blue colouring?

Why is Snow White?

To answer the question above, we first have to look at why snow is white.
Infinitely many snowflakes make up what we see as snow. Because these flakes are tiny and loosely compacted, they cause entering light to bounce from snowflake to snowflake. No colour is absorbed or reflected consistently, and eventually, all wavelengths are reflected, resulting in white light.

However, when snow falls on already compressed snow, something interesting happens. The snowflakes at the bottom become more and more compressed as it turns into ice. Ice, unlike snow, has a consistent structure that can predictably reflect visible light.

Panoramic shot of icebergs reflected in the blue waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Every blue ice iceberg is reflected perfectly in the calm waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Blue ice icebergs in reflected in the waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

How is Blue Ice Formed?

As the air gets squeezed out from the lower layers of the iceberg and individual snowflakes press into each other, each snowflake starts to recrystallise. As the snow pile gets older, the crystals become larger, and the air pockets (which cause the chaotic reflection of light) become smaller. Eventually, this compacted snow ends up with a predictable molecular structure that absorbs all wavelengths except blue. The light that’s reflected out then is thus of the most brilliant blue you’ll ever encounter in nature.

This blue ice takes a long time to form, requiring at least a hundred years. So we usually can’t see it, since it’s in the heart of a glacier. However, when a chunk of glacier eventually breaks off, its ultra-compact centre gets exposed to light. And then we can see this beautiful phenomenon of blue ice.

Female photographer standing at the black sand beach next to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland
Here is Isabella, utterly mesmerised by the sight before her, the glacier “river” seen at the top, slowly bringing new icebergs into the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

A Landscape of Icebergs

We had a wonderful time in Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. It was funny being among so many large chunks of ice strewn randomly around. It’s not a common sight we encounter every day – or ever, really, unless you live far north. And there was something about this set up that made every visitor behave like a child-like how it was when we were seeing the world for the first time.

On our stroll along the beach, we saw many people touching the icebergs, trying to pick up large bits of ice that were floating in the water and even some adults attempting to taste the ice. It is not something I would recommend, but I can see the intrigue thousand-year-old ice might hold for some tastebuds.

Elder ducks swimming in the blue waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
We believe that these are Eider Ducks, calmly minding their own business in the aquamarine waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

The other fantastic thing about the lagoon was how still and crystalline clear its water could get. Scientists say the impressive reflective qualities of the lagoon is the result of the mixing of fresh and saltwater. When the water is completely still (sadly, it rarely is due to the boat tours in the lagoon), you can almost feel like there’s another world in reverse on the other side.

Black and white image of a diamond like piece of ice on the black sands of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Black and white image of a diamond like piece of ice on the black sands of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Black and white image of a diamond like piece of ice on the black sands of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

When to go to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon?

We recommend getting to the lagoon as early as you can, as it gets filled up with people pretty quick, especially on a beautiful, sunny, summer’s day. I can’t think of another season to view this place. I think you need the crisp, strong sunlight to bring out the icebergs and the crystalline quality of the black sand.

Block of ice on the black sand in the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Many “diamonds” are to be found on the black sand beaches of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, making for some great abstract images

We spent quite a lot of time strolling in the sand, marvelling at this beautiful wonder. The sun was so bright I almost felt like it was possible to go for a swim in the lake – but this is not possible of course. Eventually, we had to leave this crystalline wonderland – for another fantastic activity – Puffin watching!

Black and white image of the Jökulsárlón Lagoon and its cloud cover
One final look at the magnificent Jökulsárlón Lagoon and its peculiar cloud cover

FAQs for the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Where is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon?

The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is in South Eastern Iceland. It is by the mighty Vatnajökull Glacier, located in the Vatnajökull National Park.

How far is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon from Reykjavik?

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is quite a distance from Reykjavik – it will take you about 5 hours to drive from the capital to the lake.

What is Blue Ice?

Blue Ice is essentially compacted snow. As snow becomes compressed under its own weight, its crystalline structure changes, affecting the way light is reflected. [Read more…]

How is Black Sand Formed?

Black Sand is made out of basaltic magma. The black sand at the Diamond Beach is formed by glacial processes which grind the hardened magma into fine grains. [Read more…]

Jordan

Jerash – Jordan’s Forgotten Wonder

Like many other Greco-Roman cities, Jerash is a stunning example of urban living spaces going through different civilizations in history…

Jerash is a beautiful, sprawling complex of collonaded streets, monumental arches, plazas, baths and theatres. One of the best preserved Roman sites in the world, it is often overshadowed by Petra, and given a miss by the time-pressed traveller, in favour of Jordan’s other attractions.

visiting jerash jordan, temple of zeus, roman ruins, corinthian columns, gerasa
View from the “backstage” of the Northern Theatre

This is a pity, as Jerash truly holds its own in the network of Roman cities – as it did in antiquity, so it does today.

visiting jerash jordan, Temple of Artemis, roman ruin,
The Temple of Artemis, who was the patron goddess of Jerash – built on a high point, it dominates the whole city

Like many other Greco-Roman cities, Jerash is a stunning example of urban living spaces going through different civilizations in history. From its early days as the Arab/Semitic village of Garshu, to its flourishing under Alexander the Great, as one of the great cities in the world’s first globalised empire, the ruins hold layers upon layers of stories from one century through the next.

Corinthian columns, at the Temple of Artemis, 3 point perspective, ascending into sky,
Corinthian columns in Jerash, at the Temple of Artemis

It was during its heyday that its most impressive monuments were built, namely the temple of Artemis, who was the Greek goddess of hunting and the city’s patron goddess, and the temple of Zeus, which stood diametrically opposite, also upon a hill. My favourite was the street of columns, in the exuberant Corinthian style, that ran from North to South, connecting with streets that passed through East to West, all linked in at the South Tetrapylon, an ornamental construction at their junction through which trade flowed from the Orient to the cities of the Mediterranean and beyond.

visiting jerash jordan, Street of Columns, forum Cardo
The Street of Columns, leading from the Forum Cardo to the Northern Tetrapylon

Standing in this plaza, and strolling down the boulevard once lined with shops that stocked goods of the finest craftsmanship during antiquity, I couldn’t help but feel a bittersweet melancholy over how far the city had fallen since. Once a living, thriving metropolis, now reduced to ruins only to be admired and studied, as so many other Roman cities are.

Northern Tetrapylon, Corinthian Columns, Roman Ruins, steps,
The impressive staircase leading towards the Temple of Artemis

As with Petra, a guide was highly recommended for our visit to Jerash. This guide truly made the visit for us, as a lot of the magic would have been lost without its history being explained as we went along.

cardo maximus, gerasa, corinthian columns, roman ruins, visiting jerash jordan
Columns of the Cardo Maximus and a view of Roman Gerasa

At the Nymphaeum, our guide spoke to a group of refugees from Syria. Elegantly dressed, well educated men admiring the fountain whilst speaking about the horrors of the war. Lining the wall of the basin were the sculpted stone heads of lions, one of which had its face hacked off, stolen, to be traded god-knows-where. I asked our guide what had happened to it. He replied: “Thieves”. One of the Syrians then looked towards me and said: “Its head is off, but who will cut the head of our lion?”.

visiting jerash jordan, The Nymphaeum, roman public fountain, roman ruin, roman christian influence,
The Nymphaeum, a public fountain built by the Romans in 190 A.D.

As they walked away, I came to the realization that the ruins of Jerash are the scars of ancient battles, a once great city built with the best abilities of man and destroyed by the worst.

visiting jerash jordan, Cardo Maximus, roman ruins, roman roads,
Bleached white stones near the Cardo Maximus. The paving stones are lined diagonally so the wheels of chariots and carts do not get stuck in the gaps
Czech Republic

Charles Bridge – Prague’s Iconic Landmark

The history and architecture of Prague’s famous icon, the Charles Bridge…

For centuries, Charles Bridge was the only crossing over the Vltava. This landmark is key to understanding the history of Prague’s Old Town. This iconic landmark, and its unmistakable silhouette can be identified by many. As a testament to its structural integrity, it is one of the few remaining medieval bridges still standing today. There are not many bridges in the world that can rival the Charles Bridge in age, beauty and utility.

Panorama of the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River in Prague on a sunny winter day
Charles Bridge and the Vltava River are particularly charming on a sunny crisp winter day

History of Charles Bridge

Commissioned by King Charles IV two years after he was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, the bridge made Prague the most important city in the region for many centuries to come. 

Gate at the end of the Charles Bridge, leading into the Castle District of Prague
Accessing the Castle District of Prague via the Charles Bridge is something every visitor to Prague should experience – yes, it is often crowded, but it is also amazing

When was the Charles Bridge built?

If you’re a numberphile like I am, you’d be amused to know that the first stone was laid on the 9th day of the 7th month of 1357 (9 July 1357), at 5:31, forming a numerical palindrome 135797531. King Charles was a superstitious man and felt that this was important. 

View of Charles Bridge and the tower from the Prague Castle hill
Looking back at the Charles Bridge and its Tower from the hill hosting the Prague Castle

Charles Bridge and Trade

Although the cost of the bridge left the Kingdom of Bohemia in debt for many years after its construction, it was a truly worthwhile investment. From its completion in the early 1400’s up till 1870, it was the only means of crossing the Vltava. Although Prague was already a key trading hub before the bridge, the bridge significantly increased the flow of traffic through the city. Today, as an easily recognisable icon of Czechia, it generates billions of tourist dollars indirectly.

Panorama of the Charles Bridge, with the Prague Castle in the background
Charles Bridge and Prague Castle are intrinsically connected in both history and most photographs of the bridge

On top of being useful to traders in the region, it also made life easier for the Medieval residents of Prague. Especially those working in the Prague Castle, who now had an easy and safe way to cross the Vltava. 

Black and white image of the Charles Bridge, with many people, statues, domes and towers of Prague in it
The cacophony of people, statues, domes, and architectural and artistic styles is one of the calling cards of Prague and the Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge and War

Of course, to any upsides, there are downsides. The bridge’s incredible importance as the only crossing across the Vltava meant it was a target during the many wars that took place in the following centuries. In 1621, the Habsburgs hung the heads of 27 Bohemian revolutionaries from the Bridge Tower. The location of the heads meant that this “message” was received and spread quickly. During World War Two, the Nazi army noticed the bridge’s importance in the transport of supplies, and the bridge came under threat. Fortunately, it was not significantly damaged. 

Night panorama of the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge
The famous Prague panorama, including both the Bridge and the Castle, is impressive regardless of the time of the day

The Architecture and Engineering

In the 600 years or so of its existence, it has endured a lot. The floods of the Vltava can be severe, and the bridge has been damaged many times over the centuries. At the turn of the last century, the bridge accommodated trams and buses, which no doubt increased the load and wear on this historical monument. After World War Two, city planners wisely decided that the bridge would be for pedestrians only. Today, it accommodates the footsteps of the millions of tourists that visit Prague yearly. 

Panorama of Charles Bridge curving across the Vlatava river
The Charles Bridge looking very impressive as it stretches across the Vltava river

That it is still standing is testament to the power of an ancient engineering idea – the stone arch, which is a Roman invention. The Charles Bridge has 16 of these arches across its half kilometre length. Legend also has it that this strength was due to eggs being mixed in with the mortar by the constructors who built it. However, analysis of the bridge has so far been inconclusive whether this is true.

