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This spring, we took our first family trip to Southern Africa over our kids’ spring break (late March to early April). This was the farthest we had ever traveled with my 15-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, but we managed to pack a lifetime of experiences into just twelve days. We spent time in South Africa and Botswana with a blend of city and safari. When asked what we enjoyed most, individually each one of us will give you a different answer, but collectively we agree that by far, the most amazing and unexpected experience was a visit to The Matebole Elephant Hide (also known as The Hide) at Mashatu Lodge located in the Mashatu Game Reserve of Botswana.
The Hide is a highly sought-after experience for those with a passion for photography, but we are testaments that everyone will enjoy it. The container-like structure is built into the ground, and the exterior is camouflaged to blend in with the natural surroundings. We walked down the stairs to find a clean, comfortable room with stools. The shutters were propped open on the narrow, rectangular window which spans the length of the room. We took our places at the counter and used the bean bags to rest our cameras on. Outside the window is a watering hole which draws animals to drink and bathe, giving us a close, ground-level view of whatever animals chose to grace us with their presence. We were excited to see what (if anything) would come our way!
In the distance, we watched an implausibility of Wildebeest who had already been to the watering hole. (Yes, that’s really what they call a group of Wildebeest!) After a brief period, much to our surprise, a sounder of Warthogs appeared, including a sow, boar and five piglets. The piglets eagerly made their way to the waterhole without hesitation and began to drink, some even on bent knee. The sow and boar cautiously stood by, making sure they were safe. They would look directly at The Hide as if they sensed our presence. Our guide motioned with his finger to his lips for us to be silent, and we could hear the slurping noises of the piglets as they enjoyed their drink. Warthogs resemble a pig but have some unique features. It was amazing to see they are mostly bald with a wild strip of long hair on their back (which resembles a mane) and the adults have long tusks. Satisfied, they wandered off.
While we were waiting to see what would arrive next, our guide Spike and our tracker Aaron suggested we enjoy our sundowners in The Hide to finish out the day. We were unanimously in favor of that! After a short period, we heard some rustling in the brush, followed by a herd of elephants walking up to the waterhole. Jackpot! They kept coming and coming with over twenty in all. We had never seen so many elephants at one time of varying shapes and sizes, including adorable calves. Our guide estimated one calf was merely a few days old, as it was having trouble standing in the mud at the edge of the waterhole.
Mashatu stands for “Land of the Giants,” referring to the majestic elephants. These animals are big, beautiful and playful. For most, the objective seemed to be drinking water. We watched for the longest time as the elephants repeatedly filled their trunks, swung it to their mouths and then drank it. As if that wasn’t enough, it was an extremely hot day, and a few of the big elephants embarked on a mud bath. They sprayed themselves to cool off and to protect their skin from sun burn by covering it with mud. Being this close, I actually felt the mud lightly spray against my face from one of the elephants. Now that is an authentic experience! We were entertained by the herd for well over 30 minutes and the smiles on the kids’ faces will forever last in my mind. As quietly as the elephants came, they retreated into the bush.
We experienced The Hide with our guide and tracker who were avid photographers, but most guest experiences will include a professional photographer on hand. The peak period for The Matebole Hide runs from May through November, and typically game viewing is better in the morning than in the afternoon. That said, nothing is guaranteed, which adds to the excitement of the experience. Our visit was during the “slowing down” period, and we went in the afternoon. Our close encounter with the warthogs and elephants was a highlight of our trip. Being at ground level and embedded within their surroundings is an encounter you don’t want to miss!
Last June, I returned to Botswana, one of the first countries I visited in Africa on my first safari in April 2000 and truly a jewel of wildlife conservation. Nearing two dozen trips to Africa, I still never get jaded by the safari experience, the game drives or the animals. Africa just doesn’t get old to me and the Okavango Delta, a gem of a wildlife paradise, is a place that leaves me in wonder and awe every single time.
My reconnaissance trips are always a whirlwind, and this one was no exception, comprising of one week in Botswana with seven one-night stays and with site inspections of two more camps along the way. My young daughter accompanied me and helped me assess firsthand how family-friendly the properties really are. Family travel has boomed in the almost 20 years I’ve been in the business, and the industry has adapted by welcoming families even with young kids to properties that in years past only accepted children ages 10 or 12 and up! Times have changed. Many lodges have children’s rooms with games, tents, DVDs and dress up costumes to keep kids busy, and babysitting can generally be arranged at camps that accept kids at a very reasonable cost. There’s no longer a reason not to travel to Africa with children. The staff at the camps are great with kids, and being on safari is not only a trip of a lifetime but a true learning experience for little ones.
