How did you first hear about Extraordinary Journeys?
We heard about them through friends of ours that worked with Extraordinary Journeys for their honeymoon. And they had also a very magical experience. So we didn’t really do any research. We just decided we were going to go that route, and we connected with Pearl. And that was really it for us! It just felt right.
This was your first safari. Did you do any research or planning on your own before contacting Extraordinary Journeys?
I geek out over travel research and actually founded a business around that. It’s called Wild Bum, and it unites people like me who obsess over travel research and genuinely love it with the sort of people who find the subject completely overwhelming.
That being said, this was the kind of travel experience where I felt more comfortable working with somebody who knows the countries within Africa very well. I felt more comfortable having them arrange transportation and all of that.
There are certain trips that we’ve been on where I love being able to rely on the expertise of organizations like Extraordinary Journeys. And then there’s also the times where I enjoy planning it on my own. But Africa definitely felt like one of those destinations where you really want to use an expert that you trust.
Have you done trips like this before with a similar level of complexity? Or was your safari more in a sphere all its own?
We’ve had some pretty amazing travel experiences, and we’ve been to Alaska where we did do our own little thing with lots of wildlife and outdoor experiences. But our trip to Africa really was unique.
Some families would be intimidated by planning a safari. Did you need any nudging or convincing to give it a try?
No, we don’t take any nudging. (In fact, there’s a million other things I want to do and see!) Of course, the first day on safari, when you’re actually in the parks or you’re seeing the animals, there’s a little bit of, “oh my gosh…” But your guides there are so incredible. And it’s so hard to put it into words, you know? I get chills just thinking about it because I felt like every day we were all giddy little kids, wondering, “what does today hold?”
Of course the kids had their typical sibling arguments. But it was just so special. You’re up every day excited, and every evening, you’re in awe of everything you just experienced.
I hope that the way we live, both personally and professionally, inspires other people to have these more meaningful experiences because we really do believe that it’s life-changing. But there are obviously people, even family and friends, who think we’re crazy. And that’s okay.
I do think these experiences are for people who are willing to embrace being out of their comfort zone in whatever form that might be. And even if you travel in a more luxurious manner, you’re still in the wild, and you’re still having these really authentic experiences, which I appreciate.
What were you looking for when planning a safari with your family? Was the community involvement aspect a prerequisite?
In looking for travel experiences, it’s really important for us to go to places where we have a cultural experience—whether it’s just my husband and myself or with our kids. And I think that’s been an evolution for us over the many years that we’ve prioritized travel. We’re not the type of family that will sit at an all-inclusive [resort], usually. We have certain yearnings and a different outlook on travel. We definitely look for ways to immerse ourselves and experience a place on a deeper level.
We’ve volunteered at a dental clinic in Belize. I lead women’s group trips where we dance and I plan a service project. We’ve been to Guatemala where we installed water filters and stoves into Mayan women’s homes. In El Salvador, we renovated a rural school. And we’re going to Columbia to build a community center.
We really strive to bring more of these meaningful experiences into our travels, especially with our kids. And part of that vision is doing work with communities that they actually need, work that is sustainable and long-lasting. So even after you’ve been there, you know that it’s making an impact beyond just that week or two.
There are so many opportunities. We’re passionate about things like animal conservation, but I was super persistent about finding the right opportunity. And I wanted to get kids involved in making the decision.
It was all very serendipitous. We did initially give Pearl a few guidelines, like that we were celebrating a milestone occasion for our children and would be traveling with the kids. And the way I understood it, when you’re planning a safari, a lot depends on the season and migration patterns. So I really trusted her to help guide us in the right direction.
We were very open in the sense that I wanted to hear what she recommended, especially for traveling with kids. And hearing her talk about it, I could sense her light up about certain places and her own experiences being there. We went back and forth, deciding between Tanzania and Kenya, and we ended up choosing Kenya.
One of the places we stayed was Ol Malo. We connected with them, and our kids raised about $10,000 before the trip to reopen a school while we were there. (It was founded by Julia Francombe, the founding director of the Samburu Trust, and we got to meet her. It was so special.) The doors to the school had been closed, and there had been birds and bats living inside. So when we arrived, we went into the bushes, made handmade brooms, and went into the huts and cleaned.
