I remember being so excited and full of anticipation as the day of our departure neared. This was a bucket list trip for me, as I had dreamed of going on safari for a very long time. My love and admiration of Big Cats went as far back as my childhood and the idea of getting close to these majestic animals was exhilarating. Here I was years later on my way to Africa to embark on an amazing journey that would change me forever.
This was one of the most exciting trips we have been blessed to go on and we would do it again in a heartbeat! Starting with a safari throughout Kenya and Tanzania, we visited 6 National Parks and conservation areas before topping off this incredible adventure at a 5-star resort in Zanzibar by the Indian Ocean.
Our flight to Nairobi was long but uneventful and after a good night’s rest we did a guided city tour before visiting the Karen Blixen Museum and Giraffe Center. The estate was lovely and frozen in time with many artifacts and photographs from another era. Elephants’ feet transformed into tables or stools, lion or leopard pelts used as carpets and sculptures made of ivory. Fortunately times have changed and all of these items are now prohibited by law! It still broke our hearts to see them. Feeding and petting the giraffes was the highlight of our day. These gentle giants are so sweet, affectionate and not shy about kissing willing visitors in exchange for a handful of pellets.
Our day ended with a dinner at one of Nairobi’s most famous restaurants where the specialty is roasted meats. Not the place for people that don’t really like meat, that’s all that they serve. Our guide had warned us to steer clear of the sauces and condiments. We did! But… I didn’t know it at the time but I would be in for a rough night. I got food poisoning anyways. Not the ideal way to start a Safari!
Bright and early the next morning we were hitting the road for Amboseli National Park. After the night I had, the ride was difficult but I didn’t want to miss anything. I didn’t! After all, I had waited years to finally be there! So for the next 3 days I survived on a diet of watermelon, the only food I could bare to stomach, not missing any game drives.
The Amboseli National Park is located at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. This park is renown for its herds of elephants that roam around its vast plains. It is also known for the picture perfect snow-cape mountain in the backdrop. Many other species including a vast variety of birds also inhabit the park, which makes it a great destination for viewing wildlife. Every year as many as 25,000 climbers flock to the park to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peek with an elevation of 19,341 feet (4,900 m).
We stayed at a lodge within the boundaries of the park as this proved to be very convenient to go on our 6 am game drives. An added bonus was that we could view wildlife from our room. We had to keep the terrace door locked unless we wanted to share our room with the monkeys! Cute little guys but they can be quite mischievous and are smart enough to open doors. We were told not to touch or feed them as they can bite and some may even carry rabies.
A couple of days later we were off toward the Great Rift Valley and our first stop was Lake Nakuru National Park. This is a sanctuary for black rhinos and a paradise for birders.
Pink Flamingos congregate to the lake but when we visited there weren’t many. They had migrated to the soda lakes that had more algae. At that time of the year (March) we saw them by the thousands in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The soda lake looked like it had turned a pink hue from a distance, but as we approached, this was thousands of flamingos, amazing!
Encountering wildlife depends on the time of the year and the seasonal rains (and even El Niño). It can be difficult to time everything perfectly, so the best option is to visit multiple conservation areas to increase your chances of viewing the biggest variety of wildlife. The height of the grass and fauna is also a factor when trying to spot wildlife.
Next stop, the Masai Mara Game Reserve, the place I had dreamt about. It was even more beautiful than I had imagined. The combination of endless plains and the Mara River painted the perfect scenery for game drives. The tall grass provided the perfect camouflage for the big cats in wait of a kill but this made viewing wildlife more difficult. Watching the hippos frolic in the river was most entertaining. Seeing it all was magical!
We visited a Masai village where we learned about the culture of the people that have been roaming these plains for centuries. They’re great cattlemen and calculate their wealth by the number of cows they own. They nourish themselves from a mixture of cow milk and cow blood. Important rites of passage take place. Boys become warriors after a painful ritual of circumcision without anesthetic! It’s a patriarchal society where elders make decisions for the tribe, men tend to cattle and women take care of the home and children. Their houses are made of sticks, grass, mud and cow dung which they have an infinite supply of since cows roam freely inside the boma. Stepping in cow dung was inevitable and so was visiting the ‘store’ set up for our benefit!
Soaring above the clouds before sunrise in a hot air balloon was breathtaking, an incredible experience filled with excitement.
