Once up a time, in a land so far away, there lived thousands and thousands of wild animals in their own habitat, planet earth. A place like this still exists and it’s called Africa. If you have not yet been there and dream of going, I hope your dream comes true, because I promise you, there is nothing like it in the world. As someone once said, you may leave Africa, but Africa will never leave you.
A few years ago we fell in love with South Africa and we decided right there and then that we would one day return to Africa and relive its magic. So four years later, we embarked on our journey to Kenya and Tanzania on an amazing error fare ticket from New York City. After long hours of flying with our five year old, we were picked up at the airport by our safari representative from It Started in Africa. There are hundreds of tour operators specializing in safaris but we could not have been happier with the company we chose which tailor assembled our itinerary as chosen by us.
Our private guide greeted us and our journey from Nairobi to Amboseli National Park begun with a smile and African warmth. Along the way, living among the locals, we spotted zebras and giraffes within close proximity to our vehicle. We had not even arrived at our destination and already nature was flaunting its treasures. Before we even made it to our tented camp, we ventured on our first game drive of this vacation. In South Africa game drives were fun but spotting animals was always a difficult task. In Kenya, on our first game drive, we spotted herds of elephants and two lions playing the mating game. The first time our daughter saw hundreds of elephants around us, she yelled “this is the best day ever!” There were entire families of elephants, hundreds of them together; there were massive bull elephants and there were young “Dumbo” elephants playing in the grass. Elephants were everywhere, including by our tented camp gate. Though our first place had a small fence around it, it is typical in Africa to be escorted by a ranger to and from your room at night as most lodges are right in the middle of nature.
Satisfied with our sighting in Kenya, the next day we drove towards Tanzania, hoping to see the majestic Kilimanjaro along the way. Unfortunately, we only ended up seeing the mountain upon leaving Tanzania, as Kilimanjaro is shy and hides among the clouds.
One of our first stops in Tanzania was a Maasai village. As anyone who has been to those parts knows, when tourists arrive, they are greeted with a traditional Maasai dance, which traditional or not, is quite interesting and interactive. Over the years and with an increase in tourism, the Maasai tribes have lost some of the mystery and authenticity, however, driving through the country, it is clear that the tribes still live as they used to. Their homes are made of cow dung and mud and the entire tribe moves to locations according to the season. They are a people very much so connected to their land and the earth. They live in closely knit communities and share everything they own.
At this particular Maasai village, fourteen children were learning English under the shade of a tree. The tribe’s chief was hoping to receive enough money to build a small school. Whenever we travel to less developed countries, we bring small gifts for the children to instill the virtue of sharing into our daughter. Though the kids were happy with our gifts, everywhere we went in Africa, we felt that there is a culture of receiving and that the locals always wanted more. For a long time, the West has been sending money and donations to Africa and the locals have become accustomed to it, in return always asking for more and in particular money. If you plan on visiting a Maasai village, keep in mind that they will attempt to sell you crafts and the crafts are about ten times more expensive than elsewhere. We ended up buying some souvenirs solely to support the community.
Our first park in Tanzania was Tarangire National Park, well known for its baobab trees and amount of elephants. A less known park, it certainly did not disappoint. We saw many giraffes, zebras, elephants and some very sneaky monkeys. While we were enjoying our picnic lunch in the middle of the park, a sneaky monkey came and stole cookies right from my lunch bag. These rest stops are small areas in the national parks where tourists can enjoy their lunches right in the middle of it all. We learned in Africa that if humans do not bother the animals, most of the time, animals will not bother the humans. And so we ate, staring at the beauty of the park from our picnic spot on top of the hill. We headed back to our hotel as the water was to rise due to seasonal rains and safari vehicles would be unable to cross certain spots. The land rovers drive through muddy roads and small rivers in Africa making the drive in itself a unique experience.
Approaching our hotel, hundreds of zebras and giraffes crossed our sight. By then, we were out of the national unfenced park and could spot our lodges in sight. We could not believe our eyes; all those animals had migrated close to our lodge as a result of the tall grass in the park. We had not even reached the Serengeti and we were already witnessing the great migration. We checked into our hotel with zebras all around us. Everywhere the eyes could see, thousands of zebras were going about their routine. Safari lodges do not have television for this reason; there is not a moment of boredom on this magical continent as spectacles of nature occur constantly. Our welcome drink was enjoyed in the lobby of Maramboi tented camps with zebras all around us. Our tents here were spacious and extremely clean and though I have never been camping in my life, if all tents looked like the ones in Africa, I would enjoy camping. Most of the tents we stayed at were fully equipped with nice bathrooms and all the amenities of any 3-4 star hotel.
Even the infinity pool here was surrounded by zebras. If you can imagine, we were having refreshing drinks and snacks in the wild, with zebras on one side, wildebeests around and flamingos in our sight. This place was paradise, as were most of the lodges we stayed at. At this camp, we saw dozens of children with their families playing in the pool. We thought we were the only crazy parents in the world to bring our child into malaria stricken areas so it was nice to see that other daring parents do exist.
So is it safe? In Kenya and Tanzania where we were, Africa was extremely safe. With a high unemployment rate, both Kenya and Tanzania appreciate the amount of money brought in by the tourists. If you are worried about malaria and other mosquito transmittable diseases, make sure to bring your malaria medication along with you as well as lots of bug spray as advised by any travel clinic. We took all our precautions since we were travelling with a young one, and fortunately, our trip was uneventful and in fact we saw fewer mosquitoes and flies in Africa than we do on any summer day at home, in Canada.
