Trip Talk: Q&A with Sarah Stern

By Tully Luxury Travel in African Dreams on

John, our Maasai nature guide, looking out over the Maasai Mara from the main deck at Angama Mara on top of the Oloololo escarpment. Photo: Susan Portnoy

From a morning with the Hadzabe tribe—Africa’s last true hunter-gatherers—to a nature walk with a Maasai and a village visit with the Datoga, African Dreams manager, Sarah Stern, shares some of her favorite moments from a recent visit to Kenya and Tanzania. She also shares suggestions on what travelers should keep in mind when considering a safari, in this edition of African Dreams’ Trip Talk.

AD: Sarah you recently returned from your first trip to Kenya and Tanzania where you visited various styles of camps and lodges. Tell us where you went. 

SS: I began my adventure at Hemingway’s in Nairobi, a beautiful, luxury boutique hotel just 40 minutes from Jomo Kenyatta International airport and a wonderful place to relax and unwind after a long international flight (or after an exciting safari).

After a delicious breakfast, I flew to the Maasai Mara, where I stayed at Angama Mara, a relatively new luxury tented camp that’s earned many accolades. From there I flew to northern Tanzania and the Legendary Serengeti Mobile Camp, a chic tented camp that takes glamping to a whole new level. Next I went to the stunning Mwiba Lodge, near the famed Ngorongoro Crater and set amongst massive stone boulders overlooking the Arugusinyai River, followed by a stay at Gibbs Farm, a historical coffee estate nestled in a picturesque rural setting. The beautiful, vintage safari-inspired Chem Chem Lodge in Tarangire, was my final stop.

AD: What were a few of your favorite activities during your trip?

SS: I think a lot of people who haven’t been to Africa before believe that a safari is only about wildlife encounters, but most camps and lodges offer cultural activities that are just as magical and interesting as the Big Five. These were some of my favorites.

John, our Maasai nature guide. Photo: Susan Portnoy

Kenya, Maasai Mara

At Angama Mara, I went on a morning bush walk with a Maasai nature guide named John. Having lived in the region for centuries, the Maasai are experts on the flora and fauna in the area and for over an hour he shared his encyclopedic knowledge with us. As we strolled throughout the property, he pointed out animal tracks, telling us what kind they were, how long they’d been there and the animals’ habits and behaviors. He showed us various plants and explained their medicinal properties and how the Maasai used them, and I learned more about animal dung that I ever thought possible. How the size and shape reveals the species from which it came; how it’s consistency shows if the animal was sick or what it had eaten; how desiccated or decomposed it is indicates its age. I never knew I could be so fascinated by poop!

Alice, our guide, one of only six female guides in Kenya. Photo: Susan Portnoy

Ngorongoro, Tanzania

Gibbs Farm took us to visit a local school where we’d arranged to donate a couple of desks. As it happens, they were celebrating the school’s sixth-grade graduation. There was a big ceremony and we were invited to stay. The kids were incredibly curious and so excited to have us there. They sang songs and asked us a million questions. It was such a treat to be a part of their big day.

Southern Serengeti, Tanzania

At Mwiba Lodge, we spent an amazing morning with the Hadzabe, genuine hunter-gatherers (less than 1000 of the tribe is left) who still use bows and arrows to kill their prey. We walked with them as they went about their normal routine — nothing was staged or scripted. At one point, the Hadzabe spotted a bee’s nest in the bark of a tree and after exposing the honeycomb with their knives, cut it into pieces.  They let us try the honey first and then the tribe gobbled it up, playfully fighting over every drop.

Some of the Hadzabe bushmen during our morning walk. Photo: Sarah Stern 

Later, we spent an afternoon at a Datoga village. They are skilled farmers and craftsmen, and we were able to see how they lived: tending to their livestock and working within their bomas [homes]. It was fascinating to see this authentic slice of life, so different from our own.

