ADVENTURE TRAVEL

East Africa Two Ways!

Written by Laura Main, Adventure Travel Consultant

In December 2013, I spent two weeks in East Africa – visiting Kenya and Tanzania – what an experience! I was able to enjoy a full week in each country with very different travel styles. Week one was on a private safari staying in permanent tented camps, bush camps and comfortable inns and week two was on an overland truck with participation camping – talk about contrasts!

Tanzania:

I arrived into the Kilimanjaro airport late in the evening and was greeted by my driver/guide Herman for my first week of travelling with one of our local partners. After a good night’s sleep in a hotel in Arusha we were up and off early the next day heading out to experience this beautiful country. My first stop was Tarangire National Park – which is about 2 hours from Arusha on good paved roads (something I came to appreciate more as the week progressed). An afternoon game drive in the park quickly made this one of my favourites! We were in the park for only a few minutes when I had already seen giraffe, elephants, warthogs, zebra – and a pair of mating lions!

Tarangire is definitely the place to visit if you want to see/love elephants. After a good night’s sleep in my permanent tented camp, with ensuite facilities and excellent food – I was ready for another morning game drive in the park – this time down to the river to see the animals in action. Tarangire is also a great place to see the baobab trees which are an iconic symbol of east Africa and incredible in size.

From Tarangire I headed to the Lake Manyara area – about 1.5 hours (ish) on mostly paved roads (still under construction!) to the small town of Moto wa Mbu. Lake Manyara is often a stop for more wildlife viewing and the flamingos that the lake has been famous for in the past. Unfortunately due to the low level of the lake the flamingos have mostly moved on to other areas – but my focus here was on a cultural experience in the village. I had a local guide and we headed out on bikes to see things up close and personal.

 My 5 hours started with biking to a local home to have lunch, traditional foods that were tasty and healthy – corn and beans, spinach, veggies, beef, chicken, 2 kinds of rice, fruit. After lunch we got on our bikes and headed off to explore. A ride through the outskirts of the village brought us to the edge of the lake which has been shrinking over the years. The grasslands around it are now used by the local masai for their herds of cows and goats for grazing. In the village I also visited a banana plantation, local carving coop and tasted some banana beer (not really something I’d recommend). It was so nice to get out of the vehicle and up close and travelling at street level. People were friendly and all the kids yelled ‘hello’ or ‘djambo’ and waved as I rode by. My permanent tented camp for the night had a wonderful view down into the valley of the lake beds and the grazing herds.

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Day three was an early start as we headed to the Serengeti. (a 5 or 6 hour drive in total). I had heard stories of the roads in East Africa and how they call it an ‘African massage’ – I now know what that means! It is a rough road – and it lasts for 3+ hours of dusty, bone and teeth shattering ‘massages’! While the drive itself is a bit uncomfortable the landscape that you pass through changes so much, from dry and dusty, to fertile and lush, flat lands to hills. I was never lacking some new sight to see as we drove and enjoyed watching the people as they went about their daily lives – from fetching water, herding their animals, working the fields etc etc. The people in Tanzania wear the traditional dress – which added beautiful colour to the scenery as we passed by. Before checking into the bush camp I would be staying at for 2 nights in the Serengeti we had an afternoon game drive, where we managed to add 2 more prides of lions, a leopard and cheetah to the list of animals that I’d seen!

The bush camp that I stayed at was definitely one of my most memorable travel experiences! I arrived to discover that I would be the only guest at the camp! A bush camp, or mobile tented camp is not for everyone – but I’m so glad that I had two nights here. The tents have beds, a toilet and bush shower attached – so no need to leave the tent in the night – which was a relief since the camp was also a popular place for buffalo and elephants to come to graze and drink after dark. I was given a quick tour of the camp and then advised that my water was warmed and ready for my shower. I was also advised that once I was ready to come for dinner I should use the flashlight provided to signal and I’d be escorted to the dining tent! Dinner was by candle light, and it was delicious! Who would think that with no electricity they could create such tasty 4 course meals – but they do. I was then escorted back to my tent – and advised that I would likely hear and feel buffalo around my tent at night – but not to worry that it was ‘normal’. Still fighting jetlag and long days I was soon asleep – to be woken at 2am to the sound of some very loud munching right by my head! No, I did not panic :) I managed to get back to sleep – just remembering the words of both my host and driver/guide – and deciding that many people have stayed in these camps – so I would be fine too!

