Without a doubt, one of the main draws of visiting South Africa is the native wildlife.
Almost as soon as you picture visiting South Africa – or Africa as a whole – images of iconic animals spring to mind – lions, zebras, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and cheetahs to name just a few.
Of course, the best way to view the local wildlife is in the wild. There are countless safaris to choose from, allowing you to see these animals in their natural habitat, such as Sanbona which we visited near to Cape Town.
However safaris can be quite expensive, span for a few days and there is of course no guarantee of sightings. So, for a lot of people, whether you are on a budget, or limited time, the next best alternative to see native wildlife is by visiting a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.
Choosing a South African Wildlife Sanctuary
When it comes to choosing among South Africa wildlife sanctuaries to visit, there are a few things to take into consideration.
First, where is the sanctuary located – is it easily accessible to where you are based or staying?
Secondly, what can you expect to see there? Does the sanctuary have permanent residents, or do the animals change?
And for us, most importantly of all, is the sanctuary ethical – and how so?
As we were lucky enough to spend 3 months in South Africa during 2019, we managed to visit quite a few different sanctuaries.
I was very nervous to go to the Masai village but not due to the reasons most may think.
The Masai people are an indigenous tribe that lives in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. They’re estimated at about one million people and live in local villages throughout the region. Masai are traditionalists and have resisted the urging of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more modern lifestyle. They are one of few groups left in the world that preserves their traditional ways. One of the ways they make money is by providing tours and homestays in their local villages to tourists.
I’ve been on dozens of village tours before. Most of them are problematic to the point of being nauseating. The poorly run tours come off as human zoos at best and racist caricatures of cultural experiences at worst. We once participated in a village tour that went as far as to have a “put your face in the hole” style cardboard cutout of one of the villagers. They didn’t understand why we hesitated when they suggested we pose for funny pictures with our faces on the cardboard body of the guy standing next to it. That was a hard pass for me. I’ve also been to other village tours that were basically a two-minute look around a 30-minute sales pitch. Neither of those options felt authentic or educational in the slightest bit.
Needless to say, I was a bit hesitant before this part of the trip even began.
The night before we had a meeting around the fire pit where our Contiki trip manager told us we’d be separating into gendered groups to discuss controversial issues with the Masai people.
I was immediately nervous about which group Lindsay would go with. As a gender-nonconforming person who is often unidentifiable by gender, I knew it was going to be an issue. We knew the Masai people were reading her as male and knew that the trip leaders knew she was female. We were nervous that the Maasai people would insist on her going with the male group and the trip managers would correct it and create an awkward or dangerous situation.
It’s illegal to be LGBT in both Kenya and Tanzania and still deeply culturally taboo in both countries. In the deep logical side of my head, I knew that as white tourists the likelihood of us being attested or put in a dangerous situation in front of a tour group was very low but I couldn’t shake the anxious gut feeling I had in my belly. It was anxiety to the extreme from a place of fear for the person I love – but it made me want to opt-out of the experience completely.
Ultimately, Linds made the choice to go and I stuck by her decision.
Moses is the deputy chief of the Masai village.
Early the next morning the Masai Chief, Joseph and his deputy Moses arrived to walk us to their village in the middle of Amboseli National Park. As we walked across the rust-colored savannah, kicking up dust in our wake, Chief Joseph explained the traditional uses for the plants and animal droppings along the way. We walked along the road. Well, it wasn’t much of one anymore and ended up winding our way through the bush while impalas, ostriches, and a few giraffes often rushed through the landscape.
The village was tiny, consisting of several bomas, which is the name for the Masai houses enclosed in a circular fencing structure.
The village looks like it’s straight out of the pages of National Geographic.
I’m not going to sugar coat it – I’m also struggling a bit while writing this article. The coverage of most African countries in the western world is limited, biased, and incomplete. The narratives are almost always revolving around starving children, war conflicts, extreme poverty, and a lack of infrastructures like electricity, plumbing, and freshwater sources. While this is a reality for many people throughout the African continent, it is not true to the whole population. Remember, Africa is huge. You could fit America nearly four times inside the continent. With an area that large, filled with wildly different cultures, it’s unfair to generalize.
Before I left the US, I promised myself I’d write a fair and accurate reflection of my encounters. I would report the truth of my experiences and not dwell on the typical issues. But then I got to Kenya and witnessed first hand many of the issues I swore I wouldn’t dwell on. The Masai DID struggle with infrastructure issues, food scarcity, political corruption, and poverty. Not only the Masai villagers but many people throughout the ten different regions of Kenya and Tanzania we visited. Being very honest, my month in East Africa was one of the more difficult travel experiences I’ve had. Tourism in East Africa is impacted by hundreds of years of colonial oppression, which has resulted in many white tourists being treated like walking ATM machines. I get it – when your family is struggling, hounding a few tourists to buy your products is a no brainer. Nonetheless, witnessing extreme poverty, struggling with travel-related illness, and being asked for money at every turn makes for a challenging travel experience.
That being said, our visit to the Masai village in Amboseli was one of the most culturally immersive experiences I’ve ever had and I’m a tough critic. I don’t have any judgment for communities that provide less authentic experiences or the tourists that support them but for me contrived and choreographed isn’t for my liking. I’m less interested in the voyeuristic aspects of the villages and more interested in learning about the people and their way of life.
