Two couples take the trip of a lifetime.
story by Barry Wise Smith photography Brit Huckabay and courtesy of Mike Lee
For almost 7 years, Joe Karuga worked to convince Bruce Limbaugh that an African safari needed to be on his bucket list. Joe, a native Kenyan and enthusiastic ambassador for his home country, has been taking visitors to Africa since starting Mwendo Adventures in 2012 with partner Jason McCracken.
Joe came to Birmingham to attend college in 1997 and stayed. After meeting Jason at the Dawson Rec Center, Joe invited him to travel with him to Kenya. “It’s overwhelming,” Jason says. “There are no words to describe Africa when you see it for the first time. It’s one of the places in the world where there’s still magic and mystery.” When they returned from the trip, Joe and Jason started Mwendo and began introducing others to the magic and mystery of Africa with bespoke trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Egypt, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kilimanjaro, and more. Either Joe or Jason goes on every trip.
Fast forward to March 2018 and all of Joe’s urging finally paid off when Bruce Limbaugh and his wife Debbie, with friends Mike and Ruth Lee, signed on for their own African adventure—choosing ultimately to do a Kenyan safari tour. “In terms of planning, Joe did everything,” Bruce says. “We trusted him completely, and it was amazing.” After several long flights, the Limbaughs and Lees landed in Nairobi, Kenya, spending the first night at the Ole-Sereni Hotel adjacent to Nairobi National Park.
The next day, the group headed to the first of three camps—Tortilis Camp at the Amboseli National Park, which neighbors Tanzania. “We were so excited to see the elephants,” Ruth says. The group spent half a day in a Masai village, where the village’s women welcomed them with a traditional song and dance. The Masai women build the village dwellings and do most of the work inside the village. “It’s a really interesting social structure in the village,” Ruth says. The group also experienced their first safari drive. “You just don’t know where to look it’s all so magical,” Debbie says. “We drove through a herd of 1,000 buffalo—it was phenomenal,” adds Bruce.
The adventure continued as the group flew from Nairobi to Kalama Kick to stay at the Sarara Camp in Samburu. The camp’s lodges are built on tall stilts to allow elephants to pass underneath them. “The houses were like tree houses,” Bruce recalls. “We woke up to the birds every morning.” They walked to the famed Singing Wells at night and visited the three-year-old Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, where they witnessed the arrival of a two-year-old orphaned elephant named Kikwar. “Watching this orphan baby being saved was the most amazing thing,” says Mike. “We were the first outsiders to ever see an elephant being delivered,” Bruce says. “To witness the system that is saving animal after animal was incredible.” Debbie loved the Singing Wells, “The Singing Wells at night with the sun setting behind the mountains, you can’t believe it’s really happening.”
Ngerende Island Lodge
The group’s third stop was the old English-style Ngerende Island Lodge adjacent to the Masai Mara National Park. “You’re driving around the Serengeti, and you are ‘oh look there’s a pride of lions,’” Mike says. The group ultimately completed the Big 7—the safari coup of seeing elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, rhinos, and leopards. A pre-dawn hot air balloon ride gave the Limbaughs and Lees a spectacular perspective on the area from 500 feet above the ground. The balloon crossed the Mara River and offered a bird’s eye view of the Serengeti below. “We saw the sunrise over the Serengeti from the balloon,” Bruce recalls. Mike says, “The balloon ride just blew me away. It was simply a magical experience.” Debbie adds, “It was spiritually life changing.”
The final stop was back in Nairobi at the First Love of Kenya orphanage, a home for 120 children. They also visited Kazuri, a ministry founded in the 1970s to help single mothers and widows make jewelry to generate income and support their families. Kazuri provides health care, fair wages, and childcare for the women in the program.
In addition to group tours, Mwendo does custom trips based on their clients’ wish lists. “What makes us unique is that we sit down with everyone who travels with us and discuss and customize each trip,” Jason says. Mwendo takes care of all travel details, including necessary immunizations, packing lists, and pre-trip training if needed. “The individual aspect of what they can do is amazing,” Bruce says. “Just having a guy from Kenya as your guide in Kenya is phenomenal.” And while people from across the country have traveled with Mwendo, much of their business is through word of mouth and repeat customers. Why the repeat business? “It’s the way the Kenyan people treat visitors,” says Joe. “The African people are so friendly.” Jason adds, “East Africa is very much like the South—the people are hospitable and friendly.”
For the Limbaughs and the Lees, seven years of consideration paid off with a trip none of them will ever forget. Bruce concludes, “We went thinking we’d see amazing animals, but it was so much more.”