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Ideas on Turning 50, Our Magical Kenya Itinerary & Making Desires Come True

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A funny thing happens as you approach your 50th birthday.

It seems only natural to become more reflective, looking back on the milestones of your life to realize how far you’ve come and examine the choices that got you to where you are today.

If you’re lucky, maybe you look forward to the decades to come, and dream about where they’ll take you. You use the lessons of your past– both positive and negative– to plan your future steps, doing your best to prepare for whatever your advancing years might bring.

To put a finer point on it, I’m turning 50 at the end of June. To celebrate the occasion, I’m taking Mary and my 16-year-old daughter Allie to “Magical Kenya” for an incredible 17-day adventure I’ve been dreaming about ever since I was a young boy.

Planning this Kenya itinerary has brought back all kinds of memories from my childhood and early adulthood. And it is the intersection of these past experiences and my future goals that promises to make this dream vacation one that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

READ MORE: I Dream of Africa: How the Motherland Became My White Whale

My band, the White Aphros, circa 1992

MY DREAMS OF AFRICA

My dream of traveling to Africa began when I was young, growing up in a racially mixed, lower middle class neighborhood in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur.

One of my first school performances in the mid-1970s had our chorus singing spirituals and work songs of the slavery era. We learned how songs such as “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” held hidden codes designed to help runaway slaves find the Underground Railroad to freedom. Thus began my lifelong interest in the rich history of the African diaspora.

My grandparents (to whom I was extremely close) provided further inspiration. They subscribed to National Geographic, and we’d often watch nature documentaries together. This was how I first learned of the Great Migration from Tanzania‘s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara. Having visited Egypt, they were the only people I knew who’d actually traveled to Africa.

Going to a 98% black high school, I became completely immersed in African-American culture. I grew up listening to jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, and dressed and danced in much the same way my many black friends did. When I went to college, I majored in Music, specialized in African-American music history, and, in 1991, started a rap-rock band.

My dreams of Africa really took root when my buddy Tony, the bassist in that band, left for 5 years in the Peace Corps. During his stints in Burundi, Gabon, and Zambia, we sent packages to each other about once a month. He’d send me art, music, and stories of his daily life in Africa. I’d send him music and the stories I was writing (many of which were focused on world music) in magazines back home.

When Tony came home in the late ’90s and showed me all his photos and videos from the villages he lived in and safaris he’d taken in Zambia and Tanzania during his vacation time, I was spellbound. This was no mere NatGeo documentary: These were the wild, adventurous experiences of someone I knew personally.

From that point on, I knew I just HAD to get to Africa. I just didn’t know how…

READ MORE: The Top 10 Tanzania National Parks & Reserves

Green Global Travel Safari in Tarangire National Park
Safari Selfie in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, 2015

THOUGHTS ON TURNING 50

The funny thing about life is that we don’t often recognize the important milestones of our lives as we’re experiencing them. Only in retrospect do we seem to connect the dots that these transitional moments represent, and realize how they’ve altered the very course of our existence.

Would I have become so interested in the history and culture of the African diaspora had my parents given in to “white flight” and left Decatur before I started high school? Would I have dreamed of traveling to Africa had Tony not gone in the Peace Corps? Would I have even become a journalist if he hadn’t quit the band to follow his dreams? It’s impossible to know the answers.

What I do know for certain is that the life I’ve had in the 20+ years since Tony left for Africa and I started writing about music, culture, history, and travel has far exceeded any expectations I might have had back in my twenties. Turning 50 really does not seem so bad at all when I reflect back on the fortuitous series of circumstances that led me to where I am today.

Writing about music led me to editing a local pop culture magazine, which led to managing a network of 15 affiliated magazines. It was through that job that I took my first trip to South Africa in 2000. It was through that press trip– during a visit to Londolozi Private Game Reserve– that I first learned about the connection between ecotourism and conservation.

As a result of that trip, my writing passions slowly shifted from pop culture to travel and global culture. I became a full-time freelance writer and contributed to several books on world music. I started writing about travel for airline and hotel magazines. I traveled with Allie in Central America and the Caribbean, creating father-daughter bonds that have grown stronger over time.