Black and white image of Charles Bridge, over the Vltava River, in Prague
Charles Bridge is the most famous bridge in Prague, no doubt about that, but there are many others spanning the Vltava River

During my visit to Prague, I often found myself wondering what exactly made the bridge look so “medieval”. I concluded that it was the tapered pier heads (they cap the columns separating the arches), which resemble the conical roofs of medieval towers.

Charles Bridge in Prague, seen from the Castle side of the Vltava River
The Prague Castle side of the Charles Bridge offers more interesting ways to see the famous bridge, so it is well worth exploring around

The Bridge Tower

The Old Town Bridge Tower is one of the oldest and best-maintained structures in Old Town Prague. When you look at the skyline of the Old Town, you’ll feel that everything kind of matches up with each other. That’s because the Gothic architecture of the Bridge Tower inspired the other two prominent landmarks in Old Town Prague – the tower of the Prague Astronomical Clock and the twin towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.

Charles Bridge in Prague at night
Charles Bridge is way more tranquil at night, so if you are staying in Prague for more than a day, make sure you take a stroll at moonlight

The Bridge Tower was, however, more than an impressive entrance into the heart of Prague. In the past, the size of its arches restricted the vehicles that could cross the bridge. In this way, the Bridge Tower performs a protective function for this historical monument.

Charles Bridge packed with tourists tall and Gothic buildings rising out into the sky behind
Charles Bridge is packed with people all year around. I can imagine a scene just like this centuries ago, with the same Gothic buildings rising out into the sky behind. The only difference would be the clothes the people wore

The Statues on the Charles Bridge

Along the bridge are thirty statues. Various Czech organisations, nobility and business people commissioned most of these between 1683 and 1714. When the construction of the bridge was completed, there was only a simple cross installed on the North side. When the Protestant Hussites destroyed the cross in 1419, the city council only got around to replacing it in 1629. In the centuries that followed, each replacement was destroyed in turn either in war or by floods. Today, a sculpture from the 19th Century stands in its place. It is the Statuary of the Holy Crucifix and Calvary by Emmanuel Max, a Czech-German sculptor.

The statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the “Apostles to the Slavs”

Among the more interesting sculptures on the Charles Bridge is the one of Sant John Of Nepomuk. This statue stands out because of the five golden stars that ring the statue’s head. In the relief at its base is a knight with a golden dog by his feet. The dog is golden because tourists rub it “for luck”. Thus keeping it clean of the green copper oxide which covers all the statues on the bridge.

View of the Church of St. Salvator and the Bridge tower from the Charles Bridge, looking towards the Old Town
The ever present tourist crowd on Charles Bridge and the Church of St. Salvator in the background

Most of the statues are replicas. The Prague council has redistributed the originals throughout various Prague museums. 

Statue of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana on a platform near Charles Bridge
Statue of Bedřich Smetana, a Czech composer who wrote music expressing his country’s determination for independence in the 19th Century

Current Status of the Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge is, unfortunately, in bad condition today. The council has started a new series of renovations in 2019. When we visited in 2019, the bridge was, to my surprise, not lit. Workers had to turn off the lamps that lit the bridge to repair the ice guards. The bridge will be incrementally repaired over the coming decade in a way that won’t interfere with this function and view. It will continue to be accessible. 

A view from Charles Bridge, with an old style lamp, a statue and Gothic roofs in the background
An abstract view of Prague from Charles Bridge, imbued with a romantic old-world vibe

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that some of the stones on the bridge are mismatched. That the new stones do not match the old ones was one of the criticisms of the last restoration done in 2008. The quest to find matching stones continues for Prague’s city council.

Final Thoughts

For me, Charles Bridge is one of the world’s most enchanting bridges. There are not many other bridges in the world that can match up in age, quality and beauty. Today, the bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an essential bridge for historians and engineers alike. That it is still standing after six centuries is a testament to its cultural and locational importance, and of course, structural integrity.

Seagulls flying above the Vltava near Charles Bridge
Seagulls can be found everywhere near the Charles Bridge

FAQs for Charles Bridge

Why is Charles Bridge famous?

Charles Bridge is an icon of Prague and the Czech Republic. For many centuries until 1870, it was the only way for people to cross the Vltava. It is also one of the few Medieval bridges still standing and in use today.

When was Charles Bridge Built?

The first stone was laid on 9th July 1357. The bridge was completed about a century later, in the early 1400s. [Read More]

How was Charles Bridge built?

Charles Bridge was built with local limestone, with Medieval construction techniques. It uses the Roman arch, which gives it great stability. Legend has it that eggs were mixed in with the mortar to ensure the strength of the bridge. [Read More]

How far is Charles Bridge from the Old Town Square?

Charles Bridge is a mere 9 minute walk from the Old Town Square

Kenya

How to Book a Safari in Kenya

Want to book a safari in Kenya? Should you self-organise or go with a local company? We compare prices, locations and quality of experience.

Booking a safari in Kenya was one of the most involved travel plannings we’ve ever done. There are all sorts of levels of involvement, of course, but the more informed you are, the better your trip will be.

We recommend going with a local tour operator. It is possible to arrange a safari to several parks on your own, but it is a lot of work. Furthermore, it might not end up much cheaper, as tour operators can get rooms at a more affordable rate. Also, cheaper tours usually come at the expense of vehicle quality as a lot of the cost goes into transportation.

Air balloons over the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
Air balloons flying over a herd of topi antelopes in the Masai Mara National Park

In this post, we will recommend the Natural World Kenya Safaris as a good, local option. They did not sponsor us in any way to write this post. We had the trip of a lifetime with them and feel that they offer a great service for a great price.

Costs of Self-Booking vs. a Local Travel Operator

Estimates for a self-planned budget tour, including shared game drives (minimum three to four persons in the jeep), come in between $178 to $250 per person, per day. The budget option with the Natural World Kenya Safaris, the local company we travelled with, comes in between $170 (Amboseli and Tsavo) to $207 (Masai Mara) per person, per day, for four people sharing.

View from a safari jeep at the red sands of the Tsavo National Parks in Kenya, Africa
Driving on the famous red sand covered roads of the Tsavo East National Park

I think this company is able to keep their costs down while maintaining a high standard because they own their 4×4 vehicles. Their experienced guides also double up as excellent drivers. Furthermore, they are likely able to negotiate better prices with the lodges as they are a large local operator often contracted by foreign tour agencies.

Flexible Costs vs. All Inclusive

When considering the self-organised safari experience, you need to make room for unexpected costs. Going with a reputable tour company, we did not experience any unexpected expenses. The price they charged was all-inclusive, right down to the water in the jeep (but excluding drinks and bottled water at the lodges). In both instances, tips are not factored in. Still, the courtesy amount is the same regardless of whether you self-organise or go with an agency.

View of the main hall of the Mara Serena Safari Lodge in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
The incredibly beautiful main hall of the Mara Serena Safari Lodge in the Masai Mara National Park

Our first trip to Kenya was self-organised and our second trip was with the Natural World. We cannot recommend self-organising as a way to save money, because in our case, we felt the money saved, which was not significant, came at the expense of the game viewing and wildlife experience.

Choose Your Locations

Kenya is a vast country. There are countless famous parks and incredible locations everywhere you go. You need to be realistic when choosing your locations. Even if you are flying, travel and transit time will still be significant. You want to spend your time on safari game-watching, not in a car or airport.

Early morning in the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, Africa
Early morning in the Tsavo East National Park, its famous red dust covering everything in sight

Safari Locations in Kenya

We feel the first thing you should do before you book a safari in Kenya is to choose your locations. The most popular destinations for safaris and game viewing are the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, Nairobi National Park, and Hell’s Gate National Park together with Lake Naivasha. 

Martial Eagle perched on a branch in the Tsavo West National Park in Kenya, Africa
The martial eagle is one of the most impressive birds of prey you may come across during safari rides in Kenya

Of these locations, the Masai Mara is separate from the rest by distance. For example, to get to Amboseli from the Masai Mara by car, you will need to do an overnight stop in Nairobi. Whereas it’s possible to drive straight from a hotel in Amboseli to Tsavo East or Tsavo West. 

In general, we suggest grouping the locations like this:

  1. Masai Mara, on its own – check out our post on the Masai Mara Safari
  2. Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate
  3. Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Amboseli

You can visit the Nairobi National Park when you arrive in Kenya, as most international flights land at the city’s Jomo Kenyatta airport.

Lone bull elephant walks along a shallow lake filled with flamingoes in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Africa
Amboseli National Park is famous for its elephants but has also lately become home to countless flamingoes as well

Travelling Times and Options Between Locations

Be extra careful of tours offering you all the parks in a short time when you look to book a safari in Kenya. Some of them have impossible itineraries on which most of the time will be spent travelling instead of game viewing. Distances in Kenya are large, and the road quality varies a lot. For example, getting from Amboseli to Tsavo West (which looks near on the map) can take you between 4 to 6 hours. That’s pretty much one day of your holiday spent travelling. If there is travelling involved, ask the tour operator how long it will take. The road situation is continually changing in Kenya, so advice on the internet might not be up to date.

Safari driver/guide standing in front of a safari vehicle in Nairobi, Kenya
A knowledgeable and reliable driver/guide can make all the difference in the quality of your safari

Pick Your Budget

When you book a safari in Kenya, you can choose from three budgets. Economy, comfort or luxury. The range is usually from $250 to $1000 per person, per day for a safari in Kenya (sharing couple). Cost per person goes down significantly when sharing between four to six people. When considering the price, note that a chunk of it goes into park fees, which start from around $50 per person. Entry into the Masai Mara is $80, for example.

A view of the Salt Lick Safari Lodge in the Tsavo West National Park in Kenya, Africa
Salt Lick Safari Lodge in the Tsavo West National Park is one of the most iconic lodges in the world and the most photographed one in Kenya

Staying in conservancies can add about $100 per person, per day. This is because conservancy fees can be high, and lodges can pay around $70 a day, per bed, is what I’ve read. This is on top of required monthly payments to the community, regardless of whether there are visitors or not.

From our research, the Mara conservancies have the most expensive lodges. However, it is worthwhile to mix and match options, combining budget hotels with ultra-exclusive lodges that give you access to private conservancy land.

View from a luxury tent of the Losokwan Camp in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
Luxury tents of the Losokwan Camp in the Mara North/Lemek Conservancy offer an uninterrupted view of the surrounding savannah, no fences here

Do I Need an Expensive Lodge for a Good Experience?

Absolutely not! Having a front-row seat at a conservancy doesn’t ensure you will see that cheetah hunt or leopard eating from her tree larder! All of that is down to pure luck, so don’t feel like you will miss out if you can’t afford some of the lodges.

Choosing a Tour Operator

Gone are the days of having to pay exorbitant prices to a foreign tour agency for your safari. These days, you can, and should, book your safari in Kenya directly with a local company. Many safari agents, especially those that bill themselves as “luxury providers” are tour resellers and add an unnecessary markup to the price. They make the booking in the UK, USA or Europe, and then pass on the work to a local company after adding a substantial markup.

