Our First Glimpse into Kenya

To say that Nikki outdid herself this year is a little bit of an understatement. Although truth be told, each and every one of our surprise trips has been epic in its own right.

 This year was one of the greatest we’ve done. And that’s saying something.  Kenya was our 7th surprise trip.

On Friday, school ended. On Saturday, we packed the car and headed to Houston. None of us had a clue of where we were going. If you’re new to us, Nikki sets the surprise trips up every year. Typically, just at the end of school or just before the kids go back at the end of the summer.

Only she knows our destination and itinerary. She doesn’t even give hints. She’ll pack the kid’s bags and leave me hanging by myself. I have to pack for anything, Beach clothes, stuff for the mountains, cold-weather gear, rain gear. I have no idea, so, over the years,  I have got efficient at packing very light.

 So here we were, driving on our way to Houston to catch a flight. Along the drive, we started talking about some of the incredible trips that we have been on.  The conversation started easily enough, “Hey kids, what are some of the things you remember about that first trip to Costa Rica?”  and quickly evolved into, “ let’s talk about our favorite foods from different countries.”

 I can’t tell you as a parent how great this feels to start the day out like that.   I would love to tell you we have this perfect Blissful life where we often recall our memories with laughs while sitting around a table drinking hot chocolate, but it’s just not the way we are. 

We’re truly a Zoo crew, and there’s typically a mini-tornado happening every single day. We’re busy.  These recollections and listening to the kids recall their adventures from their perspective was very relaxing on the drive up there and just built the anticipation and excitement.

 When we arrived in Houston, Nikki made sure that she checked with all in where we didn’t get a chance to hear or see where we were going.

 Part of our fun of the secret trip is watching the kids scream down the terminal, hoping to be the first to check our gate where they get their first glimpse at where we will be going.

“Heathrow?” said one of the girls.  “Where in the world is that?”  

“Never heard of it.” said her twin.   

Our oldest looked it up online and, to the amazement of everybody, screamed, “ENGLAND!”   

Cheers all around. We’re headed to England. What a fantastic trip.

 The 8-hour flight gave us plenty of time to talk about what we may or may not be doing, as Nikki still wasn’t giving up any clues.

 I was slowly building anticipation on driving on the opposite side of the road because, as you’ll get to see on some of these trips, the rental car and driving experiences I encounter as a dad is equal parts mind-numbing, exhilarating and hilarious. In fact, on a review of trips just a few hours ago, many of their best memories were crazy driving experiences that I had had in different countries. They all laughed at what a terrible driver I am. When in reality, I am an excellent driver… I’ve just had a couple of very tough circumstances with a steep learning curve.

 My youngest talked about soccer and how excited he was to see all the different “futbol pitches”  and play with some local kids.

 My oldest had the map out and was figuring out,  knowing his mom,  that most likely we would see a lot of the UK,  possibly France.    There was talk of castles, fairies, and double-decker buses in front of Big Ben.  Nikki let the entire trip just fold out slowly.

 When we arrived in London, we grabbed our bags and went through customs, excitement continually building.  While standing outside the terminal waiting for a bus to take us on our adventure Nikki exclaimed, “Oh yeah, I nearly forgot!  I’ve got another set of boarding passes in my pocket!”

“What?!”  How?  Is this not our destination?   Oh, c’mon, mom, the UK would be great!.”

“Nope.” she said, “London is a layover for us. So let’s have some tea and biscuits and see where we’re off to next.”

She still wouldn’t let us in on the secret. So back Into the airport we went, without a clue to where on planet Earth or what direction we would go next.

 It wasn’t until I went through customs and a grumpy lady asked me, “Where are you going?” that I answered, “I’m not sure.” She didn’t like that one bit, so we had to let the cat out of the bag.   

I was forced to look at my ticket, which proclaimed, “Nairobi.”

 Nikki was kind of upset that I said it aloud,  but my hand was forced. There was no way I could keep it secret, and the kids were all listening intently for any clues.   Braylon, our oldest, had a confused look on his face. None of the other kids had any idea what or where Nairobi was. Again, the phones came out. Braylon knew it was somewhere in Africa and Africa was enough to get the kids Wild.    We barely made it through customs the kids were so excited.

 So, another long flight, another continent, and a day of built-up anticipation.

