From the moment you step off the plane in Mombasa you know you are back in Africa. But, there is something different, very different. It’s that Swahili ‘jambo habari’ culture that makes a ‘safari’ in East Africa unique.
If you spent most of your years in Southern Africa you probably knew about East Africa and its abundant wildlife, but never got there. An ever weakening Rand made sure of that. A lost opportunity indeed, but an abundance of wildlife offerings on our own doorstep made it sort of acceptable. Today however the exchange rate (AU$ to US$) and some of the region’s recent history has changed this and rendered it good value, especially if you have children.
Last year I had the privilege of taking my family to experience Kenya and Zanzibar. Rich in culture, packed with volume, variety of wildlife and blessed with those beautiful rift valley scenes. Not something any brochures or National Geographic videos prepare you for. We had an absolute ball and took thousands of photos, savoured great feasts and witnessed the wildlife spectacle. But, what lives on the strongest was a sense of ‘experience’ we took away with us, especially our children. Mambo mzungu, nzuri, hakuna matata, asante sana and kwaheri.
Taking kids aged 9 and 7 on long haul holidays can be stressful at the best of times. Touring around with them in safari vehicles for days on end could seem a double daunting prospect. Not!
Our kids enjoyed almost every minute of their holiday. In fact I sometimes think more than their parents.
Some years ago the tourism operators in Kenya realised that to keep the visitor numbers high they would have to adapt their product. Survival needed more than simply satisfying the needs of the couples from Europe in search of the romance of ‘safari’ or the gear-laden khaki-clad photo groups from the USA. Among other new offerings many of them set their sights on families. In my opinion they have got it right. After a lunch meeting at the famous Tamarind Restaurant in Mombasa with our host operators, we set off for Tsavo East National Park. Crossing the much written about Tsavo railway line we entered the Park and headed for Satoa Camp, our home for the next two nights.
In Tsavo, seemingly endless parades of elephants dominate the experience.
Having spent many hours of my life watching these wonderful beasts, I was delighted to note how the children shared this passion.
Satao’s comfortable safari tents are built in a semi circle around a waterhole that constantly draws elephants. On a number of occasions, at drive or at meal times, I had to call the kids away from their canvas chairs where they sat watching the mammoths.
Visits to Tsavo West and Amboseli were no disappointment. En route we passed through areas that were once the stomping grounds of legends like Denys Finch-Hatton. There is even a modern luxury lodge named after him. Mzima Springs is a refreshing stop where several bloats or huddles of hippo find refuge in an oasis amid otherwise arid landscapes. These springs are fed by runoff from the ice caps of mighty Kilmanjaro, just across the border in Tanzania. A half submerged viewing structure allows great views of life below the surface of the crystal clear water. Amboseli; it is true this National Park is busy and probably hosts too many visitors and vehicles at any one time. But the wildlife is very rewarding and at many times during the day we sat watching game with Africa’s greatest mountain as a backdrop.
At Ol Tukai lodge the resident Masai staff members entertain the kids with lectures about their history and culture and in the evenings their unusual and haunting leaping and shrieking dance routines. By this stage of our interesting journey one thing was for sure - Africa is for children. Everywhere we had been and stayed the staff went out of their way to make them feel welcome and entertain them. Each camp or lodge was a new wonderland to explore and each park offered interesting landscapes and varieties of animals, interpreted with passion by the guides, for young and old.
In the next issue I plan to share some of the further delights of our journey as we visit the wildlife extravaganza of the Masai Mara and then travel north west to Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley.