I flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport (airport code: JRO). The airport is the size of a few big rooms put together. Once you pick up your bags you will need to head to customs, which is a very chaotic and confusing place, so be prepared for this. There aren't really lines so to speak so when you see an opening in a lane, take it. If you are traveling with a tour company this will be one of the times they really come through for you. Get ready to cut everyone in line and I mean everyone; you are about to cut what little semblance of a line does exist, which is great for you but if your traveling on your own this will make your wait just a little longer. Anyway, you will pay your entrance visa fees, get a stamp and be on your way. The fee when I was there was $100.00 per person.
Once exiting the airport, you can grab a taxi. We had a prearranged driver so we found him and hopped in our vehicle. Drivers in Tanzania seem to make up their own rules of the road but I have to say it really works for them. They beep when they want to pass another vehicle and surprisingly I never saw an accident, so whatever they are doing works. Nonetheless, it’s a little scary when you are driving straight into traffic. Once again, just be prepared for this.
We drove over 600 miles in roughly two weeks, most of which was on unpaved and bumpy roads. Even though we covered such long distances it didn't feel like it. We took adequate stops and there was always something to look at out the window. We passed markets, locals, villages, schools and Masai juniors on a consistent basis. This was the trip of a life time and even better because I got to share it with my family!!
My family’s first stop was Arusha, which is a wonderful little spot. We came straight here after the airport with no stops in between. After 27 hours of traveling and a taxi ride I was ready to get into my room and just relax. After entering into the Arusha Lodge, which I highly recommend, I was handed an iced coffee, warm rag and was pointed in the direction of my very nice and very private room. I just remember thinking, seriously, iced coffee? And let me tell you, that is the best coffee I have had in entire world and that’s a pretty bold statement if you’re a coffee drinker! If you aren't a coffee snob yet Arusha is going to solidify this for you. I thought I liked coffee before arriving here but boy was I wrong. There is nothing quite like drinking fresh pressed coffee every morning that comes from a local farm. I was only here for one day and during that time I was able to explore the hotel grounds that are filled with coffee and other produce. It was a real treat and I was certainly sad to leave my delicious coffee but I was ready to get on safari.
Lake Manyara is the first place we stopped on our adventure. As you drive through this park you will wander your way through some pretty dense forest. Be on the lookout for elephants and monkeys, since those are primarily the two inhabitants of this area. The monkeys here are unbelievably curious. They will come right up and check you out. If you are lucky you might catch some of the young babies playing with each other or getting a ride from mom. When we were there the park was relatively dry but we did get to drive through some very deep water and put the snorkel kit on the truck to some use. Needless to say that was pretty awesome!
En route to the Ngorongoro Crater we stopped at a Masai village where the oldest son of the head of the tribe greeted us. He was our tour guide for the afternoon while we were in the village. He took us into a Masai hut and explained the difference in the shape and what takes place inside the hut on a given day. Before we left he asked if I was married since he had not acquired his first wife and he was at the age when he was to do so. He also wanted to know if we have multiple husbands in America. While I was flattered by his offer I was surprised by his question. It never occurred to me that it would be strange or uncommon that I choose to live in a society where monogamous relationships are the norm. This is why I love to travel! It opens your eyes to so many perspectives. We had an awesome afternoon in the village and made some incredible memories! If you have this opportunity, take it!
The Serengeti was my all time favorite place! If I went back to Tanzania I would spend the majority of my time here. In total we drove over six hours to reach the gates of the Serengeti Park. When we first arrived in the park I saw nothing and I was pretty disappointed. It looked like there were no animals and other than some acacia trees I didn't see much in the way of healthy vegetation. I had this image that we would just drive in and there would be lions everywhere. What I didn’t realize is that I saw nothing because I had an untrained eye. I was pretty skeptical when my guide told me to trust him, that he would find what we were looking for, but I soon learned that I had the best guide in Africa and he is definitely skilled at finding things. He taught us that the bush is filled with animals; you just have to know where to look. We were looking by the roadside, while our guide Fred was looking 100-300 meters into the bush. Once we knew what to look for it was game on. I remember Fred spotting a cheetah (what seemed like a mile away) on the first day. He quickly pulled the jeep off the road and we were flying through the bush to catch the cheetah. I felt like I was on national geographic racing along side the animals as they run in the Serengeti. We pulled up to find a cheetah perched on a termite mound. My family and I were so excited! She hung around for a bit, had a good yawn and then disappeared into the bush like she was never there. We learned so much from our guide about tracking, the landscape, the vegetation and the wildlife. Guides there go to college for two years in order to do their job. It’s the equivalent of a four-year degree in the states. Fred was one of the most intelligent people I have met. He spoke five languages and was self-teaching himself Chinese. Moral of the story, if you have a guide, use them. Fred loved questions and teaching us so I know other guides would love it too. We saw all the big five minus the rhino in the Serengeti. We saw so many lions that I lost count. It was more than I could have dreamed of!
