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Trip Report Trip Report: Tanzania & Nairobi (December 2007)

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Someone posted that the two parts should be together to make it easier to find, so here they are again.

Part I:

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    Part I:

    I’ve never written a trip report before, but I spent so much time lurking on this board when planning/preparing for our once in a lifetime safari and I received so many helpful responses when I finally worked up the nerve to start posting myself questions myself, that I wanted to return the favor.

    My husband and I just returned from an 8-day safari in Tanzania with a day trip in Nairobi before TZ and an afternoon in Nairobi on the way back. When I started planning our trip, the questions uppermost in my mind were which tour operator to use, which parks to go to, and which hotels/lodges/tented camps to stay at, so those are the questions I’ll try to address here.

    A little background: I just turned 40 (I still can’t wrap my head around that one!) and my husband is 46. We both like to travel, but I’m definitely not a “roughing it” person. I firmly believe one’s experience of the great outdoors is enhanced, not diminished, by being able to end the day with a hot shower and a comfortable bed. If you’re one of those people who likes “roughing it” then stop reading now. You’re going to hate this trip report. If the idea of being able to take a bubble bath with a view or blow dry your hair in the middle of the Serengeti appeals to you, then read on.

    It looks like this trip report is going to be very long and I don’t want to bore anyone, so I’m putting in headings so you can just skip down to the parts that interest you. Now that I’ve gotten the disclaimers out of the way, here goes . . .

    TOUR OPERATOR/TRAVEL AGENT: Probably as most people do, when I first considered a safari, I started by looking at the pre-packaged tours with the big guys e.g., A&K, Micato, etc. After the initial sticker shock, I got on Trip Advisor and this board and quickly realized that there’s a whole other world of legit tour operators out there and it is possible to go on safari for less than $7500 - $10,000 USD per person. I started reading everyone’s reviews and recommendations and came up with a list of eight to ten agents. Then I put together a skeleton itinerary (which I ended up changing later) just so I could e-mail them to get a price quote and get an apples to apples comparison. I decided on Access2Tanzania because of the excellent customer service I received from their U.S. agent, Karen Stupic.

    I cannot say enough good things about A2T. Karen tirelessly answered my many, many, many questions, re-worked my itinerary until I was completely satisfied, and A2T’s prices were either the same or in some cases less than the other agents I queried. I believe there was one operator – Sunny’s – that was cheaper, but the vehicle wasn’t as good and I think they priced it with Sopas and Wildlife Lodges instead of Serenas. And no, I do not work for or have any personal or financial connection with A2T. I’m just a satisfied customer.

    Sending checks for many thousands of dollars to a person you’ve only met on the internet in the hopes that when you arrive at an airport ten thousand miles from home someone will be there waiting for you with your name on a little card really is a leap of faith. Yes, I read all I could about the company before I booked, and yes I checked their references, but you still never know. I’m happy to report we got exactly what we were promised.

    DRIVER/GUIDE: If you’ve been reading these boards for even a little while, you already know that a good or bad driver/guide can make or break your trip. I am happy to report that we had a fabulous guide. His name was Said, and besides being an excellent driver (I truly do not know how he maneuvered on some of those roads) and spotter (lion in the trees anyone?), he was warm and friendly and a pleasure to spend time with. I always felt very safe with him (not to be underestimated when you’re in the middle of nowhere and far from home) and really appreciated his enthusiasm. Before I went on this trip, I would have thought that someone who goes on safari week after week pointing out animals to tourists might be blasé about the experience. But Said was just the opposite. He was just as enthusiastic as we were, which really made the trip even that much more enjoyable.

    VEHICLE: We had a 4-wheel drive Land Cruiser with a pop-up roof. We saw other vehicles on the road with open sides and/or roll back roofs but I would really recommend against it. There were times when the animals walked right next to the car and the bugs were really biting when I was very happy to have the protection of doors and windows. And the people with the roll back roofs were always sunburned. Our vehicle also came equipped with extra cushions strapped to the seats. I don’t know if this is standard or something offered only by certain tour operators, but definitely ask for them. At the suggestion of others on this board, I brought along the blow-up neck pillow I used on the plane assuming I would need to sit on it. But I never even took it out of my bag. The cushions strapped to the seats provided lots of extra support. Our vehicle also came equipped with several bean bags, which really came in handy for those telephoto shots, meaning almost all of them. I suspect most tour operators will provide them if you ask (they’re pretty inexpensive), so definitely ask. You definitely don’t want to waste any of your 33 lbs luggage allowance on a bean bag.