Afterward, the kids played soccer and jumped rope together. And what’s so beautiful—the kids understand, even without language or verbal communication, how much they were able to connect with one another through the universal language of sports and play and laughter.
Those are the experiences that I think are really priceless.
Ol Malo arranged for us to spend quite a bit of time with the people in the village. We were invited into their homes, and we learned about how they live. They’re so warm and welcoming.
Then we made the trek with the kids to the school and got to see what it’s like for the children living there to walk to school every morning, walk home for lunch, go back to school, and walk back at the end of the day. And it was an intense hike up the mountain. I’m pretty sure my kids will never ever complain about riding the bus again!
My husband and I both have a science background, and we get so excited about all of the things that are happening that we can’t even see, like how travel is impacting our cognitive abilities and our interpersonal relationships, broadening our perspectives and our view of the world.
This is why I’m such a big advocate of travel like this. While you can’t always see the impact because it may not be tangible, you hope and you understand that it’s shaping the kids into the adults we want them to be. I always say travel is the gift that keeps on giving.
Did you travel to other places in Kenya besides Ol Malo? How long was your stay?
We were in Kenya for about two weeks. We didn’t have any expectations, so when we got there, it just blew us away. The people and the way they care for you and the customer service is amazing. They go above and beyond. You feel like family.
We had a couple days in Nairobi on the front and back end. Pearl recommended a really awesome experience there with the guys that grew up in the slums there. It was a walking tour, and we were able to go into areas where tourists typically don’t go into because our hosts’ presence was clearly seen, and the work they do is kind of like their movement. That was really a really neat experience. Super eye-opening.
How many nights would you recommend for a family like yours?
The itinerary was perfect. It felt like we got to see several different places, but we never felt too rushed. I wish I could stay somewhere like that every day. I think we all could have stayed longer, but it was a really nice time to be there.
Did you have any preconceived notions of what your safari would be like? How did your actual experience compare?
We didn’t have any. I mean, we had heard from friends who have been and loved it. We weren’t prepared to be quite as blown away as we were. It was just super special. I think not having those preconceived notions of how it was going to be really allowed it to be better than we could’ve ever hoped for.
What stands out as being particularly special about your safari? What surprised you or exceeded your expectations?
When you come back from somewhere like this, I feel like people always ask for your 30-second highlight reel. As corny as it sounds, every day was amazing. It’s so hard to pick a highlight because each day just felt just as special as the last.
I think what’s so neat is that because of our experience with the school, we did spend a lot of time in the different villages. And that was very special. I’ve even talked to people who have been to other countries within Africa and didn’t get to spend as much time immersing themselves in the culture. Experiences like ours add a whole other layer and a deeper meaning and understanding for the traditions and the way they continue. That sort of thing is wonderful to learn about, no matter where you go.
We spent time with the Samburu tribe, and we spent time with the Maasai tribe. You felt like you could see the ways they’re similar but also how different they are—and just understand what life is like. And I think that that’s a gift.
Ultimately, the hope is that after going home and getting back into your routine, in some way, there’s always a little part of you that is never the same. We were in Kenya in August, and four months later, we still reminisce with our kids about our experiences or talk about certain things and how they apply to the way we live here—or what things we could do better or differently.
That really is a highlight—how you can take it and bring it back home and change your day-to-day.
How has this experience impacted your kids?
Those of us that are very passionate about travel believe that it’s a real education, much more so than any book. With the kids, especially, that’s where you might not be able to see it as much right now just because their brains are still developing. But I think that there are lifelong memories that we’ve created that have only deepened and strengthened our relationships with one another. I feel like that’s always something we experience after travels together.
This time, that impact even more enhanced because it was so special.
I think they have a deeper appreciation for animals. It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to sit in your truck and have these giant elephants just grazing around you.
And then being invited into the homes of some of the tribe members…we can recall those memories every time we start to get in our American ways. We can think, “wait a second…think about how people live—and how family and connection and traditions are more important than giant houses and material things.”
We’re constantly recalling everything that we learned, especially the kids, and reminding ourselves not to get caught up in that thinking and really prioritize experiences as much as we can. And I’m amazed that my kids get that. They really do.
