My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.
Be born. Done, easy, check.
(OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
Show up and go along.
Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).
So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.
But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.
I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.
So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.
Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.
Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.
So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.
No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).
The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?
The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.
Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.
Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.
And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).
We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.
But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).
In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.
The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.
The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.
In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).
The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.
There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.
But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.
There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.
But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.
Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.
And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.
Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.
A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.
Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?
Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.
Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.
Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.
Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!
Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.
Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.
And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.
We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.
It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.
Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.
And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.
There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.
We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.
There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).
Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.
Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.
The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.
(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area)
The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.
(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot).
The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.
Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):
Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.
Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was a bit bummed out by the election results.
For a variety of reasons, I’m not going to get too far into this topic, but this post from my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, pretty much sums up EXACTLY how I feel. Go. Read it. It’s really good. Then come back here to read about luxurious lodges in Tanzania and maybe I’ll throw in a few gratuitous cute animals, just to soothe all our souls.
It was not easy leaving Leopard Hills, in part because the place and its’ staff were just so wonderful, but also, literally: it was not an easy transit. We’d had enough foresight to rent a car and drive ourselves to Sabi Sands because we knew from our last trip to South Africa just how unreliable Federal Air (the small-plane airline that flies into Sabi Sands) can be. We didn’t want to risk it.
So, on the day we left Sabi Sands, we got up at the crack of dawn so that we’d have plenty of time for the four-hour drive from Sabi Sands to Johannesburg, where we’d catch our 1:30 pm flight to Dar El Salaam, Tanzania. I had slept horribly the night before, dreaming of dead giraffes. Then, we forgot where we’d put our Sabi Sands/Kruger Park exit pass (which was my responsibility to keep track of) and had a 5 am panic attack before we finally were reminded that we’d stored them safely in the car when we arrived five days before. And then I spilled coffee all over the front of my t-shirt (the exact same t-shirt I’d spilt coffee all over at the airport before we’d even left D.C.). Oh, and then, honey badgers. Very eventful morning.
There was, of course, some confusion at the Precision Air check in at Dar El Salaam (which I described here), but we caught our 3 pm flight to Arusha (landing at 11:30 pm). Where we had the pleasure of taking a $70 cab ride along 50 kilometers of the worst road I’ve ever been on (and I’m including unpaved ranch roads in West Texas, y’all), for the honor of spending the night in Arusha ($200 basic room!) before our 8 am tiny-plane flight to Kogatende.
In case you can’t tell, I was not at all charmed by Rip-Off Arusha.
After two full, long days of not-completely-smooth travel on sketchy-ass small airplanes, we were thrilled to see the Lemala Kuria Hills Land Cruiser at the Kogatende airstrip.
(I just looked it up and it’s about 4,000 miles from Sabi Sands to Kogatende and Google estimates it would take you 52 hours to drive it. We flew and it took us about 2 days, so yeah. That checks out.)
And right away, just during the drive from Kogatende to Lemala Kuria Hills, you realize that the Serengeti is about to blow your lid off. You basically do a game drive right after you get off the plane. We saw a wildebeest crossing, lions mating, and got a flat tire, all before we even arrived at the lodge. (I don’t think that last event was supposed to wow us).
We were met by the managers, Anita and Peter. I had already been in contact with Anita to arrange a few birthday surprises for XFE and she was incredibly helpful and gracious in every way. From what I understand, they took over management of the lodge about six months ago and there have been a few minor changes, from what I understand, including a new upcharge for premium alcohol—which was only a couple of extra bucks per drink, but still a bit annoying.
After getting the rundown on the schedule and amenities, we were shown to our tent, Room 12, on the far end of the camp, and it was gorgeous. Huge, comfortable bed, beautiful modern African artwork, sliding glass doors lead to an expansive deck overlooking Rift Valley with a plunge pool and outdoor shower, and huge bathroom with a giant soaking tub in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. I will say, those floor-to-ceiling windows turn out to be a bit of a negative. There’s no air conditioning in the tents and the windows really turn the room into an oven in the late afternoon.
Here, as at the other lodges we stayed at this trip, we were told that it was high season and we had been charged high season prices. But in fact, none of the three lodges we stayed at had full occupancy on any of the nights we were there. If you aren’t going to be fully booked, maybe offer us a better deal?
The main reception/staging area at Lemala Kuria Hills is a collection of tents, including the dining tent and a large central tent with lots of nice seating areas for reading, talking, playing board games, and the long bar area on the other side. A tree-shaded deck runs along the back of the tent and leads down to a very cozy fire pit area.
The staff is amazing and everyone—from the management to our guide (Nahume) to the housekeeping staff to the bartenders and waiters—went above and beyond to make sure XFE’s 40th birthday was celebrated in fine African style. So for that, I will be forever grateful. It was a great, great night.
There are, however, a couple of areas that could be improved at Lemala Kuria Hills. We thought their safari trucks had seen better days – in addition to the flat we got on day one, our truck also got stuck in a mud hole another day, and there was a super annoying, persistent and loud squeak along the pop-up part of our Land Cruiser where the joists meet the top of the vehicle. Three days in and we were hearing that squeak in our sleep.
And, unfortunately, the food was not that great. Or, I should say, the food at the lodge wasn’t that great. The food out on the bush was just fine. Simple, but fine. Most days, you’re up and out early (6 am) and you eat a bush breakfast of pancakes/crepes, bacon/sausage, hard boiled eggs, homemade granola with milk and fruit and coffee. I actually liked the bush breakfast very much. Then you’d stop midday for a bush lunch, which would be maybe some tortilla-type rollups of some sort, strips of grilled chicken, pasta and vegetable salad, some cookies and again, I liked that a lot.
