Category Archives: Africa

Getting Lost In: A Tanzanian Safari!

  Zebras outside the Serengeti entrance

There’s nothing quite as exotic as a safari, and even though there are about as many safari operators and companies as impalas out on the land, you’ll never grow tired of watching lions chomp noisily away on a baby gazelle, or the giraffes languidly wandering across the plains, or the zebras standing in striped formation facing off predators, or a vulture circling overhead waiting for the next meal to fall down dead.

In Tanzania, the national parks in the northern part (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, stretch for miles and kilometers into Kenya’s Masai Mara park (which is also enjoyable but only a quarter of the space that the Serengeti sees). Depending on the season, which is changing thanks to global warming, Masai Mara sometimes gets more wildebeast traffic than the Serengeti, which doesn’t mean you still can’t get your fair share of other wildlife sightings on the Tanzanian side.

Here’s a Q&A format for How To Safari.

Q: Safaris are expensive. How can I rent a car and find my way around?

A: I thought about this, but decided it was easier to drop the $700 per person (which was the lowest price we found anywhere) than risk getting run over by a herd of buffalo. You’ll have to deal with a lot of paperwork, and finding your way around in Swahili, and what to do if your tire pops (which seemed to happen to every other Land Rover) or your car overheats and dies in the middle of the Serengeti. I would not really recommend it.

However, if you must, there is someone who has written a book about it.

Q: What should I expect for overnight accommodations?

A: There are a huge range of accommodations, from luxury hotels to basic tents. You can also stay in a luxury tent, complete with electricity and down pillows, too, but still feel like you’re “camping” (if you want to fool yourself like that). We camped in a basic, non-luxury tent for two nights and one night in a lodge. You will camp at a campsite in lion territory, and you can hear hyenas howling all night. There are other groups camping in the same place, and the lions won’t come near until everyone has gone into their tents. Once everyone is asleep, however, you will be warned by your guide to stay in the tent all night and to make sure you pee before going to bed. You’ll also have access to showers and all that. The other option is a basic lodge, which is a clean one-star room. Ours had an ensuite bathroom and clean sheets and was enough for our purposes. Whether you have warm water really depends on how much money you’re paying.

Q: What comes in a safari package?

A: All safari packages arrange for vehicle, driver, cook, accommodations and meals. Most will provide camping gear if camping, but you should double check. Most will also provide water. We had to rent sleeping bags, but they picked them up for us.

Q: What should I wear?

A: You do not need to wear “safari gear” because you’ll just be sitting (or standing) around in a Land Rover all day. I love the desert-collection everyone was donning as if they were going hunting (hiking boots for no hiking, khaki cargo pants, khaki top, khaki cargo vest, khaki hat). The biggest worry is dust. You’ll be coated in plenty of it and breathing much of it in. Hats tend to blow off during the car ride. I would wear what’s comfortable and easy to hand-wash and dry (like a woven shirt rather than a knit), avoid white, wear sneakers so your toes don’t get really brown, have a sweatshirt for evening (or a fleece, except it will get a lot of dust embedded in it), and a bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Sunglasses also help keep dust out of your eyes.

Q: What equipment should I bring?

A: A good camera with a super zoom, preferably an SLR (I had 300mm and sometimes that wasn’t even enough! But don’t go changing your lenses mid-way or you’ll just keep inviting dust into your camera.) And binoculars! We had small ones for sports or the opera which sufficed. Lastly, a flashlight is very important unless you like blindly finding your way around the night in lion territory. I personally love the headlamp, so you can be hands-free.

Q: What’s a good number of days for a safari?

A: That depends on your budget, how much time you have, and how patient you are. For me, four days was plenty. I got my lion’s share (pun intended) of animals and was very happy. After a while, you stop asking your driver to pause for the zebras and giraffes because you’ve been there, done that. Some people will go for 10 days or longer, but they’ll return to the same sites to watch the same animals throughout the day, which is also an interesting study – a day in the life of a lion, or of a warthog, for example. You’ll also have more chance to view other animals.

Q: How do you choose a safari company?

A: There are so many safari companies and in the end, we all ended up at the same lodges/ campsites and saw the same animals. I heard some only permit a certain amount of miles, and others rely on the two-way radio to hear about animals. I personally do not have a problem with the two-way radio: you’re there to see exciting animals like lions, why not drive to where they are? The lions don’t care if you’re watching. In the end, you’ll get to go home having seen the Big Five while the others who were anti-touristy missed out.

You can cut down the price of your safari if you can find extra people to join in your vehicle. The only way to really do this ahead of time is to search travel forums, such as on Frommers or Lonely Planet.

