Hi, Rachel here! I’m Extraordinary Journeys' Operations Manager and last March, I journeyed through Rwanda, Zanzibar, and into Kenya for a very special trip with my boyfriend, Josh.
We began in Kigali, Rwanda. The city began as a small colonial outpost in 1907 and over a century’s worth of history is at your fingertips if you know where to look. Despite the immense strains faced from the Rwandan genocide in the early 90s, the city and its people are marked by their warmth and friendliness, lively markets, and lush surrounding landscape.
Photo: U.S. Department of State
My favorite activity here was easily our personalized tour of the city and area. That morning we kicked off the tour outside of the city on a mountaintop with gorgeous views. Our guide gave us an overview of the city before we dove in to visiting its mosques, talking with locals in the markets, and walking with the kids outside school. Our guide made all the difference; it was clear that he knew the city and was deeply involved as a community member. He genuinely wanted to share his love for Kigali with us, not just collect a few tourist bucks. This tour was so authentic and immersive in daily local life; we didn’t feel obtrusive or like we were only seeing the usual tourist spots.
One really unique stop was at one of Kigali’s milk bars. It is customary in Rwanda to offer milk to guests. Cows are very important to the local economy and dairy products are totally entwined with the culture. These days, that looks like milk bars, which you can usually spot by their painted signs with a cow on them, or the words “Amata Meza” (fresh milk in Kinyarwanda). Locals and visitors alike can stop by any milk bar to socialize and share a glass together or picks up a gallon for their home. The milk is produced locally, of course, and it’s a totally unique way to feel part of daily life in Rwanda! Sour milk is the choice of locals, but I don’t necessarily recommend trying it….you can always stick with more palatable milk options!
Photo: The New Times, Hassan Mutuhe
Our next three days were in and around Volcanoes National Park for gorilla trekking which was, honestly, awe-inspiring. This was personally my first time trekking for gorillas and, despite hearing stories from the rest of the team, did not appreciate beforehand how difficult the trek would be. We spent hours hiking uphill through muddy and dense high-altitude jungle, through stinging nettles and incredibly lush greenery – which was gorgeous, but arduous. Don’t underestimate the strain of trekking, especially if you’re coming from lower elevations! That said, it’s also possible to find your gorilla family in a mere twenty minutes sometimes!
Either way, any hardship in getting to the gorillas totally pays off! When you step through the foliage and finally see them in person, right in from of you? It’s indescribable. And while I thought it would nerve-wracking to be around a whole family of gorillas in the wild, I never felt scared or uncomfortable. You get totally swept up in the magic of being surrounded by these incredible creatures. They are so human-like. I only wish we could have spent more time with them – our one hour felt like five minutes! I came away feeling unbelievable lucky and grateful to have had that experience; and it makes me that much more excited to share that magic with EJ’s travelers!
After our time in the interior jungles, we had four nights to explore the coastal beaches of Zanzibar – talk about a big change! While not the sleepy little island it once was, there are still pockets of seclusion to be found. The beach-resorts can get overwhelming, so I recommend opting for more isolated boutique properties to really enjoy the island’s natural beauty.
Photo: Kisiwa on the Beach
In Stone Town itself, the night food market at Forodhani Park is a “must” in my book. It’s very accessible and relaxed. Locals set up each night and you can peruse stalls at your own pace and try all kind of local food – and it never felt touristic! You can sample dishes like urojo, a thick mango and tamarind soup, hand-pressed sugar cane juice with ginger and lime, octopus tentacles, tandoori lobster, savory bananas and so much more. While we didn’t get to try it, “Zanzibari pizza” is the #1 most popular food in the whole market. (Don’t let the name fool you though! “Pizza” is not at all what Americans are used to. Think more like a crepe-calzone.)
Another island activity to keep in mind: the Zanzibar Spice Tour. This one often gets overlooked, but we loved it! It’s a great way to see the island away from the beach, and it’s a hands-on interactive tour. Our guide led us through an inland farm, scraping off tree-bark and picking unique fruits directly from trees for us to sample, smell, and learn about the history of. (You have an option to purchase some of the spices you learn about in the tour at the end.)
However amazing the first ten days were, my last three in the Maasai Mara really stole the show. We stayed at Mara Plains the whole time, which has sweeping views across the plains and river, terrific food and a warm and friendly vibe. It’s also on the private 35,000-acre Olare Motogori Conservancy, so we had the option of walking safaris and night game drives, which is always a huge bonus! This was not my first time in the Mara, but it’s honestly one of my favorite places on earth. Something about the expansive, sweeping landscapes always gets me, and the game-viewing never disappoints, so I was especially thrilled to share it with Josh.
We were there during the rainy season which meant storms kept rolling in after our afternoon game drives (what a sight!) but on our last day there, the rain held off and Josh suggested we get a picture together out on the plains. Our guide, Edwin, found us this beautiful little area with an acacia tree and watering hole – totally iconic scene for this area – and when Edwin was snapping some shots of us together, Josh gets down on one knee and brings out a ring, asking me to marry him. I couldn’t believe it! I had no idea (and neither did our guide!) that Josh was planning to propose, but it could not have been more perfect; the timing, the setting, it was simply magical. Afterwards we had sundowners watching a lioness on the savanna and back at camp everyone was so sweet and congratulatory and gave us a champagne toast.
For anyone out there thinking of proposing on safari, I say go for it! You’re making such special memories in Africa and it’s an amazing chance to add some extra special magic with someone you love. Remember how I said it was rainy our first few afternoons though? Turns out Josh had to keep rearranging plans to account for weather and other unexpected shifts day to day, so just remember that flexibility is key! Over-planning can definitely add stress when days inevitably surprise you, so I recommend having a loose idea of how you want to propose, but also be open to seeing where the magic of Africa takes you…