I love to travel. The desire developed during a childhood where we never took a family vacation that wasn’t within driving distance. No Disneyland for us! It wasn’t until I was a teenager and boarded a plane for the first time – to Germany – that I got hooked. Then slowly, during the intervening years, I developed an intense loathing of flying. Turbulence, delayed flights, missed connections, emergency landings, my desire to travel disappeared. But life is dull without adventure – visiting far off places and foreign cultures – something to plan for and look forward to.
So I dreamed of the most unusual locale I could visit and what I could do there that I’d never done before and never imagined I would ever do. I decided on a safari in Tanzania. It sounded so exotic. I’d never been to Africa. It was a totally different culture, halfway around the world. And not just any safari – a camping safari, for a girl who preferred four-star hotels and hadn’t camped since childhood. I booked it anyway, thinking something would come up to end this dream.
I had a lot of apprehensions about this trip, making me look forward to it like I would a trip to the dentist. The flight (20 hours of armrest gripping terror), the camping (could a finer-things gal like me live without running water and electricity for 2 weeks?). A tent-mate, a stranger but for a few e-mails, in close quarters (with no indoor plumbing – have I mentioned that?). Would I see lots of animals or would they be hiding? What about the people? They were so poor, and I would appear so rich, would they be after me for my money? I had read on-line before my trip that they were always trying to provide a “service” for you (such as carrying your suitcase 10 feet) then asking for a dollar. Would I be safe in a tent? Could I be attacked in my sleep (by man or beast) or have my things stolen? Would I come down with malaria? I was so concerned about sickness, I packed more stuff from my medicine cabinet than my clothes closet. I fretted about whether I’d have the right clothes (it could be hot and cold there), about whether I’d have to pee behind a bush and if the country had toilet paper (I brought some just in case). Would I have fun going alone and traveling with a small group of strangers? What about shopping? To buy souvenirs, you were expected to dicker over the price and I’d never asked for a discount on anything before. I’m from Minnesota and we’re too polite to do that.
By now, having read a litany of all my fears, you’re probably wondering how I managed to even make the trip in the end. It takes a good 20 hours to get to Tanzania – 16 of them in the air. Alone. It was tough to swallow for someone terrified to fly. I nearly shouted, “No! I don’t want to go!” But I went, got through security (boy a lot has changed there since I’d last flown!) and waited apprehensively for my flight to Amsterdam and for my new adventure to begin.
The plane took off early (how often does that happen?) then – nothing. I was amazed. My fear of flying had dissipated in the intervening years. I arrived eight hours later in Amsterdam, tired, bored and only half way to Arusha, Tanzania. The second leg was equally long, tiring, boring and with an added bonus, cramped. By the time I arrived in Arusha at 8 p.m. and made it through customs about 45 unendurable minutes later, I was feeling disoriented and wondering why in the world I was traveling halfway across the world when I could be home snug in my comfy bed.
That was close to the last negative thought I had for the next two weeks. During my dream trip, I got moment after moment of wonder that revealed my fears as silly and each day provided me with a new adventure. No one at any time attempted to divest me of my luggage and give them a dollar. Everyone, from our guides to the camp crew to the hotel staff and people we met along the way were invariably friendly, smiling and greeted us with a “Jamba” (hello) with nary a one asking for a dollar. And my tent-mate and I hit it off so well our other group members were surprised to learn we had not traveled together before. It is great to have someone to share an adventure with, even if you just met them.
My next few posts will provide you an in depth tour of going on safari in Tanzania and experiencing something new. To be continued…
Continuation of a Tanzanian safari…
There’s nothing like a vacation where you’re camping, out in the middle of nowhere, it’s quiet, you’re lounging in a low chair with a cold drink, chatting or sleeping and have no idea what day it is.
We arrived at our first camp in Tarangire National Park to find your basic khaki canvas tent with two cots made up with comfy down comforters and pillows. The camp toilet and shower were in separate compartments behind each tent. Washbowls and jugs of water were on each porch along with a table and chairs for relaxing.
Ok, it was not exactly roughing it. I did fear having to dig a hole in the middle of the night, but that was neither necessary nor prudent, as I learned later. There was one additional tent where we could hang out with cool drinks and where we dined.