I chose to participate in this tour because I wanted to support an authentic travel experience and I’m pleased to say that it truly is an immersive experience that supports local entrepreneurship and provides a genuine cultural exchange.
When we arrived at the village after our walk we were told that we were allowed to take photos of whatever we’d like and we’d be introduced to the Masai way of life by contributing to the village through regular chores. I laughed nervously because I thought he was kidding, I’m a city kid through and through I wouldn’t know what to do with a cow if it looked me dead in the eyes – nope. He was serious.
Upon reflecting on this experience, I loved that we started this way. We weren’t greeted by some dance performance, like other tours do, but were casually introduced to family and friends living their daily life.
Charity leads us through a demonstration of Masai home repair.
Chief Joseph introduced us to a woman in her late 20s named Charity. She spoke English well and was going to instruct us in the art of Masai home repair. Women build houses using tree branches, ashes from the fire and cow dung as a means of binding. They asked us to help demonstrate and most of the group eagerly grabbed a handful of fresh cow turds to fix one of the village homes. It was a great ice breaker and forced the group to reacclimate themselves to a new environment. People in the group were laughing and cracking jokes with the Masai women as they smeared handfuls of cowshit along the cracks in the houses to patch holes. After you’ve taken massive piles of shit to a shit covered wall by hand, you’re really able to reassess your expectations for an afternoon.
Members of the Contiki group showing off their fresh cow dung.
After Masai home repair 101 we were lead through a goat milking demonstration by Charity and were taken to view the village animals. We learned about the Masai way of life and how villagers live traditionally on meat, blood, and milk. Nowadays, the Maasai are able to trade meat, milk, and goat cheese in the nearest town for vegetables and other foods but for the most part, they still stick to the traditional diet. The one difference is that Elders usually reserve the drinking of cow blood for during celebrations and ceremonies. During the goat demonstrations, we learned about the importance of livestock to the livelihood of the community. We learned that cows are often treated as currency and used in every aspect of the Masai lives. From the cowskin beds to the meat they eat, to the ability to trade animals for dowries and as a means of financial exchange.
One of the members of the Contiki group learning to milk a goat.
Masai children start learning to care for and grazing livestock at a very young age. Sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years old in a group of children. At that age, most American children aren’t left alone in a room – let alone free to graze their goats for 10-12 hours.
Throughout history, the Masai people traveled with their herds to grazing lands but now the government has stopped their nomadic lifestyle and encouraged them to put down permanent villages. This change has resulted in Masai men traveling with the herds to seek grasslands and water while the women and children stay in the village.
Afterward the goat milking demonstration, the Masai Chief, Joseph lead us through the village and showed us how the men build fires using two sticks and donkey dung to create friction. The guys in our group enjoyed the opportunity to attempt to make fire themselves, let’s just say they weren’t quite as skilled as the warriors.
Masai tribe fire building 101.
Society for Masai people is extremely gendered and there are few – if any – opportunities for Masai women. After the fire demonstration, we separated into two groups. Lindsay opted to stay with the women while our Tour Manager, Haron smoothed over the gender questions expertly and discreetly. Haron was incredible in this situation and couldn’t have been more amazing.
What came next was perhaps the most interesting part of our entire trip. We sat for just about an hour with a group of roughly 10 Masai women ranging in age from 18-48. The majority of the women were in their late 20s and all of them were married and had children. We were allowed to ask as many questions as we liked and in turn, they could ask us questions. The women were all dressed in brightly colored fabrics over patterned dresses and wearing Masai sandals made of recycled motorcycle tires. Some of the women had small children on their hips and many of the women bore the marks of body modifications and deliberate facial scarring.
We learned about marriage, childbearing, and typical women’s work in the village. We learned that Masai women make beautiful beaded jewelry during the day and spend their time collecting firewood, water, and taking care of their families. Eventually, the questions became more in-depth and covered issues of sex, women’s rights, birth control, and other controversial issues.
Maasai marriages may be polygamous, but one-sided, in that a man may take several wives and bare many children, but a woman may not. Eventually, we learned that women are the property of their husbands or their fathers in the village. In Masai culture, cows are the currency. When a man wants to marry, he must pay the father of the bride in cows. The more cows one has, the wealthier they are. They are literally buying and selling women at the whims of the men in the community. While I was listening to these women speak of their lives, they were very nonchalant about being beaten, living in plural marriages, and living an existence of hard labor and childbearing. As I was sitting and listening to these women speak, there was a sting in the knowledge that here in Kenya the divine arithmetic valued one man as the balance for countless women. No matter how hard I try to understand this cultural difference, I cannot justify the lack of personhood and agency of choice that was so apparent in these conversations.
While many of the questions were factual or deep or hard to hear, some of them were light and funny.
Contiki Traveler: “Do you have any questions for us?”
Louise – Masai woman: “How do you have sex? Is it in the day or the night? What positions are you allowed to be in? How often? What does the light look like?
For the most part, the questions they asked us were the same questions any group of late 20s and early 30s women would discuss over drinks. They were funny, smart, and insightful. It was a pleasure getting to know them. The conversation allowed us to learn and understand the personalities of these women. It humanized them and made them more accessible as people to our understandings of each other.