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I woke the next day to more sunshine – and after breakfast we headed off for a full day game drive in the Serengeti. What a day!!! Zebra, wildebeest, lions, cheetah, warthogs, hyenas, hippos and on and on!!! The Seronera area of the Serengeti is a great area to see a wide selection of game and can be quite busy since many properties and tours visit the area. My driver/guide wanted to make sure that I got away from the other vehicles and really experienced more of what the Serengeti had to offer – and what an experience!! At one point we hadn’t seen another vehicle for at least an hour and we were surrounded by a pride of 40 lions – up close and personal!!! We returned to the bush camp for dinner, where the buffalo joined us earlier than planned and it meant the whole crew of 10 staff having to go out and bang pots and pans to clear them away so that I could return to my tent! Either I was too tired after a full day of game driving, or the buffalo decided to hang out closer to other tents but my second night in the bush camp was uninterrupted!

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My final full day of exploring Tanzania was an early start, back over the dusty, bumpy roads to the Ngorongo crater. We headed down into the crater for an afternoon game drive and picnic lunch and I managed to check the last of the Big Five off my list as we found the illusive rhino hiding in the grasses of the crater. My lodge for the evening was a wonderful property in the village of Karatu just outside the crater area with four walls, hot water and a pool – definitely a great way to end my time in Tanzania after all the dusty roads.

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I loved my time in Tanzania and highly recommend it as a country to put on your must see places!! Having a private safari was an amazing experience and being able to choose the level of comfort I wanted, both for the comfort and to fit my budget was fantastic. I was able to choose the places I wanted to visit, the number of nights in each place and would highly recommend this type of travel for anyone thinking of heading to Tanzania. We can even customize the trip to fly one way (or both) and avoid those dry, dusty bumpy roads!! My driver/guide Herman was so knowledgeable and wanted me to do more than just snap some photos of the animals – he wanted to ensure that I saw things happening – so we sat and waited and watched quietly – while others drove up and snapped a photo and moved on – I was so fortunate to see and experience as many things as I did.

Getting from Tanzania to Kenya

I would recommend that you fly! :)
I decided that it would be a good experience to take the public shuttle bus from Arusha to Nairobi – so that I would know what it was like, how long it took, just what it was all about! Let’s just say that I’ve crossed many borders on my own over the years and with over 44 countries on my list…but this one was definitely the most memorable! The drive itself is supposed to take about 4-5 hours, with one stop for a washroom just past the border. In reality it took almost 8 hours (still with only the one stop) and the border itself isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry! Arriving into Nairobi on a Friday night at 9pm on my own, in the dark, wasn’t the smartest travel move I’ve ever made. I managed it (just) – but if I had to do it again, I’d either take a tour that assisted with the border crossing – or – more preferable, I’d fly!

Kenya

Nairobi – a big overwhelming, noisy, crowded city!!! To help me get out for the day in Nairobi I arranged to spend the day with a local G Adventures driver/guide. He picked me up early and we headed off to visit the Giraffe Centre as our first stop. Learning about the different giraffe was great – but the highlight for this stop is feeding and ‘kissing’ (or rather having your face licked) by a giraffe (as seen in the first photo). From here we went to the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in time for their feeding which is open to the public from 11-noon each day. A stop at Kazumi beads and the Karen Blixen Museum filled out my daytrip and gave me a bit of a view into the city and sights.

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My second week in East Africa was an overland trip with Intrepid Travel – the Kenya Wildlife Safari. What a contrast from my first week – this meant an overland vehicle with 14 others on the truck, setting up (and taking down) shared dome tents, sleeping on the ground on 2 inch foam mats, helping prep meals, doing dishes, warm (ish) showers and some basic facilities. It was quite a change – but another fantastic experience!!

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Our trip started early in the morning as we headed out from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru. First stop was visit to an orphanage that Intrepid supports through their Intrepid Foundation. As we stepped off the overland truck we were quickly surrounded by the children, all clamoring to have their picture taken. Talk about ‘selfies’ :) At one point I was swamped by kids as they piled on top of me to get into the group shots being taken. Our visit included a tour of the orphanage, some songs performed by the kids, an opportunity to make donations of clothes, books and games followed by more time to interact with the children. Pushing swings and teaching them action songs was a great way to end the time here.

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Continuing on the road we headed to Lake Nakuru and set up our campsite for the night. The tents were 4 person tents – but shared by 2 people and we quickly learned to set them up and take them down. After setting up and a picnic lunch quickly prepared by our cook we headed off for a game drive in the national park nearby. Elephants, giraffe, lions and many grazing animals were spotted. I enjoyed watching my co-travellers as they saw their first animals and marveled at how close we still managed to get to the animals even with the larger vehicle.

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Our first night campsite was in a field by a local village that we visited on a walking tour right after breakfast the next morning. We had a chance to learn how the local village has created a cooperative to start businesses that help them to survive without just relying on tourists for their income. Things like sewing/weaving, fish farms, agriculture and building a school were some of the many initiatives that have been started. Another great cultural experience.

