First-time visitors to East Africa generally want to see the majestic savannas and staggeringly abundant wildlife of either Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve or Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. The following itinerary, however, is intended primarily for those who have already acquired the safari bug and who may have visited the region’s greatest hits on previous occasions. This two-week journey covers Rwanda, where mountain gorillas and Bisate Lodge are the ultimate highlights; the enormous Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, where few tourists tread; and the powdery-white sands of Zanzibar, where one can relax at the end of the trip.
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At present, there are no direct flights from the United States to East Africa, and American travelers usually connect with Nairobi-bound flights in London, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Visas are required by U.S. citizens but can currently be obtained on arrival, though this is expected to change.
Thirty years ago, central Nairobi was a leafy place, where each morning Land Rovers and their khaki-clad drivers would wait for safari clients outside the colonial-era Norfolk Hotel. Nowadays, alas, it is a concrete jungle with serious security problems that, frankly, is best avoided. On arrival in Nairobi, you will transfer to a Harper-recommended hotel on the western outskirts of the city.
To recover from the long flight, you could choose to stay at Hemingways Nairobi, a tranquil and comfortable 45-room resort, located 19 miles from the international airport, surrounded by lawns and offering views of the forested Ngong Hills (of Karen Blixen fame). The setting is idyllic and the staff are obliging, but the oval swimming pool is rather small.
Alternatively, you may opt for Giraffe Manor, a unique 12-room stone mansion, set on a 12-acre estate, populated by a resident herd of giraffe, in the nearby residential district of Langata. Atmospheric public areas come with a 1930s décor, wood paneling and antique furniture.
If you’ve stayed at Giraffe Manor, feed the giraffes in the morning, and take the opportunity to relax in the colorful gardens. Following lunch at the hotel, pay a visit to the nearby Giraffe Centre, the late Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage and the Karen Blixen Museum (set within the writer’s former home). Later, enjoy a cocktail on the terrace and watch the sun set behind the Ngong Hills.
After an early, pre-rush-hour transfer to the airport, take a 90-minute flight to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where you will be met by your driver/guide. (Thirty-day tourist visas are obtainable upon entry.) Despite the horrors of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda is now a peaceful country, and Kigali is clean and well-organized. A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a predictably moving experience. Take lunch at one of the city’s five-star hotels, possibly the Hôtel des Milles Collines, famous from the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
In the afternoon, the drive from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park in the northwest of the country takes about two and a half hours. The road is well-paved and passes through attractive hilly countryside, with extravagantly fertile terraced farmland. Before long, you will see the dramatic volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains, which rise to nearly 15,000-feet where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo converge.
The new Bisate Lodge, home for the next four nights, is constructed at 8,100 feet on the steep slopes of an eroded volcanic cone. Its six spacious “villas” are supremely comfortable and come with log fires and private balconies, while the property’s public areas are a tour de force of imaginative design. Enjoy a glass of wine by the fire — the lodge has an extensive cellar — and then head to the dining room for a dinner that will likely include typical East African dishes, as well as more-familiar international cuisine.
Duly fortified by a lavish buffet breakfast, set out with your driver-guide to Volcanoes National Park Rwanda headquarters, a 20-minute drive away. At about 7:30 a.m., visitors are assigned to one of the 12 groups of habituated mountain gorillas (permits to visit the gorillas cost $1,500). There are roughly 400 gorillas in the park, slightly less than half the world’s total of this critically endangered species. Treks through the thick bamboo forest, accompanied by a guide and porters, can last from one and a half to five hours. Once the gorillas have been located, visitors have one hour to enjoy their company at a distance of 20 or 30 feet. This is arguably the world’s ultimate wildlife experience.
Return to Bisate Lodge for a late lunch. Later in the afternoon, take a gentle guided walk to the local village. Afterward, enjoy a cocktail on the balcony of your villa and gaze at the summit of 14,757-foot Mount Karisimbi to conclude an utterly memorable day.
Those who have purchased a second gorilla-trekking permit can make another visit to the park. Alternatively, you can take a guided trek to see the spectacular (and endangered) golden monkeys that also inhabit the forest. Spend the afternoon in the lodge’s plant nursery, the center of its ambitious reforestation program.