One of the women we talked to was Suzanna – 48 years old and the fourth wife of her husband. After 8 children she was now on birth control. The women said they were content with their lives and lived in the village by choice but also complained with a smirk about forced sexual relations with their husbands and how they don’t enjoy it because they didn’t want to fall pregnant. Even during pregnancy Masai women have to work in physically demanding roles. In a village where there is no electricity, no running water, and illnesses are treated by drinking the blood of a cow or goat, it’s hard to even have a conversation about equality. The question hovering on my lips during this conversation was if the reason they did not enjoy sexual activity was due to Female Genital Mutilation. Traditionally, Masai women undergo a procedure at or around 15 years old that involves surgically removing the clitoris, the labia minora, narrowing the vaginal opening for nonmedical reasons. I couldn’t bring myself to ask about another person genital trauma even when we were talking about other body modifications like ear gauging or the practice of facial scarring of children.
Masai children at the local elementary school.
While many of these traditions are falling out of practice it’s not for the reasons one may think. For example, plural marriages are less common than they used to be but not because of some women’s liberation spreading through the villages but rather the more wives and children you have the more expensive it is. Another practice that’s falling out is the tradition of young boys hunting a lion as a rite of passage into manhood. Not because the people believe less in the importance of a show of masculinity but because the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have forbidden the poaching of endangered animals.
Chief Joseph of the Masai Tribe
While we were chatting with Chief Joseph, who spoke impeccable English, we learned that he is dedicated to improving the conditions of the village and modernizing. In one breath he was showing us the medicinal uses for elephant feces and in the next breath, he was talking about the importance of a college education to the children of the village.
When I asked him why he opened his village to foreign tourists, he said, “We do these tours because we want you to go back to your country and talk about what you learned in this community and about my culture. I want to uplift my people and this community through education and exposure to those who are different than us. I made school compulsory for everyone in our village. We’ve already seen the fruits of our work because we have had many children complete their high school and go to Nairobi university and then come back and uplift our village as teachers and nurses and other occupations. One of our biggest issues is that the Maasai cannot work in the [tourist] lodges because few have the education and experience necessary to be a guide or work in tourism. Education is a very big problem for us and tourism is the key to education.”
While Chief Joseph is obviously passionate and dedicated to his people, it’s hard to shake the clearly misogynistic viewpoints prevalent in the culture. When asked by one of our male Contiki travelers if they’d ever elect a female chief the men laughed and said it would never be possible to trust a woman to lead them.
Our actual experience ended up being an incredible learning opportunity. While moralistically, I obviously have differing viewpoints on human rights issues, but I tried to view the experience with an open mind. We learned about the daily lives of the people in the village by talking to them directly and participating in their everyday routine. We learned how they repair their houses and how they milk their goats to make cheese. We learned to build fires and talked about their economic systems. While Lindsay did get a few glances and was asked what her gender was, she was quickly accepted once she took a side.
As we were leaving the village I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d tell this story to an audience of LGBT people in the most privileged countries in the world. In a society where everything is gendered down to who tends the fire and who fixes the houses, how could they relate to being between genders?
What I ended up discovering is a people at a crossroads between cultures. While the Massai in some areas have limited access to modern facilities. The internet is still more widely available than plumbing. I couldn’t stop watching the modern marvel of a Maasai woman talking on her cell phone while carrying a gigantic tank of water on her head back from the water hole. I was surprised to learn that while electricity is scarcely available and only by solar panels, social media still plays a role in the lives of Maasai people. I naively and perhaps ignorantly assumed that a people living without modern infrastructure would have no time or need for Instagram, but the reality is social media and smartphones have allowed the Maasai people a window outside of their villages and into the broader world. A few of the villagers asked to stay connected with people in our group via Facebook and WhatsApp. Many of us eagerly agreed. Regardless of how isolated we are, the internet provides us an opportunity to connect with others and build an understanding of cultural differences. While not all village tours are created equally, the one I experienced with Contiki showed me a window into another way of life. If I learned one thing during my trip to the Massai village, it’s that relatability moves us to empathy.
I’ve wanted to go on Safari for as long as I can remember. There is nothing quite like seeing elephants and lions in their natural habitat. When I was asked which tour I wanted to take as Contiki Ambassador, I knew the East Africa Safari was the one that made my heart sing. I wanted to experience the tent camps but I also wanted to see first hand what Kenya and Tanzania were like. I wanted to visit the local villages, taste the local cuisine, and see firsthand what these beautiful countries are like.
Useful Swahili Words
Jambo – hello
Karibou – welcome
Asanti- thank you
Quick Facts About Kenya & Tanzania
70% of the coffee in Europe comes from Kenya
Kenya is also the world’s largest exporter of black tea
Another large industry in the region is the exportation of flowers
43 tribes in Kenya 131 in Tanzania
Swahili is spoken as a common language in Kenya but the national language is English
Tanzania national language is Swahili
Both Kenya and Tanzania call their currency Shillings
What is Contiki?
Contiki is a powerhouse tour company that takes 18 to 35-year-olds on 350 trips to 60 countries across six continents, with 300 different itineraries and eight different types of tours. Contiki makes travel easier and more social for young people. Contiki travelers have been able to explore remote towns in Peru, spot the big five on safari in Tanzania, explore the Californian Old West, circle around southern India, visit ancient cities in Japan, and go trekking in the jungles of Guatemala.
Contiki is an Australian tour company focused on travelers aged 18-35 years old. Contiki believes that life’s greatest lessons are learned through travel. That real life doesn’t happen when you color inside the lines. It’s only when you break free, trust your impulse, and intentionally live with your eyes wide open, that you become the person you’re meant to be. This is what it means to live life with no regrets. Their philosophy is so closely aligned with the way that I view travel that I knew I had to experience a Contiki adventure.
