Things we wish we would have known, By Ragolz.
My wife and I went to Tanzania in early August 2018 for a 10 day vacation. This was our first trip to Africa. Like many of you, we looked through the TripAdvisor Travel Forum posts and also posted some questions. We learned a lot before we left, but we learned even more while we were there.
First, a brief summary of our trip. We used Roy Safaris as our travel agent. We spent two nights each at the African Tulip in Arusha, Tarangire Balloon Camp in Tarangire, Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge in Ngorongoro, Serengeti Pioneer Camp in the Southern Serengeti and Mara Under Canvas in the Northern Serengeti. I’ll post reviews of all of the above separately.
We did what it appeared virtually all of the visitors do… game drives with a few ranger-led walks lasting less than 2 hours. Talking with fellow travelers at night, it appeared that many of them did cultural tours. We heard mixed reviews from them about these tours which confirmed our choice not to take any.
Now for the lowdown…
When to start planning:
We made our reservations about 9 months prior to departure and we still were not able to get some of our desired accommodations. It’s best to start 12 months prior to your departure. Note that the price of your trip will be greatly influenced by your choice of accommodations. We chose to select nice lodges and tent camps within the parks. You don’t spend a lot of waking hours at your accommodation, but we found in some cases our choices ended up giving us some of our best memories.
Kenya or Tanzania:
This was the first decision we had to make when we were planning our trip to East Africa. We initially were thinking Kenya, because that’s what we had always heard about. But as we started reading the forums, Tanzania popped up as the place to go. Based upon our experience, and talking with others who were visiting both Kenya and Tanzania, we made the right decision going to Tanzania. Kenya has much better marketing, but Tanzania has the parks, including 90% plus of the Serengeti.
When to go:
We wanted to see the Great Migration crossing the Mara River in Northern Serengeti, so we narrowed it down to July or early August. This was the right decision for us, but it appeared to be the right decision even if we didn’t want to see the Great Migration in Northern Serengeti. In the rainy season, many of the roads we used would be impassable, so we would have seen less. Also, we were told by the locals that September and October (which are still in the dry season) are unbearably hot.
Forget about your preconceptions of African weather. At least at the time of year we were there, the weather was very similar to Southern California … low humidity, warm during the day, cool at night. The one exception was at night on top of the Ngorongoro crater where it was rather cold.
All of the vehicles we saw were Toyota Land Cruisers. When you go on a game drive the driver “pops the top” and you are able to stand up in the vehicle. There are three versions of this vehicle and it is important that you get the right one. According to our driver, all the vehicles start out as from-the-factory, 5-passenger seat models (driver and passenger up front, and two rows of bucket seats in the back) with three doors (and a back hatch) which are then modified locally. This basic model is NOT what you want, even for 2 people. The seats are way too close together and the lack of a second door on the driver’s side is cumbersome. The next version is an elongated version of the basic model with a fourth door and still has 5 seats for passengers. Since the seat up front does not allow the passenger to stand to take pictures, this model should at most have 4 passengers. Finally, there is the 7-passenger model where the wheelbase is stretched even further. This version adds a third row in the back and a hatch above the front seat, so the front seat passenger can also stand. That said, you would not want more than 6 adults in this vehicle.
Four out of five of our accommodations were on a par with American hotels. We stayed at two lodges and three tent camps. The “tents” were really hotel rooms with canvas walls. The tents all had flush toilets and showers at the camps we reserved. The tent camps also had more character, were more intimate (each had less than 15 tents) and closer to nature than the lodges. My preference, outside Arusha, would be to stay in a tent camp. Our accommodation in the Northern Serengeti was at a seasonal tent camp. This was a bit more rustic than the other tent camps, but it was still a fine choice. One of the things that made it more rustic was the use of “bucket showers”.
Night at tent camps:
When the sun is down you are escorted to and from your tent by camp personnel. Depending upon the camp, you are either provided with a walkie-talkie or you use the provided flashlight to signal you want to leave your tent. BTW, you do not need to bring a flashlight.
To take a shower you tell the camp employees you want a shower in 10 minutes for one or two people. They bring a large bucket of warm water to your tent, outside near the shower, and shout to you to ask you if you are ready. They then pour the water into a large canvas sack outside and hoist it high so the water drains by gravity into your shower. You don’t control the flow or the temperature, and you have only a few minutes to take your shower. That said, it was a fine way to take a shower and we had no complaints.
You really don’t need anything other than US dollars. We had our driver stop at a currency exchange on our way out of Arusha to exchange $20. Turns out we didn’t need to do this. Everyone in the tourist industry uses US dollars.
We tend to tip generously. It’s one sure way to get travel revenue directly into the hands of people who can use it the most. At times it can seem a bit much. Do you really need two people to carry two bags to your room? That said, compared to the total cost of the trip it’s a pittance. If we were to do it again we would take 8 ones, 2 fives and 1 ten per day for tipping (this excludes your guide). At some of our accommodations we had the same waitperson for all of our meals, so we tipped them directly at the end of our stay. The front desk can change your larger bills for smaller ones. BTW, don’t forget to tip your airport driver and the guy who escorts you to you tent at night.
