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African road trip

A family adventure in East Africa

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As the lion ambled past our Toyota Land Cruiser, I shifted in my seat nervously, thankful that the lion was adhering to this unspoken agreement -- he wouldn't try to climb into our open-air vehicle and we wouldn't get out of it.

I glanced over at my two children, Claire, 13, and Zach, 10, both transfixed by the majestic creature. I reassured them it was safe to continue snapping pictures, although I must admit I held my breath until the lion had rejoined his pride. Steps away were five more lions, including two cubs playing with one another.

I have visited many of the world's best zoos and nothing compares to seeing these amazing animals in their natural habitat, free to laze about in the radiance of the African sun, or to enjoy the shade of an acacia tree on the savannah prior to hunting for their next meal.

My wife Sally and I were in search of a family vacation out of the ordinary, and our safari in late January to the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania, delivered in spades.

Planning the trip was easier than I anticipated. The most difficult part was acquainting ourselves with the necessary medical precautions -- getting shots for typhoid, yellow fever and hepatitis, as well as malaria prescriptions. The rest, including arranging our flights, hotel accommodations and booking an 11-day safari in Tanzania, was done via a few travel guides and the Internet.

Our safari was organized by Mama Tembo Tours, run by Leslie Nevison, a Canadian ex-pat originally from Vancouver. She customized a family trip for us that provided a wonderful combination of stunning landscapes and cultural interactions with the Maasai (the semi-nomadic ethnic group who lives in Kenya and northern Tanzania), as well as ample opportunity to see Africa's amazing array of wildlife.

Her attention to detail ensured our family was well taken care of every step of the way, and that vegetarian meals were arranged for us at each camp.

Our accommodations on the safari were entirely comfortable, if not luxurious, and both family- and eco-friendly. For our first two nights we stayed at Camp Isoitok by Lake Manyara (in northeastern Tanzania). Our tent was equipped with three beds, plus solar lighting and a compostable toilet.

The camp director, Chris, went out of his way to cater to the kids, taking them on a hike and subsequently supplying them with sandpaper and wax to carve their own African souvenirs out of the ebony they found near the camp. We enjoyed hearing his anecdotes of life in Tanzania as we sat around the campfire under the starry sky each night, listening to the sounds of the birds and the hyenas in the distance.

Our Tanzanian driver, Lyimo, was hospitable and a wealth of information about the flora and fauna. Zach, despite a constant barrage of questions, was not able to stump him once.

From Lake Manyara, where our vehicle was practically encircled by elephants at one point, we took a bumpy and dusty scenic drive north to Lake Natron near the Kenyan border, a four-hour detour from the main highway that gave us the opportunity to go on a guided hike to see flamingos and take a family swim at a nearby waterfall.

As we got back from the waterfall hike, another Maasai had set up shop by our waiting vehicle to try to sell us blankets and jewelry. Perched on his head was a tattered old Edmonton Oil Kings hat that had somehow found its way to this isolated community thousands and thousands of kilometres from home!

One particularly special moment was when we descended down into the Ngorongoro crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so worthy of this designation. Within only a few minutes of reaching the crater floor, we witnessed two separate births of young wildebeests (members of the antelope family, also known as gnus). Each of us was amazed and awed as we watched the calves gingerly take their first steps. Five to 10 minutes later, they were running alongside their mothers, who were ever-mindful of the nearby predators.

We had booked the safari with the hope of seeing many animals and Africa did not disappoint. By the time we ended the trip through Olduvai Gorge (where fossils of hominids that lived there 1.9 million years ago have been found, supporting the theory that mankind originated in Africa), nearby Lake Ndutu and the national parks of Serengeti and Tarangire, we had seen more than 50 lions, eight cheetahs, eight rhinoceros, five leopards, thousands of elephants, giraffes, zebras, donkeys, and tens of thousands of wildebeests.

If I had any doubts about how my children felt about the whole experience, they were completely dispelled as we reflected on our adventures on our last night at the Tarangire Safari Lodge. Claire and Zach were already dreaming about where they would like to go on the chance occasion of a return trip to Africa -- to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda, of course!

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 E1

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