But the dinners were kind of a disaster – meats were often overcooked, sides were a bit lackluster, potatoes tasted slightly off. I probably would have just written it off as some difficulties in logistics except when we finished our trip with a two-night stay just down the valley at Bushtops Serengeti, we found the food there to be really, really excellent.
Still, a beautiful, friendly lodge in a gorgeous setting. Just bring some earplugs for the squeak!
And a whole lot of other animals, including (if you’re very lucky like we were) the very rare African wild dog.
We actually saw three generations of the adorable calico-spotted dogs a ton during our first couple of days on safari in South Africa. I mean, a ton. To the point where I was like, “OK, got it. Dogs. Yeah. Can we please see something else?”
Then our guide Stefan explained to us just how rare African wild dogs are. They’re the second most endangered species in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. There are only around 6,000 African wild dogs worldwide and less than 500 in South Africa. Human encroachment is one part of the problem—more people means less land for these shy creatures. And, because they are such effective hunters and they hunt several times a day, African wild dogs are being killed by humans seeking to protect their own animals and livestock. Hence, looming extinction.
And here we were, watching a pack of around 25 of them (including baby pups) frolicking around their den (a renovated termite mound) and even (one morning) the older dogs out hunting (successfully) for food.
Suddenly, I saw the dogs in a whole new light and I remembered just what makes safari in Sabi Sands, and at Leopard Hills in particular, so special.
Leopard Hills is a five-star luxury lodge located in the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park. The lodge is situated on top of a rocky outcrop, with most (if not all) of the eight luxury suites offering spectacular views over the bush and the natural waterhole on the plains below.
Each suite has its own plunge pool, deck and outdoor shower, and yes, the suites are air conditioned. In fact, pretty much every modern hotel amenity is available at Leopard Hills, including a gym, a spa and complimentary daily laundry service.
The rooms are decorated just as you’d expect a safari lodge to be decorated – Ralph Lauren-meets-Out-of-Africa, with mosquito nets, lots of wood and wicker.
They also provide a variety of books to help you learn more about some of the animals you see on the game drives and a handy checklist to tick off the ones you’ve seen. But, if you’d like more reading material (or to catch a soccer game on TV), there’s a very good library onsite.
The lodge is pretty much all inclusive, including the mini-bar in your suite and all of the meals and drinks. And man, do they stuff you with the delicious food and drink! There’s morning coffee before the 5:30 am game drive, coffee and muffins or biscuits during the 4-hour game drive, breakfast ordered off the menu when you get back from the morning game drive, lunch later in the afternoon, tea with snacks before the evening game drive, sundowners with snacks during the evening game drive and then dinner (which you ordered from a list of two options per course while you were busy stuffing your face with tea sandwiches before the game drive) when your return to the lodge.
There’s a beautiful main lodge area where you have your meals and gather for morning coffee or a quick tea/snack before the game drives. Breakfast and lunch were usually served on the outside terrace (if the resident vervet monkeys weren’t too aggressive) and dinner at one of the three long, communal tables inside.
To change things up a bit, the lodge also had boma nights, which are outdoor barbecues a couple of nights a week in an outdoor enclosure made just for it and featuring a large, central fire pit.
But as great as all these luxuries and amenities were, (and they seriously were) what really makes Leopard Hills (and Sabi Sands, in general) stand out, are the people. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. The people at Leopard Hills are awesome. From general manager Duncan Rodgers and his daughter, Meaghan, to the incredible guides and trackers (we had Stefan/Sipho for a couple of days and then Hugo/Moelle) to the excellent chef (Jock) and waitstaff (including Millet, Sam and Neville), it was clear that everyone who worked there took a great deal of pride in their work and really wanted us to have the best possible experience. They were always professional but very friendly and welcoming. The perfect hosts for our stay in every way.
After six days at Leopard Hills, we were genuinely sad to leave and had already began planning our next trip back before we’d even finished packing. After all, we’ve got to come back and check in on the African wild dog pack. There aren’t too many places left where you can get that opportunity.
And we’re back! Actually, we’ve been back from Africa over a week, but I’ve been in post-vacation mourning.
That coupled with the fact that as a self-employed person, I made $0.00 during my little three-week break, and yet, my bills still came in during that very same three-week period and—quite rudely—those not-so-nice credit corporations and utility providers still expect to be paid. Which led to a flurry of “Hey, remember me? Can I do some work for you this week?” full-on panic-work activity and therefore, no blogging.
I’ve got TONS to say about South Africa and Tanzania and different safari styles and small little islands north of Zanzibar and Great Migrations and artisan gins and hot air balloon flights over the Serengeti (yes, that happened and wow), but before I get to all of that, I have to start at the end—with our flight home.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with Emirates First Class at this point. It’s pretty ridiculous. And I say this as someone who has flown in Singapore First Class, which I also deem….pretty damn ridiculous.
Similar to our Singapore flight, we were facing more than 21 hours of time in the air plus layovers, so for us, upgrading to such comfortable accommodations made total sense. Here’s how our return flights home broke down:
Pemba to Zanzibar: 30 minute flight on a Cessna that held 12 other people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning.
Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam: 30 minute flight on the same Cessna with a group of new people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning. Actually, I have no further questions on the hygiene of my fellow passengers. It was abundantly, nose-stingingly clear.
Dar Es Salaam to Dubai: 5 hours, 40 minutes.
Dubai to Dulles in D.C.: 14 hours, 20 minutes.
It was, to put it mildly, a haul, even in First Class. Which, I know, sounds a bit like complaining that my diamond shoes are hurting my feet.