    REVIEW: Since we spent most of our time in TZ, I’ll start with reviews of those hotels/parks and save Nairobi for the end. I don’t have such great things to say about our time in Nairobi, so best to start with the positive.

    ARRIVE KILIMANJARO - OVERNIGHT AT THE IMPALA HOTEL IN ARUSHA: The short answer is, don’t stay at the Impala. Karen had originally booked at us at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, but I was upgrading so many other lodgings and we were spending so little time at the hotel our first night that I thought this was a good place to save a few bucks. Big mistake. Karen told me it was “very basic” and in my head I was thinking Days Inn. This place wouldn’t even cut it as a Motel 6. The lobby was decent, but the room was tiny, had peeling paint, a water stain on the ceiling, and a wobbly shower/tub. The breakfast the next morning was awful and the box lunch they sent US with was just as bad. Even the bellhops were bad. They literally tossed our bags into our room and then stood there with their hands open waiting for a tip. We were going to tip them anyway (and did in this case too) but it’s still nice to feel like tipping is optional and not required. Most bellmen have mastered the art of waiting for a tip without being obvious about it, but these guys clearly skipped school that day.

    TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK – OVERNIGHT AT BOUNDARY HILL LODGE: After a stop in Arusha to exchange money and pick up water, where my husband managed to get stung by a bee before we even left the town (more on that later), we were off to Tarangire National Park. This was our first day on safari and our first day spotting any animals (I seem to remember a lot of dik diks) so we were naturally impressed. In retrospect, this was probably my least favorite park and if I were to cut one out of the itinerary, this would be it.

    This was also (unfortunately) my first of many experiences with the tse-tse flies. Although at least in Tarangire (as compared to Northern Serengeti) they were smaller and slower and if I saw them first, I was able to kill them before they bit me. This was also (unfortunately) our first of many days of rain. I knew when I booked that this was the season of “short rains” and I was under the impression that most of the day would be dry with a chance of showers for an hour or so in the afternoon before quickly clearing up again. Basically I thought I was getting Florida in the summertime – sun for most of the day, a heavy but short afternoon rain shower, followed by sun again. What we got was lots of days where it started raining in the early afternoon and rained off and on all night and into the next morning. But weather, like spotting animals, is 5% planning and 95% luck. In the weather lottery, we definitely did not hit the jackpot.

    On the other hand, we really enjoyed Boundary Hill Lodge. We were the only guests there that night which made for a very intimate experience. Our room (a cabin built into the side of the hill) had a wall of windows with an amazing view and we woke up to a spectacular sunrise which we didn’t even have to leave our bed to enjoy. The pluses, besides the view, were the very nice people who worked there and the great food. The minuses were the bugs (they left a can of bug spray on the desk which I used, but there were a lot of them) and the infrastructure still needs a little work (we showered when we got there in the early evening and the water was still pooled at the bottom of the shower when we left the next day). Our guide told us that one of the bigger hotel chains (Serena I think) was looking to buy them. If that happens, I imagine they will fix the infrastructure problems and this will become a very popular hotel.

    Another item for the you can only plan so much and then you just have to go with the flow category: The real reason we chose Boundary Hill Lodge was because they offered a night game drive. It had stopped raining that evening and the person who lead it still offered to take us, but our guide, Said, advised us not to go because the ground was so muddy he was afraid we’d get stuck. After experiencing the muddy roads that afternoon and seeing a couple other jeeps stuck in the mud on the way to the hotel, we decided to take his advice.

    The next morning we took a nature walk with a guide from the hotel. It was OK. I was so intent on watching where I was walking (I’m petrified of snakes and I only went on this walk because my husband wanted to) that I didn’t really enjoy much of the scenery. My husband enjoyed it until he stepped on a thorn that went through the rubber sole of his running shoe and into his foot. But both he and the shoe survived without too much damage.

