Our editor-in-chief just returned from a trip to southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, taking in the most famous game park in Kenya, the Maasai Mara, and the most famous game park in Tanzania, the Serengeti. In the 15 days he was gone, Mr. Harper visited six safari camps and one hotel. And while the full review of his trip will be in the June issue, we couldn’t wait to hear about his experience, especially since it took place during such an unprecedented time. While he has been fortunate enough to have been on more than 30 safaris, this one just may have been the most life-affirming yet.
Why Africa and why now? I had two reasons for going: One was that it seemed relatively easy to get into Kenya and Tanzania, and I felt that there wouldn’t be any threat of COVID-19 in a remote, wild place. As soon as you get outside, and the wind is blowing and you are away from people, you feel safe. And second, my first trip to the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti was before the age of mass tourism; I saw them when they were empty. That’s when I fell in love with Africa. You could drive around the Mara and not see anyone. I spent five days following the migration in the southern Serengeti and never saw anyone else. It was just me, the guide, 2 million wildebeest and 250,000 zebra. And that was, I thought, something people would want to replicate. Right now, because of the lack of tourism, they can. Not many Americans are traveling and virtually no Europeans are traveling, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
How did you get there and back? I took a nonstop 13.5-hour flight from New York to Nairobi on Kenya Airways. The flight home was longer: Dar es Salaam to Doha via Zanzibar on Qatar Airlines; that was eight hours. Then from Doha to New York was 14.
What properties did you visit? Ol Donyo Lodge, in southeastern Kenya, close to Amboseli National Park, which contains some of the world’s biggest elephants. Sanctuary Olonana on the Mara River, and Angama Mara, which is high up on the Siria Escarpment — you may know the view from the concluding scene of the movie “Out of Africa.” Then, a lovely place called Legendary Lodge, outside Arusha, Tanzania. It’s an old coffee plantation that is a gracious place to spend the night on the way to someplace else. It has a 1930s old-fashioned vibe, nice food and charming staff. From there, I flew down to Tarangire National Park in Tanzania and stayed at a lodge called Little Chem Chem — six tents in the middle of a concession that is famous for its elephants. Next I went to the Ngorongoro Crater, which is the world’s largest caldera, and stayed at Asilia’s The Highlands. It was a pleasant enough camp with friendly people but the road to it was diabolical. Then in the Serengeti, arguably the most famous national park in the world, I stayed in a tented camp called the Namiri Plains, which is way out on its own, two hours’ drive from the park headquarters. The architecture and design were rather sterile, but the staff were very nice and you are right on the southern plains of the Serengeti, with immense grasslands stretching on forever. You have a 50-mile view with no other camps and no other people.
Why is the Great Migration such a draw? There are all sorts of wonderful wildlife areas in the world where there aren’t many people — in Botswana and Namibia, for instance — but the Serengeti is unique. It has the greatest assembly of the mammal species on the planet. The wildebeest migration doesn’t really have any competition. The only things that are in any way comparable are the caribou migration in northern Canada and that of the saiga antelope across Mongolia. The wildebeest are big animals, there are an awful lot of them, and they are accompanied by about half a million zebras and gazelles. And of course there are the predators: the lions eat the wildebeest; leopards eat the younger ones, and cheetahs go for the newborns.
How can you be sure to see them? The wildebeest don’t have an exact itinerary; they go to where the best grass is. But you can find them. In January and February they are always somewhere on the southern plains. The guides usually know their location, but if they are being elusive you can charter a light airplane to spot them. Once you find where they are, you can drive there. The drive might be three hours on dirt roads, but it’s worth it. You’ll suddenly be in the middle of 2 million animals. There’s no sight like it in the world. The nearest wildebeest may be 25 feet from you, and if you look at the horizon, you can take in 100,000 of them in one glance. The animals make a distinctive grunting noise, so there is also an auditory component to it.
What about other animals? The Serengeti is carnivore central. Lions are territorial, so when they get to a certain age, they defend a pride or a territory — which is fine when the wildebeest are coming through, but not so good when they’ve moved on. The lions that do OK are the young males that don’t have territories because they can follow the migration wherever it goes. But in doing so, if they aren’t careful they can run into other lions’ territories and get into fights.
