This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Contiki. All thoughts and opinions are mine.
In January 2020 we got the opportunity to travel on Contiki’s East Africa Safari, a 12 day adventure through Kenya and Tanzania. Growing up with the Lion King as one my favourite childhood movies, I always dreamed of seeing these animals in the wild and this was the perfect trip to achieve that.
We started off our adventures at the Jacaranda Hotel in Kenya’s Capital and largest city, Nairobi. We flew in two nights earlier since we knew, coming from Western Canada, our jet lag would be pretty rough. We were correct, and very glad we had a couple days to recover and relax before heading out on our tour. It also gave us a chance to pick up a local sim card (and anything we were missing) from the Sarit Shopping Mall literally across the street from the hotel.
For those looking, Safaricom is the best cellular provider for Kenyan safaris. We purchased 4 gigs of data for 1,200 shillings, which is around 12 USD. After testing it, we had a good signal pretty much everywhere we went in Kenya, even in the middle of large parks like the Maasai Mara. Just make sure to bring your passport as you’ll need it to get a sim card.
The first day of the tour is left open for people who are still arriving in Kenya. Later in the evening we got to meet the rest of the group along with our tour manager. After introductions our tour manager gave us a little overview on what was to come because the next day we got right into the action!
One thing you will realize after the first day on tour is that Contiki supplies top-of-the-line safari vehicles, and these are some very impressive machines. Each of the modified 4×4 Land Cruisers seats 7 passengers, and every person has a window seat. They close up to protect you from the elements and the cold, and later on the bugs. But when it’s game drive time, the windows slide open and the roof lifts up to give you 360 degree views of the animals, even in the front seat! They are a bumpy ride though, and there’s nothing you can do about it since you’re on dirt roads for the majority of the safari through both Kenya and Tanzania. So if you get motion sick, bring tablets. And if you have any back issues, sit in the front seats as I did.
Our first destination was the Maasai Mara National Reserve, an incredible place to begin. We were told before our first game drive to prepare ourselves since this would likely be one of the highlights of our trip, and he was not wrong. On our first drive in the park we saw an incredible variety of animals, including 4 of the Big Five (Lions, Elephants, Leopards and Buffalo), and that was just the first day.
Sentrim Mara was a very cool accommodation. The rooms are a mixture of a lodge and a tent, like several others on our trip, which really made it feel like we were sleeping in the middle of the jungle. This is where having some warm clothes came in handy as it gets a bit cooler at night. Being so close to wild animals meant that in the morning we’d wake up to the sounds of elephants or hyenas. In between game drives the pool was a big hit and a popular place to hang out and enjoy some sun before our next game drive in the park.
Hot Air Balloon
One of the optional experiences you can do is a sunrise hot air balloon ride. You can do this in the Maasai Mara, or the Serengeti in Tanzania. While it’s certainly not cheap, it was an amazing experience and almost everyone in our group did it. We all decided to do it in Kenya because it’s slightly cheaper than in Tanzania, but most importantly, if the hot air balloon was cancelled due to bad weather, you’d still get 100% of your money back and you have another option to do it in Tanzania. To us it felt like a no brainer.
That hot air balloon ride was worth every penny. It is hands down one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my life. Watching the sunrise while floating over the vast plains and viewing the wildlife from above, just incredible. If you are on the fence about doing it, jump that fence, make room in your budget, you won’t regret it.
After a few days in the Maasai Mara and many hours of game drives, it was very nice to spend a chill day relaxing at Lake Elementaita. The accommodation and pool here is probably the nicest of the entire trip and you arrive with a whole afternoon of free time to just hang out. If you are lucky, at the right time of year you can see huge flocks of flamingos on the lake, it’s what it’s famous for! We didn’t quite have the right timing, but our stay here was still nothing short of relaxing.
The day that we left Lake Elementaita we drove back through Nairobi to make a couple stops at two incredible animal conservations. The first is the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, commonly called the Giraffe Centre. Here you’ll get an opportunity to see, interact with, and learn about the endangered Rothschild giraffe and what they’ve been doing to help support them. One cool fact about the Giraffe Centre is that it’s located right beside the Giraffe Manor (the famous place all over Instagram where you can eat breakfast with giraffes) and they are actually the same giraffes that you see! Instead of spending over a thousand dollars per night to stay at the manor, you get to see them as part of your tour.
The second stop is at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, to see a special feeding of baby elephants! Make sure to take closed toes shoes and avoid white because it can be pretty muddy, but you won’t really mind once you see the baby elephants playing in the mud! A little tip for the best view point, go to the areas where the branches are placed on the ground, as those are the elephant’s favourite. During the hour-long presentation, we watched the elephants feed and learned about what they do in the nursery. At the end of the presentation you can adopt your own baby elephant and help support them in their conservation efforts.
Amboseli is the last stop in Kenya. As soon as you enter the park you’ll realize it’s a very different landscape compared to the Maasai Mara. Here’s it’s all about the trees, the elephants, and the views! Amboseli is the premiere spot, and the only chance on the trip, to catch a glimpse of Africa’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. You might even get a chance at the famous shot of elephants grazing with Kilimanjaro in the background. Unfortunately for us the skies were cloudy while we were there, but if the weather is good it looks like it’s spectacular.
