A trip to Africa is an experience of a lifetime. Many people will want to capture the experience for the future. To do this right we have some recommendations for the camera kit you will need. Here are our Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa.
Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa #1
Choose the right camera: We recommend you invest in a DSLR camera with at least a 75-300mm lens. This gives you optimum zoom length while photographing the animals from the Safari cars. We also recommend a 17-85 lens to use for closer shots. There are some things to remember when picking your camera:
Digital SLR cameras come in two formats. Mirror and Mirrorless. The simplest way to understand the difference is the way the light hits the sensor. As you might expect with a mirrorless camera the light is directed onto the sensor without a mirror redirecting it. This limits the amount of moving parts in the camera, but for mirrorless cameras, with large sensor, they can be a more expensive option. Cameras with mirrors often have better battery life and larger sensors but the size is the trade-off. Mirrorless cameras are lighter because of less moving parts, but most do not have an optical viewfinder which might be an issue for the SLR purest. Some mirrorless cameras do not have the same lens options as their SLR counterparts. They are quickly catching up to DSLR and adapters are available. However, do your research because the “glass” (lens) will always be the key to a great shot.
Affordable options: If you don’t want or can’t afford to invest too much money, opt for a point and shoot camera that has a long optical zoom. When on safari there are often large distances between you and the subject (animals). A good quality lens with optical zoom (not just digital) will improve the quality of your shots for subjects further away.
Video Camera – Almost all DSLR and point and shoot cameras have a video mode included, there are other options such as Go Pro and 360 cameras.
Phones – Smartphones have pretty good cameras in them these days. Maximize your phone camera storage to take pics that you can instantly upload to FaceBook and Instagram.
Here is what we traveled with:
A good quality theft proof camera backpack ( but keep in mind the less it looks like a camera bag the less likely someone will steal it)
Canon 50D with 3 lenses. (17-85mm,75-300mm & 50mm Prime)
Canon SX710 HS point and shoot.
Samsung Gear 360 (2017) Spherical Camera.
GoPro with Adapter Parts (depending on the trip activities).
iPhone 7 (multiple).
iPhone adapter lens (Macro and Fish Eye).
Battery chargers and USB power supplies.
Cube tap power adapter.
Multi-region international power adapter.
Monopod with small tripod feet.
Mini Tripod with flexible legs.
Tonnes of Memory Cards.
Laptop and USB Drives.
Ziplock bags (be warned plastic bags may be illegal in some countries like Kenya).
Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa #2
Memory & Storage – be prepared to take a lot of photos on Safari. This may be your only time to have this experience and you don’t want to fill up a memory card in the 1st few days and risk the rest of the trip. You should invest in a high size GB card (16-32GB in size) and have multiple for each type of device you have. You also want to pick a memory card with a fast speed. This will be vital for shooting video, but also handy if you want to take rapid-fire shots or long exposure night time images. The Mbps speed is the amount of time it takes to write the data on the card. The higher the better.
HOT TIP – after each day of Safari, review the photos you have taken that day and immediately delete any that you do not like.
Also, note – when shooting with an SLR camera you have an option to shoot in RAW or JPEG format or both. The benefit to shooting in RAW is better resolution and much lower or no compression. Plus you are able to non-destructively edit the images in photo editing software. If you edit a JPEG photo and save over the original there is no going back. Keep in mind that shooting in both RAW and JPEG format with chew up your memory space significantly.
If you are taking a laptop on your trip, we also recommend that you transfer off the cards to a backup device or Cloud Service. Then you can reformat your cards at the end of each day. But be careful you don’t delete the wrong files. Also remember that internet access in Africa is slowly improving, but not like other more developed countries. Uploading to Cloud Services might have very low bandwidths and be unreliable in remote areas.
Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa #3
Date and Time: Set your date and time zone to the country that you are traveling in. This will make sorting through your photos after your trip much easier. If you are like us you will come home with thousands of images and videos. The frustration from sorting through the wrong time references is very avoidable.
Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa #4
Protect your gear: Safari is an extremely dusty and dirty endeavor. This means that your cameras are going to get very dusty. Make sure you are cleaning your lenses on a regular basis to avoid dust specs on the lens. Take care if you are changing lenses out in the open. You want to avoid getting dust on the inside of your camera. Remember you will likely have dust on everything, to the extent that you can’t tell what is dusty anymore (because everything is). When in doubt clean your hands and change your lens inside your bag. The last thing you want is the camera shutting down midway through your trip.
Top 5 Camera Kit Tips | Africa #5
Live in the Moment: Put your camera away and enjoy the.moment. While we understand you want to capture the memory and experiences, don’t miss out because you are lost in camera settings. You don’t need to spend the whole trip looking through a viewfinder. It’s a big wide world and there is no better device to capture a panorama than a human eye.
What are your tips for taking photos in Africa? Leave your comments below:
After a long travel day, we were finally in Tanzania. Seeing someone holding our name card at the arrival gate was a welcome sight. Normally tourists have to clear immigration and customs before meeting a guide. However in this situation we were greeted before clearing the checkpoints. The gentleman introduced himself and asked if we had tourist VISAs, which we didn’t. He walked us over to the paperwork area and showed us how to fill it out. We handed him the completed paperwork and the US$50 fee. He then proceeded to the counter and got us our VISAs. He ushered us to the customs counter and we were cleared. We picked up our bags and were escorted to the parking lot where we were introduced to our tour guide Lucas. By far this was the smoothest VISA process during the trip, if not all our adventures.
Lucas welcomed us to Tanzania and we did the usual introductions. Lucas explained that the arrival and clearance process is something that Leopard Tours and the Tanzanian Tourism Commission arrange to make sure tourist arrival is smooth, it certain worked.
It was getting late in the day, so we hit the road to Arusha for a “layover” night. Upon arrival the lodge manager gave us a tasty beverage and the standard welcome briefing. Then a burly woman who handled our bags like they were filled with helium showed us to our room.
We settled in, took a shower and then headed to the restaurant for a buffet dinner. We were the last table to be seated, so the food left at the buffet was a little underwhelming. However, we were very happy to have a cold beer a quick bite and then we were off to bed. We were heading to Tarangire National Park in the morning and the anticipation was palpable.
Tanzania, Africa Day 1
We arose early and had a quick breakfast. After our coffee fix kicked in we had a quick meeting and expectation check in with our account manager from Leopard Tours. With everything in order, we loaded our bags and jumped in the Landcruiser with Lucas.
Tarangire National Park is a 3hr drive from Arusha. It is the 6th largest national park in Tanzania and famous for its Elephants and Baobab Trees. The park is approximately 2850 km2 and a mix of granite ridges, river valley, swamps and of course Baobab and Sausage trees.
Aside from countless Elephants we also saw: Lions, Zebra, Wildebeest, Impala, Dik Dik, Elands, Mongoose, Baboons and Vervet Monkeys, plus countless bird species. The landscape is archetypal Africa. The bulbous Baobab trees made us feel like we’d been dropped into a documentary. It felt like any minute David Attenborough might start narrate our tour. Some of the key moments that stood out included:
Watching a herd of Elephants having a great time munching down on Sausage Tree fruit. The fruit has a watery, seedy pulp similar to cucumber. The crunching and slurping sounds punctuated with occasional toots of happiness from the younger members of the herd immersed us in their group as if we were part of a Pachyderm family.
After a picnic lunch we pulled up to the river and watched a herd of Zebra and Elephants come to drink. They were all alert to danger down stream. We had seen a pride of lions lounging by the river earlier in the day. It was evident that they were still there as their scent was being carried in the wind. The herd of elephants started the walk down stream. Lucas hit the gas and headed down to the lion pride. If there was going to be a face off, we were not going to miss it. We sat patiently waiting for the encounter. As the Elephants came over the ridge the Lion pride stirred. Lions know better than to mess with a herd of elephants. One step and its, squish, flat cat! We were fascinated to see how, upon seeing the pride of lions the herd immediately re-orientated ensuring the smaller, younger members were positioned in the middle of the group. Presenting a grey fleshy wall of protection. The matriarch trumpeted a warning and the herd headed straight for the pride. Receptive to the less than subtle message, the pride quickly got up and b-lined to a nearby ridge approximately 400ft from the river. The Elephants stopped again and drank from the river. After having their fill, the herd strolled away towards a grassy hill. Before the herd left the river completely, one of the mature elephants decided to send a final message to the pride who had started to head back towards the river. With a bold loud trumpet the elephant charged toward the pride. The pride scattered like a pack of alley cats. The bold elephant triumphantly sauntered back to the rest of the herd. It was time for an afternoon snack, Elephants eat for 16-18 hours a day, so there it little time to waste.
