(This accidentally published for about 3 seconds a few days ago – I blame some seriously bad UI for that. I’ve added photos and revised it since.)
It’s been 15 years since I was in Tanzania. Obviously, we’ve both changed a lot since then.
Here are some of my observations on how it’s changed… Keeping in mind that this is far from scientific so take my sweeping generalizations as just that.
There were cleaner bathrooms in remote national parks than in most malls in America. The exception was Kilimanjaro, which were absolutely disgusting, but the game parks, airports, cafes, and even cheap hotels had very clean bathrooms which were tidied up regularly. People in Tanzania would be appalled at the state of restrooms in most malls and especially bars in the USA.
There are a lot more ads than I remember, but instead of billboards they are painted directly on buildings. It makes it a little tougher to tell what kind of store it is, but I like the colorful landscape it creates.
Just about everyone has a mobile phone. We even saw Masai in traditional dress talking on their phone while tending their cattle. Most phones are much older, and when you do see a smartphone, it’s typically an Android. I suspect this is because of cost and also the need for dual SIM cards (different providers work better in different places – sometimes walking just a few steps made a huge difference). The only iPhone we saw belonged to our guide in Rwanda and it was an iPhone 4.
The way mobile service works is very different. You go to a kiosk to buy credit for your SIM. The clerk takes your cash, then makes a phone call to the provider to get it credited to your account. Then you dial a series of codes with the phone app to convert your credit to internet time, calling time, or make payments to various people/companies. (They’ve had mobile payments for years, so they are well ahead in that respect.) And if you don’t purchase one of their bundles promptly, it inexplicably gobbles up your credits. (It’s lucky we had help, else we never would have figured out the secret codes.)
Greetings are important. It’s pretty much required to say hello and have a short chat if you see someone you know. And there is a lot of hand-shaking, both when you meet someone for the first time or when you say hello or goodbye. (I kept thinking how my germ-adverse friend Assana would absolutely hate all the strangers touching her.)
Most roads are still not paved. While the main roads between the cities are paved, even within big cities like Dar Es Salam you’re mostly on rough dirt roads. This includes the well-traveled roads to the major national parks.
Walking is still a very popular mode of transportation. And while there aren’t nice sidewalks, there’s usually a clean dirt path set back from the road. You still see many folks transporting stuff on their heads, or piling things excessively high on a bicycle (then pushing it).
My Swahili was much better 15 years ago. (This wasn’t exactly a shock – I didn’t get much practice in SF.) It definitely got better after we’d been here a few weeks, but often people would get impatient and just switch to English since I was so slow to form sentences. Still, you could tell many people were surprised/intrigued that I knew more than the standard “hello” and “thank you” and “hakuna matata”. And by the end I was having no problem with basic conversations, asking directions, etc. I’m definitely going to sign up for refresher language classes when we go to Japan, though.
Most labour is still done by hand. We saw folks digging a ditch to lay a pipeline for water – this was all being done by men with shovels, no fancy ditch-digging machines. All the farming we saw was also conducted by hand, or the occasional cart pulled by cattle.
Honking is a whole language and never done out of rage. It means “hello”, or “be careful (pedestrian in the road), a car is coming” or “head’s up – i’m coming around a blind corner”. It always seemed casual and friendly, which is the exact opposite of the honking in the USA. (With the exception of Dar Es Salam, which was the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced anywhere.)
Depth of knowledge is specific, and often local. One of our safari guides wanted to know what kinds of animals we have in the parks in the United States… and he was shocked to hear we didn’t have many, and you can get out of the car wherever you like without an armed guard. This is a very reasonable reaction given his job but it struck me that most people’s knowledge is pretty local.
Though it felt like most local folks know a lot more about Tanzania than most Americans do about the US. I couldn’t tell you the population of San Francisco or the US, for example, but random taxi drivers had deep knowledge about their country, its history, and the people.
On the plus side, the only people who brought up Trump and the election was an Australian couple we met on safari and a divemaster in Zanzibar. Everyone in Tanzania loves Obama though! Most people responded with high fives or huge smiles and shouted “Obama!” when they heard I was American.
They have great signage. Sure, it may not be elegant, but it’s clear. And that’s the most important thing, especially in places of transit. Props to whomever made the Visa signs for the Kili International Airport.
We spent almost a week recovering from Kilimanjaro in Zanzibar. I’d heard nothing but great things about the island from both locals and tourists.
We started on the very northern tip at a beach resort called Ras Nungwi. It’s clearly low season now as the resort was barely occupied and the poor staff seemed so bored. We caught the guy at the deserted beach bar reading a can of Pringles for entertainment.
The difference between high and low tide is dramatic. At low tide, boats are parked on the beach and the locals fish in ankle-deep water far from shore. We saw many star fish, hermit crabs and sea urchin in the small tide pools. At high tide, the beach is completely gone and it’s nothing but gorgeous turquoise water.
We spent our first couple days mostly laying around while the leg soreness from Kilimanjaro slowly disappeared. Wifi was painfully slow, and even our cell connections were sporadic and unreliable so we did plenty of (offline) reading.
