Written by Travel Beyond consultant Marguerite Smit
“There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive. One only feels really free when one can go in whatever direction one pleases over the plains, to get to the river at sundown and pitch one’s camp, with the knowledge that one can fall asleep beneath other trees, with another view before one, the next night.”
- Karen Blixen
…And so that long haul to the motherland began on that fateful Thursday, toddler in tow en route to Kenya. A delightful flight on KLM had us arriving into Amsterdam in the early hours of the morning. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we arrived at the Hotel Pulitzer, stroller in hand and off to explore what the Dutch were up to! An eventful day filled with “stroopwafels,” historic buildings, art museums and wonderful flower markets – a great way to fill the time between flights and the Hotel Pulitzer, a comfortable place to rest one’s head.
We arrived in Nairobi in the early evening on the following day, where we were met by Lydia’s welcoming smile, whisked through traffic and arrived at Hemmingways Boutique hotel in the Karen district of Nairobi about 40 min after clearing customs. This newly built 45-room boutique property offers a very modern, luxurious, airy and spacious stay with an a la carte menu. The following morning we were off to Giraffe Manor and boy, what a treat! My toddler Noah could not stop feeding the giraffe and warthog, smiling from ear to ear. A visit to the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary warmed the hearts of both young and old.
An early morning flight to Amboseli National Park got the safari juices flowing. We spent the night at Tortilis Camp on the southwestern edge of the park, facing Kilimanjaro and overlooking its own private conservancy, Kitrua. Kitrua makes up 30 000 acres of wildlife corridor, bridging Amboseli and Tanzania. Tortilis Camp features comfortable thatched tented rooms with magnificent views of the mountain when she shows her face!
From here we traveled to the foot of the legendary Chyulu Hills… also referred to by Hemmingway as the Green Hills of Africa. We visited two lodges in this region, the first of which was Camp Ya Kanzi. The cloud forest hikes certainly give life to the legend, and horseback riding is very popular here. If you are lucky enough to see her face, Kilimanjaro can also be seen from the main lodge. I spent some time at a local village, school and clinic. Having a toddler most certainly had me curious about village births, vaccinations, male and female circumcision, teeth extraction, polygamy, nomadic lifestyles, disease and injury caused by wildlife/villager conflict, as well as education and reading programs. I learned much about the Maasai and Samburu tribes during this trip – some aspect of life still baffle me, while others delightfully brought a new understanding with regards to my own outlook on life.
Another wonderful lodge nestled between Kenya’s Tsavu East and Amboseli National Park is Ol Donyo Lodge. If you are an avid horse rider, this place is for you! Vast open plains filled with plains game and no better way to get that ‘up close and personal’ experience than on horseback! A 5-star experience from beginning to end and most certainly the lap of luxury. Karieshia did a phenomenal job of guiding and answered all my questions with delightful insight, helping me gain a better understanding of life as a Maasai warrior.
Our next stop was Lewa Conservancy—just north of the equator—where we visited Lewa Wilderness Camp. The lodge is made up of 6 individual cottages, each with its own unique layout and décor capturing stunning views of the valley. The original rooms are the cottages closest to the main living area of David and Delia Craig, who started the lodge. Each consists of two ensuite bedrooms, a living area with a bar and cozy fireplace perfect for families or those who don’t want to wonder too far from the main area.
This region is known for Black and White Rhino (the latter brought in from South Africa) and I might add the Black Rhino are not shy—some of my best Rhino sightings to date! You can spot Gerenuk antelope here if you are lucky, along with Grevy Zebra and Reticulated Giraffe (which roam only to the north of the equator) and I have to say, by far the most beautiful of both species! An array of activities are on offer here, from walks with the local Maasai, camel rides, horse riding, game drives and scenic flights.
If you prefer the smaller intimate tented experience, Sirikoi in the same conservancy would be a great pick. You can also take sole use of Sirikoi Cottage or Sirikoi House, both fantastic options for families and completely private. Sirikoi has some of the best vegan food to date with a vegetable garden that gives new meaning to the “farm to table” concept! The camp works on solar power and although tented, offers a fireplace in each tent which is pre-lit to warm your room at night. Tents have ensuite bathrooms with a free-standing bath built for tall people like myself and offering a great view…delightfully stylish in the bush! Leguy, a young Maasai warrior with an innate love for the bush, took excellent care of us and again answered many personal questions about life as a Maasai.