    Sidenote: My husband getting injured/ill quickly became a theme on this journey. A little background – I’m the designated worrier in our family. I always assume bad things can happen and try to plan accordingly. Thankfully, bad things rarely do happen and then I get to enjoy my vacations. My husband, on the other hand, assumes nothing bad will ever happen and teases me incessantly for worrying too much. I had to take much ribbing from him before our trip re the veritable drugstore I purchased and brought along with us. In the end, all I ended up using from our stash was a couple of allergy pills the two days we spent in Central Serengeti and my daily dose of Malarone. My husband, however, used every item I brought with us at least once, including the “in case of emergency only” antibiotics prescription I made him fill before we left. Yes, he admitted he was wrong and I was right with no prodding from me. Well, not too much prodding.

    LAKE MANYARA – OVERNIGHT GIBB’S FARM:
    Thumbs up on both the park and the hotel with only the slightest quibble on the hotel front. First, the park. In a word: fabulous. Our guide said we got lucky in this park and even though it’s small, you could still spend hours and see no animals. That was the opposite of our experience. The minute we pulled through the gate we were greeted by a herd of elephants in the middle of the road. We love elephants, so this was huge for us, and it only got better. After I took a ton of pictures of them when they were in front of our truck, they decided to walk right past our truck. I literally could have reached out and touched them and might have if Said hadn’t whispered to us not to talk and not to move. This was one time when I wasn’t the designated worrier. I didn’t know enough to be worried. I didn’t yet know that elephants can appear friendly and then turn on you and charge. I only knew that I was two feet from a giant wild elephant and going on safari was the coolest thing I’d ever done.

    After the elephants, and more elephants, and even more elephants, we also saw lots of baboons and giraffes and a leopard in a tree and lots of other animals that I can’t even remember and won’t until I go through the pictures. But it was the elephants that I loved.

    I chose Gibb’s Farm because I found their website, which advertised it as a spa in the middle of Africa. I knew a spa in the middle of Africa was the right place for me! I cruised the pictures on the site and was completely enamored with the cottage with the indoor/outdoor bathroom (at the time I didn’t know we’d have one at Boundary Hill too) and the giant soaking tub. I e-mailed Karen right away and told her I had to stay at this place. She checked the price on the cottages and although they were expensive, because it wasn’t high season yet, they weren’t completely over the top so we added that into the itinerary.

    I did not partake of the spa services (no time), but the first thing I did when we got to the room was turn on the tap and fill up that luxurious bathtub. It wasn’t that wide, but it was long, and both my husband and I were able to comfortably soak in it together (which is something we can never do in a regular-sized bathtub at home). I’m normally a shower person and only occasionally opt for a bath (usually just when I’m sore from working out), but soaking in a tub surrounded by beautiful greenery after a day in a game park shooting amazing pictures of elephants and leopards in a tree feels magnificent. Very “Out of Africa,” although I’m almost positive that scene never happened in the movie. But maybe that was because they had the book on the shelf in our room and we read a little bit of it before we went to bed.

    And that would be my small quibble with Gibb’s Farm. The food and service were great, and both the cottage and grounds were beautiful, but it felt like they were trying just a little too hard to replicate an imagined experience. Our guide told us it was now owned by an American and I wasn’t at all surprised. Besides receiving our bar bill in dollars and being asked to pay in dollars (although we received change in Shillings) it felt just a little too commercial. I also found one tiny little bug in our bed before we went to sleep (I’m talking under the covers here). I killed it then took a sleeping pill so I wouldn’t spend the night awake in terror imagining that little bed bugs were crawling all over me. I woke rested with no rash or new bites, so thankfully it must’ve been the only one.

    It’s now 6:30 in the morning west coast U.S. time and I’m going to try to get another hour of sleep before I have to get up and go to work this morning. We’ve been back from Africa for two and a half days and my sleep schedule is still majorly screwed up. One of the downsides of safari. That and tse-tse flies. But more on that and reviews of Serena Ngorogoro, Olakira, and Migration Camp in Part Two of this trip report.

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    Part II:

    So the upshot on Gibb’s Farm was nice, but a little touristy. If I were planning my first safari, I’d still want to stay there. If I was going back, I’d probably just have lunch there and try a new place.

    NGOROGORO CRATER – OVERNIGHT SERENA CRATER LODGE

    We had the afternoon drive in the crater and loved it. I know people say it’s better to go in the morning because that’s when the animals are most active and maybe they’re right, but we saw plenty in the afternoon too. That said, things really started getting good in the late afternoon (around 4:30 to 5pm) so it is a bummer that you now have to be out by 6pm. But we were still lucky enough to have a rhino walk across the road right in front of us. You don’t see that on the freeway at home!