We took a long walk down the beach, but the closer to town we got, the more relentless the salesmen became. They offered everything from Masai jewelry to setting up tours to ebony carvings. I know that selling souvenirs is a good source of income for the village, but it gets really tiresome fending them off. I don’t want to be rude to anyone, but I also don’t want to buy any of these things since we are carrying everything we own.
And the kids asked for everything from pens to dollars. It’s much better to give the supplies to a school than an individual. I was furious when someone at a resort told me she was handing out pencils to every child who asked… Teaching children to beg is the worst thing you can do to help. (And this was after she already went to a school with a large donation of supplies – puzzling.)
The German isn’t overly excited about fish so I joined a group of strangers for a snorkeling trip. I thought about diving, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve gone so I wasn’t comfortable starting back up with a bunch of people I didn’t know and a company I was unfamiliar with. And the water is quite shallow, anyways.
It was quite an interesting group – an Italian couple (the guy was gung-ho but the girl was afraid of the ocean, anxious about using fins, and “worried about breakfast” – which I think meant she was scared of getting sea sick), a Guatemalan army general, a former pro snowboarder, and a Swiss hip hop promoter (who was in his 50s and looked absolutely nothing like someone who knows anything about hip hop). The snowboarder and hip hop guy smoked constantly and I was worried they might blow up our small boat filled with petrol and diving tanks. They were otherwise interesting and fun, though. And the Guatemalan general was super-friendly and had a lot of interesting stories.
The water is such a gorgeous turquoise colour and there is a lot of coral, which means tons of fish. Just snorkeling we saw huge schools of zebra fish and butterfly fish, a variety of trumpet fish, all colors of parrot fish (including my favorite ones that look like they are wearing snakeskin), and even a stonefish – they really do look just like rocks. It was nice to be in the calm water, with beautiful tropical fish everywhere. I find it so peaceful and relaxing. It was a nice way to spend the morning.
On the last night at the beach resort, a group of monkeys came to eat what looked like crab apples from the trees. The birds were furious, but there was nothing they could do to scare off these sizable fellows. Even if I lived here, I don’t think I would ever get tired of seeing monkeys in the trees in my yard.
Before leaving Zanzibar, we spent one night in historic Stone Town. It’s a maze of narrow, car-free alleys of very old buildings. (Like the gothic quarter in Barcelona, but even more narrow and, quite frankly, not as charming.) I chose a hotel to the Ferry Terminal that is known for its coffee (since The German is having serious withdrawal at this point). To my pleasant surprise, it seems to be a woman-run guest house with a great little cafe and coffee roastery.
Our first task in town was to pay for our ferry tickets. You can reserve seats online, but you must go to the office and pay in cash a day ahead of time. Just finding our way there proved challenging – there are no street signs in the maze of narrow alleys, and the phone GPS wasn’t accurate. We knew we were close when the onslaught of taxi drivers, tour guides, and salesmen began.
After finding the official office (as opposed to the other stalls which may/may not sell legit tickets), you must produce $70 in crispy bills dated later than 2003. (So annoying – you can’t use local currency, or a card, or half the bills in our wallet as they looked too dirty or something).
Tickets in hand, we fled the main street and the million offers to sell us something. Our attempts to “zen our way back” failed completely. What should have taken 5 minutes turned into an unanticipated one hour meandering tour through town. Thankfully, we finally located the hotel again. (This place is seriously a maze – I don’t know how we got so turned around!)
While this used to be a big location for slave trading, now the Arabic influence is what’s most apparent – there are mosques every couple blocks (the calls to prayer make a strange cacophony as they overlap each other), elaborate doors, the smell of spices… It’s very different than anywhere else we’ve been.
What would’ve been a lovely dinner was destroyed when thousands upon thousands of flying insects erupted from a wooden post in the center of the dining room. (Easily the closest thing to a horror movie I’ve ever experienced.) As soon as people realized what was going on, diners lept from their chairs, screaming and swatting. The staff quickly turned on fans, turned off all the lights, and sprayed the hell out of the post with bug spray. By that time, our food was covered in insects as we huddled in the corner with the others. Ah – Africa!
Of course it was pouring rain the next day when it was time to walk to the ferry. And then I wound up with a seat next to a guy with the worst BO in the world. (And he liked to sit with his arms above his head, just to maximize the scent.)
So in the last 48 hours, we’ve had a plague of insects, torrential rains, and unbearably bad smells. Throw in a nauseating ferry ride followed by a hectic negotiation of a taxi, and then a 120+ minute ride to the hotel (which was only 4 miles away – no joke), and I’m more than ready to go. Our flight is at 6am – let’s hope the traffic dies down before then.
It’s been fantastic to be able to spend a month here, but I think we are both done with Tanzania for a while. I’m looking forward to some time in a more modern city… Cape Town, here we come!
They say travel is a true test of a relationship, but I think it’s camping.
In summary, we laughed our way through the discomfort. I’m so glad we did it, and I also never want to do it again. It was hard. Really, really hard…. the most grueling physical challenge I’ve ever attempted. We’ve definitely earned some lazy beach time on Zanzibar.