A pride of lions with many cubs at sunset in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
The selection of your accommodation has very little impact on the quality of the wildlife encounters

Book Your Safari in Kenya with a Local Operator

Suppose you are hesitant to book a safari in Kenya with an unfamiliar company. In that case, you can check the website of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators to see if they are listed on it. There are indeed scammers out there so one can never be too cautious. However, if a company is not listed as a member, it does not mean that they are not trustworthy. We know a couple of small providers that are not listed but provide legitimate services.

A dazzle of zebras at a waterhole in the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, Africa
A dazzle of zebras at a waterhole somewhere in the Tsavo East National Park

How to Choose a Safari Tour Company

Before you go with a safari company:

  1. Make sure you have an idea of the locations you want to visit and a rough itinerary.
  2. Approach a few that fit your budget and needs and ask them for a quote.
  3. Make sure you know what you are getting – as mentioned before, some price quotes are lower because the company sacrifices the quality of the guide and vehicle.

Here, reading as many reviews as you can by clients who have gone on safari with the company will help you make an informed decision. 

The interior of a luxury tent in the Ziwani Voyager Camp in the Tsawo West National Park in Kenya, Africa
The interior of a luxury tent in the Ziwani Voyager Camp in the Tsavo West National Park

Personal Recommendation

For our trip, we went with the Natural World Kenya Safaris, a local company owned and run by Kenyans. They did not sponsor our post, and this recommendation is genuinely from the very bottom of our hearts. The service they provided was excellent, from start to end.

Pre-Booking Services

When you book your safari, you need an experienced person to advise you on what’s possible. As mentioned before, the distances in Kenya are huge, and first-timers are likely to create impossible or very tiring itineraries. We had great help from the Natural World here, who helped us with organising how we wanted to spend our days. They also took into consideration that we would be revisiting Kenya. They advised us accordingly so we could have a more relaxed safari.

A majestic leopard sitting in the bush in the Tsavo West National Park in Kenya, Africa
Leopards are some of the rarest encounters on safaris, a good driver/guide increases your chances of seeing one tenfold

Guide and Driver

We were surprised by how knowledgeable and skilled our guide, Joseph Mbotte, was. He made me realise that being a safari guide and driver is not a walk in the park and requires specialised knowledge in many areas. There are so many things that can go wrong if you don’t have the right guide and driver. Our guide, and any excellent guide worth his salt, needs to have the following traits:

  1. Have a comprehensive knowledge of flora and fauna found in different parks, including their names and behaviours
  2. Knowledge of where the animals tend to congregate
  3. Ability to locate areas in the park based on roads that may be overgrown
  4. The skill for driving on challenging off-road terrain and insane Kenyan roads
  5. Have a genuine passion for wildlife
  6. Having an eye for photography and an interest in it

Most of their guides are professionally trained and are members of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association.

A lone zebra backlit by a magnificent sunset in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
A lone zebra backlit by a magnificent African sunset in the Masai Mara National Park

Safari Vehicle

Natural World Kenya Safaris provided us with a very comfortable 4×4 Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser had been converted into an open-top and had ample height for tall people to stand up in. We felt this is a crucial detail as you’ll be standing up for most of the drive in the vehicle. The vehicle was super spacious and had ample area for all our camera gear. 

Swimming pool with an amazing view in the Mara Serena Safari Lodge in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
Swimming pool in the Mara Serena Safari Lodge has an amazing view of the Mara plains below

The game viewing and photographing experience is markedly superior in a converted Land Cruiser as it gives you a lot of space to get the shot you need. Also, you can get to where you need to go a lot faster and safer in a 4×4 on rough roads. You really don’t want to miss out on a moment because you couldn’t get there in time.

A lone acacia tree silhouetted by a beautiful sunrise in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, Africa
A lone acacia tree silhouetted by a beautiful sunrise in the Masai Mara National Park

We hope that these tips help you in planning your first/next safari trip. All the best and hope to see you somewhere in Kenya sometime soon. 

Kenya

Tipping in Kenya

Tipping in Kenya does not have to be a minefield. We outline some of the expectation and etiquette associated with tipping on safari, while hiking, and in the city…

Coming from Europe, where tipping usually means rounding off to some arbitrary nearest figure, tipping in Africa can sometimes feel like a minefield. The cost of living in Kenya is more expensive than in its neighbouring countries, so tips need to be higher than the African average. However, Kenyans that work in the tourism industry are paid a living wage, and their salary is higher than the median. Therefore, they do not depend on tips to survive. At the same time, because of this higher wage, they are often expected to support their extended families. These are all things to consider when tipping.

A group of guides resting on a river bank in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya, Africa
Your crew is the most important ingredient of a successful trip – your life can sometimes literally be in their hands, so choose wisely

Kenyans are subtle about tipping. The ones we met believe that tipping should be a bonus for good service, and time and again they provided service beyond our expectations. Compared to many other developing countries we have visited, they are not aggressive about it. Tipping is expected, but not demanded.

An old Land Rover vehicle on a dusty road in Kenya, Africa
While your transport options sometimes can look a bit rusty, you’d be amazed at how useful they often turn out to be

We also think that the expected amount, averaging around $10 – $15 per person, per day, is fair and affordable for most visitors to Kenya.

Tipping Recommendations

We compiled some tipping guidelines throughout our 45-day stay in Kenya. We gathered these figures from our tour operator and our lodges.

Tipping in Kenya on Safari

  1. A tip of $10 – $12 per person, per day for the guide (in our case, the guide was also the driver).
  2. A tip of $5 per person, per game drive, for a local tracker
  3. We tipped $5 per guide on our 2-hour walking safari
  4. $5 per person, per day for all staff (meant for the tip box)
  5. $5 per boat ride
  6. $1 for small services like carrying the luggage
Safari driver/guide standing in front of a safari vehicle in. Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
We encountered some amazing safari guides on our adventures in Kenya, but Joseph Mbotte from the Natural World Kenya Safaris has become a lot more than that, we are happy to call him our friend

Tipping in Kenya when Hiking

The recommendation here is to tip about 10% of the total cost of the trip. However, you should treat this rule flexibly as some hiking providers are cheaper than others. Our five-day hike through Loita Hills, for example, was only $1250 for the two of us. We had two guides, two porters and a camp cook. 10% for five of them would be far too little. We thought a fair price would be $12 per day for each member of the crew.

Hiking crew taking a rest in a forest  in Loita Hills, Kenya, Africa
A great crew when on a hike in remote parts of Kenya can make all the difference – we struck gold with the OutDoor Circuits East Africa

The custom in this situation is to tip the entire crew as a group. In our case, we gave the cash to the lead guide, in front of his team. Tipping your hiking crew as a group allows them to distribute the money among themselves, according to the work they have done. For example, the camp cook would usually have to do more work than the porter. If possible, offer the tip in smaller notes (like in bills of 1000 Kenyan Shillings). Where possible, change from US dollars or Euros into the local currency.

Tipping in Nairobi

Tipping in Nairobi is a bit different as the city caters to both locals and foreigners. There is a large, and growing middle class in the capital city, and also a significant affluent population. In Nairobi restaurants, it is similar to restaurants in Europe, where a tip of 10% of the total bill is customary. Uber rides are anywhere between $2.50 for a 15-minute ride, to about $8 for an hour-long ride. Suggested tips are between $0.50 to $2.

Glass of wine in a restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
Every visitor will be spoilt for choice when it comes to wining and dining in Nairobi
Fancy cake in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
Hamburger at Mama Rocks in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
Latte coffee at Connect Coffee Roasters in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa

FAQs for Tipping in Kenya

Is tipping customary in Kenya

Yes, tipping is expected in Kenya. Kenyans tip their service staff and, likewise, visitors to the country are also expected to tip for good service.

How much to tip in Kenya on Safari?

Natural World Kenya Safaris, a local Kenyan tour operator, suggests tipping $10 per person, per day for their safari guides (who also double as drivers).

What is the tipping etiquette in Kenya?

Tipping is customary at the end of a service. For example, you should tip your guide and driver at the end of your safari. For hotel staff, put the tip in the tip box at the end of your stay.

Kenya

Hiking in Loita Hills and Camping in Maasai Villages

Discover the heart of Maasai culture with this multi-day hike through Loita Hills, where we camped in local villages…

Loita Hills is a pastoral paradise in the very heart of the traditional lands of Kenya’s Maasai people. Although Masaai culture is easily accessible through Maasai village cultural visits near the Masai Mara, those seeking an authentic and immersive experience will find the multi-day hike through Loita Hills a most rewarding experience.

Crossing a river in loita hills with our maasai guides
Me desperately trying to catch up with our Kikuyu guides while crossing a river in Loita Hills

“In Kenya, we say we have the big six.” Steve, our Kikuyu guide told us, as we settled around the campfire for a snack of roasted corn, freshly picked from the Maasai farm where we’d made camp. “The sixth is the Maasai traditions, for their way of life is changing fast”. I asked Steve if there are people from his tribe still living their traditional way of life in Kenya. “There are some.” He shakes his head and pokes at the fire. “But very few. It’s almost all gone now.”

Kenyan guide in a maize field waving goodbye to Maasai village children
Steve, our guide, thanking the children of the Maasai village of Narosura for their help

Changing Maasai traditions

It’s no secret the Maasai are fiercely proud of their heritage, which they maintain through strict social rules interwoven with celebrated coming of age rituals. A well-known rite of passage is killing a lion, to mark a boy’s transition into a man. These days, it is no longer practised, as the Maasai value the conservation of these animals and their role in bringing in the tourist dollar. However, other rituals, like the piercing of ears and fire tattoos, are still observed, although even that is slowly declining as some schools forbid body modification on their students.

Starting at Maji Moto

To begin our trek, we stopped in Maji Moto, a Maasai town, to pick up our guide, an elder called Johnny. A trek through Loita Hills without an elder would be inadvisable, as he was essential in ensuring hospitality on our travels, as we would be camping near a Maasai village each night.

photograph with Maasai guide, Johnny, who is dressed in the traditional red shuka
Johnny, our Maasai guide. We later found out he was the first Maasai to pioneer walking safaris in Loita Hills

Johnny is a striking man – wiry in frame, dressed in the signature red of the Maasai, sporting many lively, beaded accessories. Colourful earrings dangle from his lobes, and he wore many brightly beaded bracelets on his wrists. After a quick introduction, we began our hike into Maasai land.

Camping in the Maasai Village of Narosura

We had set up camp in Narosura, an agricultural village in the northernmost point of Loita Hills for our first night. The Maasai here make a living from the maize and vegetables they grow, a change from the traditional herding of cows and goats. This Maasai village is nestled in a lush valley, and our guides make camp in a clearing covered with soft green grass.

campsite in the maasai village of narosura with maasai children looking on
Setting up camp in the Maasai village of Narosura, note the children watching us curiously

People here rarely see visitors. Steve tells us they do as many treks up Mount Kenya in a month as they do through Loita Hills in a year. The children here watch us shyly from a distance, observing everything we do with amusement. They see that we have a camera with a long lens attached, which raises some excitement.