Our first stop was the iconic Chobe Game Lodge, set on the banks of the mighty Chobe river and inside Chobe National Park, home to an estimated 120,000 elephants! Here on a mid-day boat cruise (which departs from the more
traditional safari schedule of early morning or late afternoon game activities in the cooler times of day when animals are most active), one can see huge herds of elephant coming down to drink and bathe in the Chobe River. There is something magical about seeing elephants frolic and cool down in the river without being bothered by the presence of humans watching them from the safety of a pontoon boat.
Our next stop was the stunning Chief’s Camp, located in the Moremi Game Reserve. Here, leaving camp for game drives proved to be almost comical, as there was a leopard with a kill right in the camp outside one of the rooms on the first afternoon. The next morning, an entire wild dog pack of about 11 dogs decided to settle under the shade of a tree and take a snooze just behind camp! There were such good sightings “in camp” that it seemed we never had to leave to go look for the animals! We also saw near the camp about nine lions in total, blending perfectly in with the golden grass. Our guide, Chief, at Chief’s was fantastic and persistent in tracking the wildlife, despite the challenge of tall grass due to late rains and a late flood from the Angolan highlands that is highly anticipated annually.
The classic old-world-style Duba Explorer’s Camp was full of welcome surprises, the first being that due to water levels in the area, a quick helicopter flight transfer to the camp was much faster than an almost hourlong boat ride. Here, with our guide whose name was “Name,” we had the most epic sighting of 11 wild dog pups at their den and also saw the whole pack come back after a kill and feed alpha mom! This was absolutely incredible and easily one of my top sightings in 23 trips to Africa! When we saw those adorable wild dog pups, you should have heard the excitement and squealing coming out of my little girl. I videotaped the wildlife encounter, but the best part of the footage, which was not great because I didn’t have a zoom lens (why even go to Africa without one) was her commentary. Parenthood is an amazing privilege, and seeing the world during our travels through my child’s eyes makes the adventures more illustrious and enjoyable still!
Next we ventured to Kanana, a lovely camp situated at the edge of permanent water, allowing for all of the iconic Okavango Delta water activities including boating, fishing and mokoros. This also resulted in a hippo casually cruising the perimeter of the camp at lunch! We also had great sightings here of elephant, lion and lots of general wildlife. I loved the relaxed and super chill atmosphere of the camp and staff. The funniest moment of our stay was when one of the staff members, Walter, was helping to set up a lovely private dinner for honeymooners poolside. Whilst trying to chase off a buffalo (the camps are unfenced) he missed his step and fell into the frigid pool. Word spread fast, and we did not let him live it down.
The very upscale Sandibe was certainly one of the more luxurious lodges in Botswana and really offered something quite different in terms of accommodation with its treehouse-style chalets with gorgeous build and design. The camp, which shares the Chitabe airstrip, had strong game including a great cheetah sighting. I managed to capture a decent shot with my iPhone camera, using the magnification of the binoculars by pointing the camera through one of the binocular lenses. As cheetah are a bit less common in Southern Africa, it is always a treat to see them outside of the great plains of East Africa!
Finally, Sable Alley in the Kwhai area is a great camp that offers great value for money and wildlife sightings. The tents were lovely, and the guiding was very good too. There was a strong pack of wild dogs in the area, as well as lots of general game in this private concession. The private concessions make one feel that you have a piece of Africa to yourself, as the wildlife sightings are limited to 2-3 vehicles max per sighting and are the epitome of exclusivity while on safari.
After eighteen years and one kid since my last visit, Botswana still delivers a magical safari experience in the largest inland Delta in the world, the Okavango Delta, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This year less water in the Okavango and a very low flood will again change the landscape of the Delta and promise to make wildlife sightings even better!
The Leatherback sea turtle is the biggest and one of the rarest of all sea turtles. Threatened by activities like commercial fishing and pollution, there are only 34,000-36,000 left in the wild, so catching a glimpse of these giant turtles can be a once in a lifetime opportunity and a breathtaking sight. During my January 2019 trip to Southern Africa, I was lucky enough to witness one of these amazing creatures on land, laying her eggs.
