Day 1: Arrival in Kenya and Lake Nakuru
What I Did: I arrived at the airport at the start of the morning (and after around 30 hours of travel). East Africa Adventure Tours was the company scheduled to whisk me through Africa and I was met by my guide and a tour manager who reviewed the itinerary for my journey and secured final payment. We then set out on a 3 hour drive to Lake Nakuru, but to set the record straight; all proposed drive times turned out to be longer than indicated because of traffic and rough roads. If you suffer from motion sickness, plan accordingly. Even if you aren’t normally affected by motion sickness, plan accordingly because some of the roads are intense. The experience is still altogehter worth the lengthy drive times and nausea inducing roads.
We arrived at our hotel shortly before lunch was expected to be over, but the wonderful staff gladly accommodated us and extended the lunch hours. After lunch, a small wash up and a quick nap; we set out for the afternoon safari. On my first afternoon in Africa, the breathtaking sights were giving me an unexpected case of sensory overload and I was awestruck. To see monkeys bouncing around above grazing zebras and buffalos while giraffes slowly stalked past lounging rhinos nearby to sly hyenas observing it all was much more than I expected for my first afternoon. That was just the beginning!
Where I stayed: On the first evening, I stayed overnight at Sarova Lion Hill Lodge reminiscient of a summer cabin. The staff was welcoming and the amenities left nothing to be desired. None of the properties included televisions, but I hadn’t even noticed because I was wholly interested in these new interactions and experiences. Before dinner, there was a show featuring African ladies and gentleman demonstrating local dances. All meals were included in the tour package and this property provided buffet style meals with a variety of options including local samplings and standard items (such as chicken, fish or beef). Also, the properties are able to accomodate dietary restrictions and requests. The tour company indicated this lodging option as a 5 star accomodation and I was completely pleased.
Day 2-3: Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara
What I did: In the morning, we went out for another game drive at Lake Nakuru. The morning sightings included an assortment of birds, monkeys, warthogs, gazelle, waterbucks, buffalo, hyenas, zebras, giraffes and our very first lion spotting although the lioness was almost camoflauged by the tall grass. We departed Lake Nakuru for the 4 hour journey to Masai Mara with a stop for lunch and gas along the way. The roads for most of this journey were paved but uneven, so when our guide announced that the last bit of road would be rough then proceeded to buckle his seatbelt; I knew I was in for a wild ride. At some point, I figured that my guide was a Nascar driver in his former life. In case you were wondering, Nascar drivers and rough roads are not a good combination. And so for 2 hours, I prayed for deliverance from those unruly Kenyan roads and came very close to leaving the chewed up contents of my lunch on the side of a dirt road. But when I arrived at Masai Mara, all was forgiven…
On the afternoon game drive through Masai Mara, silouttes of elephants appeard on the horizon before they were right upon you. They moved along with no urgency as they watched us watching them; passing by so close that you could reach out and touch them but resisting the urge because of the respect they command on sheer size alone. Ostriches flocked by and jackals darted through the brush. Masai Mara presented numerous wildlife gems including: a baby leopard sighting on our first evening, a cheetah family looking full and relaxed during a morning game drive, families of lions throughout the day and our only up close sighting of a hippo out of water on one evening. Not to mention the many other sightings of fowl, wildebeest and different species of giraffe (who knew there were different types?)
Self drive safaris are permitted, but personally, I would not recommend it as navigating the expanse can be quite challenging and there are no road signs, road maps or even real roads for that matter. Traversing the area is better suited for the experienced and guides communicate via radio to share information on wildlife sightings. Unless you are fluent in Swahili or thoroughly familiar with the terrain, I would highly recommend a guide. There were several occasions where our guide made radio contact with other guides then relayed to us that there had been a sighting at a certain location. He would zoom off to the location sans GPS and thereby solidifying my faith in his navigating skills because in every direction, all I could see were flatlands but he knew exactly where he was taking us. There was an incident where another guide pointed out a problem with the tire of our vehicle and I couldn’t help but think that this was about to be an experience straight out of the game Oregon Trail. I just knew we were going to have to grab a buffalo, caulk the wagon or ford the river and buy a wheel at the nearest town… Basically, a set up for failure! But our guide examined the faulty tire and we continued on without incident.
