Some families take their babies to play groups. Some take them to the park. On special occasions their babies may see the beach or Disneyworld. Here in Kenya, we took our baby(s) on safari.
It’s a wild (figuratively and literally) endeavor, and requires quite a bit of planning and flexibility.
Our friends Peter and Mary made the long haul from Dallas to Nairobi, along with their daughter Claire, to visit us for a few days. This was a long-standing dream coming to reality for us….we were SO excited to host them! It is so refreshing to have visitors…it renews us mentally, spiritually and physically forced us out of our Nairobi norms to experience the beauty of Kenya!
Peter and Mary made only one request for their time here – that we do a safari. This was great news, as we typically save our safari adventures for when visitors come in and we were itching to go see wildlife too!
Tip #1: Plan (at least a few days) Ahead.
In the weeks/days leading up to their arrival, we sat down to plan a safari. Where should we go? What park? How many nights? How far away from Nairobi? …all questions we considered as we mapped out our plans to visit Samburu Conservancy, a protected park about 6 hours away. We had recently visited Samburu and fell in love with the beautiful, mountainous backdrop!
Our hopes were high: we aimed to straight-shot a 6 hour drive to the conservancy, with a lunch break half-way. In Kenya, their are no fancy rest stops with flushing toilets and snack machines! (side tip: bring lots of snacks…Mary had a stash of AMERICAN goldfish crackers that kept the kids happy.)
Not to mention, the last time we went to Samburu (during Christmas holiday) was in December…and our Land Cruiser had broken down. In fact, it was still in the shop, now two months later – getting some major engine repair completed. We would have to borrow a 4×4. Thankfully, our co-workers generously let us borrow their Land Cruiser!
Tip #2: Pray (This should probably be Tip #1)
On the early morning of our departure, we arranged two car seats side-by-side. All but one seat would be occupied by a person, the unused seat folded up to make room for our luggage. Sound machines, toys, shelf-stable milk and snacks all in tow. We prayed that our children would be somewhat agreeable throughout the travel.
As we exited the neighborhood and cruised up the highway, we breezed past bumper-to-bumper traffic going the opposite way – towards Nairobi’s center. Praise the Lord we were headed away from the city, and we prayed no one forgot something important at the house.
Levi was the first, and thankfully, the only to have a breakdown. It last about 30 minutes until he finally fell asleep. The rest of the drive was quite peaceful as we passed through rolling hills of coffee farms, forest and wheat fields. Mount Kenya remained to our east for a bit leaving us amazed at the diversity and beauty of this country. After we passed the mountain, we descended into desert-like territory. We peeled the jackets off our babies, as the temperature increased drastically to match the terrain.
Once we entered the conservancy, the babies were out of their car seats, looking out the windows. The first spotting of the day was a female Somali Ostrich. This was the first of many animals that Levi labeled, “dog.” (Currently his favorite word.)
Tip #3: Be flexible and don’t underestimate the power of Nap Time.
We arrived at our lodge, Samburu Intrepids, at 2:00pm, grabbed a quick lunch and laid the babies down for naps. We decided to take it easy that evening and stayed at the lodge, despite the temptation to go on a game drive and see the cheetah that had been spotted a couple of hours earlier. Both flexibility and nap time are important when safari-ing with 1 year olds!
A typical safari consists of early morning and late evening game drives. At midday, the animals are usually avoiding the heat by hiding in the shade. We were a little uncertain how this change in schedule would affect the little ones, but they were champs! Claire thoroughly enjoyed the morning views while Levi snored away in the back seat.
Tip #4: Don’t let your babies hang out the windows when looking at wild beasts.
Our first morning’s drive we spotted what we were most hopeful to see…a leopard! It was brief, as she moved up towards the rocks where her babies were waiting. She walked within just a few feet of our vehicle!
Keep in mind, we did what we call a DIY safari. We drove our own vehicle. Our spotting tactics were simple: look for parked 4x4s and folks with binoculars. The odds are, a parked vehicle (and gawking tourists) meant a good animal spotting!
Additionally, we were advised by a friend to ask for tips from the official guides. We repaid each tip with a monetary tip…thankful to have some help and to ensure we wouldn’t be searching around in no-man’s-land for the majority of our drives.
The next major sighting was incredible! We followed a few 4x4s up to a fallen tree….with three lion cubs perched on the limbs, just a couple of meters from the roadside. We stayed their a while, watching them nap and play. Claire and Levi enjoyed seeing the cubs nearly as much as we adults did!
Throughout our game drives, we saw more lions, another female leopard (Mary spotted it on her own!), a number of elephants, some endangered Grevy’s zebra and even a giraffe awkwardly drinking water!
Tip #5: Kenyans (of all ages) know a lot about babies.
The lodge was wonderful and very accommodating for us. The staff introduced Claire and Levi to a stuffed leopard (whose job was protect the breakfast buffet against monkeys). Kenyans raise their families interdependently, and most have experienced caring for a younger sibling or neighbor. Communal sharing of the babies was assumed of us as the staff freely picked our children up and walked them around the property to play. It was a great help as we sat down to enjoy our meals!
Tip #6: Relax a bit.
Three nights proved to be the perfect amount of time for our adventure. We didn’t feel pressured to squeeze in every possible game drive, and it allowed us to relax and catch up with one another. Claire and Levi seemed to adjust to the 5am wake up calls and later bedtimes.
After a total of 4 game drives, we loaded up our borrowed Land Cruiser and said good-byes to the friendly staff. (On our last night they surprised us with a candle-lit, riverside dinner!) We fought off a monkey or two who tried to steal Claire’s toys, and then were on our way. Nine hours later, we arrived home, exhausted but content! (The true test of traveling endurance would be the following day for the Yoder family, as they flew back-to-back 9 hour flights to the US!)
Tip #7: Visit your friends in Kenya (if you’re up for an adventure!)
We were so thankful that Peter, Mary and Claire made their way out to see us. It truly did our souls good and rejuvenated our spirits. Praise the Lord for such a wonderful adventure together!