MyDogKyle's Trip to Kenya & Tanzania, September-October 2007
I've put off starting this trip report (as I'm sure many others have done before me) because it is just so hard to get my mind around all the things we saw and experienced in East Africa, and the thought of trying to summarize it all in some logical (not to mention original) way is really a daunting one! But that's a good thing, really... no, more than that, it's a wonderful thing -- to have experienced something in life that is so overwhelmingly good that it takes you days and months and maybe even years to fully understand it and know how to think about it, to sort through your memories and your
feelings and make some sense of it all. I felt that way two years ago when we got back from India; a friend who had been there told me, "it will be six months before you can make any sense of your memories of India, or really understand the impact this country has had on you!" and she was absolutely right. So, I start this attempt at a trip report with caution -- Africa has had such an impact on me that I'm sure I will never be able to describe it all or fully explain what it means to me, but you Fodorite friends helped me so much in planning my trip that I owe it to you to try. So, here goes... please forgive any spelling or other errors (if I fact-check like I would at work, I will never get this posted!). Apologies to those of you who don't like long trip reports -- you can feel free to skip this one, I won't take it personally.
The Planning: My husband and I started talking about a trip to Africa years ago, but we couldn't think realistically about it until recently because of the cost and vacation time involved. We decided that 2007 was the year because it would be an incredible way to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary (and because 2005-2006 happened to be really good years for our companies and we had some bonus money to work with). We chose East Africa primarily because we'd watched a lot of nature shows growing up in the 1970s, and Kenya was a place I'd been dreaming about since childhood. But an equally important consideration was finding a place we could afford to go for 3 weeks, and East Africa fit that bill, too.
I spent a LOT of time doing research for this trip -- I'm a researcher by profession, so figuring out an itinerary and learning about new places is one of my favorite parts of travel. I started off looking at small group tours with companies like Intrepid Travel (we loved traveling around India with them), but the more research I did, the more I started to realize the differences in types of lodgings, what a difference your lodging's location can make in some parks, and some of the potential pitfalls of sharing a vehicle with a group (especially if you love photography or are interested in animals that aren't a part of the Big 5). Now, let me just say right up front that I don't think there's anything wrong with group tours (especially for people who love the social element of that kind of travel) and it's certainly more environmentally sensitive to share a vehicle -- so I would not rule out traveling that way in the future, especially if it meant I could return to Africa! But for us, and for this special trip, it really seemed like a private vehicle and guide would be the best solution. Also, most of the group tours don't let you choose your lodgings -- and in some cases, particularly the less expensive tours, they won't even tell you where you'll be staying until you get there. Once I discovered this board and started reading about the experiences of people here, I was really convinced on the idea of planning a private safari for just the two of us. I also loved the idea of booking our trip directly with companies in Kenya and Tanzania. We'd done that for a short tiger safari in India (before we joined the Intrepid group) and really enjoyed working with a company in Delhi. We decided on primarily a driving safari (with a few flights to save time), because we really wanted to see as much of the countryside as possible and have a look at life in these countries outside of the national parks and reserves. I had a lot of reasons to be glad about that decision, but also have to say that I appreciated the flights when we had them because they helped us fit more into our three week limit.
So, which safari operators? I came up with a rough idea for a three-week itinerary (10 days in each country) and shopped it around to different companies -- Eastern & Southern, Let's Go, Southern Cross, Roy's, Green Footprint Adventures, Good Earth, Africa Serendipity, Go2Africa, Tropical Trails, and Sunny Safaris. Some of these would plan trips to both Kenya and Tanzania (in cooperation with an operator in the other country), and some would only book in the country where they were located. I read many, many online reviews of various operators and checked out what the guidebooks had to say about them and where their home offices were located. Perhaps more importantly, I looked at the types of replies I got from each company and evaluated not only the price, but also how much they seemed to be listening to what we wanted, what kinds of questions they asked, and what kinds of suggestions they made to improve on our ideas (since they really know Africa better than we do!). It was a tough choice, but ultimately we decided on Eastern & Southern for the Kenya portion of our trip and Green Footprint for the Tanzania/Zanzibar part. We are so grateful to Serah at E&S and Mirjam at GF (she's no longer there, sadly, since she moved to Kenya), whose skill, good humor and patience were wonderful during our year of planning and planning and planning this trip! (A very close second choice was Africa Serendipity -- Sandi was really helpful and had some great ideas for tweaking our itinerary, both in e-mails and via her participation on this forum. So thank you too, Sandi!)
