16 December 2009

7 safari tips for first-timers

My partner and I had a great time on our safari, and if you're going to be in northern Tanzania and want to try one, here's a little background information on safaris, in general, and some tips that may help you get the most out of your future safari experience(s).

For starters, yes, it's safe. We were in a fairly old Land Rover, transformed so that the roof opens and raises up, and you can stand in the vehicle and still be in the shade (which is key, as the sun is intense here near the equator). Standing inside the vehicle, you'll also be quite high up, which is great for spotting animals-- and the wildlife can't reach you. We had lions walking right next to us, and it was totally fine.

It ain't cheap. But it's well worth it, if you can afford it. You can find safaris that are "cheap" (i.e., $100-150 per person per day, if you're lucky/have a large group), but be very careful. Cheaper safaris may compromise safety, guide experience and/or language ability, lodging, food, etc. We found one of the cheapest but still reputable companies, and it was still about $200 per person per day.

The good news is that this includes all transport, camping (they even set up your tent for you), park fees ($50/person/day in the Serengeti, for example), food, water, tea/coffee/hot chocolate, etc. Also, some safari companies (like ours) don't combine different groups, so my partner and I had our own private safari with our own guide/driver and chef. (In case you're wondering, we did our safari with Base Camp, and they were fine.)

In general, it's going to feel very expensive for what you get. And even if you're in the mood to go all out, think twice before plunking your cash down on a luxury safari, as they will cost a LOT more for not that much more.

Here's what we observed: the fancier safaris may have newer vehicles, but they were driving on the same bumpy roads we were on; we'd eat lunch at the same breathtaking places and often even be eating the same food, but they would have tablecloths and wine; and we stayed in a lodge one night (for my partner's birthday), and while it was cool to stay in a hotel with giraffes, hippos, antelopes and rock hyraxes scurrying by, when you're sleeping, you're just sleeping in an enclosed room and could be anywhere in the world.

Camping with zebras munching on grass a foot away from your head, right outside of your tent, is way cooler. Oh, and the luxury safaris will easily cost $500-$1000 per person per day. Ouch.

With that said, luxury tent safaris could be cool (and are often more expensive than the luxury lodge safaris). What we saw in luxury tents in the Serengeti didn't seem to be all that-- they were often bland permanent tents on raised concrete platforms with cot beds. BUT, we saw photos in books of luxury tents that looked absolutely amazing.

So, if you just have too much money to spend, you can inquire as to where you can find such awesomeness. For the rest of us plebeians, I'd recommend tent camping.

Now, on to the tips to help you maximize your safari enjoyment:

1. Know what is included in your safari price and what isn't. Is your safari operator including your drinking water? Do you have any special dietary requirements, and will they charge you more/less for that? What happens if it starts to pour during your only day in Ngorongoro, and you can't go down into the caldera? Do you get your money back?

Most important of all: the tips for the driver/guide, chef, porter, etc. will NOT be included in your price, and it is basically a MANDATORY tip. It sounds pretty sketchy, but it seems the common practice for the safari operators is to pay these guys around $10 per day, and it's expected that the customers will provide the rest of their salary via the tips. When we went, the average tip was $8-10 per day for the chef, $12-15 per day for the guide/driver and $5-10 for porters, if you have a hiking component in your safari. (Many of the safaris offer that option, and if you hike Meru or Kilimanjaro while you're in the area, you'll also have to tip your porters.)

2. What to bring:
- Binoculars, if you have them. They make a huge difference, and we got ours on sale for less than $20. Yes, you'll be just meters away from elephants, lions and zebras and will be able to see them just fine, but with binoculars, you'll be able to see their eyes, their stripes, and the wrinkles in their skin up close.
- Loose, lightweight, comfortable clothes with long sleeves and long pants-- this will protect you from sun and bugs while keeping you cool. And I wouldn't bring anything you care too much about, as you may get dirty.
- If you have long hair, have something to tie it back or keep it out of your face. We loved standing in the car as we drove around, but it could get really windy.
- Sunglasses. The sun is bright and fairly consistent in its 6am sunrise and 6pm sunset.
- Something warm to wear. Ngorongoro is especially chilly at night, and a fleece jacket along with pants and socks should do the trick.
- Your own bedding/sleeping bag, if you're camping. Our safari outfit provided mats and pillows, but we brought sheets and a blanket. If you don't have luggage space, you can always rent a sleeping bag, but it's just another way to save some cash if you bring your own (which will probably be nicer/cleaner, too).

4. Be prepared for dust. Driving between Ngorongoro, Olduvai Gorge and the Serengeti is like hanging out in a dust storm for a few hours. When we got to our Ngorongoro campsite, my normally dark hair looked grey, and my sunglasses were coated in a fine beige dust. My lungs and throat felt dry and itchy, even though I was covering my face with my scarf, and I was chugging water to keep from desiccating. And if you wear contacts, you might want to consider wearing glasses for that segment of the trip. If I were to do it again, I'd actually want a dust mask, even though I'd look totally ridiculous. But hey, it beats inhaling chalk dust for hours on end.

5. Take your time. We saw some people stop before an animal or group of animals, take a photo and then leave. For that, it's a lot easier to go to a zoo. On safari, you really must stop and watch the animals. There's a real thrill in seeing a leopard or lion lazing about and then suddenly sit up, alert, and look around. Especially when they look around and then fix their gaze on you. And beyond challenging predators to a staring contest, seeing animals in their natural habitat just doing their thing is mesmerizing. Rushing through to get more photos is missing the whole point of exploring life in their turf.

6. If you have a good camera, bring it. It's an incredible opportunity to take advantage of all that SLR cameras have to offer (especially the zoom abilities). If you're considering buying a nice camera and think you'll use it after your safari, it might be a good time to buckle down and get one. If, however, you'll be backpacking and want to travel light, like we did, or don't have the cash or desire to get a fancy camera, you can definitely get great photos without one.

7. Tell your guide what you're interested in seeing. Everyone's different, and some people go gaga for lions while others want to see the incredible array of colorful birds, so let your guide know what you're most excited to see. Also, don't be shy about telling them if you'd like more or less time observing animals, etc. Our guide was really nice and let us stop for the 'banal' animals like zebras, impalas and gazelles because we thought they were beautiful-- but if we hadn't said anything, he probably would have continued practically running them over in order to reach the next 'exciting' animal.

And lastly, a note on the hot air balloon rides. The average price starts at $500 per person, you get to be airborne for one hour, you'll usually get some kind of meal or at least a snack, and don't be surprised to find yourself with up to thirty people in that balloon basket. Your experience depends entirely on the wind, which may or may not take you to where you want to go. On the positive, those who have had good experiences say floating right above the animals in the Serengeti is pretty amazing. It could be a neat way to witness some of the the wildebeest migration, for example. We didn't do it because it was too expensive for us, and we don't regret it, but it could be neat under the right circumstances. (As a very generous gift, for example.)

But whatever you do, if you have the chance to go on a safari, do it! Some people are addicted to safaris, since nothing is guaranteed, and you will see different animals each time you go out. For us, it will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, as we don't feel we need to do it again, but we feel so fortunate to have experienced it.

Most importantly, have fun!

15 December 2009

ngorongoro conservation area

Ngorongoro is a conservation area instead of a national park because "activities in national parks are restricted to research and tourism in vehicles. In NCA, escorted walks are allowed in addition, and, mainly, the Maasai and their cattle are allowed to live there in traditional ways" (per Safari Patrol). You're also only allowed to visit for six hours per day.

I'll address this more in my next post (a compilation of safari tips), but when we got to our campsite, we were covered in a fine cream-colored dust. My sunglasses were coated (good thing I had them), and my normally dark hair looked like I'd aged a few decades.

But what a beautiful campsite it was, 2300 meters (about 7550 feet) above sea level on the rim of the Ngorongoro caldera (collapsed volcano-- Ngorongoro 'Crater' is technically incorrect). We had a huge tree in the middle of the lawn where we camped. Cows grazed on the lawn during the day, and zebras grazed right outside our tent at night. As we tried to sleep, we could hear them pulling the grass out and munching loudly.

There was also a local elephant that would come to drink from the campsite water tank. Elephants drink over 200 liters (50 gallons) of water a day, so I guess this made it quite easy for him.