Q: What company did you go with? Do you recommend it?

A: We were recommended an individual named Pasian Peter, who seems to run his own company purely through word of mouth. He ended up being almost $200 less than all other budget safaris, and our guide Louis was really knowledgeable, friendly, and wanted to make sure we were happy and saw everything we were hoping to see. He would stop whenever we requested, and would drive extra if we wanted. Our cook made very big and delicious meals, and they pitched our tents, cleaned them, gave us snacks for the road, and bought us sodas and drinks. He does not have a Web site, but simply e-mail him and tell him you were sent on a recommendation. He will give you details and then you will wire a deposit. The rest you pay in cash, and I highly recommend bringing American dollars because the largest Tanzanian bill available is 10,000 shillings = $7. Pasian Peter (

Q: Maasai tour: worth it or not?

A: Eh… we spent a week in a Maasai village beforehand as volunteers so we didn’t feel the need to visit the village where they were all fully dressed in ceremonial wear just to entertain tourists. But, it could be interesting to stop in, as long as you’re aware you’re being entertained and this is not how they normally spend their days. Or, perhaps they do spend their days just singing and dancing for tourists.

If you have any other questions, always, feel free to send me an email!


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Wanderings: We’re back from Africa!

Photo: Sunset over the Serengeti.

We’re finally back and fairly jetlagged! Jon fell asleep in the middle of eating his burger last night but we managed to sleep through the night, even though our bodies are about 7 hours ahead. And oh, the things we take for granted here in America. The things we take for granted! It took us about 45 minutes to get back to my sister’s house from Dulles Airport – the same distance the Maasai village was from Nairobi, yet it did not involve super dusty dirt roads with potholes  and giant rocks for miles on end. I absent-mindedly flushed the toilet – flushed the toilet! and brushed my teeth with the tap running  (although I should have turned it off, I know). And pulled food out of the refrigerator  and stood around munching on a variety of items. Then I piled all our clothes into this machine that – imagine this – washes the clothes for you! One of the Kenyan staff of the volunteer organization, who was a city girl herself from Nairobi, commented on how nice it was that we Mzungas (white people, or non-black foreigners) had these machines that washed your clothes while you sat around sipping a cup of coffee.

Our flight home was interesting: in Zanzibar, my luggage was stopped at security for seashells, seashells… not the liter of water Jon was carrying or the nailclippers they tried to find in Ethiopia security… but my seashells. However, for a small tip, I can still remove them out of the country.

Then we flew from Zanzibar Island to Dar es Salaam (a nice 15-minute flight in a Boeing 737) and then to Addis Ababa where we changed planes and wandered the gift shops for Ethiopian treasures that looked suspiciously like Kenyan and Tanzanian and Indian ones, then to Rome for a quick refueling of our jet although I was asleep for all of Rome. Then finally back to Dulles, where my brother-in-law and niece kindly picked us up from the airport and we took hot showers and drank water from the tap.

I’ll post more stories about our adventures, and I’m sure the novelty of electricity and running water and all that will wear off quickly. In the meantime, I have to figure out how to get pictures of my defunct memory card (everyone pray that I am not about to lose all my Africa pictures!) but here are some from Jon’s point-and-shoot, when we wanted to be discreet. People did NOT like having their pictures taken, even if you were just taking a picture of the street.

Jumping around to a Maasai song by the crocodile park in Nairobi

Zebras in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (they stand this way to keep watch for predators)

Me, trying to appear like a nonchalant shopper at the market in Arusha, Tanzania.



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Wanderings: Wild Things (our Tanzanian safari)

Lions! Tigers! Bears! No, actually no tigers or bears, but lions galore, like a female chomping loudly away at a baby gazelle, bones and all. We just completed our four-day safari through the vast Serengeti (Maasai for “endless plain” which is really was) where we saw elephants, gazelle, giraffe, zebras, wildebeasts, buffalo, impalas, and even two cheetahs perched on a rock. We camped in lion territory and were forewarned not to go out of the tent in the middle of the night. The next day we headed to Ngorongo Crater, which was a former volcano that erupted once and formed a crater and became a lake supporting pelicans and “lesser flamingos” (the pink ones) and “greater flamingos” (the whiter ones), zebras, lions, gazelle, etc. Finally we headed to Lake Manyara, which was more of a jungle-like area which hosted more baboons, monkeys, and over 400 species of birds (plus hippos and elephants and giraffes and all those again). I’ll have more details on the safari when I get back to stateside, accompanied with pictures, of which we took more than 700.