Even more thrilling when our pilot almost dipped, on purpose, the basket in the Mara River where lots of hungry crocodiles were waiting, in vain, luckily for us!
While traveling one never knows whom they will meet. Our pilot had done his pilot course in Canada and used to live 15 minutes away from where we lived at the time. Small world!
After landing in the balloon safely, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the savanna of the Masai Mara before departing for our next destination: the Serengeti in Tanzania. To think that this flight almost didn’t happen because of a problem with one of the balloon’s motors which resulted in a cancellation the previous day. Fortunately for us, our driver/guide, Dominic, arranged for us to be able to try again the following morning, just before it was time for us to say goodbye to Kenya.
Dominic dropped us off at the airstrip. He waited for us to take off as we waved a final goodbye. We landed on a dirt airstrip in the middle of a field where someone else was picking us up to drive us to the land border crossing. It was a bit unsettling to get into a car with a couple of strangers in the middle of the African bush but this was our ride so we got in. We crossed the border on foot and after the formalities (passport, visa, finger prints) we were permitted to ender Tanzania where a couple of other strangers were waiting to drive us to yet another bush airstrip.
Our flight took off as soon as all 3 passengers were on board so we landed earlier than expected – and our driver was nowhere to be seen! Other drivers were there and luckily for us one spoke English and called our lodge so they could get in touch with our driver. Being stranded at an African bush airport with the attendant lurking and eying us wasn’t the most welcoming feeling—even a little scary. Eventually our driver did show up – relieved that he did before nightfall, it was time to get on with our safari.
Our time in the Serengeti was amazing. The animals were easy to spot and it wasn’t long before we saw all of the Big Five. Our lodge was located inside the Serengeti National Park. Our lodges in Kenya were fenced in but not here, so at nightfall we had to be escorted to our accommodation.
Masai warriors were happy to do it and tipping was much appreciated. We were surprised to learn that shining a flashlight into the eyes of large animals would scare them off effectively. Glad we didn’t have to test the theory! The wildest animals we saw around the property were cute Bush Babies, a tiny type of primate with disproportionally huge eyes, a nocturnal creature.
For this trip we decided to splurge a bit more to go on a private safari and the extra cost was worth it. This came in handy when we saw about 20 jeeps gather around one cheetah. One driver tried to get the cheetah out of its hiding place by driving next too him and scaring the poor vulnerable cat.
We were so upset at this and our driver saw that and took us to some more remote parts of the park. This proved to be an excellent decision.
Going off the beaten track had its rewards! The next day we ventured on a full day game drive in the Serengeti where no other vehicles were going. We were the only jeep around. Amazing!
We spent time with a pride of lions—two brothers with three lionesses—lounging under a tree with a fresh kill, a zebra, next to them.
We like to think of them as “our lions”!
Further away, the hyenas were waiting for their chance to steal the leftovers.
Lions ruled the area. We could see them perched on top of kopjes, rocky formations made of volcanic soil and rocks. Perfect viewpoints to keep an eye out for pray. Watching lion cubs playing around under the watchful eyes of their mothers was awesome!
We kept on driving further in and then we saw it—from a distance at first and then we were right in the middle of it. We had found the Great Migration!
As far as the eye could see, countless wildebeests and zebras surrounded us. Incredible! An awe-inspiring moment! Impossible to count them—they were like infinite dots. If you’ve ever seen a large herd of cows in the distance, picture that times 1,000 in every direction.
For lunch our driver found us a nice spot under an acacia tree next to a lake – admiring our surroundings we ate our lunch. Except for our driver and the hyenas across the river we were alone in this magical place. The perfect place for a picnic!
It was time to get back to our lodge. There was a storm brewing on the horizon. It caught up with us!
It’s incredible how fast the plains were flooding. The water accumulated from all sides in an instant. It was scary! We were afraid the jeep would get stuck in the mud but our skilled driver maneuvered the Land Rover with expertise. He knew how to drive in those conditions and that’s an excellent reason to have a trained guide instead of venturing alone risking getting into trouble, lost or worse! These driver/guides know how to deal with situations like these and they are also experts at spotting wildlife.
We made it safely back to our lodge and spent our last night in this amazing place. In the morning we were moving on to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We would be driving through the plains.
On the way we stumbled upon a National Geographic jeep. They were filming 3 cheetah brothers and at the condition that our driver didn’t radio other drivers, a common practice, we got permission to stay and take pictures. We felt so privileged to be there.