We finished our game drive and headed to Burudika Manyara Lodge. Burudika is built on the wildlife corridor that joins Tarangire to Lake Manyara. The government has restricted development to ensure the animals can move freely. The only other structures are sporadic Maasai huts. These are temporary dwellings the nomadic groups build as they move around the landscape in search of fresh pasture.
By that time we were well accustomed to unsealed dirt roads. As we turned off the paved road to Burudika we prepared ourselves for another “Maasai massage”. Once again Lucas expertly navigated the bumpy road. About half way to the lodge we came across a herd of goats blocking the way. Some young Maasai kids looked at us in eager anticipation. Lucas turned to us and said, “They did that on purpose, they want us to stop and give them treats”. Their plan did not work out; we did not have any treats. But even if we did, we didn’t want to encourage that kind of behavior. They are responsible for their animals, begging from tourist distracts them from that role. It might seem strange to westerners, but it is vital to their culture that they learn how important their livestock is and how to properly care for them.
As we approached Burudika, the friendly staff were outside ready to greet us. The view of the Bandas against the lake backdrop was stunning. The lack of other buildings in the surrounding area made the lodge feel remote yet welcoming. The accommodations were comfortable; a full review can be read in the accommodation review section. The most impressive part of Burudika is the mess hall (restaurant), which is built around a huge Boabab tree.
We settled in and had a simple buffet dinner, before an early night.
Tanzania, Africa Day 2
We left the lodge after a buffet breakfast and drove through the small village (Mto Wa Mbu) our guide Lucas had grown up in. The village made him a little sentimental. He recanted stories from his childhood and his daily walk to school. There is a nice clean little shopping strip with various store fronts, restaurants and bars. But it was obvious that this town took pride in their cleanliness.
Just before we got to the gates of Lake Manyara, we approached a section of trees covered in white, as if a winter snowstorm had passed through. The odor said otherwise. Looking up to the top branches we could see a large flock of Yellow Billed Storks. Their scat had covered the surrounding area and Lucas joked, “Do you like our Christmas trees?”
Lake Manyara is shallow lake, on the Natron-Manyara-Balangida branch of the East African Rift Valley. Ernst Hemmingway called it “The loveliest lake in Africa.” The park is small by comparison to the other parks we had visited, only 329km2. Lake Manyara National Park is best known for their “Tree Lions”. Like you have assumed, they are Lions that climb trees, a very rare activity for lions. We really hoped we would get a chance to see them in person.
When we arrival at the park gates, Lucas went to process our paperwork. Lucas explained there is a lengthy training (apprentice) program to become a safari guide. Part of the training requires beginner guides to tour people around the visitor centers at parks. It helps them cut their teeth at customer engagement and work on their English/language skills. A “guide in training” toured us through the former office complex and visitor center, which had been ravaged by floods years earlier. He did a good job, but needed to work on his English. Who are we to judge, it was much better than our Swahili.
As soon as we entered the park we were welcomed by a large troop of Baboons. There were also velvet monkeys and blue monkeys everywhere. The park is a great habitat for monkeys, it has a continuous water supply and bevy of fruit laden trees. Many photos were taken especially of the cute baby baboons. Next we headed towards the swamp and bird gathering area.
As we drove into the swamp, bird flocks surrounded us. Pelicans, Yellow billed storks, Egyptian geese to name a few. A group of Hippos wallowed in the muddy waters grunting, asserting their hierarchy. You can always smell Hippos before you see them. The act of marking their territory with their faeces makes for a pungent aroma. In the distance we could make out pink Flamingos. Lucas informed us that we would get a closer look at the hot spring further into the park.
We passed more Baboon troops and several Elephant herds, until we left the swamp and came to a small creek. The only way to cross was via a rickety bridge. As we crossed the bridge Lucas spotted a lioness hunting on the opposite bank. He stopped the Landcruiser, which made us a little uncomfortable. The wooden bridge creaked under the weight of the vehicle, he turned to us and said, “Her children must be close”. We safely crossed the bridge and headed down a thin dirt road, until we came to a section canopied by overhanging trees. Lucas slowed the Landcruiser and said with an excited but controlled tone “Look, Tree lions!” Sure enough, above us two juvenile lions were recumbent on an intertwining mat of branches, snoozing while mother hunted for their next meal.
After many photos we continued through the park towards the hot spring. As we rounded the turn we saw the full scale of the lake. It was awe inspiring to see in the sun glistening on the lake. Baboons searched the waters edge eating shellfish and algae. Lucas pulled up to a small parking spot and directed us down to where one of the hot spring seeps to the surface. We snapped a couple photos and headed down to the boardwalk. The boardwalk was a little wobbly, it is obvious the alkaline water plays havoc with the wooden boards. We snapped some photos with the 360 Camera and watched the Flamingos filtering the nutrients from the water.
We sat down for picnic lunch over looking the boardwalk. Then we continued through the park, stopping by the Tree Lions one last time on our way out of the park.
On our way back to the lodge we stopped by the village. We tried our skills at souvenir bartering. Sherriden was much better at it than Anthony.
Dinner was a buffet featuring a nice selection of meats and vegetables. The big surprise was the birthday cake the lodge baked for Anthony. Little did we know Lucas and the lodge management had colluded to make sure he did not miss out on a birthday celebration. They turned out all the lights and the entire staff came out singing happy birthday. It was a lovely touch and certainly made a great birthday even better. A couple slices of cake and a few Serengeti Lagers and we were ready for bed. We had a big drive ahead of us in the morning. We were heading to the world famous Serengeti, to fulfill a life long dream.
Tanzania, Africa Day 3
It had been an active night. Nearby sounds of Hyena and an unidentifiable snarl in the wind, had us thinking some ferocious friends were using our balcony during the night. It was a great morning for the complimentary security escort to the restaurant.
We set off after breakfast, we had a long drive ahead of us. Our journey would take us around Ngorongoro Crater and over a vast dry plain on the edge of the Serengeti. A vast sea of grass, as far as they eye could see. In the wet season the plains are home to the wildebeest we had seen in the Maasai Mara. Now it was almost a lunar landscape. As if a desert, the only sign of life was the occasional Ostrich or Grant’s Giselle. The road was rough. Lucas again showed his driving prowess navigating the challenging road conditions. You’d be forgiven for thinking we had landed on the set of the next Mad Max movie. Horizon to horizon, nothing but dirt and dried tufts of grass, punctuated by safari and freight trucks kicking up dust in billowing clouds. We could only imagine the difference the wet season brings. When the long grass covers the plains, Wildebeest and elephants return, give birth and the circle of life continues.
We made a quick stop at the “Rocky Hill” a tourist stop and the main gates to the park. We walked up a rocky hill to see the view while Lucas processed our paperwork. Our aim was to reach our camp in the middle of the Serengeti National Park, by lunchtime; of course Lucas would achieve that goal.
After passing through the gates, the landscape began to change. The dry barren land made way for plains of knee-high grass. Swaying in the wind it gave the appearance of waves on a golden ocean. Occasional Giselle and Impala heads bobbing, as if, fish or dolphins diving through the waves. But where were sharks of this golden ocean? We knew would see the big cats soon enough.
After 6 hours on the road we reached Mbugani Safari Camp in the heart of the Serengeti. We settled into our lovely tent and sat down for a private open air lunch in the middle of the camp grounds. Lunch was a delicious serving of spaghetti bolognese, salad and a chocolate pyramid cake. It satiated our lion size appetites. We watched a large male Baboon come up from the river and circle us hoping to grab some scraps. The wait staff cleaned up quickly and the baboon gave up returning to the river.
