planning an Africa safari

Planning an African Safari: A Q&A with IE Custom Travel Planner Kim Guth

planning an Africa safari

If you’re thinking about planning an African safari, Kim Guth is the gal you’ll want to talk to.

Working with International Expeditions, Kim started out as a Destination Manager and has now become our Custom Travel Planner, creating once-in-a-lifetime trips many travelers consider a dream come true.

But Kim’s decades of African expertise actually pre-date her time with IE. Her first job in the industry found her planning group trips to East Africa when she worked with Park East, a family-owned travel company in New York that helped to pioneer modern-day safari travel. 

Now she custom designs incredible itineraries for various destinations, based on the client’s specific budget and interests. But Africa remains her biggest travel passion, and her knowledge of the continent is reflected in one of IE’s custom African safaris.

Here, we talk with Kim about her early love of travel, how (and why) Africa captured her heart, and why traveling to Rwanda and Uganda should be on every nature lover's bucket list.

Kim Guth on a Uganda Safari

How did you originally fall in love with travel? Was there an early childhood experience that sparked your interest? 

In high school, I chose to take a foreign language that offered a semester abroad. Taking German was the golden opportunity that first got me hooked.

After experiencing burnout working for a top designer, I got into the travel industry quite by accident, and I thought it would be temporary. But again, I was hooked!

When/where was your first trip to Africa, and how did that trip inspire your passion for the continent? 

planning an Africa safari

I escorted a group of travel agents to Kenya back in 1990. I immediately felt calm. There was nowhere else on earth that I could truly be so in the moment– a foreign feeling that I would crave forever after.

What an amazing design! Nature and the animal kingdom had an order to it, from which all beings benefitted if left to their own devices.

Experiencing the “Circle of Life” was breathtaking. The African bush is unexplainable, as it is both a battleground for survival and a place of peace.

I first traveled to South Africa back in 2000, and have been passionate about Africa ever since. What is it about the continent that grabs hold of people and keeps them coming back for more?  

Every day is different, and every trip can be different, even if you are returning to the same country over and over again.

I would go to sleep – and I mean the best sleep, under canvas, listening to all of the familiar and foreign sounds around me – reliving what I thought was the most amazing day ever. Then I’d wake up the next day and have another incredible experience. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “I never knew of a morning in Africa that I woke up and was not happy.”

Rwanda and Uganda are rapidly emerging as ecotourism destinations. What makes them different from classic African safari countries such as Kenya and Tanzania? 

Uganda is “The Pearl of Africa,” with stunning green valleys, tall mountains, volcanoes, and deep lakes. I’ve never seen so many shades of lush, green vegetation as far as the eye can see.

This landlocked country encompasses the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains and immense Lake Victoria. Remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a renowned Mountain Gorilla sanctuary. Murchison Falls National Park, in the northeast, is known for its 141-foot tall waterfall and wildlife such as Hippos and huge Nile Crocodiles.

You can experience rare birds and the Big Five in Uganda on walks, treks, game drives, and boat tours. From witnessing the frenzy of activity of chimpanzee troops calling to each other in Kibale Forest to quietly sitting and observing the gentle Mountain Gorillas, there are no words !

 planning an Africa safari

And Rwanda?

“The Land of a Thousand Hills” is also a landlocked country with green, mountainous landscape. It’s home to the largest rainforest in Africa, including 5 forested volcanoes.

Volcanoes National Park is home to Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys. In the southwest is Nyungwe National Park, with the ancient montane rainforest that’s a habitat for Chimpanzees and other primates.  

Many people first associate the country with the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. But a visit is eye-opening, as you discover a peaceful land of friendly people who are highly optimistic about their country’s future. The positive energy of Rwanda will not soon be forgotten.

Uganda gorilla viewing.

For me, trekking to see Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda was a life-changing experience. Can you talk about your experiences with these gentle giants? 

I was fortunate to trek to see the gorillas in Rwanda some years ago. It’s definitely an experience worth repeating. Your heart will pump just as fast and the chills will be just as intense as the first time. When you’re finally in their presence, you’ll forget how long you’ve trekked through dense vegetation and mud, over rocks, into thorns, then straight up a slope of a mountain.

You’ll first be struck by their immense size and close viewing proximity. They’re lounging, systematically stripping leaves off vines and shoving them by the fistful into their mouths. Breaking the silence of the jungle are the chirping birds, ripping of leaves, crackling of branches, and the crunching of bark. We saw two youngsters practicing swinging from the trees and trying to get the adults to play on the ground. The mother playfully hugged and groomed her young until they were bored, and back up the tree they went.

There are fewer than 900 Mountain Gorillas on the planet, and here I was surrounded by eight of them. Most people will never see a Mountain Gorilla, because they can't survive in captivity like their lowland relatives. They live only in a small radius of high-altitude cloud forests and bamboo groves that make up the national parks of Volcanoes (in Rwanda), Bwindi and Mgahinga (in Uganda) and Virunga (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

For one privileged hour, I got to live in the moment, watching these critically endangered creatures experience all of the same emotions we feel each day: hunger, fatigue, boredom, curiosity, love, happiness, wariness, tolerance, respect and trust. Gorilla trekking is a rare opportunity to help support local economies, deter poaching, save a species, and witness one of the most fascinating animals left on earth.

planning an Africa safari 

What are some of the other natural attractions you would say visitors won't want to miss in Rwanda and Uganda?

Besides the gorilla trek, chimp trek, and golden monkeys, I’d say everyone should go on safari in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where you can spot the “Big Five.” You can also visit the numerous species of primates in Nyungwe National Park, and explore the art galleries of Kigali. You’ll get a chance to hang out with some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet!

In Uganda, I’d definitely visit the Ishahsa Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park for the tree climbing lions. Viewing Murchison Falls from above and experiencing the base from a boat, you may see animals such as Nine Crocodiles and the rare Shoebill. And when you visit the Batwa People– the indigenous people of the rainforest in Uganda– you’re helping to keep the Batwa traditions and culture alive.   

For me, Rwanda made a perfect complement to our 2 weeks in Tanzania in 2015. Why would you say that Rwanda and Uganda are a must-see for travelers visiting East Africa?

Unless they’re retired, vacation time is precious for most Americans. You can safari in Kenya and/or Tanzania for as short as 10 days, and still include some of my favorite things to do in Rwanda without adding another week.

With just three additional nights you could fly to Kigali and spend the night; take a Kigali city tour (including the Genocide Museum and Hotel Rwanda), then drive through rolling hills to Volcanoes National Park and overnight; wake up the next morning and do the gorilla trek; then see the Golden Monkeys on the last morning before heading back to the airport.

Uganda is a true safari destination, with the gorillas being the icing on the cake. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to feel like you’re exploring a remote area, even in Africa. Though it is growing, Uganda has a less developed infrastructure than some of the neighboring countries, which made my experiences there more edgy and fun. Uganda is an African success story, and a must-see for safari lovers. And while it is adventurous, unspoiled, and relatively remote, it is a very safe country.  

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.