Celebration in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya & Seychelles

Nothing excites me more than travelling off the beaten path. I am that girl who has always craved adventure. I suppose that’s why experiential luxury adventure travel became my specialty and greatest passion. Pushing the boundaries brings a thrill to my heart so it is no wonder that I feel a rush when I find myself hiking in the mountains or skiing off-piste in the Alps, I feel solitude deep in the sea while scuba diving, I feel engulfed by the most authentic travel experiences imaginable when immersing myself amongst the locals.

I had a big birthday ahead, my 50th, so I planned the perfect holiday to ensure I was going to enjoy every single day of my month abroad with my family. I wanted to be thrilled, enchanted, intrigued and absorbed into different cultures….I designed my trip with my trusted African operator and EVERY part of the holiday delivered a highlight. We started the journey in Rwanda, crossed over the border to Uganda and then on to neighbouring Kenya before finishing off in paradise, in the Seychelles.

What an amazing start to our trip to East Africa – Rwanda, a country that is resurrecting itself from a horrific past. After a night in Kigali, a few hours spent in the genocide museum (with disbelief as we walked solemnly through each room of photos, artefacts and stories), we headed off to the Volcanoes National Park. Driving through the countryside offered us a good insight to Rwandan life in the country villages far removed from Kigali.

We headed to Volcanoes National Park for a stay at the magnificent Sabinyo Lodge. The lodge at 2515 meters was set high up at the foot of the Sabinyo volcano, surrounded by three other volcanoes offering an exquisite backdrop for our 2 night stay. We spent our first afternoon with the local community of Ndabaruhuye. What a beautiful and happy community. A select group of children and adults put on a performance for the ten of us. It doesn’t get more raw than this. We were in the middle of a lush rural setting, amidst mud houses, and the whole community who gathered to witness the show that this group of locals put on for the visiting foreigners. Pulling us all to join in on their drumming sessions, dancing alongside them and interacting through a common language to us all – song and dance. Bright eyes and smiles abound. Feeling immense pleasure we fell under the spell of these beautiful people. How humbling it was for my children to witness such happiness amongst such poverty.

The next day we experienced what most people would only dream about – trekking through the Vurunga Massive in search of the elusive mountain gorilla. Rising with the sun, excitement and anticipation coursing through our veins, we had the choice of three types of treks – the short, moderate or longer option. Naturally, we opted for the longest and most challenging trek as far into the dense jungle as possible. Allocated into groups of eight people we were assigned a guide, trackers and porters to ensure the trek went as smoothly as possible. Our group of eight hacked through the dense vegetation jungle with machetes to find the Amahoro gorilla family and spend a precious hour up close observing these beautiful mammals. We got to sit right next to the family of 18 gorillas with three huge silverback males within arm’s reach, females playing with their babies, juveniles frolicking in the bush and hanging off trees as they observed us, as much as we were watching them. Before we set off, my daughter Stephanie said she would love to be hugged by a gorilla. We all laughed along with her, as we knew it was an impossible wish. The head silverback did take a fancy to Stephanie and at one point during our visit, pushed past our son Cory and another group member, until he reached Stephanie. He then climbed over my crouching daughter and put his arms around her for a gorilla hug and then took a seat right next to her. What a surreal experience. At no time did she feel threatened by this gentle giant. You could see the smile on her face for the rest of the day as her inconceivable wish was actually granted. As I walked through the jungle, the question resonated in my head, “ Isn’t this why we travel?”

The next three days were spent off the beaten track in Uganda. Staying on the edge of a crater lake offered us hikes around the rim of the crater, swimming, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding in the cleanest water in Uganda. Kyaninga Lodge was a magical setting for our 3 night stay in Western Uganda. It is comprised of 8 thatched roof log cabins, linked together by a walkway, strategically designed and constructed on the edge of the Kyaninga Crater. The views from each cabin were so stunning that I found myself drawn to my balcony every sunset gazing down to the beautiful crater lake below and the valley beyond with the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains in the distance. Every night I soaked in this stunning vista listening to nature and surrendering to the stillness. The mist would settle in over the rolling green hills on the other side of the crater further enhancing my state of sheer relaxation. The magic of this place will be engrained in my mind forever.

