If you asked me to name my Top 3 destinations the choices would be easy: the untamed wilderness and primitive culture found in the highlands of Papua New Guinea; the vibrant chaos and ebullient culture found on the Indian sub-continent; and, last but not least, the awe-inspiring vistas and wildlife diversity that can only be found on an African Safari.
When talking about safari it is important to note that there are actually five — 5! — different types of African Safari. There is the heavy-on-the-birding-and-abundant- wildlife-in-the-flood-plains-of-Botswana type, and there is the up-close-and-very- personal-experience found only in the concessions surrounding the likes of Kruger National Park in South Africa type. There is the communing-with-rare-mountain- gorillas-in-the-jungles-of-Uganda-and-Rwanda type (high up on my bucket list), as well as the camp-on-top-of-your-car-in-the-stark-barren-landscapes-of-the-Namibian-Desert type. And then there is, quite literally, the Greatest Show on Earth, the spectacle to end all spectacles, where even hailed National Geographic professionals struggle to capture the raw drama that is the Annual Wildebeest Migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain type. In my awestruck stupor I can only describe them all as… God’s work, unchanged.
Before you ask, let me assure you that not only are these particular countries (relatively) safe, but they have been in the safari business for decades making it a well-established and well-oiled machine. There are safaris to fit every interest and budget from “bring your own tent” camping to luxury six star lodges replete with butler service and tony spa. I personally have stayed at camps and lodges in the 3 star category and have found them to be five star in every way, so don’t let the reasonable price tag fool you.
And please, when they say “tented camp” don’t recoil in horror; these “tents” are individual bungalows were luxury linens drape comfortable beds and hardwood floors tickle your feet as you make your way to the spacious stone bathroom. This isn’t even glamping — it is infinitely greater than glamping.
If you are a newbie to the African safari circuit, welcome aboard rafiki (friend) and hang on tight because this is one heck of a ride, literally and figuratively. Where to begin?
If you want the biggest bang for your buck, you begin in Kenya, East Africa one of the least expensive options available. And since the migration follows the rains, the best time to go is usually July through October, although the exact timing is fully dependent on the weather. That said, there are plenty of other places to visit on Kenya’s safari circuit, so if you have a week (or so) a broad loop will present them to you in glorious living color.
Ready to fly??
An early morning flight brings us into Nairobi’s Kenyatta Airport where we meet our safari guide/driver and after a quick stop at the local grocery store for snacks and such — okay, wine… there, I said it! — we are off and running.
First stop…The Mount Kenya Safari Club and here’s the kicker, you don’t go on safari.
Established nearly 60 years ago by the actor William Holden and friends, Mount Kenya Safari Club is, first and foremost, an animal sanctuary. It is also a world class hotel offering hiking, horseback riding, golf and table tennis, or as I like to call it… ping pong. Situated on just over 100 magnificent acres, the Lodge at Mount Kenya Safari Club feels like stepping into a Bogie and Bacall movie (without the cigarette smoke). It is where dark wood stands in stark relief upon whitewashed walls, impeccable, intuitive service is presented with a warm welcoming smile and a glamorously attired In Crowd lounges about, whiling away the hours. It is also quiet and very relaxing making it the perfect place to rest after a long flight.
I wake early, ready to hit the road, and as I throw open the curtains to greet the day, I’m rendered speechless. There, right before my eyes, is the majestic Mount Kenya. Usually shrouded in clouds, this morning’s light cool breeze has left her rugged spires and jagged peaks untethered ‘cept for the pinkish purple hues cast lazily about by the tentative first light of dawn. What a great way to start the day!!
First stop: the world famous Lake Nakuru.
Situated within the Great Rift Valley, Lake Nakuru is a soda lake with shallow, alkaline waters making it a power house of blue-green algae production, luring 1.5 million bright pink flamingos each year and that, my friends is a whole lotta birds. And it’s not just flamingos, there are also white pelicans and storks and ibis and cormorant and… the noise is almost deafening. Oh wait, that’s me squealing. I have never seen so many preening, walking, flying, flocking birds in all my life. The brightest of whites, mesmerizing shades of pink, purples so dark they almost appear black, flittering to and fro in a triumphant cacophony of nature’s abundance.
Lake Nakuru is surrounded by the ever-expanding Lake Nakuru National Park, a safe haven for white and black rhino along with baboons and monkeys, warthog, antelope, giraffe and zebra plus a large population of waterbuck which can only mean one thing… predators. Lion, leopard and cheetah all make their home in this diverse landscape.
As we round the corner heading up to baboon cliff we spot half a dozen black rhino close to the road. Turning off the engine and coasting forward we sit in wonder. Grazing on the outskirts of the group is a mom with a new baby and the BIG guy standing next her must be the proud new papa. I say that because when another rhino tries to approach the pair the BIG guy makes a (convincing) mock charge heaving dust and gravel in his wake and the interloper… well, he lets out such a high pitch squeal, I swear he sounds just like a little girl. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!! Too Funny.
Still giggling, we make it to the top of baboon cliff and before I can even think about baboons, the view has taken my breath away. From here, Lake Nakuru looks like a living abstract watercolor with millions of birds perpetuating the ever changing pattern and hue. There is also a small troop of baboons up here, the adults lounging and preening as babies scramble and play. It is a scene out of a Rockwell painting with young and old both vying for undivided attention. Although this particular troop has been habituated to the presence of humans, an armed guard stands by should any monkey business arise.
Always remember, these are wild animals in a wild setting so the general rule of thumb is… Don’t get out of the jeep!! Unless of course you are in the nether reaches and need to “check the tires” more commonly known as — use the bathroom — but even then you alight only after your driver/guide has checked the surrounding area for predators.
After a quick buffet dinner we are off to bed. It will be another early morning as we make our way down to the grass plains of the Maasai Mara to witness the grandeur of the Annual Wildebeest Migration.