Maasai children standing beside a large acacia tree
The Maasai children did not get bored observing us as we set up camp

“Take a photo!” One of the teenage girls shouts across the distance. However, as Danny raises his lens, a young mother with a baby strapped to her chest yells, “No! No photo!”. This disagreement continues for some time, until, tired of the stalemate and not wanting to pass up on the opportunity to capture the moment, we took a few shots. With that, the excitement began to bubble up among the younger children, with some of the braver ones venturing forward to take a look.

A maasai boy hiding in a tree
A Maasai boy hiding between the trunks of two trees

Meeting with Maasai Morans

The next day, as we continued our hike, we came across three Morans. Despite the morning chill, these young men wore nothing but their shukas, their hair dreaded and coloured with red dye. These were Maasai teenagers, undergoing their rite of passing into manhood. The ritual of the Morani was the ceremony that involved the hunting of a lion in the past. In his mid-forties, Johnny told us his age group was one of the last ones to practice this tradition. “Back then, it was what we did.” He told us, with the help of Steve translating. “Then conservationists told us if we continue this way, soon there would be no more lions. So we stopped.”

Maasai women crossing a river
We had met the Morans around this area, but our guides warned us not to take a photo. These two women, who were carrying provisions across the river, were alright with their photo being taken

Hiking through the Farmland of Loita Hills

The hike wasn’t strenuous, although the constant drizzle made the paths muddy, and the going slow, as chunks of mud glued onto our shoes while we walked. Steve told us the hike would be 18 kilometres today. It did not seem like much when we set out, but as the day wore on and the trail became increasingly wet and muddy, it began to feel like an eternity.

hiking through loita hills, photo taken in the bush
Hiking through the Kenyan bush with our guide, Steve

However, there were always moments of wonder. The landscape of Loita Hills is truly pastoral. The Maasai continue to live a comparatively low impact life in the countryside.

goats grazing on a slope in Maasai land in Loita HIlls
We saw many farm animals on our hike, like these goats grazing on a slope

The farther we got from Maji Moto, the more remote it became. Soon, the cornfields and vegetable gardens petered out into scrubland. We were soon deep in Maasai land, where herding cows and goats is still the primary way of life.

The landscape of Loita Hills is characterised by thorny bushes and low acacia trees
The landscape of Loita Hills is characterised by thorny bushes and low acacia trees

The Maasai Village of Enkutoto

Soon, we came upon the Maasai village of Enkutoto, a village in the heart of Loita Hills. Steve stopped us and told everyone to take a break under a large acacia tree, growing on a clearing separating two collections of huts. As was the case in Narosura, all the children and teenagers of the village came out to observe us from a distance. They were as curious about us as we were of them. 

Maasai village of enkutoto behind an acacia tree, golden grass in the foreground
The village of Enkutoto

As our guide went to negotiate the campsite’s price with the village elder, I sat down on a large root and sketched a little bit of the scene before me. What struck me most about the village was how well positioned it is in Loita Hills. The Maasai village is situated on top of a high ridge, overlooking a valley. The view from the village was breathtaking.

girl seated in front of large terminte mound in a Maasai village
Me, seated in front of a large termite mount, sketching the Maasai village

After some minutes, our guide returned with a striking lady in a bright pink shuka. Steve introduced her as the wife of the village head, who was currently not in the village. In his absence, she took care of matters like this for him.

Maasai woman in colourful pink shuka
If you look carefully, you’ll see the first lady stealing a glance at the camera

Steve, Johnny and her had a long chat – it is how they do things here. The Maasai expect travellers to bring news the good old fashioned way. She has a mobile phone, but I suppose the Maasai living in Loita Hills do not waste precious phone minutes on small talk. However, I think the issue usually isn’t phone time but instead, battery charge. Out here, deep in Maasai land, electricity is a privilege.

Maasai man in traditional shuka waiting by a river
Johnny, our Maasai guide, patiently waiting for us to get a move on

After exchanging news and negotiating a night on their land, we began the last stretch of our hike for the day, making our way down to the river, where we would camp for the night.

On the banks of the Entasopia

The distance to the Entasopia river bank was not far. In an hour or so, we found ourselves leaving dry scrubland and entering thicker forest covering. A sign that water was near. We could also hear the sound of a rushing river, not too far in the distance. The air was fast becoming cool as evening approached.

There was still one more hurdle to overcome to get to our campsite – the river itself. Unexpectedly for September – it had been raining quite a bit, and the river was full and moving fast. Steve took my pack from me so that I could cross unencumbered. 

The thorny branches of the whistling acacia
The thorny branches of the whistling acacia
yellow succulent flowers in maasai land
small white star shaped flowers
small purple nightshade like flowers

It was difficult, balancing my way across a large fallen log, holding tight to the dead branches, hoping I did not make a misstep. All the while, Johnny was with me, always a few steps ahead, grabbing my hand when I needed help balancing. I am still amazed at how agile he was, having seen how he managed the crossing while burdened with our belongings. 

Camping by the River that flows through the Loita Hills

Camping by the Entasopia was one of the most memorable nights of my life. It was indeed an incredible experience, sleeping under the shade of a towering acacia. 

A few minutes after we had crossed, our cook, Steve, took out all his pots and pans and began making dinner. I was genuinely amazed at his perseverance. Although he had spent all day carrying a lot of gear – a tent, cooking equipment and a tin of gas, among other things, no sooner had he put down his pack did he begin chopping up vegetables for the upcoming dinner. On the other hand, I, with near-zero camping skills, stood around uselessly as the men did all the work.

Camping in Maasai land
Me being useless as the men set up camp

And there was a lot of work to be done indeed. Our guides had our tents brought in by motorbikes that somehow braved the bumpy terrain and almost non-existent roads. They also brought in more food and drinking water for us. Happy that the porters had delivered all the provisions, Steve got everyone down to work with setting up the campsite and making a fire.

maasai motocycle in the bush, delivering provisions
Steve our cook, unloading provisions off the delivery motorcycle

We were also waiting for our other guide (and friend from our previous trip to Kenya) Chris to meet us. He had left Nairobi earlier in the day to join us in Loita Hills. However, he did not make it that night as he’d arrived in the Maasai village of Enkutoto near sundown.

Breaking Camp on the Banks of Enkutoto

The next morning, Chris arrived, along with the first lady of Enkutoto. We had a lovely breakfast by the fire, and they told us about their night’s adventure. They’d attempted to set off for the campsite close to dusk, but the visibility had been bad as the roads in Loita Hills are mostly unlit dirt paths, and the motorcycle had tipped over. No one was hurt, but everyone then decided to spend the night in the Maasai village, and wait for the morning light.

Asian girl with Maasai woman in Loita hills along the banks of the entasopia
Photo op with the first lady of Enkutoto

Hiking in the Magical Forests of Loita Hills

“The hike today is going to be incredibly beautiful,” Tito, our porter, told me before we set out. “You’ll see”, he said.

Hiking through the stunning, lush, green landscape around the Entasopia river
Hiking through the stunning, lush, green landscape around the Entasopia river

He was right. As we ventured out of the thicket of trees we’d camped under; we found ourselves walking through a lush, green valley. This area of Loita Hills was different from what we had seen before.

dense ancient forests grew around the banks of the entasopia
The land was verdant green and the air was incredibly fresh in the valley

The forest surrounding us was old and covered with a light mist, making me feel like I’d walked into the set of Jurassic Park. Creepers covered the many tall trees along the river banks, and it seemed as if the ground was rising like one giant organism. The land was enchanting.

A colobus monkey half hidden in the green vegetation along the banks of the entasopia hiking in loita hills
Can you spot the colobus monkey?

We heard the calls of colobus monkeys from afar and strained to look at them. There were a few, although they were mostly hiding up high in the tree canopy.

A colobus monkey in his tree
A colobus monkey in his tree

Accompanying their calls was the sound of the river rushing beside us and a multitude of birds singing their hearts out. It was nature’s symphony at its best. Although we walked for hours, we did not see another Maasai village for some time.

A waterfall over black volcanic rocks
Our guides spotted an un-named waterfall along our hike and called it the “Isabella Waterfall”

All around us, the greenery stretched out, seemingly unending. It was a lovely day too, the air was cool and fresh, and the sun’s heat was tempered by light cloud cover—the perfect weather for hiking.

Camping in the Heart of Loita Hills

The landscape soon changed, however, and the day grew hotter. Soon, the cloud cover dispersed, and the misty green scenery turned into dusty bush. We had entered Njoroi, where the vegetation grew thick around our path.

By mid-day, the weather had become almost unbearably warm, but I had to put on my rain jacket as the scrubland around us scratched our skin. Soon, with the African bush reaching above our heads, even our guides got a little lost. Luckily, a little boy was playing in the bush. He guided us to our campsite near his Maasai village.

Kenyan guides, including Johnny, the Maasai, posing for a group photo in the dry african bush
Photo op in the African bush – note how the landscape here is drier than the lush green valley around the banks of the Entasopia

The child came in and out of view like a faerie, a moment he was right in front, waving us in the right direction, and a moment later, he was gone, vanished among the branches, leaves and thorns.

We walked around in circles for a while, with me sticking close to our guides and them keeping a watchful eye lest they lose sight of me. However, we were not lost for long. Soon, we found the clearing where we would camp for the night. 

campsite in a maasai village surrounded by dense bush
Our campsite in Njoroi was located in a clearing surrounded by very dense bush

Hanging out with kids in the Maasai village

As with the other villages, the moment we set our bags down, we were greeted by about twenty children and teenagers, standing a distance away, curiously watching us. Even after we retired into our tents to rest, they remained there, wondering what we were going to do next.

The day was hot and humid, and our tent was incredibly stuffy. After some time, I could no longer bear to be in it. With nowhere else to go, I sat outside, by the little makeshift table our guides had set up for us. 

kenyan food, cooked at a campsite
Steve, our cook, had whipped up a lunch sometime between settling down at the campsite and before we all crashed in our tents

There were tea and biscuits on it, as usual. I sat there and ate the biscuits while the children continued staring at me. At some moment, some young Maasai women with babies also joined the crowd. 

Dancing in the Maasai Village

Eventually, one of the girls made eye contact with me and started dancing the Maasai jumping dance. She began chanting and making the rhythmic motions with her body and hands. Curious, I walked up to them, taking my shuka with me. The children were very excited now. She took the shuka from me, tied it around my shoulders, and then continued to chant, showing me the movements.

Photo with Maasai children in the Kenyan bush
This photo was taken after the Maasai dance. The Maasai girl to the left of me in the pink shuka was the one who started the dance

I did as she did, and in no time, the entire entourage of women and children were singing and chanting, performing the traditional Maasai dance. I was surprised at how even the youngest of the children, who must have been about three or four sang along perfectly, their voices harmonising with the crowd. 

After it was all over, I felt that this moment was one of those moments I will take with me for the rest of my life. I had not expected to have the privilege to enjoy such an authentic, spontaneous moment in a Maasai village, certainly not one as remote as this, deep in Loita Hills.

Nguruman Escarpment

The next morning, we began our hike up the Nguruman Escarpment. The escarpment is one of Loita Hills most incredible geological feature, overlooking the Great Rift Valley. All along the trail are breathtaking views of the surroundings, which spread out majestically below us.

