Sauntering through the Safari

By Ailan & Dominic Gates 2019-12-09 14:06:05

Our journey to Africa to discover the wonders of her gorgeous landscape and wildlife

When my husband Dominic was eight, his father was posted to Kenya for work; and so, of course, his family immediately planned a safari trip to kick start their new life in Africa. With safari clothes bought (1970s style) and excitement brewing, Dominic anxiously waited for the holiday to begin, but just two weeks before departure the posting was cancelled, sending the family to Switzerland instead. Not quite as exciting for an eight-year-old. Ever since then, he has been desperate to do his promised African safari.

Our original plan was to wait until the kids were at least ten, but by that point our youngest Francis had just come along, so we decided to wait another decade. This summer, we decided that this was finally the year to go. Our eldest Anthony is entering the workforce next year and we thought that this would potentially be the last time we could do this type of family holiday.

Decision made, Dominic immediately started researching safari operators, checking references on Trip Advisor just in case they were terrible and within just two days we had booked an eight-day safari through Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda (paying a 30% deposit upfront). Two weeks later, he began to investigate visas, flights, and vaccinations. For readers planning a similar trip, I suggest you book visas, flights, and vaccinations first.

Flights are easy. Connections through Bangkok and Dubai provide lots of options to East Africa. We chose Kenya Airways via Bangkok. The list of required vaccinations, however, is horrific. Rabies, typhoid, hepatitis A & B, meningitis, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, chickenpox, polio, flu, yellow fever and malaria tablets were all recommended by one party or another. My husband responded with his usual reckless but impeccable logic; all of these diseases, except for yellow fever and malaria, exist and are active in Eurasia, where we all live. So, if we don’t have vaccinations living here, why would we have vaccinations to go to Africa? (Please don’t take our word for this. Make sure to do your own research and consult an expert before making any decisions.)

With all that in mind, we each had the yellow fever vaccine (booked at the CIQ building in Jinbang Lu) and took the malaria tablets with us, which are a necessity. The first week on malaria tablets are tough on your tummy, so I’d advise starting them a week before your trip. Incidentally though, the only time we were bitten by insects was at Bangkok Airport!

We arrived in Nairobi in mid July, with the weather a comfortable 15-25 degrees. An East Africa visa on arrival at the airport was fast and simple, so don’t try and get one online beforehand. In terms of accommodation, we booked a serviced apartment which was great for our family. Our first day started with experiencing the streets of Nairobi, which is a friendly but scruffy mega town of six million people. Having heard of a wildlife park right in the city, we ordered an Uber luxury class (Toyota Corolla) to take us there. At the door, we were greeted by a friendly tour guide and park ranger (with the obligatory AK47 rifle hanging off his shoulder), who offered to take us for a tour in a jeep for 150 US dollars. We could have negotiated, but not once on the whole trip did we ever try to cut the price. We felt that we wanted to support people in making the best living they can.

Eight hours after walking off the flight, we found ourselves driving through an African savannah looking for lions. Now that’s how a holiday should start! The first animal we saw was a secretary bird, which, in a zoo, you might walk straight past, but in the wild it was completely different. All within city limits and no fences separating the wildlife from the people, we saw crocodiles, buffalo, hartebeests, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, rhinos and many, many more.

The next morning, we flew to Kigali on RwandAir (I’d recommend it), ready for the start of the proper safari. We were picked up by our tour guide Kenneth and spent the night in Kigali. We stopped at the Rwandan Genocide museum, which documents the tragic events of 1994. If you are there, you should go.

As we crossed into Uganda, the roads got rougher, as the jeep bounced us around like kernels in a popcorn bag. Kenneth referred to this experience as an ‘African Massage’. That night, we stayed at Chameleon Hill Lodge, a lovely hotel on the shores of Lake Manyara. This is the departure point for the wildlife that live on the slopes of the volcanic range at the intersection of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There is some bad press about the area’s safety, but only from the DRC side. In Uganda and Rwanda, we never felt anything but complete security. The locals live their day to day lives no different to anyone else in this world.

The next day, our family spilt into two groups as you can only visit the gorillas if you are over the age of 15. It seems gorillas find badly behaved children as offensive as some humans do. So Anthony, Caitlin ,and I went to hike with the gorillas, while our youngest spent the day with Dominic. There are only 1,500 mountain gorillas left in the wild, so only 88 daily permits are issued across four countries. If you want to see them, arrive early to get your permits. We hiked in the jungle for four hours, on the slopes of the volcano before making contact with our troop. Nothing can really describe the feeling we had from being so close to these beautiful creatures, except to see them for yourselves. The dignity of the dominant male, the Silverback, was only slightly comprised by his incessant farting; a consequence of a fibre-only diet (mind you, it didn’t seem to worry him). They are socialised to accept the proximity of humans, so they were pretty chill. But for us, it was a moment of magic.