Kyaninga Lodge was our base to explore a little of Uganda’s allure. Our primary goal was to head to Kibale National Park in search of chimpanzees. We spent approximately 3 hours in the national park walking deep into the forrest where we were lucky enough to have many sightings of these very interesting primates. So human-like it was unnerving. Not only were we lucky enough to see the chimpanzees up high in the trees, but also saw many resting on the ground, snoozing and “doing their thing” as well as follow a few through the forest as they walked four-legged through the park. What surprised us the most was the noise that the dominant males expelled. A shrill and a stamping of their hand or foot on the roots of trees would not only alert the other chimpanzees that they were the strong ones of the group but definitely got our adrenaline levels going too….only to be heightened further when we were charged at by a chimpanzee three times, as he thought we were too close. At that point, we took the hint and exited the park!

Although we went mainly for the chimpanzee viewing, we had the most wonderful and insightful trek to the edge of the Rift Valley with panoramic views across to the Democratic Republic of Congo. 18kms of walking through 3 different villages, stopping to chat with the locals (with our local guide, Simon) and learning how these Ugandan communities live together and how their land helps them to survive. This is the Africa that I wanted to see and feel, learning how they make their own bricks from mud, walking alongside ladies carrying food, water or sticks on their head and hordes of men and boys pushing bicycles laden with hundreds of plantains/green bananas. We were the only Westerners hiking through these villages. This is remote Africa at it’s best.

Next stop on our trip was Kenya. We had four very different experiences throughout this amazing country.

THE MASAI MARA is a once in a lifetime experience where you will possibly find the best game in all of Africa. Early mornings included a spectacular balloon ride over the Mara complimented by a champagne breakfast in the midst of wild desolate plains; game drives that made us feel like we were in the middle of a National Geographic Episode whilst witnessing cheetah kills, lions and hyenas devouring fresh kill amongst an abundance of varied wildlife.
While staying in Governor’s Tented Camp, right on the Mara plains we could hear the hippos pass by our tents at night, the not too distant roar of lions and elephants wondering through the camp. The Masai Mara really is a chapter out of The Lion King.

SAMBURU
Boarding our Cessna Caravan ready for the next adventure, we were met by cheerful Samburu and Masai warriors as we disembarked our charter flight. Little did we know at that point, what was in store for us at Saruni Samburu. When we drove past our first Saruni Samburu “a world away” sign we had no idea how remote our next hideaway would be. We reached the bottom of a sheer rock escarpment and wondered, “Where to from there?” At the wheel, our trusted Masai guide, Dixon, drove straight up the rock face. All of us holding on for dear life as we learnt that this was to be the only way in and out of the property. Picture infinite beauty of the vast and unique African wilderness and you are ‘a world away’ in Saruni Samburu.

Saruni Samburu is a true architectural masterpiece with the property perched up so high on this rock face with all six of its oversized villas hanging over the edge with stunning vistas beyond. A superb spot for a little R&R while going on a journey of understanding the ways and culture of the Samburu warriors and discovering Samburu National Park’s “Big Five” (the Grevvy Zebra, reticulated giraffe, Gerunuk, Somali Ostrich the Besia Oryx).

Our nights were spent star gazing with the burly South African Manager Johann and searching for scorpions throughout the property, special sundowners in the elephant hyde and on sheer rock outcrops while listening to the traditions of our Samburu and Masai guides. If you appreciate beauty, culture, architecture and serenity, this place is one to put on the bucket list.

LAIKIPIA
Our next stop was further north, in Laikipia. We knew we were in for a treat the moment we landed. Two vehicles were waiting for us, together with Andrew and Chyulu, our hosts for the next few days. Their 4×4 vehicles were set up with seats on the roof, so naturally we all climbed on top for a fun ride to our home for the next few nights. Laikipia is geographically located in the centre of Kenya, but Ol Malo is actually the most Northern accommodation option in Kenya before entering Nomadic land.

Our host Andrew had grown up in Laikipia with his parents, Rocky and Colin, who bought a 5,000 acre property back in 1992 to construct their first cottage on this overgrazed cattle ranch which they transformed into one of Kenya’s most pristine conservation areas. Andrew and his wife Chyulu had built their own guest house years ago to offer travellers an opportunity to experience a different side of Africa. Our few days spent in their care was definitely one of my highlights of the trip.