I drafted this post every day to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally sugar coat anything…
Day 0 – Prep
We spent one night in a nearby town called Moshi to do final prep. Our guide came to our hotel to check out what gear we did/didn’t have and give us a briefing.
Everyone must take 2 guides, in case one person can’t summit or a guide gets sick. You must use the sanctioned camp sites, which means we will see other groups, even though it was just the two of us. The route we chose is the slowest ascent with the highest success rate (which was reassuring to hear). He returned later that afternoon with heaps of ski clothing and some serious cold weather sleeping bags, which was not reassuring.
The German spent the afternoon reading various recaps of other people’s climbs and periodically saying “Oh my god”. This didn’t help my confidence.
I slept terribly mainly because our hotel was pretty dumpy. The bed was super hard and there was a ton of noise outside – roosters crowing, dogs barking, a nearby mosque blasting the call to prayer. And the blanket was very thin so I spent half the night freezing. We joked it was good training for the mountain, which would at least be quieter.
Day 1 – Getting Started
We took one last shower and then met up with our 2 guides, 1 cook, and 8 porters to start the adventure.
It takes about 3 hours to drive to the main gate. This is where you officially register, plus they weigh everything the porters are carrying to ensure each one takes no more than 20kg.
They gave us a boxed lunch while we were waiting. I’m fairly certain I wound up eating a butter sandwich but I knew I needed to eat a lot to have energy to climb and stay warm at night. So basically, we both tried to eat whatever they put in front of us throughout the trip. Suffice to say, any low-carb diets were off.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to use the toilet one last time, and was dismayed to find it was just a hole in the floor. (Basically, every woman’s least favorite thing in the world.) At this point, my decision to pay for a private toilet was obviously going to be my biggest regret of this trip. You are supposed to drink at least 3 liters of water per day, which is tough to do when you dread having to pee. Sigh.
When the weighing of our stuff was finally finished, they re-loaded everything onto the van and we drove another 30 minutes or more to where we truly started hiking.
We started at 7220 feet and arrived a couple hours later at our first camp at 9230 feet. (We are using the compass app for the first time ever to track all of this.). The path is much more established than what we dealt with in Rwanda – it’s a nice, wide dirt path with crude stairs on the hills. The hike felt taxing in spots due to the steep incline (and the altitude, presumably), but they encourage you to go slowly and drink lots of water on the way. The forest was lovely and lush, and overall it was a pleasant hike.
The porters passed us early on and had camp almost set up when we arrived. There’s a small tent for us to sleep in, plus an adorable dining tent with a table for two. They brought us a couple bowls of warm water for washing up, and then we had a snack of tea and popcorn while they prepared dinner.
As a bonus, a couple blue monkeys came by to beg/steal food. They are baboon-sized, but clearly used to having campers around and you could get really close to them.
Dinner was surprisingly good. We had a hot cucumber soup, followed by pasta with a hearty vegetable sauce and there was also potatoes and fried fish. They kept encouraging us to eat more but it hardly felt like we worked up enough of an appetite for the volume of food they gave us.
As soon as it got dark, temperatures dropped dramatically. We have silk sleep sacks inside our rented sleeping bags (thanks to Nicholas’ wife, Lisa for that great idea), which adds even more warmth. The German has a solar-powered battery we can use to recharge our phones, so I spent the last hour of our first night listening to an episode of my favorite podcast while cocooned in my sleeping bag.
At this point, I’m feeling like this is all doable – the camping (other than the bathroom situation), the hiking, etc.
Day 2 – The Real Hiking Begins
We both slept remarkably well. Getting dressed was a bit comical in the tight space… Neither of us has been camping in decades. I found myself saying “I’m not very good at this” quite a bit, as I did things like accidentally punch him while I put on my jacket.
Breakfast was eggs and bread and what can only be described as “gruel”. I tried adding honey, but that didn’t help mask the taste. The fact that it was hot was its only redeeming quality and we both agreed we couldn’t choke it down.
At my mom’s recommendation, we’ve been taking ginkgo biloba, which she uses to prevent altitude sickness. (There is also a prescription medicine we didn’t manage to get. Our guides said it makes you have to pee a lot, so maybe that was for the best given the toilet situation.) We haven’t had any symptoms of altitude sickness, so we spoke to our guide about doubling up the day’s hike (which would mean one less night of camping).
The morning hike took 4 hours, and at least 2 of those were incredibly steep. Sometimes it felt like we were moving in slow motion (which is the pace the recommend – slow & steady). The guides did a good job of distracting me with Swahili lessons for the first half, but then I couldn’t spare the breath to keep talking for the second.
We were both drenched in sweat and covered in dust by time we arrived at our lunch stop, which was essentially a big, rocky, windy dustbowl. (This was the camp we decided to skip, thankfully.) Every other bite of food came with a mouthful of dust (as if I wasn’t dirty enough). They also had a plethora of the horrible squat toilets. So in other words, I was very happy it was just a short stay.
At this point we are both feeling really exhausted, but the next camp is still another 3 hours away. And we’ve left the cover of the forest, so we hiked that in the blazing afternoon sun.
