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Just Back From: Safari Stories from East Africa, During Covid

Usually, Indagare’s team of travelers can be found scouting in all corners of the world, at any given moment, bringing back the latest on-the-ground intel and firsthand expertise for our community. This year, like everyone else, we’ve been more grounded—but we have been grateful to be able to send some staffers into the field in some incredible destinations that are open to Americans. Recently, five of our team members returned from exploring city, bush and even beach in Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya (and one team member is still there; she’s been working remotely from Nairobi since January!). Here, they share their favorite discoveries and moments of transformation from their adventures; impart their insights on what it’s like to travel internationally during Covid; and explain why it’s important to visit East Africa now, should you feel comfortable.

Have questions or want to start planning a trip? Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare (if you are not yet a member) for information on coronavirus travel safety, including the destinations that are open to Americans, new hotel safety policies, navigating testing and vaccination logistics, future trip ideas and more. Plus: read our definitive guide to Traveling Safely and Responsibly During Covid here.

RWANDA

“After spending a week in Rwanda, exploring each corner of the country, I still can’t get over the fact that we had each lodge to ourselves. We got to really know the staff and their stories. We got to feel the impact that every activity we did had on our guide or driver and, as a result, their families. We got to enjoy private gorilla and chimp treks in Rwanda’s national parks, and shops opened their doors just for us in Kigali. We had museums and restaurants to ourselves. We sat around a fire pit and listened to the sounds of a traditional dance group from a local village, who were performing just for us. We enjoyed private boat safaris on the beautiful—and so still—Lake Rwanyakazinga, where we spotted rhinos, giraffes and elephants from the water. While travel must be done responsibly and consciously during these times, I believe that there is no better or more important moment to continue to travel and to continue connecting with cultures around the world. These places need us now more than ever. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘God bless you for traveling right now,’ and, ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ These songs of gratitude echo through every conversation. I’ve spent nearly two months in East Africa, working remotely from Kenya and Rwanda. Every day I spend here shows me the restorative power of travel—and the real and profound impact that we, as travelers, can have on a destination.” — Global Experience Manager Kathryn Nathanson

“The privilege of having our own private gorilla trek, safari vehicle and guide, as well as private shuttle flights throughout our trip, made us all feel very comfortable in terms of Covid. Everything felt so private, personal and specialized. But more importantly, it allowed us to make really strong connections with our guides.” — Trip Designer & Production Associate Kial Church

“In a time when few are traveling and tourism needs our help the most, traveling now—to Rwanda and Tanzania—felt more purposeful, educational, and rewarding than ever before. Everyone we met during our time on the ground could not have been more welcoming and eager to connect. We spent time every day meeting new individuals who made deep impressions on us—and creating those strong bonds that are uniquely cultivated when people from different countries find common ground and share their stories. For me, one of the most memorable of these connections was meeting our driver-guide in Rwanda, Alex. Alex exemplified every characteristic that one looks for in a guide, as well as a friend. Over the course of three days and seven-plus hours in the car, we shared personal stories and learned more about Rwandan culture, history and daily life than we ever might have in the rush of the pre-Covid world.” — Trip Designer Charlotte Clayson

“On our way back to town from our golden monkey trek, as we made our way through verdant potato farms under clear, sunny skies, one of the porters we hired to carry our bags, Andrew, looked at me and said, ‘This sure is better than yesterday, huh?’ The day prior, on our mountain gorilla trek, the skies opened up, and we had so much rain dumped on us that Kathryn lost a hiking boot in the mud. I agreed that the weather was improved, for everyone involved, and then asked Andrew if he worked as a porter every day, since he had been with us two days in a row. He responded with a disheartening, ‘Not any more.’ Andrew explained that, pre-Covid, he would work five or more days a week, but with the near standstill in tourism that the pandemic has wrought, he wasn’t being hired nearly as often—twice a week at most. He went on to tell me how tough it has been for his fellow porters to earn a steady income—and he told me how much he appreciated being brought along for our journey. He then pointed to the rest of the porters—four others, one for each of us—and said they appreciated it, too. ‘You really can’t understand how much it means to us. Some people come and don’t want to hire us because they feel bad about making us carry their things, but that’s our job, and by paying us to do that, you are not only supporting us as humans, but you are also supporting our families and communities, and our entire country.’ It was incredibly humbling to be told firsthand what an impact we were having, simply by being there. We chatted the rest of the way back—and he showed me pictures of his two adorable children, and we talked politics, food and favorite primates.” — Destinations Assistant Bridget McElroy

Related: The Positive Power of Travel in Rwanda

KENYA

“I didn’t allow myself to believe that the trip was actually happening until the plane hit the tarmac in Nairobi, and from there, my traveler’s heart started drinking from the proverbial fire hose after 13 months without an international adventure. The anticipation period—typically filled with book-reading, list-making, recommendation-soliciting—is one of my favorite parts of travel. This trip’s anticipation period was instead filled with anxiety-ridden Clorox-wipe-ordering, PCR-test-awaiting and will-it-or-won’t-it-be-cancelled question-asking. On the taxi ride to the hotel from the airport, when the reality that I was back out in the world started to set in, the fear faded and my nomad-gene senses started kicking back in. I watched as the ochre soil was kicked up by pedestrian commuters (all socially distanced and properly masked) and the sun rose over a new, beckoning skyline, skyscrapers in the distance, streets lined with palm trees to my left, cape buffalo on the edge of Nairobi National Park to my right. I came to learn quickly that Nairobi is a city for explorers and doesn’t lay itself bare. We were put in touch with a local artisan who etches intricate, organic forms into recycled wine and liquor bottles, filing them down into sets of fine glassware. In order to find the workshop, our driver had to take us to the address, and then we had to call the artisan to come meet us in the parking lot to lead us to his studio. Even for our host, the address was impossible to find and when walking by, one would never know to stop in. The entire city is like this. A favorite restaurant—where we enjoyed a seven-course meal and wine pairing—was hidden behind an auto mechanic on an unassuming street. Another market filled with West African treasures was concealed by an apartment complex façade. But thanks to our insider friends in Kenya, Nairobi cracked open for us.” — Senior Membership Director Elise Bronzo