The game drives through Amboseli were shorter, but filled with big moments. We had a chance to witness over 100 elephants crossing the road right in front of us, it was one of the best moments on the whole trip.
One of the most enlightening experiences was our visit to a Maasai Village. The Maasai are a group of people living in Kenya and Tanzania who are known for their unique customs, attire, raising cattle, and for being fierce warriors. We got to spend several hours learning how the Maasai hunt, build fire, milk goats, protect their families, and build their homes. They even dressed us in their traditional attire before we all sang and danced together.
We then broke into two separate groups of females and males. This gave us the chance to ask questions about each other’s lifestyles and customs. They were so open to sharing and very curious to hear about us just as much as we were about them. After that we got a tour of the local school they are able to fund with help from our tourist dollars (as you pay to visit the tribe) and from Contiki.
At the end of the experience you’ll get a chance to shop among their local handmade goods, so make sure to bring cash! We ended up spending lots on jewelry for our friends and a few carved wooden items. Just make sure you buy from several different shops as the profits go to the person you are buying from directly, since they also made it. No middle man here, 100% local.
We crossed the border from Kenya to Tanzania by land, and it is here where we say goodbye to our Kenyan tour guide and hello to our Tanzanian guide. He was also there to help escort us over the border. We applied beforehand online for both our Kenya and Tanzania e-visas, so we just had our print out on hand. Make sure you do this at least 1 month before you go, because the timelines they list on their website are not 100% accurate. You can also get visas right at the border, but save yourself the stress and just do it online before you go.
This is also the time to grab a local Tanzanian sim card. Vodacom is the best provider in Tanzania and although our first stop was at a supermarket to grab snacks, there was no provider there. There are some shops at the border, so just ask your guide if you need one right away and he can help you sort it out.
Our first stop just outside of Arusha was the amazing Shanga Community Project: a social enterprise which employs people with disabilities to create unique, high-quality, handmade jewelry, glassware and home wares incorporating recycled materials. You are going to want to bring your wallets along for this one, as the products they create are stunning. After our tour, where we saw first hand the work they do, we ended up purchasing quite a few souvenir gifts for our friends. They also have really good coffee here, some of the best of the whole trip!
Tarangire was our first taste of Tanzanian wildlife, and oh boy, it was a wild one. It’s quite different to the previous parks as it’s full of hills and trees, including the giant Baobab tree. There are also lots of very smart, sneaky monkeys running around that will grab your lunch!
Our accommodation for the night was Roika Tented Camp which was surrounded by bush with no fences to keep the animals away. We were truly sleeping in the jungle! We also had the opportunity to be invited into the kitchen to learn how to cook Ugali, a very traditional East African dish.
Tarangire was also our first experience with tsetse flies. These are one of the most annoying bugs that bite, and it hurts. They are attracted to dark colours, especially blues and blacks.
This is where you’ll be very glad you packed neutral clothes, which now is a good time to mention, save your neutral colour clothes for Tanzania. It’s time to rock the safari look and pull out the bug spray! These flies are also known to carry a parasite which causes African Sleeping Sickness and can be quite dangerous. Fortunately none of the tsetse flies in the areas we traveled to are known to carry this parasite.
Serengeti, wow what can I say, this place just simply took my breath away. I was already amazed at how incredible all the other parks had been up till now, but the Serengeti was something else. It’s about 8 times bigger than the Maasai Mara and the plains seem to go on forever.
To get there from Tarangire we drove up and around Ngorongoro Crater (which I’ll touch on later), down through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and past the Cradle of Humankind (oh you know just the origin of our species). Then it was the wide open plans of the south Serengeti, which at the time we were there (end of January) it was where the Great Migration was located.
Thousands upon thousands of wildebeest, zebra and antelope, stretched out as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to even comprehend how many animals we saw. And this was just our greeting to the Serengeti.
If I were to describe our experience with the rest of the wildlife there I would say it was vast herds. We saw a huge group of buffalo, a whole pride of lions stroll by our vehicles, and the most incredible pair of leopards mating in a tree. Baboons, cheetahs, you name it, we saw it.
We spent two nights tenting in the middle of the Serengeti which was another camp that was open to the wildlife. We also saw some of the most incredible starry skies, although we weren’t too keen on leaving the tents at night!
Our last and most unique park of the trip was Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a game drive inside the Ngorongoro Crater. Imagine Jurassic Park, but in real life. You feel like you’re looking into the lost world, a crater filled with countless animals and the elusive rhino. We got a preview on our drive to the Serengeti as we stopped at a viewpoint of the crater, but now it was time to go down into it.
Our mission in the crater was to find a rhino, it was the last of the Big 5 we hadn’t seen yet. This was also our best chance to see one since the crater is home to approximately 30 black rhinos. And succeed we did, although he was very small and in the distance we still call that mission complete!
Our last accommodation to end our trip was a lovely little spot just outside of Ngorongoro. Sadly it was time to say goodbye to our new friends, our amazing tour guides, and to our East Africa Safari. Now, all that’s left to do is to go through the thousands of animal pictures we took!