OnSafari : With The Family

OnSafari : With The Family

kidsonrover.operationsIt’s been nearly a decade since I’ve encountered so many families on safari – is the midmarket coming back? Is it time, again, to travel to Africa for a family vacation?

Yes, and yes. For several years, now, I’ve wondered if the midmarket would return. The Great Recession clobbered disposable incomes, especially for families, and it dove-tailed horribly with the election troubles in Kenya then increasing terrorism there after the October, 2011, Somali invasion.

Enough time has passed, now, that our economy is returning to a semblance of normality (even as much of Europe has not) AND terrorism in East Africa is way down.

Family safaris have returned: From Serena to Sopa to lower market family group safaris, the circuit we just completed in Tanzania was jam packed.

I’ll be in Kenya in a few weeks and will be able to assess that as well, especially as the British government has removed its travel warnings on Kenya’s so popular coast.

It’s a definite generalization, but it seems to me that terrorism is moving out of the Third World and back to the western world in some bold attempt by the bad guys to prove they can penetrate western security.

Needless to say, a terrorist incident like occurred on the Tunisian beaches and may have occurred at the Naval Yard yesterday would represent much greater victories for the bad guys than closing a few beach hotels in Kenya.

I think families know this, now, and as their finances stabilize they understand what wonderful memories a family safari creates.

At Rivertrees Country Inn a few weeks ago in Arusha I was talking to one family of a very typical composition: grandfather and grandmother, plus two families of their two children with six grandchildren in total, all under 13 years old.

That is the perfect composition for a family safari, and as I was talking with the adults one of the 9-year olds saddled up to Bibi (Grandma) to tell her that this was the best family vacation he had ever had!

It was only their second day but the colobus monkeys were calling from the ground’s high fig trees and mongoose were scampering over the beautifully landscaped gardens.

Kids love a family safari because of the wildness. Imagine being a kid who lives his day with one rule on top of another. It must be absolutely liberating to experience a situation where his parents are as restricted as she feels: Nobody, not even adults, can walk out there with the lions!

I think, too, like learning languages at an early age facilitates greater language skills as an adult, immersing yourself in the wilderness at a young age primes the spirit not just to be adventuresome but to refresh the natural link every person has with the organic world.

Saying it more simply, it’s one of the few things for which they lower their phones.

By the way, I did discover an interesting drawback to the summer family safaris now returning to East Africa. Once back in the camp or lodge where civilization returns, the enormous drain on the internet system from kids’ phones is causing data congestion.

Gerd, the manager at Gibb’s Farm, is so worried about this that he’s researching software that would clamp the data availability per device, ensuring for example that his own office emails would work normally while ending streaming and photo sharing of his clients.

If that bothers you, imagine how it bothers Africans who have a much greater use of cell phones than Americans.

There are 26 satellites carrying cell phone data over North America. There are only 2 over the entire continent of Africa.

That can’t last for too long. There’s a lot more that Africa needs from the global internet network than Facebook.

My McGrath Family Safari ended yesterday. It was near perfect, and I don’t say that lightly, because such things are avoiding car breakdowns or camp booking glitches in the high season is often a matter of luck, not skill.

So Ngei was with us, I guess! As it was with the many other happy families I encountered so far this season!

On Safari: First Impressions

On Safari: First Impressions

WhatDoFirstDayWhat do kids do the first morning after arriving in Africa at 2 a.m.?

Normally, sleep. In fact sleep so deeply, whether they’ve slept or not on the planes, that they wake up completely disoriented.

But not so my Kisiel Family! Playing the numbers, I slept a little bit more than usual, since I met them on the now very popular Turkish Airlines flight that daily arrives Kilimanjaro at 1:10a.

Immigration and customs is pretty easy at 1:30a at night in Kilimanjaro, and so we were on our way to Serena’s Lake Duluti Lodge hardly a half hour after the plane landed. It was about a 40-minute drive … in the dark … but young Nicholas positioned himself in the front seat, stiffened his back and followed the car’s headlights on the pavement for any trace whatever of lion.

Fortunately for Arusha residents there aren’t any, but that didn’t deter Nicholas from his half-hour vigil.