Heading north towards the Mathews Range from Lewa Conservancy brought us to the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, an area of 850,000 acres of pristine wilderness. This is Samburu land, and harsh conditions and age-old traditions are what make this place unique. Every morning the Samburu families take their cattle to the singing wells where they dig for water (in drought up to 7 men deep,) to fill their troughs to provide water for their cows and goats. Each family owns a well and sings to their livestock as they bring water up. The cows recognize their family song and come down to their well to get water in organized chaos, as livestock fill the riverbed. Here families meet, stories are shared and passed on, and in the evening, elephant and leopard come to these same wells to drink in a wondrous example of humans and wildlife using the same water source. This experience cannot be photographed in the hopes of keeping this area unchanged, as it has been kept unspoiled for hundreds of years. The bells, singing, naked Samburu, color and perfect light as the sun rises… imprinted fondly in memory and never in print. I did visit a local village, asked many questions, and to my guide Mark’s delight, was able to milk a goat. (Apparently not many visitors know how!)
When thinking of Kenya, most people think of the Maasai Mara. It was only fitting to end our trip to Kenya in this region, and we certainly left no stone unturned. Our first stop visited Mara Explorer and Intrepids on a thickly forested bend of the Talek River, a prime location during the great migration between July and September. During the remainder of the year it is home to hippo, watering elephant, plains game and other animals that can be seen right from your private veranda. At this time of year all the babies drop and the plains are filled with an abundance of young creatures, big and small.
Rekero is another camp offering amazing night sounds because of its location overlooking the Talek River. Rekero is an eco-camp with flush toilets and bucket showers. The camp has two common areas under canvas for guest dining and relaxing, as well as an amazing fire pit welcoming nightfall. Each tent has a large verandah and is attended by a personal butler. The camp staff are delightful and the manager, Mariana Kathini, has worked with the Asilia team for years.
Naibor Camp also overlooks the Talek River and offers 3 options: Naibor Camp consists of 7 tents, Little Naibor (located within the immediate vicinity of Naibor Camp) offers 2 spacious suites perfect for families, and Naibor Wilderness Camp is made up of 3 luxurious double tents, perfect for small groups traveling together. The tents are all carefully positioned amongst the trees, allowing you to enjoy the surroundings in complete privacy. The main area is warm and inviting, and the food is very good.
From here we ventured towards the Tanzania border on the banks of the Sand River, where splendor meets 1920’s exclusivity at Sand River Camp. Game viewing is exceptional year round, but during the migration the camp is located right in the path of wildebeest and zebra. This region is well known for its concentration of big cats, so the area offers abundant resident wildlife, and the camp itself does not disappoint. There is something to be said about that “out of Africa” look and feel captured by Hollywood, reminding you of the splendor of days gone by. When a property offers the entire package, it just works! From the billiard table to the spacious tents, copper bathtubs and leather furniture, dining from an a la carte menu and staff offering exceptional service, Sand River stands out. The lodge is divided into two areas: Sand River rooms 1 – 10 and Little Sand River rooms 11 – 16. The two areas are joined by a walkway and each area has its own library, cellar, dining and living room offering privacy, exclusivity and excellent service. A definite “must see” when traveling to the Mara!
Our next stop was Naboisho, set on a private conservancy where guests can go on bush walks, night drives and wilderness excursions. You can do fly and bush camping from the main lodge, and as with most lodges in Kenya, you have access to a local Maasai village visit. The lodge is very similar to its sister camp Rekero in look and feel with bucket showers and verandahs, but it’s not in close proximity to water, and the region is more wooded. We had an amazing sighting even by my standards: a serval eating a gazelle in broad daylight!
From here we headed towards the Njageteck River in the Mara North Conservancy to visit Richards River Camp. The Ngoyanai Spring provides a permanent water source, drawing large numbers of animals to the area surrounding the camp. The area is also known for its resident pride of Lion often seen hunting right in front of the lodge. With only 7 individually decorated tents, the lodge is intimate, personalized and uniquely different in décor and color, offering a contemporary ‘Out of Africa” experience. We ate wonderful meals, and the local management team welcomed us with warm Kenya hospitality.
A big black Cobra welcomed me to my tent at Mara Plains and got the adrenaline flowing. The camp is located in the 30,000 acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy, one of only five camps in the conservancy operating today, offering the region’s lowest vehicle density with no mini-buses and only one guest room per 700 acres! Mara Plains is a small, intimate camp with seven tents on raised decks, breathtaking views from each tent and a hang bridge welcoming you to the property. The camp has wonderful cuisine, spacious rooms with a sitting area adjacent to your bedroom, huge bathrooms and verandahs overlooking either the plains or the woodland. Activities include day and night drives, cultural village visits, balloon safaris (additional cost), and above all, a private game viewing experience. If you prefer something a little more rustic and intimate, Mara Toto is right next door and offers only five rooms: spacious tents with bucket showers. Another lodge not to be missed!
Our very last stop in the Mara, Governors IL Moran. The camp is situated on the Mara River in the heart of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, hidden under ancient trees. This intimate 10-tent camp boasts spacious rooms with large carved wooden beds and a sitting area overlooking the river. We were lucky enough to see a leopard with her cub, aardwolf and lion fighting for territory all in one game drive!