But my biggest transition was falling in love with Mary in 2008. We shared similar passions for travel, adventure, exploration, and discovery.

Without Mary, I would’ve never launched Green Global Travel in 2010. Without GGT, we would’ve never been able to afford our trip to Tanzania and Rwanda in 2015, or my trip with Allie to Kruger National Park in 2016. Mary helped make my wildest dreams come true.

Looking back now on the last 50 years of my life, I can clearly see that all of these disparate moments were connected. And it’s thanks to this series of fortunate events that we are about to embark upon the greatest adventure our family has ever taken together.

READ MORE: 45 Pieces of Advice I’d Include in a Letter to My Younger Self

Love Family Photo 2018

WHY THIS KENYA TRIP MATTERS

My generally positive feelings about turning 50 might be very different if it weren’t for the two beautiful ladies pictured above. And, as significant an event as this birthday is for me, it’s not the only important milestone on our family’s horizon in 2018.

It’s been said that we have just 18 summers to create memories with our children that will ensure strong bonds that last a lifetime. My daughter and I have had some incredible adventures together, from swimming with whale sharks in Mexico and exploring the Galapagos Islands to whitewater rafting the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

This is our 17th summer. Next year she’ll be starting college, moving into a dorm, and pursuing her own dreams. As an adult, there’s no guarantee she’ll be wanting to travel with her dad and awesome stepmom (although of course we hope she will). So this trip to Kenya is as much about maintaining our strong connection with her as it is about me.

And then there’s Mary. This year marks our 10th anniversary as a couple, and the eighth anniversary of founding Green Global Travel. (Which, coincidentally, was conceived during a thunderstorm on our last international family trip, to Costa Rica‘s Tortuguero National Park in 2010.) Like me, Mary fell in love with Africa on her first visit and has been dying to return ever since.

So our Kenya trip will be a testament to all that we’ve been able to achieve together, both in our personal and professional lives. So I’m anticipating an overwhelming emotional experience that will remind all of us why we fell in love with travel in the first place.

READ MORE: Bret & Mary, A Story About Love (How GGT Was Born)

Nervous Zebras at a Watering Hole in Serengeti National ParkOUR MAGICAL KENYA ITINERARY

Our two-week Kenya itinerary finds us diving into many of the country’s finest National Parks and private wildlife conservancies, staying in a variety of different safari camps and lodges along the way.

Day 1: Nairobi National Park

We’re bookending our trip with Gamewatchers Safaris, whose award-winning camps are a fine example of ecotourism in Kenya. Founded by Jake Grieves-Cook, the Porini Safari Camps were built on the community-based tourism model.

All of their small, low-impact camps were developed on a grass roots level by creating wildlife conservation areas on land leased from local communities. In many places (including Nairobi National Park) theirs are the only camps, which ensures a more intimate and exclusive experience.

Established in 1946, Nairobi National Park boasts a surprisingly diverse wildlife population despite being located just four miles south of the center of the major metropolitan area. You can even see skyscrapers in the background! We’ll be spending one day exploring the park’s 28,963 acres.

Day 2-3: Ol Pejeta Conservancy

From Nairobi we’ll make our way to Ol Pejeta. We’ll spend two days at the conservancy, which was recently in the news after the death of Sudan, the world’s last male Northern White Rhino. Their Endangered Species Boma, which we’ll be visiting, is home to the last female Northern White Rhinos.

We’ll have a chance to interview the Rhino keepers as well as members of their world renowned anti-poaching unit. We’ll also be getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Sweetwater Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which was opened in the early 1990s in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Jane Goodall Institute.

We’ll be staying at Gamewatchers’ Porini Rhino Camp, taking morning and evening game drives through the conservancy’s 90,000 acres. Here we’ll have our first chance at spotting East Africa’s “Big 5” mammals (including a huge Rhino population), as well as rare animals such as the endangered African wild dog, oryx, Jackson’s hartebeest, Grevy’s zebra, serval, cheetah, and bat-eared fox.

READ MORE: 50 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

Rhinos in Kruger National Park

Day 4-5: Lewa Conservancy

After departing Ol Pejeta, we’ll make our way to north Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy, which is home to the community-focused partnership known as the Northern Rangelands Trust. Lewa was once a cattle ranch, but was partially converted into a Rhino sanctuary in 1983.