Here is the itinerary we decided on, for the last week of September and first two weeks of October:
Day 0 -- fly SFO to NBO (via Chicago and London)
Day 1 -- arrive Nairobi and meet up with Eastern & Southern (Kenya Comfort Hotel)
Day 2 -- Nairobi -- Giraffe Center and Sheldrick's elephant orphanage, then drive to Mt. Kenya (Serena Mountain Lodge)
Day 3 -- drive Mt. Kenya to Samburu -- afternoon game drive (Samburu Intrepids)
Day 4 -- Samburu -- gave drives and visit Samburu village
Day 5 -- drive Samburu to Sweetwaters -- afternoon and night game drives (Sweetwaters Tented Camp)
Day 6 -- Sweetwaters -- lion tracking, game drive
Day 7 -- drive Sweetwaters to Lake Nakuru -- afternoon game drive (Sarova Lion Hill Lodge)
Day 8 -- drive Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara (Mara Serena)
Day 9 -- Masai Mara -- balloon safari, day and night game drives
Day 10 -- Masai Mara -- hippo breakfast, game drives, Maasai village visit
Day 11 -- fly Mara to Nairobi to Arusha/switch to Green Footprint (Karama Lodge)
Day 12 -- Arusha National Park -- game drive and canoeing (Karama Lodge)
Day 13 -- fly to Tarangire -- game drives (Oliver's Camp)
Day 14 -- Tarangire -- walking safari and game drive
Day 15 -- fly to Lake Manyara -- afternoon and night game drives, bush dinner (Kirurumu Lodge)
Day 16 -- Mto Wa Mbu walking tour and the Rift Valley Children's Village near Karatu (Ngorongoro Serena)
Day 17 -- Ngorongoro Crater -- morning hike on the rim and afternoon game drive (Plantation Lodge)
Day 18 -- drive to Arusha, fly to Zanzibar (236 Hurumzi, Stone Town)
Day 19 -- island tour, including Spice Tour, lunch and Jozani Forest (Pongwe Beach)
Day 20 -- Pongwe Beach
Day 21 -- fly Zanzibar to Nairobi to London (then we spent 2 nights in London, meeting up with a friend from Paris)
Pretty typical for a first-timer's visit to East Africa, I think. As is also pretty typical, a few things changed even after we'd come up with a "final itinerary" -- first Serena bumped us from their Ngorongoro Crater lodge, so we switched to two nights at Plantation Lodge. Then, shortly before our departure, we found out that Samburu Intrepids was also bumping us because they were overbooked and in the midst of renovating their tents, so we ended up being upgraded to Elephant Bedroom Camp. Both of these changes were ultimately for the better, and I will talk about that more as I get to that part of my report. (And I should also note that neither of these changes resulted in any extra cost to us.)
A few other thoughts on our lodging choices: We decided to "splurge" on Oliver's Camp rather than the alternative of Tarangire Safari Lodge, because it was my husband's birthday and we really wanted to have the experience of a small tented camp. It was one of the best decisions we made, even though the cost was a little tough to swallow. We actually ended up having that special camp experience in Kenya as well (at Elephant Bedroom), and I have to say that those were the two most memorable lodgings of our trip. We helped to rationalize Oliver's by choosing less expensive options in Nairobi and Arusha, and thought that worked out really well. Both Kenya Comfort Hotel and Karama Lodge were described to us as "very basic," but we thought they were just perfect for our needs and were glad we chose them. (If they think these places are "basic," they obviously have not traveled with us before, because we usually go much more budget than this!) We stayed at some smaller and more personal lodges in Tanzania than in Kenya, and overall enjoyed that experience more... but the "big tourist lodges" in Kenya were fine too. I think it was probably good that we stayed in some of the bigger lodges earlier in our trip, because we really appreciated some of the perks of staying in a smaller place by the time that came around.
