On Friday, June 28th, my sister Vanessa and I landed in Nairobi. We slept underneath mosquito nets our first night, and little did we know it would be our one full night's sleep for weeks. (All that flying and travel time wiped us out!) Earlier in the day we had an extra bonus trip when our flight landed ahead of schedule at our layover location in Amsterdam. Our connecting flight was delayed so we ended up with a few extra hours to kill and we took full advantage and raced downtown to Amsterdam proper. It was my second time to that beautiful city and Vanessa's first time, and we wandered the streets before its citizens were awake, peering down alleys, glancing in shop windows, and breathing in the breeze off the canals. We topped off our unexpected excursion with a fresh Dutch pancake brekkie (obviously) before returning to the airport.
We met the group we were traveling with on Saturday night. Africa Travel Company is the name of the tour company and this was my very first time traveling with any sort of group and pre-set itinerary. I am aware that people often travel this way, but it was a totally foreign experience for me. Also, we traveled in an Overland truck, which means we all piled into a behemoth vehicle with 28 seats, monster tires, and a whole cabin below our elevated seats that stored our tents and luggage and cooking utensils, chairs, etc. The cool thing about going this route is that by camping every night (and bringing our own tents and food, etc.) we were able to keep the cost down while maximizing the miles covered. The not so cool thing about this method is the CRAZY long days bouncing and jouncing in a massive truck crammed in next to strangers.
Before I left for Africa, I made jokes about animal attacks, human attacks, and other various fears I was experiencing but I forgot to fear the biggest threat of all, which was the many near accidents we faced in our various forms of transportation. Between the overland truck, the safari van, the taxi rides, and the standing in the back of a truck bed, I faced near death countless times and I am pretty sure I uttered the words, “I am just not psychologically prepared for this” dozens of times. No matter, clearly we survived.
Also, we had been worried about the food situation (since we are both veg and I am what some consider a “picky eater”) but it turns out that Dom, our chef extraordinaire was a genius with the local produce and spices and he made us hot and filling veggie meals every night. What a bonus!
We kicked the tour off with a safari drive through the Masai Mara Park (it is on the southern end of the Serengeti in Kenya). We slept in semi-permanent tents outside the park the night before, and no joke I heard elephants and cats causing all sorts of ruckus outside our tents all night. It was surreal. The highlights of the drive included a few baby elephants (seriously, so cute), a young male lion resting near his kill, and a cheetah! The cheetah was so lithe and beautiful and it was uncanny how well it blended with the environment. Vanessa stood out as an “Eagle Eye” pretty much right off the bat (though she did shame herself when she yelled out, “Creature!” upon seeing an unidentifiable something in the distance) and she was a handy support for all of my photo taking.
We eventually made our way up and over to Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, which is very near the Vurunga Mountains and the Bwindi Forest where we were planning on seeing the Mountain Gorillas. Lake Bunyoni was stunning, and the campsite was lush and even had a TV so we could watch Wimbledon. (Yes, I joined in the social activity, though I pretty much wrote in my journal the whole time and yelled out periodically so as to be part of the group.) The Mountain Gorillas, and the whole experience, was spiritually moving and exciting and thrilling and exhausting. I am so stoked we were able to participate in such an awesome and unique adventure.
Another really cool (and quite unexpected!) experience we had at Lake Bunyoni occurred when we visited the Little Angels Orphanage. A group of us hiked over and participated in a classroom setting with a group of kids, then joined the whole group outside for lunch and activities. The children were sweet and excited to have visitors and the whole experience was heart tugging. At the end of the afternoon, when Duncan asked if anyone wanted to sponsor a kid, Vanessa and I just looked at each other and smiled and realized we had both been thinking the same thing. Duncan chose a kid based on the need and we ended up with Tracey, a 6 year old shy Ugandan girl with a beaming and beautiful smile. I'll write more about it later, but suffice to say it was a highlight of our trip.
Before heading back to Nairobi, we did another game drive in Lake Naivasha. This time we were in a smaller van (approx. 8 of us) so it made for a more personal experience. Highlights include the rhinos (yes, they were BIG) and TWO lion sightings! One was a beautiful lioness lounging in a tree, and the other was a massive male lion with an incredible mane (and a scar over his eye, so yes, it was basically Scar in real life). We also saw baby baboons clinging to their moms and picking fights with other baboons, which was pretty darn cute.
Our last night with the tour ended with a dance party at the “Discotheque” at our campsite. It was a massive dance floor with a DJ (and ridiculously cheap bar drinks) and even though we killed time at the bar so as to arrive when the party started, our 19 or so people consisted of 60 % of the dance floor. No matter, we made our own party and danced the night away with each other and some of the Nairobians.
Before leaving for Africa, I was filled with many expectations over-rided by zero expectations. So many things about this trip were brand new for me, and new for Vanessa, as well. I knew no matter what we would have a good time, since Vanessa and I always have a good time, but I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all of the hundreds of incredible moments and experiences we were able to cram into 19 days. I cannot recommend it enough. Yes, it took a lot of time and money and planning and effort, but it was so worth it! And I feel very lucky that we were able to swing it.