Each tour has a standard set of included activities that come with the tour, but they also offer additional activities that you can choose to enjoy for an additional cost or not – it’s really up to you. Contiki offers flexibility through their 8 ways to travel, 5 ways to stay and endless free time and options. Some tours are on a shoestring budget and some are a little more luxe. It really depends on what style of travel you’re most interested in pursuing.
All the tours come with transportation, generally in the form of coach bus travel – but some include inter destination flights as well. Each tour also includes most of the meals and a tour guide with knowledge and experience traveling within your destination.
Over the course of 13 days, we experienced the great migration. We witnessed a young lioness take down a wildebeest and a cheetah mother protecting her cubs from a pack of hyenas. We saw families of elephants treading through marshes and a group of three male lions so close to the car we could have touched them. We stayed in beautiful safari glamping tents with comfy beds, fresh linen, hot showers, and private bathrooms camped out under the stars of the savannah. While game drives were a large focus of the trip we were also able to experience a baby elephant orphanage, giraffe center, two different village tours, and a visit to a local school. We had the opportunity to connect with Tanzanian people with disabilities through a tour of the Shanga workshop where they train and employ people with physical limitations. And we were offered the once in a lifetime opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti for wildlife spotting from above.
What Should You Wear on Safari?
We read dozens of blog posts about Safari appropriate gear before we left, it turns out that most of them were bordering on ridiculous. They said everything from “don’t wear color, you’ll scare the animals” to “you’ll need intense hiking boots” spoiler; most national parks in the region don’t let you get out of the car. You can wear whatever you want on Safari and be just fine. We do have a few recommendations for gear, packs, camera equipment, and a few helpful clothing items we do recommend. But please don’t believe that you’re limited to 15 shades of khaki. Click here for more on what to pack for Safari.
Getting to Nairobi
The flight was super long. There’s no way around the super long flights unless of course, you’re from a country in Africa. Our flights from Los Angeles had two layovers and checked in at just over 35 hours of total travel time. Getting through the airports and immigration in Nairobi was super easy because we ordered our Kenyan visas ahead of time. Once we were out of immigration I quickly spotted the Contiki sign and we got our cab without any issue. The ride from the airport to the hotel was about 45 mins but the driver was super friendly and pointed out the sights along the way.
Is It Safe to Travel in East Africa?
Unfortunately, being from the United States, Lindsay and I have spent most of our lives being exposed to unfair and sometimes blatantly incorrect media representations of African people and culture. We knew it was important to explore areas of the world first hand without making rash judgments about entire populations of people. Which is one of the reasons we decided we wanted to visit Kenya and Tanzania in the first place? Neither country is without their problems.
Both countries won independence from their respective colonizers in the 1960s and both still struggle with political turmoil, voter suppression, government corruption, terrorism, and extreme poverty. Despite technically being a democratic republic the government of Kenya looks very much like a family dynasty. They have only had four presidents and the current president is the “son of the first president, the political protege of the second president and the grandson of the third president.”
The political corruption and subsequent issues with violence have resulted in a major drop in tourism – which is one of the region’s biggest industries. As you can imagine, the drop in travelers visiting Kenya and Tanzania has resulted in financial struggles for people working in tourism, hospitality, and service-related jobs. People who need money to feed their families behave differently than those who are comfortable and financially stable.
That being said, Contiki has done everything they can to ensure the safety of travelers. I never felt unsafe during my time traveling with Contiki and there was only one time where Lindsay felt nervous. We had stopped at a local market and a mentally challenged man grabbed Lindsay’s arm while begging. That could have happened in any country but was particularly alarming because of the strength of the man and the lack of language. Being surrounded by people in a large group combined with the yelling and the aggressive sales tactics made the situation very stressful at first but after our guide, Haron spoke to him in Swahili he let go.
At one point, our jeeps pulled up to an entrance gate and we were surrounded by local women from the village. They surrounded our group asking us to buy their trinkets. They pulled the windows open and stuck their hands inside the jeep with their wares and were unrelenting with the sales tactics. They have different ways that they try to get you to buy. All of them are aggressive and forceful from the western point of view. Of course – this isn’t every Kenyan or Tanzanian merchant – these are just some of the behaviors we witnessed while we were there.
According to the US Department of State, East Africa is a risky travel destination – to be fair they also say France is a risky travel destination. But when you’re properly prepared and traveling with a group you’ll avoid most of the risks associated with traveling solo.
Vaccinations & Malaria
So – this is the part that always gives our relatives a stroke. Until this trip, we’d never had a travel vaccination. We’re also not doctors. This is general information on medical preparations but you should visit your doctor for specific information on your unique needs.
This may come as a surprise, but other than Yellow Fever, the only required vaccines for entrance into Kenya and Tanzania are part of the regular compulsory vaccines done in most western countries. Most of you will have had these done as infants or small children.
Required Vaccinations for Tanzania:
Getting vaccinated depends on a number of factors:
Where you’re traveling to in each country are you visiting a rural or urban area?
Recent local outbreaks like cholera for instance?
Length of stay?
What your accommodation will be a local village, tent camping, or a luxury resort?
Activities you’re going to be involved in working with animals, volunteering at a village, drinking local water?
