Heading out from Nairobi, our first stop in Kenya was Tortilis Camp, which is located in a conservancy adjoining Amboseli National Park. Amboseli is known for its large herds of elephants. Cynthia Moss has studied the elephant families in the park for generations and many elephants in the park are followed closely by researchers. Amboseli is also noted for the incredible views of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. However, depending on the cloud cover, you will not always be able to see the mountain. We were lucky to get several really good views while we were there. Tortilis Camp has some beautiful vantage points of Kilimanjaro, and due to the clear weather, we were often able to see it from the main dining area and bar.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located inside Nairobi National Park, is one of the most moving places I have ever been. It is an orphanage for young elephants who have been rescued all over Kenya and brought to Nairobi. Baby elephants are not able to survive without their mothers' milk, so the staff at Sheldrick feed them a special formula that mimics elephant milk. (Milk from cows will cause them to die.) Unfortunately, Sheldrick receives more and more baby elephants all the time due to poaching. The baby elephants eventually move to another park in Kenya where they are slowly introduced to other elephants in order to join a wild herd. They have had amazing success with these transitions. The keepers' dedication and love for elephants is heartening. They feed the babies, teach them to browse for food, and even sleep in the stalls at night!
One of the best things we did on our New Year's trip to Whitefish, Montana was go on a dog sled ride through the beautiful Stillwater National Forest. It was amazing! I found Dog Sled Adventures, in Olney, Montana, after reading a few blogs and some TripAdvisor reviews of things to do in the Whitefish area. I was also thrilled to find a dog sled ride outfit that was owned by a fellow animal lover. The dogs at Dog Sled Adventures were mainly rescue dogs and were all treated well. Even the dogs that could no longer work remained in the dog yard and were taken care of.
When we arrived, the dogs were barking and jumping around very excitedly. They each want to go out on the rides, but only between 8-12 dogs are chosen per sled. Certain dogs partner together better, some dogs need more rest between rides-it seemed to be very much an art to get a team together and hooked up to the sled.
The afternoon we went, four sleds went out. We were bundled into the front of the sled while the musher (driver) stood on the skids at the back. It is windy when you get going fast, so lots of layers and sunglasses or goggles are necessary. The 12 mile loop takes about an hour and half, depending on how fast the dogs are running.
They can't wait to start running!
I can't recommend Dog Sled Adventures highly enough. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake helped us arrange a taxi to get out there-about 35-40 minutes from the Lodge. I did not rent a car during our stay since I was nervous about potentially driving in heavy snow. The road was actually very clear highway until we reached the driveway. A four wheel drive car would have handled it just fine. If you are thinking of booking a ride, call very far in advance. He fills the three rides a day in no time!
Our next stop after Phinda was the AndBeyond Ngala Tented Camp. The Tented Camp is nearby the Ngala Safari Lodge, but is a separate entity. To reach Ngala from Phinda, we were able to fly directly from one airstrip to another. While this is usually more costly than taking scheduled flights followed by a road transfer, it is worthwhile to ask about including it in your rate. The time saved may be worth the cost. Our transfer was included in our rate as we booked everything through AndBeyond.
The absolute highlight of Ngala Tented Camp was the wildlife available for viewing. The tents, the food, and the guides were fantastic-but the game viewing was just incredible. I was blown away by the leopard and wild dog sightings. These are animals you do not reliably see on game drives, so it was a real thrill. We also spotted smaller animals such as jackals, which I had not had much luck viewing in the past. In addition, we saw lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes, and many other animals.
Other things I liked about about Ngala Tented Camp:
I was so happy with my stay at Ngala Tented Camp that I am planning a return visit next summer. Wild dogs do move their dens and territories quite frequently, so I am hoping above all that they return to Ngala's game driving concession.
One stop during my trip to South Africa was the Phinda Private Game Reserve, in the KwaZulu-Natal area. The reserve had four options for accommodations, and we chose the Vlei Lodge. The Vlei Lodge was in fact a camp set up, not a large lodge. The thatch roofed chalets were separated from each other by bushes and trees, which created a nice sense of privacy. The rooms and the large bathrooms were beautiful. The main building was at the center of the camp, just a two minute walk down a path. The main building had a nice sitting area and shady deck looking out over the vlei (grassy area) in addition to dining tables. Lunch and breakfast were served outside on the deck, which was lovely and warm mid-day.
One day we had lunch on our own porch, but ended up running inside with our trays to get away from the little monkeys that constantly scampered around the camp! At the main building, the monkeys still tried to take food, but they were afraid of the employees and a little less bold about jumping right on your table.
