While watching National Geographic on television, viewers may see a lion performing a mating ritual multiple times with a lioness, a bull elephant toppling a tree for an afternoon snack or wildebeest crossing a river only to be devoured by awaiting crocodiles. How often have we said to ourselves, “An African safari seems like a dream, and I would love to experience the dream.”
For most folks, Africa seems halfway around the world, and preparing for such an adventurous trip requires planning by a trusted travel company, preferably a local African company with senior safari experts, such as Go2Africa. With over 20 years of experience this South African company consults with their clients getting to know the client’s preferences, wishes and budget level; and then prepares possible itineraries. In speaking with Mr. Ryan Brown, Marketing Manager for Go2Africa, he explained, “Because we’re dedicated to first-hand knowledge of everything we recommend, we’re able to make both an expert and personal, fair and independent recommendation when comparing destinations and lodges, even down to which room is the best for your needs. We also know where the value is; where you should splurge and where you can save, and that kind of honesty comes through in our conversations with clients. All this is reinforced by what clients have to say about us. In fact, a large portion of our business comes from referrals and we average 4.9/5 on 1100+ reviews, which ultimately builds the level of trust needed between us and our clients.”
The African safari dream is coming true, a luxury safari (don’t think about the cost. It’s a trip of a lifetime in Tanzania and Kenya visiting several game reserves, meeting Maasai tribesmen, tracking the Big Five; lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, African buffalo and any other animal along the way), superb cuisine and unparalleled lodges in remote areas of East Africa. For the luxury safari, Sanctuary Retreats was selected to provide ground transportation, safari guides with open-top, Land Cruisers, and amazing lodges and camps. Mariki van Tonder of Sanctuary Retreats, mentioned, “Over the past 20 years, we’ve earned a reputation for quality with our exclusive collection of boutique lodges and camps. For Sanctuary Retreats, luxury means extraordinary experiences and once-in-a-lifetime adventures combined with warm service and genuine hospitality. Our superb staff, expert guides and unique locations all help us achieve our motto.” He continued, “When planning the locations of our camps and lodges, we care about making a positive difference, working closely with the local communities and taking additional steps to improve our environmental impact.”
Our journey of a lifetime began in Atlanta, Georgia with a 13-hour, non-stop flight to Doha, Qatar (near Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf) departing the following morning with a 6-hour, non-stop flight to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Upon arrival we were greeted by a Sanctuary representative who graciously took care of our luggage, immigration paperwork together with our passports and visas, then escorted us to Mount Meru Hotel. After playing golf and relaxing in a steam sauna, we enjoyed local and Western cuisine accompanied by live entertainment; a fine start to our African safari.
The next morning arrived early as the limousine service transported us to the Arusha Airport where we travelled to the Kuro Airstrip on a bush plane (single engine plane with up to 10 passengers). After authorities weighed the luggage (33 pounds per person which included 15 pounds of cameras), anxious passengers boarded the plane. The 30-minute flight passed quickly as everyone continued to be mesmerized by the vastness of the bush and the occasional herd of elephants along the way. No roads, no villages, no people were in sight, just the savanna as far as the eye could see. As the plane approached the airstrip, a grassy stretch of land with no trees, the pilot noticed a few zebras on the airfield, and alerted the awaiting attendant to clear it so that we could land safely. After exchanging greetings with the Sanctuary driver, my wife went to use the washroom where she discovered a porcelain-lined hole in the ground with no running water; she emerged ready for more adventure.
The term, “Heaven on Earth” must be true. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Ben and Bianca Steryn, the camp managers, who offered us steamy hot towels before escorting us to the outdoor bar which served libations of choice, as we overlooked the bush country sunset. Located in the secluded part of the Tarangire National Park, the luxury tented camp houses twelve canvas pavilions, accommodating up to 24 guests, an inviting communal thatch enclosure hosting a library and WIFI service; open-air dining room with full-service kitchen and an expansive patio bar with extended happy hours until the last guest is served. Fine dining is a hallmark of Sanctuary Retreats. The chef and support staff prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner with multiple entrée choices, either to be enjoyed in the dining hall or out in the sunny bush during the game drives.