On our first afternoon we hiked to the nearby Samburu Manyati with Ol Malo’s main guide, Hussein, to experience the most authentic village visit during our trip to East Africa. We watched in awe as the Samburu warriors sang and took turns jumping high into the air, with the young girls also dressed in their local attire and colourful beads chanting in the background. We spent time with the elders in their very basic nomadic hut/home learning about their culture and even witnessed one of the rituals, where two of the warriors slaughtered a goat in front of our own eyes, drinking the blood from the neck before they carefully skinned the goat and ate the organs fresh out of its body. This was our introduction to Ol Malo and Laikipia.

Days followed visiting the Steiner school set up by Andrew’s sister for the local Samburu community’s children, spending time with the Samburu “Mama’s” in their Samburu Trust beading workshop, horse and camel-riding past giraffes and zebras to sundowners, watching another magnificent African sunset by the bonfire, hiking the 7.5km Three Peaks circuit in near record time, enjoying a lazy picnic lunch by the river-bed and, the ultimate highlight, spending a day in a private “chopper” exploring the most remote parts of Northern Kenya only accessible by air.

Andrew, who has been a pilot since he was 19, landed his helicopter with its doors removed straight on the lawn of our house. Strapped in, headphones on with music blaring, we knew this would be a day to remember. Flying low over the Great Rift Valley, soaring through narrow canyon walls, past steep valleys, volcanoes and craters. We landed for breakfast by springs on the side of a lava flow before chasing crocodiles along estuaries and river beds, landing on the top of spectacular sand dunes, walking on salt pans, flying over flamingoes and salt lakes, to end at the edge of another crater for a dip and glass of champagne in the stunning Lake Tikana. What a magical day!

MARA NORTH CONSERVANCY
After Laikipia we returned back to the Mara, this time spending our last two nights in Kenya at Saruni Mara, in the Mara North Conservancy. The ultimate was our last day on safari where we spent twelve hours with our knowledgable guides in the wild. It started with a few hours of game viewing including many sightings of lion prides (lionesses feeding on fresh zebra kill with their cubs by their side), followed by a bush breakfast, lunch by the river’s bank, ending our day sipping a “G&T” during sundowner’s at sunset. We had waited eagerly for an opportunity to see a kill and in the last couple of hours of our trip in Kenya, in the Mara North concession our Saruni Mara guide, John, delighted us all. We witnessed the hunt of a lone lioness through a riverbed to seize a male wildebeest attempting to cross that very same riverbed. What a spectacle and what a way to end our African trip.

After the adventures of Wild Africa we ended with a week in paradise, in the Seychelles.

Our final destination – Fregate Island Private where Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt famously rented out the entire island for their honeymoon. It certainly is a ’treasured’ island, where literal remnants of pirates can still be found. It was the most perfect way to spend the last days of this African journey in pure indulgence! Lying 1,500 km off the African Coast, the Seychelles’ 115 islands seem centred in the middle of nowhere – escapism at its best. Endless shades of blue and castaway dreams come to life here. Deep in the Indian Ocean, this coconut and palm covered outcropping off the east coast of Africa is devoted to 16 villas alone, so we shared this ultra-exclusive 740-acre private island hideaway with no more than a few other pleasure seekers. Frégate appeals to press-shy celebrities, corporate titans seeking solitude, and anyone with Robinson Crusoe fantasies. The gorgeous resort features a protected beach with a calm sea for children to paddle in. Sweeps of white sand frame a lush jungle hiding palatial villas which combine modern decadence with idyllic seclusion. Best of all – it’s all-inclusive. Whatever your wish, your personal butler will arrange from sunrise sailing to breakfast in a banyan tree to torchlight dining on your private beach to a night time jungle tour.

Our huge expansive villa with stunning views out to sea and our butler catering to our every whim, we had a choice of seven white sand beaches including a private one just for us, over 20km’s of hiking trails, bird watching, 4000 resident giant land tortoises (including Henry who is over 150 years old), green sea turtles nesting, water sports, yoga in the morning, gym in the afternoon, and every meal enjoyed in a different location on the island.

I spent my actual 50th birthday deep sea fishing in the morning with the family, snorkelling at the Marina Beach with a picnic lunch by the sea, hiking on one of the many trails of the island followed by a deep tissue massage. Sipping cocktails at the Observatory watching the sun set over this peaceful island and finishing with a BBQ set up on the beach just for us….well, us and about 40 freshly hatched sea turtles making their way back to the ocean to begin their life at sea. Fregate Island Private – a nature lover’s paradise!

by Yvonne Verstandig, Co-Founder Executive Edge Travel & Head of Leisure

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