No amount of nature documentaries can quite prepare you for the awe you feel when you see an African animal in the wild for the first time. Whether it’s as mundane as a giraffe or a zebra, or as rare as a rhino or a leopard, nothing else drives home that “oh my gosh, I’m on safari in Africa” feeling. We got this feeling right away in Kenya.
With 50+ days to get from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa, I figured we had plenty of time to see most of the animals we wanted to see, and maybe even the Big 5 if we were lucky. To my amazed delight, Kenya and Uganda exceeded any expectations I had about Africa, all within our first two weeks of the road trip.
- Days 1-4: Nairobi, Kenya
- Days 5-6: Naivasha
- Day 6: Overnight in Eldoret
- Days 7-9: Jinja, Uganda
- Days 10-12: Lake Bunyonyi & gorilla trek
- Day 13: Overnight in Kampala
- Days 14-15: Nakuru, Kenya
- Days 16-17: Masai Mara National Reserve
- Day 18: Nairobi.
Dates: October 9-26, 2018
We opted to do a small group overland tour with Tucan Travel for this leg of our round-the-world honeymoon. Not having traveled in this region previously, and not wanting the stress and uncertainty of self-driving, we decided this was the best way of ensuring we had a good trip. We hadn’t traveled with Tucan previously, but their itinerary was much less expensive than comparable routes and inclusions from other companies.
The tour includes most of our meals and a campsite and tent every night. Through Kenya and Uganda, though, Tim and I upgraded to rooms with bathrooms for a discounted amount (which we budgeted for in advance). We learned in Western Australia that we aren’t as tough as we’d like to think, and 50 nights of camping would likely make us miserable.
Before meeting up with the tour group, Tim and I had a few days in our own in Nairobi. I was recovering from a cold that started in Madagascar the week prior, so this was my chance to recoup before we got busy again. Thankfully, we had been able to redeem points at the Hilton and could stay there and hibernate. With the free food in the executive lounge, we never had a reason to leave the building, and for this I was really grateful.
We met up with our tour group at a campsite and hostel in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi. The first night involved all the usual introductions and an overview of the coming days from our guide, Jo.
The next morning we set out for Lake Naivasha, just a three hours drive away. This was our first time in our big overland truck and our small group of seven was excited to have so much space to relax.
Soon, we were cruising down the highway, with views overlooking the Great Rift Valley. Along the way we even saw giraffes and zebras! Not long after that, we’d already arrived at our campsite and hotel for the night.
With plenty of time in the afternoon to explore the region, our entire group took a motorboat tour of the lake, which is home to dozens of families of hippopotamuses. Being on the water among them, we were able to see them lounging on the shore, swimming in the lake, and relaxing in the shallower depths.
I’ve heard that hippos can be very dangerous. They are certainly large, powerful, and fast in the water. That said, it’s hard to tell when you see the fat pig-like mammal sleeping in the lake. I was really excited to get to see them up close like this, watching them sleep piled on top of one another or wiggling their undersized ears when they poke their heads out of the water. Dangerous or not, hippos are really adorable too.
During the lake trip, our boat driver also took us to an area to feed fish eagles (a type of eagle that eats, you guessed it, fish). This part of the tour made me sad. He started by crumbling up bits of Styrofoam. When I asked what that was for, he said it makes the fish float on the surface so that the eagle will see it and come get it. As he said this, he tossed Styrofoam crumbs into the lake, as if to demonstrate its buoyancy.
I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to feed wild animals, and it’s especially terrible if it also means polluting this beautiful lake. I told our driver that I didn’t care to see the fish eagle feeding, but others in our group wanted to.
So, our boat driver used a rod of a plant to make the fish float and tossed it into the water. Unfortunately, he threw it over my head and red fish guts landed on my hat and arm. The eagle swooped down and snatched up the fish. All the while I thought about how it figures that I would be the one to get covered in fish guts seeing as I didn’t want to feed the wild eagle to begin with!
Back at the campsite, the group prepared for the second activity for the day – a hike through Hell’s Gate National Park. My nose was running incessantly at this point, so I decided to stay back at the room and nap while Tim and the others went on the hike.
In Hell’s Gate, they saw many zebras and a large rodent called a rock hyrex. They also saw the rock that inspired Pride Rock in Disney’s The Lion King.
The next morning, Tim and I plus the other couple on our tour (an American named McKinley and a Kiwi named Will) took a walking safari through Crater Lake Reserve. Because there are no predators here, it’s one of the few places in Africa where you can walk amongst giraffes, zebras, elands, antelopes, warthogs, and more. We were able to walk really close to a herd of giraffes. I’ll never forget how funny they look when they run.