Oldupai (Olduvai) Gorge
There is a little discrepancy between the name of this gorge so you may see it referred to as either the Oldupai or Olduvai Gorge. At the actual site they will call it the Oldupai Gorge. This gorge is still an active dig site during the dry months and visitors can go to the dig site with a proper guide. Human remains were found here over 100 meters deep that show evidence of increasing cognitive complexity, hunting, tool making and nomadic behavior. There is a museum and viewing area open to the public where lectures are held. On the way to visit this site be on the lookout for dirt devils.
This is such an interesting ecosystem. I had some very amazing encounters here with a lot of different lions. By far though my favorite was watching a nursing mother. Her cubs were so vocal and playful. We watched them for over an hour before they headed off. This is also where I watched two lioness take down a cape buffalo. As if that wasn't awesome enough about 20 hyenas ended up stealing the catch from them. When it was all said and done the event took about 20 minutes. This made me feel like I was watching a National Geographic special. You can check out a picture from the event below under the photography section. I wish I could emphasize just how majestic this place is but there are no words. I think it truly is one of those things you just have to see for yourself.
Tarangire Elephant Reserve
I absolutely love elephants so visiting this site was a lot of fun for me. We did not have any trouble finding elephants. Watching the baby play was just adorable. He was such an energetic little guy and clearly mom wanted nothing to do with his craziness. The last night we were there we saw the most beautiful sunset. It was a perfect ending to our Tarangire tour before heading over to Rufiji River Camp.
Arusha airport is a tiny airport that serves the Arusha area (airport code ARK). We took a hopper flight from here to the Rufiji River Camp. The airport was a little confusing as far as baggage goes but nonetheless we and our bags ended up on the plane. In country flights only require one pilot, which was strange for me since in America they require two. The pilot was hilarious. His briefing included telling us that it wasn't worth teaching us how to put our five point harness on because if we crashed it really wouldn't matter. If we wanted water we could find it stashed in the cargo area; help ourselves! I got to sit up front for take off and landing, which was awesome!!
Rufiji River Camp
The rufiji river camp was an entirely different experience then anywhere else in Tanzania. You have to fly here via a hopper plane. You will land on a dirt runway, which they may have to clear of the local critters; it is pretty awesome to watch. When we arrived we were escorted to our accommodations, which I would put in the "glamping" category. We stayed in a canvas sided tent but slept in real beds and had a bathroom with cool to luke warm water. As if our accommodations weren't cool enough, we were also given a Masai warrior to guard us from any animal attacks. Our warrior carried a spear with him everywhere and told us that he did have to kill a lion once. However, the real threat at Rufiji river camp is actually hippos and not lions. Hippos are mean, dangerous and pretty much the most feared animal there. If you get in their way they will stomp you to death. We didn't have any problems with animals but they were there just in case. At night around two in the morning we kept hearing wooping noises, which come to find out is actually zebras. During the day we went on safari looking for animals. Our guides were awesome and made the experience a memorable one.
Shhhhhhh.... we wouldn't want to wake the sleeping lions behind us!
My best piece of advice for photography is expect everything! Always have a camera ready because you never know what's going to happen or what your going to see. A lion ambushing prey can happen so fast and you will want to be ready! We watched two lions take down a wildebeest and then have their prey stolen by hyenas. That being said, this is a trip of a life time and you don't want to spend it looking through a view finder! Take some great pictures but remember to enjoy the experience too.
As far as camera gear goes I took everything I had and could possibly carry. My gear included a Nikon D50, 24-70 lens, 70-200 lens, Panasonic lumix and a gopro. Tanzania can be very dusty so I recommend storing your gear in plastic bags to help minimize how much dust gets on the camera. After all you want those pictures to literally be spotless.
1. If your guide asks how early you want to go on safari your response should be, "what's the earliest we can leave?" I kid you not the saying "the early bird gets the worm” is more than applicable here. The earlier you head out the more time you have for spotting and the less likely you are to be crowded by other cars also looking for the same animals that you are.
2. Bring a no spill coffee container with you. Sometimes we were heading out early and it would have been nice to bring some coffee or tea into the jeep for the ride. There are no to go cups in Tanzania.
3. Learn how to say the words listed below in Swahili: Locals appreciate the effort and your guide will be talking on the radio about animals other guides have found. You are going to want to know what you might be driving to see next. If you are really adventurous there is a great website with common phrases that can be found here:
Hello- Jambo (*jambo jambo means you are very happy to see someone)
Welcome - Karibu
Thank you- Asante
Thank you very much- Asante Sana
Elephant – Tempo
Giraffe – Twiga
Hippo – Kiboko
Packing for this trip was harder then most trips. I had read countless blogs about what to bring and I felt like everyone had something different. Even when I got there I heard different things about colors you should wear and not wear from my guides. One person said white was good and another one said it was bad. What I ended up gathering on this trip is that neutral colors really are the best while on Safari. In town you can wear whatever color you want. So I took a guess on packing and went for it. We had a weight limit of 30 pounds for our gear including all bags since we took a puddle jumper into the rufiji river camp. I had no problem keeping my gear under that weight limit.