An important landmark to visit in the area is the Olduvai Gorge where early signs of humanity were discovered – some dating back 2.5 millions years. The museum is very informative and many archeological artifacts are on display.
We were staying at a lodge on the crater rim, which we highly recommend for the birds eye view over the Ngorongoro Crater. In the morning it was filled with clouds and as the sun was rising it cleared and we could really appreciate the immensity of it.
It’s 18 km (11 mi) wide at the bottom and it’s also the only complete inactive volcano caldera in the world. It has it’s own migration; the animals follow the rains. Most of the well-known African animals can be found inside the crater except for the giraffes. There aren’t any, perhaps because their long legs prevented them from hiking down the steep hill. Masai villagers have settled inside the crater and for the most part, live according to their traditional ways.
To end our day we opted to go on a walking safari near our lodge with a park ranger. It sounded like a great idea at the time of booking this excursion.
But… as we walked he gave us information about the Big Five and on what to do should we cross paths with them. Here’s what he told us:
“If you see a lion and he sees you, slowly walk away but don’t turn your back to him. If you run, you become pray and he will catch you.” Ah! Let’s hope we don’t see one…
“If you come face to face with a leopard, take your sweater and make a ball. His claws don’t retract and might get stuck in the ball maybe long enough for you to run away.” O.K.!! Yea Right!
“If you see a Cape buffalo, lie down on the ground face down. He will lick you – that’s how they check things out. It might sound nice but their tongues are very rough and the first lick will take your clothes off, the second one the skin right down to the bone.” Why are we doing this walk??
“If you come across a Rhino, hide behind a tree. They don’t see well.” Plan B?
“If you see an elephant, walk away slowly. He won’t charge right away, first he will look at you to give you a warning. Now, if he flaps his ears, you better leave because he’s about to charge you. If this happens run in a zigzag, they can’t.” Great advice! Let’s get out of here!
On our way back we heard noises coming up the hill and came across a herd of elephants. The matriarch started flapping her ears immediately and the park ranger started to walk really fast to get out of there. What happened to “Walk away slowly”? Needless to say, we were very happy to return to the security of our lodge!
I have to say that going on this walking safari was a bit more than we had anticipated but it was the best way to see the tiniest of Africa’s Little Five: the Antlion, a type of predatory insect that collaborate by digging pits to catch prey. We were lucky to spot all of the little Five during our safari. The most common is the Buffalo Weaver, a type of bird that lives in large communal nest; the Elephant Shrew, a small mammal with a trunk-like nose; the Leopard Tortoise with a uniquely attractive shell and the Rhino Beetle, a type of scarab beetle with horns.
The next day we were on our way to the Tarangire National Park where we stayed at the Tarangire Treetops Lodge. I had seen this place in a magazine many years ago and dreamt of staying there so we did! Our room up in the trees was huge with a large terrace. The top part of the walls was made of canvas so it was like sleeping in a tent. Falling asleep to the sounds of the crickets and other insects was amazing. I slept soundly and deeply unlike my husband who was keeping watch.
We didn’t see many animals during our game drives but we saw many birds, huge baobab trees and gigantic termite mounds.
At our lodge, at dusk, swarms of bats would fly out of the enormous baobab tree in the lobby. All the guests and staff would gather to watch the show.
Through out our safari, mosquitoes weren’t a big problem but in this park the Tsetse flies – which are like horseflies on steroids wearing armor – were relentless, hard to kill and with a wicked bite. They can also cause the sleeping disease. Even insect repellent with Deet didn’t keep them away. The only option was to cover-up!
Our safari adventure came to an end and after a quick lunch in Arusha, we were off to Zanzibar for a few days of rest before our long flight back home.
This small island off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean is well known for its spices. The people were very friendly and went above and beyond to make our stay memorable. The white sand and clear water make it an ideal spot for snorkeling or scuba diving. The ocean was thriving with sea life. Amazing!
Tipping can go a long way. When we got there my husband gave 5$ to the concierge for all his help and we were treated like royalty for the duration of our stay. That evening there was a dinner-show on the beach and we were ushered to the front table. It was a perfect night with a full moon smiling down on us.
Part of my heart stayed in Africa and I have a feeling that I will revisit this enchanting place! Hopefully sooner rather than later 🙂