But there was no time to rest, we had a huge park to explore. We jumped back into the Landcruiser and headed out for an afternoon game drive. Many safari vehicles had gathered around a couple of key water holes, all within a short drive of each other. In the dry season water holes are only sure bet for finding predator and prey alike. We had been very lucky at other camps, but Lucas promised us many “bonus” sighting. Can anyone ever say they have seen too many African animals in the wild!
Our afternoon featured two Leopards with kills in their trees, Hyena, Buffalo, Giselle, Wildebeests, Warthog, Hippo and around 40 Lions. Not to shabby for one afternoon.
The highlights were the Leopards, both situations demonstrated the unique symbiotic relationship predators have with other carrion species. The first Leopard was not an obvious find; we were watching a Hyena pace under a tree. We wondered, why the Hyena was behaving so bizarrely. Upon further inspection we noticed it was patiently waiting for the Leopard to accidentally drop its lunch from branches above it. The second was similar; as a leopard rested from a tasty Impala calf lunch, a white backed vulture eagerly waited 5 branches above him. Patience pays off when you are waiting for the scraps.
After a fruitful game drive, we headed back to camp for a few cold Serengeti Beers and chatting around the camp fire. Dinner was a nice buffet dinner of nile perch and slow cooked beef cutlets. We headed to bed early, because we would be rising early in the morning for more adventure.
Tanzania, Africa Day 4
We awoke in eager anticipation. Our guide had promised us a Rhino, the last animal on our big 5 list. Poaching has decimated Black Rhinoceros numbers and their elusive nature makes them some of the hardest members of the big 5 to find. Our guide Lucas was undaunted by the challenge and his energy stirred a fire in us too.
After a hearty breakfast of omelettes and pancakes we hit the dusty road. A short drive and the expansive Serengeti sky unveiled a dawn welcome. The amber glow beckoned the savannah’s residents to rise and start their morning activities. Giraffe strode through the grass in search of prickly acacia breakfasts. The hippo’s plodded back into their water holes to nap after their nightly grazing on the shoreline grass. It was a cool morning, but we were sure that would not last. Even in the dry (winter) season the sun quickly heats the plains. The animals use the morning to feed and do their more physical activities, before finding a shady tree to shelter from the heat.
Our first stop was on a rock formation called Ngong Rock also known as The Massai Painted Rock Site. We walked on top of the rock and got some great photos. A short drive from Ngong was a cave with ancient Maasai painting in it. We erred on the side of caution and did not enter the cave. Lions are known to frequent the rocks and without the Maasai’s fabled ability to communicate with wild animals, we thought better safe than sorry. A Rock Hyrax (a small rodent like relative of the elephant) scuttled around the rocks looking for food.
The morning was frustrating for all. The animals were scares and you could sense the displeasure amongst guides and tourist alike. We travelled over 250km during the day and were lucky to see a group of Lions protecting their buffalo carcass from a group of hungry hyenas. We witnessed a lioness’s failed attempt at a Giselle hunt and a Cheetah’s successful Giselle hunt. But no Rhino…
Our own lunch was a much easier hunt. We stopped at the Central Serengeti visitor center and had lunch with friendly Hyrax, dwarf mongoose and many birds scurrying around our feet. The visitor center has an interesting “walk though” experience with information on the area. It also gives visitor the opportunity to meander through the boulders, which are similar to the other rock formations scattered across the savannah. Normally tourists are advised to avoid these boulders, because they are a favorite haunts for lion prides, having a safe place to do it, was great.
After some more game watching we headed back to camp to wash the dust off and have a nice dinner of Beef, Pork and vegetables. We finished our night with a beer by the camp fire, where the Camp Manager Mary recanted tales of animal encounters in the camp. We headed to bed, secretly hoping we would not be adding to her story book.
Tanzania, Africa Day 5
Leaving the Serengeti.
Our wake up call arrived at 6am. Massai style coffee again and fuel for the trip back to Ngorongoro. We settled our bar tab and said our goodbyes to the camp staff. They made us promise to return one day, hopefully we can fulfill that in the future.
Lucas fired up the Landcruiser and we left the camp for the last time. The radio was a buzz with early morning animal sightings. They lead us to a pregnant lioness we had seen the day earlier. She causally strolled from the waterhole across the plain. Giselle’s did their best to keep their distance. It was obvious they were not her focus.
The radio crackled and excited Swahili blasted out. Lucas suggested we put on our seatbelts and he pushed the pedal to the floor. There was urgency in his eyes, whatever had been broadcast was big, but he was not letting on. Across the dirt roads we traversed like a rally team desperate for the win. Anthony did his best to keep his breakfast settled as we bounced and fish tailed through the dirt. We recognized the scenery from the day earlier. It was where we’d been searching for Rhino. Could it be possible? Was our dream becoming a reality?
Ahead of us we saw a large group of cars with people peering out to the right of us. Lucas turned to us finally and said, “Rhino have been sighted here.” Unsettled stomachs immediately rectified as the adrenaline kicked in. Cameras at the ready, we searched the bush. High grass made it hard to see anything. There was much murmuring and referencing of a herd of elephants. Excited confusion filled our Landcruiser. Where was the Rhino!!! Then through the lens of his point and shoot camera Anthony saw the prize. “There! Between those trees left of the Elephants RHINO!” he exclaimed. With extra digital zoom on the cameras we captured the moment we had been waiting for. A black rhino in its natural habitat, we were exploding with joy. With only 40 individual Rhino in the entire Serengeti Park our chances had been slim, but Lucas had come through with his promise.
Black Rhinoceros are critically endangered and brutally poached for their horn. Which is used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine to “cure” many ailments. The asking price for horn is now more expensive than the price of gold. The real irony being that the Chinese and Vietnamese who use it could save their money and chewing their own finger or toe nails. The horn is made of keratin, the exact same material that makes our nails and hair. It has zero medicinal qualities and at best brings about a placebo effect for users. Once again human ignorance is causing a loss that can never be replaced.
As the Rhino disappeared into the long grass, we hit the road again. We were now running a little late, but it was well worth it. We were 10min down the road, when the radio crackled again. Lucas turned the Landcruiser around and we backtracked to the river crossing from 5min earlier. We followed a small track down to the waters edge and Lucas said “There you go, another “Bonus” Leopard.” Snap, snap went the cameras again and we headed back towards the park exit. It would be a struggle to make our scheduled 10:30am exit from the park, but we would try.
Just before we hit the main gate, we came upon a pair of Cheetah, sitting on a hill, surveying their territory. We stopped quickly for photos and to say goodbye to the Serengeti’s big cats. The morning had featured Lion, Leopard and Cheetah, all the big cats where covered, we were ecstatic.
We were finally on our way across the dirt track towards Ngorongoro and our last Tanzania destination Acacia Lodge.
Before we completed our journey to the lodge as had scheduled a stop at a Maasai village. It was a chance to learn about their culture. Plus the visitation fee helps to supplement their income from their Goat and Cattle herds. The tribe came out and performed a welcome dance. Our Gear 360 camera fascinated them, they were unsure what to make of it.
They invited us into their village and they performed another dance. Then they invited Anthony to take part in a Maasai jumping contest. Not a great idea for a guy with no ACL from a recent skiing accident, but who was he to refuse. As noble as his efforts were, there is little chance he will ever close a deal on a second (Maasai) wife. Not only was his jumping below par, he does not own enough cattle to cover the dowry.
The village guide then toured us through their junior school. Where their young children are educated on the basics of English and math, before they graduate to boarding school in nearby villages. The last part of tour took us into one of their huts. They explained the construction from tree branches, mud and cow dung. It was eye opening to see how they live, how happy they are with what they have. If you told most westerners that they should construct and live in a mud house made from cow poop, they would think you are mad. The pride the Maasai had in their life is admirable.
We completed the tour, said our goodbyes and headed up the crater for a picnic lunch on the rim. Lucas did not have lunch, because he had given all of his to the Maasai kids. We offered him ours, but he said he was holding out for some African polenta in the village near our last stop. We finished lunch and headed to the Acacia Lodge to check in.
The Acacia lodge is beautiful and very luxurious. A huge difference to the Maasai Village we had just visited. As we pulled up to the reception area the staff were dancing and singing a welcome song for us. Once again the staff were incredibly warm and welcoming. Our private butler Godfrey was great fun. He worked out very quickly we had a good sense of humor. He really enjoyed joking around with us over the next couple of days. A full review can be read in our Hotel review section.