Tarangire, Tanzania

While I did not personally participate, at Chem Chem Lodge, some of my fellow travelers took a morning run in the bush with a Maasai. What an incredible experience they had! The Maasai have been revered for centuries for their abilities as long-distance runners, and if I ran, I am sure this would be an unforgettable way to keep up with my workout routine.

Members of the Datoga tribe during our village visit. Photo: Sarah Stern  

AD: What should people do who want to learn more about cultural activities available during their Safari?

SS: First, the best way to make sure you’re aware of what’s available is to tell your Travel Designer that you’re interested in adding cultural experiences to your itinerary. We can work with you to arrange activities in sync with your interests.

Second, when you get to a camp or lodge, ask your guide or camp manager what excursions they offer. Depending on the time of year, changes in the area or just plain old serendipity, something new might be added to their list.

AD: You mentioned Angama Mara, which is a little over a year old, can you tell us a little about it. 

SS: Angama Mara has the most spectacular views of the Maasai Mara, hands down. It’s perched 1000 feet in the air on the top of the Oloololo escarpment in the Mara Triangle. Guest suites are large, open, airy and designed to take full advantage of Angama’s place in the sky. There are floor to ceiling windows and a private deck where you’ll enjoy the most incredible sunrises. The service is top notch and game viewing is outstanding. I also loved my guide Alice. She is one of two female guides at Angama Mara, and one of only six female guides in Kenya. She was excellent!

AD: What is the difference between going on a safari in a National Park or Reserve versus a Conservancy?

SS: In National Parks and Reserves, game drives are restricted to driving on-road. They also have an opening and closing time. On the other hand, Conservancies are privately managed and therefore they set their own rules. In Conservancies there are no set hours, you are able to drive off-road and you can also enjoy evening game drives.

Off-roading and night drives:

Off-roading means that if you see an animal and you want to get a closer look, the driver is allowed to leave the road to approach or follow it. Night drives enable guests to stay out after sunset to view nocturnal species. Whether camps are able to offer these options depends on the rules associated with the land they occupy. As with most things, there are nuances and exceptions to every rule so if off-roading or night drives are important to you, discuss it with your Travel Designer.

Example of a closed vehicle  Photo: Courtesy of the Wiseman family 

AD:  Can you explain the difference between and Open and Closed Safari Vehicles?

SS: In Kenya and Tanzania I was able to experience both closed and open safari vehicles.  At Angama Mara, Legendary Mobile Camp, Mwiba and Chem Chem, I traveled in open safari vehicles. However,  I also saw closed vehicles in the Serengeti.  We traveled in closed vehicles while on paved roads and in the Ngorongoro Crater region, which was appreciated as the road was very dusty.

Open and closed vehicles

On safari, there are typically two kinds of vehicles that are used for game drives: open and closed. Open vehicles have no sides and some models have a cover while others do not. The advantage to the open vehicle is that there is nothing to obstruct your view and you get a feeling of being closer to nature. If you are a photographer with a long lens, however, you’ll want to bring a monopod if hand holding isn’t an option. Most vehicles accommodate six passengers in tiered seating, to ensure everyone has a view to the front.

Closed vehicles are typically land cruisers with a pop up roof that provides a 360-degree view when you stand up. In a closed vehicle, sightlines are obstructed where there’s no windows but if you get caught in the rain, or you’re in a dusty area, you won’t be bothered by it. And if you’re using a long lens, you’ll have multiple windows and the roof upon which to stabilize it. Only closed vehicles are used on highways for safety reasons. Most vehicles accommodate six passengers in individual seats.

An open vehicle provides a greater field of vision. Photo: Susan Portnoy

AD: Do you have a tip you can share for first-time safari goers?

SS: Yes! Embrace luggage restrictions. In East Africa, domestic flights limit travelers to 15 kg total [about 33 lbs], for checked and carry-on bags, per person. Southern Africa allows only a few Kilos more, but there’s not need to fret. All the camps and lodges we work with offer free, daily laundry service, which means you can travel light, worry-free.