On our second day at Phinda Forest Lodge in South Africa, we finished our afternoon safari game drive a little early for an early boma dinner, all in preparation for the night’s adventure. We were picked up by our guide at 8pm for an hour drive to Sodwana Beach, all the while not sure if we’d be lucky enough to see a leatherback. When we arrived at the beach, we exchanged our SUV for an open Landcruiser (or in this case, beach cruiser.)
Driving down the beach with lightning in the distance, the sky was lit with stars so bright that the Milky Way was as easy to spot as Orion’s Belt. Doing our best to stay awake in the cruiser, we watched the hundreds of ghost crabs dancing towards the water, just escaping the cars wheels. Our driver stopped after about an hour drive as he spotted the first set of sea turtle tracks, about four feet wide. A loggerhead sea turtle’s track!
We all piled out of the car, excited for our first view. We saw her just as she was finishing covering up her nest. After a sea turtle lays her eggs, she will move sand to both fill in her nest and camouflage it from predators such as snakes and birds. After she was satisfied her nest would not be found, we watched her make her way back to the sea in a timely fashion, and then she was gone.
Getting back into the car, our guide gave us the option to turn back and head to camp or continue up the beach for the remaining distance guides are allowed to go. We decided to keep moving forward, as it was only 11:30pm.
We drove for another ten minutes when suddenly our driver hopped out of the car and ran towards the edge of the beach. Most of us were half asleep at this point, dreading our early wake up call, when our guide came running back to us, giddier than a kid in a candy shop. We all jumped out of the car, shoes forgotten on the ground, as our guide whisper-yelled that he found a leatherback. This was his first sighting as well.
As someone that loves sea turtles, I always knew the leatherback sea turtle was the largest species, yet standing next to this giant in person was remarkable. She was about six feet by six feet, meticulously digging a hole for her eggs using one back flipper at a time. We found her at the perfect time, just minutes before she started to lay her eggs. The laying process lasted for about 15 to 20 minutes, with hundreds of eggs of all different sizes. When a sea turtle is laying her eggs, she goes into a trance-like state and a human is actually able to touch her or move her without her knowing. However, as guests during this sighting, we kept a respectful distance, taking in the amazing view that was hard to comprehend.
We took our seats in the sand just feet away from her and watched as she began to move sand with all of her flippers. At first, I questioned what exactly she was doing as it looked like she was making it painfully obvious where she just laid her eggs. Each time she would move her giant flippers, she would hit the sand with a thump you could feel in your chest and slowly push sand, creating a circle around her. After an hour or so of watching her, her plan became clear. She had covered her nest and was making a completely new and identical site away from the eggs, perfect for tricking predators into thinking the eggs would be hidden there. Finally, she was ready to return to the sea. We walked along with her as she moved slowly towards the tide, using the white reflection of the moon on the waves to guide her. Seeing her fully stretched out and moving was even more shocking, as I am 5’3 and she was much, much bigger.
After spending about two hours with her, I was sad to see her disappear into the dark waves. Yet as it was 2am, I was happy to get back to camp for as much sleep as I could get before morning. This experience is completely unique and perfect for any and every traveler. Being able to be so close to this amazing animal is a memory I’ll never forget.
Bleary-eyed, we raced over the plains of the Masai Mara, the chilly morning air whipping around us as we gripped our thermoses with one hand and the vehicle with the other. Far in the distance, our guide had spotted a cloud of dust rising from a rocky outcropping—to our untrained vision, yet another feature of the vast, otherworldly landscape, but to him, a clear sign of a recent predator chase. He radioed a fellow guide and they spoke in hushed voices to each other. We tried to pick out any familiar-sounding words, but as the car continued forward, our path remained unknown to us, our ignorance of Swahili protecting the mystery.
The car loudly bounced over the rutted tracks as we neared our target. As we approached, we looked eagerly around for any sign of drama: vultures circling overhead, a bloody carcass. Instead, we were greeted with two female lions lying in a bare patch of grass, eyes closed softly in resignation. Confused, we turned to our guide for an explanation. There had been a chase, but it had been unsuccessful, he said. The prey had escaped, and the lionesses were resting, contemplating their next move. A hopeful hyena paced the pathway nearby, but otherwise, the scene was quiet. We sat there in tranquil silence for a few minutes, the early-morning sun casting long shadows across the plains, before driving off to watch the next story unfold. Not every event could be observed or captured, but everything was new to us, and we trusted that soon our guide would reveal something completely unexpected.