    Re the Serena, I was a little concerned about it because of all the negative talk of the big hotels on this board. Our only other Serena experience was in Nairobi, and we thought the room was fine and the food was lousy. The same review applies to the Serena Crater Lodge. I would classify the room décor/facilities as Holiday Inn equivalent with some local charm. (You don’t get drawings of wildebeests on the walls at Holiday Inns in the US.) The staff, as in all lodgings we stayed at in TZ except for a few bad apples at the Impala Hotel, were very helpful and friendly. When we first arrived at our room it had two twin beds and my husband was not pleased. We asked the bellman if we could switch and he called the front desk, but the only rooms available with one king or queen bed were on the first floor with no view. (Although it rained that night and into the next morning, so we ended up with no view anyway, but we didn’t know that at the time.) We opted to stay with our room when the bellman offered to push our two twins together to make one king bed while we were out on our game drive. Perfect solution.

    This seems like a good spot for a side note on beds in Africa - They’re hard. I mean really hard. They take “firm mattress” to a whole new level. The most comfortable beds we slept in were at Boundary Hill (review above) and Olakira (review below). They were hard too, they just had a little bit more cushioning on top. But unless you start skipping the morning game drives, you’re not going to have an opportunity to sleep in, and you’ll be so exhausted at night that you could probably fall asleep anywhere, so this really isn’t a big deal.

    Back to the Serena. The room had a typically hard bed, but no bugs, and a big shower with good water pressure. It also had a hair dryer, which I was very excited about since I hadn’t had access to one since we left Nairobi. This was less of a hair style issue for me (although that was part of it since I got a new haircut right before we left thinking short hair would be better on safari than long –it’s not!) and more of an it’s cold walking around with wet hair issue. But sadly both times I tried it, it lasted only 12 seconds before overheating and giving out. I think we also had a leak in the room somewhere as I remember hearing it drip when it started raining hard during the night. I got up to make sure it wasn’t dripping on the cameras and when I determined that it wasn’t, I went back to sleep.

    In my opinion the problem with the Serenas is the food. It’s just not good. But the upside of the buffets are that there are so many things to choose from, you can usually find at least one or two items that you like. I actually found their salad bar quite good, so I just ate that and a little pasta during our stay. A couple of their desserts were edible too 

    By this time in our trip our guide had noticed that no matter what time we agreed to meet him in the morning, my husband and I were always 5 to 10 minutes late. I believe it was his not so subtle admonishment to “be on time” that night that clued me in. So the next morning at the Serena I decided to surprise him by actually being on time. We arrived in the lobby at 8 a.m., settled up our bar bill (the Serena’s are a little pricey on drinks by the way), and were on the road by 8:05. Unfortunately, it had rained all night and was still raining when we left that morning. We’d barely gotten out of the Serena’s driveway when we got stopped behind a truck that had slid across the road and gotten stuck in the mud. We were 6 cars back on a narrow winding road with a steep drop on one side and a mountain on the other, so there was no going around. We sat in the car and waited until somehow they managed to dig the truck out. It put us an hour behind schedule and we were sitting ducks for all the Masai kids hawking those Big Five necklaces and real lion’s tooth charms (either they were lying or every lion in the Serengeti had been de-fanged – I’m betting on the former), but we were on our way to the Serengeti National Park.

    CENTRAL SERENGETI – OVERNIGHT (2 NIGHTS) AT OLAKIRA CAMP

    I was really looking forward to Olakira Camp since up until that point we had only stayed in big hotels and small lodges. Olakira was our first tented camp experience. I think it is Eben on this board who says there are no bad camps, only the wrong camp for the wrong person. That would be the conclusion for me and Olakira. My husband didn’t fare well there either, although for somewhat different reasons.

    It had stopped raining on our drive from the Crater to the Serengeti, but by late afternoon it had started again and kept up until mid-morning the next day. We arrived at Olakira in a downpour, received a quick briefing in the dining tent with a few other new arrivals, and headed off to our sleeping tent to shower and settle in before dinner. I don’t normally go camping, so I have no basis for comparison, but my husband, who went camping a lot as a kid, said it was the nicest tent he’d ever seen (this was pre-Migration Camp). It had a big comfortable (by Africa standards) bed and an attached shower and eco-friendly toilet.

