I once aspired for a holiday I would never forget so I dreamt of Africa. I imagined that espying, up close, a pride of lions basking in the sun, a herd of elephants frolicking in watering holes, and zebras prancing gracefully on an endless savannah would be a truly unforgettable experience. These images remained transfixed in my mind until I finally fulfilled my dream and saw all that and more.
The jury is in: Africa is not unreal; Africa is ethereal.
For the tenacious traveler, Africa is a must-see-before-you-die-destination. Many wait for their twilight years before they brave the journey. It doesn’t have to be this way. Tick this off in your bucket list now and have amazing memories of a holiday you’ll cherish for the rest of your lifetime.
Let me share my personal experience with you. Who knows? It might just fire up the wanderlust in you.
Where to safari
If you long for the images of Africa that National Geographic and the Discovery Channel have etched in your minds, then Kenya, with its abundance of wildlife, is the destination for you. Iconic Hollywood movies like the Lion King and Out of Africa were filmed here. If you have the luxury of time, consider traversing neighboring Tanzania. If you only have about a week, you can still have a meaningful safari by fitting these into your itinerary:
Masai Mara National Reserve. Aside from unbelievable landscapes, it has the highest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. This means there’s a bigger chance you’ll see the Big 5 here. The grandest wildlife spectacle on earth—the great migration, where millions of wildebeests joined by zebras and buffaloes and followed by their predators thunderously cross the Mara River—happens here.
The Great Rift Valley. As you drive from Nairobi to the Masai Mara, pass by the Rift Valley, a grand escarpment sculpted by volcanic eruptions. Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha have their own concentrations of wildlife, with many of the avian kind (like flamingos in the thousands).
Hell’s Gate National Park. A picture-perfect place and the only one that lets you bike or walk in an African savannah with nothing to separate you from wild buffaloes and, possibly, hyenas and leopards. The experience, especially when they stare you down like you came over to be dinner, will give you an adrenaline rush.
Amboseli National Park. Kenya’s iconic screensavers of elephants walking by a snow-capped mountain were shot here. If you were intrigued by those movies set in Mount Kilimanjaro and feel the need to climb it, this is a great place to start.
The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. If Kenya’s wildlife sightings have left you looking for more, cross the Tanzanian border and head to the Serengeti. The Serengeti typically has the same topography as that of the Mara except that it’s much more expansive.
In search of wildlife
The main activity in a safari is a “game drive”. It’s called such because it’s, well, a game. This is the wild so there is no guarantee you’ll see the animals you want. If you want 100 percent certainty of seeing them, go to a zoo.
The Big 5. Few people know that the term “The Big 5” was coined by hunters for five of the most dangerous animals to hunt down: elephants, lions, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos. Encountering all five in your safari is tantamount to a hunter’s successful quest except that you used a camera—not a rifle. In Africa, you’ll realize that God created many of these creatures in such a way that they blend into their habitat. The better to keep predators—including the human kind—away.
Aside from lions and leopards, another big cat you’d be lucky to catch is the elusive cheetah. Carnivores like hyenas and jackals, who feed on leftover carcass, are also possibilities.
Of the herbivores, zebras and the giraffes wander freely in Kenya, and are easy to find. Having said this, their being commonplace doesn’t make their beauty any less lustrous. Wildebeests, as well as all kinds of antelope, also abound. Not many people know that the hippopotamus is also vegetarian. They may look huggable but beware, most Africans consider them as the most dangerous animal in the wild.
Other remarkable experiences
Ballooning in Africa. Price-y but well worth it. The endless African landscape, in itself, is amazing but seeing animals as you soar up in the air, is magical. A champagne breakfast under an acacia tree, right smack in the middle of the wild, caps this unforgettable experience. Prices range from US$400-450.
Maasai Tribal Village. The world’s fiercest warriors, the Maasai, are some of Kenya’s most iconic images. Learn how they live, build homes, and make fire, as well as the significance of being a high-jumper in finding marriage prospects, by visiting a manyatta. US$20-30.
Boat Ride in Lake Naivasha. Abundant bird life, as well as sun-baked hippos, are guaranteed sightings when you go boating in this Rift Valley swampland.
Planning the actual trip
Budget-friendly options do exist. Having said that, I personally recommend not sacrificing creature comforts as you’ll want to reward yourself with restful evenings at the end of a game drive. Also, enjoying Kenya’s luxury lodges is an experience in itself.
