By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
There was a moment of realization during the nearly three-week African safari when the significance of the experience was illuminated for Paul Gereffi.
The guide shut off the engine of the Land Rover and gave his passengers a moment to take in the panorama of the savannah.
In every direction, animals were moving about in their daily course of subsistence and survival. A spectacular array of creatures that can’t be seen elsewhere, at least not on this grand scale, unencumbered and unrestrained.
The only sounds were those of the breeze and the animals until the guide spoke.
“The guide said, ‘This was like this 10,000 years ago,’” Gereffi says, recalling the scene months later. “The lions, the ostriches, the baboons – all of that. It was like this 10,000 years ago and here it’s still like this.
“To see those animals in their natural habitat – none of it is fake, this is where they live – unbelievable.”
That is why Paul and Terry Gereffi flew 20 hours from South Florida to Nairobi, Kenya, by way of Dubai, in the summer of 2018 – to experience a natural realm as untamed as can be found anywhere today.
African safaris have grown in popularity this decade, not only among tourists from the United States and Europe, but from Brazil, Russia, India and China and the Middle East as well.
An arduous vacation
Still, it’s a niche attraction that doesn’t fit everyone’s vacation objective. An African safari is not a laidback, pampered getaway.
The Gereffis viewed their 17-day odyssey through Kenya and Tanzania as an adventure, and it came with a commitment.
“It’s not for people who want to lie by the pool. You’re going to see the animals. That’s what you’re there for,” Gereffi says.
“It was two game drives at least every day – one in the morning and one late afternoon, which is when the animals are most active. If you want to see animals, this is the way to do it.”
There are numerous tour groups offering African safaris, and prices vary greatly depending on location, duration, services provided and time of year. It is also possible in some areas to rent a vehicle and do a self-drive safari.
The Gereffis went on an all-inclusive African tour with an alumni group from Duke University, where Paul’s brother Gary is a professor emeritus in sociology.
With 18 passengers traveling in a convoy of three Land Rovers, they made a circuit through Kenya and Tanzania spanning the prime game-viewing areas of East Africa.
Highlights included the majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro; close encounters with the numerous exotic animals of Rift Valley; viewing the large elephant herd at Amboseli National Park; the vast wildlife refuge of Serengeti National Park; and Ngorongoro Crater, where Africa’s “Big five” animals reside.
“The Big Five is lion, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo and leopard,” Gereffi says. “Back in the day, those are the animals that hunters wanted to kill. They’re still hunting, unfortunately. But now just to be able to see those Big Five animals, it’s what most people strive for.”
“But we saw lots more animals than that.”
Numerous exotic birds, too, including the dazzling pink flamingos of Lake Manyara.
Charmed by the people
But the native people left as strong of an impression as the wildlife.
Gereffi, a veteran mail carrier who also covers South Florida sports for The Associated Press, was pleasantly surprised when a young boy came out of a mud hut wearing a Miami Dolphins shirt in a Maasai Mara village in Kenya.
“The people are very gentle and the children seem very happy,” he says. “The children, I think, are like kids everywhere. They have a joy for life.”
Gereffi has been an avid traveler since an early age because his parents had the travel bug. He has had his passport stamped in numerous countries, but had never experienced anything as foreign as the animals, people and land of eastern Africa.
The accommodations at some overnight stops were tents, though quite comfortable.
At the camp at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, lions could be heard roaring at night. Guests were required to be accompanied to their rooms by an armed guard. Occasionally, an animal would stroll through the grounds.
Tripping back in time
As the trip proceeded, Gereffi felt as if cast in an old movie, circa 1940s Africa. From the last stop in Tanzania, the journey back to Kenya was a dusty, 10-hour drive in the Rovers, with bathroom breaks in the bushes – again, accompanied by armed guard.
That trek was followed by a flight in a prop plane to Nairobi. The so-called airport consisted of a tent next to a dirt runway with a couple of guards.
“When the plane pulls up, the doors open, the props keep going and the guy says, ‘OK, let’s go.’ They don’t check your ticket or anything,” Gereffi says. “It was a very comfortable plane, though, very safe – Kenyan Airways.”
Still, it provided a sense of adventure that can’t be found on commercial tours most anywhere else.
It’s worlds away from Western civilization, the traveling is arduous and the cost is pricey. But in Gereffi’s view, well worth it to experience the most enigmatic continent.
“The vehicles are utilitarian; they’re open vehicles. You’re in the elements. You’re not sitting behind tinted glass looking out at the animals in the distance. You feel like you’re part of it,” Gereffi says.
“We did see a lion eating a wildebeest. When he was done eating, they get up and walk away and all these hyenas come in and tear the carcass to shreds. It’s kind of violent and gross. But it’s nature.”
If you want high-end shopping and a sophisticated luxury vacation, go to the French Riviera. Africa offers the flipside in a raw, natural setting.
“This trip, everybody had the same reaction, like, ‘wow.’ Wow, we just saw three cheetahs on the side of the road, we just saw giraffes walking on the road in front of us,” Gereffi says.
“When you got back you just felt like this was really an odyssey. This was one heck of a trip.”
Planning to go on safari
There are numerous tour operators offering a wide range of African safari options. Travel consultant Eric Monkaba, founder of TripScaper, recommends getting expert advice or professional guidance to craft an African tour.
Read his guide to planning an amazing African safari in Forbes magazine.
Preserve the memories
Smartphones have become the camera of choice for a growing number of tourists. But not the best to use on Safari.
Gereffi recommends investing in a reliable digital camera to record photos worthy of a trip of a lifetime. It doesn’t have to be a professional-grade camera, though.
He spent about $380 on a decent point-and-shoot.
“We went to Best Buy and just bought a regular digital camera with a telephoto lens,” he says.
“You don’t really have time to be changing lenses. About the time you change the lens the lion might be gone.”
From the U.S., connections through Europe or the Middle East are common. In late 2018, Kenya Airways for the first time began offering a non-stop flight from New York’s JFK to Nairobi for about $900 roundtrip.
The Gereffis flew from Fort Lauderdale to Dubai, where they stayed for three days before continuing on to Nairobi.
The 14-hour marathon to Dubai was made palatable by scoring a promotional business class fare. It’s worth inquiring about.
“It’s like flying in your living room,” Gereffi says. “You’re lying on a seat that goes flat. You have your own drinks, food, mini bar and big-screen TV. I slept seven hours coming home, and I’m lucky if I can sleep seven minutes on a plane.”