Don’t let the above picture fool you. It was taken the morning after our safari vehicle tipped on it’s side and got stuck in the mud. After a harrowing day of washed out bridges, flooded camps, and more than 14 hours of driving, we were sitting ducks. Nothing but the pitch black Serengeti, and all of it’s inhabitants, surrounded us. In that moment, I was anything but relaxed. After we were picked up by a driver sent from the only hotel that could get to our vehicle, I was feeling thankful, but uneasy. A few hours of sleep later, sitting on the balcony staring in to the wild lands we had come from the night before, that uneasy feeling lingered. The scenery was beautiful, and looked so unimposing, but I was not yet relaxed. I was nervous for what that morning’s adventure would hold. I could still see the silhouette of a charging elephant in the night and feel the fear of uncertainty, but I was somehow excited. I couldn’t wait to see what crazy episode might unfold that day.
Each day of this trip brought experiences I never dreamed I would have. For every nerve-wracking event, there were double the thrilling animal encounters. For every minor misstep, there were countless unrepeatable experiences I’ll cherish forever. If I had the opportunity to go on another safari, I would be there in a heartbeat. This time armed with the knowledge that there is nothing remotely relaxing, or more intoxicating, than an expedition into wild animal country. If you’re considering an east African safari, read on to find out what I would do different and why this adventure was the most exhilarating two weeks of my life.
Things started peacefully enough with a few days in the Karen area of Nairobi. Along for the ride were my dad, his girlfriend, Eileen, and my brother. I arrived two days prior to anyone else in order to unwind and orient myself to the area. It rained quite a bit my first full day there, so I enjoyed the grounds of my quaint accommodation and took some walks around the countryside. My dad and Eileen arrived early the next morning and we took a drive to the Giraffe Center where we got up close and personal and learned about all of the conservation work being done there. We visited some nearby shops and walked around town, but our main purpose for this trip was our upcoming safari, so we were eager to get that started. Once my brother arrived the following day, our adventure truly began.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
Our driver for the next several days picked us up from our hotel and we got our first look at the safari vehicle we would spend the next 10 days in. I organized a private safari, so it was just the four of us plus our driver, but the roomy Land Cruiser with a pop-up top for game viewing that fits at least 7 or 8 passengers. Along the way to our first camp in Maasai Mara, Kenya we enjoyed many sightings of small and large game. Antelope, wildebeest, and gazelles were scattered along the road and gave us a good idea of how frequently animal sightings would occur over the next week. We made a couple of river crossings in places that looked as though another day or two of rain might wash out the very bridges we were using. But our driver, Dixon, reassured us with his expert driving and decades of experience in the area. Maasai guides showed us around the camp and told us they would accompany us any time we left our tents after dark in case large animals enter camp.
We ate an incredible lunch at camp and left shortly after for our last game drive of the day. We saw our first lions, elephants, giraffes, and hippos on this drive. I couldn’t believe we were already seeing so many large animals, and we were just getting our adventure started. On our second day in Maasai Mara we stopped by a traditional Maasai village. And though there is some controversy surrounding Maasai village visits and whether they’re exploiatative or even traditional, we decided, after much research, that the visit would be a unique learning experience that would directly economically benefit the village. The men of the village welcomed us warmly with song and after a competition of who could jump the highest we were shown around the village. We learned about the Maasai’s semi-nomadic and patriarchal culture and toured one of the dwellings built of clay and mud by the women. At the end of our visit we wandered through tables of hand-made crafts, but were never pushed to make a purchase. Overall it ended up being a fantastic educational and enjoyable visit.
After two nights in Maasai Mara, and what turned out to be our favorite camp of the trip, we began our journey to Tanzania. Maasai Mara and the Serengeti share an ecosystem with only the border between Kenya and Tanzania separating them. The drive between these two countries was the beginning of our wildest day on safari. We came across a bridge that was partially washed out due to the rains. We sat there idling for several minutes watching people and cattle attempt to cross on foot. Eileen and I grew anxious watching the waters rise and wondered if the vehicle would survive an attempt to cross. I asked Dixon if there was any way around this bridge and he said there was, but it would take several hours. We watched the water rise and the crossing looked to dangerous to attempt. Dixon looked uncomfortable and unsure which made me even more concerned. I could see the headline: Tourist Vehicle Swept Away in Kenyan Flood Waters and asked if we could please go around. To this day I stand by that decision and believe there’s no way to know whether it would have been safe to cross, but this detour put us several hours behind our scheduled arrival time.