He came to drink randomly during the day, but he seemed to come pretty regularly around 6pm.

While I took photos of this elephant, my partner took pictures of me. I thought it was neat to see the different angles here:

The elephant wandered around the site and between the bathrooms as if he were one of the campers.

Since we only had six hours to visit Ngorongoro, we left quite early the next morning to avoid the other visitors. We had breakfast here (and you can just make out the hippos in the water to the right of the tree):

This bird also decided to join us in hope of scoring some breakfast, too.

Ngorongoro is known for its misty mornings that clear in the late mornings, and our day there was no different. It was quite chilly when we entered and quite warm when we left.

We saw tons of animals again, including buffaloes, ostriches and our first jackals and hyenas.

The jackals looked like foxes, and the hyenas were larger than I expected. Not the cutest creatures, that's for sure... When we asked our guide if anyone had ever been hurt by any animals at our campsite (I heard a leopard's raspy roar on my way from the bathroom to the tent at night), he said something like, "Well, not really, but some people were attacked by some hyenas a little while ago." Yikes.

The highlight of Ngorongoro for our guide was seeing a python. He said in his seven years of exploring the parks, this was his second python sighting. The one we saw spanned the dirt road, so it was probably around eight feet long.

It slithered out from the grassy area and into a small stream. Once it got across the road, we drove closer to get a better look.

It was amazing to me how well and how quickly it swam. It makes sense, but I had just never seen a snake swim.

My partner and I were staring at it, making graceful S's in the water when a baby hippo flew out of the water like a projectile. The poor little guy must have been scared out of his wits. We didn't even know he was there.

For my partner and me, I'd say the highlight of visiting Ngorongoro was seeing all of the wildebeest. We weren't there during the huge migration when millions of them stampede through the north of Tanzania into the south of Kenya, but we got a taste of what that might be like-- and it was pretty amazing.

We saw never-ending lines of wildebeest and zebras, along with other animals (we even saw an elephant!), heading from one water source to another.

Wildebeest aren't the most attractive animals, and the way they move is as gangly as the way they look, but there's something kind of lovable in their awkwardness.

It was also cool to be able to identify the Grant's gazelle (near) and see how different it was from the Thompson's gazelle (the three in the distance, a little smaller than the Grant's, with a black horizontal stripe between the tan fur and the white belly).

And of course, the land itself was quite beautiful. Even though riding along dirt roads for hours each day wasn't the most comfortable experience ever, I'm glad that the Tanzanian parks decided to keep the roads natural.

We saw some rhinos from a distance, completing our Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos), but sadly, most of the rhinos in Tanzania have been decimated by illegal poaching. Now, the black rhinos stay as far from people as possible (no surprise), and our guide told us all of the white rhinos have been wiped out in Tanzania. If you want to see white rhinos, you'll have to go to South Africa.

When we were leaving Ngorongoro, golden fields were replaced by lush, green forest.

And as we made our way back out of the caldera, our guide told us they cleaned up the normally really bumpy road because the president had been there about a week ago. Nice. (The official entrance to Ngorongoro had been officially reopened with a new, wider opening a week before we arrived.)

This was the view we had of the 'crater' as we drove around the edge:

We headed back to our campsite along another picture-perfect dirt road:

And saw our trusty elephant drinking from the campsite water tank again:

We drove away from the parks and started making our way back to civilization.

And in case you've never seen red bananas, here they are (in the front/right bucket):

14 December 2009

serengeti national park

Songs have been written about the Serengeti, and it's the most famous national park in Tanzania and maybe even in all of Africa, so one might think it would be hard to live up to the hype. But it was everything I had imagined-- endless golden plains and blue sky, large prides of lions slinking through the savanna and leopards lounging in trees.

Even when we were just paying our park fees, we saw tons of these metallic turquoise birds flitting around:

And this guy catching some rays.

Minutes after we entered the park, we saw a pride of nine lions walking right next to the road. (Prides can be as big as thirty lions, and there is usually only one adult male in the group. They're very territorial and tend to stay within their area.)

We drove to our campsite and set up camp in a site where they warned us explicitly not to leave the area.

