Another year, another continent – this time, Africa! In early 2017, I won an award at work that afforded a trip anywhere in the world, and with Africa on my wish list, I couldn’t think of anywhere more exciting to visit at the time. Ironically, my friend and travel companion Robyn won a similar award at her company a few years prior. One of my dreams as a child, as many of us have, was to go on a safari and see animals in their natural habitats. One day in the summer of 2017, Robyn and I did some research for a safari company and a trip that would fulfill our adventurous dreams over three weeks. Follow us as we explore Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles.
September 30, 2017 – Wake Me Up When September Ends
If you’ve read or followed our previous travels, it probably won’t surprise you that Robyn and I find a good deal on flights. We had a short flight from Chicago to Detroit, and then flew KLM to Amsterdam. I luckily did not have anyone next to me on the flight, which at first sounds lovely, but I also find it awkward on how to utilize the extra space. I’m too tall to lay down, and I didn’t have a lot of extra bags to move. Robyn, on the other hand, was getting chatted up by a guy three-to-four glasses of wine deep. Guess where glass five went? Knocked over and spilt all over his lap.
October 1, 2017 – Europe to Africa
We arrived in Amsterdam around 10 a.m. and walked around the airport to find breakfast. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport basically looks like one big Apple store and makes the American security lines look like a third-world country. After breakfast, we boarded our 12:30 p.m. flight to Nairobi, Kenya, with a crowd mixed of tourists and native Kenyans. Sitting in the last row of the plane, access to the bathrooms was perfect, however, the area next to us essentially turned into a yoga studio with everyone coming by to stretch out their limbs.
Outside of our airplane windows shone sporadic night lights in the African countryside. After landing, we went through immigration in a warm building with slow-moving lines. We exchanged currency for some Kenyan shillings and exited the building where about 60 people stood with signs yelling names. I found my name in the crowd and met Emmanuel, who walked us in the dark to a van. It was difficult to see Nairobi at night on the way to our hotel – Sarova Panafric. Security in Kenya at this point was already evident, as you had to place luggage through a scanner before you even entered the hotel. A tall Kenyan named Collins led us to our room, which was decent and exposed to the outdoors.
During our time in Kenya, the country was going through national election turmoil, as the official election in August was deemed invalid due to voter fraud. The re-election was slated for late October, and we were wary of protests and uprising against the Kenyan government and election commission.
A moment of “pinch yourself” swept through my body right before I closed my eyes that night – I was spending the night in Kenya, in Africa, for the first time.
October 2, 2017 – Google Kenya to Kenya Safari
Part of winning the award for this trip included the ask of visiting a Google office around the world. Google has an office in Nairobi of about 30 employees. We took a taxi to the office where we saw Nairobi in daylight for the first time. There was lots of traffic on both the roads and sidewalks. It was evident that the city infrastructure was quite poor. On the way to Google, we passed by a lot of high-fenced areas with security guards. To get into Google, we had to get through the main gate security which included guards using mirrors to check under the taxi for car bombs. I had set up a meeting with a colleague named Regina who works in a similar capacity. She gave me a quick tour of the small office, which was undergoing some construction and painting. Her work covers both Kenya and Tanzania, with her main clients being Safaricom, Unilever and Coca-Cola. She also showed us M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service where you can pay friends in both phone minutes or cash. One of the key differences between Google in the U.S. and Google in Kenya is the level of education and understanding of what Google can do for you. She said that Kenyans are not inclined to search on Google because they ask their family or friends for recommendations or advice, so there is a lot of education that Google is doing.
We said goodbye to Regina and headed back to the hotel, where we met our Kenyan safari guide Moses, a.k.a. Abbaa. Before we left the city, a group of election protestors supporting the opposition took up the entire street. We maneuvered around and headed out of town. Small villages along the way proved that the third-world is indeed real. There were a lot of abandoned buildings and people selling goods on the side of the road. We stopped for lunch along the highway and continued on to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The road was only paved for part of the way and then turned into a very rough road that Abbaa called a “constant massage.” It made the dirt roads back home in Kansas seem like the Autobahn. Abbaa picked up one of his friends in a nearby village and continued toward the park. Kids along the road stopped and waved, as if they had never seen cars nor foreigners before.
