I recently had the pleasure of visiting Africa for the fifth time. I booked a small ship sailing on a Swan Hellenic from Kenya to Mozambique and I decided to make the most the most of my trip in Africa. I won’t lie…it is a long trip from Arizona to Africa, but it is always worth it :)
This trip started with a quick overnight in Nairobi before I headed out for safari. Kenya has many areas where you can go on safari and the best way to reach most is by small aircraft. The planes typically hold between 8 and 12 people and the schedules are decided the day of travel. For example, I was going to Loisaba and my ticket simply said Nairobi to Loisaba…if enough people were going to Loisaba, the flight might have been non-stop. On my flight, I was the only one going there, so I had to fly to Mt. Kenya and switch planes and make one other stop before arriving at Loisaba. Travel in Africa often requires some flexibility and patience. All in, I only arrived about one hour later than originally scheduled.
I chose safari lodges that focus on sustainability and have good relationships with the surrounding communities. The first safari camp, Loisaba Tented Camp, is part of the Elewana Collection. Elewana has properties in Kenya and Tanzania and have an excellent reputation for responsible tourism. Elewana is the only safari company with properties in Loisaba (there are 3) so it feels like you are almost alone with the wildlife on the safari drives.
I chose to have a private guide and vehicle for my game drives. This means I could choose exactly when I wanted to leave for the drives and when I wanted to return. I had the option to come back for breakfast or eat breakfast out in the wild. Private game drives come at a supplement, but especially if you are traveling with other people, the price is very reasonable. Having your own guide also means you can ask questions as often as you like or ask to search for animals that you are very interested in seeing.
I recommend that clients stay in private conservancy areas for safari. Private conservancy areas are managed to limit the impact of travelers on the wildlife. The areas are restricted to guests staying at lodges located in the conservancy and different rules apply when compared to staying outside these conservancies. For example, vehicles can go off road to get closer to wildlife in most conservancy areas, but once an animal is spotted, the number of vehicles allowed at the sighting is often very limited (usually to only 3 to 5 vehicles). This allows the animals have plenty of room to roam and be wild and they aren’t as stressed as when unlimited vehicles are allowed. A portion of the funds you pay for safari are also funneled back into protecting the animals and land in the conservancy.
In Loisaba Conservancy, there are several different types of terrain, and it is common to see many of the typical safari animals, except for rhino. Rhinos are endangered and their numbers have been depleted in East Africa. Loisaba has been working with scientists to develop a rhino re-introduction program for years and rhino are expected to be released here in the coming months. This is a major development in conservation. One reason Loisaba was selected for this program is they have an excellent anti-poaching unit. The anti-poaching until was so successful that no animal has been poached here in over 7 years----poachers know they will likely get caught and it isn’t worth the risk. The unit still monitors the conservancy, but now also works with the local communities to help when there are crimes or cases of missing people. The same skills that allow the dogs to track poachers are used to find others. Giving back to the community gives community members incentive to protect the conservancy and its wildlife---which ensures more tourism dollars.
After a few days at Loisaba, I head to the famous Masai Mara. I board a plane at the same small airstrip where I arrived and this time there are already many people on board, so we head directly to the Masai Mara. The Mara is large enough that there are multiple airstrips---my lodge is closest to the first stop.
For this part of the safari, I stayed at Great Plains lodges. Great Plains Conservation is also a leader is sustainable tourism and they have lodges in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe. I split my stay between Mara Expedition Camp and Mara Plains. I like to experience as many camps as possible to help me select the best camps for my cleints.
I started at Mara Expedition Camp and my guide took me to the main part of the Masai Mara so I could see the differences between this area and the conservancies that Great Plains has access to in the area. I immediately saw large herds of impalas, zebra and gazelles in the plains and the scenery is beautiful. However, as we drove around the area, we could see safari vehicles essentially racing all in one direction from time to time. I asked my guide what was going on and he said, there was an animal sighting and the guides all heard on the radio and were heading there. He took to my one such sighting---this was a leopard eating his kill in a tree. I was shocked at the number of safari vehicles there. There were literally rows of vehicles going 5 and 6 rows deep from the tree and I stopped counting at 30 vehicles. Some people had their huge cameras out and were trying to get photos and other people took this opportunity to have drinks and snacks and chat (all while still in the vehicle). The whole scene was like a circus. The leopard was stressed and stopped eating. I asked the guide to leave within just a couple of minutes. Later that evening, we saw a lion at a distance and there were also 20+ vehicles pulled off the side of the road trying to get a peek at the lion. Because of park regulations, vehicles can’t go off road to get closer to the wildlife and while I was disappointed to only see the lion through binoculars, I was happy the restrictions were in place as I imagine wildlife would find it difficult to simply exist if literally a hundred or more safari vehicles were chasing them each day.
In contrast, the next morning we drove (I again chose to do a private game drive) to Mara North Conservancy and it was probably more than an hour before we saw even one other safari vehicle (and had seen quite a bit of wildlife). This lack of competition also allowed me to just sit in silence at times with the animals----we were near a giraffe and I sat there and listened to her chew for several minutes. Perhaps not the most exciting thing it the world, but it was really exciting for me as I love giraffes :)
Since I was changing lodges, we decided to have breakfast out in the bush and then head back to the new lodge for lunch. I love every minute I’m on safari, but I will say after several hours of the “African massage” the sweet term often used for all of the bouncing around on the unpaved roads…it is nice to have a little break. It is important to let me know if you have any back or neck problems as there are some safari areas that are kinder to your body than others.
Mara Plains is a beautiful property and you fall asleep (or sit straight up in bed in the middle of night) with sounds of the hippos and other wildlife. There is a small river right at the property which is why there are nearly always hippo. This is one of the few Relias and Châteaux safari properties in the world—I believe there are 3. This distinction means the food and beverage served here is as good as the wildlife viewing. The photos below show each of the 3 lodges.
During safari, you typically go for a morning game drive (as the sun comes up) and an afternoon game drive (a couple of hours before sunset). Each game drive is different even if you go on the same route (which doesn’t happen often). Some game drives you may see a ton of wildlife and other game drives the animals may be hiding. Going on safari is not like going to a zoo---there are no guarantee you will see anything, but in areas where conservation is a focus, the animals are mostly thriving which means you have an excellent chance of seeing wildlife. Even if you don’t need or want to stay at a luxury safari lodge, the guides at the luxury lodges tend to have the most experience and knowledge and this translates into better wildlife viewing for you. The experienced guides also know how to approach wildlife in the vehicles with minimum impact on the animal….and they have good instincts where the animals might be if they aren’t out in the open.
I hope this post has inspired you to consider a trip to Africa. I am happy to help you plan your safari. It is truly a memorable experience! I will continue with the rest of my trip in my next blog post.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!