We went through immigration at the land border and met our new driver, Arnold, before continuing on our drive in Tanzania. The weather remained wet and rainy all day, but we eventually made our way to the Serengeti. Once inside the game reserve the conditions began deteriorating. The wide dirt roads were slick and muddy and low lying areas had been washed away. It started growing dark and it seemed as though Arnold was uncomfortable. I would later find out that evening game drives are illegal in the Serengeti since they can be dangerous. We, of course, were not on a game drive, but were driving none the less. We stopped at a flooded road and Arnold let us know our camp was beyond the flooded area. He made some calls on the radio and found us another camp to stay at in another area of the park. After having to change camps and direction twice more due to flooding, we started making our way to a nearby hotel. Along the way we passed some larger trucks that looked like they had either stopped on their own to wait out the flooding or had gotten stuck. We saw a bit of movement in the distance at times and knew there were animals around. At one point a large charging elephant appeared out of the window just next to me.
We saw a truck on the side of the road and Arnold stopped to talk to the driver. The driver said he had gotten stuck and planned to sleep in his truck until he could get it out in the morning. The road ahead looked ominous. The sides of the road were full of soft mud and small ditches that looked easy to get stuck in. In the back of my mind I knew we were not making it down this road, but there were no other options. Arnold began down the road and we started drifting. Our tires barely rotated and instead were at the road’s mercy. We began sliding to the right where I knew a ditch had been only inches from us. The tires on the right side caught and the car started drifting further to the right and leaning on it’s side. If anyone had looked, they would have been able to physically see my heart pounding out of my chest. But we were all in our own states of panic wondering what was possibly next. Would we have to sleep in the tilted vehicle all night? Were we in serious danger? Arnold tried several times to maneuver the wheels, but we were only getting more stuck and leaning further to the side. Arnold got out of the vehicle and told us sternly to stay in the car no matter what. He inspected the vehicle with wide eyes that betrayed his fear and tried to dig us out. Every couple of seconds he would stare intently in the darkness, I assumed to make sure he didn’t see the outline of a large animal or poacher’s vehicle anywhere in the distance.
We asked Arnold what we should do and if we were ok, but didn’t want to keep bothering him while he was trying to figure out how to get us out of this situation. After expressing our concerns a few more times and being unable to get the car unstuck, Arnold called the hotel to ask for help. Within five minutes two men from the hotel showed up with two separate cars to help us out. I was ready to get out of this vast dark wilderness and away from the car-eating roads. The four of us quickly transferred to one of the hotel vehicles while they began hooking our safari vehicle up to a cable. While we settled in to our new vehicle the driver began slowly trying to pull our car out of the ditch. Neither car was moving and I thought this one would get stuck too. Suddenly there was a snap and a loud crash, and we turned around to realize the cable had broken and snapped back crashing through the back window of the car we were all sitting in. At this point I had had enough excitement and asked if the driver could please take us to the hotel before attempting another rescue. He obliged and we pulled up to our new digs only 14 hours after embarking on the day’s journey. We were again very warmly welcomed and showed to our beautiful new rooms. My family decided to head to the bar for some unwinding and a couple glasses of wine, but I was spent and wanted nothing but to sleep off the craziness of the day.
The next day we decided to skip our morning game drive and take it easy. We enjoyed a huge breakfast and did a lot of reminiscing about the previous day before our afternoon drive. We saw a family of cheetah and watched as the mama went off on a hunt. It was a rejuvenating day.
By now the fright from that crazy day was wearing off. I was reminded of why we were all there in the first place. We came for an adventure, a chance to see these incredible animals in their natural habitat and we were absolutely getting what we came for. Getting ready to leave the hotel that morning, my brother, who had left ahead of me, came running back to the room to tell me I had to come outside with my camera. Just outside our room there was a giraffe eating from the property’s trees. It was one of those moments that reminds us we are in their territory, and it was amazing.
