The Safari

The Safari


Words by Jonathan Shipley

Joe Karuga can’t pick just one.

The question posed him: What’s your favorite animal you can see during a Kenyan safari? “The leopard is really rare to see. They’re absolutely beautiful. But, is it OK to say the big five?”

It is. His big five are the leopard, the lion, the rhinoceros, the elephant, and the buffalo.

Joe, with Jason McCracken, founded Mwendo Adventures, a company that creates custom safaris, climbs, and treks to East Africa. For Joe, each trip to Africa—whether it be a drive into the savannah to watch the buffalo migration or a hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, camping in the bush or a five-star hotel experience—is a trip home. Born and raised in Kenya, his home is now Leeds, Alabama, some 8,000 miles from where he started.

“We’re two guys from Alabama,” Jason says. “One of us is from Kenya. We can offer up Africa like no one else.” With clients who come from around the corner and around the world, Joe and Jason partake in every adventure created for their guests. “We’re with them every step of the way.”

To get to Alabama from Kenya was more than a step for Joe; it was a leap. Due to political upheaval in Kenya, and finding himself graduating from high school, he decided to go to the United States for college. He had heard that it is less expensive to live in Alabama, and so he enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and began a degree in computer science. He soon discovered that “I could be myself here,” he says.

Working in the tech field, he was hired at MC2 Development Team, offering Apple computer support and owned by Jason McCracken. Together they found a common calling: the wonder that is Kenya.

Joe’s first visit to the place of his birth sparked something in him. He said to Jason, “You need to come to Kenya. Let’s make a trip of it.” They did. “He was so quiet,” Joe said of Jason’s first visit to Africa. “I kept asking, ‘Are you OK?’ He just stared out at everything taking pictures. I was worried that he didn’t like it!”

He liked it. “I was in shock,” Jason says. 

“It’s too much beauty. Once you go, you’re hooked. It’s magic. It’s pure magic.”

A partnership formed between them and Mwendo Adventures was created.

Experiencing the adventures from beginning to end with their clients is a thrill every time they go. “It’s the unexpected that are my favorite parts of the trip,” Joe says. “It gets me every time. Maybe it’s a lion hunting. Maybe it’s a sighting of one of those rare leopards.” Joe talks of clients as their adventures come to a close (over 70 percent are repeat clients). “Everyone goes on a safari for the animals, but they always talk about the culture and the people when they come back. It means a lot to them,” Jason says. “It breaks people from the habits of their lives. That break is something special. You can try to describe it, but you can’t.”

How does one describe what it feels like to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in all of Africa—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania? How does one describe the senses involved in watching thousands of wildebeest traversing golden grasslands? How does one describe what it’s like to wander through a town’s market eating new foods given to you by people you’ve never met but to whom you want to return? Seeing gorillas in Rwanda or the pyramids in Egypt? Feeling the mighty roar of the Zambezi River drop over Victoria Falls on the Zambian border? “You see peace,” Joe says. “How humans and nature have interacted for thousands of years. You see things differently.”

“It’s not a job,” Jason says. No, it’s a shift in thinking after being immersed in Africa.
Take, for instance, Maasai Mara, the place both Joe and Jason identify as the most beautiful place either has been. “It’s everything,” Jason says. “It’s an ocean of wildlife. It’s everything you imagine a safari could be, distilled.” Hippos are seen, zebras, ostriches and eagles, cheetahs and bat-eared foxes, giraffes and marabou storks, and countless other animals. “It’s the vast openness,” Joe says. “It hits you.”

Joe notices it in his clients with every trip taken. Much like Jason’s first visit, Joe notices his guests quiet, stunned, shocked at the immensity of the place.

It’s a place far from Leeds, Alabama, to be sure, but once you’ve gone, it’s never far from your heart.