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After our visit we drove to Lake Naivasha where we would be camping for 2 nights. We had a number of optional activities to choose from for our full day in the area. As a group we decided to combine to activities in the morning as it made the most sense for the transfer costs and everyone’s interests. With a local guide we got into mini vans and headed out for a walking safari in Crater Lake Game Sanctuary followed by a boat trip on Lake Naivasha to see the hippos and flamingos. The walking safari was a great change – being down on the ground was great – and we actually saw a good number of animals (no lions!).

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After returning to the camp for our lunch some of us decided to add on an afternoon biking option to Hells Gate Canyon. The bikes were mountain bikes with gears – which was a good thing since this was off road biking, with some hills! We set off at about 2pm on our 24 mile return trip – which was supposed to take 4-5 hours in total. (sunset happens regularly at about 6:30pm – so there was a good chance we were going to be coming home in the dark – but none of us thought of it at the time!). Biking through the park was amazing – the scenery was beautiful and we had it all to ourselves! We passed giraffe, buffalo, zebra by bike this time. After a hike at the end of the trip we got on our bikes to return back to camp as it started to get darker and darker… in the end we had a car following us to light the way in the pitch black as we biked on rough bumpy dirt roads out of the park through herds of buffalo grazing! Talk about white knuckling it! Yet another one of those experiences that I will remember for a long time – the adventure/unexpected things are always the most memorable.

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The next day we got up early and headed across the Rift Valley to Loita Hills, home of the Maasai people. Our camp was just outside of a village and very basic – but for all of it this camp was a highlight of the trip as we were welcomed by the Maasai and had the opportunity to learn more about their culture and have some time around the campfire sharing information about all of our cultures as well as some really great riddles!

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The final part of our trip was camping just outside of the Masai Mara Reserve for 2 nights with a game drive on arrival and then a full day game drive for our last day of exploring before we headed back to Nairobi to head home.

Stuff to know:

Getting there:

I chose to travel via Amsterdam and added in an overnight stopover there to help adjust to the time difference. I’m so glad I did as I arrived and had no problem at all with jetlag. There are lots of options though so it all depends on your budget and flight preferences!

Tanzania – Currency is the Tanzania shilling. Approximately TZS1600 = CAD$1.00. I would recommend taking lots of small USD$ for tipping in lodges/camps. Many lodges will take either USD or TZS, the smaller camps that I stayed in did not take credit card, you do need cash. I had USD$1.00 bills with me for tipping in each location (the person who carries your luggage, the person who serves your meals) and exchanged USD$50.00 into Tanzanian shillings and used that for drinks, water and some tipping and had lots of money for my week.

Kenya – Currency is the Kenya Shilling. Approximately KES82 = CAD1.00. For the overland trip we didn’t need money for tipping as much, except for local guides. You do need to have KES with you to pay for things as the USD is not widely accepted, you can get money in Nairobi and the overland trucks stopped a few times along the way for bank stops/exchanges. Debit cards don’t tend to work well in bank machines and many found that VISA is more widely accepted than MASTERCARD. Some of the people on my trip had VISA debit cards which worked in the bank machines quite well.

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Food:

The meals were quite similar for both trips, the only difference being that I was served at table the first week, vs helping yourself buffet style for the overland trip.

Breakfast – coffee/tea/juice, cereals, fruit and yoghurt, followed by eggs, sausages,bacon and bread or pancakes

Lunch
-In Tanzania – usually a packed lunch – which included juice, 2 kinds of fruit, chicken or an egg, banana bread, nuts and some kind of local surprise
-In Kenya – usually a picnic with juice, fruit, fixings to make an sandwich including cheese, fresh veggies

Dinner – 4 courses, appetizer, soup, main meal with either chicken, beef, pork or lamb, potatoes or rice and veggies finished with dessert of fruit, yoghurt and local honey (or some kind of sweet).

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Time of year:

I travelled in the ‘short rainy season’ – which means that it could rain, but not for long periods. I was fortunate to have no rain while in the country (which meant that I packed too many things that I didn’t need). It is hot during the day but does cool down quite a bit at night so I would take layers! Basically you can visit anytime of the year but might want to avoid April/May when it is the long rainy season. If you are looking for masses of wildebeest and zebra they are usually in the Masai Mara in Kenya in Aug-Sept (but you will be there with LOTS of other travelers!) – otherwise there are always animals to see and being there during a slower time was a great experience for me.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of my weeks in East Africa and also enjoyed experiencing the contrasts of the two countries as well as the different styles of travelling. Overland camping trips are not for everyone – but for those who are open to it they are a fantastic way to see the country and do give you a great opportunity for some cultural experiences on a budget – I’m so glad that I tried it!!! My more comfortable trip in Tanzania was a nice way to start my trip and having a private safari (whether its for a single, couple, family or group of friends) is definitely a fantastic option. Next time I go I’d love to try the luxury option or even a fly-in safari or fly one-way – there are so many options to choose from…. Adding on time at the beaches of Zanzibar, gorilla trekking, climbing Kili – if I only had the time!

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