Tanzania, Africa Day 6
The Acacia Lodge breakfast buffet was fantastic, a great way to kick start our day. They had the best croissants we tasted in East Africa. They had a chef cooking eggs to order. Always a bonus at any buffet, but this guy really knew how to cook eggs. They were perfect!
The smartest food thing they do at the Acacia Lodge is their Picnic packing buffet. It allowed guests to create their own lunch packs to take on Safari. The lunch packs had been fantastic at all the camps and lodges. But we often found it was too much food, or we were given items that we were not keen on. With the buffet we could pack a lighter lunch and avoid wasting food or over eating. We had our pick and Godfrey escorted us to Lucas who was waiting for us.
Lucas was not staying at the lodge as he had at the other places. It was a shame, because we enjoyed our meals and conversations with him. The night before he had told us “don’t be late, I charge $20 per minute for waiting.” We knew Lucas was joking, but Anthony promised him we would be early and therefore he could pay us. Sure enough we were two minutes early and Anthony quipped “that’s 40 bucks Lucas.” They both laughed and exchanged compliments on their freshly shaven heads. It felt less like customer and guide relationship and more like friends on an adventure. All formality was gone and we could not have been happier about the situation.
We were excited the day had arrived. We were about to fulfill a dream and visit Ngorongoro Crater. Ngorongoro was given its name by the Maasai pastoralist who were inspired by the sound a cowbell makes (Ngoro Ngoro).
Fossil evidence shows that the crater has been home to hominids (human and human like species) for over 3 million years. The Maasai drove all other tribal groups out of the crater in the 1800’s. They still live and farm their cattle and goats in parts of the park. In the 1940’s the Ngorongoro was combined with the Serengeti National Park. However it causing negative effects on the Maasai tribes. So a new conversancy was enacted in1959 and the Ngorongoro Conversation Area Ordinance was made law. In 1979 the crater and park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ngorongoro is the only conservation area in Tanzania that is classified as multi use. Which means it allows for cohabitation of wildlife and humans. Maasai groups are permitted to live at a subsistence level, without any formal cultivation.
The crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact, unfilled volcanic caldera. It is 260 km2 in area and 610m deep from rim to crater floor. It is estimated the volcano would have towered 4500-5800m high before its eruption and collapse. That height would have made it as tall or taller than Kilimanjaro the highest peak in Africa. In 2013 the crater was voted one of the 7 natural wonders in Africa. As we pulled up to the edge of the rim and the entire crater came into view, it was easy to see why, our hearts too were filled with wonder.
The crater is blessed with a wide variety of habitats in a very small space. On the edges daily condensation from mist and fog creates wet jungle forests. Dry savannahs host year round Wildebeest and Zebra. There is a marsh and fresh water lake with Hippo and many birds. A salt lake with Flamingos and a forested area that is popular with elephants and the resident rhinoceros. The only animals missing are giraffe and crocodiles. Who do not brave the descent from the rim.
All the resident animals live in the crater year round. With such diverse habitat the crater caters to all their needs. It makes for some well fed healthy wildebeest and therefore lions.
We did several rounds of the crater various habitats. Seeing Lions, Zebra, Wildebeest, Hyenas, Elephants, Hippo, Jackals, many Ostrich and countless birds. One of the big highlights was when the call came in that a Rhino had been sighted. We rush to the area where many vehicles had gathered. We put our zoom lens to work. It was hard to find in the distance, but we were eventually successful and seeing it running around in the distant long grass. We tried various locations to get better a shot. After around 30min watching and filming the Rhino, we headed back to the forested area. We heard shortly after the Rhino completely disappeared. They have a tendency to just lie down in the long grass, completely disappearing for view.
The second highlight came in the forest. We were eagle eyeing for more rhinoceros, when we came across a small cat crossing the road ahead of us. Anthony exclaimed in a quiet but excited voice “wwwwhat’s that!” He knew what it was, a Caracal. But he could not believe his eyes, seeing an animal he had only dreamed of seeing. Prior to arriving in Africa, Anthony had accepted the reality that we might not get to see African Wild Dogs, Caracals and that Rhinoceros was a very slim chance. Now we had seen two Rhino and a Caracal. He had never been that excited. His heart was beating a million miles and hour and he was only able to say “wow!” for the next 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the Wild Dog eluded us on this trip. But everyone needs good reasons to return, so maybe next time.
Satisfied with our Ngorongoro experience we all agreed to depart and head back to Karutu and Acacia Lodge.
It was our last night before our return to Nairobi. We arrived for dinner and were escorted to a private table separate from the other guests. What was going on we thought. Then it dawned on us. Upon arrival, Godfrey had asked us if we were honeymooning. We joked “maybe 8 years ago.” It seems they misunderstood the sarcasm and thought it was our anniversary. We happily played along; after all they had gone to a lot of effort. The dinner was another great buffet, we ate our fill, enjoyed some wine and then headed back to the room to pack and get some rest.
Tanzania, Africa Day 7
We enjoyed a mini sleep in and relaxed buffet breakfast. The lodge staff delivered our luggage to reception for our check out and Lucas was there ready for us. As we drove away the lodge staff sang a goodbye song, another beautiful touch. Acacia Lodge was a great way to finish to our trip to Tanzania. We were still very tired, but we were clean (dust free) and felt refreshed.
Lucas hit the road and we made our way back to Arusha. Our final tourist destination was Arusha Coffee Lodge. But before we stopped at a place Lucas promised would “make Anthony cry.” What was it? Would Anthony have to go through a Maasai coming of age ritual (a pain he hoped to avoid). Surely his below average jumping from day earlier, disqualified him from their warrior rituals. We are happy to say, no tears were shed as we pulled into the African Galleria. The large sign saying “Tanzanite” revealed what Lucas was suggesting. “Your wife is lovely, you should buy her something nice” Lucas said as we pulled into the parking spot. Who was Anthony to argue, after all, Lucas had been right about everything else that week.
Tanzanite is a blue and violet gemstone made of Ziosite. It was discovered in 1967 in the Mererani Hills near Arusha and Kilimanjaro. It is only found in Tanzania and is graded / valued like most other gemstones. We picked up a nice set of earing and some other souvenirs for friends and family back home. We could have spent a fortune in the African Galleria. The jewelry, artwork and carvings were stunning.
Our wallets lightened, we were on the road to Arusha. It was an almost silent ride to the Coffee Lodge. We reflected on our experiences, the people we had met and the places we had seen. It had been a life-changing trip.
As we arrived at the Coffee Lodge Lucas informed us we would change vehicles and drivers so he could stay in Arusha to service his truck and return it to the tour company. He also wanted to get home to his family, which we could not fault. We said our heartfelt goodbyes and extended our gratitude. We had experienced so much with Lucas and he had shared so much about his life. We are so grateful for everything he did and heart he put into our tour. He truly made our trip memorable and very impactful. We cannot imagine experiencing it with another guide.
We finished our lunch and headed off to Kilimanjaro airport for our connection flight to Nairobi. It had been a trip of a lifetime. Even though we were physically and mentally exhausted, we were still sad to know it was ending. It is hard to say, we will definitely be back. It’s a big world with many exciting places to see. But there was something very special about Tanzania, so we wont say never!
“Good morning this is your captain speaking. This morning our flights will feature delays… many delays. Eventually we will arrive in our final location Kihihi Uganda, but it may take some time.” Would we ever make it to the depths of Uganda and our much awaited gorilla safari adventure?
Our flight from Nairobi to Entebbe had changed several times in the lead up to the trip. Not an uncommon occurrence and it will be familiar to frequent jetsetters. Our flight plan had us flying Kenya Airways out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda and then small plane to Kihihi, Uganda.
Our first delay out of Nairobi put us on edge. We had a tight connection with a chance we would miss our next flight. Arriving at the baggage area we rushed over to the service counter and informed them that we were likely going to miss our connection. An airport representative helped us to get to the next gate as quickly as possible. We rocketed through the multiple security checkpoints that are standard in African airports. We made it to the check in counter just in time, only to be informed that yet again our flight was delayed. We thanked our escort and processed our paperwork checking our luggage. It was election day in Kenya and the pilot was running late from the polling booth. As small compensation, the airline purchases us a beer to buy our time.
