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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My Family Took an African Safari. Now We Can Do Anything.

By Megan M. Seckman

When Heather Harrell’s mother called from Texas to say she’d like to take the whole family (Heather, her husband Steve, their three boys under age 7, and Heather’s two siblings and their families) on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, Heather was game. But when her mother suggested an African safari, she’d thought her mom had lost her mind.

“She said she always wanted to take a big trip — one that was going to replace birthday and Christmas presents for a long time — and threw out Greece or an African safari,” Heather says. “Everyone voted Africa; I said Greece. I couldn’t imagine flying three little boys across the world, getting malaria vaccines, and worrying about exposure to the water or the tzetze fly. But ironically, it was the best possible experience for three little boys, and it was surprisingly easy.”

This bucket-list experience was booked through the family-friendly African Dream Safaris, which helped the family of 11 navigate virtually everything from Tanzanian customs to the rough terrain of the Serengeti (in a jeep stocked with soda and candy for the kids). Heather’s sons, Eli (6), Teddy (5), and Andrew (3), were blown away by the continual parade of new experiences: airplanes, African wildlife out your window, and endless bottles of cold Coca-Cola.

Heather’s family began their Tanzanian safari in Arusha, near Mt. Kilimanjaro, where they flew in on a little plane and landed on a rustic airstrip. Arusha features volcanoes, the Ngorongoro crater and conservation area, and the endangered rhino. And it has working electricity from 5 to 10pm each day.

They spent two nights in tents at a luxurious camp. Each tent held a single family unit and featured large canopied beds surrounded by canvas siding and tiled floors.

“It was beautiful; you could go hours without seeing another family,” Heather says. “The guides become part of your family and take you out each day — you can’t leave your tent without an escort because of the animals prowling around — then you return for lunch or dinner. They are extremely knowledgeable and will track down specific animals you’d like to see each day.”

The next stop was outside a Maasai (pronounced ‘muh-sigh’) village that became Heather’s favorite memory of the trip. Her family was able to witness this indigenous tribe’s culture firsthand: the scarce diet of porridge and cow blood, a demonstration of handmade spears, and a dwelling that would house a whole Maasai family as well as the tribe’s baby animals. “The Maasai village was good for perspective and a reminder to be grateful,” Heather says. “Whenever the boys complain about food or how they’d like a new toy, I remind them of the Maasai.”

The final stops were at hotels in larger cities and included a stop in the Olduvai Gorge, which is known as “The Cradle of Man” by archaeologists who discovered the earliest human forms there.

In preparation for their 11 days of awe and wonder, the Harrells got malaria vaccines, bought special insurance through the travel agency, applied for passports, filled prescriptions for countless antibiotics to counteract pathogens in the water, sprayed their all-neutral clothing (because bright colors, especially blue, attract flies) with bug deterrent, and packed enough pre-packaged snacks to feed a small army.

This definitely entailed more prep work than a Florida road trip. But the payoff? A breathtaking experience where the family witnessed warthogs, giraffes, and elephants traversing the expansive landscape. A place where splashing hippos and endangered rhinos are on your itinerary before lunch. A place where you come within 10 to 15 feet from a pride of lions before the sun sets over the Serengeti.

“My hope is that the boys will remember it forever,” Heather says. “Now that we have done this with the kids — no water, no teeth brushing with water, lugging around carryons filled with dried fruit and snacks — I know we can do anything. It’s opened up a world of possibilities.”


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