While in Masai Mara, we visited a Maasai village where the tribes have historical claim to the Motherland and have held fast to their traditions and nomadic lifestyle. They continue to be resourceful, living off the land and they breed warriors who (at the age of 15) spend 3 years in the wilderness to learn the skills that turn boys into men and men into warriors. The children are educated in traditional schools learning both English and Swahili, but they do not abandon their culture and are cultivated in Maasai customs outside of the classroom. I had the privilege of taking part in the traditional Maasai dances and toured the village; witnessing traditional fire starting, home building and cattle herding. They tutored me on their age-old customs and their daily routines. I was humbled to learn how far the children walk to get to school and how everyone makes a daily journey for clean, drinkable water (I soon learned that these lengthy walks for water and education were common throughout Kenya and Tanzania, but it made me all the more ashamed of the things I take for granted and the privileges to which we are so accustomed in the Western world). I met the medicine woman of the village and was adopted as granddaughter by a skilled toolsmith. That just means I’m family now! This was a cultural experience that I highly recommend to all visitors of Kenya. There was a small cost associated with the visit, but the monies are pooled together between the villages and are used to better the learning facilities for the local children. In other words, money well spent!
On my last night in Masai Mara, as the sun began to set; the moon looked as if it were standing atop the mountains. I have never seen a moon as beautiful as the Kenyan moon over Masai Mara. It was almost as if I could reach out and touch it.
Where I stayed: In Masai Mara, my accomodations were at the Mara Sarova Luxury Tented Camp. The rooms were exactly what the name suggests: luxury tents. The bathroom was the only solid structure about the room. I embraced the novelty and enjoyed every minute of it. In Masai Mara, the weather was slightly cooler in the evenings during February. Being that the room was a tent, heaters were not an option. While most of the guests were at dinner, the room attendants would bring hot packs for the bed and would enclose the beds in the mesh mosquito netting and zip up the tent “windows.”
Several of the properties observed a lights out, power off period to conserve energy and provided flashlights and candles in the absence of power. This generally occurred very late in the evening when most guests were fast asleep so it went unnoticed. This was another 5 star option that aimed to please.
Day 4: Masai Mara to Serengeti
What I did: After a long and rough 7 hour drive, a stop at Kenyan immigrations then at Tanzanian immigrations and a guide swap; we arrived in the famed Serengeti. The long drives will really wear you out until you realize that you’re surrounded by beauty and majesty everywhere you look. We saw many more of the same animals, but it never seemed to get old. We saw types of birds that we had not yet seen, crocodiles and a strange little animal called a “Dik-dik,” which I didn’t know even existed and had to get clarification on the spelling because… well… I’m sure it’s obvious! On that day, I also saw first hand why self-drive safaris probably aren’t the best option. Let’s just say that “wheels up” is a term that should be reserved for planes and not vehicles on safari.
Where I stayed: Serengeti accommodations were handled by Mbalageti Lodge. This property was a mix of wood cabin meets luxury tent. The lodge provided no fencing as some of the other properties had so we literally slept in the wilderness. At check-in, we were informed that guests should not walk the property alone after 6:30 pm as animals may approach and the rooms had walking sticks for daytime walks. We were also notified that armed escorts would be provided to accompany guests to dinner and it was also recommended that no food be left in the room to avoid scavaging animals. Dinner was served in the hotel restaurant with outdoor seating providing amazing views of the Serengeti. Never had I felt so close to nature, even after spending days on safari. The one drawback of this property was the minimal wi-fi provided. Up until this point, all other hotels provided wi-fi in the common areas which sometimes extended into the rooms. However, the wifi provided by Mbalageti was only capable of handling emails and minimal usage. No social media or wifi calling was supported, but I suppose this was only a minor shortcoming. This property was considered a standard option as compared to a 5 star property by the organizing tour company.