Finally, we were departing Entebbe almost 3 hours behind schedule. We boarded the Cesnar and took a 60 min flight to Kihihi in the depths of the Ugandan jungle.
As we flew over the Ugandan landscape its difference compared to our recent savanna experience came into full view. Wet tropical forested mountains replaced grasslands. The rugged overgrown landscape hinted at the adventure that was to come.
As we landed in Kihihi at the golf course airstrip, we thought to ourselves, how much golf to Ugandans play? As we deplaned, our guide Robert came over and introduced himself. He was very pleased to see us, he had been waiting all day for our arrival.
We were finally on the road to Bwindi and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. As we drove through the villages the residents turned and watched inquisitively. Children ran to the side of the street and waved enthusiastically. It became evident that western tourism and tourists are still a novelty in Uganda. Very different to the nonchalant attitude we had experienced in Kenya.
Robert regaled stories and provided interesting information about the local villages as we continued on our hour-long drive. The lack of paved roads and pedestrian demarcation was not a new experience, after our trip to Kenya, but was still quite confronting. Robert explained that the local hospitals have seen a large increase in motor vehicular accidents in recent years. Unfortunately, this is mostly due to the increase in tourism. Many large trucks delivered produce and supplies to the lodges. The locals use Motorbike-taxis with very little safety regulations. These factors all combined to increase fatalities and critical incidence along the roads. As we passed trucks and watched children bravely walk along the roadside, which cannot be disguised from the actual roads. Our anxiety rose, we hoped we would not contribute to this unhappy statistic.
“We are here, friends” Robert proudly stated, “You are finally home.” We pulled into the gate past security and walked into the entrance Banda. The lodge manager Joselynewelcomed us and saying “Welcome, welcome, we have been waiting for you”. “Can we welcome you in true Bwindi style with a dance?” We eagerly accepted and two of the staff members performed a lovely welcome dance and song for us. We thought to ourselves, with all the “fancy” hotels and resorts we have stayed in, we have never had such a touching and warm welcome. We were introduced to our personal butler Ronald and were escorted to our Banda.
A Banda is a dwelling generally made of mud brick with a thatched roof. They are normally basic in their amenities. But these were positively luxurious. Ronald gave us the full tour and asked if we would like him to light the fire. The temperature was in the mid 20 degree celsius range so we politely declined the offer. He suggested we freshen up and make our way up to the main lodge for pre dinner drinks. As he departed he offered another welcome dance and we willingly accepted.
We had a warm shower and headed up to the main building for a glass of wine and some photo opportunities. Robert came and discussed our plans for the following day. He provided his recommendations and we welcomely accepted his guidance.
We had a delicious meal with a spectacular jungle mountain view to compliment. The meal had been best we had had to date in Africa. We sent our compliments to the chef, January who came out to thank us and then proceeded to perform another welcome dance for us. What a welcome! We were in for a treat in Bwindi, we could tell already.
We retired early to prepare for our mountain trek excursion the following day.
We requested a wake up call, which was not your standard wake up call. Predominantly because there wasn’t phone in the room. We had awoken to our iPhone alarms as usual, but it was still nice to hear Ronald walking down the path singing “Good morning, good morning, It’s time for you to rise.” Again it was the personal touch made for a special experience.
Breakfast was fresh fruit and eggs cooked to order. A few cups of coffee and we prepared ourselves for the adventure ahead. We were trekking the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in search of wild Mountain Gorillas. It was finally the time to have a Mountain Gorilla Safari of our dreams.
A short drive to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, we met our park guide and had our briefing. They gave us two options; the easy Gorilla Safari or the hard Gorilla Safari. Of course, we chose the hard Gorilla Safari, we were informed it would be physically demanding, but the chances of quality time with a large group of Gorillas was high. The guide recommended we hire a porter from the local village to carry our bags. It is a good way to support the local community and only cost US$10. We hired two porters and set off with our group.
We were lead by a guide with a soldier with a rifle at the front and at the back of the group. The forest is a dangerous place. Giant Forest Hogs, Elephants, Gorillas and several cat species can pose a threat. Not to mention, the National Park traverses three national borders. All of which have suffered from geopolitical unrest in recent decades. Poachers are known to cross borders with a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. We felt much safer knowing we had armed guards to protect us.
The first part was easy, our guide talked about the conservation measures and how important tourism is to supporting the national park financially. Not long into the trek, it started to get more challenging. Clear paths turned into dense jungle. We hacked and chopped our way through intertwining vines and thorny bushes. The Impenetrable forest was living up to its name.
A group of trackers had departed 4 hours ahead of us at 6am. They were breaking ground and searching for the gorilla troop. From time to time they radioed through to our guide with updates. We could not understand their reports, but it was obvious the search was not going well. We continued on, past some beautiful waterfalls, the forest getting thicker and inclines getting steeper and more treacherous. We got to the top of a hill and stopped. “Rest here a moment” our guide suggested, “we are having trouble finding the Gorillas.” We waited and rested, as much as you can when surrounded by jungle bugs and humid heat. Our porters were not phased at all, it was literally and figuratively a walk in the park for them. Our guide returned and said, “we found them, let’s go!”
Further, into the forest we hacked, the vines and leaves surrounding us as if closing in to trap us. Traversing a ridge and another hill, we finally we made it to the tracking party who pointed down the hill, “Down there.. We found the Mubare Family” We grabbed our cameras and started down a steep embankment. We were allocated 1hr to spend with the troop and we wanted to get as many photos as possible to remember the experience by.
We tried to remember our briefing from the morning. Keep your distance, do not make eye contact and be calm. Easier said than done when we are in the moment. We were bubbling with excitement. In front of us was a family of critically endangered mountain Gorillas. A mature Silverback male named Kanyonyi, two adult females Kisho and Malika and a mixture of young adults, juveniles (2-3 yr old) and a 6 week old baby. We watched as the family munched on leaves and vine branches. The younger members romped and beat their chests practising for when they would become silverbacks. All the time their father Kanyonyi kept his distance, with a thick bush between and his back turned to us. Two of the older female Gorillas were to the left of us. They were grooming each other and watching the children from a distance. All were habituated Gorillas, which means they are used to seeing humans. But are still very wild and unpredictable. The females arose from the bedding and started to head towards the rest of the family. The tracker motioned for us to step back and let them through. We shuffled around and let them pass. The little ones welcomed their family members and continued their roughhousing.
A few more minutes passed and we all heard a rustle coming from Kanyonyi. He rose up from his bedding and turned to face us. We collectively held our breath. “Be calm everyone” whispered the tracker. Kanyonyi bounded up the hill towards us, our hearts raced, was this it? Would one of us become a statistic of Gorilla tourism. The Troop cleared a space and Kanyonyi plonked himself down in the middle, again turning his back to us. We all looked at each other and let out a big sigh of relief. Now congregated in a group our cameras we wild. The young gorillas returned to their rough housing, climbing on their father and playing a gorilla version of king of the mountain. He patiently allowed it, at one point one of the youngest climbed on his back and beat it chest to show his siblings he was king of “Gorilla Mountain.”
The guide whispered, “that’s time everyone.” the fastest hour in our lives has passed. We clambered up the hillside and back to our porters. As the euphoria of the experience wore off it dawned on us the huge trek we still had before us.
2hr into the return trip the mountain afternoon rains came in. The already challenging trek had become even harder. Several members of the group were now finding the trek extra daunting. Exhaustion was setting in and the porters were earning their money. Holding backpacks and hands rapidly turned into catching slipping tourist. As we all slipped and skated in our expensive hiking boots, our porter caught us wearing sandals made of old car tires or rubber boots. What skill and dexterity they had.
We made it back to the park gates with only minor injuries and a twisted knee or two. We thanked the guides and porter, provided some generous tips and made a couple of Facebook friends.
Robert met us and could tell we were tired and beaten. We got into the Landcruiser and headed back to the lodge. We showered and headed up to the main lodge for dinner. When we arrived the lodge manager informed us that a group of local school children had arrived to perform a song and dance for us. We walked up to a grassed area near the entrance. The children sang songs about their community and thanking us for visiting them. It was very heartwarming and we took some photos and tried some drumming and dancing (which we were very bad at). Entertainment complete we returned to our plans a couple of medicinal glasses of wine. The meal was great again and we headed back to our Banda. We did not take much rocking to get to sleep.