What clothing to take:
After reading that tsetse flies like blue and black and that there is a lot of dust, we took the recommendations we read and only packed light-colored clothing. So we were surprised when we arrived and found that perhaps a third of the visitors had “safari clothing” and the rest wore regular street clothing, including blue jeans. We did get into one area with tsetse flies, so I’m glad we had DEET and light-colored clothing, but if we did it again I would not go out of my way to get any “safari clothing”. I would just make sure I had some light-colored pants, shorts and shirts. I would also use my existing black fleece jacket and black rain jacket/windbreaker. Furthermore, I would only take two pairs of shoes. One pair of good sneakers or low-cut boots and one pair of comfortable shoes for use while travelling and for dinner. BTW, you can wear whatever you want at night for dinner. No one is any way dressed up.
We never use the laundry in American hotels because of the exorbitant cost. What we found is that at the five places we stayed, four of them did laundry (the seasonal tent camp did not) and the prices were very reasonable. If we would have known this, we would have taken less clothing and laundered them. Note that although we had read that local customs were such that they didn’t launder underwear and bras, we found this not to be true at all. These items were shown on all the laundry lists at our accommodations. Finally, note that you need to stay someplace for two nights to be able to launder your items there.
At the lodges there was no problem getting 220 VAC power. At the tent camps, it was a mixed bag. One had 220 VAC, one had 220 VAC but only at low power (i.e. no hair dryers) and one only had AC in a the common area for charging your devices. All that said, electricity was not a problem unless you use a hair dryer (note that the lodges provided hair dryers). Our safari vehicle had a DC-to-AC converter in it with a power strip, so we could also charge our devices while we were driving. Even if it didn’t have the converter, we could have used the cigarette lighter adapter we brought along to charge our devices.
There are paved roads outside the Parks, but once inside there is nothing but very poorly graded gravel roads. Some of the roads have many large washouts. You spend a good chunk of each day being jiggled and holding on. By the end of the day we were fatigued and both of our backs were hurting. Using extra cushions did not help. Its all part of the experience.
Perhaps we should have, but we did not realize that once you start your drive you never leave the vehicle except for lunch at a picnic area or for a field bathroom break. I guess we thought there might be viewing areas where you would stop. Given this, you do not need to bring a monopod or tripod for your camera. The Northern Serengeti was different from the other game drives. It was more like a “game site”. We would go to a likely crossing area and wait. Sometimes for 3 or 4 hours. Since you are in a vehicle all day with a popped-up roof, you need minimal sunscreen.
Bathrooms breaks during the day:
All of the picnic areas we stopped at for lunch had bathrooms with flush toilets. They were nearly as nice as many roadside rest stops in the US, but they did not have hand towels. If you are not close to a picnic area and you need to go, just tell the driver and he will find a private spot. Some of the bathroom stalls also had “footprint” toilets. If you open a stall door and your see one of these then just move on to the next stall.
Our typical day was up at 6:30, breakfast and in the vehicle by 8:00. We would then drive until about 1:00 and have lunch, either at our accommodations or at a picnic area. If we ate at our accommodations we would set out again about 3:00. In either case we returned about 6:00, just in time to take a shower, have a cocktail, see the sunset (about 6:30), sit by the fire (if it was a tent camp), have dinner and go to sleep.
Do not decide on your choice of accommodation based upon whether it has a swimming pool. We took bathing suits and never used them. The water temperature was too cold and we never had time to sit by the pool.
I have what can only be described as a sensitive stomach. Twice when we’ve gone to South America I’ve gotten deathly ill on the food. (Both times it was the fruit juice. You think I would have learned). Therefore, I was very careful at the start of this trip. But as the trip progressed, and I watched what people were eating, I took the plunge and ate everything, including the fruit juices and fresh produce. I didn’t have any issues. Note that I did not eat any street food and always drank bottled water.
The meals were a mixed bag. None were bad, but only a few were really good. Often the proteins were cooked beyond well done. The “seasonal vegetables” on almost all menus looked like they had been frozen (think Birds Eye). The lodges had buffets for all of their meals. The tent camps all had table service for dinner and a mixed bag of buffet/table service for breakfast. Our experience was that the soups and breads were really good. Also, since many of the accommodations were owned by Tanzanians of Indian ancestry, the Indian items on the menus were often the best choices.
At lunch, if you are staying more than one night, you can choose between either a box lunch or to come back for lunch. If you are staying only one night you will be given a box lunch to eat on your way to the next stay. It was nice to take a break during the day, so we opted for returning for lunch. The two exceptions were Ngorongoro where going back up and down the crater is too much for a lunch break and the Northern Serengeti where you never know when the wildebeest are going to cross the river, so you don’t want to be at lunch when they do.
We spent two nights in Arusha to acclimate a little to the time zone change and as a hedge against any plane delay issues. We took this opportunity to do a little afternoon shopping. To get to the shops, we had our hotel order a car and driver for us. It was only $10 per hour, less tip. We saw some great stuff and bought some things. Since we try to only go with carry-ons, we wanted to ship the items back home. What a surprise when the on-site DHL office said the items, which measured about 16” x 16” x 30” (they were not concerned about the weight, which was maybe 15 lbs.), would cost $840 to ship back to the US! There was not a “get there slow” versus a “get there fast” rate. That was it. That was a non-starter. We had the salesman give us some bubble wrap and had the driver take us to a luggage shop (the salespeople helped us with the driver, who spoke very little English). At the shop the driver helped us negotiate a priced of about $25 for a very large, soft-sided suitcase. There was no additional airline fee for this bag. The driver got a nice tip, the suitcase went into the trash when we got home and we saved $815.
I hope this helps…
Written By Ragolz
Edited By Augustine for Tanzania Travel Diary.