Drs Vicki Belo and Hayden Kho, together with daughter Scarlet Snow, ushered in the new year amid Kenya’s magnificent wildlife.

“If tomorrow we can go back, we will go,” says Dr Hayden Kho, husband of Dr Vicki Belo and father of social media darling Scarlet Snow, reminiscing how Kenya gave them a breath of fresh air from the challenges and restrictions of the pandemic. “We were stuck here in the Philippines for a long time, so we just wanted to escape.” Vicki adds, “We always go somewhere every Christmas and I thought this year, we wouldn’t be able to do it because of Covid. You can’t help those little voices in your head telling you ‘you shouldn’t go’. [But] I can’t put my life on hold for the rest of I don’t know how long.”

The couple, who have embarked on several African safaris in the past, chose Kenya this time for its diverse wildlife. “Scarlet loves animals,” says Hayden. Before the pandemic, Kenya was teeming with tourists all year round, but this changed in 2020. “Kenya has always been the goal for me, but I’ve never gone because it’s always so crowded. Kenya has always been my dream,” Vicki shares.

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Kenya has always been the goal for me, but I’ve never gone because it’s always so crowded. Kenya has always been my dream
Dr Vicki Belo

It was early December when she called her friend, Binky Dizon, owner of A2A Safaris, to check the viability of going to this African destination. “Binky said it’s the best time to go as nobody’s going,” Vicki narrates. And that was it. The next thing Vicki and Hayden knew, they were already aboard a flight to Dubai the day after Christmas, where they would take a connecting flight to Nairobi and a chartered flight to their first destination: Masai Mara.

“It was very magical. The day we arrived, they set up lunch for us outdoors. We’ve seen about a hundred animals! They were drinking water so it’s as if they were all having lunch [with us] at the same time. It was like happy hour for them. I’ve never had that happen to me in any of my trips,” laughs Vicki. The couple, with Scarlet and some of their friends, stayed for four nights at the Mara Bushtops, a safari camp situated within a private wildlife reserve. “We lived in a tent. No air conditioning. The doors were basically zipper. There were a lot of animals. We saw 25 giraffes and about 30 zebras and maybe hundreds of impalas. It’s like they were having a party,” says Hayden. “Scarlet’s eyes were so big. She was so happy,” says Vicki.

The camp is nestled at about 1,700 metres above sea lev- el so the group enjoyed the cool breeze throughout. “We went to a place where you could see the moon coming up as the sun was setting. We had cocktails by the sunset and a bonfire. The locals were dressed in their national costume in bright colours. It was a wonderful welcome and I knew it was going to be a different experience,” she adds.

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The next day, the party went on early morning and late afternoon game drives. Each would take about three hours on bumpy roads. But they didn’t mind because the views of the savannas were just so majestic. They also went for a memorable hot air balloon ride over the savannas so they could see the animals from above. “It was [a] different [experience] because you see the animals from the top. We would go down at about 15 feet so we could see the animals close by,” says Hayden. It was Scarlet’s first hot air balloon ride.

Hayden and Vicki also shared that they were planning to visit a local tribe or a school there. However, because of the current health situation, they weren’t allowed to do so. “I had prepared all my candies and chocolates, but we were not able to visit a school because of Covid-19. We forgot that there’s Covid because they have good and strict protocols in Ken- ya. From the time you arrive, you go straight to the camp where it’s Covid-free. Everybody who works in the camp is always in a mask and shield. No cases. We were the only guests in the resort,” Vicki shares. The hospitality of the locals, both agree, is very much like that of Filipinos—very warm and accommodating.

On day six, the group boarded another chartered flight to Lewa Downs Airstrip, the gateway to the Unesco World Heritage Site and award-winning model for community conservation, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. They stayed at Sirikoi Lodge’s exclusive three-bedroom house—a luxury camp surrounded by 68,000 acres of pure wilderness including the so-called Northern Five—reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx, gerenuk and Somali ostrich—all of which are rare and unique species found only in Northern Kenya. Add to that, frequent sightings of leopards, cheetahs and lions. “They have two pet giraffes that would come every breakfast: Kiko and Nditu,” shares Vicki. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is the pioneer rhino conservation in Kenya and East Africa. “We visited the conservancy with the rhinos. Then we learnt about how they take care of the rhinos, the history [of the conservancy] and more about trading tusks,” says Hayden. The rhino tusks are believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac benefits, which translate into a lucrative demand specially in Asia. Rhino horn trade has been banned globally since the Seventies.

Rhinos are so beautiful and to think that they’d be gone forever, extinct forever... You wouldn’t want that to happen, so you get really involved
Dr Vicki Belo

At Lewa, Hayden and Vicki decided to name and adopt a rhino, an idea that Scarlet approved of. “We’re trying to teach Scarlet [the virtue of charity] because she really loves animals and I think she really has the heart to protect them; she loved the idea of adopting a rhino. So young yet she already learns to give back,” says the proud mum. Naming a rhino entails an annual fee, which will be used for their protection and care, as well as for the operations of the Conservancy. “Rhinos are so beautiful and to think that they’d be gone forever, extinct forever... You wouldn’t want that to happen, so you get really involved,” she adds. They named their new family member Plasty, the Belo Rhino, a play on the popular nose enhancement procedure.

The group moved to Nairobi after spending three nights in Sirikoi Lodge. In Nairobi, they stayed at the Instagrammable Giraffe Manor, a famous and popular accommodation with, naturally, hard-to-get reservations. However, because of the new strain of COVID-19 reported in South Africa, a lot of travellers cancelled their bookings. As such, the group was able to get two rooms on such short notice.

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“When we got there, there’s tea in the afternoon at about five o’clock when 12 giraffes [would] come, then you fed them. They followed you around. A cute memory for me is when they tap on your window in the morning. We’re on the second floor and the rooms are named after the giraffes. Our room is [called] Kelly, after the naughtiest giraffe. When I was feeding him, I wasn’t feeding him fast enough, [so] he hit me with his head. He’s nasty!” relates Vicki.

“We [also] went to the markets to buy African beads. On our last day, we went to a conservancy for elephants. The baby elephants were so cute!” enthuses Hayden. “Because people kill elephants for tusks, ivory, some of the elephants there have no mums, so they feed them with big baby bottles,” Vicki adds.

“One of the local guides told me ‘In your city you have watches but here in Africa we have time'. It’s very true. Sometimes we forget to stop and smell the flowers. When you’re in the city, you get overwhelmed with so many things. But in Kenya, you’d really have time to reflect,” concludes Hayden. To which Vicki adds, “I guess we got overdosed with animals. It’s so pretty and peaceful. You really feel God there.”

“When you’re in the city, you get overwhelmed with so many things. But in Kenya, you’d really have time to reflect,” concludes Hayden. To which Vicki adds, “I guess we got overdosed with animals. It’s so pretty and peaceful. You really feel God there.”

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