Your medical history
Are you traveling overland borders?
Recommended Vaccines for African Travel
There have been a few isolated incidences of cholera in recent years in Tanzania. It is transmitted via contaminated water and food. It can cause painful stomach issues and is fatal 20-50% of the time.
Hepatitis B is an STD which is also transferred by means of contaminated blood. There is little risk of contracting Hep B in Tanzania but this is one that many people are required to have in western countries now.
Rabies is prevalent in most countries around the world. Rabies outbreaks do occur from time to time in Africa but the chances of getting rabies from a safari animal are extraordinarily low. But some people get it as a precaution against stray domestic animals like dogs and cats.
If you are planning a gorilla trek as part of your safari in East Africa, you definitely want to get vaccinated against influenza. Gorillas can contract influenza from humans. You don’t want to put these already endangered animals at risk.
Yellow Fever Vaccinations for Travel to Kenya and Tanzania
Unfortunately, we didn’t do our research well enough on the required versus recommended vaccines in advance and ended up having to have the Yellow Fever vaccines at the land border station crossing between Kenya and Tanzania. That was the result of traveling overland between the two countries. If you are traveling by land Yellow Fever is required. If you’re flying from the US directly into Tanzania or coming directly by air from the US into Kenya without crossing between the two or continuing on to another African nation, the Yellow Fever vaccine is recommended but not required. Our vaccines cost $50 USD per person at the land border and took about 10 minutes to have done. While we don’t recommend this because it takes 14 days for the vaccine to be effective in your body, it can get you over the border in a bind.
How to get a Yellow Fever Vaccination in the US
Yellow fever vaccine is only available at a limited number of clinics in the United States. The only US-licensed yellow fever vaccine (YF-Vax) is in short supply. All of the North American travelers on our trip had harrowing tales of acquiring their shot. Either via major financial costs or time-consuming processes. One person even had to coordinate the schedules of 8 different people in his hometown because once open, the vial is only good for 30 minutes. In an effort to not waste the vaccine they asked all 8 people to be aggressively on time to their appointments and did all 8 vaccines right in a row. The first step to getting a yellow fever vaccination in the US is checking with your insurance provider to see what travel vaccinations are covered. The second step is determining what vaccines are necessary for you with your general practitioner. The third step is finding a traveler’s vaccination clinic in your area using the CDC’s locator site.
Malaria Medications for East Africa Travel
Malaria risk is high throughout the year in the whole country. Malaria precautions are essential. Avoid mosquito bites by covering up with clothing such as long sleeves and long trousers especially after sunset, using insect repellents on exposed skin and sleeping under a mosquito net. Check with your doctor about the appropriate antimalarial tablets. Generally speaking, doctors will recommend atovaquone/proguanil, doxycycline, or mefloquine.
Traveling in Kenya and Tanzania as an LGBT Couple
Both Kenya and Tanzania are anti-LGBT countries. There’s no other way to put it. It’s illegal to be gay there and there are policies in place that can land people in jail if they were discovered to be a member of the LGBT community. That being said, the vast majority of the arrests that are made are of local people. Tourists are rarely arrested in these situations because even anti-LGBT countries are familiar with the acceptance of LGBT people in western countries around the world. Unfortunately, both Kenya and Tanzania have a lot of work to do in terms of women’s rights and LGBT equality. We’ve written at length about why we choose to travel to anti-LGBT destinations, but I’ll briefly summarize our feelings by saying this if local people have the first-hand experience with LGBT people they’re more likely to think favorably of our community. People cannot be expected to accept that which they have no positive experiences. That being said, not every traveler wants to be an activist and you shouldn’t have to be. For more Check out Traveling in Kenya and Tanzania as an LGBT Couple.
The accommodations on this trip were beyond anything we could have imagined. I’d split them into two categories, Jacaranda Hotel and Gold Crest Hotel were city hotels with all the glorious fixings you can imagine. All of the other hotels were safari lodges and tent camps. The tents were as far from North American camping as you can possibly imagine – but in a good way.
The city hotels had gorgeous properties with nice spa and gym services. They both had beautiful restaurants with a wide variety of local and western foods. They were the perfect starting point and midpoint for the trip. The Jacaranda Hotel was a very comfortable and relaxing way to start the journey. We arrived a day early so we were able to enjoy the spa, get massages (one hour only $35!) and beat the jetlag before our fellow travelers arrived. The Gold Crest was a week into the trip and much needed. We’d been in the tent camps with spotty wifi service and 4:30-5:00 AM wake up times for the previous week. The day we spent at the Gold Crest was perfect for recharging, enjoying some familiar comforts and checking in with those back home before setting off for another round of game parks.
That being said, the tent camps were incredible. Our rooms were giant safari tent on concrete. It’s basically a mix of a cabin and a tent and a hotel room. Each tent was fitted for two guests. With large comfortable beds, fresh comfy linens, and bathrooms with hot water showers. All of the tents had gorgeous balcony spaces that were perfect for that early morning cup of tea or evening. journal session. Some of the tents were built on cement platforms and had wooden roofs overhead, while others were just large tents about the size of a regular hotel room. Either way, we loved the tent camps and enjoyed watching the giraffes and zebras graze in front of our rooms. One of the best evenings of the trip was a night where thunder and lightning storm rolled into camp just before bed. Laying under our bed net listening to the sound of rain on the roof of the canvas and wood was so beautiful and relaxing.