Day 5: Serengeti to Ngorongoro Crater
What I did: After a morning game drive on the Serengeti, we were on our way to Ngorongoro Crater with a stop for lunch at a small picnic site. We were joined by a multi-colored lizard and an odd, giant bird. Before arriving at Ngorongoro we stopped for a visit a the historic digging site known as Oldupai by the locals and incorrectly termed Olduvai many years ago. We received a history lesson from one of the excavators and had a glance at some of the archealogical findings before making our way to the Sopa Lodge for the evening. On our way, a young child flagged down our vehicle and our guide translated that he was asking for water. How can you not be humbled when so many among us desire just the basic necessities that we take for granted on a daily basis? Of course, we gave him bottles of water and I only wish that I could help with a more permanent solution instead of a temporary band-aid on a gunshot wound.
Where I stayed: The Sopa Lodge was one of the more modern properties throughout the trip and was more comparable to standard Western hotels and lodging. The Ngorongoro area was increasingly cooler than anywhere we had been thus far and the hot pack was a welcomed addition to the bedding. One quirk about this hotel was that the hot water was turned off around 8:00pm but the lights and power remained on all night. The excellent service and luxury accommodations at this 5 star property were just what I needed after activity full days and long drives through Tanzania.
Day 6: Ngorngoro Crater
What I did: In addition to the poitns of elevation that provided spectacular views of the crater, it was at Ngorongoro Crater that I was able to get my first up-close views of the elusive African rhino. My guide informed me that the park rangers encourage Rhinos to keep their distance from humans by scaring them away from vehicles. This may seem slightly disruptive, but since poachers have almost completely eradicated Rhino populations throughout the world; it is a necessary measure. I was also told that if park rangers see you attempting to kill an animal, they will shoot you on the spot. No jail time, no questions asked. So, in order to get a decent picture of the Rhino, I had to focus my camera through my binoculars: Resourceful! It was also at Ngornogoro Crater that I saw my first adult male lion with a fully grown mane and paws large enough to forever reinforce his place as King of the Jungle. I saw Wildebeest herds with week old calves and flamingos were so abundant that the waters looked pink tinted. For some reason, we asked the question: “How can you tell the difference between male and femal wildebeest?” The answer was As Simple as Snow: “You can have a look at the balls. The males have balls and the females have tits.” <– Well, there you have it!
Where I stayed: My overnight was at Eileen’s Trees Inn. It was a quaint property tucked away amidst a bustling city. It was almost as if you had walked into a Secret Garden where blooming flowers and fruit trees abounded. Most of the properties had impressive pools, but it was at Eileen’s where I first sat by the pool for just a few short moments to revel in the beauty of my surroundings. At dinner, we enjoyed a few laughs with our guide and, despite my aversion to hops, I sampled the local beer: Tusker. If I had to give this property a rating, it would definitely be 5 stars!
Day 7 and 8: Ngorongoro to Moshi town and Mt. Kilimanjaro
What I did: From Ngorongoro, a relatively short drive brought us to the town of Moshi where we met with our next guide. On that first afternoon, we visited the Kinukamori waterfalls and learned of the legend behind the name. We toured the ancient Chagga caves and became aware of the tribe’s resourcefulness in times of war. We also discovered that the Chagga and the Maasai were once enemies who fought over land and resources. We visited traditional Chagga homes and learned of customary practices before heading to our lodging for the evening. On the following morning, the ascent to Mandara Hut was underway. Mandara Hut is a stopping point on Mt. Kilimanjaro at 2720m. This is the common stopping point for a day hike, but it is no small feat. This test of my limits only made me want to come back and conquer the beast mountain! As an added bonus; my guide was extremely knowledgeable, exceptionally experienced and particularly entertaining. By this time in late February, he could boast 6 successful hikes to the summit for this year. This is not to mention his 15+ years of experience climbing this vastly challenging mountain. I’m certain that when I return for the summit, I will undoubtedly call upon the same guide. When I completed the 8 hour, 35k step, leg burning, sweat pouring hike; I felt like I had conquered the mountain (well, a portion of it at least) even though I looked more like the mountain had conquered me… It was an accomplishment for which I am still most proud!
