Sammy spotted the wildlife first.
We had just landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, and climbed into the car. We were barely off the exit ramp when she pointed across the road to the leafy perimeter of Nairobi National Park and announced, with a grin of triumph, “Look, a giraffe!”
Our intergenerational adventure was off to a splendid start.
My 24-year-old granddaughter, Samantha Hilford, had just graduated from nursing school and craved a break before studying for her licensing exam. Specifically, she said, “I want to go to Africa. With you.”
For her, an adventurous spirit with a caregiver’s heart, it was a pie-in-the-sky dream with a trusted travel buddy. For me, at 80, it was a welcome return to a magical place I’d documented often in print and on film, a chance to share my passion with a new generation and, coincidentally, to commemorate my own maiden voyage to Africa, exactly 50 years ago.
On that first trip to Kenya, I learned to exchange my urban myopia for the subtle language of the bush: to detect wildlife through camouflage and dappled light, to catch the flicker of grass that meant a cat was lurking. A friend who’d grown up in Kenya called it getting my “African eyes.”
Half a century later, my sharp-eyed Gen Z granddaughter required no such training, instantly tagging the glorious species she’d been hearing about since she was born. I’d become obsessed with giraffes on that first trip, captivated by their otherworldly elegance as they ran — seemed to float — in the wild. And I’d spread the love, teaching Sammy’s first-grade class that giraffe necks had seven vertebrae, same as ours. Now I could show her the real thing.
I wasn’t the only grandmother reaching across the years to travel the globe. Multigenerational trips are booming, from large family groups celebrating big birthdays to more intimate jaunts marking coming-of-age events, like graduations. Even hotter are so-called skip-gen journeys (a.k.a. gramping) like ours, bypassing parents to cement the angst-free bond between grandparents and grandchildren. At Road Scholar, an educational travel company, the enrollment for grand-grand trips this summer is almost triple that for multigen trips.
Our trendy twosome also served as an icebreaker, turning new acquaintances like our driver, Rajab Obura, into instant soul mates. During our 65-mile drive north to Naivasha, a popular lakeside town, he candidly answered Sammy’s questions about tribal loyalty, infant mortality and women’s rights, while also pointing out roadside baboons, vultures and marabou storks. He didn’t have to identify the animals when we stopped.
“Warthogs!” she exclaimed, as they pranced about on their tiny high-heel hooves. Like many American youngsters, Sammy had memorized the musical lament of Pumbaa from “The Lion King” about his pungent body emissions. “Oh my God, they are so cute!” she gushed about the flesh-and-fur version. From then on, whenever they clip-clopped by, tails skyward, she shouted “Piggies!” followed by a loving, double snort.
I had chosen our first destination to visit my friend Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who’d awakened my African eyes. She and her husband, Iain, have turned her family farmland into Olerai House, a private sanctuary and luxury retreat. I’d sprung for the canopied beds and lush décor of the guest cottages, but it felt like a family outing.
Oria and I had a lovely reunion — later, lunch and a swim at her house — as Sammy took in the dazzling zebras grazing on the lawn. Black and white never seemed so colorful. I mentioned that zebra butts were among the handsomest in the animal kingdom. But the females’ bulging bellies were more riveting for Sammy, who plans to specialize as a midwife. “Look, she’s pregnant,” she said, pointing at one of the herd. “So is she.”
We relaxed into the scene, as spindly-legged egrets and Bambi-like Thomson’s gazelles roamed the fields, silky vervet monkeys scampered through the trees (and one tiny, licorice-eyed baby seemed glued to its mother’s chest), and fish eagles screeched overhead. A devoted New Yorker like me, Sammy was thrilled to exchange big-city worries for bush pragmatism: Keep the cabin door closed (later, the tent zipper anchored) so monkeys can’t invade and trash your belongings.
After dinner with Iain, whose pioneering research on elephant behavior and the deadly consequences of the ivory trade has led to global protections, we fell asleep to the sound of hippopotamus harrumphs amid the water hyacinth.