Everything was covered in dust – my white socks were brown, my boots were unrecognizable, and I felt like my teeth might also have a layer of dust on them. I couldn’t imagine ever being clean again. The hiking was really tiring, even though it wasn’t as steep as the morning’ route. It felt like we would never get there. At this point, The German asks how I’m doing and I respond with:
“I feel disgusting, I look disgusting, and my main goal of every day is not to pee on myself.”
(We both burst out laughing)
At this point, the guides made us take a break and drink more. My climb is essentially powered by mango juice – one small box will get me 30-45 minutes of a better attitude.
When we were about 30 minutes away from camp, two of our porters appeared and relieved us of our day packs! This was a very welcome surprise, and we managed to make one final push to get to our camp.
This camp was at 12800 feet with a clear view of the top of the mountain, which had been hidden in clouds until now. We are still several days away from the summit, but it was nice to see it getting closer.
We were thrilled to see all the tents already set up and they had water ready for us to wash up. After one dish of warm water, I was feeling much more human.
But even better was my discovery of an actual toilet!! I never expected to be so happy to find the equivalent of a nasty porta-potty (which should give you an idea of how dire the situation has been).
Day 3 – Acclimitization
Our route is designed to give you the best chance of adjusting to the altitude by “climbing high, sleeping low”.
Our goal for the day was to make it to 15,000 feet for lunch. It was a long, gradual uphill trek, moving at a pace I would describe as “granny with a walker”. At this altitude, we were exhausted from getting dressed – walking seemed like an intense physical workout.
This is the point at which the different routes to the top start to converge. We are seeing a lot more people (and a lot more trash) along the way. Its pretty much an international parade – there are people from all over the world, and all different ages and physical capabilities making the climb. A lot of these people clearly don’t understand the concept of taking your trash with you – it’s unfortunate to find candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and toilet paper along the way.
We managed to make it to Lava Tower for lunch at our gradual but continuous pace (with many breaks for water and snacks). However, by time we stopped to eat, The German wasn’t his normal ravenous self, and we both had low grade headaches. Both are sure signs of altitude sickness.
From there, the walk to camp was about 2.5 hours downhill, which sounded great in theory. However, it was very steep and rocky so you really had to consider every step and our knees were getting so tired. I was somehow feeling much better than the day before, so now I guess it was his turn to feel exhausted and defeated.
This camp is in a gorgeous spot overlooking the clouds, but it’s crawling with other people. I always pictured this climb as an isolated experience, but tonight seems more like camping at a music festival. (Minus the music, though several other groups like to sing, apparently.) Each climber needs about 3 porters, so it can turn into quite a lot of people at the campsites.
Several of the other groups have private toilets and I find myself looking longingly at them. You periodically see women exiting the camp bathrooms full of nasty squat toilets, and they all look miserable.
The German had a terrible, throbbing headache and no appetite when we got to camp. We forced him to drink a bunch of ginger tea and eat some soup in hopes it cleared up before morning. Otherwise, we both agreed from the start that if one of us got sick, we’d end the trip and go down together instead of risking serious illness. At this point, there was nothing to do but wait until morning.
Day 4 – The Baranco Wall
Every night I dream of food. Don’t get me wrong – they are doing a really job considering where we are, but I miss cheese. And wine. And food that stays hot long enough for me to get it from my plate to my mouth.
The good news was that The German was feeling much better after 12 hours of sleep. The bad news was that we had to tackle The Baranco Wall, which is a point where many people quit.
From the ground, it looked absolutely impossible. I have no idea how people weren’t sliding right off the rocks to their death. And there’s one part called the “kissing stone” where you have to hug a giant boulder and shimmy across a ledge. Our guides kept telling us it would be fine, but it looked incredibly intimidating. For the first time, I was scared.
We weren’t allowed to use our hiking poles as we needed our hands free to grab onto rocks and pull ourselves up. (I’m guessing this is what my climber friends would call “bouldering”.)
It was a solid 2 hours of vertical climbing. As usual, the porters were moving at double our pace while carrying massive bags on their heads.
As our guides promised, once we got started it was actually kind of fun – in a “I can’t believe we are doing this” sort of way.
We arrived at the top (around 14,000 feet) exhausted but invigorated. The view was amazing and the summit was actually looking achievable.
We bought a bunch of “food” from REI before we left SF – I never imagined in my life that I’d need things like energy chews, but they were surprisingly effective when faced with some of these steep climbs. The German was skeptical at first, but other than “margarita” being a poor flavour choice, we had to start rationing to make sure we had enough left for summit day.
We had a few more hours of hiking up and down to get to our camp, which was at 13,300 feet. The last “hill” was ridiculously steep. You could see the other climbers making their way up like a line of slowly moving ants, and this is the only time the porters have moved at the same pace as the tourists. We joined the line and arrived at camp shortly after 12, our faces hot with windburn. This meant we had the whole afternoon to relax – a nice change from prior days.
This camp was on a really windy slope. Food slides to one end of your plate while eating, and you can see people slipping down the dusty hill to the toilets (which are the worst yet – in addition to being revolting, some don’t even have doors). On the plus side, it was a very surreal perspective – like the whole camp might slide off the mountain into an ocean full of clouds.
