Travel Dates: November 17 – 26, 2016
From the lush mountains and endangered gorillas of Rwanda we’ve made our way east to the grasslands of the Serengeti. I was here 14 years ago: camping in Kenya as part of a scientific research expedition. That experience made a deep impression. I’d never traveled to such an exotic location, a place you only see on the Discovery Channel. It’s a magical part of the world – the kindest people, vast open plains that stretch into the horizon…and giraffes.
When we set about planning Africa, I asked friends on Facebook for recommendations. In less than an hour an old friend from Stanford, Elizabeth Gordon, replied, “Hey Amit, I actually own a safari company…” And with that, Liz became our trusted guide through the continent. If you ever plan a trip to this part of the world, you would make a huge mistake not letting her company Extraordinary Journeys plan it for you. We had the most incredible adventure, all thanks to her.
It begins in Arusha, Tanzania.
Accommodations: Twiga Lodge
We landed late in the evening at Kilimanjaro Airport and were whisked away to Twiga Lodge, right on the border of Arusha National Park. The owners of Twiga, Paul and Erika Shaw, immediately made us feel at home and were the most gracious hosts we’ve met on our trip. Perks included homemade breakfasts, drinks at sunset, and family dinners with endless stories of their adventures in Africa.
Throughout our travels, Linda and I try to find good opportunities to give back. We found one in Arusha with an organization called Jifundishe. Founded by an American, Deb Kelly, Jifundishe built a free library in the middle of a village in Tanzania. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time (and not in a good way) – running water, electricity, and schools are scarce resources. Most homes lack the simple luxury of a light switch (a circumstance shared by 20% of the global population). And while the biggest tech companies compete to blanket the world with free internet, organizations like Jifundishe give students solar powered lightbulbs so they don’t have to read at night by kerosine lamps, which emit toxic fumes that cause respiratory problems.
The Jifundishe Free Library provides kids free access to books, teachers, and computers; so they can study on their own in hopes of building a better life. It’s simple and effective. Linda and I spent a day working in the library and learning more about their mission. The place was packed with kids eager to learn. We were so impressed with Deb and Jifundishe (which means “teach yourself” in Swahili), we made a small contribution to upgrade their computer lab. It may be the best investment we’ve made on the trip.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Accommodations: Gibbs’s Farm
Our next stop was the famous Ngorongoro Crater: a deep, volcanic crater, 13 miles across, 2000 feet deep. It’s an extraordinary open-roof biodome of African animals and ecosystems (sans Pauly Shore, thank goodness).
Our guide from Nomad Safaris, Roland, took us on a game drive through the crater, giving us our first taste of safari adventure. We saw massive elephants (the lush conditions of the crater encourage them grow to enormous proportions), hippos, hyenas, warthogs. We ate a lakeside breakfast next to a herd of water buffalo. And…we witnessed a pride of lions kill and eat a wildebeest! Granted, he looked pretty skinny and sick, but lions are opportunistic carnivores. Three females wrestled it down and a large male joined in later to finish the kill and begin eating the entrails. Never thought I’d see that outside of the TV. It was a very raw, primal experience to witness.
We stayed nearby the crater at a beautiful country lodge called Gibbs’ Farm. A coffee farm turned rustic luxury inn, this place is a garden of eden…luxury cabins with fireplaces, sprawling views of the countryside, and amazing food fresh from their garden, bakery and dairy. They also featured local artists in the main building. Linda and I fell in love with the colorful paintings of one of them, and we bought two of his paintings on the spot for our (location TBD) future home.
Northern Serengeti National Park
Accommodations: Lamai Serengeti
For our next stop, we boarded a small prop plane to venture deeper into the Serengeti. Arriving on a dirt landing strip next to the winding Mara River, we knew we were somewhere special. It’s hard to describe how beautiful this landscape is…green acacia trees surrounding a frothy brown river, rust-colored soil, grey boulders spotting the plains, and the clearest blue skies you can imagine. As our guide Lazarus drove us to the lodge we saw zebra, giraffes, ostriches, and antelope grazing alongside.
But nothing could prepare us for the spectacular setting and view from our lodge Lamai Serengeti. Perched on a rocky hill rising out of the plains, I felt like we had arrived at Pride Rock. We spent the first afternoon just staring into the valley below, dotted with roaming elephants, giraffes, zebra. We loved our stay at Lamai – the food (from delicious fresh tacos to a full Swahili spread), company (we made friends with the other guests and managers – and we all ended up dining together every evening), and comfy room (which we had to be escorted to every evening given the pride of lions that lived nearby and Cape buffalo that grazed outside…in fact, an enormous buffalo stepped on the water pipe while I was mid-shampoo, which I wasn’t too pleased about!).
The safari drives in Llamai were also a big step up from Ngorongoro (which in hindsight felt like more of a huge zoo). We got up close and personal with wild elephants grazing, lions climbing trees and resting on the warm boulders, and cheetah brothers relaxing in the shade. But the pièce de résistance was watching a wildebeest river crossing…thousands of them charging, pushing, swimming, jumping to cross the river to safety. They chose a spot with fast moving water, dangerous boulders, and lurking crocodiles. An hour after they stopped crossing, about 200 yards up river, we saw a herd of over 20 elephants cross the river in a very calm, shallow location…a perfect example of careful, thoughtful action vs. reckless, herd mentality!
On our final morning, we took off in a hot air balloon over the plains. It was a fun experience, though we quickly realized that all animals hate the hot air balloon. In my head I pictured a peaceful balloon floating in the breeze. In reality, we appeared more like a giant fire breathing dragon! It scared the crap out of a poor hippo who ran into a tree as he ran for the cover. We also crash landed, which was pretty rough, though not as dangerous (or rare) as it sounds.
Accommodations: Singita Sabora Tented Camp
As we made our way to our third and final stop in Tanzania, it became clear that Liz had set us up so each stop exceeded the last. Staying at Singita Sabora was far and away one of the all-time highlights of any travel experience of our lives.
Imagine staying in a luxurious tent in the middle of the Serengeti. Your backyard is a watering hole, and all animals from miles around visit regularly to hydrate. As you walk to the dining tent, you walk by zebras and antelope grazing on the grass or sleeping in the shade. During lunch on your first day, a herd of giraffes visit the watering hole to drink, spreading their front legs into an extremely silly semi-split position to accomplish the task. During dinner on the patio, you hear a soft roar from a pride of lions as they walk to the watering hole (maybe 100 yards in front of you) – a guard appears from nowhere to keep a watchful eye and shine a light on them so you can stare in amazement.
Sabora is on a private reserve, so (unlike the other parks) the guides can drive up very close to the animals. On our second day, we were able to get very close to a leopard (which Linda spotted), perhaps the most beautiful animal we saw on all our safaris. They do a lot of work on conservation – protecting the environment and wildlife (via well funded anti-poaching forces) – so they have a very strong natural ecosystem.
On top of the extraordinary setting, the team at Sabora were the very best we’ve met in any hotel in the world. From our guide Adam, waiter Biggie, wine expert Twanda, and the managers, everyone went above and beyond to make our visit fun and memorable. A prime example: while staying at Sabora over Thanksgiving, we were sad to be so far from family and friends. Not only that, we were the only ones staying on the entire property. To help us have a proper Thanksgiving, the staff prepared a feast and joined us for the most memorable meal of our trip.
Sabora remains the only place I have been teary-eyed leaving…