The 4-day stay at the Swala Camp was highlighted by the daily game drives in a land cruiser with our friendly and experienced driver, Sammy, who created daily itineraries which always exceeded our expectations. We were more than up-close with the wild kingdom, an experience heightened with informative dialog throughout the day. Whether the driver is Sammy or one of the other capable guides, all are personable and knowledgeable about the bush.
What did we experience in the bush? Within the Tarangire National Park, about the size of Rhode Island, wildlife abounds with elephant parades coming together protecting their young while foraging grasslands and tree bark; mongoose colonies peeping from abandoned termite mounds; and impala herds, typically 30-50 females with an adult male, marking their territory (up to 200 acres) with urine and feces. The rock python, the largest African snake up to 15 feet in length, kills its prey by constriction and often eats animals up to the size of antelope, and occasionally even crocodiles. Throughout the year, the wetlands and dry savanna are a natural habitat for over 500 different bird species, a delight for bird watchers. The next day we decided to forego the bush drive and headed to a neighboring village to meet rural farmers tending to livestock and bean fields, and to visit a primary school of 400 children, ages 5-13, who arrive eager to learn after walking up to two miles to school. Two hours before the children arrive, a cook has made a wood fire, boiled a large pot of water and prepared chelalang bean soup for both breakfast and lunch. Before the school day begins and during the lunch period, the students collect litter, sweep the dirt driveway and playground, tend to the bean gardens, and haul water from an elevated storage tank to several water purifiers (donated by Sanctuary Retreats) providing safe drinking water for the children. Sanitary conditions are poor with no running water, no soap, no toilet paper, no electricity and a dilapidated washroom. With 20 tiny stalls, most without doors, the washroom has porcelain-holes in the dirt. During the rainy season the washroom overflows when in use. After inquiring to the head school master, “What is the school’s greatest need?” He simply said, “The children need new a washroom to improve personal hygiene and reduce diseases amongst the children.” USA charitable groups are working together to build a new washroom with running water, squat toilets with flushing foot pedals and hand soap. Aside from the daily hardships, what we saw were students that came to school dressed in uniforms, who were extremely attentive, well-mannered and eager to learn Swahili, English, mathematics, civils and history.
Touched by our experience, we were sorry to leave, and anxious to return. Next stop is the Ngorongoro Crater, world’s largest inactive, unbroken volcanic caldera, half mile deep and 100 sq. mile crater floor. Two million years ago, the volcano collapsed on itself eventually creating a grassy plain and lake fostering the emergence of an incredible variety of wildlife. Meeting us at the airstrip with hot tea and cookies, our driver transported us from Lake Manyara Airport to the Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp overlooking the crater. Amongst the striking acacia trees, the camp encompassed ten safari tents, a lounge area and dining hall offering the finest bush accommodations and an amazing dining experience. Each designer-inspired tent featured an elevated front patio, luxurious heated bed, private bathroom, indoor shower, and amenities normally expected with 5-star service, such as in-person wakeup service with tea and shortbreads served in the morning as the sun rises on the tent’s patio. In the contemporary lounge area, guests can enjoy hand-crafted cocktails, as well as beer and wine, game drive conversations and staying in-touch with family back home. The guests are then welcomed by the chef and service staff as we are escorted to the dining hall with white linen tablecloths, sparkling glass and silverware. Menus varied each day with entree choices and wine pairings. After dinner, guests can gather in the expansive terrace around the warmth of the firepit swapping stories and enjoying a nightcap in the moonlight.
After a splendid breakfast, we were anxious to begin our journey exploring the crater floor. Our guide met us early and arranged for a picnic lunch in the bush. We drove a short distance before coming upon elephants blocking our passage for a few minutes, hippos wading in shallow watering holes avoiding the hot sun and wildebeest grazing while watching for predators. Known as the “Garden of Eden” for its dazzling beauty and myriad of animals, the park was host for the Oscar-winning movie, “Out of Africa”. After three days of exploring the crater, we visited a local Maasai village along the volcano rim. Dressed in nothing more than a colorful blanket, the 72 years old tribal leader has acquired considerable wealth, as in the number of cattle he owns, allowing him to have twelve wives and fathering more than fifty children. His eldest son guided us through the village, inviting us into one of his father’s huts, with separate huts for each of his wives and her children, and bartered with us for beaded jewelry made by the tribal women. Maasai music consisting of rhythms by a chorus of vocalists and a song leader singing melody was heard throughout the village as warriors gathered in a circle jumping high to impress the single women dressed in tribal costumes.