    In the interests of decorum, I’m not going to discuss the eco-friendly toilet. If you don’t know what it is, look at some pictures on the internet and I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Re the shower, it looks like a regular shower when you’re standing under it, but the water that flows through it is heated by the camp staff and then brought to your tent in a bucket. You have to tell them in advance when you want to shower so they have enough time to heat the water and bring it to you, but getting hot water was never a problem. The problem, in my opinion, is in the design of the shower itself. I’m assuming here that the water trickled out of the shower head on purpose i.e. to make the hot water last so you wouldn’t run out before you’d washed the shampoo out of your hair, and not because nobody bothered to clean the lime deposits off the shower head. This system might work well when it’s hot out, but when its cold and raining and you’re standing wet and naked trying to keep the soap out of your eyes while you reach for the chain to start the trickle of warm water, which is supposed to get all that soap off your body and out of your hair before you run out, I think the system breaks down. It did for me, at least. Perhaps it is all part of the “camping experience,” which I fail to appreciate.

    But my biggest problem with Olakira was the bugs. They told us they sprayed the tents in the evening and I’m sure they did because we didn’t see many bugs inside our tent at night. My issue was with the dining tent. Breakfast and lunch were okay – the occasional bug on the table, but I flicked it away and it was no big deal. I mean, this is Africa, you have to expect a certain amount of bugs. But bugs in my plate when I’m eating dinner is just more than I can handle.

    At first there were a few on the table and I, my husband, and our guide pushed them off. Then there were about fifty on the table and they covered every surface (including crawling on the silverware) and flicking them away was no longer an option. The minute you got rid of one, five more took its place. I dutifully shut off that part of my brain that said this is disgusting and if I were home I’d be screaming right now, and continued to eat my dinner. But when the first, and then the second, and then the third bug landed in my plate, it was just more than I could handle. At that point, I ordered another glass of wine and gave up on actually eating any dinner.

    To be fair, I’m sure they couldn’t have gotten rid of all the bugs. At night the only lights were in the tents and of course the bugs were attracted to them. But they could’ve burned some citronella candles (they had them in the sleeping tents) and/or put down the sides of the dining tent to at least try to stem the tide. It looked like everyone eating dinner had bugs on their table if not in their food, so I doubt anyone would’ve balked at a little damage control. Sadly, none was attempted.

    The next day, my husband had pre-arranged for a bush breakfast to celebrate my b’day, but it was still pouring rain in the morning so the camp manager cancelled it. (This was after our 5 a.m. wake-up call, but whatever.) It was supposed to be a surprise for me, and I only found out about it because the camp manager apologized to me that evening and asked if we wanted to do a bush dinner instead. I told my husband, who already wasn’t feeling well, that I was fine without it, but he insisted, so we had the bush dinner. I asked them if they could set up the table inside our tent because there were no bugs in there, but there wasn’t enough room, so we had the bush dinner on our “porch” instead (my thinking was we could always take the plates into our tent if the bugs got really bad).

    After the previous night’s experience, I asked them to burn a citronella candle on our table and between that and my husband putting all of the light on his side of the table, no bugs landed in my food (although they were still all over the table). We had a bottle of champagne with the meal and the staff brought out a cake with candles and sang Happy Birthday and a couple of African songs, and they really went out of their way to make it a nice experience. The fact that it wasn’t was not for their lack of trying.

    As I mentioned, my husband already wasn’t feeling well before dinner. He barely touched the food, but by the time we’d finished dessert, he was puking his guts up in our eco-friendly toilet. We still don’t know what he had -- one of our camp mates was convinced it was malaria because he had a high fever and body aches in addition to the stomach issues, but our guide disagreed. Since we couldn’t get a malaria test out in the wilds, we decided to give the emergency antibiotics a try before tripling up on the Malarone (what they give you to cure malaria too). Thankfully, the antibiotics worked. Within 8 hours of taking the first pill, my husband’s fever was down and by that evening he was holding down food. Cipro is one kick-ass antibiotic!

    Because of all the rain, the game viewing near Olakira Camp wasn’t ideal, but we still got to see the wildebeest migration and lots of zebras, birds, and hyenas. And the day we left the sun finally came out and I got lots of great shots of hippos and a lioness too. But beware the bees at the visitor center at the entrance to the Serengeti from the Ngorogoro Conservation Area. I think it’s because they had open garbage cans there, but the bees were everywhere.

