Lessons learned on a family safari through Kenya (In the 1980s)

By Lavelle Carlson

When my children were seven and eleven we had the opportunity to take a camera safari for nine days through Kenya. My childhood in East Texas had afforded me little travel experience. My limited knowledge of the world and other cultures came from National Geographic magazines that my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Lloyd, used as teaching material.  That is my excuse to justify fudging on the 8-year old age restrictions on a safari through Kenya. After all, there could not be a valid reason that would keep my 7-year old daughter from going. Well, apparently sometimes the rules are there for a reason. There were a few obstacles, sometimes funny but not always fun incidences with young children.

It is such a special experience to see a mamma lion and her cubs up close.

Trip preparations involved getting shots, passports, and packing. The doctor prescribed medicine for all of us to take to prevent malaria. That seemed simple enough. There were no questions asked regarding allergies or ages. We already had passports so that was no problem. A friend, Bea Price, was planning the trip and taking care of the flights and all the tours, hotels, and restaurants on the trip – simple enough.

Lesson # 1: Think about which airlines you trust

The day came to leave. We were seasoned travelers and had packed all we needed for the nine days. We flew from Stavanger, Norway to Rome, Italy. We changed planes in Rome and boarded the Kenyan Airlines.

The plane was dirty and smelled. By the time we arrived in Nairobi the oldest daughter was getting ready to lose all she had eaten. Our guide offered something to settle her stomach but by then my daughter had filled the airsickness bag, and continued after we exited the airplane.

The next move was to the baggage area. Unfortunately, the girls’ luggage did not arrive although my husband and I received our luggage. Understanding that sometimes it may take a day for the luggage to catch up we were not overly concerned at that point.

Lesson #2: Confirm your hotel arrangements

To this day our kids will tell you about the monkeys playing on the roof of our tent all night long.

When we arrived a few of the rooms were not ready and one of those happened to be our room. We simply decided to shop while the room was being prepared. We had been informed that there were some shops open in Nairobi that Saturday afternoon and we could shop for some temporary clothes for the girls. After searching through the stalls in the market we were unable to find children’s clothes. So we were back to hoping the luggage would make it.

We headed back to the hotel and were happy to be given the key to our room. However, when I saw the room number I was a bit suspicious as the room number was 1313. We did not have a choice so we took the key and went upstairs. My husband opened the door. This hotel had an open bathroom and shower right inside the front door. There was a couple (from our group) in the shower – a very nice gentleman with bright red hair and his wife. Although we quickly closed the door, that image in that one moment was forever sculpted in my brain. Later we were assigned another family to share the Land Cruiser for the safaris. Guess who I had to look at the entire trip – the showering couple! I can assure that I maintained eye contact any time we were traveling in the Land Cruiser.

Lesson #3: Secure whatever luggage may remain

The itinerary would take us to campsites across a large area to enjoy a view of the African animals in their natural habitat. These areas would include the Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks.

Watching elephants come together to rescue one of their own was a magical experience.

The next day we headed out to our first safari camp. The bouncing up and down on the potholed roads was more like a carnival ride. The luggage was not tied securely enough on the top of the vehicle to withstand the jarring of the potholes. Our luggage flew off and almost hit the vehicle behind us in our caravan. Of course, this stopped the entire caravan as we retrieved our clothes from the red dust and returned them to our suitcases. After a couple of more hours riding and choking on the red dust swirling like a red tornado we arrived at our first lodging.

Lesson #4: Watch your child who didn’t make the age cut off for your travels

Now this is where the trip becomes interesting. We were told to not venture out in the evening without a guard and his light. As the parents were socializing after a delicious meal we looked out in the falling dusk. What did we see but our 7-year-old daughter and her friend scurrying back to the lodge with a troop of baboons in tow? Was this the reason for not allowing young children on the trip – children who do not follow the rules and parents who are too busy socializing to ensure that the children follow the rules? Obviously, this parent had not considered all the dangers lurking in the grassland. Luckily, it was only baboons and they were accustomed to humans and usually were just hoping for a treat.

We then took the children to our primitive hut for some much needed sleep. We took a very chilly shower – no hot water – and got into our cots. However, there was not much sleep to be had as there were small animals jumping from the trees above onto the roof and then scampering. Just as dawn was arriving our intermittent sleep was cut short when we were awakened early by a herd of elephants trumpeting calls for help. We rushed out – as well as others in our group – to see what the commotion was. We were treated to one of the most beautiful sights ever. A baby elephant was stuck in the mud and the mother and her friends were all pushing and pulling to get her out. It was so moving to see all working together for the common good of the young elephant, as they were able to get the baby out.

I sometimes refer to this trip as a “gasping” trip. As we traveled we enjoyed the grasslands with baobab trees, acacia trees and sausage trees in some areas, and vast arid scenery in others. We passed watering holes with hippos and Cape buffalo drinking. We were in awe as we had close-up views of other animals – giraffes, lions, zebras, impalas, elephants, hippos, cape buffalos, leopards, and always more baboons.

