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Trip Report Tanzania Trip Report -- December 2007 (Long)

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We just returned from our Safari/Zanzibar trip and here is our trip summary. This forum really helped us prepare for our trip, so I wanted to return the favor and share our experiences . . . .

First, the tour operator -- this is always a difficult decision, there are so many choices out there. We used Access2Tanzania (A2T) and they were really great. It's a small company based in the US and Tanzania (Arusha), and it's always a bit risky using a small company that's not listed in the guide books, but we were very happy. Their prices were very competitive, the service was great and their profits help fund some local not-for-profit programs in Tanzania. Our driver/guide (Masai) was excellent. Throughout the trip he was great with our kids, he spotted lots of animals (unbelieveable how he was able to see those hidden leopards, lions, cheetahs, etc) and was generally very knowledgeable about what we were seeing.

Here was our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive JRO via NBO. Lunch in Arusha. Drive to Tarangire. Sleep at Boundary Hill Lodge
Day 2: Game drive at Tarangire. Sleep at Boundary Hill Lodge
Day 3: Drive to Ngorogoro. Karatu cultural visit en route. Sleep at Ngorogoro Sopa
Day 4: Game drive at Ngorogoro. Sleep at Ngorogoro Sopa
Day 5: Drive to Serengeti and afternoon game drive. Sleep at Serengeti Serena (was supposed to be Sopa but they were full -- OK for us as Serena is nicer!)
Day 6: Game drive at Serengeti. Sleep at Serengeti Serena
Day 7: Game drive at Serengeti. Sleep at Ndutu Lodge
Day 8: Fly from Seronera airstrip to Zanzibar. Visit Stone Town in afternoon. Sleep at Zanzibar Palace Hotel.
Day 9: Drive to beach. Sleep at Shooting Star.
Day 10: Beach. Sleep at Shooting Star.
Day 11: Beach. Sleep at Shooting Star.
Day 12: Beach. Fly Zanzibar-NBO for return flight home.

[Note: People familiar with the parks may wonder why we went from Ngorogoro to Serengeti Serena and then to Ndutu and then back to Seronera airstrip. Our plan actually was to stay at Ndutu first and then Serengeti afterwards, but hotels were full so we had to reverse the order. We ended up having to enter Serengeti to get to the Serena, then leave it to get to Ndutu then re-enter it to get to the Seronera airport. Not ideal because each time you enter/leave a park you have to wait a while to check in or out. However, the driving between lodges was actually thru the park (ie, a game drive) so it wasn't that big a deal.]

REVIEWS OF LODGES/HOTELS:

Boundary Hill Lodge: (Recommended). Small, relatively new lodge. Low-key and eco-friendly (solar power, etc). Nice place to relax. Just outside Tarangire park but in the adjacent conservation area. This allows you to do day walks with Masai escorts, and night drives, both of which are prohibited in the park itself. We did the day walk which was pretty lame, basically just walking along the same road we drove on with not much scenery or interaction with the guides. Not recommended. We weren't able to do the night game drive, even though we had booked it. But I'm wondering if this is another thing that sounds better on paper than in reality. As others have noted, Tarangire is a fine way to start the trip -- wouldn't want to do this after Serengeti though! We decided to go straight to Tarangire and avoid the first night stay in Arusha. I guess if you want 1 day to rest after your flight before the trip really begins, then Arusha makes sense since the hotels there are cheaper than a lodge . . . but we didn't want to "waste" a day in Arusha . . . and this worked out fine for us.

Ngorogoro Sopa: (Recommended). Very friendly, clean, etc. No complaints. Great location on edge of crater near the access road. It has a pool but we never used it, since it was too cold. Not sure when people actually use the pools at any of the lodges, since December is supposed to be one of the warmer months. We saved our bathing suits for Zanzibar.

Serengeti Serena: (Recommended). A 5-star hotel and you can tell from the moment you arrive. Very professional, and again no complaints. One minor thing was the loud music until 11pm -- good if you want to party after your safari, I suppose, but we just wanted to relax and get to sleep early.

Ndutu: (Recommended). Very nice low-key relaxed place. This is what I had expected when imagining a safari lodge -- small, friendly and quiet. Hidden gem!

Zanzibar Palace Hotel: (Recommended). Not in our guide books but recommended by A2T. Very nice place run by Belgians, strangely enough. Lots of small touches and you can tell they have tried hard to make this a higher-end boutique hotel. I think they succeeded, we really liked it! We had dinner at the Fodorhoni gardens which was really great. Cheap outdoor food stands from 7pm or so . . . good local food for just a few dollars . . .you can sample all sorts of things including something called a Zanzibar Pizza. And amazingly none of us got sick!

Shooting Star: (Not Recommended). I wanted to recommend this place, I really did. It's a small, beautifully decorated hotel on the east coast, at the end of a strip of much larger mega-resorts (BlueBay and several big places catering to Italian package tours). Excellent food and it has a pool, which most smaller places don't have. We prefer to stay in small locally owned places where possible and shooting star fit this description (owned by a very nice Tanzanian man who clealy wants this to be a small, personal boutique resort in the midst of lots of impersonal mega-resorts). However there are several things you should be aware of: first is the beach. The beaches in this area (Kiwengwa) are full of coral, seaweed and sea urchins, at least they were in December when we were there. A horrible combination that makes it almost impossible to swim. Sort of detracts from the image of Zanzibar, doesn't it? The big resorts apparently have enough $ to rake/clean the beach and ocean in front of their resorts. But there was so much coral & sea urchins in front of Shooting Star that after the first day 2 of us got stung by the sea urchins and we all avoided the ocean for the rest of the trip. Second, the pool was unavailable for 2 days because their pump was broken and they had to drain and refill it. However, the biggest issue we had with Star was that the aircon was broken in one of the two rooms the entire time. It was so hot that 5 of us ended up crammed into one room for 3 days. I guess if you don't need to go in the ocean, this can be a great place to chill out . . .but if something goes wrong (like no aircon in the room) they might not have the facilities/infrastructure of a bigger place to fix your problem.