Where I stayed: Over the 2 day span in Moshi, accommodations were at the Marangu Hotel. The staff was most welcoming, but there were a few drawbacks to this property that left more to be desired. For one, the absence of wifi was a major peeve. There was a sign that indicated that their wifi was awaiting repair, but that sign aided me none the more… You can take the girl out of the city, but don’t take the wifi away from the girl! Also, meal services were below average and although the meals were filling and appetizing; service was slow and sluggish. On the evening after the Kili hike, I opted to skip dinner but was awoken in the middle of the night when the staff realized that I hadn’t come down. I’m not sure whether to count this as a positive or a negative so I’ll just leave those facts there and let you decide. Another downside was that this property did not accommodate the guides with meals as did the other properties and the “to go” lunches provided were poorly packaged and caused a bit of a mess. The property itself was great and the staff was helpful, but I would definitely recommend an overhaul in service to earn this property the excellent ratings secured by other properties.
Day 9: Amboseli
What I did: In the morning, we set out on our way back to Kenya where we met with our original guide and said our goodbyes to an incredible experience in Tanzania. It was at this point that I realized how much I preferred the Tanzanian roads… A few hours drive brought us to our hotel and we decided to skip the game drives and opted for an afternoon of relaxation and rejuvenation after a long week. Monkeys littered the property and a hippo was spotted in the distance from our porch as we settled into our hotel. Views of Amboseli National Park and Mt. Kilimanjaro at were clear at every turn. We relished the wifi access from the lounge as unobstructed views of Kili became visible through passing clouds. Aching feet and sore muscles prompted us to enjoy a full body massage and a touch-up pedicure from the hotel spa, which was just what the doctor ordered. Sleep came easy after a day of unwinding.
Where I stayed: The Ol Tukai Lodge provided 5 star service through and through. From their attentive waitstaff to their excellent spa services, every need was met. The food was exceptional and the grounds were beautiful with outstanding views in every direction. The rooms had an attendant (identified by name on a welcome card), who was always ready to assist in any way possible. The simplistic luxury was most welcomed after days of rough roads and difficult hikes!
Day 10 and 11: Amboseli to Taita Hills and departure
What I did: An early morning game drive through Amboseli provided picturesque views of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a backdrop for wildlife roaming the lands. In this park, over 60 families of elephants take residence so there were ample sightings of the massive beauties. Hippos, hyenas and other wildlife grazed the lands which are relatively free of big cats and seemingly a paradise for the hunted. From Amboseli, we made our way to Taita Hills for lunch and an afternoon game drive. As our time in Africa was coming to an end, I took one last opportunity to revel in the majesty. On the following morning, we made the 6 hour drive to the airport (luckily on paved roads). By the time I boarded my plane back to the states, I had learned how to say “hello!” in Swahili and Maasai, I had learned several words and phrases in Swahili and I enjoyed a thoroughly humbling cultural experience that cannot be aptly described with words.
Where I stayed: Sarova Salt Lick hotel was an interestingly designed property in the middle of the wildlife reserve. This was my first experience with bats in Africa as they swooped overhead on an evening stroll… Needless to say, I panicked until I assessed the situation. Comical at best. The staff at the reception desk were mostly oblivious and apparently distracted, but all other attendants provided exceptional service. This property had an assortment of craft cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and their desserts were mouthwatering! Another 5 star lodge to wrap up an amazing journey.
Through my experiences, I have decided that the beauty of God IS Africa. God lives there.