WHERE: Tanzania and Zanzibar
WHEN: Nov. 14-27, 2008
Seeing all manner of majestic animals in their natural habitat is truly life-changing.
It's a long way away, and the drives are grueling on rugged roads. So go now when you're tougher rather than waiting.
Accommodations: We used Africa Travel Direct out of London
Chumbe Island, an "intimate high end eco-resort...was a paradise."
"The Serengeti is 5,700 square miles, bigger than 5 states."
"We had intermittent frantic bouts with swarms of flies...you could often hear and fear (mosquitoes') continal hum."
Magnificent creatures in their habitat
Nov. 14-Nov. 27, 2008: photo safari to Tanzania with 3 nights in Zanzibar
While dated, these highlights and tips seem still relevant and useful. Let me know your thoughts!
Magical day: We had a once-in-a-lifetime day on Nov. 20 just driving out of the Serengeti: We ran into a herd of 30-40 elephants that we watched for a half hour plus as they surrounded us and went about their lives. Then we tracked and waited for a pair of lions in mating mode. They were about 10 feet away when they "did it"--my husband Randy caught it on video while Mei-Mei got great stills.
The Migration: Almost impossible to portray the extent of it. Millions of animals, mostly wildebeest, accompanied by zebra, often loping single file across the Serengeti Plain, which looks basically like any scrubland in the U.S. The magnitude and scope are astonishing; it's what we envision the great buffalo herds must have been like.
Animals in general: The first views of giraffes, or antelope, or zebras were thrilling around each bend, sauntering, eating, watching us watching them, or completely ignoring us. Over the week, we became blasé: another giraffe, yawn. But we never tired of watching groups interact in actual habitat activity (baboon infants wrestling; elephants twisting trunks; giraffes scratching each other); and delighting in so many species co-habilitating—seeing ostriches in the middle of nowhere, or running, was a hoot. It was exhilarating to be 3 feet away from an elephant staring at you or a lion thinking of mating. Yes, we saw the big five, but the black rhino and the leopard were waaaaaayyy in the distance.
People: We were fascinated by the Masai people, herding gaunt herds of cattle and goats, dressed in bright traditional robes, living in mud huts; going about their lives as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. They're beautiful; willing to be photographed for money. People walk everywhere, on the highway, through the bush, across the plains, often carrying heavy burdens, wearing wild varied clothing. We often heard the broken phrase, "gimme money." We brought some pencils and pens as gifts but ended up giving them to our driver to use as he saw fit (we didn't want to toss them out the window to kids waving at us).
Chumbe Island day visit: This intimate high end eco-resort near Stone Town, Zanzibar, was a paradise, with sparkling coral, warm waters, gorgeous quiet sands, and seven charming bungalows. It costs a fortune to be an overnight guest, but only $80 each for a day visit. That includes a fun dhow ride to the island (about 45 min), a briefing about the island, a bungalow to call your own, a snorkel outing for about an hour (they provide gear) and lunch. Make reservations early.
Booking: Upon the glowing recommendation of a colleague, we worked through Mike Toogood at Africa Safari Direct, which is based in London. He coordinated the trip with: Ranger Safaris; Fishermans Tours in Zanzibar; Savannah Tours in Dar. Overall we were very satisfied (see useful info below); may have been worthwhile to talk to Ranger Safaris ahead of time.
Visa: Easy at Kilimanjaro airport (to the right as you look out to exit). No advanced planning needed.
Distance: We drove about 2000 miles over 9 days, usually on very rugged roads, with some going back and forth. Last, long leg didn't seem worthwhile, from Ngorongoro to Tarangiri.
Size: The Serengeti is 5,700 square miles; bigger than 5 states; about 1/11th the size of Washington state.
Journey: We had dreaded the long plane rides so much that they seemed relatively acceptable. Just be mentally prepared. Bring toiletries to refresh yourself (especially toothbrush and a cloth to wipe your face—remember when airlines used to provide that?). At Amsterdam and Dar, you need to go to your gate almost two hours ahead, because that’s where the security checks occur—which means you can’t buy drinks for the next leg.
Money: U.S. dollars are all you need; make sure they’re crisp and intact (even the Visa counter asked for a better $100 bill!). Pack more than you think you need. There’s a little bit of trust involved as they use hand calculators to do the exchange rate between schillings and dollars.
Itinerary: Our trip planner coordinated among three tour groups. Some confirmations were not physically possible, which was frustrating. May be worthwhile to go directly to the primary land tour guide to confirm. The northern circuit includes the major parks of Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Tarangire. But you're actually driving back and forth. We could have cut out Tarangire as it was mostly (more) baboons and elephants.
Another idea is to fly into the small Serengeti airport and focus most of your time there and maybe bop into the Ngorongoro. We had expected a lot from that caldera, but it was anticlimactic as the roads were further from animals. It did have the best hippo pool.