Getting a visa. With just a Philippine passport and US$50, Filipinos can get three-month-stay visas on arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The same visa also allows you entry into Tanzania and Uganda.
Best time to go. The great migration happens from mid-June to mid-October. The downside is, humans from all over the world also migrate in their four-wheel drives so expect huge crowds. Avoid the rainy months from March to May. Abundant water supply from the rains gives animals no reason to come out and the lush greenery makes animal-spotting a tad more difficult.
Health alert. Visitors are required to avail of Yellow Fever vaccination as a preventive measure. There is no risk of the Ebola virus in Kenya. Ebola is in Western Africa, at the other end of the continent.
Security. Some countries may have travel advisories against some parts of Kenya but these are mostly limited to areas way off the tourist radar such as the Somali border.
Traveling alone versus joining a group. Group tours will obviously cost significantly less because you share the costs of transportation, the driver/guide, special activities, and even the hotels. However, you’ll need to work with the operator’s fixed calendar (normally, just once a month).
Pollman, Intrepids, and G Adventures are some companies you may consider. Their packages vary from budget (Intrepids does camp-style where you participate in the cooking, setting up of tents, etc.) to luxury (Pollman’s accommodations are in top-notch lodges).
If your schedule is less than flexible, most operators will gladly organize a private tour for you. You’ll have maximum flexibility but this is, naturally, costlier.
Finding a reliable Kenya-based tour operator. Finding a tour operator a million miles away may be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face. To find one, I referenced Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. From these, I found a gem in Natural World Safaris (www.naturaltoursandsfaris.com). Humphrey Ndara, its proprietor, gave timely feedback and shared valuable information. The Driver/Guide he assigned me, Emmanuel Ngugi, was also excellent. Since you’ll be spending so many days and long drives with your guide, I believe that it’s important to find someone who is amiable, smart, and resourceful.
Developing the itinerary. When shopping for your safari, speak to several tour operators and check out the typical packages offered on their respective websites. Eventually, you will have a better feel of what you want. Once you do, ask a few operators to quote on your preferred itinerary (i.e. Nairobi—Lakes Naivasha and Nakuru—Masai Mara—Amboseli—Nairobi for x number of days) so you can compare on the same parameters.
Accommodations. Depending on your budget, you can choose from tented camps with basic facilities and communal toilets to five-star luxury tented camps or lodges with excellent amenities like swimming pools, spas, and tennis courts. Most offer full board meals.
Transportation. There are two main types of transportation: the Land Cruiser and the minibus. The former entails a premium rate but has the advantage of going off road and being faster on dirt roads.
Package inclusions. All entrance to the parks should be included in the quotes. Air ballooning, a Maasai Tribe visit, Hell’s Gate visit, and boating in Lake Naivasha are usually optional items but some may have included them already.
Other practical tips
Safari fashion. Earth colors like khaki, beige, brown and fatigue are traditionally worn as they blend well with the African terrain. Avoid bright colors, which repel animals as they imagine it to be fire. The temperature starts low in the mornings so it’s good to start off with layers that you can strip off as the day goes by.
Practical essentials. It is always good to travel light as much as you can, especially if you’re joining a group. But make sure not to forget these:
Cameras with different lenses and lots of memory on your HD card. It’s easier to switch cameras over lenses when you’re trying to catch swift action, i.e., a leopard jumping a Thomson gazelle.
Hats and sun block. Kenya is found along the equator so the fierce African sun is probably even stronger here.
If You Had a Day in Nairobi
Go up close and personal with elephants and giraffe. You’ve seen them in the wild but in the Giraffe Centre and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you can even feed them. These two centers save orphaned animals in the wild and return them when they have fully recovered.
The Nairobi National Park is the only wildlife reserve within a major city. With the exception of elephants, four of the Big 5 may be spotted here.
For fans of Meryl Streep and Out of Africa, check out the Karen Blixen Museum. The house facing the Ngong Hills is now a museum.
Dine at Kenya’s most famous restaurant, Carnivore. This meat lovers’ paradise boasts a “beast of a feast”. People used to go for the game meats until serving these was banned in October 2004. Fret not, ostrich, crocodile, and rabbit are still in the menu. US$30