We arose the next morning with Sherriden sporting a nasty injured knee. She opted to stay in for the morning and Anthony set out for a walk along a nearby river. There was more to see than just a Gorilla Safari. Robert walked with him and explained more about the local flora and fauna. They then sat at the edge of the tea plantation and share stories about their lives.
After the walk, we prepared for our community experience tour. First, we met the members of The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) for a tour of their Bwindi Tea Cooperative. Established in 2009 the VSPT is a non-profit foundation funded by partial donations from the Safari operation and donations from guest staying at the lodges. The VSPT aims to create long-term, self-sustaining projects that enrich the livelihoods of local communities, promote the conservation of the great apes, restore natural habitats and work with communities and institutions to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
We learnt how the tea is grown, harvested and processed. Creating white, green and black tea. Finishing off the tour with a nice warm cup of team on the deck.
It was time to leave the lodge, we walked up to the local shopping strip to meet the locals and check out some artisan crafts. We walked store to store seeing everything and meeting all the store owners and crafts people. We purchased many gifts and souvenirs and learnt about how the pieces are carved and painted.
Artisan tour complete and wallets lightened we met our next guide, Dorothy. She welcomed us and thanked us for taking the time to visit the community. We strolled past the coffee plantations, banana and pineapple farms. Our first stop was with a local medicine man. We stepped into a round hut and met a wiry old man with a bushy beard and excited energy. He invited us to take and seat so he could explain his craft. He did not speak English, so Dorothy translated. The room smelt of pungent herbaceous spice. He shared many jungle plants and their medicinal qualities. The majority of which seemed to focus on two main ailments, constipation and male ED. Even without English the various hand signals more than got the message across.
We stepped out heading towards our next stop, the Banana beer brewery, but as we departed the hut, the afternoon rain storm rolled in. It was a very heavy down pour, we madly searched for cover. Dorothy ushered us towards a nearby house. She knocked on the door and it was opened by a small child. She said “come in, we can shelter here.” We sat in the simple mud brick dwelling watching the rain fall and hearing the heavy patter on the corrugated iron. Through the rain a local man, who looked to be in his late 40’s approached the house. He looked at us sitting in his front room, with an inquisitive but unconcerned eye. As he approached the door, Dorothy introduced herself and us. We greeted each other and they conversed for a few minutes. We assumed she was explaining what we were doing in his house. He explained to Dorothy that he was also a medicine man in this community. He showed us a gourd and selection of herbs he had just picked. He was planning to dry out the gourd and turn it into a water vessel. Dorothy and the gentleman conversed some more in their language and the rain slowly abated. We arose from the simple seating in this family’s room thanks our impromptu host and headed back out on our tour. As we departed the gentleman waved goodbye. We thought to ourselves, how many westerners would open their doors to strangers caught in the rain. If a random tourist and guide came to your door, would you be ready to invite them in without any questions?
We walked a short distance to one of the local Banana Beer breweries. Yes, like the name suggests they ferment banana into beer and even distill it into a Banana gin. Dorothy and head brewer explained the different type of bananas they grow and the process they use to create the beer and gin. Of course there was a chance to sample some of her wares. As you would expect the brew tasted like a malty sweet banana drink with a slight alcohol burn. We wonder if it will ever take off as a microbrewery concept in the West.
With a light buzz on, we headed to our next stop a visit to the local Echuya Batwa (pygmy) community. The Batwa are one of the world’s most vulnerable, marginalised and threatened group of people in the world. The Batwa were forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. Living in small elevated huts made of sticks and grass. The Batwa were displaced with the creation of the national parks in the early 1990’s. The Ugandan government has be condemned for their poor handling of the relocation of the Batwa. The Batwa in Uganda (today) experience systematic and pervasive discrimination from the government and other sectors of society. Their rights as indigenous peoples are neither recognized nor respected.
One of the Batwa elders met us at the entrance to their “experience” area. He played a song for us on a traditional instrument. He beckoned us to follow him and demonstrated some local medicinal bark with special invigorating properties. Finally, he took us to the example traditional village set up the community had built to show visitors how the Batwa used to live in the jungle. After a quick tour and explanation of the construction methods, the family performed a traditional song and dance and invited us to purchase some artisan crafts. We thanked the Batwa and made our way to our last stop the local community hospital.
The Kabale Regional Referral Hospital was founded in 1969 and services the nearby communities and a recently constructed nursing school. The hospital receives very limited funding from the Ugandan government and relies heavily on donations from visitors and charity organisations. It was amazing to see the number of people waiting to see the doctors, women, children and earlier with all manner of ailments. We thanked the hospital guide and Dorothy called Lucas to come and pick us up. The tour normally finishes with a walk back to the lodge, but with Sherriden’s knee injured Lucas made an exception and picked us up.
Our final stop was a visit to Bwindi Bar. The bar provides a practical training institution for local disadvantaged youths living near the Bwindi National Park. The trainees at the bar gain practical skills in food and service before they are sent for further internships at nearby lodges. This is a fantastic initiative supported by the Volcano Safaris Partnership Trust and provides many new opportunities to the local community. We ordered coffee and decided to try something on the menu called “The Rolex”. It is essentially a savoury egg crepe filled with meats, vegetables and cheese. It was absolutely delicious and a great way to end our afternoon. Robert joined us for a coffee and arranged to have cognac and wine delivered to us from the lodge. We spent some time sharing stories and laughing with the locals.
We thought our day was done, however, Robert had one more surprise for us. We could hear the sounds of children singing and chanting in the distance. As we followed their voices through the streets, we were warmly welcomed at Bwindi Watoto School. A private school, receiving no government funding. Its mission is to serve families in extreme poverty, orphans and gifted children without access to resources. The children did a number of songs and dances. They sung about the gorillas and how happy they were that we came to visit. It was then time to head back to the lodge and settle in for the evening.
The next morning, it set in, our adventures in Uganda were coming to end. We were up early for the drive back to Kihihi and our flight back to Nairobi. We said our goodbyes to the lodge staff, took some last minute photos and headed off.
We met some amazing people in Bwindi Uganda. I am sure we will never forget them, especially Robert, Ronald, January and Dorothy. We keep in touch with many via regular emails and social media conversations. After a very short time our new friends welcomed us into their community and made us part of their family. They continue to teach us about their culture. From them we have learnt, that material possessions are not as valuable as community spirit. Pride should come from working together to overcome shared challenges. That conservation can make a difference when it is embraced by a community with shared aspirations.
Thanks to our experience in Bwindi we believe more than ever, that a vacation should never end. You may have left the location, but, the experiences should live in your heart, mind and soul. It is the duty of every tourist to share their experiences with their world. We will continue to tell all our family and friends, “take the leap and book a trip to Bwindi, Uganda”. Their community would love to meet you and the Mountain Gorillas need you. Together we can help conserve this threatened species and habitat. Together, we can bring some economic stimulus to marginalised communities who are working to improve the lives of the people and environment around them. We in the first world have the money and resources to improve the world for others. Even if you are not the “charitable type”, a trip to Bwindi will give you something that will change your life forever. It will open your eyes to a different world and provide you with an experience that very few people have had.
We were very lucky on this vacation and managed to score very affordable business class tickets on 3 out of 4 flights to and from Nairobi. The flight was as comfortable as you would expect from business class. Not only were the meals designed by award winning Canadian chef David Hawksworth, but we also received a very generous liquor services from our attendants. We arrived in Frankfurt Germany well rested after a good inflight nap and with quite a buzz on. Our connecting flight on KLM was economy class but only a short 7hrs so we could not complain. The only interesting part was the bus transfer to the plane. From the gate it took 20mins to drive to the tarmac where a OneWorld plane was waiting for us. We had not experienced the OneWorld share fleet before and boarding from the tarmac was not something we had experienced at an airport as huge as Frankfurt.
