Borana has always been a special place; a truly family-oriented conservancy, adjacent to the world-renowned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, that offers outstanding wildlife experiences as well as opportunities to explore a breathtaking landscape through a variety of activities. Borana also offers a range of exclusive-use safari homes and villas, and the newest is Lengishu House.
Next Adventure, a safari company based in Berkeley and run by Kili McGowan and her husband Jeremy Townsend, was tasked with setting up the trip for Bell, Bourdain, and the Parts Unknownproduction crew.
“Tony [Bourdain] inspired people to be travelers, not just tourists,” McGowan said. “Being a chef, he had this appreciation for people and their cultures.”
McGowan ended up traveling with the crew to Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness. As fans would expect, McGowan said Bourdain was mindful of the conservation efforts in the African countries he visited. “He was so enthusiastic about it, and it’s extremely rewarding,” McGowan recalled.
She also remarked on Bourdain and the production crew’s passion and positive working dynamics. The rapport between the late Bourdain and Bell was obvious as well. “Their chemistry is really palpable,” she said.
When the show was in the planning stages, Bell pointed the Parts Unknown production company, Zero Point Zero, to Berkeley company Next Adventure whose expertise is curating personalized, conservation-minded safari and wildlife trips to Africa. Bell is friends with Kili McGowan, the company’s managing director, and was sure its thoughtful approach to travel would marry well with Bourdain’s show.
“It was such a great shared opportunity,” said McGowan. Both Bell and Bourdain, whether through the lens of diversity in America, or international food culture, go into experiences with open hearts and minds, she said. “They both have a vulnerability and empathy that draws people into conversations.”
Next Adventure recommended the visit to the Lewa Conservancy. “The transition from the vibrancy and intensity of Nairobi to the tranquility of the conservancy is one of my favorite parts,” said McGowan who accompanied the crew on the shoot.
Surprisingly, the day I met Anthony Bourdain – on safari – was fraught with an unseasonal rain storm that lasted for three months after a 5-year drought. The flooding was so bad in Nairobi it made headlines briefly in the US. We were sitting inside by a fire in the cozy main living room of Lewa Wilderness, a family-owned safari lodge on Lewa Conservancy.
You might say it was when I really met him, because in truth, I’d been introduced to Anthony the day before, just prior to the rain starting. It was arrival day for the shoot and while chatting with my dear friend Kamau Bell who had just arrived from the noise of Nairobi, Anthony walked right up and said hello as if it was just any other day for him. Easy, comfortable and casual…humble, and unlike any other celebrity encounter I’d had before.
Anthony and Kamau were at Lewa to shoot what we now know to be one of the final episodes of Parts Unknown, the famous travel series that invites people to see the world through the lens of Anthony and his exceptional crew. Of course, Anthony had been to Africa countless times, but now the seasoned traveler “was dying to see how Kamau handles the heat, the spice, the crowds, the overwhelming rush of a whole new world”.
They started in Nairobi looking for examples of community empowerment and uplifting aspects of Kenya’s pride, politics and creativity. Naturally, they wanted a safari to match this perspective, and they were looking for a story at the intersection of tourism, conservation and local Kenyan engagement.
This perspective – one of hope, creativity and resilience – was a perfect match with one of our beloved destinations, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. Established in 1995 by the Craig family, Lewa was originally a cattle ranch that has since grown to be one of the most successful rhino conservation projects in the world while also providing medical services to nearly 50,000 people.
As a conservation model, this patchwork of ranches has inspired the Northern Rangelands Trust which includes 35 community conservancies and 18 ethnic groups spread over 42,000 sq. kms. of Kenya’s wild northern frontier. Lewa is an epicenter of conversations about land and wildlife management, anti-poaching strategies, and secure, sustainable development. Lewa embodies a radical innovation of Kenya’s most foundational structures, and the lesson from Lewa is clear: to protect wildlife, you have to build clinics, support schools and empower local communities.
Uncovering the Story
We knew Anthony and his crew would find what they needed at Lewa. It just so happened that at the time of their visit, presidential politics were extremely precarious, and tensions were also growing in Kenya because of a 5-year drought the country had been experiencing. Managing and monitoring the needs of the communities as well as those of the animals and the sometimes constricting laws that surround land and water usage created desperate situations that were complex and palpable. Although a complex and sensitive issue, we knew that Parts Unknown was interested in capturing some of this story, and certainly how it was impacting the nation overall.
Travel – and the unforgettable gems that result from it – can be tricky. The ‘magical’ moments that travelers seek can be elusive in spite of the best laid plans. Our first sundowner shot with Anthony and Kamau, for example, was enshrouded in streaky grey clouds, but, rather than hang onto that disappointment, we proceeded with our schedule…capturing intimate audio from Anthony that perhaps today carries a bit of comfort that he knew his life was well-lived.
