Kili McGowan, the chair of the Safari Pros consortium of travel advisors, organizes and leads trips that venture beyond sightings of the classic Big Five–elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. As an expert on the region, McGowan was guiding a tour of conservancies in Kenya, which is bouncing back after a half-decade hiatus during which security concerns kept some travelers away.
McGowan is one of a growing number of specialists who are willing to go above and beyond for clients. She will even, on occasion, accompany them every step of the way, providing on-the-ground knowledge and a deep understanding of conservation issues. Once this trip was complete, McGowan would turn around and fly back to the continent with a group of women who will only travel in her company.
“This was my best vacation EVER. I’d gladly try another safari.” — Eric
I’d like to start by saying that this was my best vacation ever! We had great accommodations, great guides, great food and good weather. I’m glad we went to three different places. Of the three I liked Lewa best because it had a little bit of everything and had more activities.
HERE ARE SOME OF ERIC’S PHOTOS FROM LEWA
Eric’s HIGH-POINTS OF THE TRIP
- The cats in the Masai Mara
- The Walking Safari in Lewa
- The trip to the waterfall in Lewa (pictured below)
- All the elephants
- The sundowners (Michelle & Eric enjoying one here to the left)
- All the meals (FANTASTIC!)
The local team in Nairobi was above and beyond GREAT. They held our extra bag and helped with everything. The hotel staff at all three lodges was very sociable. They were always there mingling with the guests. Our guides worked much harder than the other guides that we came upon to be sure we saw everything. They kept hunting for game, often for 6 hours. Let me reiterate, this was my best vacation EVER. I’d gladly try another safari.
MORE OF ERIC’S PHOTOS
“There aren’t very many places where we’ve been and are dying to go back. Patagonia is one we’d go back to…but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say Patagonia is a 5, and Africa is a 9.9.” — Linda & John
From the moment we landed, East Africa made an impact. We’d been to Africa before, on what we called our ‘beginners’ trip which included Botswana, Victoria Falls and Kruger National Park, but this one was what we considered a ‘quintessential African experience.’ Every place we went; every day was filled with animal interactions, up close and personal. You name it – we saw it all!
The very first vision our bleary eyes saw after we stepped off the plane was Mt. Kilimanjaro. Seeing that mountain was the most impressive thing… so distant and seemingly so close, enshrouded with snow and clouds. It’s massive and interesting because being a volcano, it raises up from a low-level plane rather than from a graduation of foothills, which makes it unusual. I would conservatively guess it’s maybe 19,000 feet high, straight up from its base. It’s an impressive site, and a most memorable way to arrive.
It’s virtually impossible to pinpoint which particular memories to share from this trip because the experiences we had were so plentiful. For example, can you imagine this…at one point, we saw 7 or 8 lion cubs playing with each other while their moms were hunting. We stopped the car about 30 yards from them. I would never have anticipated that kind of proximity to an abundance of lion cubs without their mothers. We had lions literally walking by the safari car we were in..and could have reached out to touch them. The same with the elephants. We were blown away with the photo opps there.
Another day, we pulled right up to a leopard that was eating a small zebra it had killed, and then a lion came walking up. We thought certainly there’d be a conflict, but the leopard just calmly left. We also saw a pack of hyenas chasing two baby warthogs one night, so we were literally driving across the plains chasing them, keeping them in our headlights.
The biggest surprise was when we went to our camp in the Serengeti. We thought that because of the time of year we were visiting, we would have missed the migration, but we quickly learned that the animals are constantly migrating. So depending on the time of the year, the strategy is to just go to the part of the Serengeti where they’re still migrating, and we saw it…thousands of animals moving slowly across the landscape.
A Cut Above
Everywhere we went on our trip was amazing. The food was delicious – the game meat was fantastically good, served like a filet mignon. There were abundant animal sightings, and the accommodations were definitely nice. But if I’m being honest, to us, everything else seemed to pale in comparison to our camp in the Masai Mara.
Three things set this place apart. One was the absolute luxury of the accommodations. We had a gigantic copper bath with an adjacent indoor and outdoor shower. The place we stayed in was about 12-1400 square feet with a deck overlooking a stream where every day, hippos and crocs were floating and wading by for our viewing pleasure.
Two, their commitment and ultra knowledge about all things photo…our driver was a Masai and extremely articulate and knowledgeable about photography, so we were able to capture everything we witnessed as if we worked for National Geographic. One afternoon at sunset, he even maneuvered our car simply to allow us to frame 5 giraffes against the setting sun. They will even lend you a top-end camera, or Swarovsky binoculars if you don’t have your own.
And three, aside from the lodge, they also have 6, 7 or maybe 8 of the suites where people can stay in luxurious proximity to the natural surroundings. If we go back, we might just go straight there and stay for 10 days.
Travel…and we’re not the most widely traveled individuals…but it does invariably change you. The people you meet in Africa give you perspective on your personal background. You see the fragility of the environment, and are moved by cultural experiences… It all expands your experiential universe. It makes you a better person for it. It definitely has had an impact.
There aren’t very many places where we’ve been and are dying to go back. Patagonia is one we’d go back to…but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say Patagonia is a 5, and Africa is a 9.9. Italy has an impact, various places in Europe certainly have an impact, but in terms of depth…Africa’s impact is more visceral than anything else. It’s a visceral, moving impact. Our friends want to go to Italy every year, and visiting the wine country, but they aren’t as interested in the natural world as we are, which is totally fine…and man made wonders are spectacular, but not as moving…to us…as seeing the beauty of nature.
Some of Linda & John’s Photos
Mara Nyika, meaning “Large Plains or Great Plains,” is the newest edition to the Great Plains Conservation family of camps in Kenya. While this intimate camp of just five tents and one 2-bedroom family suite is set in a valley, straddling a small stream, the light-coloured canvas tents were designed to sit under the canopy of umbrella thorn trees while still offering guests views out over the bush.
Walkways from tents to the main area evoke the feeling of a treehouse under canvas and the camp’s ethic and inspiration is one of exploration and adventure. Privacy is the key to Mara Nyika. Privacy to live, think, explore, be romantic and be pampered – all the while with one of the most spectacular backdrops Africa can provide.
Simon Penfold, my Scenic Air Safaris host, was right. Through the window of our 10-seater plane, I watched a herd of elephants saunter across the Masai Mara plains with slack-jawed astonishment as we made our way to the landing strip.