Deciding when to fly and when to drive: We had originally planned to drive to Tarangire and then on to Lake Manyara, but in the end Green Footprint offered us the flight option for the same price, to give us more time in Tarangire. And since Oliver's has such great guides, it made a lot of sense to take advantage of that and meet up with our Green Footprint guide again in Lake Manyara. Finally, the last major tweak we made to our itinerary was that we'd originally planned to drive from the Masai Mara back to Nairobi and catch a later flight to Arusha, but decided to spend a bit more and fly the whole way so we'd have some time to relax at the lodge in Arusha. After having done the rough-and-tumble drives up to Samburu and then down to the Mara, we were so, so happy to get on a plane and see a little of Kenya from the air! So, we're very happy that we did a combination of drives and flights. I could see a lot of benefit to both ways of getting around, and thought we ended up with a good balance.
On packing: I won't bore you with the details of our packing list because it's not all that different from what other people have posted on this board, but I do have a few tips based on what we found useful along the way.
1. Photography beanbags: we love our cameras, but we're certainly not pro-level and did not really want to invest in a real "safari beanbag," so I came up with a cheap solution that worked great for us and saved us some weight in our luggage. I took two sizes of heavy-weight ziploc bags and taped some rubber "grippy" shelf liner material to the outside of each bag, trimmed to fit. While we were in Africa, we stuffed the bags with our fleece hats and gloves, which we didn't need to use most days anyway. This provided a reasonable cushion for the big camera, especially with our longest lens and the storage-size ziploc. The grippy material kept the camera from sliding around on plastic. I ended up never using the small "beanbag," which I'd made for our video camera. At the end of the trip, we took out the "stuffing" and tossed the bags in the trash.
2. Dust protection: the zip-off legs from our pants made great dust covers for the cameras while we were on game drives. I also had a small nylon bag for this purpose, and it helped a lot (especially in the Ngorongoro Crater, which was a complete dust bowl!). We also had buffs to pull over our faces on some of the dustiest drives -- a godsend on that drive from Isiolo to Samburu. Bandanas would be just as helpful.
3. Other things we were really glad to have with us: duct tape (for repairing rips in our self-destructing daypack); little travel packets of Tide to wash some clothes out in the sink (sure they do laundry at the lodges but it's not that hard to do some of the small stuff yourself, and some of the laundry services were pricey); ginger candies for some of the long car rides, to combat motion sickness or the smell of rotting wildebeest in the river; photos of our families to share with the little boy we sponsor at the Rift Valley Children's Village (and our drivers loved to look them, too, and ended up sharing some of their own family photos with us!); lots and lots of memory cards; thank you notes to write letters to our guides and use for tips.
4. Keeping track of photos: Before we left I wrote up little index cards with the date and place for each day, and we would take a photo of them each morning to help us remember where we saw each elephant and tommie and zebra along the way. After we'd taken 2500 pictures, we were very glad to have done this. Also, it was fun -- after the first few days, we starting trying to find the most creative place to put the index card each morning, with a backdrop that showed something unique about that place. So now we've got some funny pictures and might actually put a few of those "day marker" photos in our scrapbook!
Finally, I just want to remind everyone with your photos and videos -- don't forget to take pictures and footage of your lodgings, the campfire stories, and all the people you meet along the way. I felt kind of silly doing a "video tour" of each of our rooms and lodges and sometimes felt shy about asking people to pose with us for a photo, but now that we're going through all our pictures those are often the ones I treasure most or get the biggest kick out of. The animals are a given... they will make a great photographer out of anyone. Just don't forget all the other things that make a safari special. You can always edit later!
Okay, enough blabbering about that stuff. Those of you who have gone on your own safaris already know about the unique torture of booking your trip and then waiting... and waiting... until finally the big day arrives and you're getting on that plane, hoping that Africa will be able to live up to your insane expectations, honed by months of reading and watching movies and documentaries and reading this chat board.
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Trip Report: Kenya & Tanzania, Sept/Oct 2007
MyDogKyle's Trip to Kenya & Tanzania, September-October 2007