Heading on my very first trip to Africa, I kept my expectations low and my mind open. I wanted to be able to experience anything and everything there was to offer, and not let all the hours of research I had done sway me to expecting anything specific. Of course, I was beyond excited for the opportunity to see all the animals in their natural habitats – and those interactions were incredible – absolutely incredible.  What I wasn’t expecting was the non-animal interactions that made such an impact on my experience.

1. The FOOD

I am going to be honest, I’m a little bit of a picky eater. I am not a huge fan of vegetables, but I will usually try most things once.  When I say that I could not pick a favorite dish or meal, I am not kidding. Every meal tantalized my taste buds. At one point, I simply asked the staff to just choose my dinner selection for me, because everything was so good, I couldn’t pick. The mixture of local cuisine with Western tastes was interesting and absolutely perfect. At many of the properties I stayed at, they have trained their staff under well-known, professional chefs to ensure that they are providing the highest quality of service and known cooking practices. While in Uganda, I raved so much about the cheese samosas (a common snack food that is normally a mixture of spicy vegetables and/or meat wrapped in a thin sheet of pastry and then fried,) the staff surprised me by making these to put in my packed lunch while everyone else received the normal (but delicious) samosas. My excitement when I found out that I had cheese ones made them laugh. I also got to join in learning how to cook a rolex – their specialty. My lack of cooking skills was also a source of laughter for our group.

2. THE PEOPLE

If you talk to people who have traveled to Africa before, they will often mention the impact that their experiences with the local people have on their trip. Obviously working with Hills of Africa, we have some of the best teams on the ground that provide the best VIP Assistance. From the first encounter with my driver, to the staff at every single lodge, our guides, and the local people, it was such a welcoming experience. A few of my favorite experiences:

  • The entire staff at Finch Hatton in Kenya were amazing. They all knew my name right away. They watched what I ordered and would bring my preferred drink to me when I arrived at dinner. One evening I spent time around the Boma listening to the “storyteller” tells me stories of the camp, the history of the wildlife that lived around the camp, and took in his gorgeous voice while he sang songs. He has worked at Finch Hattons since the beginning of conception and shared the stories of wildlife encounters from the beginning of the construction stages. While taking in the gorgeous sounds, one of the local crocodiles decided to come on shore to see if she could sneak some food from the kitchen. They excitedly told me where to stand so I could get a close-up look and take some photos, while some of the female servers squealed and moved to higher ground, and watched as they coaxed her back to the water. There were no other guests around, so it felt like something special that only I got to experience.
  • My guide, Matthew, who was part of the Maasai Mara tribe was phenomenal. His knowledge of the animals and tracking was unreal, and I loved hearing his stories of the tribe and his family. During our sundowners, they invited us to play some Kenya tribe games. They underestimated my ability to throw the wooden clubs, known as “rungus” into the target. We had some friendly banter, as my partner and I won that particular challenge. I did, however, scare them (and myself) with my lack of ability to shoot the bow and arrow well, and unfortunately, we lost that challenge.
  • In Uganda, the staff and drivers for Volcanoes were top-notch. They made you feel like you were a part of their family. It was such a comforting feeling, along with providing some of the best laughs. The detail that they showed at every moment of the trip was astonishing. I didn’t know how to act being doted on and taken care of. I even got “scolded” once when I carried my own bag to the front for checkout. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a real scolding. They laughed with me and told me to let them take care of me. (Can I please live every day like this?) As I mentioned in the food section before, my love for the cheese samosas became a joke, and every lodge we visited knew this about me, and prepared one for me almost each time.
  • Our gorilla hiking guide in Rwanda was THE BEST. You can actually see him in action on the Netflix film, Our Great National Parks featuring Rwanda. Growing up in the hills around Volcanos National Park, his knowledge of the gorillas and their behaviors was unmatched. His banter and jokes even had the porters laughing. The gorilla trekking experience was undeniably one of the coolest experiences of my life, but his presence and knowledge brought our experience to a completely new level. His commentary on the gorilla’s behaviors and relationships allowed us to not only observe but know these amazing animals and what they have been up to. The silverback in our group had taken a new “wife” the day before, and we got to witness the female gorillas show jealousy towards the new woman and learn about the entire process. It was an insider’s perspective that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

3. THE ACCOMMODATIONS

Of course, I was staying at some of the best lodges in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, so I already knew that they would be great accommodations. I was still surprised and delighted at so many of the features. All of the rooms were so spacious, the beds were extremely comfortable, the outdoor showers were a welcome and exhilarating experience, the fires made in the room in the evenings were comforting, the robes and slippers provided were a fun surprise, and the complimentary laundry service was wonderful. Everything was so clean and well-maintained. I took the best nap of my life on the deck of my lodge, on the edge of the pond in Kenya, while the hippos rested in front of me.

PROPERTIES I STAYED AT:

Finch Hattons Luxury Tented Camp – Kenya

Volcanoes Properties in Uganda: Bwindi Lodge, Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Mount Gahinga Lodge

Virunga Lodge (Rwanda)

4. THE SILENCE

I am a busy mom who is nonstop all the time, so the silence and being forced to slow down was a welcome part of the trip. During my game drive in Kenya, it was just my guide, Matthew and me riding along. There were many moments during the drive when there was silence other than the hum of the vehicle we were in. There were a few times he asked me if I was okay, as I was gazing out at the open landscape just taking in all of it. The silence was such a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Being in the middle of this massive landscape, riding alongside these gorgeous large giraffes and elephants, I experienced a feeling of such humbleness. Feeling so small in this big world, and yet so lucky to get to experience a moment like this. If you need to unplug and connect with the earth, you can’t go wrong with Africa.

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