My artistic, exquisite and adventurous sister-in-law went to Africa a few years ago for a trip she dreamed of for a long time. I remember her passion beforehand in the planning of the journey and afterwards as she and her husband regaled us with stories of their adventures. The exotic adventures and deep reflection of their journey there makes it a perfect interview for the spirit of the gyspyfamilytravel.com blog. I’ve enjoyed traveling with my in-laws and sister-in-law, specifically, to some unique destinations. Her love for animals is apparent in her penetrating photos.
What inspired you to travel to Kenya (and later Tanzania)?
When I was a young girl, I had dreams as big as Africa. I dreamed of a world lost in time, windswept plains as wide as my little arms could spread, rhythms, drumbeats, the cradle of civilzation, the heartbeat of the world. I longed to someday hear the pounding hooves of the wildebeest migration, glimpse an elephant herd, see majestic giraffe grace their way across a golden savannah, feel myself tucked in at night by an endless blanket of stars. I dreamed as only a child can. Decades later, those dreams would come true.
Where did you find this trip?
Through Extraordinary Journeys, an award winning travel outfitter with outstanding personal service.
I had long hoped for a chance to interact with an indigenous tribe; to photograph and experience a culture vastly different from my own; and to go on safari. Through this outfitter I became aware of an extraordinary foundation that works with very remote communities of in Kenya in an effort to build sustainable models of education and basic needs. It is not a model of charity, but rather self-reliance. It’s a model that appeals to me. And the trip also included a safari. It was a perfect fit.
What was the name of the foundation?
Under the Acacia
What did your trip itinerary involve?
The itinerary included a taste of Nairobi, a safari, time in the bush with a Maasai tribe, and downtime on the beaches of Zanzibar. We traveled by jet…slicing silently through the sunset over the Sahara; bush plane…buzzing zebra of the dirt landing strip before landing; safari jeep across the vast, open savannah…encountering lion, elephant, cheetah, giraffe, hyena, wildebeest, among a vast array of wild animals.
Tell me more about your experience with the Maasai community:
Under threatening skies in an open safari jeep, we traversed rutted dirt roads and undulating savannah with Under the Acacia founder Jess Teutonico and Country Director Joseph Koyie to a remote Maasai community uncharted by tourists. After many hours, we arrived at an outpost that housed one of the two schools Under the Acacia had built. The Loita Maasai community, including chiefs, elders, mamas, warriors, and students greeted us in song and dance. In oral tradition they sang the history of their tribe, danced out the victories of warriors, and presented us with a goat as a gift of gratitude and kindness. After a most incredible day we left just before sunset, as the first raindrops fell and an enormous rainbow crowned the horizon.
We spent the following day at Esoit Academy, also build by Under the Acacia, where we were once again feted with chanting, song and dance, and a community feast. We were greeted with a warmth that I carry in my heart to this day. The dazzling smiles and infectious joy of the Maasai resonated throughout the day. We were given piece after piece of beautiful beaded jewelry made by the tribal women. We were honored by being “married” to the tribe, with rings of hide from a freshly slaughtered goat slipped over our fingers.
We were uniquely immersed in a pocket of a culture that still largely live as they have for centuries, retaining the social structures, customs, and rituals. As they have for centuries, this tribe of Maasai lives remotely in mud bomas (houses) and manyattas (compound) scattered across their herding lands. Young boys play and herd livestock. Older boys on the path to manhood endure a painful circumcision ceremony before become tribal warriors. Girls fetch water and learn cooking, milking, hut building and other domestic skills. The children we met are the first of their tribe to ever attend school. They long for formal education and most walk several hours to school and back daily, grateful for the opportunity.
To be given such a personal and unique glimpse into this fascinating, ancient culture was an honor and privilege beyond my dreams.
How would you describe the perfect Kenyan meal?
I don’t know what the perfect Kenyan meal is, but I can tell you about one of the most extraordinary meal experiences of my life. The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Their measure of wealth is their children and livestock. In celebration of our visit cattle and goats were slaughtered for a huge tribal meal.
The men were in charge of the feast. There was no building or kitchen, no cooking or eating utensils, just a cool grove of trees, one big pot for boiling potatoes and machetes used to hack the fresh slaughter into large pieces. The meat was laid out on fresh green leaves newly stripped out of nearby trees. In a small clearing red-hot coals filled a fire-pit. Big slabs of meat were skewered onto green wood sticks and planted next to the glowing embers. As the potatoes boiled and the meat slowly roasted, we were feted with song and dance by the tribal children and mamas.
What excursion do you most recommend?
A safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve. Contiguous with the Serengeti (Tanzania), the Mara is a lush, sweeping savannah rising to a high plateau, as well as woodland along the banks of the Mara River. The Mara teems with wildlife and is most famous for its big cats and wildebeest migration. For the richest experience, arrange for a private safari guide who lives and breathes the rhythm of the Mara daily. Our guide was Joseph Koyie, a former Maasai warrior and a current leader of his tribe. His vast knowledge and passion led us to extraordinary sightings that frame my love for this raw and beautiful land, including:
A large pod of elephants gracefully crossed a quiet river one soft morning, letting the babies play and tumble in the cool water before marching on…
Another family of elephants in the middle of the endless grasslands that encircled their young to form a barrier against an approaching lioness…
A lion pride mere feet away from our safari jeep that cooed and preened their cubs, which crawled across their mothers, nibbling at their ears…
A freshly discarded wildebeest carcass, abandoned by lions and devoured by vultures in a frenzy of blood lust…
A sea of wildebeest and zebra painting a surreal landscape across the plateau…
A zebra mother who brayed piteously on the banks of the BBC crossing after her offspring was taken before our eyes by a monstrous and terrifying crocodile …
A lilac-breasted roller, a bird that is a kaleidoscope of color that exploded from the golden waves of grass…
A days-old baby elephant hiding beneath the canopy of its mother…
Giraffes galloping across the plains in slow-sway elegance …
The sky radiating pink and gold as it set beyond the Mara as we sipped sundowners on the escarpment…
And that is just a tiny taste of the wonders of the wild, majestic splendors of this extraordinary region.
What other excursions do you recommend?
In Nairobi, don’t miss the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the AFEW Giraffe Centre and nearby Giraffe Manor. I recommend fostering an elephant before traveling. You will have a chance to meet your adoptee at the orphanage at a special time reserved just for donors. It is a touching experience you will never forget.
What lodge do you recommend?
Olanona Lodge, www.sanctuaryretreats.com/kenya-camps-olonana …a beautiful, luxurious, “traditional tented safari camp located on a private stretch of the Mara River at the foot of the impressive Siria Escarpment, close to where the famous last scene from Out of Africa was filmed.”
We also stayed at the stunning Olarro Camp with its expansive vistas of the Mara plains.www.hermesretreats.com/en/olarro.aspx
Describe the vibe of the culture.
What I encountered were happy, embracing people everywhere, full of life and effervescent smiles. Proud, dignified, gracious.
What did you learn about yourself on this trip?
Travel liberates one from bias. It gives one perspective and opens the mind and heart. At least, that’s what it does for me. This trip was no exception. Traveling to Africa was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams and passions. Kenya was real, raw, unpolished, unedited, and breathtakingly beautiful. Though my dreams of Africa were always as big as the Mara sky, this journey exceeded what I could have imagined.
I was totally and blissfully immersed, baptized in Africa.
Photos by Sophia Litchfield