We arrived to Nairobi airport late, our travel agent had recommended we buy our visas at the airport. When we got there we saw why. Not only was the online pre-purchase the same price as in person, but the line for the online purchase was four times as long. Make sure you are aware of the Visa requirements before landing in Nairobi. We breezed through immigration and met our tour company. They called for our van and we headed to Eka Hotel for a lay over night. The room was comfortable and hotel security was very thorough making us feel very safe. You can read a full review here. We enjoyed watching some of the local TV. Smart phones and cheap cameras have revolutionized the African television industry, creating an openly creative, and perhaps, little amateur TV industry. Sure production standards were low, but it was obvious everyone was having a great time and the colloquial humor gave us a chuckle.
Kenya Day 2
It was a very early rise and our driver met us in the lobby for our flight to the Maasai Mara from Wilson-Olare airport. There was no time for breakfast at the hotel so we grabbed a snack at the airport. The flight was smooth, the Cessna plane was very small but we never felt unsafe. To give you an idea here is what the flight felt like.
We arrived at the air strip and we were greeted by two Maasai warriors to drive us to our safari camp, Porini Lion camp in the heart of the Masai Mara. In the first 10mins of our drive to our camp we saw lions and a herd of elephants. The guide and driver promised there was much more in the near future.
We pulled to the camp and The Maasai Camp Manager Patrick greeted us with a broad welcoming smile. “Welcome to your new home” he said, “Please come a sit in the lounge tent and we will give you a briefing.” We received our camp briefing regarding where everything was located and safety considerations. For example, never walk outside your tent at night without a Maasai guide. Hyenas and lions are known to come into the camp at night. However, the most dangerous visitor at night is the Hippopotamus. In Africa, Hippos are responsible for more deaths than any predator animal. But, according to Camp Boss Patrick “they do a great job of keeping the grass trimmed around the camp”.
We enjoyed a lunch of fish, rice and salad, then headed out for an afternoon game drive. Combined with a sun downer (cocktail hour) and a night time game drive on the way back to Camp.
We were very lucky to see the renowned documentary star Figgy the Leopard with her young cub. Over the years she has been featured in many nature documentaries. Our guide informed us that Figgy had been the proud mother of two cubs only 48hr earlier. But unfortunately one of our little ones had been taken by a troop of Baboons the night before. The remaining cub was noticeable skittish, as Figgy walked away to hunt for dinner. The cub cried out to its mother and then scrambled up a tree to hide from all the predators. It’s not an easy life for the young of the Mara. It does not matter if you are prey for predator; all babies are susceptible to the same threats.
We continued to a small pride of lions devouring a wildebeest calf kill. A cheeky Black Backed Jackal was skirting the pride hoping to get some scraps. We watched as it paced and circled, the Lions occasionally grunting as if saying “Stay away buddy”. He slowly built up the courage and crept over to grab the tail of the calf. With is jaws locked onto it he quickly scooting off as the lions stood up to express their disapproval. The Jackel trotted off proud of his score.
Our guide John poured a couple of Gin & Tonics (sundowners) and we sat back to enjoy the sunset. What a fantastic first day on Safari. We spent sometime spot lighting for evening animals in the twilight. There was not much to been seen except from an angry hippo mother and her calf, she made her disapproval of our pursuit obvious. We took that as our cue and headed back to camp for some much needed rest.
Kenya Day 3
An early rise we started with a bush shower. The Lion Camp uses a gravity “camp shower” system. The staff provide buckets of nicely warmed water with enough longevity for a good scrub. It was much need, because you get caked with a thick layer of dirt from bounding across the savannah. We drove across the savannah in search of the sunrise. There was a feeling of peaceful tranquility over the Olare Motorogi Masai Mara Conservancy. We captured some amazing photos of Giraffes and Elephants silhouetted by the sunrise.
We followed our noses to a Hyena kill. It was not a pleasant smell. The killed was obviously well ripened, but the Hyenas are not fussy eaters. They can handle meals that most predators would avoid due to fear of disease from its decomposition. They can also break down the bones with their strong jaws. Their highly acidic stomach juices digest the bone and sterilise the rotten meat. This resiliency makes them the clean up crew of the Mara food chain.
Nothing goes to waste in the Maasai Mara, there is an animal specifically evolved to fill every ecological niche. We passed countless Topis, which are nick named Blue Jeans, because the look like they are wearing Jeans with denim colour on their hindquarters.
We drove up a hill overlooking the conservancy and enjoy “breakfast in the bush”.
Porini camp guides can drive off-road, getting you closer to the wildlife, but also making for a slightly rougher ride. We received many “Maasai Massages” during our day of driving.
We stopped at a river crossing and watched large herd of Wildebeest crossing on their migration. As they stumbled and clambered up the riverbanks it felt like we had been dropped in a nature documentary. This was an experience of a lifetime.
Further down the river we followed our nose to a herd of Hippos who were wallowing in their own odour (as Hippos are accustom to doing, read our Tanzania dairy for more info on Hippo habits). The herd included a cute baby hippo that worked hard to keep up with its much larger family members, bumping along the edge of the bank.
During our drive to the next site we discussed marriage and the cultural norms of Maasai and the Western cultures. Our guide John asked how expensive my dowry was. He paid 10 cows, 5 goats and a large order of alcohol for his educated, beautiful wife. His father in law told him it was the least he deserved, considering all the money he had spent on her education. I informed him that I had not paid a dowry and he looked at me and Sherriden saying, “You’re a very lucky man.” I thought to myself, I hope my father in law doesn’t hear about this, I don’t know where he would put 10 cows and 5 goats.
Driving along a hillside, our guides spotted a pride of lions in the distance. We made a left turn and headed down the hill towards them, they were stalking the large herd of Wildebeest we had seen crossing the river. We watched intently as they sized up the herd. Suddenly our guide exclaimed, “Look over to the right, Hyenas, chasing a Lion!” We focused our cameras and binoculars trying to get a view. The driver hit the pedal and we bounced across the scrub towards the fracas. Getting to the other side of the bank we found that the Hyenas were gone, they had chased the Lioness up a tree. Our guide looked to us and said “Well that is something you don’t see very often, a Lion in a tree.” The lioness did not look comfortable; she looked anxiously for the Hyenas. Fumbling to stay in the fork of the tree, she certainly lacked any of the agility we had seen from the Leopard. She could not stand the discomfort any longer and clumsily ran down the tree trunk and off into the scrub.
After a morning of game viewing we returned to camp for lunch and to recharge our batteries, both literal and figurative.
Around 4pm we set out on our afternoon game drive and sunset sundowner at a scenic spot. The sunset was stunning and we did a little spotlighting on our way back to camp. We got to see some nocturnal animals including African Wild Cats and a huge pride of Lions on the perimeter of our camp. We returned to camp for dinner and shared safari stories with our fellow tourists from all around the world.
Kenya Day 4
We arose early and took one last quick morning game drive around the Olare Motorogi Masai Mara conservancy. We found Figgy the Leopard again, but her cub was nowhere to be seen. We hoped the little one was hiding in the scrub somewhere and not befallen the same fate as its sibling. We partook in another bush breakfast on a hillside, watching the Wildebeest and Giraffes graze on the savannah below us.
Then we returned to the camp said our good byes to Patrick and his team, picked up our luggage and left for our 2hr drive to Il Keliani Safari camp.
Our drive was basically an accelerated game drive. We saw many animals, which was a bonus. Arriving at the next camp we said goodbye to our driver and thanked him for his services. We were greeted by our new hosts and received our camp briefing. Il Keliani overlooks a section of the Talek River. Our tent opened to a fantastic view and we often saw Baboon troops on the opposite side looking for food and protecting their territory. With that in mind, it is recommended you secure your tent. Baboons are known to be cunning thieves; breaking into tents and stealing anything they can get their hands on. They are allegedly fond of makeup and nail polish. We are not sure why, but I swear I saw one wearing lipstick.
After a light lunch, we embarked on an afternoon game drive. It was a hot humid afternoon and storm clouds were on the horizon, the animals seemed to be hiding out. We encountered a herd of elephants and ticked more birds off our list. Aside from that and many many Topi (Blue Jeans!) we did not see other animals.
Then the rains came, boy oh boy, did it rain. A torrential down pour, the savannah turned into a river of water, we clambered to close the sides of the Land Cruiser and our driver struggled to navigate us back to camp.