Our safari experience traversed Kenya’s Masai Mara and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, two of Africa’s most distinct ecosystems. But the story that emerged anew every day on the plains and in the bush was at its core the same: birth, mortality, joy, and survival, a complex interplay of creature and landscape, with a smattering of humans lucky enough to witness it. As we grew to learn, the animals had their own schedule, carried out with complete disregard for the strange two-legged creatures excitedly watching them. But through it all, our guides were the portals to our entire experience, at once our storytellers and zoologists, our photography coaches, our translators and interpreters, and even our bartenders. In their vehicles, surrounded by the landscapes they knew intimately, we were at their mercy, but we trusted them implicitly as over and over again they led us to new discoveries.
In the few days we had on safari, we managed to absorb a small fraction of our guides’ knowledge, if not their intuitive sense of the ecosystem. One guide taught us that giraffes can see predators from far off and will all turn to look toward one if they see it, and that elephants dislike the scent of humans but will tolerate it anyway. Another let us get out of the vehicle to take photographs of hippos bathing in the river, but told us that the same animals on land were some of the most dangerous in Africa. Despite everything we learned, our knowledge paled in comparison to the vast expertise of our guides, and all we could do was observe in wonder as they led us through the wilderness.
Once, driving through a grassy field in the Okavango Delta, our guide stopped abruptly, directly in the path of an enormous bull elephant. With bated breath, we watched as the bull strode heavily toward our vehicle. I clutched my camera in my lap, scarcely daring to lift it. As he reached the vehicle, he turned his face in our direction. Would he flip the vehicle with his gigantic tusks? I thought. How dare we confront him like this? Holding onto the side of the vehicle, I tried to formulate a survival plan. At last, mere feet away from us, he gave a thundering, irritated snort, shaking his head sternly, ears spread wide—clearly communicating his disapproval at our impertinence. I did not release my grasp on the side of the Land Rover until he turned away from us, my fumbling hands managing to capture a photo of his retreating backside. Our guide, seasoned and secure in his expertise, laughed at the terror on our faces. The elephant would never have attacked, he reassured us. He couldn’t prove it, but he just knew. The elephant’s ways were as clear to him as much as they were a mystery to us, and he could read his body and face like the expressions of a familiar friend.
Later, we parked in an open field as the sun set slowly over the Delta, stepping gingerly out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. Our guide popped up the grill of the Land Rover, laying a gingham cloth over the metal surface. He deftly unpacked tins of cookies, a row of tumblers, and a bottle of gin, pouring out a practiced ratio of alcohol and tonic water and topping our drinks off with lime. It was yet another one of his seemingly-endless talents, honed after hours and hours in the bush each day, sharing his homeland with strangers.
The next day, we stopped in the middle of a dusty road as our guide stepped out of the car to observe a set of barely-discernable pawprints. Hoisting himself back into the driver’s seat, he set off to follow the tracks. They led us suddenly to a female leopard lounging woefully in the shade of a tree, and our guide pulled up expertly next to her at the perfect angle for our photographs.
Licking her chops, she gazed toward the other side of the clearing, where a satisfied hyena had snatched her kill and dragged it under another tree. The hyena guarded the fresh impala carcass, staring at us impassively as we judged him according to our moral standards, even as we realized they were impossible to apply here. After a while of watching the unchanging scene, we decided to drive off toward where a rare pack of wild dogs had just been spotted. The dogs—who, despite their friendly appearance, were more closely related to wolves than to domestic canines—began a pre-hunting bonding ritual. The puppies chased each other, tugging at each other’s ears; the adults sniffed each other purposefully as the alpha couple began to round up the group. Over a period of an hour or so, as the sun began to set, they assembled, cohered, and moved as one organism deeper into the bush. At last, they caught a scent on the air: the freshly-killed impala we had just left. The pack began to run toward their target, and we followed swiftly behind. Before our eyes, the drama played out: a group of dogs rushed toward the hyena, who abandoned the impala and escaped into the bush; another group of dogs surrounded the leopard, who clawed her way to safety atop her tree. The impala met its final destination in the mouths of the gleeful dogs as the leopard watched helplessly, and all we could do was sit quietly and take our photographs.
We had been lucky to see such a story unfold, and marveled out loud at our luck. With a small smile, our guide informed us that he had known all along what would happen, known from the outset that the dogs would pick up the scent of the impala, known who the victors and the losers would be. But it was part of the excitement, he said. He had been a guide for decades, but sharing the experience with guests made it new for him every time. We sat back in our seats, astonished, as he led us again down the path, toward whatever would come next.
