By Jim Ferri
For many travelers, an African safari is a dream come true. In fact, for many of us, it is the trip of a lifetime.
Recently I joined Friendly Planet’s Best of Kenya and Tanzania Safari #friendlyplanet. It was a wonderful experience, a bit different from other trips I’ve taken. It let me see the fabled wildlife of Africa, and experience the unique culture of two indigenous African tribes.
But, one might wonder, is it really worth traipsing halfway around the world for the experience?
In a word, yes. It’s always exciting to see something, in this case, animals, you’ll see nowhere else. But the real thrill of a safari, however, is just how you see the animals.
In most national parks in the U.S. and Canadian, you primarily stay on the road and see animals near you. Conversely, on a safari, the animals stay put, and you drive into their natural habitat to find them. It’s all up close and exhilarating.
Also, unlike the experience in North American parks, you’re never allowed to get out of your vehicle. Break the rule, and you could become part of the local diet.
In Search of the Safari “Big Five”
You quickly discover that some species aren’t always easy to find since habitats change daily, especially for the “Big Five.” Those fabled five – African elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard ¬– are all the legendary quests of big-game hunters.
Except during the time spent driving between parks – which can be quite long – you’re off-road all of the time, mostly on twice-daily, three-to-four hour “game drives.” The drives are exciting experiences, each entirely different.
Our drives, as most are, were in pop-top safari vehicles, which provided excellent views for everyone. Since most animals don’t fear the vehicles, the driver-guides can get incredibly close to them. That’s not to suggest you should ditch that telephoto lens, however, since you always remain at a comfortable distance.
On the other hand, on several occasions, lions walked right up to the side of our Land Cruiser. And a young male elephant once got uncomfortably close, trumpeting his displeasure at where we had stopped. Our guide quickly shifted into reverse.
Off to Kenya
I experienced one significant glitch early on when at the last moment Lufthansa canceled my flight from Frankfurt to Nairobi.
Fortunately, I was able to rebook later, and Friendly Planet had me met at the airport in Nairobi. I was soon off to join the tour, but had, unfortunately, lost a day.
I caught up with our small group at the Sweetwaters Tented Camp in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. A 90,000-acre wildlife conservancy, Ol Pejeta is best known for its efforts to save the near-extinct northern white rhino.
I didn’t know what to expect at Sweetwaters but found the word “tented” a bit misleading. The rooms are not on the ground but in large tents high off it. Each has a four-poster bed and private bath. It was comfortable, the food was good and the bar up to par.
As in all the camps in which we stayed, an electronic fence encircles Sweetwaters. It allows animals to come within viewing distance but also ensures one’s safety. The first night I looked out from my tent doorway I saw a rhino grazing about 200 yards away.
As expected, we found plenty of wildlife the following day, including gazelles, Cape Buffalo, giraffes, rhinoceros and numerous colorful birds. What we didn’t expect to see was a simple monument dedicated to several rhinos that had been killed by poachers. Under a solitary tree on the equator, small tombstone-like markers stood like little sentinels in memory of the animals.
Samburu Game Reserve
Before setting off for the Samburu Game Reserve the next day, we set out on another morning game drive. Each drive was unique and productive, and that morning we found ourselves amid a large herd of elephants. It was fascinating to watch the herd with their young move so quietly while feeding on the grassland and brush.
After three hours we were off north to the remote Samburu Game Reserve in Kenya’s Rift Valley for two days.
Samburu is a semi-desert savannah that was inaccessible for many years. Although small in size compared to other Kenyan parks, it attracts numerous wildlife. Its Uaso Nyiro River also has a large population of Nile crocodiles.
Animal sightings are a communal effort on game drives, which usually start slow. But after an hour or so, guide radios come alive as guides share their discoveries with one another. You’re soon racing off on a bouncing ride cross-country, camera at the ready. In Samburu, that was how we found the elusive leopard, which we followed for an hour.
Another good experience in Samburu was an afternoon visit to the Samburu Tribe, the nomadic herders of the region. We enjoyed a fascinating hour in their village discussing tribal culture and daily life with Samburu tribesmen. We never encountered language difficulties in Kenya since English is one of the two official languages, the other being Swahili.
