Wish you were here. Wait, you are!

Written by Ali Riley, Thomson Safaris Creative Director

riley family at ngorongoro crater

As our bush plane made its way over the Great Rift Valley, memories of this flight from my many other visits to Tanzania flooded my thoughts, but I was also reminded of the many times I wished my family was there to share the amazing safari experience that was to follow. The sentiment in those vintage Wish You Were Here postcards is real!

And here they were – no more wishing – my husband and daughter were sitting right next to me this time! The surreality of it all caught up with me as tears gathered in my eyes in an immeasurable wave of emotion – one so big, it likely dwarfed the size of that little bush plane! It was finally here – it was finally real!

landing in eastern serengeti

To give you some background, I’ve been at Thomson since 2006. In that time, Tanzania has become a huge part of my life. My colleagues and I in the Boston office live and breathe it every day, after all! On my first safari way back then, the adventurer and wildlife lover in me could hardly believe I had the opportunity to experience this wonderful, awesome, magical place; with each visit, the magic has never faded. When I became pregnant with my daughter five and half years later, I wondered if I would ever be able to share this with her one day; I boldly told my belly, “I can’t wait to show you Tanzania!” (Yikes, are such lofty promises good parenting?!)

And so, the adventure began the instant we stepped on the grassy field they call an airport runway.


Shockingly cultural

When you invest in a big trip for your family you hope the experience resonates in profound ways and shifts your child’s perspective in some way. I wanted my daughter Chelsea to have mind-blowing experiences at every turn. She did, but not in the way I expected. I expected our animal-lover to be squealing with excitement at every wildlife sighting. She loved the animals, and the sightings were spectacular as they always are, but it was the people we met along the way that gave Chelsea the life-shaping experience I was hoping she’d get out of this trip.

Starting with Nasibu our awesome guide. With a bear hug at first sight, he made sure Chelsea was happy, entertained (especially because her parents are photography lovers and spend a lot of time at each wildlife sighting), and well-fed! He managed to keep a full can of Pringles in the Land Rover for her at all times! Can you say BFF?!

meeting thomson guide nasibu at airstrip

Meeting Nekkaki, the Maasai midwife and storyteller, who despite language barriers made an enviable connection with Chelsea: snuggling with her during her visit and fashioning a bracelet on the spot as a gift to her.

storyteller nekakki at camp with chelsea

A smile and “Want to learn to play a game?” was all it took from camp staffer Ramah who taught Chelsea to play the Tanzanian game of Bao… and Chelsea subsequently became a Bao shark at the next camps!

eastern serengeti camp staff with chelsea

Shakani and Japhet’s patience and camaraderie during our archery session one afternoon at camp.

archery with shakani and japhet

Stealing a bite of food from the camp kitchen counter – and chef Herriel allowing it (and loving it)!

The moments are many when you encounter a culture as welcoming and warm as Tanzania’s – Chelsea dove in headfirst and met everyone with a reciprocated warmth. It was magnetic. I was so proud.


Serengeti wildlife never disappoints

I’ve been on safari in other parts of Africa, and I can tell you there’s no place like the Serengeti and its volume of animals. There were times we were driving down the road and the wildebeest and zebra were parting like waves in the sea in front of our Land Rover.

Nasibu got us to the Mara River to see the herds line up at its banks while we waited to the big plunge. He taught us about all the signs and signals and super subtle events that happen prior to a crossing.

great migration at mara river banks

River Crossings are a waiting game, so Nasibu kept Chelsea entertained. (Plushy crocodile puppets not included on family safaris. LOL!)

The waterhole at the Eastern Serengeti camp might be one of my favorite places on the planet; I could sit there all day and watch the wildlife. The animals arrive in same-species groups and are oddly very polite: The giraffe take their turn while the wildebeest queue up, when the giraffe are done, the wildebeest come in for their drinks as the impala queue up and wait for their turn… then the warthogs, and it goes on. And the birds are always present.

giraffe drinking from waterhole in eastern serengeti campIt takes a lot of effort for giraffe to get a drink! 

I joked that during this safari, I’d be watching Andy and Chelsea watching the wildlife. That turned out to be mostly true… except that one morning when the wildlife won my attention – we saw 25 lions in the central Serengeti before noon. Need I say more?

lions in tree in seronera tanzania
This included a hunt where a lioness used our Land Rover as cover. Nasibu put us in the perfect spot (several feet away) to watch her lock sights on several Thomson’s gazelles. She stalked and inched her way towards them with muscles poised to pounce. We could hear her claws in the dirt as she bared down to shuffle forward, which would kick up dust in our faces because were so close. She made a run for it but was unsuccessful. The moment was so intense, we hardly breathed.


School visit

In the months prior to our safari, Chelsea was paired up with her new penpal Maurine, a student at local school, Haymu Primary. (This is one of the perks of the Thomson Perfect Family Safari itinerary.)  Their meeting was very sweet, Chelsea was excited to gift Maurine with one of her favorite books: Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

After their meeting, they joined the rest of Maurine’s classmates for recess and an impromptu soccer match. Then they went back into the classroom for a welcome song and a Q&A where the class asked Chelsea about her life while practicing their English.

visiting classroom in tanzania

It was a lot for her to take in, the comparison of her life in a 6th grade classroom to the one in Tanzania was obviously a stark contrast. But she felt warmly welcomed and appreciated Maurine’s hospitality.



special anniversary dinner at gibbs farm

There were so many moments, writing just one post about our experience seems impossible. Trying our hand at Makonde carving with a master carver, celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary in the luxury of Gibb’s Farm, countless silly faces for the camera, and moments of extreme gratitude. (Can you even imagine the vacation slideshow we put on for our friends?! Get comfortable, you’ll be here for a while!)

sundowners at eastern serengeti nyumba camp

One of the things I love about being on safari is the sunsets. You enjoy every one – you actually celebrate them. They are stunning, of course, but they also mark the completion of a day like none other – one that you’ve spent admiring and intrigued with wildlife and nature. For those precious last few minutes of light, conversations stop and all eyes are on Mother Nature as she takes center stage. When’s the last time you did this at home? In our everyday lives, there’s no time – or so we think. Under the red and pink African skies is when you realize the small stuff is actually the significant stuff. Nature, family, love. There’s so much to celebrate when you slow down and take the time to do it. Asante sana, Tanzania for putting all of that into perspective for me and my family.

I had an incredible opportunity to share a place that’s near and dear to my heart with my family. Tanzania made a huge impression on Andy and Chelsea – now it’s in their hearts, too.

wildlife viewing in eastern serengeti

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