We felt very lucky to be camping in the famous Serengeti National Park and definitely didn't go wandering around. (To be honest, the bathroom was a ways away from our tent, and I was a little nervous just going to and from it in the dark. But anyway.)

We had a lovely hot dinner and enjoyed a simple sunset before hitting the sack.

When we started our trek the following morning, there were tons of animals right outside our campsite. They really weren't joking when they told us not to wander around. We saw topis (lower left), giraffes, zebras and gazelles all grazing right beyond our tiny campsite (large enough for about eight tents or so).

A little while later, our guide told us to look closely at this tree.

Our untrained eyes didn't see anything, but then we saw the hanging tail.

And looked a little closer.
There's nothing like looking into the eyes of a leopard who is looking right back at you. I think we stayed and watched it for an hour. They're huge, by the way-- they're more like lions than I expected. They're like lions with spots-- and better tree-climbing abilities. When they roar, it sounds like a chainsaw or cardboard ripping-- not really animal-like at all.

And the land itself was worth seeing. Serengeti comes from a Maasai word meaning endless plains, and it really is flat and open as far as the eye can see.

For those of you who love lone trees like I do, there were plenty to appreciate.

We saw a warthog family, which my partner loved.

And another pool of hippos lazing in the sun. We learned they spend the entire day keeping cool in the water and only graze at night.

We saw a buffalo skeleton, which meant lions weren't far away.

And sure enough, we saw lions galore. We lost track around thirty, but I think we saw around fifty lions. The Serengeti is known for its lions, and just to put this number in context, people who have gone on safari in South Africa are often lucky to see one lion. (!)

We were even treated to a cheetah sighting.

When we returned to our campsite, we saw a giraffe, a buffalo and some zebras grazing nearby.

For my partner's birthday, we spent one night in a lodge instead of a tent. And instead of your usual concrete hotel, this one was built on and around giant kopjes (pronounced koppies, meaning huge rounded boulders) and had giraffes, impalas, vervet monkeys and rock hyraxes running around. We even saw a hippo wandering around at night.

We saw two giraffes strolling by as we entered the grounds and thought maybe they were resident giraffes, but nope-- we never saw them again.

When we checked in, we were told to make sure not to leave our windows open when we went out, as the monkeys were known to enter rooms and steal things. We later saw them on the roof enjoying some of their stolen goods.

And we woke up to two adult monkeys and a baby monkey right outside our balcony door-- I closed it just in time. They really were fearless. I practically slammed our glass door shut in their faces, and they still sat perched on the balcony railing watching me for a minute before taking off.

Rock hyraxes look like giant rodents (about a foot in length), but they're actually most closely related to the elephant. Who knew?

We were on a camping schedule, so we woke up in time for a nice sunrise.

We went to the (highly recommended) Serengeti information center (there's a snazzier name, but I don't remember it now), and as we walked around, reading all of the signs, we were suddenly stopped and told be very careful as we proceeded.

Apparently, there was a resident leopard that lived around the rock the exhibits were built upon, and it had dragged a gazelle into one of the trees. (Leopards often carry their prey high up into the trees to prevent lions from eating their food.)

My partner and I took a few photos, but they're pretty disturbing, so I decided not to post them here.

On a sweeter note, I was enchanted by this rainbow-colored lovebird that I saw on one of the signs, and I asked our guide if we might see one. They're common in the Serengeti, but after asking around, our guide told us that none of the other guides had seen one. Sorry, he told us-- it's just not the season for them.

And then, as luck would have it, I spotted one. Much as the big animals were impressive, seeing this tiny bird (about five inches long) really made my day. The colors were unmistakable.

This was one moment when I wished I'd had a nicer camera than my little point-and-shoot. Don't get me wrong-- I love my little Canon and wouldn't want to lug around a nice camera for our backpacking trip, but there were a few times when a good camera would really have made a difference.

On the positive side, we were generally close enough to the animals that a fancier camera wasn't really necessary.

Like the last animal we saw before leaving the Serengeti: a cheetah that had just eaten and was resting under a tree just a few meters away.

So, even without a fancy camera, it's just amazing to be there, to see it all and have those memories, whether you have photographic evidence or not. Some images of the Serengeti will stay with me for a long time...