Single travel adventurers go to Kenya and discover there’s no place like Africa to witness the circle of life in a land of profound and timeless beauty.
The wildebeest’s screeching grunt shattered the afternoon tranquility of Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve. Next came the unmistakable roar of a hungry simba — native Swahili for lion — in final approach. Then there was silence on the savannah, and the circle of life was complete.
For the 28 awed and horrified single travelers on safari from Southern California who watched the primal drama play out, it was the end of any lingering Disney-fied conceptions about life in the wilds of Africa.
“It definitely didn’t enthrall all of the travelers. In fact, a few had to turn away,” says Ed Reder, leader of the 10-day safari for Singles in Paradise, a club he founded in 1985. “But for many of us, it was why we went on safari in the first place: to witness nature at work.”
“Jambo” (welcome in Swahili) to Kenya, a 224,961-square-mile nation that is slightly more than twice the size of Nevada. It is home to some of the continent’s most magnificent wildlife parks, pristine white-sand beaches and thriving coral reefs.
It also boasts diverse scenery that stretches from the Indian Ocean to mountain ridges topping 9,000 feet in elevation. It is both the variety of Kenya’s terrain and the wildlife that inhabits it that make this East African nation one of the world’s top safari destinations.
Nowhere is this diversity of terrain and its inhabitants more apparent than in the cosmopolitan capital city of Nairobi, home to more than 2.9 million Kenyans. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, it’s both a starting point and an acclimation stop on most safaris.
It’s also a place where the modern and the traditional live side by side, something that is evident within minutes of arriving in Nairobi when one sees, amid the busy urban traffic, Masai herdsmen grazing their cattle on the grass growing on the median strip along the airport road.
Just outside the city, however, all modern technology gives way to simpler times, where life is lived in accordance to tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive cattle into thorn bush enclosures to protect them from lions at night. Roads leading northbound from Nairobi quickly go from bad to worse. Ramshackle towns dot the landscape, and cars and buses seem to disappear, replaced by stoic-faced Kenyans carrying their belongings in baskets on their heads or moving their wares in carts harnessed to donkeys.
Since this safari itinerary was chosen to include the wildest country possible, Reder and his single travelers first destination was the Ark Lodge, tucked away in the forest of Aberdare National Park. Getting there required a grueling five-hour drive that was immediately rewarded with a first glimpse of elephant, buffalo, wild boar and hyenas.
“It took our breath away,” Reder says. “Sure, you can watch Out of Africa and get a sense of the majesty. But nothing prepares you for the face-to-face encounter you get when you’re on a safari.”
He says the lodge’s water hole and salt lick were well-lit at night — when the animals come to drink — and designed to provide safari adventurers with as many encounters with wildlife as possible. A well-concealed “hide” afforded an eye-to-eye view of forest elephant and other game, including endangered black rhino.
As night fell, many in the group grabbed a glass of wine and settled into comfortable sofas to watch a parade of baby elephants frolic with their mothers, who in turn kept their eyes trained on an ornery buffalo cavorting a little too close to their babies.
The next morning, the group’s adventure began early. An endurance-testing seven hours later, they arrived at the Samburu Game Reserve, a small oasis about 215 miles north of Nairobi in Kenya’s semi-arid, rugged central region.
Because the landscape encompasses lush forests, grassy vegetation, rock outcroppings and dried riverbeds, Samburu is uniquely equipped to be home to the rarest animals, including Grevy’s zebras, long-necked gerenuk antelopes, Somali ostriches, Beisa oryxes and reticulated giraffes. And rumor has it that lounging crocodiles and bathing elephants occasionally make an appearance in the Uaso Nyiro River, which runs through the reserve established in the mid-1970s.
Close encounters of the tribal kind
Unlike those in many other countries, Kenyans have maintained much of their traditional culture. In fact, tradition and custom are not seen as being linked to the past, but as an ever-present and evolving part of everyday life. The result is a place where it’s possible to see a Masai walking across the plains using his extended earlobes to support Sony Walkman headphones, a group of urban Kikuyu joining in a traditional wedding ritual in which a bride is sung out of her house by the groom’s family, or a Samburu businessman with a traditionally beaded cell phone cover.