    NORTHERN SERENGETI – OVERNIGHT (2 NIGHTS) MIGRATION CAMP

    Now this is what I had in mind when I agreed to go luxury camping. Our agent wasn’t a proponent of my suggestion to spend our last two nights at Migration Camp because it meant traveling north and at that time of year all the animals should be heading south. But we couldn’t find any good luxury options in the Ndutu area, and since we decided to skip Zanzibar and this would be our last two nights in Africa, I really wanted to stay somewhere special. I’m so glad I followed my gut and went with Migration Camp. It was fabulous.

    Our guide told us the only problem with Migration Camp is that it’s so nice, people don’t want to leave. I completely agree. I could have happily skipped the afternoon game drive on our last day and just hung around by the pool. But I told myself I didn’t come to Africa to lie in the sun and forced myself to go.

    To be honest, the game viewing around Migration Camp wasn’t great and our agent was right—the animals were all heading south. But by that point, we’d seen everything we really wanted to see and it didn’t matter quite so much. The beautiful room with a flush toilet and real shower with unlimited hot water were much more important. And the food and service were the best we had in Africa – as good or better than Gibb’s Farm.

    When I was planning our trip, I read all the reviews I could find on the different accommodations we were considering. As with most things, for even the nicest places, there was always at least one person who had something bad to say – except for Migration Camp. Every reviewer raved about Migration Camp and I decided I had to see this place for myself. Well you can add me to the chorus, because I absolutely loved the place. For my money, it has all the pluses of camping—you get to sleep in a tent (although my husband says it’s not a tent because it had wood floors, a real bathroom with a working hair dryer, and 24-hour electricity—basically, all the reasons I liked it!) and you can hear the animals at night (I woke up on the second night to the sounds of a buffalo chewing the grass right in front of our tent)—without any of the minuses i.e., eco-toilets, bucket showers, and bugs in your plate. I don’t know exactly what we paid for Migration Camp, and I’m sure I’m happier not knowing, but if your budget allows it, I highly recommend it. It truly is luxury camping.

    And a side note, the dining room at Migration Camp is outside too, but for whatever reason, we didn’t have a problem with bugs on the table at dinner. One or two inevitably appeared, but when I brushed them off the table, they stayed off and they never landed in my plate. I asked the manager if they sprayed the dining room to keep the bugs out and he told me they didn’t (other than the mandatory spraying of the kitchen). For whatever reason, the bugs just weren’t a problem in their dining area. We didn’t have any rain when we were at Migration Camp, so maybe that had something to do with it.

    In terms of game viewing, as I mentioned, it wasn’t great, although I assume that was because we were there at the wrong time of year. And we did encounter a lot of tse-tse flies (although not on the hotel grounds, probably because of all the traps they set up). But coming back from an afternoon game drive we encountered one tse-tse fly in particular who was not going to give up until he either bit me or died trying. Seriously, this fly was after me and only me (he showed no interest in my husband who was sitting next to me, or our driver, who they usually liked to bite as much or more than they liked me). We had encountered tse tse’s earlier in the trip at Tarangire and in the central Serengeti, but they were smaller and slower and if I spotted them before they bit, I could usually kill them first. But this one was large and fast and mean. Every time I put my feet on the floor, he would immediately fly to my ankle and try to bite me through my sock. That would be my white sock—I’d purged all blue and black from our wardrobe before we left. It got so bad that for a while I sat with my feet up on the seat and my hands around my ankles. But this was not the most comfortable position and made it impossible to take pictures. Eventually I had to put my feet down, and the moment I did, this fly was back. I’m happy to report that after a long battle, I eventually caught him under my fly swatter and stomped the living daylights out of him. Victory was mine!

    NAIROBI – OVERNIGHT SERENA NAIROBI

    We flew into and out of Africa via Nairobi so we spent some time there on both ends of our safari. On the way to Africa, we arrived in Kenya in the evening, spent our first night at the Nairobi Serena, and did a day tour the next day before flying into Kilimanjaro the next evening. Although all the TZ tour operators I spoke to recommended flying into and out of Kilimanjaro and skipping Nairobi, the flight schedules worked better for us going in and out of Nairobi. I also had gotten it into my head that if I was flying all the way to Africa, then I wanted to see The Sheldrick Animal Orphange, the Giraffe Center and the Karen Blixen museum. After all, it was “Out of Africa” that had gotten me on my safari kick to begin with.