Did you have any reservations or concerns (safety-related or otherwise) before your family’s safari? If so, how did Extraordinary Journeys put you at ease?
It’s funny. As much as I have an enormous sense of adventure, wherever we go, there’s always a few days ahead of time that I’m in a panic. Like, “wait, what am I doing? What are we doing? Is this a good idea?”
But I do think that working with Extraordinary Journeys helped me set aside any concerns about safety. Talking with Pearl and Gena always made me feel super comfortable and at ease.
Of course we want to be very mindful; we’re bringing our kids with us, and we want to feel safe. But I also think it’s good to keep in perspective that things can happen when you walk out your own front door in your own cities.
I always say that any experience starts with courage, whether you’re going somewhere in the U.S. or to another continent that is much more rugged and unknown. That’s not to say you might not feel a little afraid. That’s okay! But more than anything, you have to recognize that that’s part of a new experience, no matter what it is. You have to trust that you’re going to have this incredible, invaluable time with your family. And that’s why you do it.
And usually, you get to your destination and think, “okay, that was silly.” You’re just in it, and it feels amazing.
And that’s why I love to travel so much!
If you sat and watched the news, you would be in constant fear all the time, but then when you actually go to these places and meet people, you’re like, “Oh yeah, there’s so much warmth and such good people everywhere.” That’s the beauty of it.
Worry is the farthest thing from your mind. On safari, you’re assigned to one guide the entire time you’re there. You really get to know them. They are there to take care of you and to make you feel safe, and you can trust that they would not put you in a situation where you would be unsafe.
Yeah, you’ll have this moment as a lion is walking up to the truck when your whole body goes a little numb—and then you remember they want nothing to do with us. That’s such an empowering thing. It’s also an opportunity to recognize that there are all kinds of misconceptions around travel and wildlife in Africa.
What sort of travelers would you recommend a safari like this to? Who would a trip like this be perfect for?
I believe that travel is the answer to living a more fulfilling life. So I want every single person to experience this. But I understand that everyone is different, and everyone has different levels of discomfort around new experiences. So I like to say that you can start with baby steps. Once you start having these more meaningful experiences, it’s like that travel bug hits, and then you want more and more.
I also believe that travel is a priority. So I think that, you know, it’s a matter of just deciding to go. Right. You know, it’s like just making the decision and, and doing it.
But as I said earlier, I feel like a safari like this is perfect for people who are open and feel that courage to have a truly special, life-changing experience. Something unique and cultural and educational.
Where would you like to safari with your family next?
Everywhere! But I really want to do the gorilla trekking. That’s very, very high on my list. I think that our youngest kids are still too young, so we have a few more years before we can do that.
Why is family travel important to you?
My husband and I have traveled since the kids were babies. We’ve been fortunate that my parents also watch them. So we’ve always gotten away, just the two of us. I believe that time alone is important, and I am very, very thankful for it.
But as the kids have gotten older, we find it harder and harder to travel without them because we want to see it through their eyes. And as much as we are responsible for teaching them certain manners and such, I feel like the kids are the ones teaching us.
Besides that, travel affords you time with your family where you don’t have the laundry and the dishes and the work stuff in the back of your mind constantly. I always say I’m never more present than when we’re traveling somewhere with the kids.
Clearly, my family likes to go against the grain a little bit. But in certain communities in the United States, summer camp is a big deal. As a kid, I tried summer camp a few times, and it was fun. Just not totally my thing. And my kids also went and liked it, but I could tell they weren’t campers like some kids are. I mean, we could force them to go because camp is a wonderful experience for kids. And they make connections that sometimes last a lifetime.
But every summer since, we have given them the choice: do you want to take the summer camp budget and go to summer camp, or do you want to go on a family adventure? They choose the family adventure. Even our 13-year-old! I truly believe that these are the memories that they will look back on as adults and be very thankful for because they’ve shaped who they’ve become.
Discover the Perfect Safari for Your Family
If Mollie’s family has inspired you to plan a safari of your own with the kids, check out our comprehensive guide, How to Safari with Kids: 5 Amazing Destinations for Your Family. We’ve also rounded up Our Top 7 Favorite Malaria-Free Safaris for complete peace of mind with your kids in tow.
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