Guided tours are not typically my preferred style of travel, but, in this case, my parents booked their experience through Odysseys Unlimited and I decided to tag along. I'm not a total convert yet, but I must admit that flying private and having my bags carried/logistics managed, for two full weeks, was a delight. Plus, we had an amazing guide, drivers and tour companions!
The trip was curated in such a way that it almost felt like the crescendo of a fine dining experience. Everyone met in Nairobi for apéritifs. After our appetites were whetted, hors d'oeuvres (Amboseli) were passed around. Then we enjoyed appetizers (Lake Manyara) before moving on to the salad course (Ngorongoro Crater). Entrées followed (Serengeti). Finally, we ended with a decadent dessert (Maasai Mara).
Starting from the beginning of the feast...
Now the largest hub in East Africa, Kenya's capital has come a long way since it earned itself the nickname 'Nairobbery', in the 1990's. No longer so lawless, brutality and corruption have improved considerably over the past few decades. Nairobi's city center is now less threatening and there are fewer street children, beggars and touts. That said, like anywhere, it still pays to take precautions and to be vigilant.
It was an interesting time to be in Kenya with the new president, William Ruto, being sworn in (a month after narrowly winning the election and then battling a challenge in the Supreme Court). Also, Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s longest-serving monarch, passed away. As a proud member of the Commonwealth, the flag of the Republic of Kenya was flown at half-mast in honor of Her Royal Highness, for the entire morning period.
I stayed at the lovely Hotel Fairmont The Norfolk, a colonial landmark dating back to 1904. Its old-world charm is matched by its elegant design. It's about a 35-minute drive away from Nairobi's international airport. I arranged a car service in advance, but it wasn't necessary as both Uber and Bolt operate locally. I used them each multiple times and they proved to be easy, efficient, cheap and I felt safe.
Top sights in Nairobi include the following:
1. Karura Forest: This little surprise, in the middle of the city, offers over 50kms of walking, biking and nature trails. It's open 6am-6pm every day of the week and, as a tourist, entry will set you back 600Ksh (~$6) per person. Highlights include wild monkeys, a 15-meter waterfall (which was supposed to be orange, but wasn't) and a very decent cafe.
2. Giraffe Center: This non-profit organisation was established to protect and breed the endangered Rothschild giraffes. These towering animals are interactive and love to be fed. The Giraffe Center shares a backyard with Giraffe Manor, a luxury boutique hotel that I tried stay at, but all 12 rooms were reserved over a year in advance. Due to the exclusivity of the manor, people are unable to visit if they're not staying there.
3. David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage: I didn't go because I wasn't organized enough, but I have it on good authority that it's worth a visit. It's only open to the public from 11am-12pm each day and you must book far in advance. During that hour, you get to see the orphaned baby elephants feed and play.
4. Eat at Carnivore: Similar to the concept of a Brazilian steakhouse, an army of carvers will visit your table to shave bits of various meats onto your plate, alongside a selection of salads and sauces. Different to other typical Brazilian steakhouses though is the exotic selection of meats available to try, including ostrich, crocodile and ox balls. If you're feeling indulgent, wash it all down with the house sugar-cane cocktail called 'dawa'.
Leaving Nairobi, we journeyed to southern Kenya to begin the safari portion of the trip. Stop number one was Amboseli National Park, located in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest mountain, which is actually a dormant volcano). Sadly Kili was being shy and she never came out from behind her cloud cover.
Amboseli is known especially for its big-tusked elephant population (more elephants reside here than any other Kenyan preserve). Along with the celebrated elephants, there are 50 species of other large animals here, including giraffe, hyena, hippo, buffalo and Africa's mixed grill (wildebeest, gazelle and zebra).
After two nights in Amboseli, we proceeded on to Lake Manyara, which required a border crossing, overland, from Kenya into Tanzania. We stopped for lunch at the beautiful Arusha Coffee Lodge, along the way.
Peaceful Lake Manyara is one of Tanzania’s smallest parks, at just 125 square miles. It was deemed “the loveliest lake in Africa” by Ernest Hemingway.
Whilst Manyara's most famous residents are its baboons, the lake and its surroundings are also a sanctuary for many other herbivores, like rooting warthogs and flocks of pink flamingos.
A spectacular full moon lit up the sky the one night we stayed in Lake Manyara (9th September 2022).
Next, we drove on a dusty, dry road to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a protected area and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Tanzania. The area is named after Ngorongoro Crater, the world's biggest intact volcanic caldera.
We arrived at our accommodation, late in the afternoon. All rooms at the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge are perched along the Crater's rim and have their own balcony, with uninterrupted views of the volcanic basin. Sunset was pretty, but when we awoke the next morning, the view was nothing short of breath-taking. Cotton candy-colored clouds cascaded into the crater, looking like a orangey-purple, fluffy waterfall.