MISC STUFF:

Other posts have covered most of the basics, so I won't repeat all that. I will try to focus on other things I don't recall reading about which could be useful:

* Most people will have a connecting flight (via either NBO or DAR, into Kilimanjaro for example) -- make sure you check your bags all the way thru to the final destination, and also get all boarding passes. You can do this even if its 2 different airlines. This can help avoid being bumped off the second flight (which happened to us by Kenya Airways). When we arrived at NBO, we found out that Kenya Airways gave away our seats on the flight NBO-JRO. They claimed that they were entitled to give away our seats since we checked in at London for the LHR-NBO flight on British Airways . . .but didnt check in for the NBO-JRO flight on Kenya Airways! Next flight wasn't for 7 hours. I called A2T and they arranged for a charter flight (small 6-seater!) to take just our family to Tanzania so we wouldn't have to wait for the next Kenya Airways flight.

* Departure taxes aren't always included in the fare (esp for flights out of ZNZ apparently). And you must pay in cash (US$). Most airports (Zanzibar, Arusha) don't have ATMs, and those that do (NBO) are usually empty, so it is critical to have LOTS of extra cash. I had to borrow $150 from a stranger at the airport (thank you Brian!!) 20 min before the flight left, to get out of the country. Otherwise we would have missed our return flights.

* Bring snacks for the safari trips (dried fruits & nuts are good). You will be sick of the box lunches pretty quickly, doesn't matter what lodge you are staying at, so it will be nice to have something else to eat.

* We flew from Seronera to Zanzibar instead of first driving back to Arusha. This worked out well since we avoided the long drive from Serengeti to Arusha, but it was more expensive so you need to weigh those factors.

* Consider bringing a dose or two of antibiotics (get a prescription from your doctor before you leave), just in case someone gets an infection (bacterial). If its in powder form (common for kids' doses), make sure it doesn't require refrigeration after being reconstituted.

* Don't expect anything too authentic from the "cultural visits". These are all specially designated by the gov't for tourist visits. They will do a welcome song, some dancing, some talking about their daily life, etc, and then they'll try to get you to buy stuff (yes, you'll need to bargain there like anywhere else). It's a fine "filler" on the long drive to Serengeti . . . as long as you accept it for what it is. Just don't expect any real personal interactions or spontaneous village visits.

* Expect to pay for bottled water & other drinks at the lodges. I understand having to pay for alcohol, and even soft drinks I suppose, but it was really annoying to pay for bottled water at meals. Considering the local water isn't drinkable, the least they can do is provide free drinking water at the dinner table. I'm spending a lot of money at these 5-star places, with huge all-you-can-eat buffet meals, and then they charge me $1.50 for a bottle of water. Annoying.

* Bring lots of $1 bills. Great for tips etc since people accept these just as readily as TSH

* New $100 bills (post 2002 I think) give you the best exchange rates. Rates of travelers checks are terrible. Rates for bills smaller than $100s are worse than for $100s. Many places don't accept $100 bills older than 5 years old, I think due to counterfeiting. Currencies other than USD are much harder to change, so people from outside the US should still try to bring USD if possible.

* Take at least $100 in emergency cash per person beyond what you think is needed for the trip. This will be useful not only for the departure taxes & other misc fees you will neeed to pay, but also for things like emergency doctor visits. Our daughter was sick while we were in the Serengeti and the doctor from the hotel charged us $250 for the visit! That was clearly an absurd price, so I offered him $150 in cash which was still absurd but he accepted it (he probably would have taken $100 but I was so tired of bargaining for everything, even doctor fees).

* Paper tickets are better than etickets. And if you do buy an eticket you must print out the itinerary with the eticket numbers (not just the PNR reference number) and bring the credit card that you bought the ticket with. We almost didn't get on the ZNZ-NBO flight because we apparently were supposed to pick the paper ticket at the Kenya Airways office in town! I eventually got around that by showing the credit card I used to buy the ticket. Its a bizarre requirement and noone told us we needed to do this.

* If you go to Zanzibar, bring water shoes. Sandals or flip-flops won't protect you from the sea urchins.

* On Zanzibar, most snorkeling groups don't accept kids under 12. One place that does is Scuba Do in Kendwa, run by a very nice Australian (I think)

* A fun day-trip on Zanzibar if you have kids is run by Safari Blue in Fumba. It's a very well-organized day which includes sailing, snorkeling, seafood BBQ lunch on beach, swimming. A bit expensive ($50 for adults, $25 for kids and our 4-year-old was free) but well-run, and our kids loved it. Since it's on the south side of the island, it's a good option for when the waters in the north are too rough for snorkeling. Note that the snorkeling is much better in the North although sometimes the water is too rough which is what happened to us. So safari Blue is a good backup.

* Transportation of ZNZ is really expensive. We hired a car for the day to take us from Kiwengwa to Fumba, round-trip, it was $160 (1hr 15 min each way). Kiwengwa to Kendwa round trip (40 min each way) was $100.

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