Sadly I bid Kenya farewell, but with a quick hop, skip and jump, I welcomed Tanzania as I landed at Kilimanjaro Airport. From there a quick 20-minute flight allowed me to explore Lake Manyara on the same day. Lake Manyara is a lush green region filled with monkeys, baboons, elephant, hippo, wildebeest, impala, warthog and giraffe. The area was referred to by Ernest Hemmingway as the loveliest in Africa. The contrast is certainly spectacular, from intimate forest to grassy floodplain with expansive views across the alkaline lake, cusped by volcanic peaks. I kissed the day goodbye with an amazing dinner and overnight at Chem Chem Lodge, situated between Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara. This little gem is located on the western side of the wildlife concession and consists of eight secluded, very luxurious tent-style suites. The lodge specialized in a “slow safari” experience, walking options with the Maasai (no predators here, the focus is plains game,) flamingo watching on Lake Manyara or day trips into Tarangire National Park.
If you are after a big game experience, you’ll want to visit Little Chem Chem. The lodge is located on a private concession adjoining Tarangire National Park and focuses on big game safaris. The property consists of five luxury vintage tents and offers day and night drives, while Chem Chem does not offer game drives in the concession, only walks. These two properties combine well to offer an ease into Tanzania or a relaxing exit before the long flight home, depending on which lodge you do first.
After a full day in Tarangire National Park filled with elephant and excellent cheetah sightings, I travelled to Gibbs Farm… and here I found paradise! My family are farmers, so this type of experience really appeals to me–a place where you can wake up and milk a cow, bake the bread for breakfast, roast your coffee, harvest your vegetables for lunch and dinner, feed swine and bush babies, do full day excursions from the lodge or just enjoy what activities you can do right there at the lodge. Gibbs Farm is another great “farm to table” working farm experience. The views are breathtaking and while perfect for families, I would visit here again and again as a single traveler. I LOVE THIS PLACE!
After an epic stay at Gibbs Farm, I ventured to Ngorongoro Crater. The Crater itself is something to experience, and the view from the &Beyond property, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, perched on the edge of the crater itself is most certainly fit for a king! It is easy to forget and live in the moment – from beaded chandeliers, paneled walls, a fireplace overseen by a butlers, decadent dining, ornate architecture, spectacular views, rich wildlife and seasonal sightings of flamingo on the soda lake, this lodge has everything! Winter is considered peak season and perfect for game viewing, but each season offers something unique. Summer is calving season, while autumn sees the wild flowers bloom. The unfenced lodge is divided into 3 sectors: North and South Camp each consisting of 12 chalets, and my favorite, the 6-roomed Tree Camp. Marcus and Steph welcome you with warm hospitality and have been with &Beyond for many years. We first met about seven years ago when they were both guiding in South Africa. Steph was one of the first female guides at &Beyond, and they’re a dynamic couple hard at work! I have to say my only regret here is that I couldn’t spend more time in Tanzania!
I arrived in South Africa with great joy in my heart but was quickly saddened by the fire that spread rapidly through the mountains of Cape Town. The devastation was visible for miles, and two brave firefighters lost their lives before the fire was brought under control – the worst Cape Town has seen in many years.
We started at Grootbos Nature Reserve about 2 hours outside of Cape Town in a fynbos paradise. From the minute we arrived the staff took charge of entertaining Noah. As any mother of a toddler would admit, this may be the best thing since sliced cheese, being able to get through a meal on your own! From collecting eggs in the morning, meeting the ponies, playing with bunnies, being entertained in the amazing playroom, to private dinners set under fairy lit Milkwood trees, this place does not disappoint. The last time I was fortunate enough to visit, I travelled alone and was blown away. I was expecting something completely different with a toddler, but I was pleasantly surprised by being just as blown away but for different reasons. If you enjoy hiking, beach visits, marine mammals, community outreach and have an interest in shark cage diving, whether you are traveling alone, as a couple or with children, this place is not to be missed!
While in Cape Town, we stayed at the Cape Grace, More Quarters and the One & Only, all of which offer something unique to travelers visiting the city, making your stay with them extra special and memorable. We enjoyed wonderful meals, first class shopping and beautiful scenery while in the city.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and after a 5-week hiatus we had to return. KLM certainly made the journey back to the States easier, but arriving back in Chicago with snowfall in the forecast remained difficult. This journey home has left me yet again pondering an African proverb: “A family is like a forest, when you are outside it is dense, when you are inside you see that each tree has its place”.
Traveling is learning, and this trip has most certainly allowed me to gain a new outlook on life, a shift in perspective – and for that I am eternally grateful!