 The more of these trips we do, the more we develop some tricks and tips that seem to help us enjoy Adventures more thoroughly. Nikki had thought it through, learning from past vacations, and had booked us a nice hotel for a one-day full recovery.

 Basically, we ate, slept, and played in the pool for an entire day before actually starting our trip. In reality, it may seem like a bit of a letdown. To travel all this way and not begin the journey outright. One Hotel, even in a different country, is like another, but the reality of the situation is that our bodies needed to catch up. Because of the extra day at the hotel… the recovery day.  There was virtually no jet lag, and our internal clocks had already synced up to the local time zones.

 The next day we journeyed to an airport and got on a tiny propeller plane that landed Us in the middle of the Amboseli.

 My kids have been to Alaska many times. They are very comfortable on small airplanes. But to say it was routine to land on a small bush Runway with zebras and wildebeests scattered everywhere while flying over elephants would be a huge letdown. We were all incredibly excited. Along with the other two passengers on the plane, we were all shouting out the wild animals we saw.

 Our journey really started here.   To walk out of the drop hatch into honest to goodness, National Geographic  “Kenya” was a feeling none of us will ever forget.

 Our driver and host, Steven, a Maasai –  has since become good friends with us. We still stay in touch with him weeks later.

 Before driving to our accommodations,  Steven informed us that we would be starting our safari immediately. So, after a couple of cookies and some tea, we loaded up into the 1980s-style Land Cruiser and immediately began our first Safari.

 I’m sure some readers have been through this. It is challenging to explain, but it is truly an experience, unlike anything I’ve ever done before. And that statement can’t be taken lightly. We have done a lot of amazing things and seen a lot of incredible places. New experiences are something I value more than anything else in life. And it seemed like every 25 seconds was a unique experience. There’s no hunting in Kenya, so the animals are not afraid.

The joy I saw with my wife, as a photographer! 

 Every bit as excited and even more so than the kids had me tear up more than once.   To see her frantically giggling while digging through her camera bag for a different lens, a new card, the third battery – with shouts of, “Mom, the cheetah is out; the hyenas are coming; check out the tusks on that big Bull!” streaming out from behind her was incredible.

After driving through the swamp full of hippos and Cape buffalo, we arrived at our Resort. I can’t call it anything else. I’m not sure why they call it camps because these places are amazing.

 We had a quarter-hour of confusion as Stephen, our driver while dropping us off at the main Lodge, just sort of wore a strange smile.

 We walked in and checked in with the manager,  but it wasn’t like any other hotel or place we had been before. Our first stop was basically a giant house.

 There was a butler who opened the door for us, and we walked into what looked like a regular house. There was a  dining room table,  stairs leading up to a second floor, a small kitchen, and a back wall full of glass doors looking out over the entire National Park. 

 

 I didn’t see a desk like what you would think of, at a hotel. There were 4 or 5 staff members stocking the fridge with beer bottles, wine, sodas, and bottled water.  There were snacks set up on the dining room table, and as we settled in, the kids were already outside chasing monkeys and baboons.

There was a Maasai dressed in traditional garb with a slingshot, guarding the kids and keeping the biggest and meanest of the baboons away from the lodge and the kids.

Staff were out back setting up what appeared to be a conference dinner.  

I was still puzzled with the check-in but, heck, we’re in a different country. Things are just done differently. I was pretty concerned with where do we all sleep. It appears to be more of a hostel-type setup, and the manager was showing us to our bedrooms. The boys will sleep in this room, the girls will sleep in this room, and I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t all in connecting rooms and much closer.   So far, this was all of the lodge that I had seen. Although there weren’t any other guests around, I wasn’t sure our kids would respond to communal living well.

 Steven could see I was confused.   

“Chad.   This is your Villa. This entire house is yours for your stay. Everything is included; if you need anything, just let the butler know, and he will take care of it. You shouldn’t spend a single Shilling the entire time you are here.   Enjoy yourself. Relax, and if you need anything, the rest of the resort is just down the path.”

The rest of the resort?

 The lunch that was set up outside was our family only. All six of us sat at a table and had our first authentic African meal.   No other guests in site, just the wildlife and us.

 It got me. I was emotional. My kids enjoyed it, a lunch looking at wildebeests and zebras. It was pretty surreal.