“We had just finished up breakfast at Cottar’s Camp when Diana (our Senior Director of Marketing) overheard Doug, the conservation manager, mentioning that a pangolin den was found close to the lodge. Without shame, I marched up to Doug, introduced myself and proceeded to interrogate him, hardly breathing while confessing my love for this underdog creature. The previous week, while we were in Nairobi, I had a coffee with the founder of The Pangolin Project and learned about the great work they’re doing in the Maasai Mara and all over Kenya, protecting this sweet animal from mass poaching. Pangolins (falsely credited with sparking the Covid-19 outbreak), curl up in a ball when approached, making it super easy for poachers to scoop them up and transport them out of the country, where they can earn a huge payout for their scales and meat. Most guides have never spotted one during their career. After talking, Doug invited me to tag along for the search—and around 5:30 p.m., just before sundown, we arrived at the den and stayed absolutely still for three hours outside of the opening, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature returning home. In total darkness, we swatted mosquitoes and strained our ears as we heard hyena howls and cattle bells from the nearby village. Just when it seemed like our chances were too slim, and everyone’s legs had gone numb from sitting so long, Doug decided to do one last check of the den with a pangolin-safe flashlight. He shined the torch while I stuck my head in to look and, sure enough, the pangolin had been curled into the back of the burrow all along and was sleeping right under our feet! Its scales, each three-inches in length, were barely distinguishable against the gray dirt walls. Doug set a camera to take photos of its movement overnight. Five minutes after we left, a hyena was recorded at the scene and, one hour later, the pangolin trotted out, claws poised, ready to head out into the night. [To learn more about pangolin conservation and get involved, visit thepangolinproject.org]” — Senior Membership Director Elise Bronzo

Related: Melissa Biggs Bradley on the Traveler’s Mindset in the Age of Covid

TANZANIA

“During our last evening game drive in the Grumeti Game Reserve, Kial, Bridget and I set out with our driver-guide, Jimmy, in search of the ever-elusive leopard. Our eyes were trained high in the trees, straining through binoculars for anything reminiscent of spots, when Jimmy received a call on his radio in Swahili. A wide smile spread across his face as he jumped to hit the gas—but he stayed quiet, and we remained on the edge of our seats. For it turns out that, while a leopard was not on the agenda that evening, a pride of 24 lions—the largest in the Grumeti—was. We stopped short at the carcass of a recently killed buffalo and spent the next six hours (over the course of the evening and next morning) watching the lions, including countless cubs and two males, feast on their kill. In the final hour, we waited patiently for the last lioness to walk away from the seemingly finished carcass—and then, dozens of vultures descended, and hyenas crept in, to pick off what was left. Over 24 hours, we were witness to the full circle of life.” — Trip Designer Charlotte Clayson

“As we watched that pride of 24 lions just beginning to eat the buffalo at sunset, on our last night of what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me, it suddenly occurred to me: This happens every day… It was just this incredible moment of realization that, while we are so busy living our lives in New York or wherever we may be—and especially now that we are so caught up in our own anxieties and fears and mundanities—there are astounding moments like the one we had with the lions, happening all over Africa, and all over the world, every day, just waiting to be experienced. And making meaningful connections with your guides and other people you meet along the way only enhances those experiences.” — Trip Designer & Production Associate Kial Church

“The service at the Singita properties is unparalleled. During one of our many chats with our guide Jimmy, we asked him what his opinion was of The Lion King, and the image it sets up for first-time visitors to Tanzania. We assumed that he would laughingly scoff it off as ‘Hollywood’ or ‘Disney,’ but instead, he explained that the movie has done wonderful things for safari tourism. In fact, the creators of the film spent time over the course of three years in the Serengeti studying the wildlife, and much of what’s portrayed in the film is actually accurate. Many of the characters’ names are Swahili (Simba means lion; Mufasa means king; Rafiki, friend; Nala, princess; Pumba, stupid; etc.). As a complete aside, we joked that maybe we should revisit this childhood favorite to brush up on our bush knowledge. But when we later checked into Singita Sasakwa, we arrived to a fantastic private dinner in the estate’s cozy TV room—where a screening of The Lion King was prepared. The next day, we made friends with a couple who were there celebrating their postponed honeymoon, and the husband had a similar story: he had passingly mentioned wishing that he had brought his guitar at the evening bonfire, and he woke up the next morning to a guitar waiting outside their tent. We all had a good laugh and agreed that you can’t make a joke about anything at the Singitas, because the level of service is so top-notch, they will make it happen.” — Destinations Assistant Bridget McElroy

Have questions or want to start planning a trip? Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare (if you are not yet a member) for information on coronavirus travel safety, including the destinations that are open to Americans, new hotel safety policies, navigating testing and vaccination logistics, future trip ideas and more. Plus: read our definitive guide to Traveling Safely and Responsibly During Covid here.

– Indagare on March 10, 2021

Quotable

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, 'God bless you for traveling right now,' and, 'Thank you so much for being here.' These songs of gratitude echo through every conversation. I’ve spent nearly two months in East Africa, working remotely from Kenya and Rwanda. Every day I spend here shows me the restorative power of travel, and the real and profound impact that we, as travelers, can have on a destination.
~ Global Experience Manager Kathryn Nathanson

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