Tanzania: Parks and Paradise

Inside the Ngorongoro

It’s true that our initial introduction to Tanzania was less than positive, but I had my camera equipment back and I was prepared to continue along our Tanzanian journey with a positive attitude. Sometimes a bounce back from tragedy can renew your spirit or at least make you appreciate everything a little more and it certainly serves as a reminder of the inherent risks of traveling in foreign countries. In this post I will offer some suggestions about organizing a safari on the fly, make a recommendation of the operator we went with, and write briefly about where we went and what we saw. The last portion of this post I will dedicate to the two weeks we spent in Zanzibar and the excellent guesthouse we called home during our time in Jambiani. However, in an attempt to expedite my tardy blog posts from Africa, I will try to make the last couple of entries text-sparing and image-heavy… I hope you don’t mind!

Lets get on with it then…

There can be no doubt that one of the main motivations for us deciding to visit Africa, and Tanzania in particular, was to see as much of its incredible wildlife as possible. We had already visited Etosha in Namibia, Chobe and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Hwange in Zimbabwe. These are all elite parks and should be a first choice if searching for wildlife in those respective countries. But we were still itching for more animal encounters and what better place to scratch that itch than in Tanzania’s national park Meccas of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. However, in the aforementioned countries you can organize safaris or even self-drive your way through the parks all on your own and on a modest budget. This is not so much the case in Tanzania. As far as I know, you are not permitted to self drive in the Serengeti nor the Ngorongoro Conservation Area- and even if you could, it wouldn’t eliminate the requisite and exorbitant park fees which can be as high as $300 (US) per day.

Serengeti lioness

But if you want to keep costs down I do have some tips that will allow you to do just that. First, do not book your safari in advance, rather ‘shop around’ once you get to Arusha (the capital city of safari-land). You can often get far better rates or be in a advantageous bargain situation if you join other people and if you wait until you are there you may be the ones to fill-up the last spots on a safari that is leaving straight away. Another reason for not booking in advance is the simple fact that the smaller tour operators are not well represented on booking sites. Some small safari operators, such as the one we went with, operate out of a modest shop and do not advertise online. You can still do your research and check reviews on these operators on sites such as TripAdvisor but you are bound to get a lower price just because they want your business. Secondly, it will be cheaper yet if you share your safari with others- the more people in your truck, the cheaper the individual rate will be. But make sure you are compatible with the others in your group! The third money saving tip is this: go camping! Not only will you save a boatload of cash by going on a camping safari over an accommodated one, you will experience these parks the way it was intended… in the outdoors! Nothing is better than hearing the calls of nature while snug in your tent or answering the call of nature with prowling hyenas a few meters away! Yes, seriously! Fourth money saving suggestion would be to travel during the ‘off-season’. The off-season coincides with the months when the great migration of wildebeests is at a low and the probability of precipitation is at a high. We went in the beginning of April which is low season and we saw plenty of wildebeests and nary a day of rain during our week on safari. The last advice I can offer is this… sharpen your bargaining tools! A lot of people are put off by the ‘fly-catchers’ or tour touts that are swarming throughout the city of Arusha. We joked around with them quite a bit and if you can maintain that positive sense of humour with them then that whole nasty experience becomes less of a chore. Many of them can actually steer you in the direction of a good deal as well and always know which companies have a couple of vacant spots on their trucks. When you meet with the operators, tell them your budget and be firm on it. A day of pounding the streets of Arusha can save you hundreds of dollars.

This Serengeti leopard sighting completed our African Big 5

Goofin' around with the Great Masai gang

So, who did we go with and what did we see and do? We decided on a budget company that I can’t recommend enough… Great Masai Adventure. They are a family business located down a side street off Boma Road and man were they fantastic. Lota, Sidi, Eric and everyone at GMA are so nice and their professional hospitality is nothing short of impeccable. Sidi, our guide and driver, and Eric, our cook, were so much fun to be with and each did their job above and beyond our expectations. If you want an unforgettable safari experience and are on a budget, look no further than Great Masai Adventure. Your welcome! The first safari we took with them was a 4N/5D camping safari that took in the Tarangire NP, the Serengeti NP, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. The guiding, the food, the accommodation (one night was at the Panorama camp where we stayed in mud ‘igloos’), the wildlife and nature were all exceptional. We were so enchanted by our time spent in the Ngorongoro Crater (not that we weren’t by the Serengeti or Tarangire) that we booked an additional 1N/2D trip with GMA the day after we got back from our first trip out to the parks. We spent one day in between our two tours in Arusha where we recruited a couple more budget backpackers to come with us, and in return, GMA charged only $150 for each of us for the next 2 days in the crater. Great people, great company! So what did we see? Well, in terms of wildlife and nature we saw simply too much to write about. I will let the following photographs paraphrase that for me, but, as per usual, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but they don’t do justice to the actual experience of visiting these majestic parks.

