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

 

Bwindi, Uganada: A Wonderfully Mysterious Forest of Gorillas

Seeing a gorilla in the wild, so close to you that you can reach out and touch it, it is one of the most electrifying experiences you will ever have.  It was this very moment that brought us to Uganda – one of only three places in the world where you can have such an experience.

Sadly, there are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world, and there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild. The first population lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains. The second lives in Bwindi in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  That means that in order to see these gorillas, you must visit either Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”).

Gorilla trekking has been on the top of my bucketlist for several years. This is certainly not a spur of the moment trip. A trip like this takes a lot of planning.  Planning through a travel agent is almost a must. Also, a trip like this takes a bit of saving, as it is not a cheap trip. But, this was Chad and my Christmas gift to each other, because seriously, what better gift can one get than face time with wild gorillas?

So, how does one get their trek on?  Well, first, you must get visa to visit Uganda.  You can purchase one for just Uganda or, for a few bucks more, an East Africa visa that is good for Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Next, you will need to get vaccinated for yellow fever, among other things, and have proof of vaccination to present at customs on arrival.  Finally, you need to obtain a permit to trek. There are a limited number of permits that are released each year. The tour operators buy up about 80% of them, so they can be difficult to obtain on your own.  They are also pricey.

Trekking in Rwanda costs $1,500 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in Uganda is $600 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in the DRC is $400 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Most people do two treks during their visit. So, you are looking at $3,000 for one person to trek twice in Rwanda, $1,200 for one person to trek twice in Uganda, and $800 for one person to trek twice in the DRC.  Ouch!  The only good news is that part of the permit fee supports the parks and local villages. Again, this is a priceless experience, so don’t let the relatively pricey permit fees deter you. It is WELL WORTH it! We chose Uganda because it was cheaper than Rwanda and more (politically) stable than the DRC. We were also able to obtain two permits to visit two different gorilla families.

Fittingly, getting to Uganda to trek was, in itself, a trek.  To get to Uganda, we flew from Miami to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Entebbe, Uganda.  We spent an overnight in Entebbe, before boarding an early morning regional flight in a prop plane (not Chad’s favorite) to Bwindi. From the regional airport, we had about an hour long drive on a dirt road to our lodge, Mahogany Springs. This drive gave us some great insight into local life.

Mahogany Springs is considered a luxury lodge.  However, “luxury” in Uganda is different from luxury elsewhere.  If you have been on safari, especially in South Africa, you may want to adjust your expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, the property is very nice, but it’s not the Ritz Carlton.

Mahogany Springs is located in the Munyaga River valley, so the property is very lush.  The nice part about the lodge is that it is very close to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The rooms are like elevated tree houses, with wood finishes and mosquito netting draped over the beds.  They are basic accommodations, but clean and comfortable.  There is no A/C, but you can request a fan (and trust me, it is needed, even in the “winter”). The shower water was hot. The Wi-Fi is very spotty (in all of Bwindi). You can sometimes catch a signal in the common areas, but hardly ever in the rooms.

The staff is very friendly. They go out of their way to make you comfortable.  The meals are included in your stay, and the food is decent.  We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there, and the lodge was decorated for the holiday.  The staff made a special holiday meal and had Christmas music playing.

On our first day in Bwindi, we took a walking tour of the local village.  We had to do this with an armed guard, but honestly, we probably didn’t need him. We met local artisans and visited a school house in Uganda where we donated school supplies and toys that we had brought for the children. We even got to see a special traditional dance performance by the local children.

On the second day, we went out for our very first gorilla trek. This trek originated from a part of the forest that was about an hour drive from the lodge.  We woke up early for our breakfast, and by the time we were done, the lodge had packed our lunch and provided a walking stick. We then made the hour long drive to the park where we would start the trek.

We were first briefed about what to expect, and then we were divided into groups of about 8 people.  The park service tries to pair people up based on your age and their perceived level of your fitness. You will be assigned a particular gorilla family.  We met our guide who explained that the trackers were already out finding the gorillas for us. We were offered the option of hiring a sherpa to carry our things.  Remember you have to carry at least 4 water bottles per person, your lunch, and your camera for several hours through rough terrain.  Trust me, hire the sherpa. It was a worth the $20. Not only do they carry all your gear, but they will also help you trudge through the forest, which turned out to be a very important! Also, you employ a local for the day, which is important to the community and conservation of the gorillas!

The hike through the forest can be pretty challenging, and can last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before you find the gorillas.  Each group is lead by a trekker in front with a gun, one in the rear with a gun, and a ranger with a machete. Our guides had to machete a path through for us.  You should have a reasonable level of fitness to go on the trek.  There is no marked path way.  You will, at times, be knee deep in brush.  You will have to sometimes crawl or slide on your butt, due to the relatively steep inclines of the forest.  You will get a little muddy and very sweaty.

