Travelling Hemingway’s Africa on an East African Safari

Outdoors & Animals

Elephants in Tarangire National Park in north Tanzania

Few western figures are as associated with East Africa as Ernest Hemingway, even though he only took two trips to the continent in his life. Perhaps this is because the writer of The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms helped codify the image of the Great White Hunter, even if he wasn’t a great hunter himself. Perhaps it’s simply that Ernest Hemingway has become something of a mythical figure of 20th-Century manhood since his death in 1961. Regardless of the reason why Hemingway’s adventures in Africa continue to loom largely in the popular imagination, it’s hard to avoid mentions of Hemingway when visiting Africa as a westerner. As such, it may be interesting to lean into Hemingway’s presence and explicitly follow in some of his footsteps on an African safari.

Hemingway was a born adventurer and something of an adrenaline junkie. He would head into war zones, on fishing trips into the middle of the Caribbean, and, of course, into the bush to hunt lion and kudu. When you head to East Africa, you’ll find plenty of references to Hemingway in many places you go – even some places Hemingway never visited, as people like to cash in on popular myths if it helps them monetarily. However, if you follow the broad path of Hemingway across Kenya and Tanzania, you’ll experience many highlights of an African safari.

While we’re not sure whether Hemingway did in fact popularize the word “safari” for western audiences, we do know that his journeys across East Africa have established a convention that people follow to this day. So whether you’ve read a great Hemingway novel or short story, are generally fascinated with the lives of famous individuals, or are interested in journeys across the African savannah, traversing the land that Hemingway explored in the 1930s and 1950s is a rewarding experience.

First Stops on the Continent

Hemingway headed on his first African safari in 1935 alongside his second wife, Pauline, and his friend from Key West, Charles Thompson. He left port in Marseilles, and after over two weeks at sea, disembarked in Mombasa, Kenya. Hemingway explored the area around Mombasa and Malindi, which are great stopover spots on a Kenya vacation, before heading inland.

Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya and more similar toTanzania’s Dar es Salaam than Nairobi and other cities in the country. The city is a melting pot of cultures, combining Kenyan, Arabic, and Portuguese influences, with Indian and pan-European aspects as well. Spend some time here admiring the Arabic and Portuguese architecture and heading to the old town to see the dhows (traditional wooden sailboats) out on the bay before travelling north along the coast to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps.

Fort Jesus Cannon Yard, Mombasa, Kenya
Fort Jesus cannon yard, Mombasa

North of Mombasa, you’ll find the pristine beach of Watamu, around Malindi Marine Reserve Park. Hemingway spend some time at Watamu and you’ll even find a resort there named after him, Hemingway’s Watamu. Malindi and Watamu are remarkable for their snorkelling and diving spots, which are among the best on the East African coastline. As well, you’ll find plenty of green and hawksbill turtles here, so if you are interested in a marine component to your African safari adventure, this is a great place to be.

From Mombasa, Hemingway was to head to the small town of Machakos, near Nairobi. Machakos was the home of Philip Percival, one of the continent’s Great White Hunters who had served as a safari guide for many famous westerners, including American president, Teddy Roosevelt. Philip Percival would serve as Hemingway’s guide on both of his safaris, and became the basis for the character of “Pop” in the memoir of his experiences in Africa, Green Hills of Africa. Today, Machakos is relatively light on highlights, although it is rapidly growing and home to the Mulu Mutisya Gardens.

Turtle Beach, Watamu, Kenya
Turtle Beach in Watamu

Journey across Tanzania

Hemingway prepared for his safari in Machakos, getting acclimatized to the altitude and admiringly listening to Percival’s stories of the bush. He then began his safari by crossing into Tanzania. He spent a night in Arusha before pushing on into the Great Rift Valley and the region around Tarangire National Park. Here, Hemingway spent his time heading on bush walks and hunting for game like lion and kudu. He also spend time along the banks of Lake Manyara, exploring the caldera of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

All three of these locations are incredible spots to head on an African safari. After the Serengeti, Tarangire National Park has the highest concentration of animals in Tanzania. In particular, the park has the highest number of elephants on the planet, so be sure to head on a game drive to specifically see families of elephants crossing a savannah or cooling off in a river. You’ll also find large numbers of elephants around Lake Manyara as well as lions that like to climb baobab trees and cool off in the branches. Lake Manyara is most striking for its vast numbers of flamingos, who crowd the shallow surface of the lake and make for great photography subjects. The Ngorongoro Crater is similarly stunning, as it’s the world’s largest inactive volcanic caldera and home to huge numbers of wildlife.