We were very happy to call the day early and took advantage of a hot shower from our tents private solar heated hot water system. Warmed and refreshed we strolled to the camp lounge to watch the rain fill the river, dry and comfortable with a cold beverage in our hands.
Dinner was a simple beef stew with couscous and sautéed vegetables. Dessert was tasty butterscotch pudding. We retired to bed to rest for a busy day 5.
Kenya Day 5
We arose before the sun and headed out on our game drive. We came upon a herd of elephants feeding on scrub and watched the hot air balloons rise from the nearby camps.
Another pack of hyenas feeding on a wildebeest kill and then made our way to the Mara River for a riverside breakfast of our own.
It felt a little surreal munching on breakfast watching Hippos and Crocodiles bobbing around in the river below our bank top vantage point. It would be fair to say it was the most interesting breakfast of our lives.
Fully fed and feeling like bulbous hippos, we got back in the Land Cruiser and continued on our game drive. We didn’t drive far before we crossed the path of a large herd of wildebeest. As they relentlessly galloped through the long grass, it made us ponder the fortitude of their natural instinct driving them to migrate despite the obvious peril predators posed.
True to form the predators were not far away. We picked up a call on the radio; a nearby pride of cheetahs had taken down a young wildebeest. We rush to the site and found 5 brothers hurrying to get their fill.
Although formidable hunters, Cheetahs often become victims to other opportunistic predators like Hyena and Lions. Their efforts stalking and chasing down their prey often results in it being stolen from them. For this reason, they greedily eat as much as they can as quickly as they can. Always in a hierarchical order, but often with the dominant hunter delayed in the ranks, while it rests from the take down energy expenditure. We watched as the dominant hunter panted and puffed working to get its energy back so it could feed. The other four brothers took advantage of their leaders incapacitation and feasted. As soon as the dominate leader had regained his composure he let our a quick snarl and snap and they others made way for him to eat.
We watched as nature circle unfolded in all its gory glory. Quickly the brother’s bellies filled, bulging with fresh protein. They each began to lose interest in the kill, but others waited near by, eager to pick up the scraps. A large flock of White Backed Vultures waited for the last of the brothers to leave the kill and pounced on it, squabbling and bickering to get their piece. We watched as the kill was turned into a pile of bones.
We set off after the brothers. They were heading towards a lone acacia tree on the horizon. We watched the brothers mark their territory and lay down to sleep off their meal.
Following more wildlife spotting , we went back to the camp for lunch, “traditional African” Lasagne and Cheesecake. Ok not really traditional at all, but who can knock Lasagne and Cheesecake?
Our afternoon drive featured more elephants, giraffes, Thompson Gazelles fighting, countless wildebeest and a lioness with her cubs. The mini pride was exploring a riverbank and the cubs were having a fun time roughhousing through the boulders.
Kenya Day 6
A warm camp shower followed by breakfast some good byes to the camp staff and and more wildlife viewing on the way to the airstrip. Many wildebeest honked on the plains very close to the airstrip. As we took off we wondered how close they get to the planes and what risk they posed. As we took off we looked to our right and saw a Giraffe gazing on the long grass, unperturbed by the noise created by the plane.
Back in Nairobi we had arranged to do some tourist activities. One of the most popular tourist activities in Nairobi is visiting the orphaned elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The centre is dedicated to educating visitors about the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife. They focus on anti-poaching, addressing animal welfare issues, providing veterinary assistance to animals in need and rescuing elephant and rhino orphans, nursing them back to care so they can be returned to the wild when they are fully grown. There is also a resident Black Rhino who is blind and could not survive in the wild.
The centre is only open to the public for one hour each day from 11am to noon and costs approx. It costs US$7 to visit and you should book ahead as space is limited. The centre is quite small so 1 hour is plenty of time to walk around and visit each orphan. There is also the option to foster an elephant for $50USD a year and this allows you to visit the centre at 5pm to see the elephants return to their beds for the evening. You can get full information on visiting and adopting at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
We choose to sponsor an orphaned elephant named Jotto. We were very excited to meet him, and eagerly lined up to watch the herd return from their day in the national park. It was fascinating to see the tourist jostling to get the best viewing spot. I have never seen so many 40+ year olds acting like 12 year olds.
True to our luck Jotto ran past and promptly went to bed, ignoring us completely. He was so lazy he even chose to eat his dinner lying down. We walked around and met all the other orphans. Many of whom were far more animated and engaging than Jotto.
They also have a orphaned Giraffe called Kiko. We had a great time with our Samsung Gear 360 and its curious tongue.
We technically spent another night at Eka Hotel before leaving for Uganda and then Tanzania, but lets pretend we continued our Kenya trip for the sake of not disjointing this diary.
Kenya Day 6.5 (After Tanzania and Uganda)
We returned from Tanzania, were greeted by our driver and taken to Tribe Hotel. Part of the SPG Signature series, it is a beautiful hotel. Well worth the SPG points we cashed it for a taste of luxury. We settled in and enjoyed some room service for dinner. We were beat from a big trip around Africa and an early night was welcome.
Kenya Day 7
There are plenty of great things to see and do in and around Nairobi. We had a spare day before a late night flight, so we hired a driver to take us around and see as much as we could in 8 hours.
We were interested in finding some gifts and gorgeous jewellery to take home. The best place for that is Kazuri Beads located in Karen. Meaning “small and beautiful” in Swahili Kazuri was opened in 1975. Its founders started the workshop with two single mothers, aiming to help them support their families. But she soon found that many other local disadvantaged women were in need of regular work too. Today they help to support the families of over 300 women who have become skilled artisans creating beautiful jewellery and ceramics. We took a tour of the working factory then headed to the gift centre to buy up some beads and pottery.
Is to provide and sustain employment opportunities for disadvantaged members of Kenyan society, especially Single Motherhood women and in order to achieve this, we must produce top quality Ceramic Jewelery and Pottery. This will also ensure that we are well equipped to compete and be recognized in both the local and international market.
Kazuri Vision Is to be recognized in both the local and International market as a top Brand of Hand crafted ceramic producer. Our Brand is well established worldwide as we export over 60% through a network of distributors all over the world.
Next, We took a short ride to the Giraffe Centre, home of the endangered Rothschild Giraffes. At the Centre you can get up close with their 7 residents. Standing on a raised rotunda, you’re eye to eye with the beautiful animals. They provide an opportunity to hand feed and even take a selfie with a Giraffe. They encourage you to allow the giraffes take food directly from your mouth. We decided against this, it looked pretty gross! The centre is quite small so you don’t need to spend any longer than 1 hour there.
No trip to Nairobi would be complete without a visit to the Karen Blixen Museum. Made famous by the movie Out of Africa, it is a tribute to her life and literature. The museum is the beautiful farmhouse where Karen lived between 1914 and 1931. You get to learn all about her life as a writer and the impact she had on the community in Nairobi as a coffee farmer.
Lunchtime came and our driver asked us what we felt like eating. After 3 weeks of eating western inspired food in Africa we said to him “Where would you go if you weren’t touring us around?” He looked confused and we clarified “We would like to eat what the average Kenyan eats, where they eat it”. He agreed and took us to a restaurant that served authentic African dishes. We walked through the door and all patrons turned their heads as if saying, “What are those tourist doing in here!” We enjoyed a meal of beef stew and whole fried tilapia with sides of Ugali. Ugali is a white cornmeal similar to polenta. It is a staple across Africa and popular because of its low cost and satiating qualities.
Reflecting on our experience in Kenya we can’t help but compare it to our trips to Tanzania and Uganda. All three were life-changing experiences; there were similarities and many differences. The biggest difference came from the off-roading and it is a little hard to reconcile the trade off. On the one hand you get amazing access to close up viewing of animals, on the other, the landscape is torn up by the vehicles. Seeing the tire tracks certainly detracts from the view. We wonder how deeply it impacts the animals and flora. Tourism provides much needed income for Kenyans so we can’t say they are completely wrong to allow it. Should the Kenyan government bring in legislation to compliment the Tanzanian anti off road laws? Or is it their Safari market differentiator. Either way we highly recommend you get out on Safari. Yes it is a very expensive vacation, especially if you select mid-premium packages like we chose. But it is worth every penny you spend.
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