My journey to Rwanda in September was an incredible learning experience for me in many ways. While I was in the country for only a week-long educational trip, I still was able to explore various regions in that short amount of time. Admittedly I was shocked to realize how small the country was. You can drive from one end of the country to the other in about 6 hours, as it is roughly the size of Massachusetts. I was also pleasantly surprised to see just how clean it was and how safe I felt every step of the way. The Rwandan people are dedicated to keeping trash off the streets and their residents safe from harm.
Kigali and Gorilla Trekking
We began the trip by spending a couple days in Kigali, staying at the Kigali Serena Hotel and The Retreat by Heaven and visiting the Genocide Memorial Museum. The museum and gardens are very tough to go through and be reminded of the tragedy that struck this country unfortunately not so long ago. However, it is an important stop to make while in Kigali.
Next, we embarked on a gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park. I visited the Hirwa family, who were enjoying a tasty treat of Eucalyptus trees just outside the forest and in the farmers’ fields during the visit. Following our trek, we spent one night at Lake Kivu Serena Hotel. Finally, we rounded out our travels by attending Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla-naming ceremony. This ceremony is attended by esteemed visitors from around the world and many locals, who are able to attend for free. This year 23 visitors were pre-selected and given the honor of choosing names of 23 gorillas who had been born between Sept 2017 and Sept 2018.
Akagera National Park
Aside from the gorilla trekking, which is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve been through in my life, I joined six other travel consultants to explore some of the 1,200 square km of Akagera National Park for a one-day excursion. I want to share with you the details of our excursion in the park as this will be somewhat of a new area of exploration for future travelers to Rwanda! While there is one camp currently situated in the park called Karenge Bush Camp, another camp is currently being built as well called Magashi Camp, owned by Wilderness Safaris.
We made our way to the Kigali International Airport to board our helicopters for the 25-minute journey to the park, which is located in east Rwanda. To see the thousand rolling hills along the way was a beautiful sight from above! We were greeted by some locals and met Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris, who helped us make our way into the park in the Land Rover vehicle.
We spent the next hour or so on a game drive excursion through the park to see its wildlife. Along the way we saw giraffe, wildebeest, topi, warthog, hippo, crocodile, zebra, antelope of different types and various birds. In the park you can also see hyena, leopard, lions, elephant, rhino, sitatunga, the elusive Shoebill stork (which is just one of 500+ different species of birds in the park) and much more! There are lakes and plenty of vast open areas where various animals can be seen in all different corners. We were then surprised with a delicious bush picnic from the Wilderness Safaris team with the view of Lake Rwanyakazinga.
After lunch, we boarded a boat to further explore the lake, where the other agents and I came to realize that we were staring at some of the largest crocodiles and biggest pods of hippos we’ve ever seen. We also saw the site where the new Magashi Camp is currently being built. At the time, only the water tanks were set up, but once complete, the camp will consist of 6 tents. The activities on offer will include boating, fishing, game drives and bush walks. It is scheduled to open for their first visitors in March 2019, and I can’t wait to hear what some of our first clients will see when they go!
On our way back to Kigali, the sun was peeking through the clouds to create majestic rays sprawling along the country-side. A perfect “see you later” and send off to educate our clients, coworkers, friends and family about the treasures of Rwanda. Future visitors will now be able to experience city explorations in Kigali, gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, chimp trekking in Nyungwe Forest National Park and further game-viewing experiences in Akagera National Park.
When to Visit
The drier months are the best time to go gorilla trekking between December and February, and from about June to mid-September. At present, travelers who spend a minimum of three nights in Akagera National Park or Nyungwe Forest National Park during the months of November to May are eligible for a 30% discount on their gorilla trek permit. This is a great way to see more of Rwanda and also receive a discounted permit price! I’m very excited for travelers to understand all that Rwanda has to offer for themselves!
Travel Beyond is once again nominated in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards under the category of “Tour Operators and Safari Outfitters!” If you’ve traveled to Africa on a Travel Beyond trip, we’d be honored to receive your vote in this annual online survey.
The new year is a common time for travelers to begin thinking about trips for the upcoming year and beyond. Conversations at family gatherings naturally fall into discussions of travel goals and resolutions, family adventures, vacation schedules and more. Those who have found themselves without a plan to escape the North American winter in 2019 may wonder where to go for great availability for the first few months of the year.