View of the Great Rift Valley from Nguruman escarpment
View of the Great Rift Valley from Nguruman escarpment

We walk for miles along a path cutting through acacia forests. It was the dry season then, and I remember the forest floor covered in amber leaves. With the sunlight filtering through the thin branches above, the hike had a certain surreal quality.

The Ewaso Ng'iro river flowing through the plains of Kenya's Maasai land
The Ewaso Ng’iro river, flowing through the Great Rift Valley of East Africa

Eventually, we came to the highest point on the bluff. The panorama of the Great Rift Valley that greeted us was stunning, spreading before our eyes in an unending sea of green and gold.

Breath-taking views of the Great Rift valley from the Nguruman escarpment
The view from the Nguruman escarpment was simply breath-taking

Having reached this incredible place, Johnny insisted that we all should take a photo, which we did. We also thought he looked very photogenic, looking out over the valley, and could not miss the opportunity for that quintessential photo of a Maasai looking over the Rift Valley of Kenya.

Maasai man pointing with his stick to locations in the great rift valley
Johnny, our Maasai guide, pointing out locations to us in the valley below

The Kenyan Outback – Deep in Loita Hills

We later made our way down the escarpment, heading for the Entasopia River Camp in the Maasai village of Kajiado. I thought the path downhill was quite challenging, with it being covered in scree. I did not enjoy the hike downwards as it was treacherous. Furthermore, I was put to shame by several Maasai women who bounded down the slope cheerily at five times the speed I was walking, all while carrying babies firmly bound to their backs.

Loita Hill’s Lenkototo River

hiking along the trail of the great rift valley
The stunning Kenyan landscape stretched out before us as we hiked along the escarpment (note our guides walking the trail on the far right of the photo)

Eventually, my ordeal was over, and the sight of the Lenkutoto river in the Loita Hills greeted me. I was never so glad to see a river. The day was getting very hot, and I wanted nothing more than to sit and dip my feet in its cool waters.

Kenyan guides sitting on the rocky bank of the Lenkutoto river
Our guides taking a break on the rocky bank of the Lenkutoto river, having a chat with two Maasai men who came up to meet them

I was the last to arrive, of course. The rest of our guides were already cheerily seated on the river bank, chatting with some of the men from the nearby Maasai village.

Wading through the Lenkutoto river in Maasai land in Loita Hills
Johnny (seen here without his shuka) helping me across the Lenkutoto river

The crossing of this river was not too difficult, although I had to resign myself to getting my feet wet. However, those who were more skilled at river crossings managed to get across and stay dry all at once.

Getting to the town of Kajiado

The way from the river to the town was beautiful. It was lined with green bushes and papaya plantations. There were also many empty schools along the way. Usually, these would be full, but they were unoccupied due to Covid-19. As I walked past the schools, I remembered myself thinking of how lovely it must be for children to be surrounded by nature all the time.

Papaya plantation in the Maasai village of Kajiado
Papaya plantations were plentiful in Kajiado – the papayas were also in season then, so we feasted on those during our stay

Soon, the bushes and plantations gave way to to a large, dusty road. There were brightly painted low buildings on either side of the road and many makeshift market stalls selling vegetables and fruit. There was a lot of papayas for sale – it seemed like it was the season for it.

Maasai traveller waking through a village
Johnny walking through the main thoroughfare of of the Maasai village of Kajiado

The town felt a bit like a western movie, with its dusty atmosphere and oppressive heat. I was very eager to reach our next campsite and to take a much needed cool shower. 

The Entasopia Guesthouse, an Oasis in Loita Hills

As one of the four buildings listed on Google Maps, the Entasopia Guesthouse is one of the town’s larger establishments. It was a relief entering this shaded oasis just as the heat was becoming almost unbearable.

Entrance welcome sign saying Welcome to the Entasopia Guest House
Welcome to the Entasopia Guest House!

My favourite part of the establishment was the large mango tree with its thick canopy right in the middle of the guesthouse. Under its shade, it was several degrees cooler. Fortunately for us, the mangoes were not yet ripe. Otherwise, there would have been many more biting insects.

Small, hard and unripe mangoes on a mango tree
Small, hard and unripe mangoes on the mango tree in the middle of the guesthouse’s courtyard

We felt greatly relieved to have arrived at our lodging for the night finally. Although we enjoyed camping in or near the Massai villages the past nights, it was pleasant to have a real bed and an ensuite bathroom. Although amenities were simple, it was a welcomed change!

Papaya tree courtyard in front of guesthouse rooms with green doors
The rooms of the guesthouse were in low buildings around a courtyard filled with papaya trees

Our night here definitely refreshed us for the most trying part of the hike, which was our trek to Lake Magadi the day after. Read the continuation of this adventure here: Hike to Lake Magadi.

Here are all the photos we took during our hike through Loita Hills:

Kenya

The Masai Mara, from Dawn to Dusk

Be transported to the Masai Mara, and spend a day out on the open savannah…

The Mara River snakes through Kenya’s most biodiverse savannah, the Masai Mara. Its caramel coloured waters move languidly, winding through the golden grassland. The river’s banks are tinted red, from the iron in its rich, fertile soil. Even from a distance, we can see its shores are dotted with many animals. These are hippos, basking in the sun, warming up from wallowing in the river’s chilly currents.

Hippos in a bend in the Mara River
The Mara River and its many bends make a great home for vast bloats of hippos

Dawn on the Masai Mara

Located on an elevated plain over a thousand meters above sea level, the air here is always pleasantly cool, especially in the mornings and evenings. Under the warm, yellow glow of the sun, the savannah is paradise. As our land cruiser trundles out of the miniature forest surrounding our tented lodge, we are greeted by a fabulous sight. Open grassland, stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see. The only interruption to this endless landscape are the umbrella acacia trees, which stand, silhouetted, against the coral dawn sky.

Silhouette of a tree against an orange sunset in the Masai Mara
Amazing sunrises are absolutely worth an early start in the Mara

A Breakfast for Scavengers

As we continue driving down the undulating dirt road, partially covered in grass, we encounter a peculiar, yet enchanting sight. A medley of scavengers gathered around the carcass of a wildebeest. A fresh kill, by the looks of it. The resident pride of lions have been busy while we were sound asleep in our tents. Up to thirty hyenas surround the body. On the periphery of the hyenas, a collection of different species of vulture await their turn to feed.

Hyenas surrounding a carcass of a wildebeest in the Masai Mara
The hyenas enjoy the front row around any carcass in the Mara…

Further out still, trotting excitedly on the fringes are a pair of silver-backed jackals, their fur glittering, haloed under the fresh morning light. We linger upon this scene, fascinated by the self-organisation of these creatures, as each animal waits their turn at the buffet table. In under an hour, the entire carcass is consumed. In nature, nothing is wasted.

Vultures on the green grass of the Masai Mara
…while many vultures and other lesser scavengers patiently wait for their turn

“Enjoolata”, or the Joy of the Unexpected

Our journey into the heart of the African savannah continues. Expectant hearts and observant eyes wondering what the wild will send our way.

In the Masai language, there is a special word for a feeling often experienced on safari. “Enjoolata”, which describes the joy felt when something hidden becomes known. The word is an amalgamation of different sensations – surprise, delight and perhaps, a feeling of epiphany.

Lone acacia tree along the path in the Masai Mara
The path unrolls before us, stretching seemingly endlessly across the golden emerald plains of the Mara

On the Masai Mara, one can travel for hours through the open grassland and notice nothing out of the ordinary. Then, in a flash, a great flurry of activity takes place, and some wonder of nature reveals itself. The Great Migration, one of nature’s greatest spectacles, unfolds in this fashion.

The Great Migration in Masai Mara

Year on year, thousands flock to the grasslands of the Masai Mara to witness this incredible event. Between the months of July and September, millions of grazers – wildebeests, zebra, impala and an array of antelopes, move thousands of kilometres in search of greener pastures. This is also a time of bounty for the big cats of the savannah, as ample prey makes for easy meals.

Wildebeest jumps into the Mara River during the Great Migration
The first gnu (another name for a wildebeest) is soon followed by another few brave ones

To observe this spectacle, we make our way to a notable crossing point along the Mara River. There are a few of these along the river’s bank. What makes them suitable crossing points is how the land dips towards the sandy water, forming a gentle slope for the migrating animals to enter and exit the river.

We wait by the riverbank, observing the large heard of wildebeest on the other side. Mixed in, among the hundreds of black bodies are a few, smaller, brown ones. These are gazelles hoping to take advantage of the mass movement of wildebeest to cross the crocodile-infested waters. For such an activity, there is safety in numbers.

A herd of wildebeest enters the Mara River during the Great Migration
The rest of the herd is now driven into the murky waters of the Mara River

Great Herds Make for Greater Indecision

The wildebeest are indecisive. The beasts know the risks involved. Inevitably, some are bound to die, as crossing the river is fraught with dangers. However, they are helpless against instincts evolved over millions of years, which compel them to migrate towards the smell of rain. As the day gets hotter, the stronger the urge to cross the river becomes. Eventually, they will choose to risk their lives and dive into the cold, murky waters of the Mara River. Sometimes, this decision is made at ten in the morning, sometimes, late in the afternoon. There is no way of knowing until the first brave wildebeest takes the plunge, leading the entire herd onto the other side.

Black and white image of a lone wildebeest on a rock amongst the Mara River rapids
This lone wildebeest is catching its breath and gathering strength for the final push across the Mara River rapids

Before the wildebeests cross, there is a great deal of indecisiveness. The herd of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals, go back and forth between different crossing points on the river, trying to make up their minds. After an hour of this, we notice the small group of gazelles giving up. Tiring of the pointless back and forth, they disperse from the crowd to continue grazing on their side of the river. However, today, we are fortunate, for the beasts decide to cross just a few minutes shy of noon. After some hesitation, due to the presence of multiple crocodiles at their chosen crossing point, the leader of the herd takes the first leap. The next follows closely, accompanied shortly by another after him. And so it begins, one of nature’s finest performances.

A crocodile approaches a wildebeest in the Mara River
The Mara River crocodiles are closing in on their prey

Reaching the Other Side

As they cross, the animals kick up significant amounts of dust from the river banks, creating an incredible atmosphere. Surprisingly, they do not neigh or whine. The only sounds are the thundering of hooves and the splashing of the river as it navigates around the mass of bodies.

A crocodile prepares to bite a wildebeest crossing the Mara River
This wildebeest is one of the few unlucky ones who gave their lives for the benefit of the herd

One by one, the creatures make it to the other side. Some are lost along the way, victims to the crocodile’s powerful jaws. But this is a small fraction of the herd, compared to the numbers that make it through. Sometimes, these crossings can last hours. When herds, tens of thousands in number, make an attempt to reach the other side. Today, a day in mid-September, late in the migration, the small herd completes the crossing in fifteen minutes.

The Never-Ending Grassland

From here, we drive deeper into the rolling hills of the Greater Mara. As we look around, we begin to see countless black specks dotting the land around us. At first, we try to count them, making an estimate of the number of animals per acre of land. But as we drive deeper into the herds, we realise this task is futile. For even at the furthest hill, far into the horizon, we can still see innumerable dots speckling the grassy slopes. Amongst the wildebeests are also a significant number of other grazers. There are large herds of grumpy buffalo, gregarious zebras and playful gazelles. The zebras, in particular, are a joy to watch as they take turns rolling in the dust. We look on in wonderment as these dazzling creatures athletically flip onto their backs, kicking up a cloud of sand, before gracefully leaping back up, onto their hooves.

