When I found out that an opportunity to visit Cuba for a Cardiothoracic Surgery (heart and lung surgery. That’s what I do!) information exchange wasn’t going to work out, I was feeling pretty bummed. It didn’t take long for my friend Amanda to cheer me up. When I called her to complain about my missed opportunity, she started telling me about a trip to Africa she was planning with another friend. I thought they might need some assistance and joined in! Kidding, but I did kind of invite myself. They had already settled on Kenya and Tanzania.
We considered initially booking through a partner company of EF Ultimate break (see our previous trip to Italy and Greece) called Go Ahead. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to guarantee that all three of us could make it to both Kenya and Tanzania. We set out to find another option.
Choosing a tour company and lodging option
There are hundreds of tour companies in Kenya alone, but we settled on East Africa Adventure Tours and Safaris. It is a small Kenya-based company that seemingly had all positive reviews on TripAdvisor. The company has several pre-planned itineraries on their website, but are willing to adapt them to fit any changes you may want. They also had lower prices than most of the companies we were considering. They offered three pricing options: budget, mid-range, and luxury. Many companies did not have a mid-range option.
Since we weren’t sure what the camps would be like, we chose the mid-range lodging option, which in hindsight, can only be described as glamping. (Read: glamour camping). We had flushable toilets and hot running water (during certain hours) in all of our rooms. We even had queen-sized beds at a few places! Our meals were included and were mostly buffet style (sometimes three-course meals) for breakfast and dinner. Most of our lunches were from boxes taken with us from the lodge in the morning. They were packed with way more food than we could ever eat.
Although this is my first trip to Africa, it is a trip I will remember for a lifetime. The beauty of Africa is indescribable. We experienced only a fraction of all this country has to offer, and I cannot wait to return.
Getting to the good stuff
We spent the majority of the trip on the road: doing game drives (driving around the parks looking for animals) or on our way to the next park. We had two guides/drivers, Kizito in Kenya, and Nickson in Tanzania. They both quickly learned that we are hardcore travelers who don’t like taking breaks. They both deserve a shout-out for driving us around nearly 12 hours a day. While most trucks would find a safe spot in the park to stop and eat, we enjoyed most of our lunches while watching the big cats eat theirs or en route to the next exciting find. We even threw Nickson for a loop when we ate our lunches as he ran around, trying to get us checked out of the Serengeti. He stopped several hours later, worried that we might be getting too hungry and asked, “Where are your lunch boxes?” as we returned from the bathroom empty-handed.
Here are the highlights of our trip:
Kenyan National History Museum, David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, and Giraffe Centre
The original itinerary had us headed straight to Masai Mara after landing in Kenya; however we asked if we could stay in Nairobi to check out the Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Centre. The tour company was happy to oblige and also set us up with an included tour of the National History Museum.
Due to traffic in Nairobi (it’s insane!), we only had about an hour and a half to enjoy the museum before we headed off to the baby elephants. We were given a guided tour through the early history of Kenya, including their independence from Britain in 1963. It was interesting to see the changes that were made after the separation and how the British rule still influences things today. There are a few animals inside as well, including a huge snake…and an American alligator?
Next, we headed to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. The orphanage is open from 11-12 PM daily. Visitors are invited to view the feeding and bathing of baby elephants while learning about conservation efforts in Kenya. The center takes in babies who have lost their mothers (from poaching and drought) from all over Kenya. They give them 24-hour care for years with the hope of eventually reintroducing them back into the wild.
Lastly, we stopped at the Giraffe Center. This center was created in order to breed the rare Rothchild Giraffe (a subspecies only found in East Africa) and bring them back from extinction. Their conservation efforts have been pretty successful. According to their website, there are now more than 300 Rothchild Giraffes living in various parks throughout Kenya. You can visit the center from 9 AM to 5 PM daily and feed the giraffes little grass pellets. A cool note: for a pretty penny, you can stay at Giraffe Manor and wake up/enjoy tea with the giraffes.
We visited both places during the low season, and both were packed with visitors. Despite the crowds, it was still an excellent opportunity to enjoy the animals. The orphanage’s dedication to conservation makes me happy to spend my time and money on such a noble cause!
After spending another night resting in Nairobi, we woke early (at 2:30 in the morning…thanks jetlag!). After breakfast, we settled in for an enjoyable five-hour drive to Masai Mara National Reserve, a park of nearly 590 square miles. The roads in Kenya were very bumpy and washed out, which made the journey take longer than expected. Because of this, we got a flat tire along the way, but Kizito did a great job fixing it. We arrived mid-afternoon, ate lunch, and headed out for a visit to a Maasai village and afternoon game drive.
The Masai Mara was a great place to begin our safari adventure. In the first 30 minutes, we saw both lions and cheetahs! On day two, we enjoyed a full day in the park. The day started with an early morning hot air balloon safari (see below), included the most incredible elephant experience, and ended with Kizito driving around the park. While sitting in traffic in Nairobi, Kizito bought us a newspaper to kill time. Right on the front page was a picture of a zebra foal seen in the Masai Mara with spots instead of stripes. He was named Tira by a Maasai guide. I asked Kizito if we could see him, and he laughed.
There was also a leopard in a tree about two kilometers down the road from the little Tira. Leopards are very difficult to spot because they tend to hide in shady trees. There are people who spend 3-4 days in the Masai Mara and never see a leopard. When Kizito stopped to tell another driver about it, the guy just laughed, shook his head in disbelief, and drove off. He didn’t believe it was possible to see two rare things that close together!
