Just over a year ago, I headed to Kenya and Tanzania. I had a conference in Nairobi, and from there we went to the Masai Mara, the Serengetti, and the Ngorogoro Crater. I had been to Southern Africa, but never to East Africa. I have to say, after my trip in 2009 to Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, I didn’t think any trip could measure up. I was wrong. While Botswana still ranks up near number one in terms of destinations, Kenya and Tanzania are right there with it. I am 100 percent sure that in very large part, this was due to my fantastic guides and accommodations throughout my trip. I’m going to make this a multi-blog theme, so part one here is a general overview of the highlightsw in each stop.
I was told by several tour operators that Nairobi was “a big dirty city with nothing to see.” I didn’t believe them, for two reasons: 1.) ASTA would not have picked “a big dirty city with nothing to see” for their featured location. 2.) Even big, dirty cities offer something if you’re willing to explore. I reached out to a private, independent tour guide located in Nairobi. He took us on a full day tour, part walking, part by car. We saw local parks and monuments, walked through food and goods markets, drove through neighborhoods to see how those in Nairobi live. Absolute must sees:
- Nairobi National Museum – everything from the history of animals in Kenya to the bones of early hominids found in the region. One could easily spend half a day there.
- Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – visiting hour for the public is from 11AM- 12PM (get there early to wait in line!), and you get to watch baby elephant orphans feed and play. Also, if you want to be part of this awesomeness and cannot visit Kenya, you can adopt an orphan elephant (monetarily, not physically!) at the link provided above. If you have adopted and do get a chance to go, there’s the option for a private meet and greet with your orphan! It has to be arranged well in advance, so plan ahead.
Tip: Nairobi is, in fact, a big city, and even the hotels warn you not to walk around alone at night. During the day, as long as you’re in the central hotel and tourist area, it’s easy enough to walk if you’re aware of your surroundings and know where you’re going – which is good, since traffic in Nairobi is the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere. That said, don’t flaunt fancy jewelry, cameras, or anything else that might entice opportunists.
The Masai Mara is the Kenyan side of the Serengeti. It’s smaller, which means that the concentration of animals is higher – it’s virtually impossible not to see a large number and variety. The Mara boasts the big five, though Leopards and Rhinos can be pretty elusive, due to their large roaming area and healthy vegetation in which to hide. We saw neither of them in the Mara.
- Take the sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Mara. Our company provided a “breakfast in the bush” afterwards – a full buffet breakfast on the plains, complete with china and wait staff – all while zebras and giraffes wandered in the background.
- You can visit a traditional Masai village. It’s an interesting experience, but understand that it is not a free one. They charge a per person entry fee ($30 per person), and once in, other experiences cost too. The money (we were told) goes to the community and the local schools, and we have no reason to believe otherwise – they live a very simple life in huts, so don’t seem to be spending it elsewhere. This isn’t an experience I can really vouch for or not. It was interesting, so I guess I’m glad I did it.
I have to say, of all of the things we saw on our trip, the biggest surprise was the terrain of the Serengeti. We stayed in the northern region, and it looked nothing like I anticipated. When you think Serengeti, you think vast open grassland. And vast it was. But the northern portion is lush and rocky. Our (luxury) tented camp sat among huge boulders, originally formed from volcanic activity. Rivers wound their way through, and portions looked almost forest-like. Despite the fact that our region wasn’t technically “where all of the animals were” during the time of our stay (their location changes based on the time of year), one night we had two Cape Buffalo standing about 10 feet from our tents, and we could hear lions roaring through the dark. There was no shortage of animals even in “low” season.
As our guide drove us through the Serengeti, the landscaped changed drastically. We did, eventually, come to those open grasslands. But not before passing through marshes and almost desert-like environs.
- Make sure to drive through each portion of the Serengeti. It may take close to a full day to venture from one end to the other, but you’ll be rewarded. Not only will you see the greatest variety of animals, but you’ll get the full expanse of what the Serengeti itself looks like.
- If you like birding, the Serengeti is for you. We saw some in the Masai Mara, but not nearly as many. Unless you’re incredibly familiar with African birds, I suggest getting a book in advance. They move quickly (as one would expect), and it can be tough to get a good look, and therefore to remember them all.
- When they say “we require one of our staff to walk you to and from your tent in the dark”, listen. Having two giant buffalo staring at us in the dark with the guard next to us was an amazing experience. But they’re not joking when they say that animals will be right there, and if you startle them (because suddenly buffalo are staring you down and it alarms you) it could be trouble. It might have been a very different experience had we not had a knowledgeable staff member with us.
First, if you’re going to the Ngorogoro crater from the Serengeti, drive. Or better, have your guide drive you. Roads can be tricky, but the beauty of the constantly changing terrain – from grassland to desert to rain forest – is worth it. Also, a stop at Olduvai Gorge along the way is a must.
Ngorogoro crater is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Technically, it’s a caldera, if you’d like to be exact about it, and it’s the world’s largest. What was the base of the volcano now forms the walls of the crater/caldera, impressive in size at 14 miles wide. It’s home to animals difficult to find elsewhere, such as the endangered black rhino, and home to one of the world’s largest concentration of lions. During the Great Migration, many animals – zebras and wildebeest in particular, have their young in the crater, waiting there until the young are strong enough to move the distances required by the migration.
At the crater, you can of course go on a game drive. You can also hike down into the crater, via a trail created for that purpose (we did not have the timie to do this, unfortunately). When you’re standing at the top looking into the crater, it’s almost like you have a birds-eye view of the world, and know, though can’t see, all that’s happening below. It is one of the most mystical places I have ever been. Even the most beautiful pictures cannot do it justice.
In my next post – how to stay luxuriously in Kenya and Tanzania.