As we left the reserve, we came to a large rock python crossing the trail. He was at least 3 meters long and thicker than my thighs around. We stood there, semi-scared but mostly stunned, as he slithered slowly across the path and back into the tall grasses on the other side.
After the walk, we stopped by a view point over the crater lake, accessible via a short climb up a hill. From there, we then had a really nice multi-course lunch on the lake. All in all, Naivasha proved to be a fantastic introduction to seeing wildlife in Africa.
Our next two days were driving days, with an overnight in Eldoret before crossing the border into Uganda. Finally, we arrived in Jinja, a small town on the Nile River.
Jinja was a great place to stay, and our campsite, Nile River Explorers, was right on the river. Unbeknownst to me and Tim beforehand, Jinja is considered one of the best places in the world for white water rafting. Tim and I rafted together in Mendoza, Argentina in 2014 and really liked it. Along with Will, McKinley and another girl in our group Jacquie, we decided to sign up for it.
The next morning, our rafting guide picked us up and drove us to their sister property about an hour away. We geared up with life vests and helmets, then proceeded to the spot on the river where they’d put our raft in.
At this point I’ll admit I was pretty nervous. The rafting we’d done in Mendoza had been class 3-4. Today we’d be tackling 5s. I tried to reassure myself that these guys take out inexperienced people every day. Plus, there would be a team of kayakers alongside us the whole way, always at the ready to pick up anyone who fell out.
Once we were all in our raft, our guide, who told us to call him Chicken Legs, went over basic maneuvers with us. Then, we were on to our first rapid.
To our surprise, the first rapid was actually a waterfall 4 meters tall. We navigated to the edge and wedged our raft between two rocks. Our guide told us to bounce to help inch the raft out of the rocks and over the falls. Not really understanding what lay ahead, we bounced up and down diligently per Chicken Legs’ direction. Soon, our raft dislodged and floated swiftly towards the falls’ edge.
Everything was a blur of white water when we went over. At times I couldn’t tell whether we were upright or we had flipped. In what felt like minutes but took less than a second, we were back on stiller waters. I realized Will and McKinley weren’t in our raft anymore. Panicked, I looked around and saw they were already riding back to the raft on the safety kayaks. I felt reassured that they really were ready to jump to our rescue should we fall out.
Over the course of the next several hours, we proceeded through 7 more rapids. Some were more complicated than others, but somehow we only flipped completely twice. Both times were a bit scary to me, but in that exhilarating way where you know there’s some danger but that you’re mostly safe.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a buffet dinner and then returned to our campsite.
The rest of our time in Jinja was spent relaxing. Our whole group took a sunset river cruise on the Nile, a few people took village tours, and mostly we just rested.
From Jinja, we began the journey to the far western part of Uganda, where we stayed for three nights on Lake Bunyonyi. The main objective for coming all this way was to see the endangered mountain gorillas who live in the national parks where Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo intersect.
These beautiful apes share over 98% of our DNA, making them one of mankind’s closest relatives.
Sadly, there are only 800 known mountain gorillas left in the wild in the whole world. As of the last census a few years ago, 400 of these gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Researchers are hopeful that the high rate of successful births in recent years will boost this number much higher in the next census.
We spent several hours hiking through dense jungle in Bwindi to meet the Kahungye family of gorillas. There are 23 gorillas in this family, making it one of the largest in the region.
The hike itself is no joke. The terrain is muddy and there are many hills. Throughout the hike, gorilla trackers, who keep tabs on where a particular family is, communicate via walkie talkies back to the armed ranger guides who take up the front and back of our group. When we did finally get near the point where the gorillas were, we had to cut into the forest, with our guides thrashing through the foliage with machetes. We had to descend a particularly steep and slippery section at this point, and all of us fell down at least once.
Finally we arrived to where the Kahungye family was hanging out. We were told to stay quiet, not eat or drink anything, and stay with the group.
For an hour, we were allowed to sit in relative proximity to our proximal relatives. We observed as babies played in trees, females munched on leaves, and dominant male Silverbacks effortlessly knocked down entire branches to get a better look at us.
At one point, a munching Silverback who had been leaning against a tree got up and sauntered right past Tim, in a moment that was both breathtaking and terrifying. Though the gorillas are gentle-seeming and very tolerant of human presence, there is no question that they were the ones in charge there.