Zebras among the Baobabs in Tarangire NP

Lion cub, Serengeti NP

Leopard, Serengeti NP

Hippo pool, Serengeti

Male lion, Serengeti

Serengeti scene

Another Serengeti lioness

Scenes from the Serengeti and Crater

Bull elephant, Ngorongoro

Wildebeest, Ngorongoro

Another bull in the crater

After a quick stopover in Moshi for a fleeting glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro, our last 2 weeks in Tanzania were spent on the idyllic island of Zanzibar- a short ferry ride from Dar. For the first three days we just explored the labyrinth-style streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s economic and cultural capital. It’s quite a nice town to explore with friendly people, good food, strong coffee and plenty of historical sites and amazing architecture to check out. Then it was off to the beaches. It was our initial plan to beach hop around the island for 10 days, but instead we got very comfortable in a single location on the stretch of beach known as Jambiani- thanks to some fantastic home cooking, stunning accommodation, and a wonderful hostess named Lisa (along with her 11 cats and 3 dogs).

Enjoying the beaches around Jambiani

We found the Mango Beach House after being dropped off in Jambiani and walking along its stretch of sand. Many of the accommodation options were closed during the off-season but we happened upon the best and it was open for business. Mango Beach House wouldn’t normally fall within our backpacker budget, but it was low season and Lisa gave us a rate that we couldn’t refuse. The guesthouse is immaculately decorated with the objects that Lisa has accumulated over the years of combing the beaches and the whole place feels like an art gallery. What made our stay even more memorable, and the main reason we stayed for 10 nights, was that Lisa took us out on daily sightseeing trips around the island. This was an invaluable way to really see the island and with insider knowledge to boot! She took us to the national park, low tide swimming at some secret spots, and so many beautiful beaches that we wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t for her. If you are looking for a low-key local beach experience then you can’t go wrong with Jambiani, and if you’re in Jambiani then I highly recommend staying at Mango Beach House. Tell Lisa and the guys we say hi! While Zanzibar is an island that is feeling the pressure that mass tourism has placed upon it, and one of those places you wish you would have had the pleasure of visiting 15 years ago, it remains a worthwhile destination to check out or maybe even linger in for a couple of weeks. After a few weeks of touring around mainland Tanzania, you will definitely appreciate it! We spent a couple more nights in Stone Town before catching an early morning flight back to Namibia via Nairobi and Jo’berg. Our second visit to Namibia and our return to South Africa would be the last leg of our trip to Africa. There would be some amazing experiences yet to come. One more blog post to go…

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The Tanzanian Devil: A Travel Horror Story

I'm forever writing about the amazing things we see and do along our travels- the warm and interesting people we meet and the good times we have together and that's because that's the travel norm. But I also believe it's my responsibility as a travel blogger to report on the more sinister side of traveling the rare times they arise. Maybe this story will merely entertain some travellers (and I hope it does) or maybe this story will help others in making a better decision than the one I made or at least as a reminder to not let your guard down even when you're having the time of your life. Traveling is a gateway to amazing new experiences and encountering amazing and interesting new people. But for every 100 great experiences you are bound to have one bad one and for every 1000 wonderful people you meet there will always be that one you wish you didn't come across at at all. This is a story about one of those experiences and one of those people.

There are no short distances in Africa, and, together with poor roads, old and unreliable buses and inconvenient transport schedules, said distances can make for long and grueling overland journeys. 30-some hours after leaving Mzuzu we arrived in Tanzania’s largest city and unofficial capital, Dar es Salaam. It was late and pitch dark so we checked into the first scuzzy guesthouse we found in the Kisutu area which sufficed for a night but the next morning we relocated to a slightly less sketchy place down the block… the Econo Lodge – the setting for our only horror story during our travels through Africa.