Camping turned out to be less roughing it than the hotels. Our tents and bed were toasty warm at night, even on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater where it got so cold we wore coats, hats & blankets to dinner (hot water bottles were thoughtfully tucked in our beds). However, the fact the toilet and shower were in zipped off compartments behind the tent meant we were treated to the “zipper serenade” every morning. This is the constant hum of zippers going up down, up down on the way out, then up down, up down on the return. Hot water was brought to our showers at times we requested and poured into the bladders that fed our shower. It was exhilarating to take a warm shower on a chilly morning outside while the sun was rising. I have not had such a great shower since.
Camping initially was more of an adventure than I bargained for. I pictured living among the animals, seeing them near camp and awaking to their sounds. That all happened. But there were real dangers. Our first day we saw a herd of elephants not 200 yards away from our camp – and specifically from our tent, which was on the far end of the line of tents. What if the elephants trampled over our tent? We were warned not to leave shoes out on the porch because the hyenas would take them. While my tentmate and I laughed ourselves to sleep one night at the prospect of hyenas wandering the park wearing our shoes, the danger felt much more real in the dead of night. My first night I slept not at all. Every flutter of the tent was a wild animal brushing up against the tent, stalking those inside. Every jingle of the zipper was an animal attempting to gain entrance to eat us (by unzipping with its teeth, I guess). A lion’s roar sounded directly behind our tent. One bird kept shrieking “eek!” like a girl. Something else barked like a dog. In the early morning, I heard a high pitched squeal and then several grunts like a pig, right outside our tent. During that long, sleepless night, I realized just how alone and isolated we were. If anything – animal or human – attacked us, we would have no way to defend ourselves and no one to call on for help.
After that long first night, dawn broke along with a deafening cacophony of noise – birds and animals greeting the day. I had survived my first night in the wilderness. During our filling breakfast (see Dining below) we attempted to imitate all the noises we heard in the night. I guess I wasn’t the only one up all night. Apparently, the barking dog was actually a jackal, and the snorting was from a zebra that passed through our camp (judging by the fresh droppings). For the rest of my trip, I never slept better in my life.
Our camps in the Serengeti had solar-powered electricity, which was an added bonus and showers and toilets were in the tents, so no zipper serenade.
We did have a Maasai guard in our camps armed with a spear, but that was to keep other Maasai from going through our things. At our last camp in the Serengeti, however, our guard was armed with a gun. We were only a few miles from the Kenyan border and there had been problems in Kenya of late.
We dined well, amazing considering the “kitchen” consisted of a table, a grill and a pot over an open fire (we toured it). The food was delicious and consisted mainly of beef” (undefined, it was a game among us to guess what kind), salad, lots of vegetables – especially potatoes, bread, some fruit and dessert. Breakfast consisted of eggs – always eggs, bread, fruit and fresh squeezed juice. Lunches were boxed as we usually ate out in the middle of and consisted of cold chicken, fruit and whatever was left from breakfast. But it was all short on chocolate. I’m a chocoholic, and I guess it never occurred to me (while ensuring I had ample aspirin and toilet paper) that the whole country would be short on chocolate. My tentmate and I were so desperate after one week that when we hit the entrance to Serengeti National Park, we fell on the snack bar, bought candy bars and ate them as if we’d never had anything so delicious (note to future safari travelers: pack chocolate). Before and after dinner, we could sit around the campfire and just relax and talk, occasionally drink. We could actually see stars in the sky, they looked so close. And it was so quiet – no planes, cars or crowds, just the occasional rustle of an animal just out of sight of the campfire’s glow.
Continuation of a Tanzanian safari…
The shopping was terrifying at first, and fun at the end. I wish I had more room in my luggage to bring all the unique items home. At the first store we stopped at to shop, I was warned by my tentmate to stick together, because they’ll try to separate the weak from the herd, follow you around with a basket and put anything you look at in it. As it turns out, that warning was accurate.
