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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Seeing the Safari 'Big 5' in Style

When my husband first expressed his wish to go on a safari this year, I had mixed feelings, to say the least.


It was an inviting idea. Breathtaking scenery, magnificent wildlife, and the chance for an real, old-fashioned Romantic Adventure. Irresistible, until I began to contemplate the logistical and bureaucratic nightmare of arranging this type of expedition from Moscow.


In fact, it was delightfully easy with the help of a travel agency: The most difficult decision we faced was where to go and what to do in the time we had. The two most popular areas for safaris are the better-known and more-established sights at Masai Mara, Mount Kenya and Tsavo in Kenya and the less-developed areas of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. We decided to go to Tanzania after reading that the Ngoro-ngoro Crater is one of the most densely packed wildlife reserves and would give us the best opportunity to see a wide variety of animals close up and in large numbers.


We decided on a week's safari, split between the Serengeti and the Ngoro-ngoro Crater, followed by a week on the beach in Mombasa. Not being campers nor having any desire to experience any unnecessary discomfort, we decided to stay at the new luxury game lodges which have been built recently at all the major Tanzanian sites. There are also luxury tented camps for those who want the romance of life in the bush without sacrificing comfort. They looked great in the brochure, but our schedule didn't allow a visit.


The most expensive and intriguing option was to do a balloon safari and float over the plains. After six days over driving over dusty, rutted roads, I began to understand the attraction of the "balloon safari." Maybe next time.


Our travel agent obtained our visas -- required for most non-European Union citizens and Canadians. We got the required yellow fever vaccinations and recommended malaria tablets, and we were off.


We flew on Lufthansa, first to Frankfurt and then, after a two-hour layover, caught the eight-hour connecting flight to Nairobi. There is no time difference between Moscow and Nairobi, so jet lag doesn't add to fatigue. We were met by our Kenyan guide and driver who took us to the Nairobi Safari Club where we were to stay overnight. The hotel is all suites with a pleasant and efficient staff. At less than $100 a night for two with breakfast and dinner included, I think it's very good value.


The one snag we encountered is that Faith, our guide, informed us that we were to depart for the Tanzanian border at 7 the next morning. Early starts are traditional on safaris but after about 15 hours of travel, I wanted to sleep in, at least until 8 a.m. I had arranged this in Moscow, agreeing to trade off an afternoon safari at Lake Manyara for a good night's sleep. An extra night in Nairobi would have also been an option. Early starts are the norm in East Africa and essential for prime-time animal viewing, so when you want to sleep in it's very important to tell your guide in advance and to be firm.


The adventure began as we headed to the Tanzanian border, a 2 1/2 hour drive. Shortly after leaving the city limits you are in AFRICA. The Masai tribesmen drive their cattle across the road, and the contrast between their traditional nomadic lifestyle and modern Africa was startling. The search for grazing land and water directs their daily lives. The Masai women are very elegant and graceful as they walk through the dust in their long robes and elaborate headdress carrying water, firewood and babies. There is a tangible pride in their self-sufficiency which began to delineate the real essence of East Africa.


Crossing the border to Tanzania was quick and painless. We were handed over to our Tanzanian guide, Paul, a trained game-drive guide with 10 years experience. Off we went in our pop-up top Land Rover, which seemed to be the safari vehicle of choice in Tanzania.


We stayed overnight at the Lake Manyara Game Lodge. It was fabulous. Set on a high ridge overlooking the lake, the lodge is a collection of small white Swahili-style huts each with four large bed/bath guest rooms, all with private balconies and magnificent views.


After a delicious dinner, the lodge arranged for group of Masai dancers to perform. They were terrific and very friendly. We photographed them and they took our camera and photographed us.


We were up early and started off on our first game drive. Finally -- the Serengeti. As we entered the park we were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of animals. Herds of zebra and gazelle were everywhere. The gazelle were so numerous Paul constantly had to avoid hitting them, as they would dart in front of our Land Rover. Giraffes grazed peacefully, alone or in pairs. Paul told us giraffes are the worst mothers in Africa. Shortly after giving birth, they abandon their young who then must fend for themselves. It's amazing so many survive. We also saw warthogs, running in comedic little family groups across the plain as they grazed on the short grasses and cleverly avoided predators.


On our way to the Serengeti Lodge we ended up behind Hillary Clinton's Safari motorcade. She and Chelsea were on a two-day safari of Serengeti and Ngorongoro. We didn't get to see the first lady, but as her motorcade stopped on the plains we were treated to the rare sight of five cheetahs grouped together under a shade tree.


We checked into our lodge, the Serena in Serengeti. A quick lunch, and we were back in the Land Rover and onto the plains. We drove up to herds of zebras and watched as they ran out of muddy streams that would turn their striped coats a solid grey. Herds of placid elephants with their new calves moved slowly across the plains, constantly munching on the green leaves of the acacia trees and thorny bushes.


Wildebeest mixed with the zebra and gazelles. Wildebeest have very bad eyesight and rely on the others to alert them to predators. They can, however, smell water from a great distance.


