If you've been following our #journeytothejourney, then you know that our family had the opportunity to experience something really special for the boys' first big international adventure this year. In fact, we got to cross off the number one item on our family travel bucket list.
However, this post is not about checking off a box on a list. Originally, I thought this post would be about encouraging families to do something bold, and to feel more confident in their abilities to take their kids on a big adventure by sharing our experience. And it may do so- but that's not what this post is about, either. This post is about the indelible mark Kenya left on us, and why going the route of a customized experience made it that much more meaningful.
We got back from our week-long trip to Kenya just over a month ago. I have to come clean and acknowledge that the reason this post is so late is because it's felt almost overwhelming to start writing. Not only did we have about 3,000 amazing photos to sort through between my iPhone and our Canon DSLR, but I also have so many lingering feelings about Africa, that I have had no idea how to begin to put them into words... I think I am finally ready. Now, since we have so many amazing photos, and since each region of Kenya we visited had a magic of its own, I will be sharing more details about each stop during our safari in separate blog posts. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for even more photos and reviews from Nairobi, Samburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru, and Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Today's post is focused on the week overall, our specially-curated safari experience, and the sights and feelings of East Africa that have not left my dreams since our return. With how much I was impacted, I can only imagine the imprint this trip left on my young children.
So, to start at the beginning, I will address how we got here in the first place. My husband and I are travelers. Because of the enrichment our trips and experiences have had on our lives, travel is something we decided together that we'd always prioritize. Many of you have probably heard people say (or have even said yourself) that life changes after you have children. While I certainly can't deny that, I think it deserves the caveat that parenthood doesn't have to change the things that are important to you. Things that are important to you as an individual or couple can be prioritized, and can remain a part of your identity as a person even when "parent" or "mom" is added to that identity. Travel is that thing for me. We continued to travel after having children, and it continued to enrich me as an individual and as a parent. My husband and I have vacationed together (just the two of us) to a new international destination every year since Grayson was born. We started introducing our kids to travel at a young age through camping weekends and then continued by taking them on longer road trips. More recently, we have included them on more exotic plane trips. A few years ago we decided that we'd start taking the boys on bigger international trips with us when they were 4 and 6, respectively (that's the age that felt right to us for a few different reasons), so this year was the year. And you know what? Now, I can not only say that I was still able to travel after having kids, but I can also say that travel is even better now that I get to see the world through the eyes of my children.
But why Africa? Well, like many people, we have always wanted to go on a safari, and knew that we would someday. For a family with young children, going on an African safari may seem like a pretty lofty idea. But the way I saw it, if I wanted to instill a lifelong love of travel, and a desire to experience new places and cultures, the boys' first big trip should be epic. For kids, you don't get much more epic than seeing your favorite animals in the wild. As far as opening their eyes to different cultures and experience, the opportunity for them to meet people with completely different ways of life and value systems (referring to our visit to the Maasai village) couldn't get much more eye-opening.
While exploring the idea of a trip to Africa (not really knowing where to go yet, or what was even feasible with young children), I met Gabriella with Explorateur Journeys. Explorateur Journeys "curates travel for the globally curious," and prides itself on utilizing personal experience and insider connections to create custom travel experiences to meet your exact needs. Even being seasoned travelers ourselves, this was a whole new continent, a whole new country, and a whole new ballgame by taking our children with us. Working with Gabriella was a blessing as we took on this challenge. Having taken her young daughter to Africa herself several times, Gabriella advised us, answered questions for us, and became our trusted partner in the planning. Her expertise combined with the peace of mind we got from knowing she "got us" gave us the confidence to pursue this trip in the first place, and greatly reduced the anxiety we would have normally experienced in planning such a large trip.
The process began with a phone call to discuss our family's needs, desires, travel style, and budget. Gabriella, who was always prompt, friendly, and thorough in her communications, followed with providing us two different destination and itinerary options based on our discussion. Together we narrowed down the options and made customizations to the overall itinerary based on our budget, what we wanted to experience, and what made the most sense logistically for a family bringing 4 and 6 year-old kids. Gabriella gave us honest feedback, practical recommendations, and would always find answers for us when needed. She also facilitated payments for us once we committed, which also contributed to the ease of the process.
