The Destination: In very brief, Nairobi was overwhelming and surprisingly cold, the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro Crater were so unbelievably awesome I thought my head might explode, and Zanzibar, well, I’m going back there, dammit. I love interesting landscape and I was surprised at how many ecosystems I saw. I saw only a tiny portion of East Africa — it’s a whole freaking continent, people, and a big one — but I’d totally go back. It’s maddening, fucked up, interesting, complicated, beautiful, compelling, so many things, and so much more real now that I’ve had just a tiny look-see.
The Tour Group: The group can make or break your trip, and even one bad apple, well, you know. Unless I was the difficult one and I didn’t know it, our group was free from any over-arching badness. Sure, you spend 24/7 with strangers and they’re going to get under your skin a little, now and then. But there were no complainers, slackers, creeps, jerks… everyone was lighthearted, easy going, and there was a great deal of laughter. We went from just past 20 to just past 70 in age range, had 13 (?) nationalities, and it was all good.
The Food: Because this was primarily a camping trip, our food was mostly prepared in camp. We ate a few meals in village homes — they were delicious — but the restaurant food I ate wasn’t as good that prepared by Charles, our Kenyan cook. Lots of things were curried, there were many good greens, and oh, my, the banana pancakes. I had little trouble as a person who doesn’t eat meat. I love seafood, the stuff we had in camp was much better, I thought, than the stuff we had elsewhere, though I did have a grilled tuna skewer from the Zanzibar night market that was exceptional. I had amazing coffee, too, seriously amazing.
The Shopping: I’m not a shopper, things really have to resonate with me to make me want to bring them home. I almost bought a little marimba, almost, but the guy was being ridiculous in the bargaining process and I gave up. The fabrics were beautiful but heavy, and I probably could have talked myself into something crafty, but I was so tired of seeing the same mass produced objects over and over and over again, I just lost interest. I was repeatedly amused by the appearance of Obama’s face on shopping bags, scarves, and other textiles, but I had no desire to bring that stuff home.
The Expenses: While a lot of my expenses were paid for, not everything was. I was surprised at the cost of hotels — how can an economy that has an average income of 2USD a day charge 90USD nightly for a hotel room that’s filthy? Resorty areas were marked up, but things seemed reasonable. I spent hardly any money, a dollar here and there on sodas and beer, 5USD for a meal. Safari is quite pricy in and of itself — the rig, the drivers, all your gear trucked in and out of the parks — but that was the biggest expense of the trip, after those extortionist vaccinations.
The People: In this part of Africa, I was so clearly a tourist and an outsider, it was almost painful to be so obvious. People had told me that they’d been hassled mercilessly in Zanzibar, or that Nairobi was dangerous, or various other tales of woe. One of our group was pick-pocketed in a busy market, that was a drag. But I never felt at risk or in danger in any way, people were kind a smiling and curious and welcoming. Zanzibar was was using a charm offensive, so friendly were her residents. And those little kids in the village that appear from everywhere and nowhere to shout hello at you and hold your hand… irresistible.
The Accommodations: My hotel in Nairobi was a overpriced pit and the service was so slow that glaciers race by those people. The rest of the rooms were okay, though plumbing and electricity were always unpredictable. When we weren’t in hotel rooms — that was most of the time — we were camping. I was weary of sleeping on the ground after a while and the tents provided are a pain in the ass, but camping is what it is and this was exactly what I expected it to be.
The Itinerary: I wanted more time on Zanzibar — no surprises there — but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty good. The mornings were early, I was tired every night, but there was only one really long day driving. There was always something to see or do, there were plenty of stops when we needed them, and honestly, I love driving through unknown places with music on while I just stare at the window and watch the landscape roll by.
The Crew: Geno, Matt, and Charles, our guys who took care of everything, including us, were great. They really seemed to enjoy their work, they were kind, patient, trustworthy, enthusiastic, and genuine. They really threw themselves into the group, too, they let us take the co-driver’s seat rather than taking the cab to themselves, joined us for meals… I really enjoyed the way they were part of the experience, not just separate leaders.
The Home Office: Intrepid handled my details just like they’d have done for any other traveler. They answered my questions quickly and patiently, and they got me all my documents on time. I contacted their flights office about the screwup with my inbound ticket, and they did not respond until after I was home — that’s potentially problematic. The pre and post trip logistics could use either better communications or options, or possibly both.
The Gist: On the whole, I tend to dislike traveling with large groups of people. To me that’s more than, oh, six, I guess. I’m not comfortable in groups and I spent a lot of time alone, plus, I like to control my own schedule. But the benefits of doing this with a group so outweigh my trivial preferences. I appreciated being taken care of and not having to worry about logistics, and as a first timer in Africa, this was a great way to go. The trip I did was rough, dirty, and far from luxurious. I find myself wondering what the next bracket looks like, what it costs to have a bit more comfort. But what if’s aside, I had a spectacular adventure and I can’t recommend it enough.