Friday, July 20, 2012

Lessons learned - so far

While it occurs to me, I thought I'd share the "what I learned" part of researching and booking the safari.  That will, after all, give me another reason to talk about it.

First, set a budget, both financial and schedule.  How many days do you have, realistically?  How much can you afford to spend and do you really want to spend that much?  Look at airfares beforehand, and build in the cost.   Know what airfares leave when and build your dates around what appears to be the cheapest fares, if you can.  Realize that it takes a whole 24 hours to get there and another 24 to get back.  Those days eat into your budget.

Next, identify what you want to accomplish.  Are you going all for the animals?  Do you want time on the beach in Zanzibar?  Do you want to spend time in a bigger city there?  We wanted all animals all the time, with the exception of a visit to a Masai tribe and a cultural visit like a school or orphanage.  We'd want to also do something charitable.

Now that you have all that in mind, start looking for providers.  If you're fortunate enough to be part of a small group, price out a private tour.  Look on the internet forums (Safari Talk, Fodors, Trip Advisor) for reviews and postings on particular tour operators.  Based on discussions I had with many travelers who'd gone before me, I knew that the experience would be better and cheaper if we went with a tour operator who is based in Tanzania and employed their own guides rather than contract for the guides.  I limited our research to about five of the most frequently recommended tour operators.  There are many US-based tour providers that include Tanzania among their many offerings, but I felt like that was more a "jack of all trades, master of none" scenario.  I wanted someone who only worked in Tanzania and was a subject matter expert on Tanzania.

Talk to each operator.  If they'll only do business by email, forget it.  Only through discussion will the tour operator be able to get a sense for you and your group.  The operator we ultimately booked with even offered to do a conference call with all of us travelers.  Once they have a feeling for your goals and aspirations, let them put an itinerary or two together for you.  Vet that itinerary among your group, including proposed accommodations.  Find reviews on the accommodations and make sure they match your travel style.  We knew we weren't camping in tents and sleeping on the ground types and we require real beds and real facilities in the bathroom.  That is what we requested and what we got.

Agree as a group to extras, like sunrise hot air balloon ride, cultural events.  Some of these add (substantially in the case of the balloon ride) to the overall cost.

Talk to as many references as you can find.  Our operator provided us with a reference list and I contacted them and travelers on the forums who mentioned they'd traveled with this operator.  Across the board, I heard the same thing, same satisfied customers.  It became almost boring to hear the heaps of praise, but it was after 7 or 8 such discussions that I realized we had found our operator.

Check your airfare again before you put a deposit down.  I'll admit, this is where I/we went wrong.  By the time we booked, I realized the cheapest airfare didn't mesh with our schedule, and we ended up paying more for it than we hoped because we had to take a later flight on a Friday, which is the busiest day flying out of Kilimanjaro.

Put the deposit down and book the airfare asap.  Now sit back and breathe...

For me, the planning was the fun part but for this trip it was immensely time consuming.  I would estimate probably 25-30 hours of research, 10 hours of reference calls and then time spent relaying information to the group.  Don't get me wrong, I loved doing this.  It just required a lot more brain power and energy than most other trips.

Post-deposit reality

Now that the deposit is paid and I've officially committed, the reality of what I've just committed to set in.  I think it was the combination of getting airfare, which with its very limited options revealed to me just how far and how isolated from the rest of the world Tanzania is, coupled with looking at an internet friend's photos from this same trip last year, really brought the reality to the forefront for me.  I was just struck by how rudimentary and how simple and how not first-world what I saw in the pictures was.  Good lord, another challenge.  But I think that I've been so mesmerized by the wildlife part of the safari that I didn't think of anything else that I might see there, experience there, learn there.  But I also think that's what I am looking for.

I think I posted earlier back that I didn't feel like I needed to prepare much for Berlin.  I've been blessed to have been to Europe enough that it's like executing the same game plan again.  And again, and again.  I just know how things work and I pretty much know what to expect out of the experience, except maybe for the language.  And I know I'll survive with minimal stress or mental effort.

