There is no single adventure on earth that can change your relationship with the universe like a safari. Ben Affleck, Grace and Robert DeNiro, David and Lauren Bush Lauren, Natalie Portman and Matt Damon are just a few of the New Yorkers who have followed the call of the wild to experience the world’s most amazing wildlife habitat … Africa.
I put my planning in the hands of Phil West of Royal African Safaris, who has organized expeditions for everyone from Microsoft’s Paul Allen to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. West guided us throughout our amazing adventure, taking vivid pictures that proved how this great continent provides an experience like no other.
The Gorillas of Rwanda
I flew into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda on a quest to track some of the last of the 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. From here, we began the two-hour trek to the comfortable Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, with six cottages nestled in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of majestic 15,000-foot high volcanoes that stretch through Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I am here to encounter the legendary Silverback Gorilla, which the country considers a national treasure and whose numbers shrink every day. There are now just 18 families remaining here, each made up of 12 to 20 members. Tea and biscuits are delivered to my quarters at 5:30 a.m. by my houseman at this stunning and comfortable lodge, considered the region’s best.
After a hearty breakfast, I’m briefed on the dos and don’ts of meeting with our forebears in the wild. Although we will get within 6 to 20 feet of these incredible creatures, our hosts warn us not to touch them—even if they touch you. This is not because of the danger they present to us—but the danger we present to them. Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. I am outfitted in gators and gloves to avoid the stinging nettles and thorn covered bushes we’ll encounter on our trek through the thick African brush. I’m told that the most desirable destination will be the home of The Sabyinyo Family. It is the oldest gorilla family and possesses the largest Silverback named Guhondo. He is a living, breathing King Kong. For the trek I hire porters, who, for just $10 each, carry all your gear and, if necessary, they will even carry you through the forest.
You amble through picturesque farmlands planted with potatoes and wheat and through fields of daisies that are processed to create a natural insecticide. Once you tiptoe across a tightrope of four unlashed logs placed precariously over a rushing river, you’re in the jungle. It is here that you stroll along one of the most beautiful paths, bordered by an enormous grove of bamboo with sunlight streaming through the trees. Once through this oasis your tracker’s job is to locate the gorillas. Using a machete he cuts a narrow trail up what can be steep terrain to where the constantly moving gorillas make a new home every night. When you get close to these great apes, your escort takes you to visit your family … alone and without a weapon.
When you encounter them, you’ll find that they are surprisingly docile and hospitable, that is, if you play by the rules. If a Silverback thinks you are getting too close to his offspring or harem, you must act submissive, avert his gaze and emit a slow grunt which in gorilla language means ‘I’m no threat.” A wise man does not confront a gorilla. At least if he values his life.
A dominant Silverback can usually be seen regally gnawing on branches while he’s groomed by his harem of females plucking insects from his coat. But it’s the babies that supply most of the fun. They are jumping, wrestling, climbing trees and beating their chests. One baby actually approaches and pushes me! Needless to say—I didn’t push back.
The next leg of our trip takes us to Kenya where we elect to skip the traffic and noise of Nairobi and stay at Emakoko. This is a family owned and operated lodge built by Emma and Anthony Childs sitting on the edge of Nairobi National Park, a 45-minute transfer from both airports in Nairobi City. Ten perfectly appointed rooms hug the side of a valley on the Mbagathi River. Just a short distance from a teaming urban area of 4 million is “The Green City”, an astonishingly beautiful park that is a safe haven for lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, white rhino, zebras, giraffes and dozens of other species, most of which are viewable from an armchair on your balcony.
Be sure and visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is just 30 minutes from the lodge. This not-for-profit orphanage was founded 37 years ago by David and Dame Daphne Sheldrick for lost or abandoned elephants that are raised by surrogate human “mothers,” who even sleep with their charges, until they can be reintegrated into the wild.
Lion King Country
Leaving Nairobi, we rent a small plane to fly to the Maasai Mara. This is “Lion King” country so make sure your pilot points out the actual Pride Rock that inspired the Broadway set where Simba stands guard over his kingdom. We land at Naibor, a boutique camp of comfortable en-suite tents erected along the beautiful Mara River. While sipping tea or champagne you can watch a crash of hippos frolicking in the mud mere yards away, before heading into the wilderness in your land cruiser to view the Big Five: lions, leopards, elephants, rhino and Cape buffalo.
Once during the trip I came upon a pregnant cheetah, which had just killed an impala. Suddenly a leopard sprang from the bush and stole it away from the expectant mom. Scenes like this immediately thrust you into the reality of the wild. This was Africa at dusk when the animals were hungry. But during the day in the sunshine you can spot a herd of elephants sharing a watering hole with rhinos while water buffalo, zebras and giraffes look on peacefully. Eagles, hawks and heron soar over the scene and vultures perch menacingly in barren trees. It seems all co-exist in this Garden of Eden-like setting until hunger strikes.
My final stop may be Kenya’s most glamorous address—Kifaru House. In Swahili, Kifaru means rhinoceros which couldn’t be more appropriate here. This private residence is situated on top of a mountain overlooking the 55,000 acres of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. The lodge’s core mission is to protect the 120 rhino on their preserve, including 60 of the world’s last 660 East African black rhinos. Poachers kill these magnificent creatures to harvest their horns, which in powder form are considered an aphrodisiac. They are also used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Vietnam are erroneously thought to cure cancer. Sadly, these are the reasons that a single horn is worth up to $ 250,000 in Asia.
At the conservancy every rhino has its own, armed “babysitter,” who carries a bow and arrow and a radio that plays music so their charges know they are nearby. To see three black rhinos strike a back-to-back defensive pose and point their horns at danger from three directions is a singular sight. The Conservancy is also a haven for 70 other different types of mammals, rare birds and exotic flowers. Both Prince William and Prince Harry spent a month at Lewa building roads and helping the veterinarians care for the wildlife. Don’t fail to visit the local Maasai village to buy intricate beaded jewelry and see how they exist happily in their primitive huts herding cattle which sustains them.
When Ricky and Ralph Lauren brought their family on safari, they stayed at Kifaru House, which has a staff of 18. This chic compound is made up of six cottages but they accept only one family at a time. The tables are laid with fine linens, porcelain and sterling silver and the chef is a wizard.
My African safari brought me face-to-face with the amazing creatures with whom we share our planet and while the experience transported me to primitive environments, I was also able to find elements of true luxury during the journey. If, like me, you wish to experience the best of both worlds, this is your adventure of a lifetime.