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The writer pets a baby rhino at Rhino Sanctuary in Ol Jogi Conservancy, the last stop on the safari.Anna Haines/Supplied

I’d been on safari before, but my experience was clouded by the early stages of grief.

After my mom’s sudden death in 2015, I was eager to flee Toronto, where my new identity as a bereaved daughter was reflected back at me with every familiar encounter. My mom had once chased a romantic interest to South Africa, so I embarked on a low-budget safari in the country’s Kruger National Park, trying to follow in her footsteps. My clearest memories from that trip are the restless nights spent tossing and turning in my sleeping bag.

Determined to try again, and to better remember the wildlife this time, I set off on a luxury safari tour in Kenya last March, for what would’ve been my mom’s 64th birthday. I soon discovered staying in my comfort zone would only get me so far in the bush. It would take shedding my ego to really connect with nature, and by extension, myself. In doing that, I found myself finally able to experience the grief I had suppressed after losing my mother. And once I let my mom in, I began to see her everywhere.

Roughly 54 million people live in Kenya and nearly five million in Nairobi, so you can imagine my surprise when I spotted a zebra within 10 minutes of leaving the airport. But we had already crossed into Nairobi National Park, a protected area around which the capital city has grown since the park was established in 1946. Noticing my slacked jaw and wide eyes, my driver told me this was just the beginning.

Micato, my safari outfitter, took me to several environments with distinctive flora, fauna and culture to give me a full understanding of the East African country. The morning after I arrived, we flew to Tsavo National Park, the country’s largest natural park, where three hippos greeted us. The thrill was tinged with sadness when I learned the animals were so close to us because they needed to drink from the pond on the camp’s property owing to drought. The dry conditions meant we spotted more wildlife on game drives. Giraffes that would normally be camouflaged behind leafy trees stood out against bare branches. On night drives, we turned our attention to the sky, a black canvas painted with the silky Milky Way and more stars than I had ever seen.

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Hippos graze at Tsavo National Park.Anna Haines/Supplied

After one day in the bush, I felt immersed in nature, but not enough to shake the city person out of me yet. When the electricity shut off at 11 p.m., as the camp did every day to preserve energy, I couldn’t access my phone’s nighttime meditation app without the WiFi required to download it. Without my usual white noise soundtrack to drown out my thoughts, I lay wide awake, anxiously listening to rustling in the nearby trees and a roar from the water, which I later found out were the nocturnal sounds of an elephant and hippo, respectively. The fact that the authentic sounds of nature kept me from sleeping showed me just how badly I needed to disconnect.

The next day we flew to a camp in the Olderkesi Conservancy, a lush forest compared with Tsavo National Park’s dry and barren landscape. I soaked in a bathtub constructed out of tent canvas on the deck of one of the camp’s tent accommodations, staring out at the verdant rolling hills of the famous Maasai Mara nature preserve. I needed to relax and fall asleep early for a 3 a.m. wake-up call and a sunrise hot air balloon ride. I inherited a strong dislike for mornings from my mom, but the safari was starting to open me up and this opportunity seemed too good to miss.

While there wasn’t much of a sunrise that foggy morning, the hot air balloon ride provided a new perspective of the Maasai Mara from the sky, leaving me in awe of the game reserve’s seemingly never-ending horizon. The views were soon forgotten on the drive to our bush breakfast, when we spotted a leopard eating the intestines of a fresh kill, trailed by two hyenas scavenging for scraps.

My own animal instincts came alive with two more cat sightings that morning – a cheetah rolling in the tall grass and two lions napping in the shade of a bush. Sitting frozen in our safari vehicle 10 feet away from the sleeping lions, I felt completely powerless.

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The writer takes a hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara nature preserve.Anna Haines/Supplied

On our way back to camp, my tour group paused for 30 minutes to observe a herd of elephants. The peace and contentment of the special moment made me wonder if my mom experienced anything like this when she was in South Africa. I wished I could call her to ask.

That night at our happy hour campfire, we watched Maasai tribe dancers jump to impressive heights in a dance called adumu. They gestured for us to join their circle and the exhilaration from the day propelled me from my seat. I danced off beat as we circled the roaring fire holding hands, embracing the rare feeling of not caring how I looked.

That night alone in my room, I let memories of my mom and my grief come. I cried, realizing how I’d buried her loss for so long out of fear that letting her in would flood me with emotions. But out here in the bush, stripped of the distractions I relied on back home, that changed.

At the animal orphanage I visited the next day, a rescued cheetah, Moran, began purring as I pet her, following instructions from the orphanage attendant guiding me on a private tour. “Every time you pet a purring cat, think of me,” Mom had scribbled on a napkin that I found shortly after her death. My eyes welled with tears as I reached through the fence and gently stroked the majestic cat.

On our last night, we were treated to another Maasai adumu performance around the fire after dinner. When one of the dancers grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle, I wasn’t nervous. I stomped my feet and heaved with the sweaty bodies around me, surrendering to the syncopated rhythm. My mom, who was partly paralyzed, would have struggled to do this. I let myself shake and feel, for her, and for me.

If you go

Founded by native Kenyans Felix and Jane Pinto nearly 60 years ago, Micato Safaris offers custom itineraries in eight African countries and in India. Prices start at US $16,950 for a 10-day group safari. Meals, drinks, gratuities and domestic flights are included.

This writer was a guest of Micato. The company did not review or approve this article.

Editor’s note: Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the starting price of a 10-day safari was US$13,550. This version has been corrected.

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