Vas herds of wildebeest dot the green plains of the Masai Mara
The sheer amount of wildebeest in the Masai Mara is mind-boggling, even this late in the season

The distances on the Masai Mara are vast, but we are in no hurry. We take our time, meandering on the many paths that crisscross the natural reserve. Our senses are keyed into the surroundings, our eyes scanning the distant bush, in the hopes of spotting lion, cheetah or leopard. However, it is almost late afternoon, when the land is at it warmest. Any lions or leopards are sure to be hiding, sheltering from the heat. Even under the shade of our jeep’s open roof, the sun’s balmy rays enter to warm our skin. Along with the vehicle’s gentle rocking motion and the uninterrupted landscape, we soon start to feel sleep creeping upon us.

Dusk over the Masai Mara

We begin to make our way back to our lodge, leaving the Greater Mara and the Mara Triangle behind, to enter the private conservancy of Mara North. The landscape here is much the same, one of open grassland and undulating hills dotted with the occasional acacia tree. There seems to be no other vehicle aside from ours on these lands. It is just us, and the animals of the Mara.

Stormy clouds above the golden plains of the Masai Mara
The weather in the Mara can and often does abruptly change

The sun has now begun to sink. It’s still an hour before sunset, but already, the bright blue sky of the afternoon has started to darken, and shades of lilac tinge the horizon. Although we have given up on finding a big cat, our guide has not. Soon he notices one lone jeep a few kilometres away. The vehicle is stationary, and it looks like the people inside are observing something on the Mara plains.

A Family of Cheetahs

Our guide peers through his binoculars and tells us that he has seen a family of cheetahs, relaxing in the tall grass. We drive towards the family, occasionally going off-road to get there quicker. However, it seemed unlikely the cheetahs were about to go anywhere. After all, there were no prey animals around, and the cats looked well-fed and contented.

Mother cheetah and 3 cubs in the short grass of the Masai Mara
One of the most beautiful encounters on the Mara – mother cheetah and her cubs

The family of cheetahs was a mother and her four grown cubs. They watched us as we arrived, but seemed mostly unconcerned. They were resting among the tall grasses, their light-coloured, spotted bodies well camouflaged on the savannah. The mother and her cubs are long, lean and incredibly graceful. If not for the rustling of grass as they passed, we would not hear they were there.

Two cheetahs walking away across the Masai Mara
As the sun kept setting down, so the cheetahs decided it was time for them to leave us and walk away towards the endless horizon

It is now when the savannah is at its quietest. We turned off our jeep’s engine and allowed the tranquillity of the wilderness to fill our senses. There was only the gentle breeze, the song of a distant bird and the silent cats, walking away from us, into the horizon.

Sunset over the Masai Mara

The sun was now beginning to sink fast, and the sky was soon covered in vibrant hues of deep orange, vivid red and dark purple. The land was set on fire, cast in a rich, golden glow. But this breathtaking moment would not last forever, and soon it would be dark. It was time to go home.

Fiery sunset over the Masai Mara
The sunsets in the Masai Mara never fail to amaze – the colours, the great fiery ball of the sun, the silhouettes, it is all there, and much more

We enter the shaded forest of our lodge, the Royal Mara Safari Lodge. This lodge is uniquely located along the banks of the Mara River, right by a hippo pool filled with hundreds of these semi-aquatic animals. There are no fences around the lodge, and wild animals come and go as they please.

Stories by the Campfire

The warm day has now given way to a chilly night, and we are glad to sit by the campfire for dinner and tell stories of the day’s encounters. The manager is happy to regale us with tales of the cheetah family we met. He tells us that these cats are from a famous lineage, featured in BBC’s The Big Cat Diaries, which was filmed in the Masai Mara. The mother we saw was Kisaru, the grand-daughter of “Malaika”, which means “Queen” in Swahili. Unusually for cheetahs, for whom infant death is common, each successive generation of females in this family has raised her entire litter into adulthood.

The main gate of The Royal Mara Safari Lodge
The main gate of The Royal Mara Safari Lodge was always a welcome sight after a long day out on the Mara plains

Animals at Night

Warmed by the story, our bellies full, we walk back to our tent accompanied by an armed Maasai Ascari. After all, lions do come through the premises while hunting prey – although they never linger. But tonight is a peaceful night. The only animals around are the resident herbivores that live in the safety of the lodge’s gardens and lawns. On our way to our tent, we spot Africa’s smallest antelope, the dik-dik, and a jumping creature that resembles a small kangaroo. It is the African springhare, and is not related to the Australian marsupial, no matter how similar their movements may seem.

African dik-dik, the smallest antelope, seen at dusk among the bush in the Royal Mara
The elusive dik-dik is one of the cutest animal encounters one can have in Kenya, or anywhere for that matter

We bid our Ascari good night and walk up the wooden steps which lead to the deck where our tent is pitched. This tent, however, is no ordinary tent. Under its canvas roof is a four-poster bed with ample room for even the most restless of sleepers. We end our evening dreaming of the African savannah, and the adventures that will arrive with the coming dawn.

Kenya

Our Shimba Hills Lodge Experience

An enchanting retreat in deepest nature, the Shimba Hills Lodge is a place where you can get away from it all. Here, you will find, there is nothing except you and nature…

To get to the Shimba Hills Lodge, you have to walk down a rustic wooden ramp, which winds and dips through a dense forest of trees in the very heart of the Shimba Hills National Reserve. The lodge is built right among the trees, its wooden facade camouflaged in the vegetation surrounding it. It is an enchanting place, and there is nowhere else on Earth like it.

entrance to shimba hills lodge with a large relief of an elephant
A relief of an elephant with huge tusks welcomes us to the Shimba Hills Lodge

An Oasis of Calm

As we entered the lodge, we found ourselves on an open deck, with a view up into the blue skies above. The architects built the lodge around a central stairwell, filling it with plants and palm trees. It felt like we had entered a tree house – or rather, a tree palace. Its main structure is on high stilts, hovering over the muddy banks of the large lily covered watering hole, which is the main attraction for both guests and animals.

the wooden exterior of shimba hills lodge half hidden among the trees of the dense rainforest
The exterior of the Shimba Hills Lodge blends perfectly into the surrounding forest
the walkways in the interior of shimba hills lodge
the corridors surrounding the central stairway of shimba hills lodge
the little garden in the courtyard of shimba hills lodge

The tranquillity is astounding. Here, the sounds of nature blanket us entirely, from the rustling of leaves and branches as monkeys rush through the treetops, the sound of water lapping against a shore, to the sound of insects and birds calling out in the forest. Most of all, we loved feeling the forest breeze on our skin and the sweet smell of fresh air that one can only find in a place like this. 

The Rooms of the Shimba Hills Lodge

All the rooms come with decks overlooking the watering hole, and I spent many hours leaning over the bannisters, feeling the wind and marvelling at the paradise before me. Many of the guests who visit the Shimba Hills Lodge come for precisely this, the experience of being surrounded by nature. 

the view of the rainforest from the balcony of shimba hills lodge suite
The view of the Shimba Hills forest from the balcony of our suite
the living room or sitting area of the suite in shimba hills lodge
the balcony of the shimba hills lodge suite
the bedroom with a four poster bed and mosquito net in shimba hill lodge

The rooms themselves are simple, rustic and comfortable. I thought the decor was done well and conveyed the atmosphere we were here to experience. The large sliding doors and glass panes looking out into nature reminded us of where we were, providing a clear view of our incredible surroundings. All the time we were there, we felt like adventurers on an expedition.

the incredible exterior of the shimba hills lodge, looking like a large treehouse in the tree canopy
Shimba Hills Lodge and its watering hole, tucked away, deep in the verdant rainforest

Shimba Hills Lodge Forest Walk

One of the best things about the Shimba Hills Lodge is its forest walk. Exit from the bar, and you’ll find an extended deck which winds its way into the forest, almost at the height of the tree canopy. Tree branches hang over the side and curve above the walkway. The light here filters through the green and golden leaves that hang above your head. It is like walking through a wild and magical garden.

the treetop walk way of shimba hills lodge in the tree canopy
A portion of the platform for the treetop forest walk winding through the dense vegetation

Around you, squirrels timidly rush through the trees and scamper along the bannisters of the walkway. Sometimes they look up expectantly at you. After all, for them, humans mean high-calorie, tasty food. 

a red squirrel running across a wooden deck
A little red squirrel dashing across the wooden platform of the Shimba Hills Lodge’s treetop forest walk

The walkway ends on a large platform built on a clearing, around a large tree. Once the clearing ends, there is a dense jungle wall with no more than a few metres of visibility. There are animals in there, and you might hear them. Seeing them, though, is another story. You’ll have to wait till they leave the forest cover to come out onto the watering hole for a drink.

silhouettes of two hornbills
Silhouettes of two hornbills on a high tree branch
Sykes' monkeys hiding among the dense treetop vegetation
Sykes’ monkeys
Red Squirrel
Red squirrel
Bushbuck
Bushbuck

Many small monkeys dash through the golden-green leaves. They are almost impossible to catch sight of, being so well camouflaged. But with patience, you could get a good photograph of these adorable creatures. 

The Watering Hole at the Shimba Hills Lodge

The main attraction of the lodge is the watering hole which all the rooms overlook. Large, beautiful lilies fill the pond, and there is an ethereal quality to it. It is like something from the paintbrush of an impressionist painter.

Shimba Hills Lodge view panorama
A panorama of the Shimba Hills watering hole and the surrounding rainforest

The watering hole is where it all happens. The lack of cover means animals don’t linger on its banks for long. But it’s easy to spend an entire day on the decks of the Shimba Hills Lodge, observing the pond’s visitors and residents.

two red squirrels meeting each other on a collison course
Two squirrels on a collision course on the wooden bannister outside the restaurant of the Shimba Hills Lodge
A monitor lizard in the watering hole
Monitor lizard
A Pied kingfisher about to dive
Pied kingfisher
Colobus monkey on a hot tin roof
Colobus monkey

Monitor lizards prowl its banks and hunt in its waters, large kingfishers wait on branches by slender reeds, diving into waters when they see prey. As late afternoon arrives and the day cools, bushbucks, antelopes and other herbivores that live in the surrounding forest come out for a drink. Life is slowed down here, and things happen in their own time – but happen they do, and it is magical to sit and watch as nature’s patterns unfold before you. It is a place to sit and meditate before nature.

Pied kingfisher over a pond of waterlilies
This photograph of a Pied kingfisher above some water lilies brings to mind Monet’s “Water Lillies” paintings

Strange Noises at Dawn

One morning, we were awoken by a din of scrambling, banging and other most peculiar noises that seemed to have penetrated the serenity of the forest. Curious, we got out of bed and went to investigate. We were surprised to find that the culprits were a family of Colobus monkeys going about their morning routine on the lodge roof.

