In years past, I’ve posted my New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of the year and then reviewed them at the beginning of the next year. While I wasn’t exactly around for the start of the new year, that’s not exactly an excuse for not doing my resolutions. So, here they are, and may I be held accountable for them!
(I don’t seem to have made resolutions last year, which makes this an easy blog entry to write, because I only need to do this year’s resolutions, rather than revisiting last year’s as well. So, here we go.)
So that’s that. Let’s check in next year and see how I do!
Let’s lead off with my first suggestion here: definitely 100% you should go on a safari, and I highly, highly recommend Tanzania for that safari. It’s a place where there are amazing animals that you can get so close to; where there are friendly and happy people who will help you have an incredible time; and where you’ll likely find yourself imbued with magic powers, like my wife who always knew what time it was to within two minutes, despite not having a watch, and who always knew how to get where we wanted to go, even though, at home, her sense of direction isn’t good enough to successfully walk out the door she just walked in. We had an astounding time — truly the trip of a lifetime — and I’m confident you will too.
We picked Tanzania for three reasons:
1. It has the vast majority of the animals you’ll wan’t to see
2. It’s quite safe and stable
3. I’m a bit of an admirer of the “father of the nation,” Julius Nyerere
Number one was important to us because we like to settle down and really take some time to explore in each place we stop. This is a lot easier if you can spend at least two nights — which means a full day — in any destination, and that, in turn, is a lot easier if you minimize your overall travel time. We never took a flight much more than 2 hours once we were inside Tanzania, and that meant that, even on a travel day, we were able to fit in a safari first thing in the morning, before our departure, and in the evening, after we arrived at our next stop. That basically means we tripled the number of trips into the bush we could take, versus longer travel-time destinations.
Number two kind of speaks for itself. Tanzania is vastly safer than South Africa — which, near as I can tell, may actually be less safe than Baltimore or Palms — and somewhat safer than Kenya. You have noticeable crime in some of the bigger urban areas, but we didn’t have the slightest problem anywhere we stayed. That counts for a bit, especially with other plausible safari destinations including Burundi, South Africa, and Malawi.
Number three was a bonus just for me, although my wife’s embroidered initials, CCM, on her bag caused a bunch of second looks. I’d learned to admire Julius Nyerere in a college class on sub-Saharan African politics, and I was certainly glad to hear Tanzanian after Tanzanian tell me what a good job he’d done, especially in making them all feel like Tanzanians, rather than members of their tribe, first. I can’t lie, I enjoy going places whose politics I understand a bit!
Probably the hardest thing to get used to about Tanzania was that they’d say “hakuna matata” to you and mean it. Then there’s the parents taking their little tykes on safari: you see them point at a lion and say “look! There’s Simba!” and you just want to tell them, listen here, this isn’t some Disney movie, this is real nature, appreciate it for what it is, with the tragedy and violence, and stop lying to your kid there, ok? Except then you realize that the Kiswahili word for “lion” is “simba,” and the parents are just teaching their child a new language and helping them become a better citizen of our global society, and you’re the asshole in this one.
Oh, and Tanzania’s hot and sunny. So, so hot and sunny: even little doesn’t-tan’-doesn’t-burn me was wearing not my usual SPF 15 but SPF 50 to make it through the day. But the truth is that you hardly notice the heat when you’re 20 feet from a pride of lions. Excuse me, from a pride of simba.
Short answer: anywhere. Long answer: we really enjoyed our stops — the Mahale Mountains, Ruaha, and Selous — that were a little bit away from things. In general, we found staying in camps and getting up early and going out tracking and exploring on safari with the guides there was an amazing experience. The solitude of being with just a few people in a small camp in the middle of nowhere really made me feel like I was closer to nature. Were we to go back again, I don’t know that we’d plan the Serengeti, which is much busier.
For mainland Tanganyika, we’d go to Kwihala in Ruaha, Selous Impala, or Nkungwe in Mahale again. In Zanzibar, we loved 236 Hurumzi, but it was very much a place you love or hate, so I recommend you do your research. Given the sand and water we saw, I can’t imagine any beach spot in Zanzibar being a bad choice (we chose ours based only on availability).