As the sun set we headed back to the lodge -- night safaris are not allowed in the Serengeti-Crater area -- for another great dinner, this time a buffet. The food was an interesting mix of African and European dishes with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. After dinner, in the bar, a singer sang his own versions of Masai songs and explained a bit of the area's folklore. It was very entertaining, if not strictly authentic. People were friendly and relaxed as we all exchanged tales of our day's adventures. We were walked to our room by an armed guide, as cape buffalo had been sighted around the lodge at night, along with the occasional lion. Another early night for another early start.


On our second day in the Serengeti we finally encountered the predators. We came upon two lionesses engaged in a hunt. We watched, transfixed, through our field-glasses as two lionesses stalked a hartebeest. They split up and circled, crawling through the high grass, getting closer and closer until the hartebeest took off. The indolent lions chased a few yards, but then gave up and turned their attention on three warthogs that had wandered into the area. Again the lions crouched and circled -- and once again, the prey escaped. The guide told us that contrary to common belief, only three out of 10 hunts result in a kill.


Later that day we saw Africa's pecking order in action. A leopard hid in a tree as a lion lounging below ate the leopard's freshly killed zebra dinner.


We ate a picnic lunch -- not zebra, but cold chicken -- at one of the few spots where you are allowed to walk on the plains. As the sun set it was time to return to the lodge and remove our acquired patina of red dust which is the Serengeti.


The next day held more driving over bone-crushing red roads. We stopped at Olduvai Gorge where Louis and Mary Leakey made their ground-breaking discoveries of man's early origins. There was a small museum and blissfully brief informative lecture.


On our way to the crater we also stopped at the "official Masai village" to see more of the Masai and to photograph freely. We met the chief, who spoke very good English, and paid him $20 per person to enter the village and observe more Masai dancing and culture. It's touristy, but unless you are going to spend a lot of time in Africa and travel widely it is the only sanctioned opportunity you will have to get up close and photograph the Masai. It's not ideal, but it is what the Tanzanian government and the people have agreed to do. The money you pay is supposed to benefit the whole tribe. If you aren't comfortable with it you can skip it.


Into the crater and on to finish our pursuit of the "Big Five": rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant. So, as we spotted our first rhinos, Paul gave a shout of triumph at having completed the "Five."


For the rest of the afternoon and throughout the next day we saw more birds and animals than we could have ever imagined. After years of watching National Geographic, we were in it. We saw hundreds of wildebeest, cape buffalo, 10 rhinos, about 20 big bull elephants, 30 hippos and countless buzzards and birds. It's impossible to describe the intensity of being close to so many wild animals. It is definitely a privilege to share something so vast, so vital -- and yet so fragile.


We flew to Mombasa for a week at the beach following our safari, to recover from jolting over hundreds of miles of rough road. The Serena beach resort was as perfect as the lodges: an elegant beach-front resort done in "high Swahili style." The resort allows for a variety of meal plans, unlimited free tennis, squash, and most water sports. There is a coral reef which can be view from a glass-bottomed boat, and snorkeling and diving are also available.


On our way back through Nairobi, we stopped at the Karen Blixen Museum in her original home, about which she wrote "Out of Africa." Afterwards, we stopped at the nearby Giraffe Center where you can hand-feed the animals. Before catching our flight home, we dined at the Carnivore, a restaurant that specializes in barbecued game: zebra, ostrich, and hartebeest among others.


Safaris are not inexpensive. A one-week Tanzanian safari, all inclusive, will cost about $3,000 per person, including airfare. Kenya is slightly less expensive. May and June are low season and prices are reduced substantially. May can be a little wet from the rain which begins in mid-April, but I've been assured the animal action is just as exciting.


An African safari is a great experience and it's an adventure. The unexpected will happen.


There is a wonderful expression in Swahili, which most people believe to have been written by Disney for "The Lion King,": "Hakunah Matata." It means "no problem." You will hear it all the time, especially when faced with, well, problems. Relax. Learn to say it yourself. The problems do get solved. In East Africa you are definitely "karibu sana." That is, very welcome.





Getting There


Our trip was arranged by Felly Mbabazi and Highway Tours, an international travel company that packages both private and group safaris in East Africa. They have an office here in Moscow (207-7991 or 207-8683), and they will arrange all the details of your vacation.


IRO Travel (234-6555) also organizes safari trips through the international agency United Touring Company. Their "Great Southern Safari" package -- a week-long safari in Tanzania -- costs $2,835 per person, not including airfare.


Aeroflot flies direct to Nairobi with round-trip fares from $880. KLM flies to Nairobi and Kilimanjaro via Amsterdam, return fares starting at $1,036. Air France flies to Nairobi via Paris for $1,183 round-trip. On British Airways, a round-trip flight from Moscow to Nairobi via London will cost from $1,200. Lufthansa flies to Nairobi via Frankfurt with round-trip fares from $1,441.





Travelers' Tips


A valid yellow fever certificate ID is required for travel in Kenya and Tanzania. It requires a minimum of one week to be effective, and many doctors recommend doing it a full month in advance for full immunity to develop.


Bring lots of film, batteries and any other photography or video supplies you may require as they are either very expensive or unavailable in many areas.


Usually hotel gift shops are overpriced and unimaginative; however, on this trip the hotel and lodge shops consistently offered a better quality, selection and value than independent curio shops. Strange, but true.