The itinerary we decided on involved flying into Nairobi, Kenya, then spending a week driving around the country for diverse game-viewing safari drives. Gabriella reserved everything on the ground for us, which included transport, booking and pre-paying the hotel accommodations. The accommodations were all comfortable, clean, and safe. Our guides on the ground were through Classic Safaris, who provided incredible customer service, and had exceptional guides and vehicles. More on all this throughout this blog post, and the additional posts over the next few weeks.
One example of Gabriella with Explorateur Journeys' personal touch - a hand-written card that came with the package of our travel documents and hotel vouchers
Our flight to Nairobi landed really early in the morning. Gabriella was able to coordinate an additional day at the Intercontinental so that we'd have a place to change and rest after an incredibly long day of travel- a recommendation of hers that was much appreciated by our family! Knowing only that Sawyer wanted to see baby elephants, and that Grayson loved giraffes, Gabriella arranged a great day out in Nairobi that included a visit to the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage, and the Giraffe Centre. This was an epic way to kick off an epic trip!
Baby elephants being bottle fed by their caretakers at the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi
Visitors get to see and pet the baby elephants for an hour each day
These two started playing together by wrapping their trunks around each other
G and I were surprised (but thrilled) that this little guy came right for us and started snuggling against our legs!
The boys will never forget that they got to pet these sweet, gentle giants
We got up close and personal with giraffes at the Giraffe Centre after our visit to the elephant orphanage
The boys were not shy about feeding these incredible creatures
I loved the giraffes' eyes! They look like they are wearing makeup!
After spending a few hours with these big herbivores, our family of omnivores worked up a proper appetite which was satisfied at Nairobi's famous Carnivore restaurant (more on that in our upcoming Nairobi post) before heading back to the Intercontinental for a relaxing evening before kicking off our safari trek the next morning.
Sammy from Classic Safaris, our guide and friend for the remainder of the week, picked us up early the next day for our drive to Samburu National Reserve. The epic-ness continued at our lunch stop at Trout Tree restaurant. The name comes from the fact that the restaurant is essentially a treehouse over pools of trout and tilapia which they raise to serve at the restaurant. But that's not the epic part...
My silly geese at Trout Tree restaurant
... The epic part was getting to watch (and feed) the monkeys that lived in the trees! Here's a video of the boys feeding the monkeys at Trout Tree.
One of the employees at Trout Tree helping the boys interact with and feed the monkeys... another unforgettable experience!
The monkeys at Trout Tree anxiously awaiting their treat of leaves
After lunch, it was back in our safari van to resume our road trip to Samburu. The drive was scenic, and long enough for the boys to have a nap to help them adjust to the jet lag. I may have gotten lulled to sleep myself during the journey. But heck, that's what vacations are for, right?
As soon as we entered the national park, Sammy raised the roof on our safari van, and immediately, it felt as though we were in a movie or National Geographic documentary. We immediately transitioned from road trip mode to wilderness explorers and were greeted with zebra and gazelles almost immediately. The national park was our home for the next two nights, and we spent the hours leading up until sundown exploring the park on the way to our camp.
Our guide had a keen eye, and would stop frequently to teach us about our surroundings which allowed us to observe and photograph the wildlife
Samburu was hilly and full of picturesque acacia trees. What a stunning backdrop for our first few days of game viewing!
Herds of elephants were plenty in Samburu. In fact, they came right up to the electric fence line of our camp (mere feet away from our tent/cabin).
A dream come true - seeing his favorite animal in the wild!
More of the beautiful elephants in Samburu National Reserve
The kids loved that they could stand up to observe the scenery and wildlife out of the top of the safari van
We saw male and female Somali ostriches running across our path
After a few magical days in Samburu, we were off to Lake Nakuru in the Great Rift Valley, famous for it's flamingo and other rare wildlife. Like the first day, our drive was broken up with a few cool scenic stops.
