When our four-year-old, Lea, started expressing interest in visiting Africa a couple years ago, my wife and I took interest. We had always wanted to see life on the African continent, to experience a safari, and observe some of the world’s most exciting wild animals in their natural environment. We also thought that it would be an educational experience for Lea and her sister Eva, as well as a memorable, family-building experience for us all.
So, rather than tempering Lea’s wishes with vague assurances of “some day,” Malene and I started making plans. Well, to be fair, Malene did most of the planning.
There are those who would argue that doing it yourself in terms of researching, planning and making the arrangements for a trip is all part of the experience, but we have found that in some cases it makes sense to enlist the help of a travel agency to make sure that you make the most of your time on the ground. We had a positive experience with the assistance we received planning an Australian trip in 2018 so decided that we would explore some of the packages that African-focused travel agencies had to offer.
We decided on a package that included one week in Kenya and one week in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The itinerary for the Kenya leg of the trip looked intensive but the Zanzibar leg was very relaxed so we figured that our busy week would be offset by the following week to unwind after the safari. For the most part this plan worked well, but if we were to do it over, I think we agree that we might try to balance it out a little more evenly.
We arrived in Nairobi at 11:30 PM and were taken to our hotel in the city by a transfer service arranged by the travel agency. The next day, we had a full itinerary of activities in and around Nairobi, visiting the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, a Giraffe Center, the Karen Blixen Museum, and the Kazuri Beads Center.
There were high expectations among our family for the elephant orphanage. As a sanctuary for baby elephants whose parents had been poached, we expected that it might be somewhat somber, and I can’t speak for Malene or the girls, but my assumption was that it would also be an intimate, hands-on encounter with these impressive and intelligent creatures. With a vision in my head that our group would be one of just a couple others at the park, I thought that we might be able to personally feed the animals or otherwise have direct contact with them.
This was not the reality however. After paying an entrance fee we lined up with dozens of other tourists and filed our way into a viewing area cordoned off by a rope. We were lucky enough to stake out one of the last few spots along the rope line and waited for the elephants to come out from wherever they were hiding.
When they finally emerged, everyone started taking photos and jostling for position to get a better view. Although I was generally enjoying watching the elephants eat and hearing the handlers tell their stories, it was not the intimate experience that I had anticipated.
After the elephant orphanage, we went to the Giraffe Center, which I must say, was closer to the hands-on experience that I had expected with the elephants. Food is handed out at the entrance and visitors are encouraged to feed the giraffes by hand. Their long tongues are surprisingly agile and can scoop food from the smallest of fingers. We all got a kick out of being licked by blue giraffe tongues and were impressed by the animals’ stunning beauty.
Next stop was the Karen Blixen museum. Coming from Denmark we were keen to hear the story of this famous Dane and, observing the gorgeous landscape of her farm, could easily see why she decided to spend so many years living in Kenya. I doubt she missed those long Danish winters.
The final stop for the day was the Kazuri Beads and Pottery Centre, which is a collectively owned and operated bead factory that employs many local women. It was interesting to learn how the beads are made and to see the social services provided by the center, including its health clinic. The beautiful beads are exported around the world. Needless to say, we bought some for the girls, including a new pair of earrings for Eva.
The next day, we hit the road for Amboseli National Park. Once you get out of the Nairobi metropolitan area, the reality of underdevelopment hits pretty quickly. The unpaved, unkempt dirt roads and general lack of infrastructure are a bit jarring at first and while you might sort of get used to it, keep in mind that the rough going is not temporary. It continues throughout your journey, so one thing to consider when you’re planning an African safari is whether going from point A to point B is necessary and worth it.
Travelers should study a map carefully and decide ahead of time how much time they want to spend on the road, and whether for example, it is necessary to visit multiple national parks or whether one or two would suffice. This may depend somewhat on how important it is for you to see all of the Big Five game animals – the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo – as certain animals are more common in some national parks than others.
We finally arrived at Kibo Safari Camp, checked ourselves in, and went out on a game drive. If you’ve never been on a game drive before, there is little that can prepare you for the awe-inspiring beauty of seeing elephants, antelopes, gazelles, zebras, ostriches, and buffalo roaming the Serengeti, with the sun setting behind a horizon of acacia trees.
As soon as we got out there and started seeing these wild animals in their natural habitat, it occurred to me that I had never known how much I had wanted to experience an African safari until that moment. A zoo doesn’t come close to the experience of being among the animals where they live.
I had asked our guide earlier what the chances were of seeing animals out on the drive, slightly concerned that we might not see any, but those concerns disappeared pretty quickly. Animals are everywhere, and it was interesting to see how all these species just co-exist and peacefully share the same space. (Well, at least the herbivores.)