Sykes' Monkey
We managed to “capture” this Sykes’ monkey a moment before it disappeared into the dense foliage
Squirrel and colourful guinea fowls
Guineafawls and a red squirrel
Bush baby on the end of a dinner table in Shimba Hills Lodge
Bush baby
lizard on a wooden wall in Shimba Hills Lodge
Gecko

The sun rises towards the Shimba Hills Lodge, bathing the rooms in a warm golden dawn light. The monkeys enjoy warming up on the roof here, which is the best place to take in the morning sun… if you’re a monkey. They run and jump and tumble each other on the roof, occasionally dashing into the forest, perhaps to get food, and returning to relax in the sun. It is a fantastic sight, to see how these creatures have claimed this part of the lodge for their own. 

Lunch with Squirrels and Dinner with Bush Babies

One of the main attractions of the Shimba Hills Lodge is the fantastic restaurant. The restaurant, like the rooms, overlooks the watering hole. But it’s not just the view that should give you a reason to enjoy a meal here. Squirrels and the otherwise impossible to spot bush babies also come out for a taste of your meal. 

The terraced balconies of Shimba Hills Lodge where you can have tea or cocktails
Shimba Hills Lodge has a large terraced balcony where guests can sit and have an afternoon tea or evening cocktails while watching wildlife drink at the watering hole
The perfect spot for a gin and tonic, overlooking the rainforest of Shimba Hills
Breakfast table overlooking the lilly pond
The restaurant of Shimba Hills Lodge

The squirrels tend to come out during the day, at breakfast and lunch. They are shy at first, but once you start feeding them, they become bolder. At the end of our stay, they were practically coming up to us, getting food right from our hands.

little red squirrel eating a piece of banana
A little red squirrel munching happily on a morsel of banana

Bush babies fill the forest around the lodge, although it is almost impossible to see one. Sometimes, we would hear the leaves rustling and look into the tree canopy, hoping to see one. Only on one occasion, in the early pre-dawn hours, did we see one outside our room. However, there was one brave bush-baby who approached us as we were being served dinner. She was quite a bold one, coming right to our table and reaching out for the bread. She was no problem, however, calmly accepting our offer of bread until she was full, and then keeping mostly to herself at the other end of the restaurant. 

Bush baby seen at night with his amber glowing eyes
We were very excited we caught sight of this bush baby right by our dinner table

This was the only time we saw bush-babies up close on our trip in Kenya, and we have to say there is nothing quite like it. Seeing them from afar, with only their eyes illuminated red in the dense bush isn’t very satisfying. But here, up-close, they are something else. These are truly incredible looking creatures, and there was nothing else quite like them on safari.

The Staff at the Shimba Hills Lodge

We stayed at the Shimba Hills Lodge in September 2020, when the capable lodge manager, Catherine, had recently taken responsibility for this truly unique property’s operations. The lodge had moved on from foreign ownership to a local one, and we feel it was all the more better off for it.

The magical treehouse like exterior of Shimba Hills Lodge
The exterior of the Shimba Hills Lodge, as seen from the treetop walk

Catherine and her team were warm, welcoming and attentive. They took care of our every need and prepared delicious Kenyan meals on request. Catherine herself planned our trips into the Shimba Hills National Reserve, Sheldrick Falls, the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and more. Her staff made sure we had enough food and water for the day, for all of these trips.

The team at Shimba Hills Lodge
Part of the Shimba Hills Lodge crew

We also enjoyed long chats with her and her general manager Eva, and her housekeeping head, Grace. Getting to know the people who live and work in the lodges and national parks was a big part of our travels in Kenya. Through their stories, we learned a lot that cannot be gleaned from guidebooks, and formed a better understanding and appreciation of their beautiful country and the stunning natural wilderness they worked in.

The Shimba Hills Lodge Chef rolling out dough for chapati
This is how you make chapati
Folding the dough for chapati
Pressing the dough to make chapati
Demonstration for how to make chapati

Her staff noticed how much we loved Kenyan food and our interest in it, and offered to demonstrate how to make one of their staples, chapati. One afternoon, the chef took some time off to showcase how he did it. The chef made making chapati seem so easy and effortless and impressed us with his skill. We know making chapati is anything but simple.

Chapati, broiled golder
The final result – perfectly fried chapati

Our Rating of the Shimba Hill Lodge

Shimba Hills Lodge is a place you should stay in if you get the chance. It is such a unique place, with nothing else quite like it in Kenya. It would be a real pity to miss it if you were in the area. If you are looking for a meditative retreat in nature, staying here is an absolute must. Many of the guests come to Shimba Hills to stay here and soak in nature. There is no better place for a “forest bath”. Surprisingly, despite how dense the forest is, and how warm the surrounding parks can get, the Shimba Hills Lodge is always calm and breezy. Mosquitos are also not a problem here – not one mosquito bit me while I was in the lodge.

sunrise behind shimba hills lodge, casting the rainforest in a golden glow
Sunrise over the Shimba Hills Lodge

Although the rooms are simple, they are comfortable and done well. Their rustic decor continues the impression of being an adventurer in the jungles of Africa.

Before we end this post, we’d love to give a shoutout to Catherine, the manager of the Shimba Hills Lodge. During our travels in Kenya, we met many inspiring Kenyans who, from humble beginnings, built up so many great things, inspired others and elevated their communities. Catherine is one of these people.

Catherine, the manager of Shimba Hills, posing for a photo by a wall covered in a mural of animals from Africa
Catherine, the super cool and friendly manager of the Shimba Hills Lodge

She made our visit to Shimba Hills a truly special one. Because of her, we got to meet and befriend many interesting people who worked on interesting conservation projects in the nature reserve. Each meeting was a priceless experience. We visited in 2020, which was a trying year for everyone. Despite difficult times, Catherine and her superb team made sure everything was perfect. Thanks to this capable woman, we departed Shimba Hills Lodge with warm hearts and many new friends.

Kenya

The Masai Mara Cheetahs

Returning to our lodge in the Mara North, we were fortunate to catch sight of one of the Masai Mara’s famous dynasties – the cheetah Kisaru and her three grown cubs…

The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. The BBC have returned to the Mara many times, especially after their success with Big Cat Diaries in 1996. Visitors to this picturesque savannah know the cheetahs of the Masai Mara by name, thanks to this show.

Three cheetah cubs observing the nearby zebras, wildebeests and topi antelopes
Three cheetah cubs observing the nearby zebras, wildebeests and topi antelopes

While on a game drive in Mara North, we encountered the cheetah Kisaru and her grown cubs. There were three of them with her during the sighting. However, the lodge manager at Royal Mara later told us she had raised her entire litter of six cubs successfully into adulthood. The ones we didn’t see had left their family to strike it out on their own. The cubs still with Kisaru participate in hunting alongside her.

cheetah family in the mara, in front of blue skies
The famous cheetah Kisaru and her three cubs, chilling in the golden grasses of the Mara

The Masai Mara Cheetahs: Through the Generations

This family of Masai Mara cheetahs were particularly interesting because Kisaru and her cubs are descendants of the famous cheetah Malaika, who often jumped onto tourist vehicles. Cheetahs do this because the jeep gives them a vantage point from where they can spot predators and prey. Safari goers and guides all throughout Africa have seen these this behaviour. The Masai Mara cheetahs are not the only ones to do it.

a cheetah near our jeep in Masai Mara
One of the cheetahs came next to our jeep

However, Malaika was particularly fond of it, and she passed this preference along to her children. That said, park authorities have told guides and rangers that they should discourage this behaviour, and the current generation of Masai Mara cheetahs are not jeep jumpers.

Mother cheetah, walking alongside the three cubs
Mother cheetah, walking alongside the three cubs

It was late in the afternoon when we found Kisaru and her three cubs. The sun was almost setting, and the air was getting cooler by the minute. When we observed the cheetahs, they were relaxed but active, walking around in a leisurely manner among the long grass.

New Research on Cheetah Hunts

Until recently, we believed that cheetahs hunted exclusively during the sunlit hours. Researchers believe that the black stripes under their eyes prevent glare during the brightest hours of the day. That said, recent research has shown that up to one-third of their hunts happen after dark. The success of these hunts depends partly on the illumination available by the moon. The Netflix documentary, Night on Earth, filmed this behaviour for the first time on the plains of the Masai Mara.

close-up of an adult cheetah showing the stripes around her eyes
Check out the black shadow around her eyes and along her muzzle – these reduce light reflection to prevent glare during the daylight hours

Observing Cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy

The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. Over the decades, the BBC have returned to film the Masai Mara cheetahs many times, through numerous cheetah generations. Programmes by the BBC featuring the Mara cheetahs are the Big Cat Diary (1996), Planet Earth (2006) and The Hunt (2015).

two grown cheetah cubs walking in the long green grass of the Masai Mara
These two grown cubs were walking restlessly around our jeep

Where to Spot the Masai Mara Cheetahs

Cheetahs have one of the largest ranges for the big cats. That they have an extensive range is unsurprising. After all, they are the animal kingdom’s fastest runners. The average home range for a cheetah can reach up to 2,727 square miles, compared to a lion’s 400 square miles.

two cheetahs walking away from camera on the Masai Mara
Likely annoyed by our jeep, these two are walking away from us

Although cheetahs have such an extensive home range, when prey is plentiful, like in the Masai Mara, they tend to establish stable territories within a small area. This high density of cheetahs means that visitors are very likely to see a cheetah on their safari in the Masai Mara.

Three grown cheetah cubs and their mother
Kisaru, grand-daughter of Malaika, with her three grown cubs

In recent times, there are two famous groups of cheetahs on the Mara. The fast five, a coalition of five brothers, and Malaika’s dynasty. Safari goers often spotted Malaika near Sala’s camp, in the Masai Mara. However, when we visited, we sighted her grand-daughter Kisaru, and her three grown cubs, in the Mara North Conservancy. Nobody has seen Malaika herself since 2018.

How to Photograph the Masai Mara Cheetahs

“If your pictures aren’t good enoughyou aren’t close enough” goes the quote from Robert Capa, the Hungarian-American photojournalist. Luckily for us, we had spotted the cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy. On the Mara Conservancies, safari-goers are allowed to go off-road to look for and observe a big cat. We recommend staying in a conservancy for this opportunity. Although safari-goers can expect to sight a big cat in the Masai Mara, the cat might not be close enough for a good photograph. So to increase your chances of getting the perfect shot, book a night or two in one of the Mara Conservancies.

Black and white portrait of adult cheetah near the safari vehicle
This cheetah got really close to us here, she was only a couple of feet away from the jeep

However, there are limits within the Conservancies. Going off-road is only possible if you are following a big cat and not any other animal. Also, only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any one time. This is for the good of the cheetah as too many jeeps can seriously stress them out.

Malaika’s Dynasty

Malaika was the cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt. She was one of the most successful cheetahs ever to grace the Masai Mara, and the locals love to talk about her. The lodge manager of the Royal Mara Safari Lodge, in the Mara North Conservancy, told us that she had raised almost all her litters into adulthood. Her skills were passed down to her daughter and then to her grand-daughter Kisaru, the cheetah we sighted.

Adult cheetah and three cubs looking around at their environment
A very successful mother and her grown cubs, all attentive to their environment

When we saw Kisaru, she was with three grown cubs. However, the locals told us she’d raised the entire litter of six into adulthood – a rarity for cheetahs. Usually, only one or two cubs of the whole littler would survive to be fully grown. Undoubtedly, cheetahs learn valuable skills from their parents, and good cheetah parents are more likely to raise successful cubs.

