Giraffe Manor, Masai Mara and Uganda Gorilla Trekking

When we decided to go to Africa a year ago to host our first Safari retreat, we knew we would stay longer and do some scouting of additional experiences for future events. We also had a few big milestones to celebrate in our personal lives, me turning 40 and our 15th wedding anniversary which would fall the week after our group retreat. With Adam leaving his job with Cal Fire it would be the first time we could extend our trip to this degree and we wanted to take full advantage of the area after the 18 hour flight it took to get there. (Good news, there is now direct flights to Nairobi from New York on Kenyan Airways to make travel from the USA even easier.)

After we wrapped our amazing retreat at Ol Pejeta (which you can read about here) we headed back to Nairobi to meet the pack and begin our next adventure. Africa is so vast and the experiences to be had are so diverse that you could travel there countless times and still not scratch the surface of things to explore. But each of the experiences offers something special and unique and when it comes to travel in Africa the more the merrier truly applies.

We began our trip at the one and only Giraffe Manor. Giraffe Manor is part of  The Safari Collection of hotels which is a luxury hotel chain offering one of a kind experiences. Giraffe Manor as the name suggests is a location that hosts a herd of Giraffes in it’s adjoining sanctuary location. The Giraffes are allowed to come into the manor property at special times of the day so guests can feed them and generally get to be in close proximity to these magnificent creatures. The property and the experience is nothing short of a dream come true.

Seeing giraffes up close and personal like this makes you fall even deeper in love with these awkwardly lovable creatures. Their curious personalities gives them an almost cartoon-like presence. You become instantly mesmerized by their doe-eyed stare with dark black eyelashes emphasizing their beautiful features. An inevitable dose of oxytocin hits your blood and you become intoxicatingly love drunk with them. I fell especially in love with a small female giraffe that I affectionately referred to as “my girl.” She would look for me and I for her at all the feedings and I could seemingly spend an eternity doling out small pellets as she calmly and ever so gently extracted them from my fingers. She was a true delight to the soul.

As incredible as the experience is at Giraffe Manor, a couple of nights is really all you need to experience it in its entirety and after two nights we were excited to move on to our next adventure. Next stop the Masai Mara, or “The Mara” as they refer to it. We were immediately struck by the change in climate and terrain as we arrived in the Mara. Adam described it well by saying that Ol Pejeta felt like a visit to your family’s land where you were welcomed as part of the experience and the Mara felt like the Wild Wild West.

With big open lands stretching as far as the eye could see, our driver immediately informed us that we were on the Masai Mara which is the part of the Serengeti that stretches across this part of Kenya and that just on the horizon to the left was the rest of it which covers Tanzania. If Ol Pejeta (where we had hosted our retreat) was a boutique, the Mara was an open-air bazaar. All to say they are truly different experiences, both incredibly special in their own right. Having the contrast of our previous experience at the Safari cottages gave us an even more interesting insight into how diverse the experience of Africa can be.

The Mara brought torrential downpours and carnage, so much carnage. From seeing fresh zebra kills to taking in the miles of half-eaten carcasses and skeletal remains, we had truly arrived at the helm of Darwin. It is during this time of year and in this location that approximately 2 million wildebeests make their way north towards greener grass.

They appear almost as an army of hypnotized cows wearing funny masks being compelled to move north for no obvious reason. They are strange-looking and everywhere. The human mind can almost not comprehend the scale of this amount of wildlife and you find yourself easily rationalizing them as food for the predatory animals of the savanna. Somehow you tell yourself, there are so many of them what’s one kill. These thoughts came as a surprise to my compassionate sensibilities. Africa was teaching me to surrender to the circle of life on the savanna. This struck me as especially curious as I thought I would be saddled with an unending conundrum of who I would root for in the instance of predator versus prey. Without me having to grapple with it, Africa decided for me. One Wildebeest will feed upwards of 50 animals. It felt like a logical and obvious choice to become content with that outcome. There were 2 million of them after all. These thoughts and these feelings surprised me and still do.

Our first home on the Mara was at the acclaimed Sala’s camp.Sala’s Camp is another member of the Safari Collection. Aesthetically beautiful it was more a page out of Architecture Digest then National Geographic. But lest you think you are at a W hotel you are quickly reminded during orientation not to go outside after dark by yourself. You must always be accompanied by a Masai Warrior to and from your room and if you happen to encounter a cape buffalo or hippo consider yourself in deep deep trouble. They don’t even have any advice to give you, you’re simply told: “let’s hope that doesn’t happen.” The next two days we explored the Mara, taking in some incredible sights and experiences including being amongst impressive dominant male lions and their pride. Seeing their wild manes framing their faces was every planet earth documentary moment summarized in one moment. Africa continues to amaze.