Dress: our light quick dry shirts (about $60; well worth it) and pants were perfect. I mostly wore a tank top, and covered up with a shirt as needed. You don't really need hiking boots (unless you've confirmed climbing or hiking, obviously) nor sun hats if your car has a pop top. I bought mosquito repellent socks but wore sandals most of the time. Some people dressed up for dinner, like you would on a cruise.
Daily routine: Breakfast 6:30ish; set out 7:30 or 8ish. Sometimes took lunches with us; returned to lodging mid day. Or take mid-day siesta and set out again around 3:30 (parks closed at 6). Some groups were getting roused much earlier; but our guide was confident that wasn't an advantage. Dinner started at 7:30 nearly everywhere.
Food: Mostly plentiful buffet of medium quality. The fresh fruit was great; the pineapple was the best we've ever had. (We weren't concerned with eating uncooked fruits or salads as some web information indicated.) The breads and desserts were mostly very flat; the meats extremely gaunt. Breakfast usually included a custom cooked option (eggs had interesting light yolk; perhaps another sign of lack of protein?). Coffee and tea are included; we started bringing our own bottled water to meals. You sign when you purchase drinks and that's part of your tab when you check out. The best meal was the last buffet at the Kilimanjaro Hotel Kapinski in Dar, although the power went out twice!
Safety: We saw guards with rifles but fewer than we expected. We never felt threatened or insecure--though that may have been naïve. On safari, we had no concerns. Once, our guide backed up on the road as he saw an elephant flare. He also confessed he had been pondering how he would extricate us when we were surrounded by elephants if needed.
Language: Although they are taught English, our guides had fairly poor command of the language; accents are incorrectly placed on basic words ("glod" we eventually realized was "glade"). Workers at the resorts had very poor English skills (no idea what "decaf" coffee was). We regretted that we hadn’t practiced or learned more of the language. Main greetings were “Jambo” which means “hello,”; "Keribu," which means welcome (for both you're welcome and welcome to join us); and hakuna matata in the highly tourist areas. (This is an actual phrase, not Lion King gibberish!)
Bugs: We had intermittent frantic bouts with swarms of flies, with the tse tse pervasive near the wildebeests in particular. We took care with sprays, long sleeves and pants, and avoidance of night time outings and mostly were OK. Mosquitoes were the other threat; you could often hear and fear their continual hum. One 4 fluid oz (Ben’s 30 deet) spray was perfect for two of us for 8 days. We bought serious 95% deet and never used it.
Health and physical comfort: Good that we had medicine to fight the stomach and intestinal cruds that my husband Randy got after the first day. Otherwise, no concerns except for excessive heat on occasion. We bought toilet paper and used it only once; most facilities are equipped if ancient. We had to "go in the bush” just a few times; the guide was accustomed to the need.
Walks: We're active travelers and I tried to build in some walks but it was a challenge due to park limitations and time. We did a hike with a Masai guide to the Olmot Crater, where there is a spring that’s the source for the Ngorongoro crater (took a long hard drive to get there). At Nogrongoro Serena, they offer guided walks for a fee--worth it to stretch your legs.
Photography: We had two Canon point and shoots, including a new SX110IS, which had 10x optical zoom. The quality of the action photos and far images would definitely have been better with better equipment but we didn't feel we missed much as a tradeoff for the weight.
Species identification: Our driver was pretty good at giving specifics, but it would have been nice to have our own easy-to-use book, particularly for the wide-ranging species of antelope. On the other hand, I don't know that we would have stopped to make notes as we went along.
Binoculars: We brought one pair (very nice Nikon Monarch 8x36 waterproof) for the two of us and it worked pretty well as most things were very close anyway!
Internet: Available in half the lodgings, but excruciatingly slow.
Zanzibar: We chose this to wrap our trip with some R&R. Old Stone Town is fascinating: run-down, cluttered, with buildings falling apart, aggressive hawkers, primarily Muslim. The tide is extreme—in the morning, you can walk out into the Indian Ocean for probably a mile! We watched a number of ladies in their flowing African clothing, working small seaweed patches in the low tides, dragging heavy trails of vines onto shore, then hanging them to dry.
Lodgings: We went moderate with one on the higher end. All welcomed you with some refreshing juice and a wet cloth. All provided two bottles of water; sometimes daily; almost all had good bug-proofing, with mosquito nets and spray. We enjoyed these:
Mount Meru Game Lodge. Sweet. About 40 minutes from the airport, so good for a restful overnighter. Awake to see ostriches, flamingos, zebras and peacocks there to be rehabilitated.
Lake Manyara Serena Lodge. Cute rhondo condos. Beautifully situated pool.
Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp. Highest quality of trip. Large canvas tents with two queens; good bathroom. Nice fan (though electricity is off from 2-5, which is siesta time). Could use a pool.
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge. Beautiful setting; cool caldera.
In Zanzibar, "in the morning, you can walk out into the Indian Ocean for probably a mile."