    I had put so much time and energy into the TZ portion of the trip, that I didn’t want to start all over again with Kenya. Karen told me A2T didn’t operate in Kenya, but could arrange the Nairobi portion with a Kenyan operator if I wanted, and I opted for that route. Other than to tell her that I wanted to see those three places and probably eat a meal at Carnivore, I let her handle it. I didn’t research any Kenyan tour operators, but I had read positive comments about Kennedy on these boards so was happy when I saw his name and Waymark Safaris show up on our final itinerary. Unfortunately I cannot rave about his company as others on this board have.

    This is nothing personal against Kennedy. I didn’t meet him, but I spoke with him on the phone when our day guide dropped us at the airport and he was very nice. And even the guide we had drive us around our first day was nice (I remember his name, but I’m not going to print it since this review isn’t positive). But since I came to Nairobi to go to three specific places, it would have been nice if those three had gone off without a hitch.

    As most of you know, the Sheldrick Animal Orphanage is only open for 1 hour per day from 11 a.m. to noon. When our guide dropped us off at the hotel at night and told us he’d pick us up at 10:30 the next morning, I did wonder if that was enough time to get there. But for all I knew it could’ve been around the corner from the hotel so I kept my mouth shut. And maybe on a low-traffic day we would’ve made it from the Serena to Sheldrick with plenty of time to spare. But this was a bad traffic day and we didn’t get there until about fifteen minutes before they closed. I was happy we got any time there as another guide we passed on the road told us he didn’t think we’d make it. But it was definitely a disappointment and a bad way to start.

    I understand that bad traffic, like bad weather, happens sometimes. But from what I’ve heard, bad traffic in Nairobi is more the rule than the exception, and our guide should’ve planned accordingly. After Sheldrick, he stopped at a gift shop along the road and we pretty much had no choice but to get out and at least look around. Had he asked if we wanted to go shopping, I would’ve definitely said No. We’d just arrived and I was anxious to see the sights. I assumed (correctly) that I could buy gifts later in the trip and not have to carry them around with us for the next 9 days. But we weren’t asked, and I think we should have been. After all, this was a private tour, not a group tour. When we were with our guide in Tanzania and we passed a shopping district, he asked us if we wanted to stop, he didn’t just pull up to a curio stand and tell us to get out.

    Our next stop was lunch with more shopping, although at least this place was a cooperative with a bunch of little shops with prices on the items—the no haggling was nice and made it easier to browse, and we did end up buying something there. Next was the Karen Blixen Museum, a few minutes at the bead factory (no work going on, only the gift shop was open), and finally the Giraffe Center. They gave us the hard sell at the Giraffe Center, which was annoying since we’d already paid to get in. They wanted us to sponsor a local child’s trip to the game parks. It was high pressure and made us feel like it wasn’t really optional, so we handed over more money. We didn’t realize until we signed the guest book that most people don’t. But what’s a little money to us can be a lot to someone else, and we really enjoyed Giraffe Center, so no regrets there. Since this was our last stop, we hung around over an hour before our guide drove us back to the airport.

    It was at this point that we spoke to Kennedy, who wanted to know what we wanted to do on our last day as all we had scheduled was dinner at Carnivore. We left it that we’d figure it out when we came back. (I don’t know why, but I just had a feeling that our flight back would be late and we wouldn’t have as much time as we thought we would).
    My intuition on that was partially right. We arrived an hour late, but still had plenty of time. A different driver picked us up at the airport and told us we could either go to the market or take a safari walk. We suggested the ostrich and crocodile farm since we had passed it on our first day in Nairobi and my husband thought it looked interesting, but our driver told us it was too far. I became suspect of that claim as the afternoon wore on and we had nothing but time on our hands.

    Since we were safari’d out by then, we nixed the safari walk and opted for the market. I assumed that this would be either a place that locals shopped or at least the type of place we visited on our first day with lots of little shops under one roof. Instead it was just another curio shop by the side of the road. I was not pleased, but there was nothing to do but get out and walk around. I figured I could pick up a few more gifts for friends and asked our driver what was a good price on bracelets. He told us that we should bargain with them. Well duh! That much I could figure out on my own. What I wanted to know was what I should be paying. But he wasn’t giving out that info. This really made me feel like he was working for the shopkeeper (it could have been a friend or relative of his for all I know) and not for us. When we went to buy a gift at a roadside stall in Tanzania we asked our guide what he thought was a fair price and he told us. Of course I paid a little more, but at least I had something to go by and, more importantly, I felt like our guide was working for us. I definitely didn’t have that feeling from either of our day guides in Nairobi.