An additional cultural experience you may consider while in The Mara is to see if you can visit a Masai village. We chose to take the 1-hour drive from Sala’s camp to visit the local village and it was truly an African event. They gave us a wonderful Masai welcome and shared their dancing, singing and the men, of course, showed off their jumping skills. I was pretty proud our guys held their own.. They’re pretty athletic after all. It was fun to watch them participate and give the Masai a run for their money;)

Word to the wise. You will be led to their jewelry and gifts for sale after the tour. Although very polite and welcoming they are not opposed to trying to make a hard sell at the end. If there is something you want, be sure to bargain for a fair price. They will start high but make a fair offer and they will accept. Extra bonus tip… DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT buy any lions teeth from them. Although technically they are allowed to kill Lions in self-defense, they are not legally allowed to sell the parts. If you get caught bringing this Lion’s tooth back to the US or even nationally in Africa you could get in trouble for participating in poaching. Even if they tell you the teeth are made out of cow’s bone, don’t chance it. You don’t want to participate in creating a demand for Lion’s teeth anyway so just avoid this altogether.

After two nights at Sala’s camp, we continued to the northern part of the Mara to Bateleur Camp. Bateleur camp was the most esthetically stunning location we had yet to stay. Pure luxury, this property offered incredible views of the savanna from every part of the property, beautiful accommodations, and incredible amenities. The only drawback to this location was that the drivers are not allowed to go off-road in the park to get closer to the animals which could prove to be annoying if this was your only safari experience. Much of the magic of the game drives is the off-road bushwacking to get closer to the wildlife. Had we not had our fill of off-road adventures already this would have been a disappointment. Because we had had our fill of amazing up close and personal experiences with the animals we were ok with the trade-off for a couple of days in order to enjoy the extremely beautiful accommodations. Definitely a pro tip is to ask about this in Africa wherever you may stay. Inquiring what kind of access the individual facilities have to go off-road is extremely important as well as what kind of vehicles you will be in. Open top Land Cruisers that you can stand up in are the best or covered open-sided Land Cruisers if you prefer shade would be the next best. If your location promises closed vans, abort the mission. We felt so sorry for people piled into regular vans with no open-air access. It is such an integral part of the experience, I would highly recommend prioritizing this. 

One of the special experiences that the Mara offers which I highly recommend is a hot air balloon ride over the savanna at dawn. This is truly one of the most serene and peaceful ways to experience the area and we truly loved soaring over the land and taking in the birds-eye views.

At last, our time in the Mara had come to a close and we were off for our final African adventure. For our grand finale, we would be taking two additional flights to reach Uganda and commence the trip with trekking with wild mountain gorillas. A truly grand finale indeed. Because Uganda is an international flight, we headed back to Nairobi to transfer back to JKIA, the international airport.

In order to make our way all the way to Uganda, we needed to make a stop in Entebbe Uganda. We stayed one night at The Boma which really just serves as a basic accommodation to catch our flight in the morning. The hotel was basic but clean and served us well for a night.

The next morning we were up and it bright and early to catch our flight into Bwindi. Our destination was The Gorilla Forest Camp otherwise known as Sanctuary retreats which sits on the edge of the Impenetrable Forest, where the gorillas reside. A few words of advice here is to see if you can clarify ahead of time which group of Gorilla’s you will be trekking to see. There are several habituated groups but some of them can be upwards of a two-hour drive and hike. We were told because we booked so far in advance we were given the closer groups which reduced our overall time and energy cost to get to the gorillas. If you want the bigger time and trek that’s great but the hotel location was so lovely we wanted to also get the opportunity to enjoy the premises. So we were grateful for the shorter treks to see the gorillas. I am not entirely clear on what one must do to secure the preferred trek ahead of time but it’s worth asking your booking agent or the hotel itself ahead of time if you have a preference. If you need assistance with this you can reach out to us at [email protected] and we can connect you with our contact who was super helpful in planning this.

Seeing the gorillas in person was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The feeling of just being with them in their natural habitat is remarkable. If you’d like to hear more specifics about this particular experience make sure you listen to episode 149 of our podcast to hear about our trip to Africa and get all the details about this in particular. However, I will just say that it was well worth the extra time, money and energy to make this pilgrimage to be with the great apes. Truly a phenomenal experience indeed. I hope you enjoyed this adventure and be sure to check out the highlight video below where we had an amazing time doing our best Dax and Kristen tribute to Africa!

I hope this article has been useful and that you will get the opportunity to explore these incredible areas of Africa. If you would like any of the resources we used for booking our trip, please feel free to email us at [email protected] and we would be happy to assist you in any way. Or if you would like to join us on a future experience, be sure to check out our next events here.

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Photo Credit: Glen Cordoza, Katie Cordoza & Vanessa Lambert

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Vanessa Lambert