In January 2020, I had 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 (and of course the Big Five!) in the wild and this was the perfect trip to achieve that.
Nairobi, Kenya is your starting point
My adventure began at the Jacaranda Hotel in Kenya’s capital and largest city, Nairobi. I flew in two nights earlier since I knew, coming from Western Canada, my jet lag would be pretty rough. I was correct, and I was very glad to have a couple extra days to recover and relax before starting the 12-day trip. It also gave me a chance to pick up a local sim card (and anything I’d forgotten to pack!) from the Sarit Shopping Mall, literally across the street from the hotel.
For those looking for a sim card – Safaricom is the best cellular provider for Kenyan safaris. We purchased 4GB of data for 1,200 shillings, which is around 12 USD. I had a good signal pretty much everywhere I 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 East Africa Safari trip is left open for people who are still arriving in Kenya. Later in the evening I got to meet the rest of the group along with our Trip Manager. After introductions, our Trip Manager gave us a little overview on what was to come because the next day we got right into the action.
Contiki’s vehicles are impressive
Contiki uses top-of-the-line safari vehicles, and these are some very impressive machines. Each of the modified 4×4 Land Cruisers seat seven 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’re a bumpy ride though, and there’s not much you can do about it. Most of the safari game drives, in both Kenya and Tanzania, are on dirt roads. So if you get motion sickness, bring tablets. And if you have any back issues, sit in the front seats.
You visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve
Our first destination in East Africa was the Maasai Mara National Reserve – an incredible place to begin. We were told by our Trip Manager before our first game drive to prepare ourselves as this would be one of the highlights of our trip. On our first drive in the park we saw an incredible variety of animals, including three of the Big Five (lions, elephants and buffalo), and that was just the first day.
At night, we stayed at the Sentrim Mara. The rooms are a mixture of a lodge and a tent, 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. But in the morning, we’d wake up to the sounds of elephants and hyenas. In between game drives the pool was a big hit and a popular place to hang out and enjoy some sun.
You can take a sunrise hot air balloon ride
One of the free-time add-on experiences you can do on the East Africa Safari trip is a sunrise hot air balloon ride. You can do this in the Maasai Mara in Kenya or the Serengeti in Tanzania. 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. In Kenya, if the hot air balloon was cancelled due to bad weather, you’d still get 100% of your money back. Then you’d have another chance to do it again in Tanzania. To us, it felt like a no-brainer.
Turns out… the hot air balloon ride was worth every penny. It’s 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 was just incredible. If you’re on the fence about doing it, jump the fence and make room in your budget. You won’t regret it.
You get to flamingo spot at Lake Elementaita
After a few days in the Maasai Mara, and many hours of game drives, it was nice to spend a day relaxing at Lake Elementaita. The accommodation and pool here are the nicest of the entire trip. You arrive in the afternoon and have loads of free time to just hang out. If you’re lucky, at the right time of year you can see huge flocks of flamingos on the lake – it’s what it’s famous for!
You can experience a giraffe centre and elephant orphanage
We left Lake Elementaita and drove back through Nairobi to stop 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 how they support them. One cool fact about the Giraffe Centre is that it’s located right beside the Giraffe Manor (the famous place on Instagram where you can eat breakfast with giraffes!). Instead of spending lots of money to stay at the manor, you get to see them as part of your trip.
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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. You won’t really mind once you see the baby elephants playing in the mud though!
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 the orphanage in their conservation efforts.
These orphaned baby elephants have been given a second chance and the pictures will melt your heart
You might see herds of elephants in Amboseli National Park
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 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. 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.
A visit to the Maasai Village is unforgettable
One of the most enlightening experiences on the East Africa Safari trip was our visit to a Maasai Village. The Maasai are a group of people living in Kenya and Tanzania who are fierce warriors. They’re known for their unique customs, attire and raising cattle. We got to spend time learning how the Maasai hunt, build fires, milk goats, protect their families and build their homes. We got dressed in traditional attire, and sang and danced with them.
Then we 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 to visit the local school they’re 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 their local handmade goods, so make sure to bring cash! We ended up spending lots on jewellery 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’re buying from directly, since they also made it. No middle man here, 100% local.
Crossing the border to Tanzania is the chance to take stock
Next on the East Africa Safari trip, we crossed the border from Kenya to Tanzania by land. After escorting us over the border, we said goodbye to our Kenyan local guide and hello to our Tanzanian local guide. Since most of us had applied online for both our Kenya and Tanzania e-visas beforehand, we presented our visas by hand. Make sure you do this at least one month before you go, because the timelines listed 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 is in a supermarket to grab food, 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.
You’ll visit the amazing Shanga Community Project
Our first stop just outside of Arusha was the Shanga Community Project: a social enterprise. This project employs locals with disabilities to create handmade jewellery, glassware and homewares. Their high-quality products incorporate recycled materials, which make everything unique. Bring your wallets along for this one, as the products they create are stunning! After we had a chance to see first-hand the work they do, we purchased quite a few souvenirs for our friends. They also have really good coffee here, some of the best of the whole trip.
You can sleep in the jungle in Tarangire National Park
Tarangire was our first taste of Tanzanian wildlife, 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. We were truly sleeping in the jungle! It was surrounded by bush with no fences to keep the animals away. In the kitchen, we also had the opportunity to learn how to cook ‘ugali’, a traditional dish from East Africa.
Tarangire was also our first experience with tsetse flies. These are one of the most annoying bugs that bite, and it hurts. They’re attracted to dark colours, especially blues and blacks. This is where you’ll be very glad you packed neutral clothes, so save your neutral-coloured clothes for Tanzania. It’s time to rock the East African safari look and pull out the bug spray!
The Serengeti National Park and Wildebeest Camp will take your 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 eight times bigger than the Maasai Mara and the plains seem to go on forever.
We drove around Ngorongoro Crater, down through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and past the Cradle of Humankind. Then it was the wild open plains of the south Serengeti, which at the time we were there (the end of January) 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 and a whole pride of lions stroll by our vehicles. 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. At night, the starry skies were incredible, but we weren’t too keen on leaving the tents at night.
The Ngorongoro Crater has Jurassic Park vibes
Our last and most unique park on the East Africa Safari trip was Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Imagine Jurassic Park, but in real life. You feel like you’re looking into the lost world, which is essentially a crater filled with countless animals, including the elusive rhino. We had a preview on our drive to the Serengeti as we stopped at a viewpoint of the crater, before driving 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’ll call that mission complete!
Saying goodbye is the hardest part
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 Trip Manager, and to our East Africa Safari. Now, all that’s left to do is to go through the thousands of animal pictures we took!