    After the “market,” we went back to the Serena to pick up our bag and killed some time in their lobby and gift shop. Then our driver drove us to the Carnivore where we spent another hour and a half killing time in their bar and the gift shop next door (which, by the way, had very nice items and the best prices of any of the places we’d been to, plus the prices were marked so no haggling). The Carnivore wouldn’t seat us for dinner until 6:30 and we planed on leaving at 8 so we could make it to the airport by 8:30. But the service was sooooo slow that we didn’t get out of there until almost 8:30, and that was with ordering, but not eating, coffee and dessert.

    I knew the Carnivore would be touristy, but figured at least the food would be good. Wrong! Even the meat there was bad. I actually walked out of the restaurant hungry. That’s pretty bad when it’s all you can eat.

    We got back into the van where some bug (it wasn’t a mosquito, maybe an ant or a flea) nibbled its way up the inside of my pant leg while our driver drove us back to the airport. We hit several security check points along the way and didn’t get dropped off until almost nine.

    All in all, I do not have fond memories of our time in Nairobi and I have no desire to go back. I have to agree with all the TZ tour operators on this one. If you can fly in and out Kilimanjaro and skip Nairobi, do it. If I had it to do over again, I’d schedule it that way even though it would mean an extra stop in Europe.

    EQUIPMENT AND OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS

    We purchased a new digital camera before our trip because our older digital camera only has a 3xs zoom lens. I flirted with the idea of a digital SLR, but since I’m a novice photographer, I opted for a compact all-in-one with a zoom lens. We narrowed it down to the Canon and the Panasonic and purchased the Panasonic DMC-FZ18 because it had the longer lens. When you’re at the end of the zoom it does take a second or two to focus, but the Canon had the same problem. All in all, we were very happy with the camera and got some great pictures.

    I think I posted earlier that I had taken about 500 pictures. Well I finally downloaded them all yesterday and it turns out I shot about 1000 pictures (but still used under 5 GB of memory). My husband also shot 2 hours of digital video which he plans to edit down.

    I also purchased a pair of Bushnell Natureview 8x30 binoculars right before we left. I ordered them on-line and wasn’t able to find them in a local store to try them first, but they worked out fine. The irony is that I bought this model because it was supposed to be good for eyeglass wearers. But I found using them with my glasses on uncomfortable. I just like having the eyecup rest against my face, both to steady the binoculars and to keep the sun out. I ended up pushing my glasses up on top of my head and looking through the binoculars without the aid of my glasses. I need glasses for distance, but my eye sight’s not terrible, so I was okay doing this.

    Other things I was happy I had with me: Purell hand sanitizer and those little travel packs of anti-bacterial wipes. The wipes worked great at getting deet and sunscreen off our hands. We also brought travel packs of Charmin and Cottonelle wipes and one or the other is essential for those bush bathroom breaks. I tried the coffee filter trick Sandi had suggested on the very funny bush bathroom thread, but never could get the hang of it and I’m embarrassed to say that I sprayed the bottom of my pants more than once. The best thing I found in that regard was to try to find a spot with a downhill slant. Then no matter your personal angle, the pee flows in the right direction. Enough said! I was also glad I brought my own conditioner as others here advised. All the lodges and camps provided shampoo and soap, but none provided conditioner. I also brought lots of ziplock bags in varying sizes. They’re not only essential for bush bathroom breaks (you need to put that Charmin somewhere), but also come in handy for bottles that otherwise leak all over your suitcase, and just to keep things organized.

    What I didn’t bring and wished I had: a battery operated bug zapper to make it easier to catch those tse-tse flies before they caught me. I also could’ve used more q-tips. Some of the lodges had little container filled with cotton balls, but no one offered q-tips and I ran out towards the end of the trip.

    I hope someone finds this trip report useful. For those of you getting ready to go – Bon Voyage! Africa’s not an easy vacation, but I think it’s worth it.



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    I know you wrote this in Dec but thanks for your report. I'm having a terrible time picking between A2T and Greenfootprints. I haven't heard anything bad about either; prices are really similar for the same itinerary and I must decide soon.

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