Were the COVID testing requirements particularly onerous? Not at all. To get on a plane to Kenya I had to have a negative COVID test and I had to fill out a health questionnaire for the Kenyan government. They send you a QR code that you show to the people at the airport. When you get to Nairobi, you have to show the QR code again and have your temperature checked, but that all took only about 30 minutes longer than usual. To get from Kenya to Tanzania, I had to have another test, which was conveniently done through the lodge. I was taken to the local clinic in the Maasai Mara, which tests all the staff at the camps and lodges. The sample was sent off to Nairobi. I was notified of the result by email, which the lodge printed out for me. And I had to get an e-visa for Tanzania, but that’s standard procedure and nothing to do with COVID. I applied for it in the United States, but the Tanzanians didn’t reply until I got to Africa. In general, my ground operator — Abercrombie & Kent — supervised all the logistics and were very proactive in reminding me what I needed to do and when. On arrival at Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, I showed the official my negative test and e-visa, and because no one else was in line, the whole process took only about 20 minutes. To get out of the country, I had to get a test in Arusha, three days prior to my departure. At the airport in Dar es Salaam, I also had to fill out a form on my phone to be allowed back into New York State. That took about 10 minutes. After you press “send” you get a green thumbs-up that indicates you are allowed to proceed. Upon arrival at JFK, the officer didn’t look at my negative COVID test but the immigration officials were very anxious to see the green thumbs-up on my phone. But the process wasn’t intrusive or overwhelming.
What were the airports like? Kennedy Airport was uncannily deserted. Nairobi was quite full, so you were conscious of trying to stay 6 feet away from other people. The only time I was a little worried was coming back through the domestic Wilson Airport in Nairobi: We were shepherded into a tiny crowded hall to have our passports stamped, and not everyone was masked. The Doha airport was packed, but everyone was wearing masks. It was the busiest I’ve seen any airport in a year.
And the planes? On the domestic flights in Kenya, the small planes were never full, but the Cessna Caravans, the workhorses of African safaris, take 12 people and I was on some with nine passengers. You have to wear a mask and the pilot is at the bottom of the steps and squirts your hand with sanitizer as you board. But because these small planes aren’t pressurized, you have a vent above your head and gusts of fresh air blow over you. On international routes you’re required to wear a mask for the duration of the flight, except when eating or drinking.
When should people go: If you want to replicate my trip, under normal circumstances you would avoid July and August, as that’s the European holiday season, which is when the worst excesses of overtourism happen, especially as the wildebeest cross the Mara River. A lot of people have seen this in wildlife documentaries and want to experience it for themselves. In normal times, the Mara is hopelessly crowded in August. But now you could do it. Last year, I’m told, there was hardly anybody there. And I’m sure that 2021 will also be uncrowded. January and February is the time to visit the southern Serengeti to witness the birth of around 400,000 wildebeest calves. The predators don’t know what to do. It’s like going into Harrods Food Halls: It all looks delicious, but you can’t eat everything! Lots of Harper members like to stay at Singita Sasakwa Lodge in the western Serengeti, which is maybe the best wildlife lodge in the world. Usually the migration arrives there in mid-June, but it is not guaranteed. On the other hand, the Ngorongoro Crater is a self-contained ecosystem and you can go anytime. On my recent visit, for a while I was the only person in the crater with my driver. During a typical high season in July and August, there are up to 400 vehicles a day!
Favorite wildlife moment: It’s hard to say really, but the elephants in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park have not been harassed or hunted, and they are very calm. Typically, when you are in an open-sided Land Rover and there are large herds of elephant, it can be quite scary. They could attack the vehicle and smash it up if they wanted. But the elephants in Tarangire are unbelievably relaxed. They literally stroll past within 10 or 15 feet munching away, snatching grass, completely unconcerned — even with young ones. I have never seen elephants anywhere as unfazed by humans as in Tarangire. It was wonderful.
Which part of your trip can’t you stop thinking about? An early morning game drive from Ol Donyo Lodge and seeing Kilimanjaro in a completely cloudless blue sky. It was 75 degrees with a light breeze and the huge snow peak of Kilimanjaro was just sitting there on the horizon. It’s a very grand mountain — 19,340 feet high — and part of the tallest freestanding massif in the world. Of course, the Himalayas are bigger, but they are part of a mountain chain. The experience was the antithesis of everything we’ve had to go through over the last year, especially if you live in a city.