The Masai Mara Cheetah Who Jumped on Cars

Malaika was famous for jumping on cars. Guides and safari-goers all over Africa have observed cheetahs doing this, but Malaika was very fond of it. She used the jeeps as a vantage point to spot prey and predators. Cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats on the Masai Mara, and they are sometimes smaller than hyenas. Because of this, they need to be wary of other predators. Jeeps are plentiful on the Mara and provide excellent lookout points; this was likely the reason why she liked jumping on them.

Two cheetahs walking away from safari vehicle
Two cheetahs walking away from the jeep – these did not jump on our vehicle

Her children copied this behaviour, and safari-goers loved it when a cheetah jumped on their car. However, this behaviour, understandably, worried the park authorities as it placed humans in very close proximity with a dangerous wild animal. No harm ever came to any safari-goer from a Masai Mara cheetah, but the Kenyan authorities asked guides and drivers to discourage this behaviour. When we visited, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, told us the cheetahs no longer did this.

Cheetah Behaviour

When we spotted Kisaru and her three cubs, it was late in the afternoon, around 5 P.M. We were returning to the Mara North Conservancy from a game drive in the Masa Mara when our guide spotted another jeep at a standstill, far in the distance. On closer inspection, he saw they were observing a family of cheetahs. We drove to meet the animals. Although it took some time to get to them, they were still in the area when we arrived.

two adult cheetahs on the prowl
Kisaru and one of her cubs walking side by side in the tall green grass

When Are Cheetahs Active?

Although cheetahs are diurnal (they are active during daylight hours), they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours. This timing is similar to other top predators in the Masai Mara – lions, leopards, and hyenas. When we met Kisaru and her cubs, they were quite relaxed, although they got up and walked around in the long grass quite often. In contrast, the cheetahs we saw in Amboseli at mid-afternoon were resting in the shade and did not move. Like us, cheetahs don’t like to do much when it gets too hot.

Three cheetahs investigating the grassy Mara plains
These cheetahs were fairly active in the evening, walking around the plains and casually investigating their environment

Do Cheetahs Overheat During the Hunt?

There’s a common belief that cheetahs do not hunt at high noon because of the heat. However, this has been disproven. Despite the enormous speed and acceleration undertaken by the cheetah, the increase in internal temperature when hunting is negligible. However, their temperatures increase significantly in the next 40 minutes if they have caught prey. This increase in temperature is a stress response, as the noises of the hunt might attract other predators like lions and hyenas, who will attack the cheetah for its prize. To prevent their food from being stolen, cheetahs either have to start eating immediately or drag their kill to a more secluded spot. Cheetahs usually opt for the latter 65% of the time. 

A group of 4 cheetahs, walking through the green grass
Kisaru’s cheetah family, meandering slowly through the yellow-green grasses that surrounded our jeep

What Do Cheetahs Eat?

The dietary requirements of cheetahs are a fascinating area of research. Unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs cannot eat carrion. They can only eat freshly killed animals. Furthermore, they do not like to eat livestock. Research has shown that cheetahs in captivity have health problems related to eating domesticated animals due to the high-fat content in these animals.

Two restless cheetahs waking in the savannah of the Masai Mara
Where are these two going? Maybe it’s almost dinner time…

Out in the wild, cheetahs hunt and eat small to medium-sized game animals. In the Masai Mara, these can be hares, small antelopes, gazelles, impalas and wildebeest calves.

Cheetah Families

Our sighting of Kisaru and her cubs was an excellent example of how cheetahs organise themselves socially. Female cheetahs are mostly solitary, except when they have cubs. It is not uncommon for a mother cheetah to live with her female children for some time after they are fully grown. Hunting in a pack is more likely to bring success than hunting alone. Grown male cheetahs are chased away or abandoned by their mother when she comes into heat – this is to prevent inbreeding.

four cheetahs together in the masai mara
These grown cubs are still hanging out and hunting with their mother. Cheetahs have more success when they hunt in a group

As we understand it, Kisaru’s cubs were grown but still young. We were unable to identify the sex of those with her, but they were likely females. The mother was behaving slightly protectively around them, watching them, and us, carefully. 

The cubs stayed close to each other, often sitting together and brushing across each other. At one point, the three cubs got tired of the attention from us, and slowly took their leave from the scene. Their mother lingered for a few moments longer. At one point, she came towards the vehicle, brushed her body against the side, and “marked her territory” on the back wheel before moving off to join her cubs.

Cheetah looking straight at camera
I wonder what she’s thinking here…

FAQs for the Masai Mara Cheetahs

How many cheetahs are in the Masai Mara?

There are around 123 adult cheetahs in the Masai Mara. This number was arrived at by identifying individuals from 25,000 images.

Who are the famous Masai Mara cheetahs?

The famous ones are The Fast Five (still alive) – a coalition of five males, Malaika (not seen since 2018), a very successful cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt, and Honey and Toto (passed away), featured in Big Cat Diary.

Who was the Masai Mara cheetah that jumped on cars?

The Masai Mara cheetah who liked jumping on cars was Malaika. Cheetahs no longer jump on jeeps in the Masai Mara since authorities started discouraging this behaviour.

How do we identify cheetahs?

Cheetahs are identified by unique patterns among their spots.

Kenya

Jackal Hunt on the African Savannah

We witnessed a jackal hunt on the Masai Mara. The hunt was an incredible showcase of how jackals communicate and use teamwork to take down larger prey…

The black-backed jackal is one of the Masai Mara’s most prominent carnivores. It is an omnivore and has a varied and flexible diet. In general, jackals are not picky eaters. They will eat anything, from carcasses scavenged from other predators on the savannah, insects, to even berries and grass. However, they are opportunistic hunters. Jackals do not go out “on the hunt”. They do not look for or stalk for prey. The jackal hunt happens when they see an opportunity present itself. When that happens, they will seize the moment and go straight for it. 

A black-backed jackal calf and his mother
A father and his baby – though, admittedly this black-backed jackal’s cub is more of an adolescent

A Family Portrait

It was late in the afternoon, and we were returning to our lodge at Eagle View Camp after an afternoon visiting the Obama Forest and the conservation efforts at Basecamp Explorer. The sun was already low on the horizon, and the skies were beginning to darken. The long drive back through the Masai Mara had been uneventful and lulled us into complacency. All around us was the bush, occasionally populated with nothing more than an antelope or two. 

Black-backed Jackal cub and his mother in the bushes of Mara Naboisho
The cub walked up to its mother for one more loving family portrait – the father was not far away

“Jackals, with a cub”, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, pointed out. He slowed the vehicle down so we could look at the young creature, who was sitting right outside its underground den. Its parents were not far, trotting to and fro around their cub.

A young black-backed jackal about to wander off into the bushes of the Masai Mara on his own
The cub setting off to strike it out on his own, but only for a few minutes

It was a great family portrait, a tribute to family life on the savannah. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate, and it seemed the cool weather had brightened everyone’s spirits, both the jackals and us. The cub even seemed to be smiling, with a slightly curious, alert expression directed our way.

Black-backed jackal cub running in the savannah grass
The cub was heading in dad’s direction…

We rose from our seats to marvel at the little creature. Wild baby animals are always a hit, even when they are doing nothing. We began snapping photographs of the cub, who stayed in his place, right at the edge of his den. His father began to settle down not far from him.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

I scanned the area for the other jackal we had spotted earlier, most probably the mother of the cub. She was trotting back around the bushes near the road, where a mother impala and her young calf were grazing. The mother was twice the height of the jackal, and her calf was lithe and sure-footed. Both did not think the jackals were much to worry about. They were alert, but not wary.

The female jackal carelessly walked in front of the impalas, glanced at them, at us, then trotted back towards his cub and mate. Then, in a few seconds, it all began. The jackal hunt was on.

Black-backed jackal attacking adult impala, the impala has her head down in a defensive post
The male jackal starts chasing the impala and her calf (calf not in shot)

Communication and Teamwork on the Jackal Hunt

The female jackal, having caught her partner’s attention from about five meters away, gestured at the impala and her calf with his head. She alerted him to her intentions without uttering a sound.

Adult impala chasing, and trying to head butt a black-backed jackal
You might be wondering why the adult impala is chasing the jackal here – she’s trying to stop him from getting to her calf

A split second later, both jackals dashed towards the impalas, with the father having a lead of a few feet. The female jackal was not far behind. The calf alerted to the danger sprinted chaotically. Its mother, immediately aware there were two jackals after her child, gave chase, attempting to head-butt the male hot on her baby’s heels.

Black-backed jackal attacking impala calf and mother
The male jackal caught up with the impala calf, but so did its mother

It was incredible watching the teamwork put on by the pair of jackals. They were co-ordinated at every moment. The father was focused on grabbing the calf by the neck while the mother busied herself with harrying the grown impala with bites to her body, to keep her attentions busy.

Black backed jackal with its teeth around the throat of a baby impala
The male jackal caught the impala calf from under its throat – a sign that this jackal knew how to hunt antelopes

Jackal Hunt Larger Prey with Teamwork

The impalas put on a good fight. The calf, who was still relatively young, leapt in confusing bounds with no direction, misleading the jackal in pursuit. At one moment, the jackal caught its neck in its jaws and toppled it to the ground, but it managed to leap back to its feet after a moment of confusion.

Two jackals attacking a mother Impala and her calf
Mother jackal on the left and the father on the right (hidden by an annoying bush). The mother was trying to distract the adult impala

The impala tried her best to fend off the jackal attacking her and did everything she could to put her body between her child and its attackers.

The mother Impala attacking the jackal to get him off her baby
The baby was STILL ALIVE after the throat grab. The adult impala struck the male jackal with her head

However, the jackals we were observing were experienced hunters. The male jackal once again managed to topple the baby impala to the ground and grab its neck. It was soon dead.

Impala and jackals fighting over a dead body of impala's calf
The impala calf succumbed to the attacks at this point, while the fight was still going on above her dead body

The impala mother, not sure if her child was alive or dead, continued to attack the jackals.

Mother impala trying to fend off the jackals attacking her calf
The mother tried to head butt the jackals, but got her ear caught in one of their jaws

They dispersed, leaving her for a moment with the body of her calf. When she realised it was too late, she began to walk away, despondent. She crossed the dirt road and watched balefully as the jackals attended to their evening meal.

Impala mother nudging her dead calf
The poor mother trying to figure out if her calf was still alive

Reflection on Life and Death

Watching a hunt out on the African savannah for the first time can be a challenging experience. This scene was incredibly hard because there were two losses: the calf who lost her life, and the mother who lost her calf. However, the jackals also had their own little family, which included a relatively large cub which they had to feed.

black-backed jackal with a baby impala in its mouth
The jackals, taking their evening meal back to their den. Jackals that hunt in pairs are three times more likely to succeed than when hunting alone

It was a challenging moment, but an event we were, nevertheless, fortunate to witness in the flesh. Not only was it a successful hunt (the majority of hunts end in failures), it was also a great showcase of teamwork on the African plains.

Impala looking on at the jackals who had successfully hunted her baby
The mother impala, having a hard time saying goodbye…