A wily fellow managed to separate my new friend and I upon entering and followed me around with the obligatory basket. When he started putting things I appeared interested in into the basket, I asked how much they cost. He threw out a number, which for an American was not expensive, but instead of chickening out and agreeing to the price, something changed inside me, and – surprise – I made a counteroffer. Suddenly, a whole new world of shopping opened up to me. I was bargaining and dickering my way through the store. A man selling cloth and I dickered so vigorously on the price that some people stood nearby watching. I bargained my way through the rest of my trip.
Bargaining with the Masaai was a different experience. The women showed you their wares and you only had to glance at an item (usually jewelry) before they had it off the rack and on your wrist. When you decided to buy something, though, a man stepped up to do the bargaining. We were told men go to school and thus speak English, while the women don’t. We were told that our guide at the Maasai village would do the bargaining for us to get us a fair deal, but the only one in our group who took that advice paid too much. The rest of us went our own way to decent results.
Did I get any bargains in Tanzania? Probably not. Did I feel ripped off? No, I felt I got fair prices in the end. Was I foolish to be so afraid to ask for a deal? Yes! (note to reader: Try this at home).
As part of our tour, we visited a Maasai village. The Maasai are an ethnic group in Tanzania and one of several different tribes. We were greeted by men and women dancing and singing separately. The men’s dancing consisted of a contest showing who could jump the highest. The woman rolled their shoulders (which is considered an attraction, we were told).
For the Maasai, A man can have as many wives as he can afford. A wife’s dowry can be 20-25 cattle. Our guide’s father has something like 13 wives & 500 cattle. We toured a Maasai home, which belonged to one of the chief’s wives.
The house is a short (not even full height), round adobe home with 3 teeny bedrooms (containing only a cowhide bed) and a small central area with a fire, small windows (it was pitch black in there), and a door you have to bend in half to go through. I noticed the men wore shoes, mostly sandal-like made of what appeared to be wood. The women were mostly barefoot. Their ears had huge holes where all the ear ornaments pull the ear lobe down to make a hole. Most men and women were bald. I think the men with some hair were warriors. The village didn’t seem that large and there seemed to be more women than men. Each wife has her own house for her and her children. The flies were terrible. They just sat on the children as if the children were so used to them they didn’t notice them.
Not all people in Africa practice polygamy. Some tribes and religions allow for only one wife. A number of the Tanzanians take American-sounding names as well, including our Maasai guide for our village tour, Kenny.
Everywhere we drove in Tanzania, women were wrapped in brightly colored cloth, carrying jugs of water on their head. Children were in the fields tending to cows or goats. Schoolchildren stood waving by the side of the road. And despite the poverty, cell phones and internet connections worked great and were plentifully used by Tanzanians. I called my family from the middle of the Serengeti, but I can’t get reception in Ely, Minnesota.
Continuation of a Tanzanian Safari:
Tanzania is home to Olduvai Gorge, “the Cradle of Mankind”, and an important prehistoric archaeological site where evidence of the evolution of prehistoric man was found. Most people found this an opportunity to shop in the gift shop but I found the plaster cast of a line of footprints belonging to three hominids and one horse a million years old to be fascinating.
Of course, there were animals! I saw so many but still couldn’t get enough of them. We began spotting them when we entered Tarangire and I watched my last pack of elephants as our Cessna was lifting off from the Serengeti to return us to the airport in Arusha.
We got so excited seeing our first pack of zebra and wildebeest way off in the distance that we stopped and took pictures for 20 minutes. Our guide, James, just laughed and said we’d see plenty more up close, which we didn’t initially believe. However, by the end of the trip we were all saying, “no more zebra and wildebeest!” But I never tired of seeing the elephants, giraffe and wild cats, all with their young. We were fortunate enough to see ostrich parents with their brood of at least a dozen chicks running down the road, 28 lions all in one day in Ngorongoro Crater alone, hippos all lined up in a lake, staring at us with only their ears and eyes visible, and water buffalo glaring at us (the meanest and most dangerous animals in Tanzania).
We were once chased by a large, angry male elephant. We witnessed a male ostrich court two females with an elaborate mating dance and win one over. We saw the elusive black rhino. A troupe of about 200 baboons crossed our path, complete with tiny babies riding piggy back.
