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We Dreamed of Africa

I don’t care how jaded you might be when it comes to wildlife, the first time you poke your head out of the window of a vehicle and find yourself staring at four lions only an arms length away, your heart stops.

The Video

Don’t have time for this long article? Here’s our video that says more than all the articles combined.  If you plan to read the article, you might want to save this video for last.

Our trip to Africa was not so much a “bucket list” item, as a longing that had been gnawing at my psyche for decades.  Laura and I are known by all to be animal welfare activists. Together, we have rescued and found homes for over 200 cats, mostly Laura, who also feeds three feral colonies and has had them all neutered to prevent future feline suffering.  My own activities have been more focused on large mammals and their remaining wild habitats, conducting fundraising activities for the Wildlife Conservation Network and Performing Animal Welfare Society, serving those in the wild and those in captivity respectively.

But even with years of activism and lots of exposure to captive wildlife, we did not have a true sense of the creatures or the places we were working so hard to protect. We had to see it, experience it for ourselves and feel it in our souls. So we planned our trip for 2016.

Research for the trip began back in October of 2015, as you would expect employing Google, Trip Advisor and other online tools. I found over 1700 companies offering African safaris, so this was going to be some work.  One of the best tools out there for the comparisons you’d ultimately want to make is called Safari Bookings.  If you know the price range you can afford and the type of safari you want, it filters your options nicely. If you are like us, you probably need more information to make those decisions, so here are some suggestions to help:

  • If you have an affinity for a particular type of animal, culture, or topography, do a search including terms for all of those.
  • If you have a connection with any animal welfare organizations, you should check their websites for recommendations. We particularly recommend World Wildlife Federation as a starting point.  We were looking for the largest diversity and quantity of wildlife on our trip, and the Great Migration of wildebeests was something I wanted to see, so The Serengeti plains had to be on our route (see animated video below)
  • After picking a general destination (East or South Africa is the big decision), think about the kind of experience and accommodation you want to make up your days. I was prepared to sleep in a bag hanging from a tree if necessary, but Laura isn’t quite as adventurous. We decided on staying in developed lodges and what are known as “tented camps,” which offer all the amenities of a hotel, but the walls are made of canvas.
  • Next, you want to see what safari operators are offering the kinds of trips you are seeking, in the areas your are targeting, at the times and prices that work for you. This is where Safari Bookings is a big help.  We suggest narrowing it down to from three to five candidates there, and proceeding to Trip Advisor and wherever you find reliable reviews to check on the companies in your sights.

Let me say this for the people that we worked with: they exceeded our expectations in every way possible. You’ll be reading the specifics further into this article, but I want to call them out now in case you are interested in what we consider the perfect experience.

  1. We chose Tanzania because of the open spaces (no fences enclosing parks), the unaffected nature of the animals (we hear first-hand that animals in Southern parks in countries including South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia have become accustomed to people in ways that have made the primates aggressive and the herbivores skittish.  Kind of like here in North America).  And of course those wildebeests migrating.  We also learned that there is a program in place that is helping to evolve the ancient Maasai people into tribes that care for wildlife instead of killing them to protect their livestock.
  2. We chose Tanzania Serengeti Adventure, because they were based right there, responded immediately to email inquiries, were priced well, had good reviews, and offered exactly the trip we were looking for. We subsequently learned that Iris and Jordan, the lovely couple operating the company are committed to some of the same ideals that drove us to make the journey.  I’d go so far as to say these experts can and will go out of their way to make sure you have the experience you are seeking. And I should point out that although it is possible to self-guide your trip in some of these places, you wouldn’t really want to. Chances of getting lost, being preoccupied and missing good sightings, and not fully comprehending the flora, fauna, and humanity are a few of the reasons. Not knowing Swahili is also a challenge. A safari guide is first and foremost a naturalist who helps you identify and understand what you are experiencing.

The Journey

Next came the painful process of shopping for flights. Our priority here was the least amount of transit time, or if not the least, then accommodations to make us comfortable enroute. We chose KLM to get us there, with a very short stop (one hour) in Amsterdam. From there, we flew directly to Kilimanjaro airport, the closest international airport to our starting base, the town of Arusha. For the return flight, it was Emirates Air, partially because of their impeccable reputation, partly because I was curious to see Dubai.  A 10-hour layover meant the airline would pay for our hotel, so why not?

