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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tanzania: The Itinerary

(This is the first installment in a series about our self-drive safari in Tanzania. The next post details the vehicle.)

We considered a lot of options when planning our trip to Africa. We wanted to drive ourselves and camp along the way, but never having been before we weren't sure where to begin. We looked at Botswana, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, checking into different outfitters in each country. We compared rates, parks, political upheaval, and the US Department of State travel alerts (don't believe everything you read there by the way—they tend to overly exaggerate situations.)

After months of indecision, we finally realized we were hesitating because there were just too many unknowns for us. We've done extensive traveling around the US and Canada, but experience here doesn't always translate to the third world. We needed help planning our route from someone who lived in the country and had driven the roads, camped in the parks, knew the customs and bureaucracy of the place. In the end, we went to the company we trusted the most, people we had met personally and talked with at the Overland Expo several years in a row: Shaw Safaris Ltd.

Shaw helped us come up with an itinerary for the trip. We relied on them to suggest a route that would show us the most diverse areas we could visit in the two weeks we had to spend there. With their help we came up with a Northern Circuit plan that would take us in a big loop, visiting everything from great plains to huge lakes to desert climates. Here's a look at our general route:

After flying into Mt. Kilimanjaro International Airport and spending a night in the Twiga Lodge (Shaw Safari headquarters near Arusha) we were to stop first at Arusha National Park, three minutes from their front gate. There we intended to get used to the vehicle, the animals and the general "being in Africa" feeling while recovering from our jet lag. If we had any questions or ran into any problems with the vehicle, we would be able to call or even drive back and talk it over. (This was not to be, as it turned out, courtesy of a cancelled flight out of SFO.)

After that we would continue on to Tarangire National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Lake Natron,  and Lake Manyara before returning to the lodge for a night before heading home.

Twiga Lodge, Shaw Safari headquarters.
Paul and Erika Sweet of Shaw not only came up with the itinerary, but gave us general driving times and a description of the road conditions, along with information about the parks. One of the major obstacles of a self-drive safari is having to navigate the parks' myriad of gate entry fees and regulations without the benefit of a hired guide. Each park has very particular rules about how, when and for how long you are allowed to be within its borders. As you can imagine, thousands of people pass through the parks every week and the vast majority of them are traveling with large safari companies that take care of all the paperwork for them. We would be functioning as our own "guide" so would be dealing directly with the somewhat bureaucratic systems ourselves.

(One thing we learned early on was that, while it takes a literal act of Congress to get the rules changed at the National Parks here in the United States, third world countries are governed more by individual gatekeepers. And those gatekeepers can decide to change the rules however and whenever they want. It was nice to have Shaw a phone call away when the bureaucracy got the best of us. More on that later.)

The cars await, Twiga Lodge.
Another important item Shaw helped us plan was budgeting. Tanzania is progressive in many ways in terms of an African nation, but most of the country still runs on a cash basis. A few of the larger parks took credit cards, but almost everything else had to be paid for in either US dollars or Tanzania shillings (TSh). Strange as it may seem, Tanzania accepts—and sometimes insists on— US currency (in fact, the US bills had to be new—2006 or newer—to combat counterfeiting.) There were ATMs in the larger cities that dispensed the local currency, but since we weren't going to be near many cities we had to carefully plot out how much each stop would cost us; fuel, park fees, food and water, even gifts for our worried relatives back home had to be calculated into the equation. We couldn't get any more US currency once we got there (without taking out a cash advance on a credit card at a major bank) and we had to ensure we had enough TSh to cover all the fuel stops (the fuel stations only accepted TSh.)

We ended up making a spreadsheet with columns for both currencies listing park fees, visas, gifts and estimated food and fuel costs, then throwing a few hundred dollars in on top of it all as extra insurance. The known expenses (like particular park fees) were tucked into separate envelopes and labeled clearly so we didn't spend it somewhere and come up short later. The spreadsheet turned out to be very helpful to have along; Tanzania time is 10 hours ahead of California, and after 24 hours of traveling we were addlebrained.

This all seems very complicated, and it did take some careful planning, but it wasn't really all that hard. I can't imagine doing it all on our own on our first international trip; having Shaw give us an outline of the park and trip expenses saved us hours and hours of picking through websites and researching the area.

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