The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for East Africa: Dan Saperstein of Hippo Creek Safaris.
Dan draws on his vast network of connections to ensure that each safari really is the trip of a lifetime and that each traveler gets the most rewarding safari experience possible for their travel dollar. Based in the New York City area, he is always on call and always making sure that his clients are treated like royalty at every lodge and camp. Parents and grandparents wanting to take young children on safari, do yourself a favor and have an honest conversation with Dan, who is a father of young kids himself, about which countries and parks are truly the most child-friendly.
What to See and Do
Retiti Elephant Sanctuary, located in Kenya’s Northern Frontier near the equator, is the first community-owned elephant orphanage in Africa, designed to rescue—and eventually release—orphaned and abandoned elephant calves. Visits subsidize their efforts to increase habitat for these animals, while also supporting the local communities living alongside them.
With few exceptions (see “Hidden gem,” below) East Africa’s national parks are simply overrated. You’ll have a far superior and more enjoyable experience visiting the neighboring private conservancies and reserves. Some of the best are those bordering Kenya’s Masai Mara, such as Mara North, Olare Orok, and Naboisho. There is also the famous Lewa Conservancy, home to the largest population of Grevy’s zebra in East Africa, as well as many black and white rhino. In Tanzania, there are excellent private reserves, such as Singita Grumeti, on nearly 330,000 acres bordering the Serengeti. There are also some excellent ones between Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park that are home to a number of upscale camps and lodges, in addition to a wonderful array of game.
Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. Its river does not run dry when the rains stop, so it draws huge herds in search of fresh water from July through October. This is where you’ll typically see the highest concentration of elephants in Tanzania during those months, as well as very impressive herds of buffalo, kudu, and even oryx. With ancient baobab trees dotting the landscape, it is a small but stunning park.
Best for thrill-seekers
Spending the night (you might sleep or you might not, depending on how you feel about the lions roaming nearby) in a pup tent on a remote corner of a wildlife reserve, followed by a walking safari with your own guide and tracker, who will also prepare your meals. As authentic a bush experience as you can have!
Feeding the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes at the Giraffe Centre in the Karen suburb of Nairobi. Their 17-inch tongue is not easily forgotten! The modest entry fee supports initiatives throughout Kenya to educate children about the country’s amazing natural resources.
Best spot for a sundowner
What better spot than the famous picnic location from Out of Africa, seen on the movie poster itself? If you’re staying at Angama Mara—spectacularly set on a dramatic escarpment overlooking the Masai Mara—a Maasai naturalist will bring you to this secluded kopje (rock outcropping), where you can enjoy some bubbly and snacks while watching the sun disappear over the magical scene.
Camps, Lodges, Meals
Hemingways, in Nairobi’s affluent Karen suburb, continues to set the gold standard for East African hotels. Less than an hour from the airport, the plantation-style property has only 45 rooms, each of them spacious, light-flooded, and tended to by a butler. Set in Kenya’s lush Ngong Hills, Hemingways is a welcome refuge from Nairobi’s noise and bustle.
Saruni Samburu, in Kenya’s Kalama Wildlife Conservancy. In addition to all the meals, drinks, and game drives included in the price, you can also participate in the “Warriors Academy,” in which a Maasai or Samburu warrior will teach you bush skills and wildlife tracking, and lead hikes to see ancient cave art. Saruni Samburu offers family villas so that children can come and participate in all of these activities with you.
Safari camp worth the splurge
Mara Plains Camp. With just seven luxury tented rooms, guests receive the utmost attention from the superb guides and the rest of the staff. The camp is on a 30,000-acre private conservancy, and guests have access to an additional 100,000 acres of low-density public lands and the neighboring 375,000-acre Masai Mara reserve. The exclusivity and Mara Plains’ serious commitment to conservation make it well worth every penny; this place is perhaps the purest embodiment of the “romance of Africa.”
Best lodge for families
Lemala’s newest two camps, Mpingo Ridge (in Tarangire National Park) and Nanyukie (in Serengeti National Park) offer some of the best family units in Tanzania. The suites include two bedrooms and two bathrooms with modern amenities, striking design, and private outdoor bathtubs. Given the emphasis on conservation and community involvement, these are wonderful locations for families to explore and learn about the sustainable endeavors that are a key component of the stay here.
Ugali, an East African staple, is white cornmeal cooked to a dough-like consistency and used like a sponge to soak up traditional tasty stews.
August and September are the best times to see the annual migration, the ultimate wildlife spectacle in which more than a million wildebeest and other animals pass through Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve. July can be iffy for the herds, and October might be too late, but you can always count on August and September being terrific.
April and May, during the wet period known as “the long rains.” In fact, a good number of properties in East Africa close during the month of April. Recently, some camps and lodges have begun reopening in May, so you can find some occasional deals for traveling then.
It’s hard to beat sunsets in the Masai Mara and Serengeti reserves, but a photo of you with an elephant and Mount Kilimanjaro in the background is one that will be handed down for generations.
There are some unique small shops in the suburbs of Nairobi that sell wonderful handmade crafts: Marula Studios and the Silk Road both sell beautiful handmade goods such as beaded leather belts and pocketbooks.
Planning your trip based on the recommendations of friends and acquaintances. While they have your best interest at heart, your friends have seen only what was on their itinerary and haven’t visited all the camps and lodges in the vicinity, so they don’t have a full picture of what’s available.
Don’t fall for trading your T-shirt or baseball cap for something in a gift shop. This is a common invitation, but you’ll inevitably be asked to pay cash as well (the item is always worth more than an article of clothing), meaning you’ll both pay for it and lose your shirt (or hat) in the bargain. In other words, it’s never a fair trade.
Opera Mini: A Web browser that compresses all data so you can still keep up with the world at a decent speed while on the slower Wi-Fi/cellular connections in the bush.
TripIt Pro: You can refer to all of your flight info even without an Internet connection, and get notifications and updates once you connect.
If you’re flying from Kilimanjaro Airport to Nairobi to board your international flight home, you can check your luggage straight through to the United States without collecting it and rechecking it in Nairobi. Just stop by the transit desk for your airline once in Nairobi.
A three-prong adapter and multi-outlet extension cord. Rooms on safari typically have only one outlet available for charging, so the multi-outlet cord allows you to charge all of your batteries at one time without any hassle.