TANZANIA, KENYA & EGYPT
december 26, 2018 - January 12, 2019
A journey to Africa has been high on my travel wish list; it was always the biggest dream. “African Safari” was consistently the top choice when Jack and I would plan for our big yearly trip, and was consistently pushed to the side. “Where should we go?” we’d ask. “Well, obviously Africa. But more seriously…” Africa seemed too far (it is) or too expensive (oh boy it is) or too hard (it isn’t), and then in 2017 – because we ain’t getting any younger, folks – we stopped making excuses and DID IT.
Africa is there, waiting for you. There are elephants and giraffes just waiting for you to lay your eyes on them. There are – right now! – little baby warthogs, ready to be seen by you up close. The Sphinx sits calmly, ready to welcome you. The mosquitos? They can’t WAIT for your arrival. Take the plunge, save the money, and find the time.
Our trip was specifically Tanzania, Kenya and Egypt, and because it is recommended (by me and generally) and sometimes required (many parks won’t allow visitors without a licensed guide or ranger) that you safari with a guide, our trip was much more prescribed and managed than our travels usually are. We also utilized the services of a guide in Cairo, which I also recommend. So, while other journeys found us hiking on various paths – figurative and literal – on whims, this trip was more managed. When rhinos and lions are likely, use a guide.
We broke the journey into three parts: Tanzania (Safari and Kilimanjaro), Kenya (two days in Nairobi) and then Cairo (two days).
1. You’ll need visas. For Egypt we got our visas in advance, which I recommend – one less queue at the airport. For Kenya and Tanzania, we got our visas upon arrival. I don’t get the sense that the people who had their visas in advance saved any time, and Africa Adventure Company (more on them later) stressed that getting visas in country was what most people do. That being said, you’ll probably have to wait in line at some point regardless. We ALL (visa holders and non) had to stand in line at the Nairobi airport for…90 minutes? Two hours? At 3AM when we landed after a delayed flight. It was brutal, but I think rare and due to the ungodly hour we arrived. In Kenya and Tanzania you’ll need to pay USD (crisp, new bills) for your visas - $20 to $100 depending. Your safari company will counsel you further on the amount and recommendations.
2. Shots and malaria pills are required. Jack and I are all shotted up from previous travels, but we had to get a yellow fever vaccine and malaria for the duration of our Africa travels. Visit your local travel clinic (Northwestern’s is my favorite – tell Javelin I said hi!) and make sure to bring your vaccines document when you travel – stick it in with your travel documents. We were never required to show it but if they ask, you’ll want to have it at the ready. If you can, get a prescription for a Z-Pak (the travel clinic can and likely will prescribe one). We always do when we travel abroad – you don’t want to get sick mid-trip – and Africa was no exception. And, this is the first time I’ve had to TAKE the pills. Around day five I woke up with a case of the poos. Might have been something I ate (probably) or some non potable water that I accidentally drank. The idea of being in a bumpy safari jeep, out in the middle of the Serengeti, with hours to go before the nearest bathroom and violently having to…well. Let none of us except our mortal enemies ever experience that. I took my Z-pak with some water and a very dry piece of toast and was like new.
3. Yes, bugs are a thing. The notorious tsetse fly didn’t bother us at all (we saw them but didn’t get bit, perhaps this was a miracle) but I got hit hard by mosquitos around Tangarire and Ngorongoro. I wore a thick layer of DEET everyday (the bastards got me after I had jumped in a swimming pool and neglected to reapply - very clever) and we abided by the recommendation not to wear black or dark blue, as it (supposedly) attracts the tsetse fly. Lean in to the Out of Africa look and wear as much khaki as you can handle and perhaps be rewarded by no fly bites.
4. Bring a hat, and sunscreen. The Africa sun is like a SUPER SUN. A sliver of my bare knee was out in the sun for twenty minutes and got scorched. Wear sunscreen and bring a hat (now is your opportunity to get an amazing safari hat!). For the most part, safari is spent in a jeep that is covered, but hats don’t take up that much room in your bag.
5. Binocs. Get yourself a good pair. After considering bringing a crummy little pocket pair, I borrowed hefty Nikon binocs from my mom and am SO glad I did. Jack brought his own quality pair as well (trust me, you’ll want your own pair of binoculars). We saw lots of animals up close, but some were further away (including a cheetah with a baby gazelle in it’s mouth AND IT WAS SO SAD BUT ALSO AMAZING NATURE). I liked looking at the animals that were closer to us with my binoculars too – I could see whiskers and eyeballs all the better!
6. Bring a thermos. You start your day pretty early, and I was always slammed hot tea in order to get on the road. I wished numerous times that I had a to go cup or that midday when I got the sleepies (warm weather, early morning, bumpy car rides = lots of little micro naps) I could have had some tea. If you can find a slim thermos, it would be a nice luxury. Check with your safari company to see if that is something they can provide upon your arrive – I imagine the more expensive your itinerary, the more perks you get.
7. Bring cards. Always. Jack and I played oodles of gin.
8. Those who sit to pee: bring Pee Pockets (a product I have exhaulted previously). There are some gnarly bathrooms out in the world.
9. If you are prone to car sickness (I’m a delicate flower, so obviously, yes I am), bring some “Less Drowsy” Dramamine. I took a pill a day and never had an issue. I might have been okay without them, but I can get pukey in a five minute cab ride in Chicago, so better safe than sorry.