I expect that Africa will be a lot like China was, except maybe on steroids.  It probably will be culture shock.  It probably will set my world on end while I'm there and leave me a changed person when I come back.  I guess what I'm saying is that despite how comfortable I am going to Europe, how easy getting ready for and going there is for me, I'm finding that I crave more.  I first pushed myself out of my comfort zone in Russia.  Then China.  Now Africa.  Some people go on vacation to escape reality and relax.  I go to....what, exactly?  What is it that makes me want to do this?  Is it a perverse sense of wanderlust?

I'm in now.  I have 208 days to prepare myself for this.  And like the trips before this, I already wonder how this one will change me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I'm going on safari!!!!

Final Is dotted and Ts crossed and we're good to go.  I even sent in the deposit.  So in 7 months, I'll be in Tanzania!

At least now I can justify the new digital camera I just bought...and any other safari-related purchases in the next 6 months!

I cannot believe I'm going!!!!!!!

Monday, July 16, 2012


We're nearly there.  Still hammering out final details and traveler list for the safari.  It was a somewhat trying weekend for the tour organizer as we were awaiting final decisions.  So we are four, again, although a slightly different combination of four than we were a week ago.  We gave final decisions on the hot air balloon ride in the Serengeti (yes for us all) and tomorrow we get the contract.  Fingers crossed that our choice of accommodation is still available!  Karen, our tour operator extraordinaire, seemed to think we'd be fine.

Hopefully, tomorrow I can actually say it out loud.  I haven't yet, for fear of jinxing it!

Friday, July 13, 2012


We are nearly to the point of signing the contract on the safari.  We may be six now, waiting to confirm that.  Also getting to ironing out the more minor details like which type of Land Rover (4-seater or 6-seater) we'd want if we remain a group of four and whether we'd do the sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti.  Really, is that even a question?

To that point, there was a beautiful passage in "Out of Africa" I read on the way into work this morning.  (Yes, I'm already reading for Africa, I can't stand the suspense!) But anyway:

"You have tremendous view as you get up above the Africa highlands, surprising combinations and changes of light and colouring, the rainbow on the green sunlit land, the gigantic upright clouds and big wild black storms, all swing round you in a race and a dance.  The lashing hard showers of rain whiten the air askance.  The language is short of words for the experience of flying, and will have to invent new words with time."

I'm impatient and ready to sign.  We are nearly there.  So close I can taste it!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We Are Four

"We Are Four," I said to Karen, the owner of the Tanzania safari operator that is organizing our African safari.  In the last 2 days, the safari completely came to fruition...or just about.  Four of us from the China tour last fall have decided to take on Tanzania together.  We were going to wait until closer to September to book, but through various channels, I'd heard that accommodations were well booked now, and that we ought to act fast in order to make a February trip at all.  So we did.

I nearly peed myself last night around midnight when I checked my email just to see if any of these West Coast intrepid traveling women friends of mine had emailed.  And one by one, the emails came in:  "I'm in", "let's do it" and "Count me in."  And so it is.

I told Karen we can go anytime in February.  She's now working her magic to get us the accommodations we'd scoped out in June.  I'll find out what those accommodations are tomorrow.  And we'll get our dates.

DATES!  Then the countdown can begin!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Must get my act in gear!

Somehow, my trip to Berlin has gotten lost.  If you've read any of my blogs about planning prior trips, you'll already know that I'm seriously behind the 8-ball in terms of planning.  I shouldn't say that; at least I have air, hotel and a reservation at the Green Vault in Dresden booked.  But other than that, I'm woefully unprepared.

I'll admit it: my mind is fully latched on to safari, and the idea of safari, and planning safari.  In fact, we really should have safari booked by the time I GO to Berlin, so in that sense I'm not that far off in terms of anticipation and excitement.

What makes me feel ok about being more lax than usual about Berlin is that it's "just" Europe.  I've been there, done that, and can probably pack for it and leave in my sleep.  Sure there are all the little logistics like organizing the cat sitter, stopping the newspaper, etc.  But compared to Russia and China, Germany is so much easier to prepare for.  That said, I should probably buckle down and read the travel guides some more and line up what I want to do and see, just so I know what can happen when I hit the ground there.

All is not lost however.  This week I started listening to My Daily Phrase German.  So far I can say "hi", "bye", "please" and "thank you".  That's a start.

So with a 5 day weekend to recover from a minor surgical procedure...I should accept this down time as the gift that it is: a perfect excuse to do nothing but plan.