The Conservancy is home to over 12% of Kenya’s Black Rhino population and the world’s largest population of Grevy’s Zebras (approximately 350). Lewa was made famous in 2010, when British royal Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton there.

We’ll be staying at the Elewana Kifaru House, a gorgeous but intimate collection of five eco luxury cottages overlooking a popular watering hole.

We’ll also be a guided nature walk, as well as visiting the Lewa Conservancy HQ to learn about their conservation initiatives and how they’re using trained dogs to fight poaching in the area.

Day 6-7: Meru National Park

Leaving Lewa, we’ll head about four hours east to Meru National Park, which was made famous by the book and movie, Born Free. It was here that game warden/conservationist George Adamson and his wife Joy (who wrote the book) raised an orphaned young lioness, Elsa.

We’ll be staying at Elewana’s award-winning Elsa’s Kopje Meru, a luxury eco lodge built among the rocks of Mughwango Hill, where Elsa used to play before she was released back into the wild.

Meru is one of East Africa’s great conservation comeback stories. Rampant poaching in the ’80s and ’90s saw most of the park’s Elephants, and all of its Rhinos, slaughtered for their tusks and horns. But Stefano & Liz Cheli (founders of Elewana’s sister company, Cheli & Peacock Safaris) began working with the Kenya Wildlife Service to reverse Meru National Park’s fortunes.

Now, Meru offers more biodiversity than any other national park in East Africa. More than 1,350 animals have been successfully translocated to the park, including Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy’s Zebra, Bohors Reedbuck, Leopard, and Elephant. There’s also 450 bird species found within the park, as well as a 20,750-acre Rhino sanctuary.

READ MORE: Inspirational Animal Rights Activists (15 Female Heroes)

David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Photo courtesy David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

Day 8-9: Nairobi

After our two days in Meru National Park, we’ll head back to Nairobi to explore more of the city with Cheli & Peacock.

Their Taste of Nairobi tour will take us to some of the city’s most famous sites, starting with the A.F.E.W. (African Fund for Endangered Wildlife) Giraffe Centre. The Centre is focused on saving the Rothschild Giraffe, one of the most endangered subspecies of Giraffe, with around 1670 left in the wild. We’ll get a chance to feed and learn more about conserving these elegant animals.

From there we’ll visit the Karen Blixen Museum, which is located in the Danish author’s former home. Her experiences here, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, formed the basis for her famous book (which was later a Meryl Streep film), Out of Africa.

But the Nairobi experience we’re most looking forward to is our afternoon visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. We’ve written about this amazing NGO many times on our Facebook page, but this will be our first visit. To make it more special, we’ve fostered two orphaned Elephants, Makato and Kiasa, whom we’ll hopefully be meeting in person!

Day 10-14: Masai Mara

The last leg of our journey will find us reuniting with Gamewatchers in the place that originally inspired by dreams of Africa, the Masai Mara. The Mara is where millions of Wildebeests, Zebras, and other animals make their annual Great Migration to from the Serengeti. They come in search of water and green grasses, and their encounters with predators along the way are the stuff of legend.

We’ll be spending two nights in two private conservancies just outside the Masai Mara Reserve. Porini Mara Camp is located in Ol Kinyei Conservancy, a 18,700-acre protected wilderness that’s home to a biodiverse array of species, including big cats. More like glamping than traditional camping, Porini Mara’s low footprint earned it a Gold rating from Ecotourism Kenya.

For our second two nights we’ll head to Porini Lion Camp, which is located in the 32-square-mile Olare Motorogi Conservancy. Situation northwest of the Masai Mara Reserve, this private sanctuary is home to vast herds of grazing animals, including Giraffes, Hartebeests, Warthogs, and Zebras. As a result, there are lots of predators, including Cheetahs, Hyenas, Jackals, and Lions.

We’ll also be making several day-long trips into the Masai Mara Reserve. There, we’re hoping to witness the beginning stages of the Great Migration, which inspired my first dreams of Africa all those years ago. The fact that I’ll get to do so just a few days before turning 50, with the two people I love most in the world, just makes the dream coming true that much sweeter. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted

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