Our visit ended with us observing a dominant male nestled amid the branches, with only his face poking out between the leaves. We locked eyes for a brief moment. The mutual recognition I felt when I looked into the eyes of this male gorilla is unmatched by any other animal encounter I’ve ever had. You can tell how much like us they really are.
When our hour was up, we hiked back out the same way we came in. We hiked nearly 10 miles that day, over a challenging route. The hike is worthwhile in and of itself, and seeing gorillas makes it all that much more rewarding.
The next day, Tim and I took the opportunity to relax before the big drives we had coming up. It took us two days to get back to Kenya, via an overnight near Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.
After the journey we spent two nights in Nakuru, Kenya. Tim and I opted to go on a safari drive in Nakuru National Park, and I’m so glad we did.
This park is one of the best places to see rhinos in all of Africa. It is very rare to see them in other parks, though they do live there, too. Rhinos are on the verge of extinction, and I wanted to give Tim and myself the best possible odds of seeing these chubby unicorns in the wild.
Our driver came to pick us up early in the morning. Buying the entrance ticket into the park was a little confusing, but once we started driving around looking for animals, it was a lot of fun. The national park is relatively small and all centers around a growing lake.
The lake used to be smaller, but three years ago the area started receiving unusually heavy rainfall. The lake has expanded, and the original entrance gate is flooded. Additionally, the alkaline levels of the lake have changed with the influx of fresh water. This dramatically impacts bird life on the lake. In the past, so many flamingos would migrate to this lake that you couldn’t even see the water through all the pink. Now there are far fewer flamingos and way more pelicans.
Right away on our drive, we saw monkeys, elands, waterbucks, buffalo and zebras. As we neared the lake, I saw in the distance a shape that looked rhino-esque. Using my binoculars to confirm, I told Tim there were two rhinos in the clearing ahead – one smaller than the other.
Our driver brought us closer on the road. On the right of us, the two rhinos walked alongside one another. Then, we realized another rhino was standing even closer to the road on the other side! At the same time, a long line of zebras started to walk by. We stood on our truck and watched as the rhino grazed and the herd of zebras passed in a marching band formation. This was what we came to Nakuru to see, and we were lucky enough to find it.
All of the rhinos we saw are called white rhinos. This has nothing to do with their color. Instead, this is a mispronunciation of “wide,” referring to the size of their jaws. The name “white” stuck, however, and when they named the other species of rhinos with narrower heads, they called them “black.” Or so the story goes, anyway.
Eventually we left our rhino friends and continued closer to the lake. As we neared, I started to be able to make out the faintest shade of pink in the water. Our driver told us we could get out and walk closer.
An armed ranger stood nearby for people’s safety should any predators come near. He told us about the flamingo population in the park and how the changes in the water have changed the ecosystem. Even though the flamingos were far away, we were able to see them very clearly through our binoculars. We also spotted hundreds of pelicans in the mix. With shades of pastel pink, blue and yellow, they were surprisingly pretty as well!
From here our driver drove us around the lake. We stopped at a scenic waterfall for a few minutes, and eventually our truck meandered down some rough tracks.
Suddenly, Tim yelled, “Stop the truck! Stop! Lions!”
Sure enough, on the left hand side of the road under a shady tree, a male and a female lion lay sleepily. With no other cars around, we had these lazy felines to ourselves as they langoriously stretched and sat up. The male looked right at us for a few moments, his mane framing his face. The female stood up and moved back a bit to another tree. Soon, the male joined her and together they snuggled up in the shade.
We didn’t expect to see our first lions this day, and would have been happy with just the rhinos. Stumbling on them and being the only ones there was an incredible surprise. Even our driver was taking pictures of them!
After watching the lions for a bit, we proceeded to a lookout point over the lake for lunch. Then, we drove towards the park exit, spotting giraffes, warthogs, and baboons along the way.
We feel really lucky that after only our first truck safari in Africa, we already saw three of the “Big 5”. Before coming to Africa, I thought this phrase referred to the most distinctive or unique animals in Africa. I didn’t even know what animals made up the Big 5, but I guessed it was probably zebras, giraffes, rhinos, lions and elephants.
Turns out I was very wrong! The Big 5 refers to the 5 African mammals that are the most difficult to hunt on foot. They are lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and cape buffalo. By the way, if you hunt any of these animals for sport or profit, you’re a jerk.
For most tourists in Africa, the Big 5 forms a bucket list of animals they hope to see on safari.
In Nakuru alone, we saw rhinos, lions and buffalo. The only ones left to spot were elephants and the very elusive leopard.