In addition to large mammals, there are countless species of birds to admire.
We spent the next day out on a game drive and despite having already seen many of the animals, the excitement was just as fresh on the second day.
Giraffes were a common sight.
In addition to thoroughly enjoying the game drive, we were all thrilled staying at the camp. Our tent was very homey and the camp had an excellent swimming pool which had both a shallow and deep end, which is essential when travelling with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. The staff was all very nice, in particular one waiter named Lavender who befriended our two girls and gave them big hugs every time she saw them.
It was soon time to hit the road, however, and make our way to another national park – this time at Lake Nakuru. Despite being told that the trip would take six hours it actually took twice that. To be honest the trip was a bit grueling. We were very glad to break up the journey with a stop at Lake Naivasha, where we hired a boat to take us to see Crescent Island.
It was stunning to see so many birds and vegetation, as well as a family of hippos and a flock of zebras that lived on the island.
It was also a bit sobering, however, because our guide told us that the dead acacia trees that we saw in the water should not be there. The dead trees were a result of climate change: due to unusually heavy rains in recent years, the lake was rising and consuming trees and houses along the coastline.
The hippos didn’t seem to mind though.
After this brief interlude, we piled back into the car and continued the journey to Lake Nakuru National Park. It seemed to take forever and when we finally arrived we were all quite ready to have some dinner and call it a day. After 12 hours on the road – a very rough road – I would have liked to stay put a couple days to relax, but our itinerary called for us to do a morning game drive and hit the road again the next day.
I wondered at this point whether it was possible to adjust our plans and cancel or modify the next leg of the journey – perhaps just skip the trip to the next national park – but Malene reminded me that we had to keep going because we would be catching a flight in a couple days to Zanzibar.
So the next morning, after having just checked in, we checked out of the lodge. Unfortunately, Malene was feeling under the weather with a stomach ache. Despite some discussion about whether we should revise our plans, she decided to suck it up and continue with the itinerary.
We piled back into the van and hit the road again. I was not terribly thrilled with the prospect of another day bouncing around in the back of a van but that was nothing compared to how Malene felt. Her stomach bug seemed to get worse throughout the day.
But we kept going and after nine hours arrived at our next destination, at the Mara Sopa Lodge in Masai Mara National Park.
In my opinion this lodge was the best of the three we had been to so far, but Eva disagreed because she thought that the swimming pool at the first one was better. I had to agree with her on that point, but the food at the Mara Sopa Lodge couldn’t be beat. Plus, there were cute little monkeys everywhere.
At this point, we were only missing two of the Big Five – we hadn’t seen lions or leopards yet. So the next day, we set out on another game drive. The landscape of Masai Mara National Park was spectacular.
We were lucky to have a very knowledgeable and talented guide named Patrick who was skilled in locating animals and also sharing interesting facts about them. When we found a pack of lions sleeping in the grass, he explained that this is their normal behavior, noting that they are probably the laziest animals in the world – with the possible exception of the cubs who get up on occasion to stretch and yawn.
Soon afterward, we came across a leopard in a tree, which completed our quest to see the Big Five. While this did indeed feel like something of an accomplishment, I would point out that whether or not you see all of these species is probably not the most important aspect of a safari. Personally, I found many animals to be more exciting to observe, including hyenas, jackals, cheetahs and eagles.
The next day, we were off again to the airport to wrap up our African vacation in Zanzibar. While we had a few sites we planned to see, the idea of this leg of the trip was mostly to unwind, relax, swim in the ocean and enjoy the warm climate for a few days before heading back to Denmark.
We arrived in Zanzibar on Saturday evening and I was impressed by how lively it was, with throngs of locals out enjoying the nightlife. We checked into Mizingani Seafront Hotel in Stone Town, which I must say was unlike any other hotel I’ve ever seen. Its architecture and old-timey feel were totally unique, and we were all very pleased with our room.
The girls were hungry so I walked to a local food market and a vendor described about a dozen different kinds of foods he would barbecue for me while I waited. I chose a few that I thought Eva and Lea would like and went back to the room where we scarfed down our food on the balcony.
The next day, our plan was simply to explore Stone Town, find the famous sites including Freddie Mercury’s house and a former slave market, and visit Prison Island where a colony of giant tortoises live. As we set out from our hotel, however, a young tour guide introduced himself and offered his services. Initially I turned him down, but he started rattling off a bunch of historical facts about Stone Town and I realized that we might benefit from a guide.
