We returned from safari ten days ago, and will be posting a trip report when we finish sorting through our photos. Meanwhile, the advice which follows is going to be extremely detailed and lengthy, because I want all the other novice planners out there to be able to know exactly how things went for us, with enough information to judge how they would feel about the things we did and didn’t like or find useful.
I started planning this twelve-night, thirteen-day trip a year ago, and I would like to begin by thanking all the destination experts who helped me plan it. If you don’t want the details, the short version is that we used Eastco, had an awesome time, and that we can’t praise our guide James highly enough.
For those now planning, the categories are:
•Choosing a tour operator
Process, cost, lodging considerations
•Choosing a guide
•What to pack
Equipment advice: binoculars, camera, headlamp, e-reader
To begin, a word about who we are, as judging whether advice is applicable to you depends in part on who issues the advice: My husband and I are 65 and 60 years old, in good health, and fit for our ages. We traveled with our 26 year old daughter. We are well-traveled, (but not so well-heeled) upper middle class professionals from San Francisco. Previous travel has ranged from multi-night raft or wilderness horse-pack trips (hence sleeping in tents), to luxury accommodations in England. This was a bucket-list trip for us.
Choosing a tour operator: Process
What we asked for: I emailed a dozen of the TO listed in the FAQ, telling them that we wanted to have the feeling of being the first hominids out of the Olduvai, and that we realized that would entail a balance between solitude with a lower concentration of animals, and a high concentration of animals and hence tourists. We love primates, elephants, cats, and giraffes, and were less concerned about racing around to be sure we sighted the big five. I also liked the idea of seeing the wildebeest migration. In fact, we were generally interested in almost everything, including terrain, plants, dung beetles, and anything else new and different. (Though my husband was less interested in comparative culture than my daughter and I. We ultimately included only two brief village visits.)
I quickly narrowed the TOs down based on whether they seemed to understand what we wanted, and their English fluency. I preferred Arusha-based operators, but considered others as well. Eastco’s proposed itinerary captured the spirit we wanted nicely, Simon’s English was fluent (Australian) and laced with humor, and Eastco’s itinerary was also substantially more affordable than most of the other estimates we got, and that was the final deciding factor.
Once we decided on Eastco, we proceeded to the more detailed dickering over exact itinerary and costs. This process would hold no matter whom you ultimately choose.
Choosing a tour operator: Cost
It turns out that whether your safari is a group tour or a private tour is not the main factor driving cost. Often, group tours were more expensive. Given that, we definitely wanted a private tour, as we wanted the freedom to watch any animal event as long as we cared to, without being forced to move on. Plus we didn’t want to run the risk of disliking fellow travelers, which would greatly affect the overall mood.
The main driver of cost is lodging. You can stay in basic backpacking-style tents up to $1,000/night luxury lodges. At ages 60 and 65, we didn’t want to do any serious roughing it. Our backpacking days are over.
But we had a budget that was possibly more limited than what many safari-goers have to play with, so we needed a balance of lodges and camps, some luxurious, some less so, and to figure out whether certain times of year were more affordable than others. All the operators have camps and lodging they prefer, and sometimes own, so if you like their properties, there is a cost-advantage that can be passed on to you.
We were trying to keep our total cost between $5,000 and $6,000 per person.
Because we live in San Francisco, we had to factor in expensive airfare, as well as trip insurance and other not so trivial sundries like shots, tips, souvenirs, gifts, new binoculars, etc. Simon gave us a 5% early bird discount, said he would not raise our rates even if his expenses went up (which almost all the other tour operators said they would do in 2013, as we were getting quotes in Jan 2012), and we added our 26 year old daughter, too, for a total final cost of $3420/pp. But with airfare, Malarone, etc. it was still more than $5,000/pp.
After seeing Eaastco’s itinerary, I also asked another tour operator if she could match the price with a comparable itinerary, and she came in about $1500/pp higher. For three people, that’s $4,500 total, a deal breaker for us!
