Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya: East African Safari

If you had to choose just one travel experience before you die; one trip of a lifetime; the ultimate bucket-list experience; that choice should, without a doubt, be an African safari.

Chad and I have been lucky enough to have been on safari in Africa twice.  The first time was our honeymoon when we went on safari in South Africa in the private concessions of Kruger National Park.  The second time was this past December when we visited the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.  Having done two, I can tell you that it never gets old.  And, I think that is because the experiences are so different. More on that later.

After spending a couple of days in Nairobi, which I certainly recommend if you want to have a slumber party with giraffes and spend time with baby elephants, we boarded a small, regional propeller plane and headed to the Rift Valley Province.

We landed on the private airstrip of our home for the next three days: &Beyone Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp. Our guide for the next three days was waiting to greet us with a smile, cool towels, refreshing cold drinks, and snacks!

Once we were done munching, we loaded into our safari vehicle and began the short drive through the Maasai Mara to our camp grounds. What we didn’t expect was that our safari would begin right then and there.  As we crossed the Mara, we were greeted by a pride of lions, several elephants, and a large hippo.

On arrival, we got a tour of the camp grounds and were shown to our room.

We would be spending the next few days “glamping” in a luxury tent that overlooked the Mara.

Our meals would be served outdoors, shared with the resident warthogs and monkeys.

And, if you so choose, you could spend your afternoons lounging by the pool while elephants, zebra, giraffe and the occasional lion sauntered by.

But, Chad and I were here for the wildlife viewing, so we chose to spend our days on game drives. We were glad we did, because we got to see SO MANY animals!

Of course, the goal on safari is to see the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo. We saw the Big Five on our first safari, so we were determined to see them again. And, successful we were!

Buffalo and elephants are pretty common on both South African and East African safaris.  Even though there is a lot of elephant poaching going on, you still see a fair amount of elephants. One difference we noticed in Kenya versus our experience in South Africa – due primarily to the much flatter topography of the Maasai Mara plateau – is that we saw a lot more animals and with a lot less effort.

By far, the cats are the most exciting viewing.  We got to see a lot of lions with their baby cubs.  We even saw a lioness on the prowl, but thankfully, we didn’t have to witness a kill. That was due mostly to her terrible hunting skills.  I mean, it was  so bad that  it was almost comical. This female lion was stalking and even gave chase to a pack of warthogs, who are notoriously stupid.  Their stupidity is due to their lack of memory, specifically, short-term memory.  They are so forgetful that in the middle of running away from a predator, they forget why they are running and just stop. It would stand to reason that the lion should have easily been able to catch at least one dumb warthog.  But, no such luck.

We also got to see cheetahs, which was a first! This was probably my most favorite viewing because they were so chill and curious of us. they were also SO stinking cute! Our guide told us that it was not unusual for them to jump right on the hood of the jeep for a closer look.

There are more cheetah in Tanzania than in Kenya, so to see these two, we had to drive to the Tanzanian border.  And, since we came all that way, we sneaked into the Serengeti National Park.

The most difficult and sought after viewings are the rhinos and cheetah. Rhinos are difficult because, tragically, they have almost been hunted into extinction. If you are lucky enough to see a rhino, it will probably be a black rhino.  While black rhinos are still critically endangered, they are more numerous than the white rhino. We were lucky to spot just one black rhino.

The white rhino is more rare. There are two subspecies of white rhinos: the southern white rhinoceros, which are found in South Africa, and the the northern white rhinoceros, which were formally found in East Africa, but which are now functionally extinct. There are only two females left in the whole world, and they are guarded by around the clock security.

Most people miss the Big Five because they never get to see the leopard. Being the fastest land animal on earth, they are so elusive! They are also excellent hiders! While we saw three in South Africa, we only saw one in East Africa.

We spent so much time out on our game drives that we got to have picnic lunches out in Mara surrounded by nature.  We also stopped in the evenings for sundowners and to enjoy the sunset with cocktails and snacks!

Back at the camp in the evenings, members of the Maasai Tribe would come and visit us to perform traditional dances and to sell their handicrafts.

I love cultural immersion, so I asked out guide to take us to the local Maasai village.  The head tribesman took us on a tour of his village and of his personal home, which was a single room mud-hut with no electricity.  We also met the women of the tribe who greeted us with a welcome song, dressed in their beautiful and colorful traditional garb.  The Maasai tribe is well-known for its traditional and colorful handmade beaded jewelry.

We knew we would be visiting the tribe, so we packed with a purpose.  We brought educational supplies, crayons, coloring books, and toys for the village children.  They were so ecstatic to receive even the smallest gifts, and proudly raised their pencils in the air.