Lake Manyara Scene, Tanzania
Lake Manyara scene

A Premature Ending to Safari

After hunting around the Ngorongoro Crater, Hemingway tracked the Great Migration of wildebeest and gazelle into the Serengeti, the crown jewel of Tanzania and the world’s most famous game reserve. Even if you can’t place Tanzania on a map, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Serengeti, as its name is synonymous with wide-open plains full of gazelles, wildebeests, lions, and zebras. If you’re looking to spot animals in the bush, this is the best spot on the planet for you. You’ll also be treated to near-constant sightings of exotic birds, as the park is home to over 500 species of birds, including flamingos and ostriches.

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Great Migration at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Wildebeest in Serengeti National Park

While Hemingway planned to continue his safari for many more weeks, fortune didn’t favour him. He caught amoebic dysentery and Philip Percival decided it’d be best if he were evacuated to Nairobi where he could convalesce. The ensuing medical flight to Nairobi took him alongside the peaks of Kilimanjaro, which inspired one of his most famous short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Unlike Hemingway, you can actually climb Mt. Kilimanjaro if you so desire. It’s the most accessible of the world’s Seven Summits, although don’t underestimate the altitude, you still need to be fit to summit it.

In Nairobi, Hemingway convalesced and swapped stories with fellow hunters and adventurers, presumably gathering material for future works. He then returned back to Europe instead of continuing his adventure. You don’t need to replicate Hemingway’s plans and end your Kenya vacation in Nairobi, as it is worth spending a few days in the city to explore a distinctly-African metropolis and get a taste for the innovation and growth that is constantly occurring in the city. As well, the city’s food scene is incredible, so you’ll eat well during your stay.

If you want to experience a bit of the wild within the city limits, stay at the Giraffe Manor, a boutique hotel in the suburb of Lang’ata. The old manor house is open to endangered Rothschild giraffes who are known to poke their heads in through the windows and interact with guests. While you are only guaranteed access to the giraffes if you stay at the manor, in the low season you might be able to visit for afternoon tea depending on guest occupancy. Hemingway would’ve likely thought the whole thing a bit decadent, but nevertheless, the Giraffe Manor offers a magical experience.

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Giraffe Manor in Lang’ata near Nairobi, Kenya
Visiting guests at Giraffe Manor in Lang’ata, near Nairobi

The Return and Accidents

Although Hemingway was taken with Africa, he didn’t return to the continent for two decades. Instead, he spent his time across Europe, covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II, as well as fishing and writing in America and Cuba. His writing output and reputation diminished until he mounted a literary comeback with The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and his reputation was completely revitalized.

In 1954, prior to winning the Nobel Prize, he finally set off for Africa again in the company of his fourth and last wife, Mary. He convinced Philip Percival to come out of retirement to once again serve as his safari guide. His plan was to explore the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as well as Uganda and Kenya. However, once again, fortune had other plans.

While Hemingway was interested in passing through Kenya on the way to Uganda and the Belgian Congo, potentially visiting the area around Lake Tanganyika, he was never able to make it there. While taking a sightseeing flight over Murchison Falls with Mary, his plane hit a utility pole and crashed. He suffered a head injury, but survived the crash along with Mary.

Murchison Falls, Uganda
Murchison Falls

A few days later, he boarded a second plane meant to take him to Entebbe for hospital care but the plane exploded on takeoff. Many newspapers reported Hemingway and his wife had died in the crash, but they did survive. However, he exacerbated his head injury by bashing the door open with his head to escape the fire, which lead him to a hospital in Entebbe where he began a long process of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, his health never fully recovered, and many experts point to the Africa crashes as contributing factors in his failing physical and mental health in the years prior to his death.

While Hemingway wasn’t able to accomplish much on his second African safari, you can head to some of the places he intended to visit and spiritually complete the journey for him. Lake Tanganyika, for instance, is the second deepest lake on the planet and one of the best spots for beachside vacations in Africa. You can relax on the white-sand beaches along the lake or snorkel through the waters to learn about the incredible freshwater creatures that live beneath the waves. As well, there is a chimpanzee sanctuary near the lake that is home to over 1,700 chimps. If you have any interest in seeing chimps in their natural environment, this is a great place to go.

Tanganyika Lake, Tanzania
Tanganyika Lake

In Uganda, you can head to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park to see mountain gorillas and other incredible animals in dense rainforests. If you pass on to Entebbe, you’ll find a charming little town on the banks of Lake Victoria. You can spend some time on Lido Beach or explore the Entebbe Botanical Garden.

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda
Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Few individuals not born in Africa have left as large a shadow over the continent as Ernest Hemingway. An East African safari is not only an opportunity to see incredible animals and landscapes, but to walk in the footsteps of this literary giant. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.