In Africa, one trip we recommend to travelers looking to depart this winter is a Southern Africa safari, with time spent in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and a stop in Victoria Falls at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Green Season in Botswana
“Green season” in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is in full swing right now, as vegetation springs to life following the cold, dry winter. Lush green landscapes and the potential for dramatic rain clouds make this time of year a great one for photographers looking to capture wildlife amidst a stunning landscape. Seasonal price reductions draw in guests looking to get the most out of their budget, and room availability is better at camps that are often sold out in high season. One property in the Okavango Delta that offers unique activities and luxury accommodation is the recently redesigned Stanley’s Camp by Sanctuary Retreats.
Property Spotlight: Stanley’s Camp
Comprised of 10 luxury canvas tents and located on a private concession bordering Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, Stanley’s Camp offers fantastic game viewing and flexibility with activities and game drive schedules. Stanley’s Camp is perhaps best known for the ability for guests to participate in their “Living with Elephants” program, where safari guests can walk alongside two rescued elephants and experience the land from the perspective of these incredible animals.
The seasons greatly affect the water levels at the well-known Victoria Falls as well. The falls dry up in November/December, but begin to “refill” in January, with peak water flow occurring in April. As the roaring falls plunge into the river gorge below, a spectacular plume of mist forms above the falls, resulting in incredible aerial views as well. For travelers looking to visit Victoria Falls, one gorgeous property we love is Sussi & Chuma, located 10 miles upstream on the Zambian side of the falls.
Property Spotlight: Sussi & Chuma
This stunning property derives its name from Dr. Livingstone’s friends Sussi and Chuma. Located along the Zambezi river, the property’s twelve Sussi tree-houses, connected by wooden walkways, provide stunning views and a relaxing, cozy atmosphere. The property also includes two private Chuma houses, each with two bedrooms, for families or groups traveling together. Activities on offer include sunset cruises on the Zambezi, visits to a local village, a tour of Victoria Falls, game drives, canoeing and more!
For More Information
For more information on these destinations, properties or other experiences in Africa and beyond, contact us.
Kenya has recently risen to the top of my list as one of the best safari destinations in Africa. Why? Kenya offers so much more than just a typical morning and afternoon game drive routine on safari. While you will still spend time in a safari vehicle, there are plenty of alternatives to get you out of the vehicle and exploring your surroundings in a different way. Whether it be by foot, bike, horse, camel, or flight, there are plenty of activities to keep any traveler interested.
Below are my top picks of the best areas to visit if you want a different type of experience.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
With more than 150 black and white rhinos roaming freely, this area is often referred to as a rhino sanctuary. The conservancy is also home to some unique northern species you will not find in other parts of Kenya, such as the Reticulated giraffe and the Grévy’s zebra. With the abundance of rare and interesting wildlife here, you will want to spend most of your time looking for animals, but who said that must be done in a vehicle? Instead, you can go on your safari by horseback or camelback to look for these unique animals. Scenic flights, night drives, and nature walks are also offered within the conservancy.
If you need to take a break from safari all together, I suggest a visit the Ndare Ngare Forest Trust. Here, you can walk down to a waterfall and go swimming in a crystal-clear pool. Spend 15 minutes there or spend hours soaking in your private natural pool while listening to the birds chirp in the trees surrounding you. After a swim, you will have an opportunity to walk above the trees on a canopy walkway. This feels like something out of Jurassic Park and is the perfect activity for families.
Masai Mara Game Reserve
Out of the all the areas I’ve visited in Kenya, the Masai Mara Game Reserve is the area I spent the most time in a vehicle. The reserve is incredibly productive, and game drives are the best way to view wildlife. However, you can still find a way to spice up your day. If you’re staying in one of the conservancies outside of the reserve, nature walks with a guide are often offered. These guided walks are a great way to learn more about the environment and the smaller animals, birds, and insects that help make up this thriving ecosystem.
A can’t-miss experience in the Masai Mara is to view the reserve from above in a hot air balloon. This excursion takes off right after sunrise, providing great lighting for photographers. As you sail across the sky, you will see hundreds (if not thousands) of animals waking up to begin their day. After about an hour in the sky, you will land in the middle of the bush for a picnic feast with mimosas, coffee, eggs, sausage, French toast, muffins, waffles, and more.
