Lee and Lee Ann in hot-air balloon over the Serengeti
Tanzania holds a special place in the Carvalhos’ hearts. Their four previous safaris were filled with the magical feeling that only the endless plains and pristine wilds of Tanzania can conjure.
And in 2021, during the height of the pandemic, these homebound jetsetters longed for that special brand of joy. When one of their friends asked, “Where would you go if you could be anywhere right now?” Lee Ann and Lee Carvalho looked at each other without hesitation.
“Tanzania,” they said.
“Tanzania is our happy place,” Lee Ann said. “Our paradise. There are no distractions, no news, no drama. It’s just you and the beauty of Africa.”
In February 2023, Lee Ann and Lee made their dream a reality (again) when they boarded a plane and set off on their private safari with Thomson. Their itinerary included three nights at their favorite destinations–Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti–for a truly in-depth experience.
“When we woke up on the first day, listening to the birds outside, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we have arrived,’” Lee Ann said. “The travel’s done. We are now in our moment.”
Reuniting with Kumbi
The Carvalhos were lucky to have a familiar face leading their journey: Kumbi Salim, a veteran Thomson safari guide with over 30+ years of experience in the field. He led one of their previous safaris, and the Carvalhos were thrilled to catch up.
“Kumbi is so good at reading animals, and understanding their behavior, and explaining what could be going on in their heads,” Lee Ann said. “He understands when they’re doing certain things, what that could mean.”
Here are a few memorable moments from the Carvalhos’ fifth safari.
Spoiled for Rhinos
Most safari travelers are lucky to see one critically endangered black rhino on their safari. The Carvalhos saw eight.
Seven were grazing on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. The eighth came when Kumbi was driving the Carvalhos along some tall bushes in the southern Serengeti. He pointed to the bushes, saying, “Sometimes people see rhinos down in these areas, but it’s very rare.”
A minute later, out of the bush, a full-grown rhino emerged, wandering not but 20 feet ahead with unbound natural beauty. For ten minutes, the rhino sauntered 360° around the vehicle before vanishing back into the grasses.
“I’ve seen rhinos at a distance,” Lee said. “But this was spellbinding.”
Endless Elephants, Wildebeest Births & Bunches of Big Cats
Tarangire National Park is known for its massive elephant populations. The Carvalhos witnessed this spectacle firsthand when they saw an enormous amount of elephants–50? 75? Far too many to count–parading in back-to-back herds along the Tarangire River.
“They went on forever and ever,” Lee said. “We’ve never seen elephants like this before.”
After Tarangire, Lee Ann and Lee ventured into Ngorongoro Crater, where they saw lions, jackal and, most notably, the birth of a baby wildebeest. Within ten minutes of birth, the calf stood up and started walking!
“I tell everybody, if you love wildlife, if you love birds, if you love to see life in its natural habitat, the experience you have in Tanzania is priceless,” Lee said. “You have to be there to feel it, to understand what it’s really like.”
By safaris’ end, Lee Ann and Lee had seen the Big Five (again) and plenty of big cats. In their safari journals, they tallied sightings of seven cheetahs and at least three leopards, some eating, some prowling, some sleeping in trees.
“Because we weren’t in a rush to see everything, we could slow down and closely observe different wildlife behaviors,” Lee said. “Kumbi’s knowledge really shined through here. As an avid photographer, I appreciated the chance to capture these moments.”
Catching Up with the Crew
For all the wildlife they saw, Lee Ann and Lee agreed: the heart of this safari was with the people.
They caught up with their old friends on the Thomson crew, including Hussein, Patrick and everyone else they knew at the camps. Many of these friendships have been thirteen years in the making, ever since the Carvalhos took their first Thomson safari.
“They recognized us immediately, and we felt genuine warmth with them,” Lee said. “They were truly glad to see us, and we them!”
Lee Ann and Lee felt that warmth constantly. When they prepared to depart on wildlife drives, they asked the staff for boxed lunches, so they could stay on safari longer. There were no boxed lunches–the Thomson team instead gave them huge baskets full of food, again and again, for scenic picnics in the bush.
“Kumbi brought out the tablecloth, the whole nine yards,” Lee Ann said. “We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of everyone who worked for Thomson. The staff made us feel like part of the family. We’re simple people, and you guys treat us like royalty.”
Finale at Gibb’s
The Carvalhos prefer to end their safaris at Gibb’s Farm, a lush eco-lodge nestled on the slopes of Ngorongoro Crater. This natural paradise is known for its beauty: ancient groves of luscious green give way to vistas of idyllic farmlands and sweeping valleys.
“You have the coffee farm right there, and all the birds,” Lee said. “My god, and the flowers. It seems surreal that this little oasis really exists.”
Every morning, the Carvalhos woke to the dawn chorus of birdsong and the sun rising over the farm. They spent their days relaxing by the pool, participating in coffee roasting demonstrations and walking out to the Ngorongoro elephant caves. The staff there remembered them by name, and Kumbi joined along on a guided bird walk around the farm, where, among other sights, they spotted the largest owl in Africa: the Verreaux’s eagle-owl.
“Gibb’s is a tropical paradise in a dusty land,” Lee Ann said. “It’s unpretentious. You can take a nap, relax, do anything.”
Verreaux’s eagle-owl – Tanzania’s largest owl
The Carvalhos also spotted the African Scops Owl – one of Tanzania’s smallest owl species – on this safari.
What Did This Fifth Safari Mean to the Carvalhos?
“We had a much deeper connection to the people in Tanzania than we did in the past,” Lee said. “We wanted to enrich, and experience more of, what we love about the place. We’re both really glad we went over this fifth time.”
“This experience opened us up to travel anew after the pandemic,” Lee Ann said. “This trip meant on a bigger level that we could travel again safely, we could enjoy our life. Doing it from Tanzania, our happy place, was the most meaningful way to restart our life.”
Is safari a once in a lifetime trip?
Here’s the story of Thomson guest Natasha Copeland’s second safari, 21 years after her first, with the same guide!