As a cautionary note, be prepared for significant costs in time, money, and effort prior to your trip for considerations that are not part of most travel these days. Back in January, I shipped off our passports to the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington DC, where they provided our visas ($100 each) and had the passports back to us in just three days!  We could have done like most and just paid the fee and gotten the visa onsite after landing, but why take a chance of running into a problem there, and possibly saving time at immigration?

And if you are traveling to East Africa from the US or Europe, you’ll want to have a battery of vaccinations, as there are some serious diseases still prevalent in these places for which the vaccinations are actually effective.  But they are not generally covered by insurance, so we were out-of-pocket about $500 each with the mandatory yellow fever, hepatitis A&B,  typhoid vaxs, plus oral meds to be taken for two months to prevent malaria. The whole process took several visits to our primary care physician plus a special appointment with the local travel clinic (only available one day a month in our little town) over a period of three months.

As the date of our travel approached, the frequency of communication with Iris and Jordan increased. They were quite proactive in preparing us for what we needed to do and to bring with us, including an hour-long Skype orientation call that made us feel very good about trusting ourselves to the care of them and their company during this adventure. The text of our “Final Bulletin” showing how we were to prepare for the trip can be read here. By the time our departure date came, we were really ready for a break.

We left SFO at around 1pm on Saturday, June 5, and after over 20 hours in total transit time, crossing 10 time zones, we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Northern Tanzania at 7pm Sunday the 6th. We were met promptly by our driver and hustled off to Green Mountain Hotel, nothing to write about there.  Nighty night.

Early the next day we were picked up by our driver, Philimon, who took us to the office of Tanzania Serengeti Adventures where we met with the owners of the company Iris and Jordan and received our vouchers for the in-country transfers we’d be using once our safari was done.  Then it was off to Arusha National Park. Within the first five minutes in the park, we spotted 15 elephants and over a dozen zebra, a family of warthogs, Egyptian geese, and more. By the end of our first day there, we had also seen baboons, crested eagles, colobus monkeys, giraffes, water bucks, bush bucks, cape buffalo, mountain dulker, and banded mongoose.  Sighting highlight of the day: an albino baboon.  I watched in wonder as she foraged for food alone and sauntered off, shunned by her tribe for being different. Can anyone reading this relate? A full list of our wildlife sightings for the trip can be seen here.

Our second day in the field was eventful, in that we lost Philimon as our guide (he was called away on family business) but had the great privilege of getting Christopher Samwel in his place. Christopher really knows the terrain and the creatures well and had a great eye for helping us make sightings.He has his own company called “I Dream of Africa” who provide many of same or similar the traveler services to Jordan and Iris at “Tanzania Serengeti Adventure.” We got lucky to have the benefit of both looking out for us.  If you are planning on following in our footsteps, we highly recommend you contact both of these companies in your planning phase.

That first day, Christopher took us to Lake Manyara, another park without fences where wildlife abounds. Wow did it. We literally rolled through the water, sighting hundreds of animals, including buffalo and hippos with birds hitching rides on their backs, baboons playing with termite mounds, and our first sighting of a male African Lion.  Had to stop several times to let elephants cross our path. A stunning place  with very different topography from most of the savannah we spent our time upon.  The highlight of the day for me was a small spectacle put on by a mama bird protecting her nest from a large monitor lizard.The lizard could have easily overpowered this bird, but by spreading its wings and taking a powerful stance, mama saved her chicks (or eggs, we didn’t see the nest).

Accommodations that night were at Tanzania Ric Lodge, a small, private, eco-friendly developed facility on the grounds of a coffee plantation (no pun intended).  These were not our favorite accommodations, but they were strategically located between several of our wildlife destinations. Rosie was a great cook and made all our meals, including the healthy box lunches we took with us into the field.  If you end up staying here, just know that the incredibly bumpy ride on a steep rutted dirt road to get here is worth it in the long-run.

Day four was our day to experience a different kind of life: human. We went to a place called Lake Eyasi, where we saw a kind of poverty that is beyond my descriptive abilities.  We visited two tribes of Hadzabe bushmen: one that were ostensibly hunters, another blacksmiths.  While I had the feeling that we were witnessing staged displays, there is no doubt that people lived in the manner we observed, perhaps at another time. What it was we observed was a hunt, where eight or nine of the tribe’s young men took us with them to demonstrate their skills with the bow. Several decent sized birds were lucky enough to escape the arrows, but one did not. We were then witness to the creation of fire without matches or anything but an arrowhead and a knife.  That was impressive. This was the fire on which they immediately roasted and sliced the little bird, which they then offered to us, their guests.  Laura did not, but I did. It tasted great, but I returned to my vegetarian regime immediately after.

