I grew up surrounded by the idea of Africa. After a few hunting safaris, my grandfather’s passion for Africa was undeniable, and this infectious enthusiasm easily spread to my mother and grandmother. My family’s houses were filled with photos of giraffes, rhinos, lions, and elephants; antelope heads and zebra skins; and stories of encounters that had been told around safari campfires. So even before I set foot there, I knew the love of this wild continent was in my blood.

My mom had always hoped to take me on safari, to show me why Africa captured her heart. With no desire to hunt, we connected with luxury ecotourism company &Beyond (formerly CC Africa) to plan a custom itinerary to Kenya and Tanzania that would fulfill a number of goals: to visit prime game areas, to see the Great Migration, to stay in a tented camp, and to try to catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro. &Beyond took care of all reservations and in-country travel arrangements, with a concerted effort to meet our wish list. The company utilizes some of the best guides in Africa and strives to create an all-inclusive, worry-free safari.

Our target timeframe was end of April/early May — as we quickly learned, the rainy season. Would we get stuck? What experiences would it limit us to? Would we be soaking and miserable? But our travel concierge at &Beyond assured us that while we should be prepared for some rain each day, it likely wouldn’t affect our trip very much. And growing up by the San Diego Zoo, I knew that rain doesn’t really bother the animals — they usually enjoy it.

After flying into Nairobi and spending a night at the historic Norfolk Hotel, we flew Safari Link Aviation to Ol Donyo. We landed on a dirt airstrip sliced neatly into the Kenyan savannah. Upon landing, we found ourselves ten feet from a young elephant browsing in the acacia. At that moment, I knew I was hooked on the safari experience. Next, we spotted a very rare lesser kudu, camouflaged in the bush. Then, a harem of impala and two males fighting over territory, loudly snorting in warning before their horns collided — all within the 20-minute drive to Ol Donyo Lodge.

A Great Plains Conservation property, Ol Donyo Lodge sits on the volcanic cones of the Chyulu Hills on a private reserve in Southern Kenya between Amboseli and Tsavo West national parks. The eco-friendly lodge has ten guest suites, each with a private sitting room, infinity pool, and both indoor and outdoor showers. Every room enjoys views of watering holes frequented by elephants, the forest leading to the savannah, and in the distance, the breathtaking snowy peak of Kilimanjaro. When we arrived, we were the only guests at the lodge.

 

Our personal guide Moses was incredibly knowledgeable, answering every question about animals, plants, and the local area. Because Ol Donyo is on a private reserve, the lodge can offer activities that many other places are not permitted to, including hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, all out on the open plains. My mother and I opted for an early morning horseback ride, during which we trotted into a journey of giraffe. Over ten of them stood surrounding us, watching us interestedly and snacking on acacia trees. We were amazed at how close we could get with the aid of their equine cousins. Post ride, we were surprised by “Breakfast in the Bush,”  an extraordinary experience in the grasslands, complete with hot, cooked-to-order eggs and bacon.

 

A portion of nightly rates supports local conservation projects, including the preservation trust founded by former owner Richard Bonham that works to increase the dwindling lion population, among other goals. The project compensates local Maasai tribes for cattle killed by lions, provided they do not kill the lions in response. Also, all used water filters through to watering holes. Through its own foundation, &Beyond also works on education and conservation, striving to have a small physical footprint and a positive impact on wildlife areas and local communities.

We then flew to Tanzania to visit Ngorongoro Crater, where a troop of baboons welcomed us. My jaw dropped as our jeep pulled into the first lookout point. I had no notion of how vast and green the crater would be.

We stayed at &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, where Old World safari meets European luxury. Three intimate camps share lounges and dining rooms, and the lodge offers spacious thatched-roofed suites perched on the rim overlooking the crater floor.

 

An all-day game drive led by our expert guide Shaban was an unparalleled wildlife experience. Ngorongoro Crater is a self-contained ecosystem including grasslands, a forest, marshlands, a salt lake, and a river with fresh water running year round, so the animals have little reason to migrate. Because we visited during low season, there were very few vehicles in the crater, allowing us intimate animal encounters. In high season, the picnic areas can have over 100 trucks lined up at lunch, but when we enjoyed a meal at the hippo pool, we shared the area with only ten other vehicles. Up close, we saw hippos grazing and rolling in the water, hundreds of hoofed animals, hyenas fighting over their prey, and eight of the more than 40 black rhino in the crater — up from a low of seven in the mid ’90s, according to Shaban. We hoped to see our first big cats of the trip and arrived just in time to view one of only three cheetahs remaining in the crater before he disappeared into the tall grass. We also found a very active lion pride with three small cubs who pounced and wrestled and received baths from their mom.

 

We took a fascinating excursion to visit the nearby Maasai — tribe members greeted us with a traditional welcome song, and showed us around their small hillside village. A pastoral people and historically a warrior clan, the Maasai are one of the few tribes in Tanzania still trying to maintain their traditions in the modern world.

Our next stop was &Beyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, the only one located within the national park. Surrounded by a mahogany forest, the lodge offers ten stilted tree houses enveloped in nature with screened walls and an outdoor rainwater shower. Game drives were captivating. A herd of 40 elephants crossed the road right in front of us. We found the elusive and renowned tree-climbing lions. Even when we had no luck spotting a much-hoped-for leopard, I was awed by the lush surroundings — nothing like what I imagined Africa to be. Our guide Titus took us to breakfast by Maji Moto Hot Springs and later, a sundowner by Lake Manyara with Champagne and snacks. As we reached the lodge in the evening, we had our first downpour. We slept to the soothing sound of pattering drops cascading down the thatched roof.

Our final stay was at &Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas, a tented camp that moves with the Great Migration. My mother stayed in tented camps on previous safaris, and wanted me to do the same. I loved it. The well-appointed tents include an ensuite bathroom with toilet and sink. Our butler Daniel saw to our every need and prepared hot bucket showers when we returned from game drives. Our guide (also named Daniel) finally found our coveted leopard, a beautiful female lazing in a tree. He also tracked down the Great Migration and we had lunch in the midst of a dazzle of zebra, just a few of the over 70,000 we saw that day.

Having now experienced the rainy season, I cannot imagine a better time to go. Along with being less crowded and less expensive, temps are cooler and the plant life is so beautifully green. We did have our share of rain. We did get wet and muddy. We even got stuck on the wrong side of a rushing rain-fueled river and almost missed a flight. But in the end, it made our safari more exciting and memorable. As our guides told us, “This is Africa.”

Ol Donyo’s main lodge displays an eloquent Hemingway quote — “All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” As the trip came to a close, these words reverberated in my mind, expressing all that my grandparents and my mom felt about Africa, and how I too was beginning to feel. We could not have asked for a better experience. Sharing it with my mother, and seeing the four very unique places we visited through her eyes, made it all the more special. With an incredible first trip to Africa under my belt, I know it will not be my last.   RINAVANORDEN