Food in East Africa
On the Contiki East African Safari, the vast majority of the food is included. It’s usually a combination of western dishes and light local fare. We didn’t have a problem finding something to enjoy. Each morning we’d have a buffet of fruit, cereal, pastries, yogurts, sausages, and beans. We’d also have the option to order freshly cooked eggs. I opted for a Spanish Omelette almost every day. The coffee in this region of the world – is astoundingly good. Which makes sense because they’re at the source. Every morning the camps would serve a fresh pot alongside steamed milk – heaven in a mug at 6:00 AM.
Each day we were served box lunches with more food than one person could possibly eat. Each box had a piece of chicken, mayo sandwich, a packet of crackers, hard-boiled eggs, sweet crepes, cupcake, chocolate bar, yogurt, juice box, and three pieces of fruit. Unfortunately, the boxes were loaded into the car in the early hours of the morning and then sat for the day until we’d eat them around 1-2PM. For the first few days of the trip, we danced around the issue of eating warm unrefrigerated meat, dairy, and eggs. We only had a handful of bathroom stops per day and most folks were worried about getting upset stomachs without the use of the facilities so many people just opted to not eat their lunch or only eat parts of the lunch. By the end of the trip, we had far more “vegetarians” than we started out with.
For dinner each night there was a buffet-style spread with several options. Some of the camps had a made to order station where they made fresh chapati or garlic butter naan. Alongside several different entree options, some local and some western favorites. The soups at dinner were fan favorites amongst the travelers because they’re freshly made with local veggies, unlike the canned versions we’re used to back home.
The best food was by far at the Thorn Tree Camp. They went above and beyond to create delicious family-style meals with a wide variety of options. Each meal felt like a feast.
Some of our vegetarian travelers struggled a bit with the meals because some camps had a better understanding than others. At one camp the manager asked one of our vegetarian travelers if she’d eat fish to which she replied, “uhh not really … but I guess… if I have to..” But other camps were incredible and offered a wide variety of veggie-friendly options. It varied.
The one thing I will say about the food is that this trip was wildly eye-opening in regards to food privilege. We visited several villages, a school, and witnessed the effects of food scarcity at nearly every turn. While we were enjoying three-course meals, the headmaster of the school we visited down the road, said one of their biggest issues was that the government stopped providing lunch to the students and their families couldn’t afford to feed them. Some students walked as far as 9 miles to get to school each day – without any food. When we toured the classrooms you could visibly see which students were clearly malnourished. It was something that I had known in the back of my mind was a reality of living in this region of the world, but seeing it first hand is a very different experience.
After we visited the school we started to think differently about food. Each day there was tons of food leftover from our lunch boxes. One day we decided to sort the boxes and hand it out to shepherd boys along the road. In Kenya and Tanzania, children are offered free public primary education. However, less than 30% go on to secondary school and the barriers to accessing free early education are steep. In Tanzania, we saw far more children working in the fields than we did in Kenya but that could have been for multiple reasons.
After lunch that day, we sorted the food by type and decided to hand it out to the local shepherd boys along the side of the road. We split the 6 boxes into the two cars. Lindsay and I were sitting in the back of the safari car and each had a box. Mine was filled with treats and Lindsay’s had juice and yogurt. We pulled up alongside a field with 7 boys who were working as shepherds tending to sheep and goats. The two oldest were around 7-9 years old and the smallest around three or four. We started handing the food from our window to the boys. They swarmed the windows crying and begging for food. One of the biggest boys started hoarding all the food to himself and cracked one of the other boys in the face with his fist so he couldn’t get to the window. He started stealing the food from the smaller boys as well. He ended up with an arm full of at least ten items while the tiny boys had nothing. He reached his hand into the window and tried to pull more food from the box in Lindsay’s lap. We tried to get food to the other smaller boys but it was getting out of hand so the driver told us we had to leave. While this was our experience, the other car handed out their boxes without issue.
Apparently, it’s illegal for people to accept food from tourists because the government doesn’t want the villagers to become dependent on tourism as a means of gathering food and they were worried that it would result in hungry people circling safari jeeps and scaring away tourists from visiting. Which would dramatically impact the economy of the region.
To be very honest, this is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen in my travels. I’ll never forget the look of desperation on the faces of the smaller boys. After many conversations amongst our groups, we realized that we all had our hearts in the right place. We saw a need and were trying to fill it, but the reality is – every solution comes with additional problems. The solution to mass hunger is very obviously not a few cupcakes, yogurts and juice boxes handed from rich white tourists in a $70,000 Land Rover. The issues are broader than that – they’re systematic and need to be dealt with on an institutional level, but it doesn’t make it any easier to be able to witness their need and not be able to provide the most obvious solution – food.
I’m not a sociologist – I’m not an expert in hunger or the socio-political landscapes of the pan-African continent. I can just tell the stories of what I witness. We hope this complicated and important topic gets more attention.
Water in East Africa
Visitors to Kenya and Tanzania should only drink bottled water. We struggled a bit on this trip because we’d like to limit the number of single-use plastics we consume – but there were few options for water consumption. In Kenya, many of the safari camps we stayed at were owned by the same company which provided glass bottles of water. Many people on our trip brought reusable water bottles with the intentions of filling them from a larger source, but there were no larger sources to fill them. We were each offered two free plastic bottles a day and had the option to pay for additional water at the lodges. In an area of the world where contaminated water literally kills people – it felt rather foolish to make an issue of freshwater in plastic bottles.