We celebrated our accomplishment of conquering the wall by breaking out our stash of TCHO chocolate. Our tour company recommended we bring chocolate along to try and stimulate our appetites if we didn’t feel like eating, but we figured we deserved a reward for making it this far.
Day 5 – Base Camp
The night was the coldest yet. I slept in long underwear and a fleece and still wasn’t warm enough. Neither of us is sleeping well – not sure if that’s the cold or the hard, rocky ground or the incline or the altitude (or all of the above).
At this point I’m wearing double layers of moleskin on my feet. (Thanks to Les for forcing me to buy some before we left SF.) My hiking boots are well-worn and generally comfortable, but this is certainly the most action they’ve ever had.
The hike to this camp was short but incredibly steep. Even the porters ceased to overtake us. I’ve grown to resent the large group of college students who still somehow look fresh-faced and energetic. They chatted their way up the Baranco Wall, as though just breathing wasn’t a huge labor for them.
We arrived at base camp 2.5 hours later, which is at 15,300 feet. The landscape is “alpine desert”, which basically means rocks. There are tents everywhere amidst the rubble of the steep slope. The wretched squat toilets are perched on what looks like the edge of the cliff, so that added an element of danger once it got dark.
Our tents are right at the start of the summit trail and we saw many groups shuffling down the steep incline like colorful zombies. They all looked completely drained.
Because this camp holds everyone who is ascending or descending, there’s a constant rabble – porters shouting to each other, climbers chatting, some folks have radios which play fuzzy reggae music or a soccer game. And throughout the day people continue to descend, often with guides leading them by the hand or with an arm wrapped around their waist. I really hope that isn’t us tomorrow.
Day 6 – The Longest Day of My Life
We left for the summit at midnight, because it would’ve been too easy to do it during the day. (Haha) They gave us the option to leave at dawn but I guess sunrise is the best time to be there, and frankly, we were both ready to get it over with. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain they recommend going in the dark because if you saw what the path looked like, you’d immediately psych yourself out of attempting it.
We were lucky in that it wasn’t terribly windy. Even so, it was incredibly cold and I basically wore everything I brought plus every piece of clothing they loaned me. And a headlamp. They advised me to wear 2 pair of long underwear, and told us how to store our water bottles so when they freeze (not if it freezes, but when) you’ll still be able to get some water out of them.
As we started the death march, I immediately understood why everyone looked so drained on the previous day. This hike would’ve been challenging to anyone, but combine it with extreme altitude and it was downright grueling.
The only thing visible (besides stars) were the other climbers’ headlamps. A few groups started ahead of us and we could see they were already much higher. The climb started off very steep, then was ridiculously steep, followed by “how are we even walking on this?!”. I kept hoping for a bit of flat path, but each time I spotted the other climbers, they were always moving higher. This went on for 6 hours.
Even the guides didn’t speak this time – everyone needed to save their breath. The recommended method was to move slow and steady, no matter how small your steps. At times, it felt like I wasn’t actually moving forward, though I was certainly moving my feet. There was a lot of dust and small stones, so you’d regularly find yourself sliding backward. And I tripped over the equivalent of a pebble on numerous occasions – it was just that hard to life your legs.
Your best bet for success was to just focus on your guide’s feet and follow their steps and pace. Your job was to just keep moving. It was all too reminiscent of a Horror Movie: Step…. Step… Step…
The path was predominantly serpentine. Sometimes this involved scrambling over smooth rock faces, sometimes it was deep dust, and sometimes it was big chunky rocks. And it just never ended.
There were many others on the trail, which meant we passed a lot of carnage on the way: bloody noses, vomiting, people collapsed on rocks in exhaustion. (All “completely normal” according to our guides.)
Breaks had to be just 1 or 2 minutes or else your body would get cold and you’d have a whole other set of problems. I had those chemical heat packs in my gloves, but I still was sincerely concerned about frostbite- it didn’t seem like they were working at all.
We trudged and trudged and trudged, struggling to breathe and move, battling waves of nausea from the altitude but knowing we needed to eat something occasionally or we wouldn’t have enough energy to make it. There were times I wished I could just lay down in the dirt and rocks and sleep – it was that exhausting.
We finally made it to Stellar Point (at the top of the never-ending steepness), 6 hours later and right as the sun was starting to rise. I inexplicably wanted to burst into tears – I’m guessing from pure exhaustion and relief that the worst was behind us. The German was feeling awful – clearly the altitude was getting to him and our guides were really trying to help him push through to get all the way to the end.
It was another 45 minute walk to the actual peak, with much more manageable terrain of rolling hills. The uphill parts still felt ridiculously difficult, but at least there were some flat parts to balance it out and none of it was nearly as steep as what we just did. There were glaciers on one side, and the sunrise was beautiful. I felt newly invigorated, while The German was pretty much delirious.
We got our token photos at the peak. (Somehow he wound up with cool snowboarding loaner clothing, while I looked like some kind of Rainbow Brite reject.) After I took about 5 photos, my iPhone shut down due to extreme temperatures- it was still that cold. I wanted to use The German’s phone, but he was so delirious he didn’t know where it was (which was a first for him)!
Once the photos were taken, we immediately started to descend because neither of us needed more altitude exposure.