Upon arriving at Masai Mara, Abbaa went to get our entrance tickets. In the meantime, Masai tribal women surrounded our safari van pushing jewelry, trinkets, and crafts in our faces. They were an aggressive sell! Right before sunset, we went on an evening game drive – absolutely incredible to be out there riding right by zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and wildebeests in their natural home.
Our lodging was next to a Masai tribal village, where we stayed in tents with a small bathroom in the back. For dinner, I had potatoes, soup and some fresh fruit. Electricity is rare in such a remote place in southwest Kenya, so we only had lights and power from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Lights out!
October 3, 2017 – Masai Mara & The Masai
Our first safari day was here! What to wear? Of course we had the stereotypical floppy safari hat and nature-colored clothes. (Let me tell you, it is hard to be stylish on a safari!) The temperature continued to climb throughout the day, hitting high 80’s as we drove furiously through the Masai Mara Reserve. To keep our 12-day safari trek interesting, Robyn and I made each day into a scavenger hunt (gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “game drive”). At each park, we noted every animal that we saw, always looking for something new or rare. The Masai Mara is a great park to see the “Big 5” animals (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo), the most sought after African wildlife.
MASAI MARA WILDLIFE
- Vervet monkeys
- Ostrich (and eggs)
- African buffalo
- Marabou stork
- Lilac-breasted roller
- Thomson gazelle
- Grant gazelle
- Eland antelope
- Egyptian goose
It really was amazing to see the lions sleep for most of the day and then go stalking prey for their next meal. The hardest find was the leopard, as they are rare and relax up in trees. We luckily found one that had just drug its kill up into the tree. Having binoculars was so clutch to see the detail of the animals’ bodies, especially the delicate and beautiful coat of the leopard.
After dinner, we stopped at the Masai tribal village next to our stay. The Masai are a traditional, nomadic group who live in the wild amongst Africa’s wildlife and nature. They are most commonly known for their bright “shuka” sheets that wrap around their thin bodies. We watched as some of the young men performed a dance and sang tribal songs. The leader of the village allowed us to enter their community “grounds” and invited us into his mud-made hut. There is obviously no electricity, so walking into his small one-room hut was quite dark, however, he told us to watch as our eyes adjusted to the little bit of light that peeked through the cracks of the walls. Inside was a fire pit for cooking, a bed, utensils and blankets. We had a nice conversation with him. Here are some fun facts from our chat:
- The Masai village allow polygamy
- His favorite food (and common favorite for everyone) is cow’s blood mixed with milk
- They do not have contact with the government and are disconnected from news and the world
- They make their own medicine
- In order for boys to become warriors, at the age of 15, they go out and live in the bush for three years (yes, among lions, elephants and giraffes!)
- Masai are allowed to vote (and at the time of the contested 2017 election, were heavily favoring the opposition)
- They make their own homes of mud, which last about nine years
- He had heard of President Obama and loved him since Obama has heritage from Kenya
- They use a lot of plants for dyes, allergy medicines, cooling agents, stomach aches and bug repellant
- They have goats, dogs, cows, sheep and chicken. They spend most of their days herding their animals and allowing them to graze
- The bright red sheets that they wear across their bodies is for protection if a wild animal attacks (supposed to throw the sheet at the animal and they will retract)
- Masai are the only tribe allowed with weapons, mallets and knives
After the chat, a couple of boys showed us how they make fire with a wood stick, a knife and some brush. Success! We walked around the simple, dusty camp, watching kids enjoy the simple things in life, a soccer ball made of tied rags. The Masai’s eyes were yellow and bodies worn from the dry summer and manual labor. Just think – no pharmacy medicines, vaccines, soap, showers, mattresses, technology, running water or electricity.
His son walked us back to our stay. We were finally starting to adapt to a simpler lifestyle. This was one of the most incredible days of my life. As I write this, I can vividly bring back the smells, breeze, temperature, visuals and emotions of this day. I remember laying down to sleep that night still in awe of the third-world lifestyle and how lucky I was to have the experience to appreciate it.