There is one more potential large cost, that was not even an option for us, but in retrospect I am glad it wasn’t: There are tiny air strips all over, and if we had had the money, we might have chosen to fly from one to another, rather than endure the lengthy drives on bone-jarring, unpaved roads. However, then we wouldn’t have had the serendipity of the discoveries along the way, the continuity with our guide whom we loved, the flexibility to change our itinerary with the animals, or the sense of adventure and discovery.
Choosing a tour operator: Lodging considerations
I will review everything later, but I advise you to look up reviews early in your planning process, as lodging is second only to your guide in your experience of the trip, and this may help you decide on which TO to use.
I also advise you to “Know thyself.” All our lodgings had large, comfy beds. Other than that, for comfort purposes, I would divide lodging into the categories of “you-can-shower-as-long-as-you-like-with-enough-hot-water-to-wash-your-long-curly-hair” and “take-a-fast-warm-bucket-shower-and-don’t-try-to-wash-your-hair-or-you’ll-be-sorry”. Comfort considerations aside, all had pros and cons. The range was from:
Our fanciest lodging was the Mbalageti Lodge in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti (though I believe all the Ngorongoro Crater lodging is more expensive). The stone and canvas walled, stone-floored cabins with two king-sized beds were spacious, the bathroom ridiculously so, with a free-standing tub-with-a-view and a rain style showerhead, and the view of the Dutwa plain from the deck was awesome (a term I am too old to use in my civilian life). I frankly don’t care about turn-down service in East Africa, but if you do, you should stick to lodges like this. On the down side, with about three dozen units, it was much larger and less personal than almost everywhere else we stayed.
Least fancy was Eastco’s Serengeti mobile tented camp on the border between Olduvai and Ndutu. Each tent had canvas floors, and three divisions, the back one of which included the shower head for the bucket shower and a toilet (without plumbing). On arrival (as everywhere), we were greeted with juice. Then the canvas basin in front of our tent was filled with water warmed over a smoky fire, so we could wash the dust off immediately. It made us smell like bacon. The gently sloping panorama before us – and the fact that we were the only guests – was worth it to us. However, if this kind of lodging is too basic for you, be warned.
I would also advise that if you have a mix of lodging types as we did, plan a more upscale stop for mid-trip. Socks don’t dry overnight, and though we had done a bit of laundry ourselves along the way, we were very glad to use the laundry service at the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. With rush fees, it cost us $30 for six pairs of socks, two panties, and half a dozen shirts or so, and we were happy to pay it. Everything was washed and ironed.
For the final night, we didn’t care about laundry, but we would have liked a reliable long shower to prepare for the rigors of travel home.
Choosing a guide
The guide/driver really does make the trip. I cannot emphasize that enough. Read the reviews, and MAKE A REQUEST. DON’T LEAVE IT TO CHANCE.
I read a bunch of reviews of Eastco, and requested James based on those reviews, but I also made a list of other guides who sounded good in case James was unable to do it at the last minute. I also made a list of guides to avoid who didn’t sound compatible with us. For example, another guide sounded like he didn’t do early mornings, and a third like he wasn’t good at collaborating with other guides, a fourth couldn’t fix his broken car.
James told us that the guides in Tanzania go to college for guiding, where they can major in animals, vegetation, culture, or geology. Your guide not only needs to be able to spot animals, but also to read you and respond to your needs, and to fix your car if it gets a flat or succumbs to other rigors of off-roading – assuming he is willing to do some of that.
In the official parks (or where there were possible witnesses) it’s not legal. But in the conservation areas, and in the Western corridor of the Serengeti, where we went for hours without seeing another car, no problem. That willingness partly explains why Eastco’s vehicles are in rougher shape than those from other companies. I’d choose function over form any day. James even let us get out of our car in the presence of giraffes, (with no witnesses) who are safe because too shy to harm us, and it meant a lot to us just to walk gently up to them with nothing between us and them, until they shyly loped away.
The guides mostly seem very collegial. When we did see another vehicle from any company, the two drivers almost always stopped and conferred on what animals they had seen and where. Some companies apparently have their drivers use radios to communicate that stuff, but as Eastco didn’t, we didn’t even know that was an option, and frankly, James didn’t need it.