Seventeen f—ing years. As soon as the cameras turn off and the crew will be sitting around, we’ll be having a cocktail, I f— pinch myself. I cannot f— believe that I get to do this.
As luck would have it, magic did manage to find us the next day. In an almost prophetic way, there was a sighting of a male and female lion together on a hilltop where they’ve been spotted before…except this time, they almost immediately sauntered down the hill and walked directly toward our vehicle with Tony and Kamau following behind. After that fortuitous sighting, we continued on to Il Ngwesi Community Ranch for a celebratory lunch that was simple and profound. And then, it happened.
An Unexpected Gift
Coming from a direction that even the Maasai elders didn’t expect was an unlikely storm in an atypical month. Kenyans generally experience the ‘short rains’ in December, and the ‘long rains’ in April and May which is when the bulk of the precipitation happens, but this was March 2nd. The direction, the timing and the dramatic ending of Kenya’s drought was electrifying the country…in that very moment. And, it was captured by and with Anthony Bourdain. The entire community, the crew, even Kamau…everyone…was dancing in celebration of the unexpected gift.
This is how I ended up in front of a fire with the sound of raindrops on the roof, chatting with Anthony. Not surprisingly, we talked about travel. I was curious if there was a destination he found most surprising, and he told me about Iran…he said the people were kind, welcoming and embracing. We talked about respecting cultures and how when someone you just met offers you something to eat, you absolutely eat it. For Anthony, the first and final frontier was a culture’s food, and, to have an authentic adventure, one must be completely immersed in it.
That visit, now documented in one of his final episodes, will certainly be held as one of my most treasured memories. The rain we had was certainly symbolic of how his visit brought so many gifts to this hopeful place; from his company around that fire to the light that this episode will bring to Lewa and the surrounding communities and certainly to the ongoing story of Kenya’s beauty and resilience.
But there’s a special moment that Bell did not expect to make it to the final cut — after the camera crew pulled back to get a wide shot, but the mikes were still on.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to take this moment to tell him what he really means to me,’ ” Bell says.
He told Bourdain that he watched his show on his couch 10 years ago, thought it was a perfect job, and wondered how a struggling comic could get there. Bourdain responded that he was a simple cook, “dunking fries” at age 44, and never thought he’d see Rome much less Kenya.
It was a special moment, Bell recalls, that now feels like a goodbye.
A family vacation is all about sharing special moments, and we can’t think of many moments more special than being out in the wilderness with an expert guide up close to Africa’s great wildlife. Of course, you’ll see elephants and lions, but you’ll also get to feel the heat coming from a termite chimney or learn the difference between the sandy tracks of a cheetah or a leopard. Not only is it a tremendously educational experience, it can be a transformative one as well. We’ve seen a number of young people who were inspired by a family safari to pursue a career in conservation or development in Africa.
For us, the key to a family safari is flexibility and variety. We want to choose areas that can offer a lot of different ways to get out of the vehicle and experience the African bush first hand. We also want to find camps that can offer activities during the midday break which is a perfect opportunity to have a siesta while the kids embark on their own guided mini safaris.
Most of all, a family safari allows everyone to focus on sharing these amazing experiences instead of trying to make them happen. Once you’re on safari, there’s nothing to figure out except whether that paw print belongs to a cheetah or a leopard!
Here’s four of our favorite family safari experiences!
Imvelo Elephant Express in Hwange
This is a truly unique and fun experience for a family to hop on vintage rail car that chugs along the border of Hwange National Park. Exclusively on offer from Imvelo Safaris, there’s no cooler way to make your way across the African bush. There’s snacks and drinks and a real sense that you’re on a great journey, even though it’s only a 2 hour ride, and you can see all kinds of wildlife from the train!
EcoTraining in Kruger
For decades EcoTraining was exclusively a professional guide training organization, and now they are making their courses available to travelers who are looking to go a little deeper than just taking photos. With a range of camps in Botswana, South Africa and Kenya, they can create a custom module based on your particular interest. Whether it’s birding, tracking or astronomy, this is a great value option with lots of different activities and true on-the-ground field training.
Camel Safaris at Lewa
One of the most interesting and successful conservation projects anywhere in Africa, Lewa Wilderness is known for their groundbreaking rhino conservation program and their strong collaboration with local communities. It is also home to extraordinary camel-supported walking safaris so you can get out of the vehicle and experience Kenya’s vast Northern Rangelands with an expert Masai guide.
Exclusive Camps & Lodges in Tanzania
For complete flexibility, one of our favorite options is an exclusive use safari house or villa. There’s no worrying about other guests in camp, you have the whole place to yourself, and it’s a great choice for a multi-generational family safari. We’re seeing more and more of these types of accommodations, and we’re most excited to see a brand new Forest Camp coming soon to Chem Chem on Tanzania’s Lake Manyara. It’s a wonderful area with spectacular walking, outstanding food and wonderful cultural experiences.