Masai Mara National Reserve
Our next destination in Kenya, the Masai Mara reserve, would be a perfect place to try to see these animals.
It took most of the next day to drive to the Masai Mara, but we arrived to our campsite near a Masai village with time to do a late afternoon safari drive.
We saw zebras, giraffes, warthogs and wildebeest right away. The big event of the safari, though, was the cheetah perched on a rock on the grassy plains, surveying the area for his next meal. Not far away, a herd of antelopes stood at full attention. They didn’t move a muscle. It was clear that they were very aware of the predator nearby.
After some slow stalking, the cheetah identified a younger antelope standing more or less on his own. The cheetah made a run for it, and nearly caught him. The lucky antelope found safety in numbers by joining his herd.
Standing in our safari jeep watching this documentary-worthy scene unfold will forever be a highlight of our time in Africa.
The next morning was a very early one. Tim and I decided to splurge on a hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara. It wasn’t even on our radar until someone on Instagram recommended it, saying they had the opportunity to balloon over the Serengeti and regret not doing it. This planted the seed in my head, but what sealed the deal was learning more about the annual Great Migration.
Every year from June to October, over a million wildebeest migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. It’s the largest single migration of animals in the world. Since it was October, we could catch the tail end of the migration from above.
We’ve seen documentaries with aerial footage of the migration, and we knew a balloon be the best vantage point for seeing the scale of the migration. This combined with the excitement of taking a hot air balloon ride for the first time made the decision to go for it an easy one.
At 4am, Tim went I, plus Nicole and Jacquie from our group and a few others we didn’t know, met up with a driver from the balloon company outside our campsite. He drove us about an hour into another entrance to the Masai Mara reserve.
There, we saw the fabric of a balloon sprawled out on the ground, with a machine blowing warm air into it. After a safety briefing, the pilot instructed us on how we would board the basket.
I had expected we’d just walk on, but apparently it was more complex than that. We’d take off in a laying position, with the basket on its side. There were 16 people total in our balloon, and we all crawled in, 4 people to a cubby. At this point, I was pretty nervous.
Then, the team tipped the basket upright. The next thing I knew, the pilot sent a burst of fire upwards to lift us off the ground.
The hour-long ride in the air was very smooth and peaceful. We were able to see so many animals below us, including elephants, wildebeest, ostriches, zebras and more.
The best way I can describe it is to say that it looked just like the aerial shots in documentaries. Lines of wildebeest marched through dry grasses in search of a place to graze. Juvenile males jousted with their horns, practicing for the more serious battles they’d face in the future. An occasional wildebeest bucked into the air, jerking his body as if reacting to a painful bug bite.
Landing was an interesting experience. Once we touched the ground, the basket tipped over (which I guess it’s supposed to do), and we dragged a few bumpy meters before coming to a stop.
Once the ride was over, we enjoyed an extensive brunch, complete with bottomless champagne.
From there, we rode in safari vehicles to a place where we would meet up with the others from our tour group who opted not to do the hot air balloon safari.
Along the way, we came upon a herd of elephants, all females and babies, grazing on some branches. I counted 14 that I could see, but I think there were others in the back that I couldn’t quite discern. It was easily the closest I’ve ever been to this many wild elephants, and my first time seeing African elephants up close.
We eventually met up with our group at a picnic spot by the river. We ate lunch and then walked along the river banks to check out the resident hippos and crocodiles.
From there we continued our safari drive. After a while, our driver got some kind of notification via his walkie talkie. We couldn’t understand what he said, but we could tell it had to be something about a rare animal sighting. He drove quickly to get to the rumored location.
Immediately when we arrived I saw what the big deal was. A thick, muscular leopard was slowly sauntering through the grasses. This was the last animal for Tim and I to complete the “Big 5”. The leopard seemed unperturbed by our presence. He selected a shady spot under a tree, yawned, and laid down to rest. I’ve always loved cats, and seeing this magnificent beauty was a lot for me to take in. I couldn’t help but cry at the beauty of this place.
Once it was clear the leopard was going to nap, our truck pulled away. Honestly, I could have watched that leopard breathing for hours.
After the safari, we had the opportunity to visit a Masai village near our campsite. The Masai people have lived in this region that is now Kenya and Tanzania for thousands of years. They still maintain a traditional way of life. At the village, we were able to visit the family home of a young man. We also watched a ceremonial jumping competition, accompanied by chanting and dancing.
The next morning we left the Masai Mara behind. We returned to Nairobi for a few days before heading on to the next adventure, south to Tanzania.