Access to clean water is a very large issue in East Africa. The need for more clean, safe drinking water is imperative throughout Africa. By drinking contaminated water, people are at risk of potentially fatal diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and fatal diarrhea. According to the Center for Public Impact, 40% of East Africans live without access to clean drinking water. Being from a country where we flush our toilets and shower with drinking water, I’ve never been more ashamed of my water consumption. It made me really think about what I was using water for while I was in the region and made me be more mindful to never use drinking water for anything other than consumption.
The safari vehicles are made to seat 9 but usually only have 7 passengers so everyone has a window. They are equipped with pop-up roofs and large windows for optimal viewing. They also feature raised suspension and engine snorkels for river crossings, with convenient pouches for your on-safari necessities, like camera and bug spray. They’re also equipped with storage compartments for luggage, but be mindful that soft-sided packs are way more convenient. Most people traveled with 50-70 liter travel backpacks which is on the high end of what should be brought. For more information about packing, check out Lindsay’s Safari Packing Guide on what to wear for Safari.
Things to do in Kenya + Things to do in Tanzania.
Most visitors come to East Africa to experience Safari game drives. They do not disappoint. The game drives were absolutely incredible. We saw so many animals – warthogs, zebras, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles, hyenas, and wildebeests were a dime a dozen. You’d see them at every single turn. We spotted all of the big five in the first three days. We even spotted the harder to find animals like leopards, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The highlights of the trip were passing through herds of elephants traveling through the marshes. Watching the lions eat their prey. Viewing the hippos as they snapped their jaws in the rivers. Seeing a mother cheetah protect her three cubs from a pack of circling hyenas. Seeing herds of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests as they munched on the grass and watching giraffes lazily munch on the trees. One of the most incredible experiences was watching a family of black rhinos cross the road right in front of us. The rhinos have been poached to near extinction for their horns. There are an estimated 5600 black rhinos left in the world in 2019. In 1970 the numbers were around 70,000 – for the mathematicians that’s about a 95% decline in population. It’s extremely difficult to see them in the wild because they’re afraid of humans and tend to stay to themselves. So viewing three, a mother, father, and baby right in front of us is a sight that may not be possible in 10 years.
Watching the sunrise over the savannah while zebras and wildebeests frolic in the grass was incredible. One morning we stumbled on two lions laying in high grass. One male lion with the giant mane and a female lion tucked under a bush a few feet behind him. We watched them for quite awhile joking about the probability of live lion porn and how it was the one thing we didn’t know we needed on our bucket lists. Unfortunately, we learned that lions mate once every 15 mins over a 5 day period but it’s a pretty rare sight. Can you imagine boning every 15 mins for 5 days? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
The first morning in Maasai Mara, I slept like a rock and woke up at 4:30 AM to the sounds of baboons in the trees outside our tent. It was a mixture of baboons and tree birds and the sounds of the Maasai Mari waking up. While we were in Maasai Mara, the Great Migration was occurring. The Great Migration is when the wildebeest and zebras follow the patterns of the rains in the grasslands. They’re searching for grassy planes for food. They travel in packs and wander until they find enough food for their herds. Every year in July and August they make their way to Maasai Mara. One of the days we made our way to the river to watch them cross. The wildebeests are pack animals which are controlled by one leader. When it’s time to cross the river, the leader determines if it’s safe. If one crosses, the rest of the pack will follow. Unfortunately, the river is filled with crocodiles and hippos that will kill the wildebeests as they cross. We waited and waited for the wildebeests to make up their minds in hopes that we’d see a crocodile lunch feast. Watching thousands of animals make life or death decisions for their herd was surreal.
The Great Kenya & Tanzania Road Trip
Along the road, we saw so many interesting things. We passed the villages were the Massi people lived. We passed shepherds tending to their flocks of goats and sheep and cows. We saw baboons with their babies crossing the road. Donkeys pulling carts and tending fields. Farm animals and wild dogs mixed in with hundreds of people just milling about on the edges of Nairobi. It was fascinating to watch. While the city itself didn’t look that different than other places we’ve visited in the developing world – it was clear that Kenya experiences extreme levels of poverty.
Lake Elementaita & The Kenyan Village Tour
After leaving Maasai Mara we traveled to Lake Elementaita and stayed at a beautiful lakeside hotel. From our individual bungalows, we were able to view the flamingos on the lake. Moses, one of the hotel workers took us on a tour of his village which sat next to the hotel property. During the tour, Moses showed us some of the plants the local people used for medicine and then took us to the community where he grew up. While walking we stumbled upon a couple of teenage boys who broke their bicycle. Moses and one of the Contiki travelers helped them fix their bike, when they were finished they joined on the tour because all three spoke English and were just as curious about us, as we were about them. Walking through the village they were questions about school, growing up in Kenya, and their community. Slowly, more children joined and followed as we explored. We were invited to see a local house where a family lived and learn about their way of life.
The Giraffe Center is right behind the famous Giraffe Manor which is a bucket list hotel for me. When I come back to this region of the world to climb Kilimanjaro I want to stay there for at least one night. The manor is a hotel where they have giraffes on the property and you get to have breakfast with them and can feed them through the windows of the hotel. It’s currently $900 a night though so it wasn’t an option for us on this trip. It’s sister property, the Giraffe Center is the budget-friendly version where tourists can go and feed the giraffes from a platform. It was cute to get to feed them and learn a bit more about these beautiful majestic animals. The center uses the funds from visiting tourists to help create research and refuge projects for giraffes. I loved the experience because we were able to interact with them, feed them, and even let them take pellets out of our mouths.