The two-lane paved road from the airport is fine, with numerous speed bumps so no one feels the least uneasy except that it’s so dark.

Turning off into any of the lodges in the area right around Arusha, though, means the first experience on a very badly kept dirt or gravel road. And that wakes everyone up. Our experience, though, lasted all of a few minutes.

I already had the keys to the room so quickly assembled the 14 in the family, aged from 6 to … well, grandparents’ age … and explained simple things like having to double-flush the toilet and keeping a flashlight at your side at all times because of Arusha’s constant and troubling power outages.

And I sent them to bed telling them not to be scared of the hadada ibis in the morning, whose sunrise call sounds for all the world like Napoleon’s charge at Waterloo.

Three a.m. rarely needs more encouragement for hitting the sack, but it was in the middle of the American/Ghana world cup match. I watched it for 13 seconds before falling asleep.

It’s always a delight sharing my clients’ experiences of their first waking moment in Africa. More and more flights are arriving at night, so there really isn’t a lot of orientation available until after you’ve gone to bed, slept, and then are awakened by the honking of the ibis.

The word most clients use to describe their first lighted scene is “jungle.” It’s not wholly accurate, of course, since it’s much colder than a real jungle. Today we woke up to temperatures in the lower 60s.

That’s because this area around Arusha, the foothills of Africa’s fifth highest mountain, Meru, are a mile high. But looking out over your room’s deck, it does look like a jungle.

Our particular view is of a beautifully landscaped hedge of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and forget-me-nots, separating the wild and thick bush beyond from the individual rooms.

And that includes lots of wild bananas, massive mango and mahogany trees, a peppering of acacia (we get many, many more of those on the veld) and every once in a while a glimpse of the crater lake Duluti.

I was enjoying my coffee on my deck, trying to delay going too early to the breakfast room since I expected they would all come quite late.

But not most of the Kisiel family! They were down early, eating and enjoying their first morning long before I expected!

On to Tarangire! Stay tuned!

Mara Family

Mara Family

Family safaris usually occur at a difficult time for optimum game viewing. But the Mara won that game for us!

Understandably, most family safaris are scheduled for the summer school holiday. Spring break is often too short, and there are often kids in the same family with different spring breaks. And with U.S. schools starting earlier and earlier, especially the sports programs, the family safari usually takes place from the first of June through the end of July.

That’s not at the optimum time for game viewing. I still maintain that the game viewing in East Africa at any time of the year is better in East Africa than at any time of the year elsewhere, like in southern Africa. So for game viewing, in a sense it doesn’t matter.

The optimum game viewing in East Africa occurs in March and April (in the Serengeti) or in September and October (in the Mara). Variances in weather can extend or contract these windows. Our safari – like many family safaris – is happening in early July.

Quite apart from the anomalous drought that is happening, this is a tough time for experiencing the big herds East Africa is known for. No problem with elephants, but wildebeest, zebra, and the many other ungulates and antelope are widely dispersed as they navigate the end of a rainy season searching for better grasslands.

The best place to end a safari at this time is in the Mara. We ended it by exclusively occupying a wonderful luxury semi-permanent camp right on the Sand River. I’ve only been going to Sala’s Camp for several years, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite family safari camp for this time of the year.

Consider this. On our way from the Keekorok airstrip at around 430p, Monday, we managed to have a lovely tea stop on a hill overlooking vast stretches of the Mara, find six lions posing for photographs, plus find three cheetah on a recent Tomie kill beautifully framed by a dramatic sunset.

The cheetah kill was particularly fascinating. There were at least 150 vultures which had dropped out of the sky and were menacing the poor cheetah. Vultures hunt by sight, and this was their last opportunity before dark.

Cara Hopcraft, the camp host, was ready with a special welcome of hot towels, fresh lime juice, and hot water for showers! The camp is mildly lighted by solar, so as dark as it was, the tent was warm and welcoming.

Each tent is beautifully furnished and includes flush toilets. I especially like the little touches which I feel might not be so expensive or difficult to arrange, but indicate a care that so many camps lack. There was a little vase of local wild flowers on the vanity counter, the water bottles were beautifully beaded, and the clothes organizer was a simple drop-down canvas box considerably more useful than a huge chest. Flashlights, bug spray, and three kinds of shampoo and conditioner! Most importantly, for those of us who shave, the mirror was perfectly placed under the solar light to avoid before dawn lacerations!