This was the very beginning of a common scenario where we would ask to see something, the guides would laugh and say “very rare,” and then we would find it. By the time we left the Masai Mara, we had already seen four of the Big 5 (eight lions, three leopards, two families of elephants, zero rhinos, and seven buffalo). “Now, we just need to see a rhino!!” Kizito laughs. What an amazing trip!
Maasai Village visit
In our itinerary, there was a possibility of an early morning hot air balloon ride (to view the wildebeest migration from above) OR a Maasai village tour. Fortunately, we were able to do both. Although they are no longer able to remain completely nomadic because the government forces them to send their children to school, the Maasai people are one of the only tribes left in Africa to maintain many of their customs and traditions. The males can be seen along the roads in both Kenya and Tanzania, in their traditional tartan cloth, bringing their cows, sheep, and goats to graze. The women stay back and maintain the household—building the homes, making food, fetching water, and making jewelry to sell. Their diet consists mainly of meat, ugali (a cornmeal porridge), milk, and blood.
For a small fee, we spent an hour or two in the village and we’re lucky enough to see the warriors back from their training. They performed the adamu, a traditional jumping dance, showed us how they make fire, and invited us into their homes to show us the way they lived. After the tour, we had an opportunity to purchase jewelry made by the women in the village. I did a lot of research on these types of visits when I returned to the states. It seems some of these visits can be somewhat staged for tourists and include extreme pressure to buy the jewelry. Kizito arranged our tour at the last minute, and we were not pressured to give any money except for the visit fee.
Hot air balloon safari
We were fortunate to be able to schedule a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Due to the season, East Africa Adventure recommended we do this in the Masai Mara. The wildebeest migrate from the Serengeti, and this would be the best opportunity to see them. We woke up at 330 in the morning and drove for over an hour through the dark park before reaching our balloon.
This was my first time in a hot air balloon, and it had been on my to-do list for a long time. I never imagined my first time would be in Africa!
As we floated gently over the park, we saw thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. We even got to see our first elephants!
The ride ended with a delicious champagne breakfast right in the middle of the savanna! They even had made to order omelets.
Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha, and Cresent Island
Following such a fantastic time in the Masai Mara, we didn’t know how the trip could get any better—we were wrong. Next, we headed to the Great Rift Valley. Lake Nakuru National Park, a mere 17 square miles, was once best known for the millions of flamingos that flocked to the area. Due to rising water levels, many have moved on to Lake Bogoria; however, thousands can still be seen. Unfortunately, they were not very close to the shore.
We entered the park for an afternoon game drive. The beautiful lake and wooded area were a significant change from the grasslands. Eventually, the voices on the radio began to get excited. “Is it a rhino? Is it a rhino?!” Kizito laughs and replies with a shrug, “Might be lion… Might be a baby buffalo…”
And then, as we make our way around the corner, the rhino appears!! Ha!! #2
We saw a few more buffalo, plenty of zebras and baboons, and a lot of beautiful scenery. Most importantly, we already crossed off all of the Big 5!
The next morning we left early for the long drive to Amboseli National Park.
Amanda received a tip from one of her patients about a boat ride and a walking tour on Lake Naivasha. We thought this would be an excellent opportunity to stretch our legs and spend some time outside of a vehicle.
We took a quick 30-minute boat ride from Lake Naivasha Resort to Cresent Island. On the way, our guide Sam pointed out several interesting things in the distance: fishermen standing on trees in the middle of the water, many different species of birds, and hippos.
After landing at Cresent Island, we met another guide named Simon and proceeded to make friends with Philip, a very friendly giraffe. We also watched some baby giraffes playing, and got pretty close to some wildebeest.
Philip was clearly way more interested in the acacia leaves than whatever we were doing.
We learned from Simon that hippos have sensitive skin. They spend their days in the water or mud, and at night, they eat to protect their skin from the heat. I thought maybe I could move to Africa as a hippo sunscreen expert, but apparently, they secrete their own red, oily substance, which acts as a sunblock and skin moistener. Sad face. Plus, they’re very aggressive.
Food tip: If you’re making this drive, ask if you can grab lunch from Black Gold Cafe in the Panari Hotel in Nairobi. Kizito ordered ahead so we could just grab it on our way through. We had chicken, veggies, and fresh fruit, basically Kenyan fast-food. It was so, so good.
Amboseli National Park is a park of approximately 150 square miles found in the southern part of Kenya. It is best known for elephants and having the best views of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We drove through the park on our way to our lodge. Mt. Kilimanjaro was completely covered by fog when we arrived, which slowly began to fade as we made our way through.
The elephants were the best part of our time there. We had several experiences where they got a tad too close to the truck for comfort and one interaction with a mom who didn’t appreciate how close we were to her baby.
Mt. Kilimanjaro even peeked out from behind the fog for part of the morning.
And we finally got to see some flamingos that didn’t just look like a big pink mass!
Stay tuned for more about our time in Tanzania!
As I mentioned before, our lodging on this trip can best be described as glamping. We stayed in huts or big canvas tents. Many had wifi available in the bar/reception area. Hot water and electricity, provided by generators and batteries, were accessible for specific hours after dinner and early in the morning.
Mara Sopa Lodge: This place was so cool! Zebras were grazing right outside our hut. They have a pool with great views, and the food was amazing. Plus, it’s only 5 minutes from the park.
Flamingo Hill Camp: This was our first time sleeping in tents. Although they didn’t have locks, the security was incredible, and we didn’t have anything to worry about. Everybody who works there was friendly and fun as well.
Amboseli Sopa Lodge: This place had the best views! We weren’t there long, but looking at Mt. Kilimanjaro during breakfast made this place a highlight. They had the most comfortable beds for our entire stay in Kenya. I recommend grabbing a drink and hanging out at the bar as well.