Baby Elephant Orphanage
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an orphanage for baby elephants and rhinos. At the core of the Orphans’ Project is the rescue and rehabilitation of milk dependent orphaned baby elephants and rhinos through to their ultimate reintegration back into the wild. Elephants and Rhinos in particular struggle with the threat of poaching for their ivory and horn, and the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought. Babies are often the most vulnerable in the wild when they are still milk dependent. Visitors to the orphanage are able to view the babies from a distance as they play and interact with their peers. The trust believes in animal initiated physical contact only – so if a baby elephant approaches you – you’re allowed to touch them from behind the boundaries but only if the animal deems it is okay. Guests get to learn each elephant’s story and watch as they play, eat, and romp around. Visitors are able to adopt an orphan with a $50 donation and are able to come back during the evening hours for one on one time with their orphan as they are put to bed.
Shanga Community Project
Shanga is a successful social enterprise which employs people with disabilities to create unique, high-quality, handmade goods using recycled materials. “Shanga” is the KiSwahili word for bead. The project was named for the many glass beads that are made by the workers. glassware, jewelry, blankets, and other products are sold in Tanzania and all over the world, with profits being reinvested back into developing opportunities to employ more people with disabilities. Elewana Arusha Coffee Lodge is the home of Shanga, which comprises of an open workshop for glass-blowing, weaving, sewing, Tinga Tinga painting, bead-making, and metalwork, with a shop showcasing all Shanga’s handmade products. While we were there it was interesting being able to sign with the many deaf employees who work at the facility. I chatted for some time with one gentleman named Malik, he and his wife are both deaf and both employed at Shanga. When I asked him what his experience was like he told me, “I like working here with my wife so we can raise our two young boys together” We took a tour of the workshop and got to watch them weave blankets, blow glass, and create beautiful pieces of jewelry.
Hot Air Balloon with Champagne Bush Breakfast
Hot air balloon rides are exhilarating in any setting, but throw in African safari animals and a ride over the Maasai Mara National Reserve and you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Upon landing, you toast your return to earth with a delicious breakfast – complete with champagne, cooked wherever you land. This was one of the few experiences on the Contiki East Africa Safari that was an additional cost. At $450 USD per person in the Maasai Mara and $600 USD per person in the Serengeti, the price is steep, but the experience is incredible.
Maasai Village Tour
The Maasai people are an indigenous tribe that lives in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. They’re estimated at about one million people and live in local villages throughout the region. Maasai are traditionalists and have resisted the urging of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more modern lifestyle. They are one of the few groups that preserve their traditional ways. Read More about our Maasai Village Tour in our extended article.
Amboseli Primary School Visit
Directly after visiting the Maasai Village, we went to Amboseli Primary School to experience a day for school children. There are 590 students at the school with 14 teachers and 10 classrooms. The courses are taught in English and cover the same subjects that many schools focus on around the world. English, Swahili, science, mathematics, PE, religion, environmental activities, health, and nutrition. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding the classes are very large in size, the largest has 80 students and the smallest class is 51. While we were there we learned that hunger is a challenge for their students. Last year the government provided lunch but was unable to provide lunch this year. The cost of one year of education for a student is $160 USD – they are currently fundraising to build another classroom which would cost $15,000 USD. if you’d like to make a donation you can reach out to the school via email ReceptionAmboseli at Gmail dot com.
Market Tour – Mto Wa Mbu Market
Mto Wa Mbu Village is very close to Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Park. Mto Wa Mbu means Mosquito River in English – despite its name – there were few mosquitos there. During the market tour, our local guide showed us around the fresh produce stands introducing us to different varieties of familiar and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. We learned about the different uses for them in Tanzanian cooking before we were lead to a Banana plantation. We were allowed to walk through a small grove of banana and coconut trees and were offered red bananas to sample as they explained the process of farming and distribution of bananas. Our next stop was a local brewery where they created beer and wine from fermented bananas. We got to sample the product and it was delicious. It would have been better chilled but we could still taste the fruity notes in the beer. After the brewery, we head to an artisan shop where we were able to buy local paintings done in traditional styles found around Tanzania. We got to watch as they were painted and were able to wander through the maze of paintings to select our favorites to take home.
Cost of a Safari
An African safari costs anywhere between $125 and $1,500 per person per night. It’s at the top of many people’s bucket lists but comes with a steep price tag. One of the great things about Contiki is its ability to minimize the cost without losing quality. While a budget safari with folks sleeping on the ground in traditional tents averages $150 per night, mid-range $350 and luxury $750. The extreme top-safaris can easily go up to $1,500 per night. There is literally a safari to suit every budget but we’ll break down the costs of the East African Safari per person. Some of these expenses will vary according to where you’re from – like the flights and visa fees. Others will vary depending on personal preferences. There were a few people on our trip that spent upwards of $1000 on souvenirs but this is a basic framework for what to expect. We already had most of our gear like camera equipment, travel packs, and clothing so those may be additional expenses to consider.
Water & Snacks
This post was created through the support of Contiki – as always, all opinions are my own.