We’re now in Dar es Salaam, staying at our friends Natalia and Brian at their new place by the ocean which is clean, white and sparkling (her apartment, that is). Brian works for a coffee company and Natalia is a nurse at one of the new emergency rooms (a new concept here). We took real showers and slept in their spare bedroom and are learning much about Tanzania. We head out by ferry to Zanzibar tomorrow, land of white sand beaches lining the Indian Ocean. Of course, I don’t need another tan, because after looking in the mirror for the first time in five days I realized I had gotten pretty dark. Dark or dirty, it is unclear.

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Wanderings: I need a shower! (Greetings from Kenya!)

I’m on a terrible keyboard here outside Nairobi, where Jon and I just finished our one-week volunteer stint at a Maasai village  where we lived in a house of mud/tin/sticks with no running water and no electricity. They had to haul their water from the nearby well, so we felt extremely guilty about using a lot of it for something high-maintenanced and cosmetic like having clean hair. The entire land was made of red-rusty-colored dust, so all our clothes and luggage and currently our hair and skin is a new shade of red. Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and our host family, and starry starry nights, waking up to mooing cows and bleeping goats,  sighting baboons and giraffes, and contributing to what is now the first library for the Olmararoi Primary School (building tables from scrraatch and painting them with probably leaded paint). Pictures and more details to come later, because we’re off to Tanzania tomorrow!

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On My Itinerary: Jambo, Nairobi!

Note: I did not take this picture. Picture of Nairobi Bus Station.

We’re arrived safe and sound in NAIROBI, sometimes known as “Nairobbery” but the volunteer organizer, Jamie-lee, this peppy blond New Zealander, said it is all media hype (though I’m still wary). After a long haul flight to Addis Ababa via Rome (where nobody got on or off except some loud Italian cleaning crews who came on board to take our trash) and then onto Nairobi, we met up with some other people volunteering with us, and all piled into an old-school van with some serious shock-absorbers as we bounced down the pothole-filled dirt road to our temporary homestays until our volunteering starts on Monday. So far Nairobi’s outskirts strike me as a mix of the Caribbean, of India, of Beijing, of Thailand, and of Costa Rica. I haven’t shot any pictures yet because I don’t want to be SO touristy to be taking pictures of their fruit and traffic and the sign-maker because I wouldn’t do that at home, either. I guess the point is I’m not at home right now. We’re going to check out this giant Target-like shop after we log off the Internet. Check back!

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Wanderings: traveling light to Africa

I’m fairly swamped today with last-minute preparations/ cleaning/ deadlines/ etc. before we take off for Africa, but I’m pretty impressed with our minimalist packing. This is an entire week of clothing (well, we each get two pairs of pants or shorts and I have a skirt), plus two bedsheets (from Ikea, $2), quick-drying hiking towels, toiletries, mosquito coils, sandals, five big books, swimsuits, headlamps, travel backgammon set, journal, sleepwear, camera with three lenses and a flash, two boxes of granola bars, hats and flip flops. The most important thing: laundry detergent and copies of our passport. We’ve packed it all into a carry-on suitcase and Jon’s school bag, a small daypack and a camera bag. The best part is we’ll be throwing out about half the stuff we bring, to make room for all the fun African sculptures/ art/ animals we’ll be bringing back.

All of this… fits into below.

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On My Itinerary: AFRICA!

Finally! my summer is starting. Working in a windowless office can really steal away your seasons. It’s about the same temperature inside year-round, and the minor difference is on my commute home I might wear a coat or not. (Well, it’s really a major difference whether I should put on 10 layers or remove 3, depending on if it’s summer or winter. Irregardless, I’m finally getting a well-deserved vacation).

We jet off Friday for NAIROBI via Rome and Addis Ababa, where we’ll start with a week of volunteering at an elementary school with a Maasai village. We’ve managed to raise nearly $1,500 to donate to the school and we’ll be stopping at a Barnes & Noble before we leave to pick up a lot of educational children’s books and some school supplies.

Afterwards, we’ll be headed to TANZANIA for a safari, followed by a quick visit in DAR ES SALAAM with some of Jon’s friends and then to enjoy the beach and maze of Stone Town in ZANZIBAR. I have to capitalize all these cities and countries because they just sound so exotic.

I’ll try to post updates and some pictures, but we may be in areas that don’t even have electricity, let alone internet (although when we visited the “remote villages” of Chiang Mai in Thailand, they lived in open-air bamboo huts and sifted rice by hand, but managed to sell us some framed photos of us taken only moments ago with a digital camera and printed and framed automatically). Keep checking!

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