October 4, 2017 – Lake Naivasha & Nakuru
Another early morning got us out of our tent and onto the road. We returned back to the rough ride of a road, but at least we knew what to expect on the way back to the highway. We stopped at a handicraft market, which had a lot of animal and tribal statues. Robyn ended up getting a lovely wooden bowl with a giraffe painted on it, and I got an ebony giraffe that I would later give to my grandma Mary Ann who loves the tall creatures. We were prepared to negotiate price with the clerk, and he said everything was 58k Kenyan shillings. We first thought it was $58, which was fair, but then realized he was asking for $580! We gasped and then said we could only do $80; he kept coming down and down on price when we would motion that we were leaving. We ended up getting all the things for $120, or 20% of his original quote – much better!
Our driver Abbaa was quite the character. He was the type of guy who was most popular in school and knew everyone. Everywhere we pulled up, he knew someone who would hook us up. Abbaa was also probably class clown. Eventually he started calling Robyn “Michelle Obama” and me “Michael Barack Obama” since we were from Chicago.
Our next destination was Lake Nakuru, and on the way we stopped in Narok to get gas. The infrastructure was so poor with many unfinished buildings and many people sitting on the sides of the roads or doing blue-collar jobs such as cutting grass with a knife. People stared at us in the van as if they had never seen a light-skinned person. Another stop on the way was Lake Naivasha, where we ate lunch at a garden next to the lake and then went out on the lake in a small boat. The highlight of the lake was groups of hippos splashing and playing around our boat.
After watching baby hippos and their families playing in the lake, we arrived at an island in the center of the lake, home to many common African wildlife species, all which are non-predators and can thrive in the environment without being targeted. Our wildlife guide was fascinating. He used to be a Masai warrior and then studied ornithology to be a bird expert.
LAKE NAIVASHA WILDLIFE
- Pink-backed pelican
- Long tail comorant
- White-necked comorant
- Fish eagle
- Carpenter bee
- African buffalo
- Yellow-billed stork
- Superb starling
We left Lake Naivasha and headed to Lake Nakuru, which was a few hours away. The decently paved highway was enough comfort to warrant a nap. Lake Nakuru was highly anticipated on our list, as it is one of the few places you might have luck in seeing a rhino. The lands surrounding the lake were lush, full of tree groves, grasses and blooming plants. At sunset, we were so lucky to see a rhino about 20 feet from our van (I was a bit nervous), but it was so large and beautiful as it crossed the road in front of us. Abbaa was delighted as well, as it wasn’t common for him to see a rhino so close either! Throughout the rest of the trip, Abbaa asked for my phone to see the video of the rhino to brag and show other safari leads :). We drove through the green lands, seeing monkeys and other unique creatures along the dirt road as we made our way to the shores of Lake Nakuru. Flamingos flew off into the sunset to end the day’s game drive. Our evening’s stay was in the center of the city of Nakuru, a loud, bustling town with many bikes, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and people out late at night. It was the first and last stay we’d have in a city during the safari.
LAKE NAKURU WILDLIFE
- Vervet monkey
- African buffalo
- Guinea fowl
- Rock hyrax
- Marabou stork
- Superb starling
October 5, 2017 – Amboseli & Mt. Kilimanjaro
It was indeed nice to have a full hotel buffet before heading out for the day. As with any of our international trips, the fresh fruit is always the star. We left and headed toward Amboseli National Park, a long drive in the OffRoader. Robyn and I talked most of the way, sometimes the best way to pass time. Abbaa played his typical reggae playlist, where “Favourite Boy” became my favorite repeated song. Not only did he play his music loud, but there was a video player installed in his dash that added some flair. We stopped at an overlook of the Nile River rift valley where several mountains created a picturesque landscape. The change of terrain from Nakuru to this area of Kenya reminded me of Peru, and even the look and aesthetic of locals changed quite a bit as well. People living in this area wore more layers and made blankets for the cold evenings.
Our lunch stop was at a shelter and restaurant that was a safe haven for women escaping genital mutilation and abuse. All proceeds from our lunch in the courtyard went to support victims of this troubling practice. At this point in the trip, we were getting to the southernmost point in Kenya at the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Right before the border, we turned left and headed east on the Kenyan side to Amboseli. The road to Amboseli was also not in good shape, and with the area in severe drought, everything was blanketed light dust and dirt. At this point in October, the area had not had rain in over a year!
We arrived at the entrance gate to Amboseli, where we again were attacked by Masai selling jewelry and crafts. They certainly do not take “no” for an answer! They kept calling Robyn my mom, which we got a good kick out of. After what seemed to be 20 minutes of saying “no” to handicrafts, we drove inside the desolate park where there was no vegetation in sight. To my surprise (and delight), tens of massive dust devil tornadoes tore through the park. (Apparently the word “Amboseli” has to do with the dust tornadoes.)
