My trip to East Africa

Dear Mushinda African Explorer,

In October 2020 I had planned to visit some of the premier properties in East Africa.  Sadly, Covid sidelined those plans, but I am thrilled to report that I have just completed that long-awaited trip.

When I travel my primary objective is to experience what you, my clients, experience with an eye to improving or enhancing the thrill.  I spend the night at one hotel or lodge but the next day I am up early inspecting other properties in the area.  The days are long and arduous but I still get to enjoy a morning or evening game drive and even a hot air balloon ride (more later).

This time I had my husband along to keep me company and, as he jokes, “to carry the bags”.  Halfway through we met up with my agent Sussi and her husband.  Sussi and I have worked together since 1996 and we love traveling together.  Lots of fun and laughs.

Our trip started in Nairobi where we spent two nights.  As the international flights usually arrive in the evening that gave me a full day to do site inspections.  My husband took the day to visit the grave of a long lost uncle who perished in a training accident in 1942 and is buried in a military cemetery in Nanyuki. 

Many of my clients pass through Nairobi on their way to or from the safari areas so I wanted to see what facilities were available.  Nairobi has a couple of fairly decent hotels but sadly they still do not yet match the very high standards of the South African properties.  I did get to visit the world famous Giraffe Manor. 

From Nairobi we flew to the Masai Mara where we spent four nights at three of the premier camps.  The Mara is vast, with wide open plains cut by the Mara River.  We got there as the tail end of the great migration was leaving.  We did get to see some of the remaining herds of wildebeest and zebra.  We also went down to one of the crossing sites on the Mara River.  I have never seen such massive crocodiles lying on the banks and fighting over the remains of some poor animal.

Our accommodations were extremely comfortable and luxurious.  The meals were superb especially when factoring in the remote locations.  The first camp was on a ridge (where Out of Africa was filmed) overlooking the entire Mara plains.  Spectacular views!  The other two camps were luxury tented camps similar to what we have experienced in Botswana.

Although this was the start of the rainy season we had some excellent game viewing and animal sightings.

The next two nights we were at a lovely coffee farm on the slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater.  We did a day trip to the Crater (I now know that the correct term is “caldera”) where we got to see the unique ecosystem that has developed within the crater walls.  The animals that are caught here on a permanent basis have an amazing symbiotic relationship.

From here we flew north to the Grumeti Reserve where we met up with Sussi and were hosted by Singita at Sasakwa Lodge.  Singita has exclusive use of the Grumeti  – a huge private concession.  This area is part of the great migration so in June, July, and August the plains are covered with millions of animals and the associated predators.  Although we were there in the “off-season” we still had fantastic game-viewing.  The one morning we arose early and climbed into a hot air balloon for a private ride over the plains.  Although I have a fear of heights this was an experience like no other.  At times the balloon was barely clearing the treetops and other times the pilot took us several hundred feet up.  The silence was deafening.  You could hear the birds chirping, the snort of the zebra, and the trumpet of the elephants as they fled.  We saw five different prides of lions (a new record for our pilot).  Upon landing, we were treated to the obligatory champagne as we watched the ground crew pack up the balloon and load it on a trailer.  I have a new respect for the effort that goes into this adventure.

That day we inspected three of the other camps that Singita has in the area.  Whether is is a mobile tented camp, a luxury tented camp or a permanent camp like Sasakwa, – Singita does everything with such style and grace.  Their attention to detail is phenomenal.  Singita has built several different properties in the Grumeti.  These go all the way from luxury four-bedroom homes to mobile tented camps.  We inspected each and every one so I now know which property will best suit the needs of my clients.  Our two nights at Sasakwa was not enough time to fully appreciate the six-star experience provide by this lodge.

From Grumeti we flew to Kigali, Rwanda.  Our flight was on Grumeti Air which is owned by Singita.  This was our fifth charter flight and I can honestly say that once again Singita excelled.  The plane was new, comfortable seats and the pilots were very warm and friendly.  We encountered some rainy weather en route and the pilots went out of their way to navigate and dodge the thunder clouds ensuring us a smooth ride.

Rwanda is not what I was expecting especially after Kenya and Tanzania.  The airport is new and modern, the streets are absolutely spotless with beautiful roads.  There are islands of flowers and palm trees dividing every major road.  Despite the gruesome genocide of 1994 this country has rebounded and the people have adopted an amazing attitude of forgiveness.  The next morning we visited the Genocide Museum.  It is modeled after Jewish Holocaust Museums and gives a very good explanation of what led up to the atrocities and how the country has responded post the apocalypse.  Our guide is a survivor, he shared his story with us.  It was a very moving experience and gave us a much clearer understanding of the mood and culture of this wonderful country.  Under the current leadership there is virtually no corruption and the country is flourishing. 

From Kigali it is a beautiful drive through Rwanda’s 1,000 hills to the Volcanoes National Park.  Here we stayed at Singita Kwitonda for two nights.  If Sasakwa was 6 stars then Kwitonda must be seven.  The lodge is magnificent with only 7 secluded, exquisitely appointed suites.  You look out of large panoramic windows towards the five volcanic peaks that are the home to the last remaining families of mountain gorillas.  We learned that there are only 1,061 individuals in 22 families spread across the mountain slopes.  The mountains are partially in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda and the families range freely across all countries. 

That evening we met with Singita’s resident gorilla expert, a ranger who has spent 30 years with the gorillas.  He gave us a very insightful briefing of what we should expect the next morning, then we were taken to Singita’s “kit room”.  We sat on leather sofas as we were fitted with our jackets, backpacks, gloves, etc. for our trek.  Singita equipped us with everything we would need for our hike, down to sunscreen and custom-ordered sandwiches, ready and waiting at 5:30 the next morning.

Singita could only accommodate us in Rwanda’s rainy season, and that night it rained so we encountered very muddy conditions for our trek.  Our ranger took us through the local farm fields before we entered the National park.  From there it was a tropical forest with bamboo thickets and dense brush.  There were rangers with each gorilla family at all times so they knew exactly where we were headed.  We came out of the thick bush and there was a black head poking out of the greenery in front of us.  We all donned masks (gorillas share 98% of our DNA) and clambered up the last slopes to where these majestic creatures were feeding.  The next hour was the most amazing experience of a lifetime.  The family we were visiting consisted of 17 individuals from the silverbacks to babies.  At times they came close enough to brush past us.  It truly was a privilege watching these animals go about their daily routine. 

When we got back to the lodge we were escorted through a side entrance into the kit room where our muddy boots and equipment were whisked off us and our feet were placed into Birkenstock sandals.  That evening our now spotless hiking boots were waiting for us in our suite.  After a late lunch we relaxed in the heated spa as the mist rolled in over the mountains (Gorillas in the Mist).  It truly was a magical experience. 

On our last day we inspected a couple of the other lodges in the area and visited the new Dian Fossey Museum.  I almost wish we had been to the museum before our trek as it was extremely enlightening.

We left Rwanda with a feeling of elation.  It is a remarkable country with wonderful people and a great future.  This was the highlight of our amazing trip and certainly a great way to end our working holiday.

I am so pleased that I was able to visit all these properties and to experience what we did.  It has been several years since my last visit to this region and much has changed.  The level of accommodations and services have improved dramatically, new players like Singita have entered the market, Gorilla trekking has become a very viable and well controlled attraction.  Overall the level of sophistication we found equals what is available in Southern Africa.

For those of you who have already been to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Zambia I can now report that East Africa also has fabulous experiences waiting for you.

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