The birds were the most colorful birds I’d seen anywhere (Tanzania is for birdwatchers too). Hyenas, jackals, warthogs and gazelles were also in abundance. I tried to keep track of every type of animal we spotted, and there were so many in those two weeks we never see at home, except maybe in a zoo.
The viewing did get rather up close and personal at times. One lioness sought shelter from the hot sun under our jeep’s rear bumper. Another day, a pair of lions stalked down the road toward us, and brushed up against our vehicle when they passed, so close we could have touched them. Later, We were gazing at giraffes out the right side of the vehicle, and when I turned back to the left window I was sitting next to, there was an elephant standing right there staring in at me!
There was, in fact, a whole pack of them within arm’s reach (rule #1 – never reach out of your vehicle to pet an animal). Zebra and wildebeest stepped right out in front of our cars as we drove along and there were several near misses with the animals (you can’t hit an animal, however, you’d lose your tourism license).
On our final day of safari, we hit the jackpot – a chase. Our guide Henry (“the cat whisperer”, because his specialty was locating cats) spotted it a mile away across the flat Serengeti. He sped across the plains; I was standing on my seat grasping onto the open jeep roof to stay upright. There it was – a leopard chasing 3 zebra around in circles. Its target seemed to be the middle younger zebra that was being protected by adult zebras on either side. Then we noticed the little kitten padding along behind its mama. It was a heart-wrenching decision – should we root for the zebra to get away from its predator? Or hope the leopard makes a kill to feed its hungry offspring? The leopard lunged, missed the zebra’s hindquarters by a hair, and a large male zebra peeled off from the right and turned on the leopard – running the leopard off.
Henry said that was rare. The kitten ran up a tree to await its mother’s return. It was a thrilling end to our trip.
The Finale of a Tanzanian Safari…
I visited Tanzania in October, at the dry time of year, right on the cusp of the short rains beginning. Tarangire Park was the greenest and had the best mix of trees, grass and vegetation.
Ngorongoro Crater was vast and nearly treeless, except for around the lake where the hippos hung out, and the crater itself was surrounded by forest. It was hot in the crater, but freezing on the edge of the crater due to the howling winds. The Serengeti was just plain flat and hot. The grasses were long and the plains dotted with occasional trees that animals took shelter under during the heat of the day. Fortunately for a Minnesotan like me, it was a dry heat (it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets you) and it was comfortable inside your tent or sitting on the porch with a cool cola. The sunrises and sunsets were a beautiful combination of tangerine, pink and reds, as promised.
The Minor Inconveniences
While on safari, you didn’t have to pee behind a bush, as it turns out, because of what might be lurking there. You went out in the open behind the jeep instead, which was much preferable to the smelly, unclean pit toilets we found in some areas. Several of us came down with the dreaded stomach bug, but we soldered on while downing Immodium and Cipro. Refrigeration is sparse and Tanzanians typically drink only warm drinks (our need for ice cold drinks they do not understand). While we fortunately had cool drinks on safari, I bought the coldest bottle of water I could get at the airport on our way home and it was the best thing I had to drink the entire trip.
While on safari, you didn’t often encounter other safari vehicles unless there was an animal worth seeing (jeeps materialized out of thin air to look at a leopard in a tree with some kill or a pride of lions).
However, the traffic in Arusha was plentiful and hazardous. There were a lot of traffic jams, few street lights except in the more touristy sections, and I’m not even sure there were stop signs. People just pulled out into the middle of traffic and yelled a lot, honked and waived their hands around to gain entrance.
There was widespread poverty we saw as we drove through the villages on our safari. Round adobe huts (bomas) for homes.
Children were covered with flies, knowing it would do no good to shoo them away. Animals were a danger too. Besides the hyena warning, when we hiked around our camping area in the Serengeti (with armed guards) we were warned that if we encountered a lion to huddle up together so we appeared to be one big monster to scare it away.
But the positives clearly outweighed the negatives on this trip. I overcame my fear of flying and whetted my appetite for more adventure. I was only home for two days (after getting my fill of running water and cold drinks) before wishing I could return. But a return trip will have to wait. The only problem is where to go next. So many places and so little time left in life to see them.
That was the start of several new adventures which this website will detail. Hopefully, here, you’ll find somewhere new to travel and have your own adventure.