When our daughter was two, she used to love flamingoes, so Lake Manyara was a mandatory stop for us. The proximity of the pink flamingoes here depends on the season, and in February when we visited, the hundreds of thousands of flamingoes were adorning the shores of the lake but we were only able to see them from afar. As with all the other parks, Manyara had many elephants and lots of baboons and hippos. At one point after passing the hippo pool, our daughter asked us when we would get to the “lion station” 🙂 It was here that one male elephant was coming straight towards our car. While we were all panicking, our driver, Jackson, assured us that the male elephant will not harm us. Staring right at us for ten minutes and approaching closer and closer, we noticed that a mother and baby elephant were coming from the bush to cross the same road that we were on. Once the mother and child crossed, the male elephant followed. It was clear that daddy elephant was just ensuring the safe passage of its family. Relieved, we continued our journey.
Ngorongoro was a place I was not sure I wanted to visit as I had not heard much about it from doing research. Our travel agent and customer happiness manager, as they call themselves, encouraged us to visit this world heritage site. We could not thank him enough for recommending Ngorongoro, as this was the jewel of our safari trip. To begin, we drove up a mountain and took a pit stop at the top. From there, all we could see a gorgeous crater, with a lake in the middle and a green volcanic caldera all around. We then descended into the caldera and discovered a visually overwhelming masterpiece. In this relatively small caldera, there live hundreds of thousands of animals. As the guide described it, Ngorongoro is a real wild zoo. Here, you will see every wild animal roaming free. We saw rhinos and wild hogs; we saw zebras, wildebeests, buffalos, elephants and an entire pride of lions. Among the animals, the Maasai were walking their cattle. Beside the lake, a multitude of safari vehicles were gathered to see the pride of lions crossing our path. First we counted two, then there were six, then there were twelve, then there were twenty six lions, some within arm’s reach. Though the lions appeared to be moving slow, within minutes they were so far that we could barely see them. As they were casually strolling, hundreds of zebras were anxiously waiting to see what the lions were up to. Outnumbered, the lions continued their stroll along the flamingo lined lake.
Ngorongoro truly is nature at its highest masterpiece and if you do make it to Tanzania, make sure to not miss this natural wonder and world heritage site. To top it off, this area is surrounded by some of the most luxurious lodges in the world, including the one we stayed at called Neptune Ngorongoro Luxury lodge which was an unforgettable experience. This lodge was the perfect blend of outstanding scenery and service combined. For one night, staying at this lodge, we felt like royalty and I cannot recommend this place enough if you want all your senses to be pampered.
Leaving this magical paradise, we encounter and entire hill filled with giraffes. Everywhere the eyes can see, giraffes surrounding us in a green tropical place. To get to the Serengeti, you must go through Ngorongoro, and the first hour of our drive from Ngorongoro was a visual spectacle of green, a green I never associated with the African continent. We were very surprised to see such undeveloped land in terms of agriculture when Africa has some of the most arable land in the world. If Africa were to develop agriculturally, they could easily feed the entire world with the vast land they have at their disposal.
Hours later, on arid land, all we could spot were wildebeests and zebras as far as the eyes could see. This was the great migration, and we were right in the middle of it all. Once in a while, we’d spot a lion or two alongside the road just relaxing after a fulfilling meal. There are so many animals everywhere that lions don’t have to work too hard during the great migration. Compared to Ngorongoro, the Serengeti is massive and you could drive for days and never see the same thing twice. The Serengeti hosts the largest migration in the world and is well known for the large lion population. The two days we visited the south part of the Serengeti, we saw all the big five, including cheetahs and a leopard in the distance. We observed fourteen lions eating a buffalo which we had seen alive the night before. We saw lions relaxing after a mating session and every kind of animal in its own habitat. Our walks from dinner to our room were accompanied by waiting for buffalos to leave the area and baby antelopes hugging the path.
I could not recommend a safari more, as this experience will forever change your life. So how much do those safaris cost anyway? Well that’s a good question, as the price depends on what sort of accommodations you want. Are you comfortable with mobile tents and your own chef or do you prefer 4-5 star luxury accommodations? We went for the middle ground, with most of our lodges being 4 stars and very clean and comfortable as we would not choose any other way when travelling with a young child. Our one week all included safari vacation cost about 2500 USD per person with children paying just half of the cost.
So did our daughter like this trip? She cannot stop talking about it to her friends, who are now asking their parents to visit Africa as well. I think seven days in a safari vehicle with a child was a bit much though, as by the last two days, she had already seen all the animals and she begun to ask for her ipad. But five days is just perfect! If you choose to do a safari, ensure that your young child is allowed in the vehicle as on our first trip in South Africa she was not allowed to come along as the safari vehicles were open. The vehicles in Tanzania were mostly closed vehicles with thatched roofs.
For the nature and animal aspect of it, Africa is a place we will return to, over and over again. Once you fall in love with this exceptional continent, your heart will never leave it. We ended our journey in Zanzibar, the famous spice island, where we relaxed on the beach and pursued our own Hakuna Matata (it means no worries, as the Lion King states, “our trouble free, philosophy”) Swahili is a lovely language and having learnt a few phrases on our safari, we were able to impress the locals in Zanzibar. And so it continues, an undying love for a breathtaking, sensational continent. In Africa, the young and the old, we are all kids at heart. So follow your dream and remember “there is no other road, no other way, no day but TODAY”.