During the drive to Lake Nakuru, we stopped at the equator, where we got to see this cool experiment
We had lunch near this waterfall in Narok on our way between Samburu and Lake Nakuru
G was in full tourist mode and ready for anything - including taking photos with these two dressed up as villagers
When we arrived at the entrance of Lake Nakuru National Park, we were told to keep an eye on our belongings, as the baboons are apparently known to pilfer. It was pretty funny to see them checking us out as we were checking in! We would then spend the evening driving around the lake and national park before making our way to the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge for the evening. The amount and variety of animals we saw was impressive! S especially loved the "water buffalope" as he called them.
Zebra were abundant in Lake Nakuru National Park
My favorite animal that we saw at Lake Nakuru were the rhino! It was so surreal to watch them grazing just feet away from us.
The lake itself was still and calm, and reflected the sky as if it were a mirror
One of the few photos of the four of us together during the trip
The second type of giraffe we saw in the wild was the Rothschild giraffe
The sunset was lovely in this part of the country as well
My safari dudes!
We got to our hotel pretty late, but still in time to enjoy a delicious dinner. I'll share more about the lodge in my post on Lake Nakuru in a few weeks.
After one night at Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, we were off again. With boxed lunches in hand, we departed for Maasai Mara via Lake Naivasha, where we took a break for a boat ride to get up close and personal with some more of the region's wildlife.
The epic fun just didn't stop!
We saw our first hippos of the safari at Lake Naivasha
We stopped to watch a whole group of hippos go in and out of the water near our boat
One of the highlights on this excursion was watching majestic eagles dive for fish. Click here to see a video!
"I believe I can fly..."
We had a picnic lunch at a "bush restaurant" (which our boys named "Picnic") to break up the remainder of our drive to Maasai Mara. The drive got rather bumpy (an "African massage" as Sammy called it), but it was worth it to take a shortcut so that we could spend more time in Maasai Mara.
As we approached Maasai Mara, it was cool to see the dress and structure style changing from the other regions we'd seen so far. The terrain and flora also changed, and then all of the sudden you felt as though you were in Out of Africa. The vast, green plain, sprinkled with the random majestic acacia tree looked like quintessential Kenya and provided a scene that is still burned into my memory today when I look back at our trip.
The elephants in Maasai Mara appeared more gray than the ones in Samburu. Sammy explained that it was because of the different colors of dirt and mud that they bathe in.
We were shocked, but overjoyed, to have gotten to witness the beginning of the great annual migration of wildebeests and zebras. As it peaks starting in late June, I didn't expect that we would be in Maasai Mara for the first wave! It is difficult to appreciate via the photos (and this video that we took), but you could see black dots of wildebeests as far as the eye could see!
Wildebeests and zebra on their annual migration from Tanzania's Serengeti to cross the Mara River into Maasai Mara
The other magic that Maasai Mara brought for us was our first (and several thereafter) encounters with lions. We saw lions, lionesses, and lion cubs, both on their own and with their prides.
Simba! The lion cubs were so cute.
I was so impressed by the lionesses - they were so strong and majestic. One of the highlights of the entire trip was seeing the three of these ladies surround and stalk a wildebeest that got separated from it's herd. You can see a video here.
It was both frightening and awesome to be this close to one of our planet's most famous cat species
We saw several gorgeous male lions lounging lazily in Maasai Mara
Maasai Mara selfie! I think the elation in the look on our faces says it all. Maasai Mara was almost too incredible for words.
We stayed at another Ashnil camp in Maasai Mara and our schedule for the two nights spent there was very similar to our schedule in Samburu National Reserve. We began with an evening game drive, ending around sunset, have dinner at the camp, then start the day with a morning game drive, back for lunch, and out exploring again in the evening before dinner.
The baby baboons were the cutest!
Maasai Mara's scenery is almost unreal
Our third and final type of giraffe of the week were the Maasai giraffes. We saw these four male giraffes neck fighting! Click here for the video.
The rivers were full of hippo, which you could hear growling and grunting loudly all night!
Maasai Mara was the busiest of the parks that we visited, but not to the extent it detracted from the experience. Truly, not much could have detracted from the experience!