Breakfast with the giraffes
Our trip continued in Karen, the leafy Nairobi suburb named for the author Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). We stayed at the home of my friends Bryony and Rick Anderson, who created Giraffe Manor, a nearby fabled hotel where giraffes join you for breakfast. The Andersons sold the business in 2009 to focus on the adjacent, nonprofit Giraffe Centre, where you can meet the resident beauties on an elevated platform and take spectacular selfies.
Some years ago, Rick kindly named a newborn giraffe after me. Alas, that Lynn is no longer among us, but one of her offspring — a handsome 11-year-old named Eddie — now towers over the rest of the 10-member herd, and I proudly introduced my grand-giraffe to my granddaughter. Eddie snapped up Sammy’s grain treats with his long, purple tongue. Sammy got to know Eddie so well, she later detected his presence in the dark when he stopped by the house as we left for dinner. Family takes many forms.
Much later that night, our human connection grew closer. I’d just climbed into bed beneath the ubiquitous mosquito netting when my phone dinged with a text from the next room: “There are many, many mosquitoes within this netting.”
“Oh dear,” I shot back. “Want some spray?”
I grabbed the container of insect repellent and found Sammy standing next to her bed. She liberated her pillows and gave me the go-ahead. As I pressed the button, I winced at the fumes and beckoned Sammy to the door. “It’s OK,” she said stoically. “It will dissipate.” No way, I insisted, exercising my granny power. “Come with me.” I hadn’t shared a bed with Sammy since she was a toddler, when I stayed awake because I was afraid I’d roll over and crush her. Now, on my critter-free mattress, we both slept like babies.
I had eased Sammy into Africa, with close friends welcoming her more as houseguest than tourist. Next she’d enjoy the vision of expert guides, as we headed on safari to three of my favorite game parks.
Falling for the elephants
I remembered Amboseli National Park’s iconic vistas: great beasts and stark acacias, silhouetted against Mount Kilimanjaro. But severe drought over several years has diminished the herds, and the vast brown swaths we saw from the plane looked ominous.
Our guide, Julius Memusi, who goes by Pili, prayed for rain to regrow the vegetation and led us to a paradoxically abundant area fed by underground springs. We watched brilliant pink lesser flamingos (and their pale white greater flamingo cousins) stilt-walking through a shallow pond. We saw scrawny, quirky wildebeest, frisky Grant’s gazelles (“cheeky bums,” Sammy noted), and lumpy ostriches.
When a parade of elephants marched by, I knew Sammy had found, well, her giraffes. She adored them from trunk to tail, couldn’t get enough of their baggy skin, their majestic selves. “The ones in the zoo always look so sad,” she said, eyeing a steady line of impossibly graceful creatures en route to a swampy pond. “But here—” She inhaled Pili’s fact treasury: They stand thigh-deep in water to cool off. Throwing dirt is cosmetic; the dust is their moisturizer and prevents sunburn and dryness. It’s also their bug spray. Sammy was especially taken with the dainty footsteps of these four-ton living tanks. “They’re silent because there’s fat between their toes,” she mused, entranced.
Watching someone you love experience her own emotional highs is irresistible. Sharing special moments, sublime. We spent a jaw-dropping hour with a family of cheetahs — mom plus four cubs — frolicking in the scrub, then all climbing a dead tree so she could spot breakfast. Their sinuous, spotted bodies glowed tawny in the perfect morning light.
I loved showing Sammy my Africa: the exotic medley of stripes, spots and brilliant plumage; the soft crunch of elephant trunks pulling up grass; the peach fuzz of a giraffe nose. Better yet was seeing it anew through her eyes, where babies were the stars, and where the matriarchal society of her beloved elephants embraced her growing focus on women’s issues. This child who’d always volunteered for my adventures had become a partner, extending her own hand. Unasked, she regularly had my back, shining her flashlight on rocky terrain so I wouldn’t stumble in the dark, toting my heavy backpack along with her own. Who led whom? The decades between us melted.