Bisate offers several guided hikes; which one you choose will depend on your level of fitness. The full-day hike to the crater lake at the 12,175-foot summit of Mount Visoke should be undertaken only by those in good physical condition. Or you may wish to hike to the Karisoke Research Center, established by Dian Fossey in 1967, which is situated in the saddle between the Visoke and Karisimbi volcanoes at an elevation of about 9,800 feet. Nearby, you will see Fossey’s grave and memorial.
This morning, you will be driven back to Kigali to catch a two-hour-and-20-minute flight to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. (Visas can be purchased on arrival, but the process is bureaucratic and slow, so it is better to obtain one in the United States.)
If your flight connects with the Coastal Aviation flight to Sumbazi in the Selous Game Reserve, you will be transferred to the domestic terminal. There, you will board a 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravan for the 45-minute flight. If not, you will be driven to The Oyster Bay, a small, stylish boutique hotel beside the Indian Ocean for an overnight stay.
Significantly larger than Switzerland, the Selous is Africa’s biggest game reserve. At a lower elevation than Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, the landscape here is one of tangled bush and woodland, interrupted by open grassy areas and punctuated by isolated hills and rocky outcrops. Wildlife is abundant, though the elephant population has been drastically reduced in recent years by poaching, and cheetah are not present, as the terrain does not suit their high-speed hunting style. The primary point of a safari in the Selous is to experience a vast wilderness area, where lodges and tourists are few.
On arrival at the Sumbazi airstrip, you will be transferred to Azura Selous, five minutes away, a wilderness lodge of 12 semi-tented villas, situated beside hippo-packed rapids on the bank of the Great Ruaha River. The public areas of the lodge overlook a horizon pool and sundeck and are decorated in an atmospheric neocolonial style, with leather armchairs, white cotton-clad sofas, framed maps and black-and-white wildlife photographs. The villas are extremely spacious, with private terraces and plunge pools.
After lunch, relax with binoculars on your terrace to watch the hippos, crocodiles and abundant birdlife. At about 4:30 p.m., depart for an evening game drive aboard an open-sided Land Rover. There are three lion prides near Azura Selous, and six leopards have territories in the vicinity. As a result, the cats are sighted frequently; three of the leopards have become habituated to the presence of vehicles. A pack of rare wild dogs is also a regular sight. After a sundowner overlooking the river, return to the lodge for dinner, either in the main dining pavilion or at one of the tables set beside the pool.
This morning you’ll be awoken at 6 a.m., and after coffee and cookies on your terrace, you will head out on a game drive. Breakfast will be set up beside the river. As well as an abundance of antelope species, the bush around Azura Selous sustains a sizable giraffe population and impressive herds of buffalo. After lunch, either venture on a bush walk with a guide and an armed ranger or go for a boat cruise on a tranquil stretch of the river.
Because of the immense size of the Selous, more-adventurous travelers can go on daylong safari drives of up to 200 miles, encountering wildlife along the way. Several hours will often pass without a glimpse of another human being or a safari vehicle. Such trips should be undertaken only by those who do not mind bumpy dirt roads and the occasional tsetse fly bite. If you feel disinclined to be intrepid, spend the day relaxing and reading, either beside the main pool or in the privacy of your terrace.
An early-morning flight back to Dar es Salaam will connect with a 20-minute shuttle by light aircraft to the island of Zanzibar. On arrival, head for lunch in Stone Town, the historic center of the island’s capital. At one time, Zanzibar was a wealthy trading (and slaving) port, under the control of the sultan of Oman. Many fine old mansions remain. After lunch, transfer by car and then speedboat to the tiny private islet of Mnemba, three miles offshore, which is ringed by powdery-white sand, luminous turquoise water and pristine coral reefs.
&Beyond Mnemba Island is an extraordinarily romantic hideaway of just 10 airy, rustic bungalows, tucked amid pines and palms, each with its own personal butler. It is an ideal place to do absolutely nothing, but if lotus eating starts to become tedious, there is a PADI-certified dive school, or you can fly-fish for bonefish, snorkel or kayak. Beachside massages are also available.
All good things come to an end, so after returning to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, board the 90-minute flight to Nairobi. There you will connect onto a night flight to Europe and the United States.
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