The way down took another 2.5 hours, but it was much easier. There were many groups still working their way up – I tried to offer encouragement as we passed. Then we veered off to an alternate path, where we basically slid/ski’d down through the deep dust. It was actually kind of fun, though it took “filthy” to a whole new level.
We stopped halfway down for a juice break – I think they were trying to give The German enough energy to make it back to the tent. I couldn’t help but feel proud of the achievement… It was an incredible physical and mental challenge, and not only did we accomplish it, but we were amoung the first to the top and neither of us barfed!
We were allowed to take a 1 hour nap at base camp, followed by lunch. Then we really needed to head to lower altitude.
Both of us were dismayed to learn it was a 4 hour hike to our final camp. It was all downhill, which sounded appealing, but the reality was that our knees were extremely fatigued and we felt like we were hobbling the whole way.
We descended down to 10,000 feet to Mweka Camp for our final night. As the oxygen became more plentiful, all symptoms of altitude sickness vanished.
Day 7 – Return to Civilization
We slept well for the first time in a week, no doubt due to exhaustion (and oxygen). As you can imagine, we were excited to get back to town to a shower and clean clothes, so we were quick to pack and start the last leg of hiking to the gate.
We made our way down to the forest, which was full of lush plants and trees and a gorgeous mist. Pretty much every muscle in my legs was sore, so we weren’t moving as quickly as I would have liked. And the beautiful mist caused the trail to become a slippery, muddy mess. As usual, the porters were flying past us as we struggled not to wipe out in the mud.
A dumpy hotel has never looked so good! Now it’s time for hot showers, hot food, and a day of trying to clean all of our stuff before we head to Zanzibar!
This was a great experience, but I never need to do it again.
I really can’t say enough good things about our travel agent, Natural World Safaris. This is my second time using them, and each time my expectations are exceeded. They specialize in wildlife-focused holidays, and always use sustainable properties and local staff, so the money we spend helps support the local economy. And as you’ve seen, we haven’t exactly been slumming it.
For our final leg of the safari, they recommended we stay at Gibb’s Farm. It’s a very different experience from our tents in the bush… This is an actual working farm with 22 cottages and an impressively large vegetable garden. 90% of what they serve in the restaurant comes directly from their farm and you are welcome to help pick some vegetables yourself. Absolutely everything we’ve eaten has been so delicious and fresh – it was the epitome of “farm to table”.
The grounds are the definition of “lush” – there are trees, flowers, and vines creating privacy for each guest. From our veranda I see nothing but plants and flowers, and hear nothing but birds (and at night, the bush babies).
Our cottage is enormous and has both an indoor and outdoor shower, as well as a fireplace you can see from both the bed and the gorgeous bathtub.
On staff they have a naturalist, who gives a talk about a different animal each day. There is also an artist-in-residence program… the main building includes a small gallery displaying the artist’s work, and you often see him painting or carving somewhere on the grounds. Masai are available to take you on nature walks. You can also milk a cow, get a guided tour of the gardens, or just sit and relax and enjoy the view (with a cup of their coffee, which is also grown on the property).
Everyone who works here seems sincerely proud of the property and they should be. I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but I’m completely blown away! It was a nice change of pace from the safari camps, and the food was excellent (and not just by Tanzania standards)
This was also our first chance to get a glimpse of life outside of the game parks. In this part of the country, the earth is very red from the volcanic soil. In my mind’s eye, this is the colour of Tanzania. Everything is covered in a fine layer of red dust. This soil is the perfect material for making bricks, and great for farming.
On our day in Ngorongoro Crater, we were incredibly lucky to spot some lionesses on the hunt. These clever girls worked together to take down an unsuspecting zebra. One sits at a distance in plain view of the zebra, as a bit of a distraction. While the zebra were keeping a cautious eye on the first lioness, the other snuck around back of the herd, even using the safari vehicles as cover at times. Finally, she lunges and latches on to its neck, as her partner runs over to help finish the job. It was fascinating to watch, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for the zebra – it doesn’t look like a pleasant way to go. The video below shows the action:
Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful and there’s no shortage of animals at every turn, but its a contained area so this also means there’s no shortage of people everywhere. After being so spoiled in the remote areas of Namiri Plains, we didn’t have much patience for all the vehicles jockeying for a good view of whatever animal was closest. At one point, we were allowed to leave the vehicle and take a few photos on the edge of a hippo pond. As we were admiring the hippo, some girl came up and asked us to move so she could take a photo there. (Seriously?!) I told her she was rude and we walked off, but un hindsight, we should have stayed and photobombed her.
We decided to bail out a little early and spend more time on the farm, where I tried milking a cow. (It was weird, and I wasn’t very good at it. The cow didn’t seem to mind but it sure felt like I had to pull awfully hard to make nay progress.)
Our last day of game viewing was spent at Tarangire Park. I jokingly requested that I only wanted to stop for animals that were very close to to the car… we’d seen so much and so close in Serengeti that I didn’t have patience for much else. (And if I’m honest, I think we’re both feeling a bit safari fatigued.)
