“Geoffrey has spotted a pack of wild dog a short drive from camp.” This was the sunrise greeting of Mark, the owner of Ikuka Safari Camp, just as I was packing up for my early bush flight to the Selous. In a five-minute whirlwind, I threw everything together, zipped up my suitcase and took off to see these exceptionally rare “painted wolves of Africa”. Mark and his wife Chloe roused their young girls to also come have a look. You know it is a good day when the owners and camp staff equally share in the enthusiasm of a sighting. So much for a leisurely farewell breakfast! Instead, we got to hang out with a pack of eighteen playful and inquisitive wild dogs (who are also fierce hunters). Thus began my last morning in Ruaha National Park…
This last-minute jaunt to East Africa in the middle of a global pandemic turned out to be a dream combination of spectacular wildlife, flawless logistics and return-worthy places. Instead of venturing to the famed migration parks, the Masai Mara and Serengeti, I chose a less-obvious track of Nairobi, Zanzibar and Southern Tanzania.
Twenty-five years had passed since I’d been to Nairobi, and I was eager to set foot on Kenyan soil again. Hemingways Hotel in the leafy suburb of Karen made the rushed 24-hour stop worth it. What better way to recover after the long international flights than with a cold Tusker beer, one of the best hotel showers (ahh, that water pressure), and a private balcony with no bugs and a 65-degree windless night? A visit to the Giraffe Center, Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa” house, and a bead-making factory that empowers local women rounded out the quick stay in Kenya.
I flew direct from Nairobi to an island off Tanzania. In my seven previous visits to Africa, I never visited one of it’s Indian Ocean islands. “Why fly halfway around the world to go to a beach when I have Mexico and the Caribbean in my backyard?” This year convinced me that a beach in Africa was exactly what I needed! Zanzibar did not disappoint. Staying in the northern tip of the island delivered a starfish-dotted beach with brilliant hues of blue water (and no strong tides). Add in the enchantment of Stone Town, the famed locally-sourced spices and the Kipling-esque forest filled with monkeys found only on Zanzibar, and you have the perfect blend of escape and exotic.
While I love the Serengeti plains and the “Garden of Eden” Ngorongoro Crater, this trip was about exploring new places. Southern Tanzania is a hidden gem for savvy safari goers, especially those who want to include Zanzibar in their itinerary. I was delighted by the baobabs of Ruaha National Park; each tree has its own personality and adds another dimension to wildlife viewing. My wild dog farewell was bookended a few days earlier by a leopard successfully hunting an impala only hours after I stepped off the plane. Ikuka Safari Camp was my home base for three nights. The design of the camp is magazine-worthy and also has thoughtful touches like a telescope in each room and a perfectly-placed lightswitch for the bathroom. The expansive, open-air “rooms” and common areas showcase nature. You have an immediate sense of place that sets the tone for why you traveled to Africa. Ikuka’s hilltop perch meant that I never sweated (even though it was the dry season), and I never saw a mosquito (my Deet repellent went unused, and dinnertime was blissfully chemical-free). I became spoiled by being greeted with an amarula shot (similar to a really good Bailey’s Irish Cream) after each evening game drive and with delicious, creative food at every meal. My guide Geoffrey is not only an expert in tracking game and identifying birds, but he is also a budding photographer. My photos are so much better thanks to his positioning for light and angles. Everyone at camp soon became a friend, so traveling alone was never awkward or lonely.
My final stop along the journey was the Selous (now called Nyerere National Park), an expansive reserve featured in Peter Mattheissen’s book Sand Rivers that describes this quintessential East African wilderness through photography and prose. My choice of places to stay in the Selous? Sand Rivers Lodge, of course! This lodge is part of Nomad Tanzania, a collection of my favorite East African camps. Nomad describes Sand Rivers perfectly: “our handsome light-filled lodge with wide-screen technicolour views across an iconic African riverbank.” I would add the following: “complete with a soundtrack of grunting hippos, boat and fishing excursions on the Rufiji (the perfect counterbalance to game drives), and the most delightful food served fresh from head chef Bernadetta.” Highlights included spending a morning with an elusive pangolin (considered by many experts as the “holy grail” of sightings), watching hippos mate, and cruising by crocodiles basking in the last rays of sunlight before slithering into the river. My only regret was not having more time there.
Africa is a passion of mine. It proved to be the ultimate silver lining of 2020, and I’m already plotting my next escape to the continent. What’s on the horizon?
Perhaps Western Tanzania with its chimps and “gin clear” deep lake.
Or Cape Town (my all-time favorite city) to visit good friends who own one of the premier tour companies in Africa and have family-owned properties and a luxury houseboat collection on the Chobe River.
The giant red sand dunes of Namibia? Gorilla-trekking in the lush Virunga Mountains of Rwanda? I would love to see the contrasting landscapes.
And, of course, exclusive Botswana is always high on my list. It is the darling of many wildlife and industry experts.
But I would also love to repeat this identical Kenya-Zanzibar-Southern Tanzania itinerary with my daughter, Kate. It was that good! And immensely rewarding after this challenging year.
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