We went during the Little Rainy Season, which is a good time to go. From October through the end of December, you’re most likely to be rained out for a half day at most, or even just drizzled on, which is just fine. Also, not many people come during the little rainy season; we were the only two at in the entire Mahale Mountains National Park, and the only two at our camp in Ruaha during our first day there.
Many people come to Tanzania in the main dry season, late January through March, which can be a great time to see the big predators, but a tough time for the chimps — whereas we saw 20-30 at a time at an hour or 90 minutes from camp, the chimps go up into the mountains to seek out scarce forage during the dry season, so you’ll see at most a handful and that after four to six or even more hours of trekking. Our guides recommended August-October as a time that was good for seeing game and predators and also not too busy.
I was rather surprised at my photo experience at the end of the whole thing — the gear I’d expected to be the most-used never got touched, and the gear I left behind because I didn’t think it would be appropriate would’ve turned out to be tremendously useful.
Every single source I read said “bring a beanbag for your camera!” Perhaps because my longest lens was 300mm — the maximum length for hand-held shots in fairly bright daylight — I was able to do without. (My bad shots were bad, but they didn’t have motion blur in them.) Most of the angles I had to shoot at didn’t have a metal bar to hook my beanbag to anyway. So, I might’ve skipped that entire half kilo out of my 15-kilo weight limit.
On the other hand, I didn’t bring my very cheap but very long 500mm mirror lens. I figured it was slow; too long to hand-hold; and hard to focus; all adding up to something I couldn’t ever get a shot with. Well, I was wrong: those animals, they didn’t move as much as I thought they would. I’d had troubles shooting the dogs in the backyard with that lens, but lions? They’re lazy. Definitely take your long, cheap, slow lens to Africa.
So, I’d say: cover 24-as high as you can go and you’re fine. (The panoramas are so wide that you don’t need your wide angle to get that shot.) Don’t worry about having the fastest lens; cover your range. Oh, and don’t forget your circular polarizing filters, to catch the green vegetation and the azure water right.
I actually plan to write an entry on “how to pack” soon, based on experiences over the past ten years or so, but my advice for safari is:
* Long sleeves to protect yourself from the very hard sun
* About three times as much sunscreen as you think
* A broad-brimmed hat, again for that sun
* A safari vest. I bought the cheapest plausible one I could find, and guess what: I fell in love. Who cares about camera bags (I bought a neat new one for this trip)? Carrying your lenses in a vest? Filters, too? OK, that was my idea of heaven.
* Oh, and little tiny toilet paper rolls. Not those, the biodegradable kind. For when you need to potty on safari.
I had never taken malaria pills before, and had traveled all around the most malaria-ridden parts of Latin America without any worries, using this great stuff to keep me safe; but everyone told me “take your Malarone!” in Africa. Well, despite the repellent, I got bit up by old anopheles time and time again. Good thing for those magic red pills!
We booked with Africa Travel Resource, and never regretted it for a moment. In fact, several of our guides looked at our itinerary and commented how great it was. And it didn’t even sound like they were blowing sunshine up our you-know-whats. They were helpful and got us the right vacation at the right price.
So that’s about it. The only other advice I can give you is: plan your safari now, you’ll never forget it!
After our trip through the Selous, the driving about the Ruaha that came before it, and dusty Arusha, and the mud and jungle of Mahale, it was time to recover from our vacation. From 5am wake-up calls to afternoons out in the bright sun and hundred-degree heat and hours spent peering into the foliage for a moment’s sight of a brightly-colored bird or a rare, stalking predator, we were tired out. Yeah, I know, us poor folks on a once-in-a-lifetime safari half the world away.
But there were no two ways about it: we were tired out, and we’d seen enough animals. So it was time to leave the mainland and jet — or, rather, the usual 12-seat turboprop — our way over to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. Once the center of a vast and wealthy Sultanate that controlled East African trade, Zanzibar is a verdant pool in the midst of bright blue water; so of course we went to the beach to relax with drinks with umbrellas in them. And it was everything we’d hoped for: azure water, friendly staff, delicious drinks, and a lagoon as warm as a bath with cabanas floating in it for the delicious drinks the staff had served you on the beach.