Luckily, the park didn’t disappoint! We easily saw hundreds of elephants, some of which were so close I thought they might bump the car. We also saw a nice pride of lions with 4 cubs, again very close. It seemed like animal after animal was waiting nearby to pose for us – from the tiny dik dik to the tall giraffes.
Impala, on high alert due to nearby lions
These naughty monkeys waited at the picnic area and would try and steal your lunch
The tiniest of all the antelope
We then drove several hours to Arusha, one of the larger cities in Tanzania, to spend one final night as the last piece of our safari package. Our room was gorgeous with romantically draped mosquito netting, and I had high hopes the internet would be decent so we could sort out some logistics for the next couple weeks…
…While the room certainly looked pretty the wifi was the absolute worst we’ve had and it look me 3 hours to get enough photos uploaded for the previous blog post! (There was a lot of cursing.) The next morning we bought SIM cards, only to discover activation isvery confusing and we used about a quarter of the credit trying to convert our talking time into data time. So in other words, our days of not having to think for ourselves while someone takes care of all of our needs are done.
Next up is Kilimanjaro! I’m nervous about altitude sickness and freezing to death. Our guide came by to brief us and deliver very warm sleeping bags and a bunch of mismatched ski clothes, so you can look forward to some very entertaining photos.
We took a 25 minute flight to central Serengeti, which is the area you most often see in the movies – a vast expanse of umbrella acacia trees and tall grasses blowing in the breeze.
From there we drove a couple dusty hours to Namiri Plains. This camp is in the very eastern part of the park, which was closed to visitors until 2014 so the cheetahs were undisturbed, in hopes their numbers would increase.
Suffice to say, this is cat country and the drive to camp did not disappoint. We saw a leopard in a tree, a cheetah, and at least a dozen lions, one of which was hunting warthog until a safari vehicle accidentally interfered.
This camp is even more luxurious than the last. I’m fairly certain our tent is larger than my SF apartment was, and includes both an interior and exterior shower. The outside shower has 2 shower heads and overlooks the plains, where I’ve already seen two types of gazelle. (This makes The German happy, as gazelle are absolutely silent unlike wildebeest). At every turn someone is offering a soft blanket to keep you warm, or a wet towel to keep you cool. In other words, we are being spoiled.
Our first game drive resulted in an exciting elephant encounter. There was an adorable 2 month old baby, perpetually flanked by two grown elephants for protection. We kept a respectful distance, and they initially seemed fine with our presence. A few minutes later, they decided it was time for us to leave and commenced charging. While I shouted at The German to take video, our driver floored it to get us safety. The elephants pursued us for quite a few minutes, with us shouting “they’re still coming!” at our guide. Elephants certainly can move quickly when they want to… exciting!
You hear lions every morning at camp (and sometimes all through the night) – it’s an amazing wake-up call! The males roar to advertise their territory, and there are 6 brothers close to camp.
The next morning we managed to find 3 different mating pairs… It was starting to feel like a sex tour. As we learned at the other camp, the females ovulate slowly so they have to mate every 10-15 minutes over 7 days. It’s not exactly a romantic picture.
We followed this up with two different cheetah with cubs. It’s really amazing to see them wandering the plains. The grass is so tall you can only see the tips of the raised tails of the little ones as they follow behind their mom in a single file line.
While the area near the air strip was congested with safari vehicles, we rarely saw anyone else on our game drives unless they were one of the other two cars from our camp – you really feel like you’re isolated in nature. And the wildlife doesn’t seem particularly bothered by us, provided we are quiet. We’ve gotten incredibly (and sometimes uncomfortably) close to lion and cheetah. You hardly need binoculars here since the cats are right next to the car.
And sometimes it seems like we don’t even need to go on a game drive at all since so many critters are so close to camp!
The guides are all so knowledgable – every drive I get more info that makes me even more impressed with nature. Despite the plains being flat and open, it’s often difficult to see animals until we are very close to them, thanks to their camouflage. One morning we came across a cheetah, still panting from hunting a gazelle. Once she caught her breath, she dragged the gazelle into a clump of tall grass to hide it from scavengers. Even the vultures that flew overhead didn’t manage to spot her.
Another fascinating detail is the defense mechanism of the acacia trees. A chemical reaction is triggered when something is eating its leaves, changing the taste of them. After giraffe have been munching away, the leaves start to taste bad so they move on before the tree is stripped bare, which would kill it. That tree signals other nearby acacia, which means downwind trees will trigger the reaction preemptively. The giraffe seem to have figured this out, and always shift upwind to graze. Everybody wins! The giraffe get food but leave the tree before irreparable damage is done. How cool is that?!
Other highlights included a brief encounter with a serval cat, which look a bit like a housecat wearing a cheetah costume. We also saw some adorable bat-eared fox, a baby owl in a nest, and a big bull elephant. Our stay completed with a view of lions mating while we had breakfast. I think we are certainly spoiled when it comes to big cat viewing now!
Then it was one final small plane ride to Ngorongoro Crater to complete our safari adventures. I’m really liking these small planes now – no TSA hassle, just throw your bags into the storage compartment and get on board. Plus, we always get a handshake and personal safety briefing from the pilot, and today our flight actually left 30 minutes early!