After about 4 hours of hiking (mostly uphill), we found our gorilla family. Our family was one of the largest in the area, at 19 gorillas.  Our trekking guides and rangers  prepared us for what to expect and gave us the ground rules before we got close to them. The trekkers lead you in with guns and tell you where to sit and how close you can get.  They communicate with the gorillas by making certain grunting sounds. On that particular day, our gorilla family was active, on the move, and little aggressive. We literally had to chase them as they moved around, but we did get very close to them on the rare moments that they stopped for a break. At one point, too close. We accidentally cut the family off as they were crossing the river such that half the family was on one side of the river and the other half on the other.  This agitated the silver-back.  And, the next thing you know, we got charged by a silver-back!  More on that below. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but you could tell that the trekkers and the guides were worried! At the time, it was terrifying, but looking back, it was absolutely exhilarating.

In case you were wondering, don’t: You WILL know when you are getting near the gorilla family. How you might ask? Well, there is no graceful or witty way to put it, so I’ll  just say it: Mountain gorillas smell like piss. Apparently, this is primarily thanks to the patriarch silver-back/head of the family, and it is unmistakable. It’s one of those things where, you’ll know it when you smell it! With that said, let’s move on, shall we? You are not allowed to touch the gorillas, but sometimes they touch you.  In these moments, you have to sit extremely still and look down, do not make eye contact.  You get to spend about an hour with the gorilla family.

We later learned that all the other groups had found their families pretty early on and got to spend a chill hour observing them as they lazily laid around posing for pictures.  Not our group. We were the last group back. The gorillas charged at us at least two times.  One of those times, the silver-back male – all 500+ pounds of him – brushed past Chad and knocked over another member in our group who went flying into a pile of leaves. He later said that it was the hardest force he had ever felt, like being hit by a boulder. These gorillas are super strong. They can literally kill you with their bare hands.  The first thing the rangers told us was to not run away if we were approached by a gorilla.  Everybody forgot that rule! So, needless to say, we were all on edge.

After our hour was over, we hiked about another hour until we could find a place to stop for lunch.  It was an exhausting day, but absolutely exhilarating. Truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Back at the lodge, everyone traded trekking stories.  Ours was by far the worst (or, in hindsight, the best!).

The next day, we were scheduled for our second trek.  This time, we would be visiting part of the forest that was a close 10 minute drive from the lodge. Chad and I didn’t know what to expect.  We sat through another briefing and got assigned to trek the M family. We began our trek, but about 2 hours in our rangers and guide aborted the trek because it was reported that the M family was literally in a territory skirmish with another pack of wild gorillas, making it unsafe for us to visit them.

Our guides decided to re-route and found us the R family. I was elated to find the R family.  The R family is what trekking dreams are made of.  They are a pack of about 12 to 15 lazy and friendly gorillas.  They had a super-chill silver-back leader and 4 of the cutest babies I ever saw.  They could not have cared less that we were there. They laid around eating, while the babies played with each other and climbed the trees.  It was pure bliss! I felt like we were being rewarded after the trek we had the day before. The experience lived up to all the hype!

At the end of each trek, we were awarded with our trekking certificates! After that much physical activity, the least you deserve is an award!

So, what does one wear to trek gorillas?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Here’s a little hint: you are going to look ridiculous while you are trekking.  But, the good news is, so does everyone else. Relax. This is not a fashion show.  It’s a jungle.

Anyway, you will need a good, lightweight pair of breathable pants (preferably with pockets) and a breathable long sleeved shirt.  You MUST wear hiking boots with a sturdy pair of long socks. If you have boot covers, bring them.  Otherwise, you MUST tuck the bottoms of your pants into your socks.  If you do not, you will get ants in your pants.  Big, fire ants.  In your pants. You should bring a lightweight rain jacket and probably a hat or some other head covering. You MUST bring a sturdy pair of gloves, like gardening gloves.  If you do not have them, the park’s visitor center will rent or sell them to you.  During the trek you will be grabbing on to branches, vines, and plants, many of which have thorns. Finally, you will need a backpack that can hold your lunch, some snacks, your water, baby wipes (for when nature calls; you may also want to bring a Ziploc bag for your waste) your rain gear, and your camera equipment.

I am so glad that Chad and I got to check this one off the list.  It was really an incredible experience.  If you have ever though about doing it, go.  Just go. It was amazing. It was worth every dime we paid, and all the soreness we felt afterwards. It truly was an awesome way to close out a year of remarkable adventures!