It felt almost heartbreaking to depart from Maasai Mara, but we were looking forward to our visit to a Maasai village on our way back to Nairobi. While we witnessed many differences between Kenyan lifestyle and American lifestyle every single day of our trip, I was eager to learn more about the Maasai, and to see a way of living that was completely different than what I was used to. I wanted our boys to see a community that didn't value tablets, Wi-Fi, and the other luxuries my kids value.
I will detail more of our village visit during my blog post on Maasai Mara in a few weeks, but I will say that this was another one of the highlights of our trip to Kenya.
The village was a circular layout with huts arranged in a circle, surrounded by the villagers' cattle
The Maasai warriors demonstrated their traditional dances and jumping competition for us
True to his style, G didn't hesitate joining in on the jumping when invited! I caught it on video too, which you can see here.
After the village, we had another picnic lunch, boxed up from the hotel, before one final stop before heading back to Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. We paused to take in an incredible view of the Great Rift Valley. This would be another image that has been burned into my memory, and truly, one of the most beautiful natural sights my eyes have seen.
The boys at the Great Rift Valley view point on our drive from Maasai Mara back to Nairobi
Our driver and guide, Sammy, brought us back to the airport in Nairobi, where we had some dinner before leaving for the flight that would take us from the surreal majesty of East Africa back to our daily reality. We had almost gotten used to seeing zebra, impala, and elephants over the course of the week. I even found myself recently thinking I saw a hippo in Lake Austin (it was a tree branch).
A few more photos and words about the accommodations and service during our visit:
All hotels and lodging were safe and secure (both from animal life and from a crime and security perspective). We also never had anything less than spectacular and attentive service.
Anyone who may have hesitation over the idea of "tents" or "camps" needn't worry. As you can see with our "tent" at Ashnil Samburu Camp, these are closer to cabins or yurts... more glamping than camping. We had electricity, fans, toilets, and showers. All the creature comforts you would want, and much less primitive than when we stayed in the Amazon in Peru.
That being said, you can't beat the fact that you have monkeys playing on your porch and elephants shaking the palm trees right outside your door!
The quality of food and food service was also very impressive. Though the food was more traditionally western-style than what I would expect for the region, it was all delicious and fresh. The service staff was also amazingly attentive to the children, creating relationships with them and engaging with them at every place we stayed. We felt so welcomed and taken care of the entire time.
I also can't say anything negative about our experience with our safari guide and driver, Sammy, and the service from Classic Safaris. In fact, it was quite the opposite. While Gabriella and Explorateur Journeys made our planning and overall trip experience complete perfection, Sammy and Classic Safaris worked to ensure we soaked up every possible drop of what our trip had to offer. The vehicle was clean and comfortable, all our needs were met, and we always felt safe and secure. Whether with a family like ours, a group of friends, or on your own solo adventure, you'd be lucky to have Sammy as your guide.
Overall, the pace, intensity, engagement, comfort, and safety were all perfectly suited for our family, and none of these factors was ever an issue for our children. If you have an inkling or a desire to try a safari with kids yourself, my recommendation is not to hesitate.
Again, stay tuned to the blog in the coming weeks for much, much more on Nairobi, Samburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru, and Maasai Mara National Reserve. If you want to see what the Fab Fam planned for our safari wardrobe, see this post on What to Wear on Safari.
Now that we have done this trip, I can see myself working with Gabriella and Explorateur Journeys again in the future. The bespoke experience was so perfect for us, and everything was seamless and comfortable for us. Now that the boys have been to three continents (with plans to have a fourth next year for our trip to Japan), we may have to see what Explorateur Journeys can come up with for us for specialized trips to Australia and Antarctica... I would also love to get the boys to hike the Inca Trail with me someday, plus another trip to Africa for us to climb Kilimanjaro. The Fab Fam will have visited several continents in no time. Just like that, our travel dreams continue, and why not? We won't just dream it; we will do it. And if we can, I have no doubt that you can find a way too. Get out there and explore this incredible planet of ours!