Next we visited another tribe, supposedly the ones who make the arrowheads and jewelry worn by the first tribe. Here Laura ground corn meal like Sacagawea, and I was the focus of attention from a young boy who could not keep his eyes or hands off my gizmos. Makes me think we guys are hard-wired to be fascinated by technology. He liked my watch, my camera, and had to wear my glasses.  I would have let him keep them, but it would have been a violation of the prime directive. I bought Laura a couple of bracelets and donated cash to the tribe.

While we had discovered that wildlife in Tanzania is plentiful, we would have to be very lucky to spot one of the twelve remaining black rhinos that live within Ngorogoro Crater, our destination on Day 5. This place is reputed to be the most densely populated of all the wildlife areas we were to visit. It’s described this way:

“The jewel in Ngorongoro’s crown is a deep, volcanic crater, the largest unflooded and unbroken caldera in the world. About 20kms across, 600 meters deep and 300 sq kms in area, the Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtaking natural wonder.”

It was definitely breathtaking in every respect, from the 2,000 foot descent from the rim to the floor, to the countless arrays of animals we saw there. Right in our faces.  Hyenas running around with kill in their mouths, lions sunning themselves on a rock, jackals hunting for smaller prey. And of course lions, buffalo, wildebeest, incredible bird plumage and more. Unfortunately, no rhino sighting. But we did see hyenas having a mating session and I learned that the jackal is a truly gorgeous animal. The pix just above stand as evidence.

Our accommodations that night were at the Rhino Lodge, nice middle-grade facility located on the rim of the crater. Warning: if you think a safari in June is strictly a warm weather deal, you’re dead wrong. At Rhino Lodge (elevation 6000 ft), it was around 45 degrees F at night. We had to light a fire in our room and that didn’t even keep us warm.

Day 7 of our journey included the six-hour drive from Rhino Lodge to the center of the Serengeti. It was during this drive that we got a sense of how the animals freely move from park to park and between regions as they wish, without interference from you-know-whom. This long dusty journey included passage by Maasai villages, herds of buffalo, and giraffes blithely browsing the native vegetation.

Once within Serengeti National Park, we expected to see wildlife like we had the past several days, but surprisingly, it was a dry spell in our sightings. Very few animals showed themselves today, with the notable exception of a leopard taking a snooze in one of those weird-looking sausage trees.  When would we arrive at our tented camp, the Kubu Kubu?  It seemed we had been on the road forever. Making it less comfortable as we approached our camp were the rampant fires we had to endure, with smoke filling our lungs and our eyes and visibility reduced to almost zero. We were told these fires are set intentionally by the rangers, but I doubt they actually do what they are intended to (reduce fuel and control wildfire?) Once again it is our species messing with natural balance.

By the way, this Kubu Kubu place is notable. It had just opened a week before we arrived and it was totally decked out. Our room was the size of two normal hotel rooms, had a sweeping view of the entire central Serengeti, a great pool, the best food we had on the trip, and OMG the service!  You should stay here!

The rest of our stay (three more days) in the Serengeti were full of animal sightings that would impress anyone. Those Maasai Kopjes (rocky outcroppings) were like islands in the savannah, home to all kinds of life, especially big cats who use the shade to cool themselves and the warm rocks for the opposite effect. When we first saw two momma lions and two cubs just walking alongside our vehicle, we almost peed our pants.

Our trip included the company of the lovely Vicki Davidoff, a South African expat currently residing in Vancouver, BC.  She was traveling alone and our safari company put her in with us. She was great company and since the vehicle was made to handle seven people, the three of us were quite comfortable during the trip. Vicki’s itinerary had her leaving a day earlier than us, so we dropped her off at the local airstrip and we were off to the far Western reaches of the park because I insisted that we see the wildebeest migration, who were over there at this time. More lions too.

Now we had seen lots of wildebeests (sometimes called gnus) in small herds and family groups, but I have read that the “great migration” as it is known here, is a spectacle not to be missed. That turned out to be correct, as you can tell somewhat from our video (at the top of this page). Hundreds of thousands of them were seen together at the Grumeti River, making that distinctive grunting sound, young males locking horns to fight over the females, crocodiles lying in wait to feast on the little ones that sometimes straggle behind the group. All pretty exciting stuff for Laura and me.

Our poptop land cruiser was a perfect vehicle for this trip, allowing enclosure for the long trips on paved roads, then opening up for wildlife viewing in the parks. We had to say goodbye to our terrific guide and naturalist, Christopher the next day as we prepared to fly to Zanzibar to relax a few days before heading home.