“I really didn’t expect this,” young Dillon said, truly on behalf of everyone. But as I explained to everyone, “camping” in East Africa has morphed into something else. Part of the reason are the extraordinary fees that the park authorities demand for the right to camp in any fashion. So once that expense is incurred, the upmarket becomes the only reasonable demographic.

We stayed in the Mara for three days and nights. The first two mornings we had an early breakfast and then took a long 6-7 hour game drive. Our location right on the Sand River couldn’t be more beautiful, but it is somewhat compromised for optimum game viewing in the Mara. So the longer drives were necessary.

At this time of the year in the Mara, it is very cold. Ari and Hayley wrapped themselves in several Maasai blankets. The gloves that are on our preparation list, appeared at last.

We had fabulous game viewing. For one thing, the migration was arriving. Two weeks ago I greeted the first wave at the Sand River, and now more was on the way. It’s still very much the beginning, and the herds won’t concentrate until August, but everyone was very impressed. “I never expected this!” Leo told me waving his Tolstoy hat at a line of running wilde.

I was especially surprised and overjoyed to find rhino! Yes, authorities have been trying to reintroduce rhino to the Mara for years and years. We found a mother and calve who were very leery of us and disappeared after a few minutes in deep brush. We also found the tracks of another single rhino. This is impressive and certainly a highlight of this southeast area.

Add to the rhino a bevy of lion, cheetah, and for Carl and me, some very impressive birding. We definitely (I stand by it, fellow birders) found the black coucal and banded snake eagle, two extraordinary finds.

But probably for the family, as successful as was our game viewing, the volleyball games with the camp staff on the Sand River, and the trampoline antics in the afternoon were just as memorable. I sat one afternoon with Grandma Marian on the cliff above the river watching the kids (and their parents) having extraordinary fun. But we all stopped short of insisting that Conor perform his famous break-dancing; he was, after all, a few years out of shape having joined his folks on safari from the boondocks of Guinea where he is a Peace Corps volunteer.

It was hard ending the safari. Everything seemed to have worked so well, and the two families who didn’t know one another before the trip had now become very close. As a last hurrah and fabulous surprise, Irene had carved out of the river sand two remarkably realistic crocodiles! We’d seen them on the Mara. At first glance it was kind of scary!

A good vacation anywhere broadens beyond its theme into memories that could be created anywhere in the world. A good family safari must have the wonderful game viewing we accomplished, but it doesn’t have to be the best game viewing of the year. Good lodges and camps, memorable occasions like sundowners and relaxing conversations around an isolated camp fire, and the warmth of new friendships might occur anywhere in the world. But when it happens in East Africa, ending at a place like Sala’s Camp in the Mara, it ranks right up there with the best family vacation possible anywhere!

Kids on Safari

Kids on Safari

Children will make just as big an effort to get on safari as adults!

Traditionally, American family safaris operate almost exclusively within the summer school vacation window, July and August. I try to push mine a bit earlier, since the game is better and the veld not quite as dusty and dry.

The Addington family really pushed themselves to meet this opportunity. Nicholas and Phoebe, 9 and 7 years old, with little sister Jane (4 yo) and Mom and Dad left school Thursday afternoon on its last day and a few hours later were on a plane from New York to London, and arrived Nairobi Saturday night!

The teenager triplets, Alex, India and Ellery (16 yo), and their little sister Emma (9 yo), crammed all their finals at school into one day (it was usually three), so they could be in Nairobi Thursday night to be able to sightsee in Nairobi, Friday.

We spent all of Friday touring Nairobi and environs. My Nairobi entry activities are all optional, because some people really need to wind down. So Saturday was split in two: morning and afternoon sightseeing. The morning sightseeing began at 9 a.m. Everyone was there, after having not hit the sack the night before until 10:30p.

