It’s hard to believe it’s over. After months of careful planning, we were back home in New Jersey still astounded by all we’d seen. Two families—me, my husband, Jon, and our two children, Carlie (16) and Chase (14), and the Espositos, Jamie, Stephen and their three kids, Tyler (16), Jaden (14) and Averey (14)—had the adventure of a lifetime.
Our itinerary took us from Nairobi to the Lewa Conservancy in northern Kenya, south to the Masai Mara for the great migration, and then to Tanzania to explore the Serengeti and the famed Ngorongoro Crater. We knew we’d see elephants and lions and jaw-dropping landscapes, but we never imagined the impact the sightings would have on us, what we’d learn about local cultures or the friendships we’d make along the way. People told us that an African safari was life-changing. Now I understand why.
Here are just a few of our favorite moments.
Giraffe Manor, Nairobi (One Night)
We Made It!
After two long flights and a long airport layover in London, we landed in Nairobi around 9pm, excited but ready for bed. There to greet us was our private Maasai guide, Dominic Loponu Miranit, who traveled with us throughout our 10 days in East Africa. He was an expert in African wildlife and took care of all the trip logistics so we didn’t have to worry about anything. Dominic was a gift! In addition to the animals, he taught us about the Maasai culture—a life so different from our own—and by the end of our journey, he’d become part of our family. We had no idea when we met him that nine days later we’d hug him, sobbing, hating to say goodbye.
We spent our first night at Giraffe Manor, a beautiful estate on the outskirts of the city, known for its friendly Rothschild’s giraffes. It was too dark to see anything when we arrived, but when I threw open my drapes the next morning, a huge, long-necked silhouette appeared outside my window. The giraffes are here! The giraffes are here! I screamed. My husband was sure I’d gone nuts. At breakfast, the giraffes enchanted everyone by sticking their enormous heads through the manor windows so we could hand-feed them.
Lewa Safari Camp, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (Two Nights)
Dining and the Great Outdoors
At the end of our afternoon game drive and our first night at Lewa Safari Camp, we took part in a wonderful tradition called a sundowner. Never heard of it? Imagine being in the middle of the bush, sipping your favorite drink while snacking on a few nibbles and watching the sun set below a fiery horizon. In front of you, a picture-perfect landscape. Great, right? Now add a small herd of white rhinos with a baby grazing 50 feet away. Rhinos!Creatures we’d only seen on National Geographic were calmly eating grass in front of us. We kept saying to each other, Where are we? Who are we? Pinch me! It was surreal.
The next day, after a morning filled with white rhinos, ostriches, elephants, kudus, giraffes, cheetahs, buffaloes, zebras, and lots of birds, we found ourselves at the top of a lookout where we discovered a stunning view of the conservancy and a table set for a feast. Welcome to the bush breakfast. It was just for us, no other guests. A chef manned an omelet station while another prepared sausage and a third toasted bread over an old-school grill. Next to them was a table topped with a selection of yogurts, granola and other light fare for those who wanted it. We were blown away. It was a delicious and completely over-the-top meal, but more important, we had so much fun.
Elephant Pepper Camp, Masai Mara (Three Nights)
Hippo to the Rescue
Anyone who goes to the Masai Mara during the great migration hopes to see a wildebeest crossing, but it’s never a guarantee—Mother Nature doesn’t care how far you flew to see it. But at Elephant Pepper Camp, we saw our first of two!
Opposite us on the banks of the Mara River, a large herd of wildebeest along with a few zebras milled about in a cloud of dust. The zebras, being the braver of the two, stepped into the water ready to lead the charge and slowly began to swim across. Within seconds, the zebras spotted two crocodiles, so they changed their mind and turned back. Determined to cross, a single zebra got to the other side only to learn that the others hadn’t followed. Exasperated, he braved waters once again and swam back, then promptly started yelling at his friends. (If you haven’t heard a zebra braying it’s like a high-pitched crazy person laughing.)
After a good verbal smacking, his pals manned up and he led them to the other side, the herd of wildebeest following close behind. Hundreds of animals splashed in the water. Once they started, there was no stopping the stream of hooves and horns. Halfway through the exodus, the current began to pull the animals downstream, but miraculously out of nowhere, a giant hippo appeared and placed himself in a position to break the current. It was as if one of the animals shouted, Troops we need help, and the hippo came to the rescue, preventing the wildebeest from being washed away. The whole event was magical.
Life Lessons Learned
Social responsibility has always been important to our families, and in Africa we wanted to continue that tradition. Cathy, who oversees the African Dreams team, introduced us to Pack for a Purpose, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina. On the Pack for a Purpose website, there’s a list of the items needed by each local community in the destinations we were visiting. These lists helped us to determine what to bring as a donation. Pack for a Purpose partners with lodging providers, including our safari camps. We filled up four safari bags with soccer balls, pumps, pencils, calculators, notebooks and human anatomy charts. Lewa Safari Camp distributed our donations to the local community. Elephant Pepper Camp arranged for us to visit the local community school with our donations and meet the students in person.
On the day of our visit, classes were canceled because of a holiday, but the Elephant Pepper Camp manager had advised the school’s principal that we would be there. She in turn spread the word, and almost 300 students walked miles to welcome us. We couldn’t believe it. Our children led the introductions, going from classroom to classroom to meet the preschool to the eighth-grade students. My daughter said, My name is Carlie. I live in New Jersey in the USA, and my favorite subject is science. Does anybody here like science? The hands went up, and soon they were deep in conversation. Later, we watched as the boys played soccer and the girls danced with the children they met.
The visit was filled with joy, the sharing of cultures and important lessons. Our kids were reminded that many children grow up without shoes or books or closets full of clothes, or that the opportunity to go to college, which they take for granted, is not a given for everyone. The experience hit home. It’s one thing to pack a bag with donations for children you’ll never meet, but to hand it to a young boy and see his face light up with a huge smile is an entirely different thing. I think that’s what really resonated with our kids, and I believe it made a difference in the way they see the world.