Flying on these little puddle jumpers may not be very comfortable, but you sure get a great view. I got to look over the pilot’s shoulder the whole 2.5 hour flight.  Coming into Zanzibar, I realized I had never seen the Indian Ocean.  Looks pretty good from here.

Our accommodations were at  5-start resort called Dream of Zanzibar. By now my own dreams were getting somewhat messed up. I mean the driver picked us up promptly at the airport and drove us through some of the most crowded, squalid living situations you will ever see, and dropped us conveniently at this gated, all-inclusive hotspot with nine restaurants, bars, pools, private beach, and all the food and booze you can consume.  Something clearly bothered me about all of this, but I had to admit, after the exciting week we had just finished, this was a welcome change in many ways.

We didn’t stay behind the walls very long. The next day we took a walking tour of Stone Town, a kind of city within the city of Zanzibar, which itself is a kind of country within the country of Tanzania.  Here we got a multi-sensory experience of Zanzibar history and culture, featuring colonialism, religious conquests, and a slave market, not to mention many domiciles once supposedly inhabited by sultans and concubines.  Bought some souvenirs for the family. Took pictures of cats.  Small ones, mostly.  Point of interest: the “Mercury House” is purported to be the childhood home of Freddie Mercury, the deceased singer of the band Queen, who was born and raised here.

Meanwhile, back at our resort, the tourists are enjoying another carefree day, far from the troubles of ignorance, exploitation and poverty. That’s because the resort didn’t hire many locals. After all, the locals were too uneducated and unsophisticated to serve the international clientele at this posh plaza. Yech.

So the next day we headed off for Chumbe Island, a coral reef park and one of National Geographic’s top eco-lodge destinations.  This is a place you’d like to be stranded for a long time with someone you love. We only had the day, but that day was full of exploration, hiking, climbing the stairs of a lighthouse, and enjoying the delightful accommodations of a thatched bungalow on the water that was ours for the day. The video just above isn’t ours (although we have great photos of this spot), but does a fine job of selling it. Never have we seen the diversity of coral and sea life that was present here in any of the places we’ve been snorkeling around the world. It’s a real find.

Home that night to wonderland for another delight they had cooked up for tourists, a display of food and entertainment meant to represent native culture. Whatever it was, it became our farewell celebration to the island and the continent. Last few minutes of the video at the top of the page show a slice of it. Cute, though not really necessary after all we had experienced. It had been glorious.

The trip home was mostly uneventful. We had a 10-hour layover in Dubai that allowed us to see a little of a very polluted city. The air looked like Los Angeles in 1975. The accommodations were so-so at Arabian Park Hotel. My recommendation: if you aren’t traveling to or from Africa, skip this place.

Many many people have asked us to share stories of this journey since we’ve been home, seeming to want to hear how we were impacted by what we did and saw. What did we learn? All travel gives you a kind of perspective of life from comparisons to what you already know. Yet our visit to Africa exceeded our expectations by so much, that I know neither of us will have the same outlook on nature and our place in it. Or for that matter, the British Empire, and its impact on this entire planet. Ironically, the “brexit” vote happened just after our return.  Only the British could conquer and colonize half the world, then vote to leave the EU to avoid “immigration!”

I’m a fan of poet/rapper Prince Ea, who recently released the video above. It is pretty close to saying the exact words I’d offer, if I had his skills. Worth five minutes of your time to hear it, I’d say.

I read something else recently that felt resonant within me and I want to share it as something that sums up not my experience, but my resolve for the future. It warned me not to engage in:

  • money worship
  • celebrity worship
  • seven point plans
  • ten point plans
  • right wing duplicity
  • left-wing sanctimoniousness
  • complacent centerism
  • spiritual doubletalk
  • arrogance
  • boring pursuits
  • cynicism
  • …and did I mention cynicism?

I can live with that. Instead, I choose hope.  I choose to pay attention to the balance in the universe and my place in that balance, and I resolve to live in a way that expresses my deep gratitude for the gifts bestowed upon me, like life, Laura, our family and friends. Blessings to you all.

Our Complete Africa Photo Album

Our Multi-Year Photo Archive

One Response to “We Dreamed of Africa”

  1. Patti Crane says:

    Great video and article! I loved the African “Twerking”! LOL! I didn’t realize you saw such a variety of animals. So cool to see them in their natural habitat. Thanks for sharing!