THE TOUR COMPANY THING
First order of business will be choosing your safari company, and there are as many options as there are zebras in the Serengeti. I had read about Africa Adventure Company (AAC) in The Week, a company billed as professional and respected. Most attractive – all their guides were former or current rangers. We looked around at other companies but didn’t do an exhaustive search, as it appeared that most safari companies charge around the same amount once you have your country and specific locations selected. Food for thought: any company that charges rock bottom prices you probably don’t want to go with (think cramped, shitty cars and unknowledgeable guides). I’d suggest doing some research on your own until you find that right fit for your vibe and your budget. You can get quotes and suggested itineraries from all of these companies at no cost, and this isn’t like you are choosing the Loop Target vs the one up in Uptown, this is Africa. Take your time.
After we chose AAC, we had a few phone calls with them to weigh our locations and options therein. Africa is HA-UGEH (pronounced “huge”) and there are endless options. I remember our agent at AAC advising, “don’t stress out about where you’ll go on this first trip. It is impossible to see it all in a lifetime, and I guarantee you’ll come back.” That might have been some Glengarry Glen Ross sales tactic, but it took the pressure off. We knew we wanted to see lots of animals, that we wanted to invest in something private (no one else in the car with us) and that we would be continuing on to Cairo, so East Africa was suggested. From there, AAC sent us two itineraries, Jack and I legit did pro/con lists, belabored the decision endlessly and finally made our selection and I began Googling “big bugs of East Africa and how to avoid them.”
GO THERE, DO THAT
1. Lake Manyara National Park. Lake Manyara holds a special spot in my heart because it was our first safari day and where we saw our first elephant – I have like 100 photos of that elephant. Manyara is a lovely protected park, and we drove through shaded, forested roads, to large watering holes and through some wide praries. We saw zebras (another 100 photos), loads of monkeys and birds, some water buffalo (those things are like very large aliens from another planet) and got a good sense of the speed and energy of safari. Days started early and with breakfast at “Mererani Manyara” – our camp accommodations, then hitting the road for game watching. Manyara was a bit different, as we came back to the camp for lunch and then left there for good, heading on to our next location. Every other day on our trip, we got up early for breakfast and then got basic boxed lunches prepared before we left – either to head to our next location, or not to return until much later in the day. Though Manyara was awesome, it paled in comparison to what lay ahead of us.
2. Serengeti National Park. What can I say? The Serengeti – of which we saw just a glorious portion of – is a wide, endless part of the world with chest high grass, muddy and popular watering holes, tall green trees and animals. Oh, the animals. Fields of zebras and wildebeests as far as the eye can see– HUNDREDS of them – all munching on their grass lunches; prides of lions cooling themselves in the shades of trees and baby warthogs (baby! warthogs!) curiously peaking out of dens to sniff around and see what all the commotion is. It’s spectacular and made me feel very small and lucky. In the Serengeti is where we saw two lions MATING – video below, obviously.
Only photos can properly explain the majesty of nature, and photos can’t do it justice. I remember driving through a field of zebras (video below) and being overwhelmed by the expanse and beauty of the wild. And yes, I quoted Out of Africa NUMEROUS times on the trip. The Serengeti is also where I identified my favorite animal – the not all that popular but very cute warthog. They go down to their elbows (front knees?) when they graze, their tails shoot straight up when they run and the babies are beyond adorable. I even picked up an “I heart Warthogs” bumper sticker, which is stuck proudly to the computer that I am currently typing on. My love runs deep.
Here is how the actual safari-ing works. Assuming you’ve got a great guide*: once you head out for the day, they will drive to the park area. Sometimes you’ll just start driving randomly, sometimes they’ll have heard from other guides or rangers about some activity happening and they’ll head there. Regardless, you’re always looking out the window, or putting the roof of your jeep up and standing to scan the horizon ahead of you. Often as you are driving you’ll see a bunch of other safari jeeps clustered around some action and you’ll join them. That was something I wasn’t prepared for: there are SO many other jeeps out and about. When we saw the two lions mating, which – granted – was a big fucking deal, there were probably twenty other cars lined up next to us watching (we had the best view because we got there first and Eli knew they were in a mating pattern and would be going at it again soon if we were patient – huzzah!). It seemed often that we were driving aimlessly, but in fact Eli typically knew where to go, where there was likely action happening. You break for lunch at a designated lunch spot (the national parks all have them – watch out for monkeys who WILL go for your lunch) and then continue on. We typically were out for the full day, as early as 7AM to as late as 6PM. You’d think you’d just be sitting on your duff all day, but just walking around the jeep and taking photos, grabbing for binoculars and sitting up and sitting down, I clocked an average of 12,000 steps each day. You return to your camp and have dinner, either with your guide or on your own and then hit the hay. Every day we were exhausted and happy.
Accommodations vary – at the most basic we were “glamping”, which still included a hot shower (delivered to you
*Eli was incredible – he is a very proud dad and husband, a retired ranger, and has the vision of Superman. Jack and I would be glued to our binoculars, scanning desperately when Eli would calmly say from the driver’s seat “elephants – three of them – through the trees on the left.” Like it was no big deal. Then suddenly, there they were. We never would have seen them if he hadn’t pointed them out – and there is why you need a great guide, folks: so you can see everything there is to see (and so you don’t get eaten by a lion). As Jack and I got (marginally) better at seeing animals through the trees, Eli was very congratulatory. “Very good, Rebecca!” “Jack, there we go, good job!”
Eli was pretty serious – he didn’t crack many jokes and didn’t drink, but his energy was pitch perfect. The first day we were with him, we were leaving Arusha headed toward Manyara and on a stretch of highway. I was pretty cracked out after all the flights and time change, and in my haze saw what I thought was a lion. “Lion!” I yelled. Without missing a beat Eli craned his neck to see what I was pointing at. “That is a cow. It would be very strange to see a lion here.” Jack made fun of me for the rest of the trip for that moment, and rightly so. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of birds, Eli also pretty much singlehandedly changed one of the huge ass tires on our Jeep when we got a flat.