Econo Lodge, Libya St., Dar es Salaam

Upon checking-in the staff advised us to leave our valuables in the storage lock-up behind their desk when we went out which made sense at the time… Dar es Salaam has a sinister reputation and at times it seems as though there’s a certain pride in upholding that reputation! Anyways, we had bus tickets to shop around for and some supplies to replenish for our next destination, Arusha- the gateway to safari lands. So left our valuables in the hands of the staff we did and then slipped off into the city to run our errands. A few hours later we returned to the Econo Lodge to retrieve our bags only to discover that one of them had disappeared. Hyo Jin’s bag containing our passports, some money and other important travel documents was still there where she had left it, but my bag containing every piece of camera equipment I brought had vanished. Panic instantly sunk in and thus began the ensuing 10 hours of chaos. It was 7 in the evening. Of course I started yelling and screaming at the guy who remained behind the desk. If awards were handed out for epic fits thrown at hotels by guests I’m sure that I would have received top honours. I insisted that he call the police and he insisted that he didn’t know the phone number for the police! Hmmm. So I then insisted that he called the owner, manager and all the other staff who were on shift that day. I was seeing red but who can blame me? Within that bag was over $12,000 of camera gear not to mention all the images that I had captured thus far on our trip… this would be a devastating loss to say the least and I wasn’t about to let it go without a fight. One by one the other staff members started returning to the Econo Lodge including the owner (and his family). It was now 11 p.m. Then came the hours of dodging responsibility and offering of excuses. “Maybe you didn’t leave your bag in our storage room”, “perhaps you should have another look in your room”, “maybe another guest has taken your bag by mistake”, “this has never happened here before”… this wasn’t doing me any good! The fact of the matter is that the Econo Lodge in Dar has a piss-poor system for keeping their guests' belongings safe. Yes there is a room behind the desk which they encourage their guests to utilize for the safe-keeping of their valuables but this room isn’t locked and there is no system of identification whereby each bag would be tagged and a receipt offered and when retrieving your bag you would have to hand in said receipt. On top of this, we saw other hotel guests and who knows who else entering and leaving this “secured” room every few minutes at their leisure. Yup, this place was a nightmare and had we known this is how they ran their hotel we never would have entrusted them with our valued possessions in the beginning. We did however come up with a definitive timeframe in which the bag disappeared since we had checked on it just an hour and a half before we came back to discover its disappearance. During this time the nice day-shift ladies left for the evening and only one employee remained at the desk. This was the same employee who said he didn’t know the number of the police. From the offset we suspected that this guy was the dodgy bugger responsible for the heist, but what can you do with a suspicion? As we talked to each of the staff members they seemed to share our suspicions though. By 2 a.m. things were going nowhere fast and emotion-induced exhaustion was starting to set in. I told the owner that we were not leaving the hotel until my bag was found and if by morning I wasn't reunited with my bag that I would personally be bringing the police to their establishment and informing any potential guest who walked through the door to go elsewhere. I had also showed each of the staff pictures of my camera bag which I had on my phone and requested that every guest who was leaving in the hours to follow be checked for that bag and their rooms searched once vacated, although I knew very well that it wasn’t fellow travellers that had taken it. At one point during the night the owner had taken the guy who we suspected all along to the office where it appeared that a serious talk was taking place. At 3 in the morning the owners and the day staff left the hotel and returned to their respective homes and we retreated to our room where we tried to get some rest and give whoever was responsible for my bag heist the opportunity to get it back without our prying eyes on them. We were supposed to leaving on a bus to Arusha at 6 o’clock that morning!

The only person who remained on the desk was the dodgy dipshit! At 4:30 a.m. there was a knock on our door. I opened the door to find Mr. Dipshit himself standing there. He informed me that he thought he located my bag and that a taxi was outside waiting to bring me to it. Of course I was excited at the prospect that my bag was found, but this was Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and it was 4:30 in the bloody morning- there was no way in hell that I was going to get into a car with a guy I’ve never seen and driven off to a location that I didn't know. It would be very good fortune from the perspective of the hotel and the dipshit if I were to just disappear! I told the Tanzanian Devil to just send the driver to retrieve the bag and we would wait in our room until it arrived. He agreed and 45 minutes later I was reunited with all of my camera equipment. The story he came up with was that another traveller had accidentally taken my bag and checked-in to another hotel in a different part of the city. Once there he discovered that the bag did not belong to him and at 4:30 in the morning he called the Econo Lodge to report his folly! No doubt that this concocted story was a big ‘ol sack of hipposhit, but this moron believed that we believed his fabricated tale and he was now the hero not the villain. Whatever! We had my bag back and now had about 30 minutes to be on our bus to Arusha… and we were! But on our way out the door of the Econo Lodge, Hyo Jin and myself both heard the Tanzanian Devil mumble a few last words to us… “my wife is in hospital”. It took a while for us to process this statement, we were after all in a rush to catch a bus. But once on the bus we took the time to think it over and come to the conclusion that those words were offered to us as a confession and explanation. Either way, that man and that hotel was responsible for the worst day and worst night of our three-and-a-half months in Africa. That whole experience was unbelievable on so many levels. But the most unbelievable part is that we were one of the lucky ones who won our battle. Theft occurs all the time in Dar es Salaam. Muggings are commonplace in that city and much, much worse. But we came out of that ordeal with my bag and all of my camera gear unscathed. If it would have gone any other way, you would not have seen any of the photos you have seen so far on this blog and you wouldn’t be seeing any of the photographs to come (isn't that a sad thought!). In fact, it is difficult to say if our trip would have continued at all.

The Tanzanian Devil

One of the functions of travel blogging is to offer other like-minded (budget) travellers advice to the places they are planning to visit. Of course I do not recommend staying at the Econo Lodge in Dar es Salaam, but if you do (or wherever else you stay), keep your valuables on you at all times or invest in a sturdy lock and chain and lock your bags to something solid in your room. This is something we usually do but for some reason we let our guard down in Dar. Nothing will ruin a trip quicker than being separated from your most valued possessions so it pays off to be cautious.

Distances are long in Africa and you will experience long trips in uncomfortable buses and long waits in the middle of the night to catch them. But let’s put things in perspective… if this is the worst part about your journey through Africa, then you’re doing everything right!