He would notice something like the placenta hanging out the rear of a wildebeest, and then we’d stop and watch the whole birth, beginning to end. Or he’d see vultures circling, and take off across the savannah, sans road, such that we came to a fresh vulture kill, and spent a half hour watching the entire gazelle get consumed.
He also didn’t hesitate to check it out when we did see other vehicles stopped, as that usually meant leopard, cheetah, or lion had been spotted.
He was unfailingly cheerful, and kind and helpful to other drivers, even letting a less experienced guide shadow him while we were looking for the wildebeest migration, which (we had been told by numerous other guides) had apparently moved out of the park – and which James eventually found.
I would advise that whatever tour operator you choose, ask for their senior guide. We knew he’d been a guide for twenty years, but we found out only at the end of our safari that James is actually the most senior guide for Eastco. That longevity leads to friends all over, and enabled us to see some lounging lions without a crowd of other cars, after being led to them by park ranger friends of his.
Really, if you use Eastco, ask for James, the perfect combination of naturalist, psychologist, driver (and auto mechanic), with a good heart and good cheer to boot.
What to pack
Weight and size are big considerations. We wanted only carry-on luggage, which has an 8 kg limit, and we were so nervous about it we bought a luggage scale, and weighed and re-weighed our stuff. We used the carry-on (for the overhead compartment) for only clothes, and put all equipment in our day-packs, for two reasons: weight, and in case we were forced to check our bag for any reason, we thought it would be easier to replace clothes than camera, binoculars, malarone, etc. We wore all our heaviest clothes. During our actual trip, we never saw anyone’s bag get weighed, either by Turkish Air or Precision Air.
Equipment advice: binoculars, camera, headlamp, e-reader
The first three of those are absolutely essential:
Binoculars: Nikon Monarch ATB 8X36
Every person MUST have his own binoculars. I researched what specs were advised for safari, where you are often looking in lower light conditions at the beginning or the end of the day., and you need a compromise between magnification, field of vision, and optical quality. I bought my husband a pair of Nikon Monarch ATB 8X36 binoculars on Amazon for $200, (though at the time they retailed for over $300. Less now.), and then discovered that the Nikon SHE binoculars were identical, but in a different, unpopular, color, so I could get them for $100. I got a pair for me and one for Molly. Most important piece of equipment we had.
Camera: Canon Powershot SX260 Ultrazoom camera
We all already had our little point and shoot cameras, but friends kept insisting that we needed telephoto capabilities. We didn’t want to bring cameras with yard long lenses, so I ultimately bought John an ultrazoom that would magnify up to 20x, but still fit in his shirt pocket. I’m so glad we did. Cameras make things look much further away than they are, so without ultrazoom you really can’t get decent close-ups that reflect what you’re actually seeing. (Mine only magnifies 5X.)
For $200 on Amazon (and thank you Consumer Reports), John got the camera that we used for every close-up, and he took a number of short videos with it. We only wish he had taken more, as the sound and movement add so much. We used my camera for the panoramic shots, but I didn’t learn how to disable the automatic adjustment that often made each segment of the panorama a different exposure, so those weren’t so successful. Also, I learned how to use the feature that lets you take speed shots for moving animals, so I could make a flip book of things like wildebeest running or a baby elephant taking a dust bath, but where John had videos, they trumped my multiple shots. Just make sure you at least get one ultrazoom camera unless you’re already expert photographers.
We each brought multiple memory cards and extra batteries, but given my 16 GB memory card, and John’s 32 GB, we were fine with only the one card each. We took over 1300 shots plus videos, and still had room for more, even at highest resolution. We had been advised that we’d be too tired at the end of each day to delete the bad shots, but we found that to be untrue.
However, we did need our extra batteries. Although we could charge them through James’s car, we couldn’t all do it at once, and we all ended up using our extra batteries.