Reder’s group resolved to observe this tribal multiculturalism firsthand in a Samburu tribal village — a village consisting of little more than tiny huts. Villagers welcomed them warmly, presenting each with beaded necklaces. As one might expect, there’s significant meaning behind these beaded beauties, and they aren’t just for general adornment: The necklaces are a status symbol. Like the custom practiced in Western cultures, the more beads a woman wears, the richer her family.
While the beads may suggest the Samburu villagers are a bit too material-girl conscious, one could never argue that they aren’t eco-friendly in the extreme.
Inside the tiny huts, villagers still start their evening fire by rubbing a stick between their hands, rolling it back and forth inside the hole of another stick. Add in crumbled up donkey dung and voila! Three minutes later, the visitors all learned to be fire-starters — which might come in handy once one reaches senior-citizen status in the Samburu tribal village. Learning how this tribe cares for its elderly (or, more accurately, doesn’t) is enough to scare anyone into healthy living. Aches, pains and slow-moving bodies are not suffered gladly here.
Reder says they were shocked to learn that when family members determine a parent has outlived his or her usefulness, fresh meat is carved, given to the elderly parent, and said parent is walked a distance from the fenced-in village so the hyenas can have them for dinner.
While this tactic arguably could save a bundle in assisted-living bills and Social Security benefits, it’s a thought many in the United States would find abhorrent. Yet it’s the kind of spirit that Kenya maintains today — survival of the fittest.
Copyright © Tara Aronson/Ed Reder/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.
When to go:
Africa’s most famous and popular safari is the annual Great Migration, which occurs every September and October. It’s when the animals travel between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara Park Reserve. May through October is considered prime time for game viewing in Kenya, although safaris are available year-round. Kenya’s geography lies on the equator, but the high altitude provides a daytime temperature in most parts of the country that is consistently pleasant ranging from the high 80s (Fahrenheit) to low 90s on the coast.
Travel Warning: In light of the recent attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, the U.S. Department of State has reissued its Travel Warning of July 5, 2013, which warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Kenya. U.S. citizens in Kenya, and those considering travel to Kenya, should evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing and recently heightened threats from terrorism and the high rate of violent crime in some areas. The levels of risk vary throughout the country.
For updated information on travel and security in Kenya, visit the U.S. Department of State website.
Getting There: Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the hub of East African air transport, with connections to many U.S. cities. The airport services most international carriers, including the national airline Kenya Airways.
Other Safari Options:
Abercrombie & Kent was founded in 1962, and its safaris are internationally recognized as leading programs in luxury African travel. The company specializes in small, private lodges and well-appointed tented camps with spring beds, crisp linens and fine dining.
African Travel Inc. was founded in 1976 and operates only in Africa, using its expertise and knowledge of the destinations to build deluxe and luxury prearranged and customized safaris. Expert guides lead game-viewing excursions, nature walks and city tours. Deluxe hotel and safari camp accommodations and elegant dining options round out the trips.
Collette Vacations was founded in 1918 and offers safari accommodations that range from a tree lodge built on stilts deep in the forest, to actor William Holden’s former private retreat, to luxurious tented camps that combine the amenities of a lodge with the adventure of the wild.
G Adventures was founded in 1990, and in 2007 was voted No. 1 “Do It All Outfitter on Earth” in National Geographic Adventure magazine’s survey of Best Adventure Travel Companies in the World. Safaris are selected according to G Adventure’s philosophy of sustainable tourism, meaning they are environmentally friendly.
SITA Tours was founded in 1933, and its style of comfortable, leisurely safaris is its hallmark. With an eye on small-group tours, SITA offers an unprecedented level of personal attention and private interaction, forging a special connection between travelers and the destination.
Tauck World Discovery was founded in 1925 and offers safaris in eastern and southern Africa that are upscale and designed to balance organized activities with ample leisure time.
How much does it cost?
Land portion only: The Singles in Paradise safari includes all accommodations, most meals, transportation and all park and government fees and costs $2,595 per person, sharing double room; single-occupancy available on request. You can also pay upwards of $12,000 for a safari with high-end companies like Abercrombie & Kent.