Meanwhile, my husband and Francis took a boat trip on Lake Manyara. Their first stop was a place called Skull Cave, halfway up a cliff. Our hosts explained it was where people who had broken laws would be sent to die. They climbed up the cliff and entered the cave full of human skulls and bones which, needless to say, they were not expecting. The next stop was the last village remaining on an island in the lake. There was a schoolhouse full of kids of all ages. They rarely see young tourists, so they all abandoned their class to greet my son. Francis did his bit to pass on the benefits of an expensive international education by teaching them to ‘Dab’ and the latest dances from Fortnite. We were so proud!

The next day, we headed to the Mgahinga National Forest to see the golden monkeys. We were accompanied by three guides, again with AK47s, to scare off elephants and buffaloes should they approach the trails. After another jungle hike, we came across the golden monkeys, who proceeded to play like two-year old’s in a children’s play pen, treating us as invisible. Three days into our holiday, three magical experiences.

We drove back to Kigali that night for an early morning flight to Arusha, Tanzania. We received a visa on arrival, cash on delivery and then set off for Lake Manyara lodge. Entering the great Serengeti Plain, it explained why this is the greatest place in the world to see the circle of life. Three million years ago, there was a great volcanic eruption in East Africa that laid a plane of rock-hard lava across the Serengeti. The topsoil is now only 30cm thick and cannot support the growth of tree roots, so there are now thousands of square kilometers of grasslands, and where there are grasslands there are grazing animals, and where there are grazing animals there are predators... cue the opening lyrics of the Lion King.

Lake Manyara is a natural wetland inside a volcanic crater and the lodge was on the side of the crater. The first highlight was seeing an elephant in the forest, not in the savannah, followed by spectacular birds, a hippopotamus, our first cheetah and some mischievious monkeys. Baboons everywhere (there is such a thing as too many baboons) welcomed us upon entering the park, followed by the true king of beasts: the lion. Lions are always watching, but are never in hurry. That first sighting will forever be imprinted in our memories.

We camped inside the Serengeti that night (it was glamping – each tent had its own toilet). There were no barriers between the wildlife and us, so we had to be escorted from our tent to the dinner tent, to avoid actually becoming dinner ourselves!

There were so many highlights. We took a liking to some unfashionable animals too, such as wart hogs, hyenas and guinea fowls, but the special event was seeing a leopard. They are super hard to see, superbly camouflaged and very anti-social. We spent two hours tracking one through the long grass until he decided to climb a tree and reveal himself. Seeing him for a mere 30 seconds in the open made all the waiting worthwhile.

Our last day was at Ngorongoro Crater, where we had a truly special encounter with the giraffes at dawn, as well as seeing a lion guarding a recently captured zebra and jackals that looked on with determination. You have to respect the scavengers, vultures, jacals, and hyenas, they lead stressful lives but are full of character. There was also a bittersweet moment where a buffalo lost its herd, so it decided to hang out with the zebras for protection instead, as if no one had noticed.

The safari finished at Kilimanjaro Airport and we flew to Zanzibar for a short beach holiday before going home. Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean (and the birthplace of the rock legend Freddy Mercury). The beaches were beautiful, the people lovely, but the town, Stone town...not so much. We finished with two days in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, which is well worth a visit.

When we got home to Shanghai, we agreed that this was the most special holiday we have ever had. We are already planning to explore the whole continent. Walking safaris in Zambia, the West African coast, Mali and the Sahel, the beaches of Mozambique; we’ll see a few new countries every year. The natural world is spectacular, but the best part is its people. Here is a world focused entirely on family. There are children everywhere; three and four-year-olds heading home from school without any supervision, no iPads or iPhones, no spoilt behaviour. Nobody drinks or smokes in public; that is saved for the private domain. Manners are formal but friendly, which suited us perfectly. The only disappointment was the absence of a strong governing body trying to improve the lives of the local people. When this changes, the country is set to have a wonderful future.


Good to know

• Booking safari trips in Africa is incredibly difficult to complete without assistance. We recommend Shadows of Africa:

• Serengeti Glamping Resort:

• Chameleon Hill Lodge