Nikki has never told me if the entire private Villa at the end of the resort was on purpose or if it kind of happened on accident. I have always been curious, as I’m sure many have, what it would be like to be a celebrity. I wouldn’t like the paparazzi. I think that would get old very quickly, but what would it be like to have the secret room at one of the Vegas hotels. Or the Villa at the end of the strip. To have a private Butler for a weekend? We’ve stayed in some pretty unique places, but nothing like this.

 And I have to be honest with you. I was a bit uncomfortable.

 That’s just not how our family is. They are wild and fly by the seat of their pants, loud and constantly running around playing tag or hide-and-seek. I wasn’t sure I wanted a staff of five or six people constantly over our shoulders, and I was positive that my kids would not be able to handle a two-hour breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I spoke to Steven about this. Up until this point, I would assume that everybody that had dealt with us so far just assumed that we were Rich Americans, and this is how we did things. In fact, Steven even told me, that the staff was a little confused that we carried our own bags and didn’t tell the butler to put our stuff away in the drawers and closets.

We talked about it for some time and came to the understanding with the resort that we would eat our meals in the restaurant like everybody else. These were fantastic buffets full of foods we had never seen before. My youngest, Casen got to be great friends with the cook and often was taken back to look at the kitchen’s inner workings.

I think the fact that we made life easier for the entire staff at the resort by not having an additional 6 to 7 employees a kilometer away at our Villa every day made an impression. We got to be great friends with so many of the staff. “Yet” our monkey police -quickly became a great friend of the kids. He would watch over them during games of ping-pong and at the pool, and we talked every night to him about the different animals we had seen. We had a soccer game with the staff in an Alkali patch dodging giant cape buffalo dung piles and shooing off baboons.

I truly relaxed for maybe only the second or third time in my life. Just a great feeling, and the Safari Canes (rum) and cokes tasted as good here as they do along the Caribbean coast under a palm tree.

 The people that work at the Amboseli live here.  This is their home. They know these animals. They have grown up with the elephants and have names for them. They were interested when we would show them videos of the cheetah Mom with her 4 Cubs. They loved that we wanted to share with them how amazing our day was.  Frequently during these four to five days, I would see our kids talking to one of the staff. Nikki and had conversations about growing up at this National Park. What life was like, etcetera.

The Amboseli is one of my favorite places I have ever been on planet Earth.

It literally is like being in a live National Geographic documentary. The animal experiences,  how people and nature Thrive together… so many things. An almost spiritual experience.

The emotions really poured out of me, and I had a hard time keeping it together on our last night. The entire staff had got together, baked our family a cake, and had a huge presentation on bringing it out to us at last dinner. It was quite a surprise, and I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it.

I talked to my friend David, our one-time butler and now dinner server, through tears after dinner that last night and asked him, “Why such a big show for us?”  “Was this part of a package deal that Nikki had booked?  Is it part of the villa “experience?”

He said, “ I can see you are emotional about this. You are confused?”  

“No,” he said.  “It Has been tough for the entire tourist industry in Kenya.”  With covid-19, there hasn’t been anything going on for the last two years. It has just opened up in the previous month.”  

“We are part of the tourist industry,” he told me. “Many of us went to University to make this our jobs.”  We aim to please and understand that you are on vacation and that for many visitors, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“But that isn’t why this was done.”

He continued.

“The staff love your family.”

“ Your kids call us by name. You say hello to us every morning, not in Swahili but in Maasai.   You played football with us. You showed us videos of your Safaris, your kids learned to shoot the slingshot, and you gave me an afternoon off and invited me, a staffer, to go on Safari with you.” 

“You didn’t treat us as staff but as friends, and I don’t think we have ever had a more pleasant and enjoyable family stay with us.”  

“Tonight was done as a thank you, and in the hopes that you remember this place as one of your favorite Adventures you have been on!”

Just remembering this evening…this part of the trip still chokes me up.    I LOVED the Amboseli and the memory I have of our family there.      

(part 2 to come…) Lake Nakuru and the Maasai Mara

4 thoughts on “Our First Glimpse into Kenya

  1. Ah! This is amazing! I loved reading every word about your family and this very special place! One day!

    Like

  2. Chad, what an incredible trip. Loved how descriptive you are!!! So happy for you. To many more adventures🍷

    Like

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