It was time to continue our amazing journey, flying from the Lake Manyara airstrip to the Lamai airstrip onto the Sanctuary Kichakani Serengeti Camp for a few days. This movable camp is relocated twice a year following the wildebeest migration throughout the Serengeti, stretching over more than 11,000 sq. miles. This contemporary canopy community consisted of ten luxury tents with elevated wood decking for morning tea or an afternoon beverage. In addition, the camp featured a grand central canopied tent flowing from the lounge into the dining area. With regional spices and groceries trucked in from afar, the chef and his team prepared delightfully hot, homemade soups and culinary delights throughout our stay. Game drives are never predictable. Every day brought new adventures and surprises such as viewing the endless savanna with acacia trees scattered about with elephants scratching themselves on the tree trunks, a cackle of spotted hyenas scavenging a dead zebra after chasing a lion away from its kill, or a lion mating with and protecting a lioness.
Our safari continued from Tanzania to Kenya; road transfer to Lamai airstrip, bush flight to Migori Airstrip, road transfer through Tanzania customs, walk over to Kenya customs (passport, visa and yellow fever vaccination all in order), road transfer to Migori Airstrip to Kichwa Airstrip, and finally road transfer to our destination Sanctuary Olonana. Thank goodness for Go 2 Africa for seamless coordination of our entire safari adventure. Upon arriving at Sanctuary Olonana, our last camp, we were greeted by the camp manager with his staff handing us hot towels and refreshing drinks. With our luggage handled by the staff, we joined the camp manager in the main lodge for an orientation, live Maasai entertainment, lite bites and an open bar. All Sanctuary Retreats are superb, but Olonana is the best of the best, featuring an exceptional luxury safari lodge, 14 glass-sided suites and a wellness spa along a private stretch of the Mara River bordering Kenya’s most famous game reserve, the Maasai Mara. While enjoying a glass of wine on the elevated patio along the river, we noticed several hippos wading in the water, a few giraffes across the river eating tree leaves and a few feet away, yellow weaver birds building nests, one blade of grass at a time. Aside from the Big Five, we were looking forward, with cameras in hand, as nearly two million wildebeest attempted the annual migration from the southern part of the Serengeti in December, passing through the western and northern Serengeti in June. Truly, it is a breath-taking experience to see thousands of wildebeest gather along a riverfront, walking back and forth along the riverbank until a single spirited wildebeest bravely jumps into the river while the other wildebeests follow quickly avoiding the waiting crocodiles. Many animals are trampled by the herd, and when disturbed, hippos attack the wildebeests. Unknown to many folks, the aggressive hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people every year in Africa.
In order to accentuate our trip, we joined other guests including the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia on a hot-air balloon journey floating above the Serengeti as we observed elephants, giraffes and zebras roaming the savanna. After a smooth landing everyone disembarked and enjoyed an amazing chef-prepared, bush breakfast with flowing champagne and conversations. Three cheers to our extremely experienced Aussie balloonist whose great sense of humor kept us entertained, and to the SkyShip Company for creating lifelong memories.
With our luggage packed, it was time to say “Goodbye, until next time”. We boarded our bush plane to Nairobi for the long flight back to Atlanta in order to write this story and reminisce about our lifelong memories. Mode Lifestyle Magazine would like to thank Go 2 Africa (www.go2africa.com) for planning the trouble-free safari; Sanctuary Retreats (www.sanctuaryretreats.com) for providing amazing camps, game drives, and camp photos; and SkyShip Company (www.skyshipcompany.com) for taking us “up, up and away” in a hot air balloon trip above the savanna. This Sanctuary safari experience is a perfect blend of elegance and adventure, a trip of a lifetime.
*Read all the features in the “Living A Full Life” Issue of Mode Lifestyle Magazine