One for each of us. Definitely a must. Brand less important. Mine was many years old and died a week in. John and Molly’s new ones worked perfectly. Luckily, I had brought one teeny flashlight in case of who-knew-what, and the redundancy proved fortuitous, though headlamps were better.
I was thrilled with my new Paperwhite Kindle, because the self-lighting meant I didn’t need an extra light to read it. I had also read that the battery life was 8 weeks, although that is a bit misleading: It’s really 28 hours. Still, that proved to be fine, with just one charge towards the end of the trip so it would last through the two days of plane flights home. I read much less than I expected to, and need not have loaded thirteen books on it pre-departure! Molly was fine with her old Kindle.
I’m listing in red things I didn’t use and wouldn’t pack again:
Clothing Only Packing List (in 22” soft-sided, wheeled duffel)
1 Shower shoes (tevas)
1 trail shoes/light hikers
1 watch with illuminated dial
1 Zircon studs & diamond drop necklace
1 hat (with extra mosquito netting)
1 bathing suit
1 Pareo (can also be used a shawl when at Lodge and too warm for fleece)
1 light PJ’s
2 sports bras
1 slate Marmot raincoat
1 grey Merrell fleece
3 pr long hiking pants (Northface) (2 light, one heavy)
1 pr ankle garters
1 pr crop pants (looks more normal for at Lodges)
4 short sleeve shirts
2 long sleeve “safari shirts”
extra glasses (which darken automatically into sunglasses, so no need to bring separately)
I would not pack the bathing suit again, as only the Mbalageti had a pool, and we got in too late to want to use it each day. But the pareo was useful on the first hot day at Lake Victoria, and could do double duty if need to dress something up. I’m also a bit ambivalent about the ankle garters, which I used only on hikes because I was scared of ticks, and the mosquito netting, which I actually used only in heavy tsetse territory, as we rarely encountered mosquitoes.
Lock for suitcase when in lodge
Headlamp and extra battery
Tiny flashlight for inside tent and extra battery
Nikon Monarch ATB and SHE 8X36 binoculars
Campmor camp soap for washing clothes
Sink plug (Dad has bungee clothesline)
pens and pencils to donate to school (I ended up giving them to James for his kids)
SF t shirt as gift to James
charger, extra batteries, extra memory cards, beanbag (for stability), soft cloths to wipe dust from the lenses (will use eyeglass wipes).
UK adaptor (Dad has one for us all)
Re-usable 16 oz camping water bottle
Plastic bag for wet or dirty clothes
Camping hand towel
Ultrathon bug repellant, 37% DEET
Neutrogena Sunscreen, 55 spf
Purell 1 ½ oz container
Ziplocks in various sizes
Shampoo/ conditioner, unscented
Pen and writing pad
Eye glass cleaner solution
Skin moisturizer, unscented
Paperwhite Kindle and charger
Day Pack List
Chapstick spf * Facial cleansing cloth * chewing gum (with Xylitol) * Advil * Sunscreen * Safari hat * Pony-tail holder * Kleenex * Toilet paper * Hand-sanitizer * Towel * Insect repellent * Money/passport wallet * Camera * Binoculars * Kindle * Snacks(mostly chocolate brought from home) * Water bottle*paper/pen
You should visit your local government travel clinic at least six months in advance, as some shots like Hepatitis are a six-month series. The nurses are fantastic, and know everything about what is needed where you are going. Check with your insurance, and have as many shots as possible done by your personal doctor so your insurance will pay.
You must do malaria prophylaxis. I chose Malarone, which is expensive, but had no side effects for me, and you only need take it for a week after your return. Mine cost $150, but our daughter’s health insurance covered hers, so it only cost her $10. And my husband chose Doxycycline, as he had taken it before, and had no side effects, and it’s cheap, but you have to continue it a month after return.
First Aid Kit
Bandaids*Antibiotic cream*Tweezers*Nail scissors*Cool beads*Advil*Pepto Bismol*Dramamine*Immodium*Malarone*Benadryl*Cipro*Vitamin D*Sudafed*Nasal spray*Itch stick*Acidophilus enzyme*Genteal (eye drops for Dad’s dry eyes)