I think the decision was the right one, because despite having to spend a bit more money than I had planned, our guide, Omar, ensured that we made the most of our time. Getting around Stone Town’s narrow, labyrinthine streets also would have been difficult not knowing where we were going and Omar ensured that we found our destinations. He also was quite informative, telling us, for example, all about the slave trade that once dominated the economy of Zanzibar.
Besides the fascinating history, one thing that struck me about Stone Town was the exceptional artwork that was available for sale throughout the city center. If you are in the market for art, be sure to leave room in your suitcase because there are many beautiful paintings to be purchased in Stone Town.
We got to Prison Island mid-afternoon and made our way to a colony of giant tortoises on the island. If you are in Zanzibar, this is a must see. None of us had expected the tortoises to be nearly as large as they were, and we were all delighted by their friendly, gentle and inquisitive personalities.
Despite an initial trepidation, even our shy little Lea opened up to the turtles and was brave enough to feed them some tasty leaves.
The next day we made our way to our final destination – a boutique oceanfront hotel.
When we arrived we were initially pleased with what looked like very cozy accommodations and a swimming pool that we expected to get some good use out of. The hotel was right on the beach and we were looking forward to spending a few relaxed days soaking up the sun and splashing around in the water.
We immediately noticed that there were quite a few locals who would hang out on the beach offering various services and selling wares. I spoke with one about arranging a snorkeling excursion the next day, which we arranged for 8:00 AM, to include the whole family. But due to the heat we did not get much sleep at all.
The next day, sleepy and unrested, nobody wanted to go snorkeling, so I found my contact person on the beach and asked if it would be alright to postpone it for 24 hours. He told me that he had already arranged for a boat and that it was a good day to go out because the water was calm. So, I agreed that I would go out but that my family would stay behind.
This actually worked out for the best because I don’t think the girls would have enjoyed going out on the boat that I had chartered. It was very choppy and I’m pretty sure they would have been scared. They also probably would not have known how to properly snorkel since we hadn’t practiced using the masks and breathing devices.
For me though, the experience was fantastic. I had never snorkeled before and couldn’t believe how many fish there were to see. Besides numerous species of fish, I also saw an octopus and a sea snake. I was a bit startled by the sea snake, because despite being beautiful, I knew that its venom was among the deadliest in the world. I subsequently read however that sea snakes are generally reluctant to bite and that their fangs are quite small so it is difficult for them to deliver enough venom to kill a human.
Although the girls were not able to join this activity, Malene and Eva went out the next day during low tide for a tour by foot, in which it is possible to see many of the same creatures as you can during snorkeling. They saw starfish, squid, fish and sea urchins.
While staying at this hotel, it soon became clear that there wasn’t a lot to do – at least nothing that didn’t require paying locals in cash, which I ran out of pretty quickly and only found out later that the closest ATM was an hour’s drive – and it was not particularly kid-friendly. For example, the hotel had a collection of bicycles available to borrow but when I went to get a couple for Eva and myself, I found out that they didn’t have any her size.
Likewise, when I wanted to borrow a kayak to take out on the ocean, I discovered that they didn’t have any child-size life vests. Nevertheless, Lea and I took a kayak out anyway. Lea enjoyed it very much and didn’t seem to mind wearing an oversized adult life vest.
At the hotel, I spent many hours in the pool with Eva and Lea. It did not occur to me until later, but it turned out that this pool was unchlorinated. After the third day or so, my left ear started hurting badly and I came down with a fever. Doing some online research, I figured out that what I was suffering from was most likely an ear infection caused by a bacteria-infested swimming pool. I spent the last two days at the hotel nursing a case of swimmer’s ear and wishing I had never gone in that unchlorinated pool.
Two lessons I took away from the experience at our final hotel: 1) It’s important when you’re traveling with kids to make sure that hotels are kid-friendly. This means that they should have special accommodations and activities for kids and that the pools have shallow ends. 2) Make sure that the pools are properly chlorinated.
And finally, it’s important to make sure that the amount of time spent at a hotel is appropriate. While we certainly enjoyed the first couple days at the boutique hotel on the beach, I think we all grew slightly bored after a while. Likewise, while we were in Kenya the previous week, we would have enjoyed staying an extra day or two at a couple of the lodges we were at.
These things are hard to know in advance, but if we were to do the trip over again, I think we would make a few small adjustments in this regard – a little more time on the safari so that we weren’t rushing around so much and a little less time on the beach so that we didn’t get bored.
But all in all, the African vacation was a huge success and the experience of a lifetime. Although with hindsight we might have done a few things slightly differently, in general it was more than we could have ever asked for. Spending that much time together – whether having fun splashing around in the pool, seeing the world’s most magnificent animals or “roughing it” on long off-road drives – was a bonding experience that brought us closer together as a family and one that we won’t soon forget.