The Samburu Area
If you want to break up your safari with a completely different experience, I suggest a visit to the Samburu area. This area in Northern Kenya is known for culture and is the best place to visit if you are eager for an authentic cultural experience. The area is home to the Samburu (translated butterfly) people, considered the tribe most untouched by modern civilization in Kenya.
Each camp in the area offers their own immersion experience to learn about the Samburu culture. Often camps will offer a visit to a local village to see how the Samburu live and learn about their traditions and culture. At Sarara Camp (my personal favorite camp in this area), 90% of the staff is local Samburu and the camp brings in local women to bead with guests at camp, as well as IllKonono blacksmiths for an interactive workshop.
Another unique experience offered in this area is a visit to the Retiti Elephant Sanctuary, which is the first community-owned elephant sanctuary in Africa. The sanctuary opened in 2016 to raise awareness of the importance of conservation for the Samburu people. All employees are local community members. During a visit here, you will have a chance to learn about the sanctuary’s conservation efforts and watch the adorable elephants during their morning feeding.
For those interested in planning a trip with children, or for travelers who just have a hard time sitting all day long, Kenya is the safari destination for you. This country offers an exceptional amount of variety in terms of activities and I highly recommend considering Kenya for your next trip to Africa.
My husband and I traveled to South Africa in October. Throughout our trip we experienced exceptional game viewing, scenic tours and beautiful accommodations. Our trip was full of highlights: We were lucky to see the Magnificent Seven in one three-hour game drive (the Big Five plus cheetah and wild dog). We cruised along the beautiful Atlantic coastline on our way to Cape Point, then watched the penguins at Boulders Beach in Simonstown. Our last few days in South Africa took us to the Cape Winelands to soak in the beautiful scenery and enjoy some wine tastings in the region. Our drive from Cape Town to the Winelands was beautiful, and as we reached La Residence, we found ourselves in a valley surrounded by mountains—a great backdrop for stunning pictures.
Before this trip, I had no idea how much wine South Africa produces, but after a short time with our private guide, I learned a lot about the history of wine in South Africa. The country has three main areas known for their wines: Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. We had tried some great South African wines on safari and in Cape Town, so we had requested one of our stops to be Waterford, located in Stellenbosch. The other two stops along the way were chosen by our guide, and all three of the wineries we visited offered a unique experience.
Fairview Wine and Cheese
Our first stop was at Fairview, a working farm located in Paarl. A unique welcoming committee of goats, on their tower, greeted us as we approached the entrance of the tasting room. Here, the wine tasting is more of a social occasion, with four bars setup with a host assisting each group. Fairview pairs their wine with their homemade cheese varieties. In addition to purchasing wine, guests here can also buy a variety of homemade items, including cheese, jams, bread and olive oil. With its social atmosphere and cheese pairings, Fairview was a great first stop on our tour.
Our next stop was Kanonkop in Stellenbosch. The tasting room was much quieter, and we had our own host who took the time to explain each wine to us, the awards they’d won and the wine-making process specific to each one. While I am not a wine expert, I believe that if you are a red wine fan, this may be your stop. Kanonkop offers a variety of red wines, including pinotage, which is South Africa’s signature red wine grape and a cross between the pinot noir grape and hermitage grape.
Our last stop was Waterford. A perfect tree-lined drive provides a warm welcome onto the estate. After climbing the steps of the Mediterranean-style estate, we had a choice to sit outside in an open-air courtyard or indoors at a choice of tables, sofas and chairs. We chose a table and sofa beside the fireplace, and the crackle of the fireplace added to the warm experience. Waterford is known for their wine and chocolate pairings. Yes, wine AND chocolate. Each chocolate is paired with a specific Waterford wine, and the pairings provided us with a good sense of the Waterford collection of wines. We followed up our wine tasting with a cellar tour, which our tour guide had requested for us. It was an interesting and informative look into creating the wines of Waterford and helped make the estate my favorite of the three.
South Africa proved to be a country of many experiences, and our stay in the winelands was the perfect ending to an already incredible trip.
After planning my most recent African adventure, I realized that my necessary preparation was quite different than previous trips. Instead of a typical safari experience where I could relax in a vehicle and watch wildlife, I would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro! Having never climbed a mountain before (or even been to much of an elevation), I knew this journey was going to test me both mentally and physically.
For this adventure, I decided to add a fundraising factor into my plans. I focused on raising money for the Maasai Olympics, a great organization that focuses on enriching the Maasai communities as well as lion conservation.