We started at the national museum. A wonderful, unexpected attraction was to see the lines and lines of Nairobi school children on an important field outing. I explained to the kids on my safari that most Kenyan children never see a wild animal. One of the main attractions for them is the central exhibition hall with its huge display of stuffed big game.

We raced through the museum, noting the brilliant exhibit of the different gourds from around Kenya, representing the different cultures, tribes and languages. The floor-to-ceiling pyramid of more than 150 beautifully decorated gourds is an impressive lesson on how diverse the people of Kenya are.

It was then to the Early Man Hall. As I’ve written before, this is one of the finest exhibits in any museum in the world. The Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg gets close, but Nairobi actually displays for the public seven of the most important original early hominid fossils, including Turkana Boy.

We then went into the city and walked the streets from Parliament to the Stanley Hotel. I’m able to describe history, politics and relay many funny stories on this section of the trip. We were really lucky to have such a beautiful, fresh day, too. At the Stanley we enjoyed their famous coffees, pastries and Stony Tangowizi for the kids, and took some time to look at the beautifully restored early colonial bar on the second floor.

An unexpected bit of excitement was when Ellery was stopped on the stairs of the New Stanley by a reporter from Nairobi’s hip talk radio, 91.5. Ellery is a soccer star at school, and the reporter wanted to know his impressions of the recent sale of Ronaldo from Manchester United. (Ellery thought the transaction was a bit excessive.)

The afternoon began at 2 p.m., with hardly an hour free time in between, and once again everyone was there. We traveled to the suburb of Karen and started at the Kazuri Beads Womens Cooperative before visiting Giraffe Manor. Even smaller Phoebe was photographed stroking the giraffe head which was easily twice her entire size!

I feel very strongly that visitors to East Africa need to see more than just animals, and this first day in Nairobi opens many eyes and hearts to the hopes and miseries of this wonderful place. You can’t drive to Karen from Nairobi without driving past some slums. And the traffic — what locally we call the “jam” – is an unbelievable reality of modern life in Africa. One porter at the Norfolk Hotel told me it takes him nearly 2 hours each way to commute to work, when five years ago it was only 30 minutes.

Needless to say, everyone was exhausted. Great way, I think, to attack jetlag!

Kids on Safari

Kids on Safari

Today I return to Africa for six weeks to guide two families, including some very young children. I’m often asked, is a safari a right experience for a kid?

I’m guiding two back-to-back families, one of my favorite guiding gigs. Kids are fabulous on safari. They’re uninhibited, socially immature, reactive – all the things we would want for a technicolor experience! They’re honest.

Parents and grandparents are constantly asking whether children can (a) take the long flights, (b) take the long rides, (c) have the attention span, (d) will eat the foreign food, and (e) will get sick.

The fact is that these are questions in many cases that the adults are asking about themselves. They are valid questions, but they don’t apply any more to children than adults.

Children are much more flexible than adults, and that’s probably why they do so well on safari. I’ll be guiding more than a dozen kids in the next 6 weeks, 10 of them are under 10 years old, and 2 of them are 5 years old. Frankly, I think an African safari is a better trip for a 5-year old than visiting European capitals!

Parents and grandparents often seem very concerned about whether the kid “is old enough to remember anything about the experience.”

There are quite a few seventy-year olds I guide every year who remember nothing. Some kids will remember; some won’t. (My own children seem to remember more about what they did on safari when they were 5 and 6 than I do!)

But more importantly, remembering an experience is not necessarily the most important thing. There must be thousands of important experiences a toddler will never recall, yet which shaped his personality and character. I can think of few better things in today’s myopic if xenophobic age than to thrust toddlers into alien, exciting environments, and to foment the idea that “different is good.”

And just as important, it’s what the parents or the grandparents will remember. The lives of parents and grandparents don’t stop just because they suddenly have children to care for. It’s part of our existence, our evolution to nourish and nurture, but not just our offspring, ourselves as well! We, too, learn from our children, and their perspectives during an African safari are absolutely some of the best there are.

I have often seen parents and grandparents reaching near moments of epiphany on safari as a result of something that a young child sa1d or did. That’s priceless.

The family safari is for everyone, not just the kids. And I can’t think of a more synergistic vacation, one that is likely to achieve a more memorable and lasting result, than an African Safari!