And so ended our second African safari adventure.  It was so nice to truly disconnect and be immersed in nature and in wildlife.  The experience really gives you a new perspective and a true appreciation for wildlife and for our environment. I can’t wait to go back to my favorite continent and go on another amazing safari adventure!

Seriously, if you ever get the chance to go on safari. Just go. It is pricey, but it is well-worth the money spent.  It really is an experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Nairobi, Kenya: A Visit To The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Have you ever wanted a pet elephant? Just imagine if you could spend an evening with your baby elephant, petting it, feeding it a bottle, and tucking it in to bed. If ever you find yourself in Nairobi, you can! You can “adopt” your very own orphaned elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (“DWST”)!

DWST was founded in 1977 and is the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world! To date, they have successfully hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and have reintegrated these orphan elephants back into the wild.

There are many threats to the elephant population in Africa.  But, the biggest of these threats are people.  Elephants face the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought, as well as the threat of poaching of the elephant for their ivory tusks. It is for these very reasons that baby elephants become orphaned.

To add to the dangers that elephants face, in November 2017 Trump announced that he would be lifting the ban on importing elephant (and lion) trophies (i.e., heads and body parts) into the U.S., which will likely increase the number of people who will travel to Africa for the sole purpose of hunting elephants. Why anybody would want to kill any creatures, let alone such beautiful and majestic creatures, is beyond my understanding.

Luckily, organizations like DSWT exist to help in education and conservation efforts and to help combat some of the threats that face the elephant. In addition to the Orphans’ Project, DSWT has an anti-poaching project  which uses mobile desnaring units to free elephants caught in a poacher’s trap and patrol popular poaching grounds, an aerial surveillance unit that scans the region for poachers, traps, or injured animals, the saving habitats project, a mobile veterinary project and Sky Vets,  which deploy teams of vets to areas where injured animals are discovered for onsite care and/or transport, and community initiative projects, which educate local communities on the importance of conservation.

Needless to say, we were very eager to visit DSWT!  Everyday, DSWT offers visitors a chance to attend their public feeding from 11:00 a.m. until noon. During this time, the public watches as the baby elephants run in from the bush for their midday mud bath and feeding.  It costs $7 US dollars per person ages 4 and above, and payment must be in cash. Be sure to arrive early as there are A LOT of people who attend the public feeding.

Also, just so you don’t have your dreams crushed, you don’t actually get to do the feeding.  Instead, you stand around a large roped off mud pit, and watch as the babies splash around in the mud and get fed by their handlers from giant bottles.  It is so stinking cute.  Sometimes they run by and shake mud all over you or stop to be pet, so be sure to wear something you don’t mind getting dirty. Also, that mud soaks in deep, and is VERY hard to get out of your clothing, even after washing.

You can foster a baby elephant while you are there or before you come by visiting their foster page online where you can see all the elephants and read about their stories of rescue. By the way, a fostered elephant makes a GREAT gift for the animal lover in your life. It costs $50.00 a year per foster.  Chad and I selected two cuties that we fostered on the spot: Maisha and Luggard.

As a foster parent you can also visit the nursery by appointment at 5:00 p.m. when the elephants return to the stockades for the night. The evening visit is for foster parents only, and it must be booked in advance of your intended visit by contacting DSWT directly. While there are quite a few people who attend, it is A LOT less than the public feeding.  During this visit, you will watch them run in from the bush again, except this time, they run right into their assigned pens.

Somehow they know where they are supposed to go and know that their handlers are waiting to feed them from the giant bottles again.  Some are so talented that they hold their own bottles.  I literally couldn’t contain myself.  It was cuteness overload.

Once they have eaten, it’s time for them to get ready for bed. They lay in their hay beds next to their handlers who sleep right in the pens with them and wait to be covered with their blankets! I mean, c’mon! How can you even resist such cuteness?!?!

Some like to play with toys before bed. While others want to suck on their handlers fingers and cuddle!

As a visitor, you can walk around to all the pens and visit the elephants or just visit your fosters. The handlers are there to answer questions, let you pet your elephant, and take photos for you.

DSWT doesn’t just save elephants.  They help all creatures! On property there is also a giraffe and a blind black rhino.

This really was a unique and special experience, and I HIGHLY recommend it.  In fact, this and our stay at Giraffe Manor were the reasons for our visit to Kenya!