I booked my trip about seven months before the climb, which allowed me a good amount of time to work out, buy the necessary gear and think many positive thoughts about getting to the top!
I was in a minor car accident six months before my training began and was dealing with back issues because of it. This made it even more critical to focus on strengthening my back and core. In addition, since the climb requires some long days of hiking, strong legs and a lot of cardio are necessary. While preparing for Mt. Kilimanjaro, I recommend focusing on these four major factors:
Cardio / Aerobic Fitness
The more “fit” you are, the more red-blood cells you will carry in your system. Red blood cells carry oxygen that will greatly help with your acclimatization in an oxygen-starved environment. Once you’re on the mountain, the guide carries a Pulse Ox monitor and will check your O2 saturation level frequently (typically in the morning and evening). I increased the intensity and frequency of my cardio as I got closer to the trip to keep my heart pumping. I started with 2-3 cardio sessions per week and increased to 3-4 times per week. There are a lot of different cardio activities to consider, including running, stair climbing, biking, swimming. Find something that works for you and switch it up. Since much of my prep time was during the winter, I rotated frequently between running on the treadmill and the Stairmaster at the gym. Once it got a little nicer out, I went hiking as well.
You will be hiking uphill and downhill for 5-10 miles/day for hours at a time at a slow pace. For this reason, it is important to have strong legs, as well as a strong core. Focus your leg strength training on squats, lunges, step aerobics and even biking. For your core, sit ups, plank push ups, and other core-focused exercises are key. The gym I go to offers a wide range of classes, and I found these to be especially helpful, as they offered new core exercise ideas and pushed me to work out even harder than I would on my own.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is one long hike. Hike as much as you can on longer routes while carrying your pack and wearing the boots you intend to use on the mountain. It is really important to get used to your gear and to break in your boots. I wore my boots hiking, but I also wore them around the house as well to make sure they were as comfortable as possible.
Kili is a mental game more than anything else. The weather conditions can be tough at times. The summit can seem so far away. Between now and when you climb, do something that makes you uncomfortable for prolonged periods. Some options to consider are running a half marathon, swimming in cold water, etc. I’ve also heard that meditation can be quite helpful in pushing away negative thoughts and refocusing on the goal ahead: the summit!
I was happy to have an extended period of time to prep for Mt. Kilimanjaro so that by the time I arrived in Tanzania, I truly felt like my body and mind were ready to handle the journey ahead.
There is a lot of gear that goes into your preparation for Mt. Kilimanjaro as well. We provide our clients with a guidebook containing specific details on gear, so I just wanted to mention a few pieces of gear that I am happy I got with plenty of time before my trek.
I cannot stress just how important it is to get your hiking boots far in advance of your journey. It’s also key to go into a store instead of buying them online. One pair of boots might be perfect for someone and just not work for you. I tried on about five different pairs of boots and spent time walking around the store and on the simulated “hills” that they had in store. Try to purchase them from a store that allows you to wear them for a bit and still return them if they end up not fitting properly. Once you buy them, wear them a lot to guarantee they fit well and don’t cause blisters or leg pain.
I initially bought a few pairs of hiking socks without realizing the importance of sock liners. These were great if/when I had any issues where it felt like blisters might start to form. Once I put the sock liner on, it made it much easier to hike for longer distances.
While a porter will carry the majority of your gear on the mountain, you will need a daypack to carry the items you need during the day. This is another really important item to try on in-store instead of buying online. You have to be sure it fits you properly and the staff can help you understand how to get the best fit for you. My daypack was 30L and came with a Camelback hydration pack in it, which was really nice during the long days of hiking. This will freeze at the colder temps/higher altitudes, but is nice to use when you can.
Your guide will give you snacks throughout your hike, but at higher altitudes, it can become more difficult to eat. With that said, it’s helpful to bring some additional snacks with that you know you really enjoy eating. I brought some of my favorite trail mix, beef jerky, and some candy.
There are many different types of warm layers you’ll want for your hike, so I recommend really taking the time to think about what and how much you’ll want. Certain times of year are known to be colder than others, so the exact recommendations will vary on season. It is important to keep warm on the trail – since it’s a tough experience mentally, you’ll want to be sure you’ve done everything you can to be as prepared as possible.
This is just a small glimpse into what I did to prepare for Mt. Kilimanjaro. There are a lot of details, both big and small that you have to think about leading into this trip of a lifetime. We’re here to help along the way to get as prepared as possible for this adventure!