Essential Tips for Your First African Safari

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

Kenya has some of the best-preserved wildlife and to see it with your own eyes is a dream come true. As I drove in a rustic jeep through the vast expanse of the Masai Mara watching, herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and prides of lions walk past me, it feels nothing short of being in a National Geographic documentary itself.

If you are planning a visit to see the African wildlife, here are a few things to know beforehand.

When to go?

June through October are the peak seasons to visit Kenya as rainfall is minimal and temperatures are cooler. While wildlife viewing is great throughout the year, you’ll see the most animals during the great migration, an annual event where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cross the borders between Tanzania and Kenya in search of water and food.

Where to go?

If it’s your first game drive experience in Kenya, allot at least 7-10 days. International flights arrive in the capital city of Nairobi where you want to relax for a day or two after the long journey. In Nairobi, take the opportunity to learn how baby elephants are rescued at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage and kiss a giraffe at the world-famous Giraffe Center.

Head on to Naivasha, where you can see hippos from your luxury camp. This fresh water lake is also a good place to birdwatch. Walk among zebras, giraffes, and gazelles at the Crescent Island Game Park.

The Masai Mara is a 583 square-mile vast game reserve where you can spot the “Big 5” – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffaloes. Around the Mara, you can interact with the local Masai people. They often sell handmade crafts and jewelry, perform traditional dances and offer tours of their villages.

See thousands of flamingos, rhinos and more animals at Lake Nakuru National Park, then head west to President Barack Obama’s ancestral hometown, Nyang’oma Kogelo Village.

Where to stay?

There are only all-inclusive tented camp hotels (known as camps) located near game reserves ranging in luxury and price. Most of them are nicely decorated with hardwood floors, comfortable bedding and en-suite bathrooms with hot showers. There is generally no air conditioner or heater, and electricity is restricted to few hours in the night. Stay at Sekenani Camp if you want a romantic bathtub inside the tented room or follow the footsteps of the Obamas at Basecamp Masai Mara, where they stayed during a family vacation.

What to pack?

On a safari trip, it is best to pack light as you will be moving around in a jeep and staying at camps. Since you will spend a lot of time in the car, dress in comfortable camouflage and neutral color clothing that doesn’t attract the attention of animals and blends with surroundings. Layers are great to have as it can get chilly in the mornings and evenings. There are no stores in the reserve, so pack lots of insect repellant and sunscreen along with plenty of spare batteries and memory cards for the unforgettable panoramas you will take.

Who to go with?

A reputable tour operator and a knowledgeable safari guide can make or break your wildlife viewing experience. My driver/ guide, Danson Kahuria with The Village Experience is a native to Lake Nakuru. He grew up close to animals and knew where to spot them. He could predict their next move and would take us to the best spots to get close-ups. In a matter of few hours, I saw thousands of lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and more.

Kenya is perhaps the best starting point for an African wilderness getaway because everyone speaks English, the infrastructure is well developed and it is quite safe outside the cities. A visa can be obtained electronically through a simple process and there are no vaccinations required (advisable to check with CDC).

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog