From desert to delta, Go2Africa Safari Expert Kate Erskine and product manager Liesel van Zyl have travelled the length and breadth of Southern Africa but somehow East Africa has always eluded them.
That is, until last month. Joined by former colleague Catherine Fouche they set off on a combined Kenya and Tanzania safari that began with the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Park before hopping across the border to Tanzania's famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, finishing with Lake Manyara and Tarangire.
Back in the office I gave them just enough time to check their emails before we sat down to chat.
"Firstly, what really stands out on an East Africa safari?"
Liesel: The game viewing. I’ve had fantastic wildlife sightings in South Africa but it's only in the Masai Mara and Serengeti that I've seen herds in their hundreds.
Kate: And it's not as flat as you think: East Africa has an incredible diversity of landscapes. In Amboseli we drove through open savannah to wetlands and palm forests - that was unexpected!
Cath: We also passed traditional mud-hut villages and saw Maasai boys out walking with their goats and cattle - the real deal.
"You packed in a lot of reserves. Did any exceed your expectations?"
Kate: For me it was Amboseli and its perfect view of Mount Kilimanjaro. There's something pretty special about watching animals with a snow-capped mountain as the backdrop.
Liesel: I was blown away by the private conservancies that border the Masia Mara National Reserve: the game viewing was far better than I'd expected and you enjoy all sorts of things that you can't do in the Masai Mara itself. Your guide can drive off road for the best sightings, you can go on walking safaris, night drives, have breakfasts out on safari and visit local villages.
Cath: I particularly loved the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area with its green hills, coffee plantations, Maasai villages, and that wonderful feeling of being so close to something so ancient and iconic. And Tarangire. I didn't know what to expect but it's a truly beautiful reserve with amazing scenery and loads of elephants.
Liesel: Absolutely! I don't think I've ever had such good elephant sightings. In fact, our guide told us that during the June - October dry season, Tarangire has one of the greatest concentrations of game in Tanzania.
"Judging by your photos, it seems you had fantastic wildlife sightings throughout the trip."
Kate: In the Ngorongoro Crater we saw the Big 5 within the first hour!
Liesel: And although we only spent one night at Porini Lion Camp - in one of the Masai Mara conservancies - we saw lion, cheetah and leopard.
Cath: We also caught the great migration on the Serengeti's Ndutu Plains; imagine wildebeest in every direction and as far as the eye can see.
Kate: I also enjoyed seeing endemic East Africa animals such as the weird looking gerenuk and the beautiful reticulated giraffe. And the birdlife is phenomenal! I have this vivid memory of sitting at Mara Plains Tented Camp surrounded by birdsong.
"Many travellers go to East Africa only for the Serengeti or Masai Mara. Are they missing out by not visiting the smaller reserves too?"
Liesel: If you've got the time, I'd highly recommend combining different areas - the diversity is unbelievable.
Kate: You could focus on one country and do a multi-destination safari circuit in either Kenya or Tanzania. Bear in mind though that there are large distances to cover; the logistics can be tricky but that's where we come in!
"What about the accommodation? How do East African camps compare to South Africa's luxury lodges?"
Kate: Although East African lodges are generally less grand than South Africa's, I didn't feel I was missing out on anything. The camps we visited were very comfortable but the focus is definitely on the safari experience.
Liesel: I agree. Meals for example were great and dishes were packed with fresh and healthy home-grown ingredients but don't expect the five-course gourmet dinners you find at South Africa's top lodges.
Cath: The service is also terrific. The staff at most of the lodges we visited were at least 90% local and we were constantly being told: "you are most welcome!”
"And the level of guiding?"
Cath: Excellent! And there was a genuine warmth to the Maasai tribesmen who were our guides on our Kenya safari.
Liesel: The local guides really know their stuff! Also, if you go on a tailor-made road safari, you'll have one guide from beginning to end - he'll pick you up at the airport, take you on game drives and focus on your interests.
"You also went on a Maasai village visit. What was that like?"
Cath: The visit was organised by Porini Amboseli Camp and it was a highlight of our trip.
Kate: We were met by Maasai warriors and escorted to their village while they practiced throwing spears. As we arrived, Maasai women welcome us with song and we were introduced to village life. The best part was watching the young men taking part in a traditional jumping competition - the highest jumper gets the girl! You really feel a strong sense of family and community.
Liesel: In some places village visits have become quite commercial but this certainly wasn't the case here; I found the experience very authentic. My advice is to make sure the experience is arranged through a lodge that uses the money to uplift the local community.
OUR SAFARI EXPERTS’ TOP LODGE PICKS IN KENYA AND TANZANIA
When I asked for Kate, Liesel and Cath for their favourite lodges of the trip the list was long and it took much discussion and passionate debate to whittle it down to the accommodation listed below:
Porini Amboseli: eco-conscious, authentic. For a true village visit this is the place; the people will touch your heart - both the staff and Maasai villagers.
Encounter Mara: set in a private conservancy this simple yet elegant tented camp delivers exciting game viewing without the Masai Mara crowds.
Mara Explorer: 10 tents tucked into a forest overlooking a hippo-dotted river - this camp is intimate, romantic and the perfect wilderness retreat.
Maramboi Tented Camp: well located for Lake Manyara and Tarangire, Maramboi has a lovely lounge and pool overlooking palm-fringed floodplains.
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge: perched on the rim of crater, this hotel-style lodge is recommended for comfort, friendly service and astonishing views.
The Manor at Ngorongoro: luxurious accommodation, gourmet food - perfect if you need a break from tented camps and want to spoil yourself.
Dunia Camp: classic tented camp in the southern Serengeti. Faultless service and rustic romance with hot bucket showers and no electricity.