Lesson #5: Carefully respect the local culture

The Maasai were happy to meet us and to sell us some of their crafts. Just don’t take their picture!

In addition to the animals, we were able to see the Maasai herdsmen guarding their cattle with large spears. We had been informed in advance to absolutely not take pictures of the Masai tribesmen as they believed that was stealing their soul. As we were riding across the grassland my husband, the photographer, had his camera with the strap around his neck as he was leaning out the window. He was moving the camera back and forth in preparation for that one great animal picture. Unfortunately, a Masai tribesman thought his picture was being taken. The tribesman rushed the van and grabbed and pulled the camera. The driver realized what was happening and quickly drove off. Luckily, there was no damage other than a little embarrassment.

Our driver took us to a small Maasai village. The small huts were surrounded by a “boma”, a thorn and cedar enclosure that surrounded the huts to protect them and their cattle from the lions. We were able to mix with the Maasai children and women. The children oblivious to the flies covering their eyes and lips and nose. Although this was not pleasant to those of us who are anal about germs this did not appear to be a problem for them. The women were quite friendly and were selling spears. Ironically, they allowed us to take pictures so the belief pertaining to loss of soul if an image is taken does not apply to women who are selling to the tourists. We did purchase a spear and after all of these years I still have it.

Lesson #6: Observe, enjoy and learn the emotions of the wildlife

As we were driving (again on pothole roads suffocating us in red dust) to our next lodge we made a stop at Tsavo. There was very little to see here but it did have great historical significance. (If you like stories pertaining to the travails of the British attempting to colonize Kenya, the book you will enjoy is The Lions of Tsavo). Our driver stopped for us to purchase a drink and snacks at a stand at Tsavo. We purchased some candy bars for the girls. As the underage daughter was looking away while she had her candy in her hand a baboon ran past her, snatched it, and ran away.

We were sitting on the veranda at our second lodge after a nice lunch and enjoying watching a young baboon under a tree just a few feet from us. It was eyeing us as well. Then, without much ado the baboon lurched up to the veranda, picked up a bowl of sugar cubes, and took it back to its spot under the tree and began eating them one by one. Any parent would understand the look on the young baboon’s face. It was such a naughty baboon – just looking at us thinking, “You cannot stop me”.

Lesson #7 The most famous restaurant may not be the best fit for you

We headed back to Nairobi for the flight home. The leader had a dinner planned in the most famous restaurant in Nairobi – Carnivore. I think this is the point at which I began to think that I could be a vegetarian. When you walk into the restaurant there is a grill directly in front of you. The meats were displayed for you to choose your dinner. Hanging from the hooks were grilled crocodile, zebra, hartebeest, ostrich, eland, impala, as well as pork, chicken and beef.

Lesson #8: Family adventures are so worth it

We did have a few discomforts on the trip. The things that happened to us were beyond the control of a tour guide. Sometimes, these things occur. Life cannot always be controlled. Yes, I did have to hand wash clothes each night. I did have to share my sanitary pads with my daughter still suffering from diarrhea. Incidentally, she recovered when we left Kenya and she was no longer taking the malaria pills. And, we did find our luggage on our return to Norway.

However, to this day this trip gave me some of the fondest and most beautiful memories of traveling with my family. The memories of being able to see all the animals in the wild as they gracefully ran across the grasslands or sometimes stared us down. We were able to enjoy seeing close up the playful relationship between the mother lion and her cub. On the sad side – as it happens in nature – we witnessed the birth of a baby gazelle and within a few minutes we witnessed the baby being taken by a coyote.

Yes, we did cheat a little on the age restriction to take a young child on the trip but our daughters enjoyed it as much as we did and learned from seeing other cultures. To this day they will tell you about the monkeys running on the top of our tent and the baboon stealing a candy bar right of their hand.

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9 Replies to “Lessons learned on a family safari through Kenya (In the 1980s)”

  1. Your phrase “gasping trip” is great! What an adventure this trip must have been, and something your kids will remember their whole lives!

  2. WOW! This is such a great post and definitely inspires a sense of wanderlust in me. Your kids are going to be so well traveled and obviously adventurous! 🙂 #FlyAwayFriday

    1. So my mother wrote this about a safari we took when I was a kid. Guess it did inspire an adventurous spirit as I am searching for a way to take my kids somewhere this different.

  3. Sounds like some incredible ups and some rather hilariously awful downs (showing couple for example!!). I would love to go on safari one day, and witness things like a gazelle being born!

  4. Those are some amazing tips/lessons for a good safari trip! love the pictures! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this weekend! xo

  5. These are good lessons! That is crazy about the camera with the tribes! I really want to head to Kenya and found this ultra helpful! thanks for coming to fly away friday! Hope to see you this week 🙂

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