Our lodgings were at the Samburu Intrepids Lodge, another upscale “camp.” In fact, throughout the trip I found all of our accommodations to be upscale. Several members of our group who had been on other Friendly Planet tours said they continued to book with FP tours because of the value it offered, the experience of its guides, and the quality of the hotels.
Lake Nakuru National Park
Six days into our trip we headed to Lake Nakuru National Park, considered one of Kenya’s finest. It’s on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, the immense trench that stretches 3,700 miles from Lebanon to Mozambique.
En route to the park, we passed tea plantations covering the hillsides, before stopping at an overlook for a view of the southern end of the Rift Valley. It was an impressive site, also welcomed as a break on the long ride.
On arrival, we dropped our bags at the Sarovia Lion Hill Game Lodge. With clusters of individual rooms set on a shaded hillside, it provided a different atmosphere than our previous accommodations.
The park is another rhino sanctuary and also home to the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes and other wildlife. It also provided our first glimpse of pink flamingos. Unfortunately, since rising water levels now made roads near the lake impassable, they could only be viewed from afar.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s most famous reserve, owes its fame to the annual migration there of millions of wildebeests and zebras from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
At any time of year, however, Maasai Mara is an incredible place. Its grassy plain and lush outcrops are home to an astonishing number and variety of wildlife. They include lions, cheetahs, zebras, hippos, buffalo, elephant, wildebeest, etc. It also has a fantastic range of birdlife including ostriches, cranes, and storks.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Maasai Mara. Virtually everywhere you turn there is animal activity…lions with their kill, cheetahs lolling beneath an acacia, hippos lolling in their pools.
The numerous animals are so overwhelming that you can become nonchalant at news of sightings. But then again, who can remain blasé at the sight of a half-dozen ostriches herding 40 or so young?
As in Samburu, in Maasai Mara, we also visited a local Maasai village. It was fascinating as the warriors discussed their lives and polygamous customs with us.
Our “Out of Africa” Experience
One of the best experiences we found in Maasai Mara was an early morning hot-air balloon ride…16 of us watching the sunrise while taking pictures and viewing wildlife from the air…all while enjoying the most amazing views of the African plain.
Following our hour-long flight, that morning we found an equally incredible experience on the ground.
We each become immersed in our own “Out of Africa” experience, seated on a vast green plain in Kenya surrounded by animals, at a long tablecloth-covered table with glasses of Champagne, mimosas and Bloody Mary’s; our plates full of fresh fruit, omelettes, pancakes, French toast, freshly great baked croissants, bacon and sausage, etc.
Nowhere else could we feel we were more part of the old British Empire. At an additional $450 per person, it was expensive but worth the experience.
Back to Nairobi, Kenya
Two-thirds of the way through our safari, we returned to Nairobi. The following morning our trip would turn southward to Tanzania to explore the abundant wildlife in its national parks.
First, however, three events still awaited us in Kenya, all in Nairobi.
The first was the Karen Blixen Museum, the former home of the author of “Out of Africa.” Whether a fan of the film or not, you’ll likely find the museum interesting. The house and grounds are lovely, and the background given by the guides is quite interesting and intriguing.
The last was the “world-famous” Carnivore Restaurant, an all-you-can-eat dining experience. As a carnivore, I was looking forward to the experience, expecting to sample game meat. It doesn’t serve game, however, only beef, chicken, pork, and turkey, most of which I’ve found much better elsewhere.
The second, however, the Langata Giraffe Center, was over-the-top. The Giraffe Center protects the Rothschild’s Giraffe, which is near extinction in western Kenya.
In 1979, only 120 of the species survived. Today, thanks to the center, the population is over 300, with many released into parks including Lake Nakuru National Park. It is, as Lonely Planet says, “one of Kenya’s good-news conservation stories.”
Making the news better is that at the center you can hand-feed the giraffes from a raised wooden structure. You can even hug one. And kiss one, which I can tell you from personal experience, is quite an experience.