Into East Africa

During a firsthand account of this enchanted land, a  wish-list trip becomes an experience to mentally revisit, with memories of nature at its finest.

BY JENNIFER ANN

I’d been dreaming of a trip to East Africa for years—a bucket-list check imagined as a soul-stirring, immersive journey. As I prep for the experience with African Travel, Inc. which includes stops in Nairobi, the Maasai Mara, Singita Grumeti Reserve in Tanzania, and the famous Ngorongoro Crater, I anticipate celebrating community, culture, and the Big Five. Yet after what I first thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I quickly discover I can’t wait to return.

A NAIROBI WELCOME

First up is a visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Established more than 40 years ago as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for orphaned elephants and rhinos, for $50 a year you can adopt one of these beautiful creatures, and I have an opportunity to interact with my own foster elephant, Larro. 

Next, I head to the Kazuri Beads Factory. Swahili for “small and beautiful,” Kazuri was started in the 1970s as a place for single mothers to find employment; it’s since become an artist haven where women thrive. Each unique piece of jewelry and pottery has been handcrafted by women employed here, and as I hold these gems in my hand, it shows.

Then it’s off to the Giraffe Center. Located on the estate of Betty Leslie-Melville, Giraffe Manor Hotel offers a truly unexpected experience. Not only can you feed Rothschild giraffes by hand, but if you place a pellet between your lips, you’ll receive a giraffe “kiss” as they gently grasp it with their tongue.

THE MAGIC OF THE MAASAI MARA

The following morning, I awake before my alarm goes off, flooded with excitement about the next adventure: my first safari, in the Maasai Mara, with two nights at Karen Blixen Camp. Upon arrival, I’m greeted with freshly squeezed juice and the sound of hippos playing in the Mara River. Tents are both eco-friendly and luxurious, with private outdoor showers and every amenity needed for a comfortable bush experience.

When I’m not in awe of nature during dawn and dusk game drives, there’s time to enjoy a spa treatment, lounge by the pool, or simply gaze out at the river from my tent’s private deck. The land is brown and vast, sprinkled with quirky trees that have as much personality as the animals that seek shelter beneath them. Elephants parade with their calves; a pride of lions unsuccessfully tries to conquer a hippopotamus; a tower of giraffes graze on tree leaves; and a dazzle of zebra befriend a lonely wildebeest.

Just when I think the safari experience couldn’t be more, we break during a morning game drive and are surprised with a breakfast feast served in the middle of the Mara. Later, as we toast a Kenyan sunset with sundowners served around a roaring bonfire, a hyena scurries past, carrying his dinner into the distance as dayglow pink and orange hues collapse into the horizon.

TANZANIA’S SINGITA GRUMETI RESERVE

Leaving the Mara is bittersweet, but Singita Grumeti Reserve in Tanzania awaits. I’m welcomed at the airstrip with a refreshing drink before continuing by jeep to Singita Faru Faru, a haven for honeymooners, couples, or anyone looking for a quiet retreat in the heart of the Serengeti. I also spend two nights at Singita Sasakwa Lodge, ideal for families and those desiring more space. Cottages are like a private luxury oasis, with individual plunge pools, made-to-order meals, and impeccable service. 

The terrain at Singita Grumeti Reserve is vastly different than Kenya’s landscape. Tanzania’s tall grass make this safari experience a lesson in patience, which pays off. We watch a family of female lions lazing in the grass as their cubs play, while dad surveys the area (and us) from a distance. Zebra frolic about, giraffes saunter in slow motion, and water buffalo take mud baths before gathering together under a shady tree. We spend over an hour tracking a cheetah as it hunts for dinner, an unlucky impala. Nature is hard at work here, and as the cheetah pauses to catch her breath, I realize we, too, are breathless in her presence.

The following day, I learn firsthand of the Grumeti Fund Community Outreach Program, which supports families in nearby local villages. Children invite us into their homes, and as they sing their welcome song, I’m overwhelmed by this small but significant encounter.

NGORONGORO CRATER + ARUSHA COFFEE LODGE

The next morning brings a visit to The Manor at Ngorongoro. Located in the middle of an expansive coffee estate, cottages are set amongst a lush green landscape and flowering gardens, and a horseback ride takes me through beautiful coffee fields.

I find the Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to an abundance of wildlife. Thousands of pink flamingos soar over the water’s edge in the distance and my Big Five checklist is complete when I spot a black rhino.

Prior to journeying home, I lunch at Arusha Coffee Lodge and think about how this journey to Africa is an experience that’s hard to relay. Its magnificent physical terrain mines an emotional landscape impossible to capture via words. It’s a place I’ll return to, if not physically, but emotionally, for the remainder of my life. As I leave, I am filled with the voices of children singing welcome songs: “Jambo, Jambo bwana, Habari gani, Mzuri sana …


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Cover Photo: Zebra in Ngorongoro Conservation Area / Image by Wayne Hartmann from Pixabay


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