We proceeded to Sirikoi Lodge, a serene haven at the foothills of Mount Kenya, where we explored the lush, green Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy with Tom Hartley, whose company, Big Wild Safaris, organized our trip. Tom steered us to a group — wait: a crash — of rhinoceroses, with their ramrod horns and rheumy eyes, some of the 250-plus (black and white) now thriving under local programs. All over the world wildlife is endangered, and populations have reportedly dropped almost 70 percent in Africa and elsewhere since my first visit. But human encroachment and wanton poaching are being countered by smart management, as evidenced by the numerous young rhinos we saw.
At Lewa’s main office, conservation and control are interdependent. Joy Ndinda, one of the staff members, described how they monitor, count and care for the animals with collars, ear tags and a network of rangers making rounds on foot. “We are custodians of the wildlife,” she said. The behind-the-scenes briefing widened our perspective, revealing critical community engagement. Sammy asked about local health care and envisioned volunteering someday at one of the clinics.
Passing the torch
Our final destination was the Masai Mara on the Tanzanian border — actually, the adjacent, separately managed Masai Mara National Reserve, a protected ecosystem teeming with wildlife. As we drove around in our open-air Land Cruiser, we whispered to keep from disturbing five snoozing, snuggling lions, one’s golden mane laced with black. A dignified lioness, resting nearby in the tall grass, kept an eye on her cubs as they padded about seeking mischief. And a leopard sleeping in a tree inspired a perfect grandchild moment. After lunch beneath another resplendently branched ficus that Sammy called “kid-friendly, climbable,” Tom asked if she was game. Our Masai guide, Bernard Kashu, jumped on the Cruiser’s hood and hoisted her onto his shoulders. She reached up, crawled along, then stretched out languorously. My grand-leopard.
But nothing compared with the hippos. We’d stopped for coffee overlooking the Mara River when the grunts from below began: earsplitting protests from a plump female (a 3-year-old who had never mated, Tom guessed) as an adolescent male nearly twice her size came at her. The confrontation lasted nearly an hour. She clung to her rock perch, an island of safety. He couldn’t mount her out of the water. The howls were agonizing; their gaping jaws, terrifying. Finally, he gave up. We moved on, with new respect for hippo feminism.
Life came full circle further downriver, where we had the rare good fortune to witness a baby hippo’s birth. It shot into the water from its mother’s half-submerged body, a perfect little replica taking its first tentative strokes, and breaths. “I’ve never, ever seen that before,” said Tom, who has lived in Africa his entire life, with a gasp. We focused our binoculars for tense minutes, anxious about the crocodiles within swimming distance. Mother knew best, protecting her newborn with care.
On our last day at the Mara, Sammy wanted to take a hot-air balloon ride. I demurred, resenting the modern intrusion into primeval turf. Finally I relented, agreeing to see it her way after nearly two weeks of mine.
She was right. As we floated above the winding river and savanna, I took in its grandeur afresh. It wasn’t quite the silence I’d anticipated: Noisy whooshes of gas stoked the flame that kept us aloft. And the brightly striped balloon scattered lions and elephants below. But my bird’s-eye view crystallized the wonder of this timeless place.
We flew back to Nairobi and spent the day with the Andersons before our late-night flight home. “I don’t want to leave,” Sammy told them, not entirely kidding, as we drank farewell toasts beneath the sparkling African sky. And then, a final surprise.
“It’s Eddie,” announced Bryony, stepping onto her wide-open patio. “He’s come to say goodbye!” More likely just cadging some nibbles. But the symmetry was superb: Our first and last animals on this trip were giraffes.
As Rajab drove us to the airport, he nodded at Sammy and said to me, “So the torch is passed.” Yup, but not relinquished. Africa nourishes my spirit and renews my soul, so I’ll be back. So will Sammy, someday, bringing the compassion that framed her career choice to another continent. “I want to take care of people the way elephant moms protect their babies,” she said. “The trip confirmed that commitment.” She found reinforcement amid irresistible surroundings. I got to watch her make my special space her own. For both of us, it was a very grand adventure.
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