If you can’t make it to Kenya to see the elephants in person, you can still support DSWT by fostering an elephant or donating to their efforts.  When you foster, you get a monthly email about the progress of your foster with photos. You can foster baby elephants , adolescent elephants, adult elephants, giraffes, and rhinos!  It really is a great cause, and, after visiting and following them on social media for a few years, it seems like they run a great program that really supports the precious wildlife for which Africa is so famous. #BeKindToElephants

 

Giraffe Manor: The Most Magical Hotel In The Whole World

Tucked into 140 acres of indigenous forest in a quiet suburb of Nairobi, Kenya stands an old colonial manor.  It is a place where a herd of resident Rothschild giraffes roam freely, poking their heads into your bedroom windows eagerly looking for a treat, to share in a sun-downer, and then reappearing once more in the morning to share in your breakfast. Giraffe Manor offers an unparalleled experience to its guests.  It is pure magic.

Visiting Giraffe Manor has been on my list for quite some time.  If you have ever seen Instagram photos of the place, you’ll understand why.  In fact, we built our entire trip to Kenya around a stay at this incredible property.

Upon arriving in Kenya, we were greeted by one of the manor’s friendly drivers who told us all about the history of the manor before delivering us to the charming little manor of my dreams.  We had arrived just in time for afternoon tea!

Tea time is quite the event at the manor. Off in the distance, just as the scones and cookies are set out by the friendliest staff, a herd of giraffe emerge and make their way to the manor’s patio. They know you are there, waiting to feed them pellets, and they will happily pose for pictures and even give you kisses for a treat.  Don’t worry, their saliva is antiseptic, so it’s totally safe (and highly recommended) to kiss a giraffe.

As the African sun sets, the giraffes turn in for the night and guests of the manor prepare for a gourmet meal in the manor’s dining room. While dinner is being prepared, you can relax by the fire with a cocktail in hand or roam around the manor and admire the beautifully appointed rooms.  We visited the manor just after Christmas, and the fire place was still draped with Christmas stockings, one for each of the resident giraffes.

In the main house, dinner is served in three courses on a long table shared by all the manor’s guest.  You will want to turn in early for the night because you will have an early wake up call in the morning by the resident giraffes who poke their heads into your suite’s bedroom window, inviting you down for the most incredible breakfast experience you will ever have.

Breakfast is quite the affair at Giraffe Manor! In the main house, the breakfast room is framed by large picture windows.  The resident giraffes poke their heads in, waiting to be fed. The breakfast experience is really the reason to come to Giraffe Manor.  It is truly incredible, and the food is also fantastic.

After breakfast, at about 9:00 a.m.., the giraffes make their way to The Giraffe Center, located a short three-minute walk from the manor, to greet the waiting public who has come to visit (and feed) them for the day.

The Giraffe Center is a non-profit conservation education center that is open to the public, but free to guests of the manor. It provides visitors the opportunity to meet, learn about, interact with, and feed the giraffes.  While it pales in comparison to the personal giraffe encounters offered by the manor, it is worth a visit to learn about the different types of giraffes (the others being the Maasai and reticulated giraffe), the distinguishing characteristics  of each (each type has a unique and easily identifiable patterned marking), and the conservation efforts in Kenya through African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW).  You will also learn a few facts about giraffes.  In addition to learning that their saliva is antiseptic, we learned that giraffes barely sleep (less than two hours per day) and have such powerful legs that a giraffe kick can be lethal.  I also learned first hand that some giraffes are head-butters.

So, how do you plan a stay at the manor?  Well, you plan WAY in advance.  Giraffe Manor only has 12 rooms split between the original house, called the Main Manor, and the Garden Manor which is a replica of the original manor.  The property typically books up a year in advance. The Garden Manor is  reserved for guests who are staying at more than one Safari Collection property.  We were lucky enough to snag a cancellation in the Main Manor. You can check their availability right on their website.

While your stay includes all food and drink, it is still pricey at approximately $1,400 a night.  However, a one-night stay is plenty to enjoy the property, and, in my opinion, the experience was worth the price tag.  Just think of this as your vacation splurge, and maybe stay at more modest accommodations for the rest of your trip. Make sure you arrive in the early afternoon so you can really enjoy all that this the magical property has to offer.

The property is family friendly, but honestly, I wish it wasn’t. (Sorry, kids! It’s just too much going on with the giraffes and kids running around) There is an on-property spa and cute little gift shop as well. In addition to visiting The Giraffe Center, you can also schedule a visit to the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an orphan-elephant rescue and conservation project.  At DSWT, you can attend the public feeding of the rescued orphaned elephants and even foster your own elephant. More on that in my next blog post!

For now, it’s time to bid adieu to this magical hotel, and its beautiful resident giraffes!