On a side note, we’ve had extremely slow/no internet access for about 2 weeks now. While it makes travel planning a challenge (and it will be a miracle if I ever get enough images uploaded to post this blog entry), it’s been a good reminder to put down my phone and just enjoy the moment. I’m hoping to continue this trend once we leave as it’s been nice to be more engaged with my surroundings.
So after all our stress of packing, weighing and re-weighing our luggage, stuffing all of our pockets with our heaviest belongings, going to the airport literally wearing 4 tops, and The German even got rid of some tech stuff (begrudgingly), they didn’t weigh our luggage. I’m really glad I didn’t preemptively throw away my nice shampoo.
Our plane from Rwanda had 12 seats on it (13 if you count the co-pilot seat, which was also filled by a passenger). Our flight stopped at a small town in Tanzania just to clear immigration, where they wrote down our details by hand in a notebook.
Once we we reached the closest airstrip, we had about a 90 minute drive to our camp. It wasn’t that far but there are no roads – you drive on tracks that are pretty rough and you really utilize the 4wd of the Land Cruisers. Along the way we say thousands of wildebeest, zebra, baboons, giraffe, several types of antelope, and a warthog. Oh, and an African squirrel.
Our first camp was called Ubuntu and is exquisite. It manages to be luxurious while also being ecologically minded and a big supporter of local communities. It’s part of the Asilia group, and they have received many awards for their sustainability practices and social impact on local communities. Some of their projects include supporting local schools, taking local children to visit the wildlife, educating farmers on organic practices, and their camps are run by locals (including one that is entirely staffed by women!). I feel very good about who is getting our money.
Our tent is super-comfortable, including a flush toilet and a sink with running water plus a shower. (You have to request they come fill it with warm water, but it’s still better water pressure than in Rwanda.) There are solar-powered lights, a queen-sized bed, and and a walkie-talkie to call the staff if you need anything. Each time you return from a game drive you’re greeted at the car with cool, wet, minted towels – so refreshing!
The camp moves 3 times a year and is currently in the northeast corner of Serengeti. They estimate there are 2.5 million wildebeest moving through as they head south to breed. It’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. There’s no wifi and no phone reception. It only has 7 tents, so you really feel like you’re part of the bush.
The haunting sound of the wildebeest never stops. It’s a constant chorus of this short, honking “moo”, as they call and respond to each other. We pretty much got no sleep the first night as it sounded like they were migrating through our tent.
The day works like this: wake up call when it’s still dark with tea or coffee delivered to your tent. Breakfast is served watching the sunrise, then you head out on a 5 hour game drive. You spend the hottest part of the day at camp, enjoying a leisurely lunch and relaxing in your tent or the communal lounge tent. There is another game drive in the late afternoon, after you’ve had tea and some kind of cake. Just after sunset, you return to camp for a hot shower then a bonfire and cocktails so everyone can share their stories of the day. Finally, a 3 course dinner is served. Then everyone retires to their tents, exhausted from all the eating and drinking. 🙂 All drinks, laundry service, and game drives are included so you don’t have to worry about anything.
Everything is done family-style… the whole camp eats at one long table together. The staff is so friendly that you really feel like part of the family after a couple days. And we spent all of our game drives with a Belgian father & daughter who were a lot of fun – she’s as passionate about animals as I am and he was just generally fun to be around, cracking jokes all the time. We really couldn’t have asked for better safari partners.
At camp, you can hear the wildebeest, hyena, and jackals at night, and during the day there are all sorts of birds, including a marabou stork right by the lunch tent, and of course, the constant line of wildebeest.
The guides all have degrees in animal behavior and know the park and its inhabitants very well – they are experts at predicting where the animals will be and can answer any question you have. It’s like a roaming zoology course.
One morning we saw thousands of wildebeest crossing a river. Luckily, the crocodiles were all full but it was still heart-wrenching to watch the wildebeests struggle to get up the other side, trampling each other on the muddy slope. Babies and parents would get separated and you’d see them crying out, frantically searching for each other.
One of of the lion prides near camp has twin cubs, around 2 months old. We managed to find them just as they were waking up one evening. The pride is massive – possibly 20 all together. While the adult males and females continued to sleep, the little ones woke up and entertained each other by play fighting and hunting each other’s tails. So adorable!
Another time we managed to find some
lions mating. Apparently the females are slow to ovulate so they mate repeatedly over a week to increase the chances of a cub. When we saw them, they were mating every 10 minutes!
In the first two days we managed to see all of the Big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and even the incredibly endangered black rhino, who was practically in the backyard of our camp), as well as the Ugly 5 (marabou stork, crocodile, wildebeest, hyena and hippo, who I personally find cute but I don’t make these lists). We also got to see leopards in a tree, an egret wrestling with a snake as he was devouring it, and a mind-boggling number of wildebeest. I don’t think The German realizes how lucky we’ve been, since this is his first safari.
The gorgeous scenery stretches out for miles and miles… I never get tired of looking at it and could easily spend day after day watching giraffe graze on acacia trees or zebra munching their way through the tall grass or ostrich protecting their nest.
I was sad when our 3 days came to an end… Luckily, we are only headed to central Serengeti to another camp!