Favorite meal or meals: Many upscale safari camps now have quite good food. Though there’s usually not much choice — often there’s just a meat dish and non-meat dish — but the standard of preparation and ingredients and presentation is quite high. The food at Ol Donyo was delicious, as it was at Angama Mara. Once upon a time in East Africa, you couldn’t get a good glass of wine, but nowadays all the best lodges serve high-quality South African wines.
Did any stories from the guides really stick with you? At Little Chem Chem, the Maasai guide, Mike, told me about the severe effect the pandemic has had on his life. He has quite an extraordinary life story. Maasai women go off into the bush with a midwife to have their babies, but when he was in the womb, he was lying crossways. The midwife dragged his mother back to the village, assuming she was going to die. Somehow, an American encountered them, put her in his Land Rover and drove her to the local hospital, where she gave birth via C-section. Both mother and child survived, but after this alien intervention, the Maasai didn’t accept them back into the tribe, so they ended up moving to the city, Arusha, where he was raised by a non-Maasai family. Instead of living a traditional tribal life, he went to school and eventually became a safari guide. He had originally tried to be a doctor, in honor of his mother and her traumatic experience, but he couldn’t afford the fees. He made enough money to send his younger sisters to school, and one recently got a job in a bank in Dar es Salaam. He was putting his son through private school and saving money to send him to medical school, but then COVID hit. Not only did he have to take his son out of school, but he also now struggles to put food on the table. His sister is helping to support his family, paying back what he gave to her. So this virtuous cycle, which was kicked off in the beginning by the happenstance of his cesarean birth, has led to members of his family being prosperous, educated people. But he can’t contribute to that until tourism returns and he gets his income back. He’s desperate for his son to go back to the private school and have his chance to become a doctor.
What did you see on this trip that gave you hope for African wildlife? Ol Donyo is associated with the Big Life Foundation, which is a model for tourism, conservation and community development. The relationship with the local people is inspiring. It’s the future of wildlife in Africa. If there’s going to be a future, it’s going to be collaborative. Local people now help to clamp down on poaching because they see wildlife as an economic resource. The local Maasai get a percentage of the revenue from every guest at Ol Donyo. And of course the lodge provides employment. There’s also a fund for compensation, so if a cow gets eaten by a lion, they get the full value of a replacement. Cows are quite expensive, about $700. But now that they’re compensated, they don’t go out and poison the lion.
What is it about Africa that excites you? I love the sense of space and scale. If you go to the Mara with a lot of other tourists, you don’t get that feeling. But in Botswana, for example, the Kalahari extends for 800 miles from the Chobe River to the South African border. And there’s nothing there. Just the nomadic San people. No other human habitation for close to a thousand miles. The Okavango is like that, too. It is 200 miles across, a vast expanse of swamps and marshes with nobody living there. And no one can build anything because of the annual flood. When you are in the middle of the Okavango Delta, you are surrounded by a huge wild area, which would have been exactly the same 10,000 years ago. That, to me, is what is exciting about Africa. It’s not only the immensity of space but the immensity of time. Some places have been unchanged for millennia. The first humans were walking around 200,000 years ago, prior to leaving the African continent, and there are plenty of places you can go which are still identical. Those early people would have seen the same landscape, the same animals. Exactly the same in every respect.
Overall impression: I would tell anyone that travel to Africa today is totally fine. Even now, with COVID. It’s not difficult and it’s not scary. And you are in these wide-open wonderful spaces. It’s the antithesis of lockdown. Enormous sky, a 50-mile view, and the wind blowing across the savanna. It is glorious. If you’ve been shut up in an apartment in New York, this is the antidote; 95 percent of the time, I didn’t feel any threat at all. Anyone with a scintilla of adventurous spirit should think about going now. Sincerely, it’s amazing. And for areas that can suffer from excessive tourism, like the Mara, now is definitely the time to go. My hunch that this would be a perfect time to see these iconic regions of Africa turned out to be correct.
For a comprehensive overview of all the best lodges and camps in both East and Southern Africa, the current Andrew Harper Collection is the best source there is. As Mr. Harper says, “The book itself is a great combination of listings and practical information with attractive photography that inspires people to travel. It’s a quite valuable resource.”