To me, the highlight of the game viewing at Phinda was the number of rhino sightings. Rhinos are hunted illegally for their horns throughout Africa, and the poachers are hard to stop in some areas. Phinda has done an amazing job keeping the poachers at bay, largely due to their good relationship with the local community. The reserve's land is actually leased from the local community and they have a mutually beneficial financial partnership. People in the community alert their friends on the anti-poaching force if they see someone new or suspicious in the area. We saw rhino each day we went on game drives, and were lucky enough to spot this baby rhino at the water hole with his mother.
Other sightings included elephants, giraffe, buffalo, hippos, a group of three cheetah brothers, and two prides of lions. As you can see above, the one pride had several young lions that were a riot to watch. At times, you had to drive a bit between good sightings, but overall there was a good variety of game in the reserve and the trackers did an excellent job of finding the animals. We had at most six people per open topped vehicle, so nobody sat in the dreaded middle seat where the view is not good.
Another note about Phinda Vlei Lodge-the food was out of this world. A woman named Happiness was the chef, and she was an incredible cook. Homemade bread and desserts, imaginative and varied menus, and lots of fresh fruit and produce from the area all made for memorable meals. She was sure to make a vegetarian option for me at each meal, and they were all exceptional.
Do you want to go to Africa but don't know where to start? It is definitely a trip that needs to be planned far in advance. The first time, I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. How wrong I was! I was lucky enough to return three more times, and am excited to be planning a trip for next summer. The animals are always the focus for me, but that does not mean there aren't other amazing experiences and activities. Culture, art, spas, and history can be a part of your trip along with the wildlife.
I strongly feel this is a journey to plan with a professional travel planner who is either based in Africa, or has been there A LOT. You need someone who can deal with the ins and outs of the camp transfers and local logistics. They can help you decide which area of Africa to concentrate on and then send you safari camp suggestions based on your budget. (If you want to do gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda, please note that everything else about your trip depends on the days you are given your gorilla permits. Do that first!)
One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Did it take forever to get there?" If you have miles for upgrading to business class, this is the time to use them. Being able to stretch out and sleep on at least one of the legs will help you be ready to hit the ground running on arrival. Depending on how long it takes you to get there, you may want to plan more than one day in Nairobi or Johannesburg to adjust before beginning the safari portion of your trip. When traveling to South Africa, a few days in Cape Town is a great way to start.
Getting There-South Africa
There are several ways to get to South Africa from the United States, and yes, they are all long. On my most recent trip, I used British Airways miles to book the tickets so we flew through London. I actually liked having a break between the two flights, but some people prefer the long South African Airways flights from the US to Johannesburg so they don't have to change planes. Flying the Middle Eastern carriers is getting more popular and they do sometimes offer competitive fares.
There are a few ways to get to Kenya, but there is no direct flight option from the US. You will need to change in Europe or the Middle East.
There are three main types of accommodations in the safari areas-lodges, tented camps, and mobile tented camping. Lodges are generally larger, with the rooms in one building or a few smaller buildings. Tented camps are permanent tents, with real floors and full ensuite bathrooms. Sometimes, the camps have a small chalet rather than a canvas tent, but they are stand alone rather than grouped in a building. Mobile tented camping is just how it sounds-the safari operator may set up the camp for a whole season, but it is not a permanent camp. Each type of lodging has its advantages, and I have liked doing a mix of camps and lodges. While some are quite luxurious and I know there are amazing experiences to be had at the mobile tented camps, that style is just not for me!
Some will be found in or adjoining national parks, some will be in private reserves. Trip Advisor reviews and each place's website will help you determine this. Something else to find out is what type of vehicle is used, and how many people per vehicle.
I will highlight some of my favorite camps and lodges in upcoming posts.
After a few days in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai on a quick Bangkok Airways flight. One of the activities we planned far in advance of arriving was seeing some of Thailand's famous elephants. Unfortunately, the more I researched the different elephant camps and treks found outside of the city, the more disappointed I became. Many of the elephants in the these venues are terribly mistreated and live horrible lives. However, I read about the Elephant Nature Park and was happy to find an elephant experience that was humane. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants (and cats and dogs!) from Northern Thailand and Burma where the elephants live in a somewhat wild setting. Visitors feed the elephants and go down to the river to bathe them, but there are no elephants rides or tricks performed.
You can schedule a visit online before arriving. They do have a limited number of visitors each day, so plan ahead. Their van will pick you up at your hotel in the morning. I asked our hotel front desk to call and confirm the day before. The ride through the forests and mountains was quite pretty. The driver shows a short video on the way about their work and the need for elephant sanctuaries. After arriving, you help feed the elephants and see them walking around the grounds. You are allowed to get quite close to them, but there is also a platform viewing area for those who are not as comfortable being close. A guide accompanies you throughout the day. Bring a large bottle of water and clothes that you don't mind getting wet (and dirty!) A vegetarian lunch was provided mid-day. After lunch, they show a video showing the traditional training process many of these elephants go through. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I was not able to stay through much of it. You are welcome to leave and go out to the viewing platform until it is over.