We even were able to celebrate the new year on that beautiful beach, dancing with the happy staff of the resort, around a bonfire in the stiff sea breeze.
It was all a relaxing delight, even the massages. Oh, of course the massages would be good — it was what they made you wear during the massages that was odd. For modesty’s sake, it seems, they prefer you to wear disposable undergarments, which I suppose I could see being modest if they weren’t completely transparent black mesh, the kind of thickly-waled, wide-gapped black mesh that I’m pretty sure is quite à la mode in Berlin’s finest S&M techno clubs. But, hey, I managed not to laugh and the masseuse hopefully managed not to be mortified by my nudity, so I suppose it was a win for everyone.
After wearing our — well, I don’t know what you’d call them, gayderhosen? — we felt ready to rejoin society. And that was our next stop: the old Zanzibari capital of Stonetown.
Stonetown is a beautiful city, a warren of streets built before automobiles and far too thin to fit anything larger than a motorbike. It has a beautiful market with fresh fish and meats and some of the best spices anywhere, and this translates into absolutely delicious restaurants. And history is everywhere, from the ornate touches of India and the Middle East in architecture to the 16th century Portuguese cannon that the Sultanate captured and then, ten generations later, tried in vain to use against British battleships in the shortest war in history (it took the Sultan only 45 minutes to have all of his stuff blown up and surrender).
Once a fabulously wealthy city, the slow decline of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, revolution, and poverty hit Stonetown hard, however, and a shocking exhibit in the local museum — a building called the House of Wonders, the Sultan’s former palace and the only part of his landholdings not blown up by those British battleships — stated that 60% of the buildings in Stonetown were in danger of collapse. Looking at them, I wasn’t surprised; in fact, there were gaps here and there where a building had fallen down already.
Decay or not, Stonetown was an adventure. Perhaps a bit alien — the bustle of the market, with vendors all pitching their wares, the smells of butchery, and the yelling of cabbies overwhelmed the two of us just a bit — but the people were lovely and the artisans made beautiful work everywhere. Two days, and probably ten showers in the dusty, hundred-degree weather, we were finally able to start our 39-hour trip back to the US. You know, the part of the trip where we ended up in a cab driven by a guy who didn’t speak English and didn’t know where we were going, so he had to pull into a dark dirt alley in the middle of the night and ask a hooker for directions.
Actually, that sounds a lot like riding in a cab in LA. So, welcome home it was indeed, and welcome back to civilization for sure!
We arrived at the Selous right ahead of a storm, just as we had at Ruaha. We could feel it too: as our unpressurized Caravan made its landing turn, hot, humid, close air burst through the ventilation system, filling the cabin with languor and the promise of rain. Again, just as at Ruaha, the sun was shining and the sky clear as we landed, but there was a vast, dark cloud in the corner of the sky, and the wide horizons of Africa made it easy to see that rain was streaming out of it. At Ruaha, we started back to camp as if on a game drive, but then dark clouds emerged from two other corners of the sky, and then we sped back to camp to try to get there before the storms converged from three sides.
At Selous, we had less of a worry if we would beat the weather, because our afternoon safari was planned to take place in a covered boat. We’d head down the broad, muddy Rufiji river, keeping our eyes peeled for birds, hippos, and, yes, crocodiles, returning at sundown to clean up in our tent.
And it was some return. The Selous Impala camp, where we stayed, offered the only fan we had in any of our safari stops. Courtney, who loves keeping cool and had been quite the trouper to put up, uncomplaining, with day after day of 100-degree-plus weather. She quite literally almost hugged the fan as soon as we walked into our tent.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Impala was a very, very different place than Kwihala — or any other place we’d been. Impala is owned by Italians, who, it’s fair to say, have their own set of priorities. For instance, in the middle of nowhere, with no source of power or anything other than diesel they truck in, they have this:
Dinner was served in a grand style, too, in a lovely setting as well:
There was even the house hippo, Andrea, who loved to hang around the place:
Andrea was quite the challenge: while having him around was exciting and scenic, the reality is that hippos are cranky, cranky animals and, if you were to unexpectedly stumble upon Andrea, the reality was that he would almost certainly trample you to death. Us urban types have few skills related to not stumbling upon hippos, so, rather than deal with a ton of dead tourists they have to hide, Impala employs a bunch of Maasai warriors who escort you from place to place. You just stand outside and yell “Jambo Masai!” and they come and get you, pointing out little animals (and, of course, Andrea if he’s around) along the way.