As we drove to our next stop along windy mountainous roads our vehicle started having some problems. We stopped on an uphill slope just as it started to sprinkle and Arnold told us he’d only be a minute. He got under the car and poked around a bit, and just as he was crawling out, the car began sliding backwards down the hill. With nobody in the front, my brother threw his seatbelt off and readied himself to jump into the driver seat, but Arnold was there in seconds slamming on the break. We all looked at each other trying to process what just happened and my brother remained in the front with his foot on the break for the remainder of the time Arnold worked on the car. With the help of a few other carloads of people that offered assistance, Arnold fixed the problem and we were on our way.
The trepidation now reignited, we made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater. This protected UNESCO World Heritage site is the world’s largest inactive, intact, unfilled volcanic crater. From a viewpoint above we looked down at the crater before making our way down to the craters floor. We had seen several herds of zebra on previous drives, but the number of zebra in the crater area was staggering. The contrast of the bright green landscape and hoards of black and white animals roaming around was beautiful. We saw our first and only rhino on this drive, albeit from quite a distance. The wildlife viewing inside the crater was some of my favorite on this trip. I was nervous to make the trek back out of the crater in our less-than-trusty vehicle, but Arnold got us out of there like a pro and got us to our next location.
The safari company asked if we wanted to upgrade to the luxury accommodations for the next leg of our trip. Never one to shy away from a nice upgrade, I accepted immediately. We drove to the incredible Oldeani in Ngorongo and could not have been more impressed. This time we were welcomed by some of the women staff singing and dancing for us. We met the manager, chef, and several more staff members, and they showed us around this incredible property. There was a large infinity pool that overlooked the wilderness, a rustic bar room, a gift shop, massage spa, and luxurious rooms in the heart of nature. Of all the places we stayed this was the most opulent and welcoming and I have every intention of returning someday. We watched an incredible lightning show from the bar that first evening and enjoyed another scenic game drive in the area on the second day.
Lake Manyara, Tanzania
The two nights we spent at Oldeani were not enough, but we were grateful for the upgrade opportunity in the first place. We begrudgingly packed up and left Oldeani behind for our last Tanzanian stop on our adventure. As we entered Lake Manyara a double rainbow appeared behind the trees and we spent several hours watching families of elephants wandering and playing nearby. A couple of young elephants began tussling with each other a little too close for comfort, but the experience of watching this up close was one I won’t forget. We stayed only one night at our camp here, but loved the beautiful setting and accommodating staff.
We began our day with a game drive in Lake Manyara before returning to the border crossing between Tanzania and Kenya, but not without one last crazy incident to see us off. Driving through a small town just near the northern border of Tanzania our vehicle began acting up again. It stalled in the middle of the road and Arnold went to work. To the left of and behind us was a hillside with a large ditch, but we were needed to allow the car to roll backwards toward the ditch in order to turn around and face downhill to more safely work on the problem. Eileen and I voiced our concerns with this maneuver and asked if it might be better for us to not be in the car while attempting this, but my dad and brother seemed more concerned with what was going on outside of the car at the time. A group of young men had come to see what was going on and a small fight broke out between them and Arnold. I didn’t see or hear what was happening, but my dad and brother said it was frightening. After a tense minute or two everyone calmed down and the men helped Arnold with the vehicle problem. We made it to the border without any further issues and said our goodbyes to Arnold.
Dixon met us at the border and took us to Amboseli where we would be staying for the final two days of our safari. Our camp in Amboseli was the largest of all we stayed at and contained stunning views of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. On our game drives in this area we saw massive amounts of birds, hippos, and elephants and loved every minute of it. By now we were used to the frequency of animal sightings, but the awe each time it occurred never went away. Dixon drove us to a well known restaurant in Nairobi called Carnivore for an enormous meal to end our safari after which we said our goodbyes to Dixon.
Eileen flew home to get back to work while my dad, brother and I flew east to the coastal town of Mombasa. We stayed at a gorgeous tropical bungalow just a block from the beach and spent time relaxing and winding down while celebrating my dad’s birthday. We enjoyed a private chef during our stay here and could not get enough of his fresh gourmet meals. On our last day we went to town and visited the old fort and nearby shops before heading to the airport.
All in all this was a once in a lifetime trip. The places we stayed, the people we met, the food we ate, and the animals and things we experienced could never be duplicated. There were some pulse-pounding moments I do not wish to relive any time soon, but I may not fully appreciate the magnificent, wild, and unexpected nature that a safari can entail without these moments. It took a while to recover from all of the excitement and process my thoughts upon returning home, but the further away I get from this trip the more I long to go back and experience it all again.