We set out early in morning for a game drive in the Crater and witnessed nuzzling zebras, piles of hippos, grazing elephants, curious wildebeests and graceful gazelles. Because Ngorongoro has abundant food and water year-round, the animals do not migrate as they do between Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. And because they live within the confines of the steep-walled depression, Ngorongoro’s animals are less shy and more approachable than those at other reserves.
After Ngorongoro, we were Serengeti-bound. On the way, we visited the Olduvai Gorge, known as the "cradle of civilization". In 1959 anthropologist Mary Leakey discovered a 1.8 million-year-old skull and revolutionized the study of human evolution. Olduvai ranks as one of the world’s most important prehistoric archaeological sites. The Leakey family continues to research early human development at Olduvai to this day.
That afternoon, we did our first game drive in the Serengeti, a 5,700-square-mile “endless plain”. With the highest concentration of large animals on the planet, the Serengeti is one of the best locales to get up close and personal with Africa's big kitties (lion, cheetah and leopard).
Twice each year (December–March and June–October), some 1.3 million wildebeest, 200k zebra and 300k Thomson’s gazelle migrate to new grazing lands between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti, sparking one of nature’s most spectacular sights.
After two nights in the Serengeti, we left Tanzania, crossed back into Kenya overland and continued on to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, by air.
Maasai Mara is Africa’s premier game reserve, rich with animal life and luxury accommodations. I stayed at Sarova Mara, in what was known as a "tented camp". Don't be fooled by the phrase though; I was in no way roughing it. My living quarters were equipped with plumbing, electricity, a full tub and separate rainfall shower, hardwood floors, lavish furnishing, an insanely comfortable bed and a porch.
Thursday, 15th September 2022 will go down as the best day of the whole trip. It started off with a serene sunrise balloon ride over Maasai Mara.
From the air, we saw herds of buffalo, elephant and wildebeest as well as dazzles of zebra and a tower of giraffe.
Once back safely on the ground, we enjoyed a lovely champagne brunch followed by sightings of ALL of Africa's most iconic wildlife, known as the "Big Five" (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros). This term, coined in the late 1800s, refers to what trophy hunters considered the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Today, it's the holy grail for safari-goers to spot.
It's a day-to-day struggle in the bush. For many of the animals, it's kill or be killed. Although it can be difficult to see death, it's also the circle of life. If you can turn a blind eye to the gore and appreciate the expertise survival required, a kill in the wild can be quite thrilling. We saw three on this day! Maybe don't look at the pictures below though, if you're squeamish.
The Mara also provided glimpses of some very cute baby warthogs, smiling hippos and suntanning crocs. A beautiful sunset rounded off our perfect safari day.
Sadly, all trips must come to an end though. I flew from Maasai Mara back to Nairobi's domestic airport, spent a few hours lounging around at the Fairmont and then headed to the international airport to return to my real life in London.
The trip was magical! If you ever get the chance to go on safari in Africa, it's worth a fortune (although it costs one too). It's the sort of stuff bucket lists are made of!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Check COVID requirements for both countries before you enter. For Kenya, there was a health form and proof of vaccination portal that were needed to be completed ahead of arrival, but these things keep changing.
I needed a single entry eVisa to enter Kenya (crossing overland in and out apparently doesn't count as multiple entries). It didn't take very long to apply for and it got approved in a few days. You may not receive an email indicating that your visa has been approved, so keep checking the portal. Be sure to print 1-2 color copies of the visa and take them with you. For Tanzania, our visas were bought and processed on arrival ($100 USD had to be a new, crisp bill).
Kenya has banned all single use plastics, so leave carrier bags and water bottles at home.
Don't drink the tap water in either country and brush your teeth with bottled water.
My mobile worked great in Kenya, but service was spotty in Tanzania.
‘Jambo’ is a greeting in Swahili and you will hear it everywhere.
If your driver pulls over and says he's ‘checking the tires’, he's going for a wee.
The Schilling is the official currency in Kenya, but USD are accepted. In Tanzania, they use the Shilingi, but USD is also common/accepted.
Roads and the parks were very dusty, so don't wear white and bring a camera brush/cleaner. The roads were also bumpy, so ladies should wear sports bra.
The tsi tsi flies in the Serengeti are no joke. Lube up with DEET/saltidin and don't wear navy blue nor black.
The weather varied, be sure to pack accordingly. Temperatures are often much cooler in the mornings and evenings, during game drives. Layers are best.
Risk of malaria was low at the time of year when I went, but it's worth checking with a travel clinic and deciding if you want to take antimalarials or not.
Definitely bring binoculars. Because the parks are all protected, you can't off-road, and, in some places, the animals can be very far away from the roads.
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