We had just one driving safari in Selous, but it was a humdinger: a tracker had found a lion pride, and our driver was on top of it:
Most of our time we spent on river safaris, going up and down the Rufiji. The river teemed with birds of all sorts, like this bee-eater:
And this kingfisher (hot tip: I love photographing kingfishers, no matter what part of the world we’re in):
And even this egret — the local egrets seem to like standing on the local water buffalo:
But of course what we came to see were the hippos, like this one who took a serious look at us:
And this one who wanted to tell us: these are my teeth!
And, of course, the sinister crocodiles:
The sunsets? They were a bonus!
I never expected I would care about dung beetles, or that I would even see them on this safari: but, apparently, get a bunch of scarab beetles rolling around and then burying their very own balls of elephant dung, and I can’t hold myself back. They’re just such hard-working little buggers, fighting for their dung, rolling it into a ball, climbing to the top every once in a while to make sure they’re rolling it in the right direction, then finally burying it so that it can incubate the next generation of poo-oriented scarab beetles. Intrepid indeed! So naturally I was on my belly getting photos of them working hard, silhouetted by a gigantic pile of elephant spoor.
Our trip to Ruaha was very much about the little things. Sometimes that was literal, as with the dung beetles, or the swarms of inch-long bullfrogs, or the many-colored dragonflies, or the super-adorable (if unfortunately-named) dikdik.
But it was also about the little matter of the manner in which we appreciated the safari. After Mahale and Manyara, we’d truly seen the vast majority of the incredible animals we’d come to see. Sure, we were hopeful we’d spot leopards or lions or wild dogs, but the reality was that Ruaha would offer mostly the elephants and giraffe and impala that we’d already seen. So we could be bored, or we could go to Ruaha to do something different.
And that was what we did. We stayed in Kwihala Tented Camp, a mobile camp of large, frankly luxurious tents that moves several times a year to stay near the wildlife. But it’s still just a bunch of tents in the bush, and you need an escort from the main lounge tent to your tent at night. All night long you hear the snorts of impala, the low booming of lions, the snuffle of warthogs, sometimes just outside your tent — you feel a bit alone in the middle of Africa, which is great.
All day long — and I mean all day long — we safaried by vehicle. The friendly team woke us up at 5:30 every morning with juice and coffee, then by 6 we were on our way, seeing the park at sunrise. Then we’d stop for tea and a breakfast of fruit, toast, eggs, and bacon at around 9:30, returning for lunch at noon. At 3:30 we’d head out to do it all again, not coming home until the sun was well down, just in time for an 8:30 dinner call.
Exhausting? A bit. An incredible chance to see the animals? Definitely. Our guide Steve found us tons of those great small buggers, and a lot of beautiful birds. But he also found us the good big game. There were elephant just outside our Land Cruiser, real live wild elephant playing and suckling and eating and knocking down trees and walking close enough I could’ve touched them if I were sitting on the hood. We saw young male impala fighting, we learned all about giraffe behavior, and we found a pack of baboons and watched their babies play.
Sure, there was that one time Steve parked us in the middle of a tsetse fly-infested swamp to get a better view of some animals, but I can forgive him that. Because he also found us this incredible lioness. She was old, and injured, and clearly hadn’t eaten for weeks; she was skin and bones, and was hiding in the shade. Anyone could’ve missed her (in fact, others on safari drove past us right after we saw her and didn’t stop). But Steve spied her sleeping, and we waited around, and we saw her get up and walk and saw her limp and understood that was why she was emaciated and used that to understand lion pack behavior.
So that was this part of the vacation: seeing real wild animals in their real habitat acting naturally, and understanding why. There’s not much better reason for a safari than that! Next stop is the Selous (say see-lou), with its famous river boat safaris to see the hippos and crocodiles and its equally famous pool in the midst of camp to cool off in. Which would be great, because it’s hot here. Africa hot, as the locals say.