The further we entered the park, the more vegetation started to appear and the more animals came into sight. I told Abbaa that my favorite animal is the elephant, and he made sure we saw plenty of elephants in this park. My favorite part of the afternoon’s drive in the park was seeing a mom elephant and her baby hanging out near our road. We stopped to watch a little bit, and the mom elephant slowly walked on the road and stood there for probably 30 minutes! I was fine watching her and her baby (as well as their interactions with the hippos nearby). Eventually the mom turned and started coming toward our van and slapped its trunk on the hood! She eventually turned around and walked off the road. In the meantime, the baby elephant was trying to show the hippo who was boss, despite the fact that the hippo was fully grown and might have even weighed more.
- Thomson gazelle
- Egyptian goose
- Hadada ibis
- African jacana bird
- Yellow baboon
- Marabou stork
- African buffalo
- Crown crane
- Grant gazelle
- Red spitting cobra
From the park, you can see Mount Kilimanjaro, a massive volcano near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Our stay that evening was near the bottom of Kilimanjaro. The hotel had a central eating and reception area, however, all of the rooms were in separate huts. Dinner was delicious here, and they even had gluten-free options! After dinner, we walked to our hut and was approached by a security guard. He thought we were lost (even though we weren’t) and walked us back to our hut. On the walk there, Robyn heard something in the grass, and a snake slithered by! It was about 3-4 feet long and reddish-brown in color. In true “game drive” mode, I tried to take a picture (in hindsight, I honestly don’t know what I was thinking). We hurried to our hut all nervous and shaken. We found out that the snake was a red spitting cobra, a very poisonous snake that spits venom if startled and can paralyze or disfigure beings with its venom! In addition to the snake, we were a bit creeped out by the security guard, so we locked the hut up tight, and ridiculously built a stack of things in front of our door like crazy people. Neither Robyn nor I were able to sleep for a while, but after the eyes shut, we got some nice sleep.
October 6, 2017 – Switching Kenya for Tanzania
Much to our delight, we woke up without any snake bites or break-ins. Even though we were completely fine, we had a pep in our step when going to breakfast. The view of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the morning was so clear that we got some beautiful photos of the volcano. After breakfast, we headed back into Amboseli park, and of course had to tell Abbaa about our cobra encounter. The park wildlife officer confirmed it was a red spitting cobra, which is quite rare to see in the park. I’m okay seeing a rare rhino, but I think I’ll pass on seeing a rare cobra! Our drive back through the park was great, as we saw a family line of elephants crossing the road in front of us. We stopped at the highest point in Amboseli, a mound surrounded by Amboseli Lake.
We returned through on the same desolate dirt road toward the Namanga border. Upon reaching the Kenya-Tanzania border, we had to change drivers before entering Tanzania. It was so sad to say goodbye to Abbaa, who was an incredible part of our Kenyan experience. Isaac, a young Tanzanian, took over as our new driver. There was some confusion about where to go, but we eventually made it to immigration office. In the background, we heard the Muslim call to prayer, which was something we did not hear in Kenya. The immigration office experience was quite rough for us. After waiting in line behind a mission group, we finally got to the desk, only to have them say that we were missing a form. So we had to go back and fill out the yellow fever vaccination form before getting in line.
After about 45 min to an hour, we went back to find Isaac, who was worried about us. He did admit that the government was a bit corrupt and that police officers abuse power. There was a pretty stark difference between Kenya and Tanzania. Despite also being rural and poor, Tanzania’s infrastructure looked a bit better, the people were a little more stocky/broad, the Muslim influence was present, and people carry things on the top of their heads. The terrain of northern Tanzania was quite mountainous. We stayed in huts again but the inside of it was essentially a large tent. Our hut, named Chui (which means leopard), overlooked Lake Manyara National Park. The area around our lodge was so incredibly dry, where there had been no rain for months. Everything looked so grey and covered in dust. Dinner was superb – a delicious soup and some fresh vegetables. Luckily on our walk back to the hut this time there were no snakes to greet us to Tanzania.
Check out my next blog post as Robyn and I explore the Tanzanian parks and wildlife.