Before living in EG, I never had any particular desire to visit Africa, not even to satisfy the popular bucket list item of going on Safari. It was a place in the world that never had any real appeal for me. Coupled with the assumption that Africa was difficult for solo/unguided travel; attracting intrepid, hardcore travellers only, it was easy enough to discard into the too hard basket.
Of course, after living in EG for a while, a sense of obligation to actually see some of the continent gradually set in. Responding to the curious questions from people back home, distracted with images of classical Africa – giraffes, elephants, lions frolicking beneath boab trees, leads you to ask if this is actually something to be explored. Maybe one should take advantage of one’s ridiculously unique and privileged situation, and go and see what this continent is about.
It is the constant dilemma of the Expat in situations such as ours – where in the world should we go on our next vacation. That was the question we were struggling with, when the husband decided to produce an option from way out of left field. “Do you want to climb Kilimanjaro?”
My initial reaction was disbelief combined with apprehension. We couldn’t climb that kind of mountain, there’s no way I’m pulling myself up a cliff, dangling from a rope – I’m scared of heights for fuck’s safe! And I certainly didn’t see us as the hardcore type – and you have to be pretty damn hardcore to climb a mountain right? We threw around the possibility for a short period, until suddenly it dawned on me that it was in fact possible; that we could do it; and best thing – there was no actual climbing involved – although the mountain was high, it was only a hike rather than a climb. The deal was ultimately sealed when we realized another couple we knew were planning to hike Kilimanjaro at the same time we were looking to go. So we chose the same trekking company as they had and- we were committed.
Hiking Kilimanjaro, while not as “hardcore” as actually climbing a mountain with carabiners and ropes etc, still requires a level of planning. You want to be generally fit (although at the end of the day altitude is altitude, you can be the fittest person ever and still struggle with the thinning air), you want to be comfortable travelling as a group, and you need to be okay with not showering for a week. The company we had chosen supplied bowls of warm water at the end of each day for you to wash your pits, bits and face if you so desired, but this is no substitute for a proper wash. Your feet, crammed in sweaty hiking boots for days, will stink – soaking them in the soapy water may seem like it will help, but in reality, it doesn’t. And if you’re travelling light (and you should – remember your pack is getting lugged up the mountain by a local porter who is not only smaller than you, he’s probably twice your age) and unless you are particularly appearance-focused, you likely won’t have brought a mirror and therefore you won’t know just how (un)attractive you look for the entire week.
The thing about hiking at altitude, is that you generally feel like shit for the majority of the time. Sure, you’re surrounded by amazing scenery, getting a decent amount of exercise, drinking loads of water, but – you haven’t showered, the altitude means you’re not sleeping properly, and it has also left you with a dull headache that no amount of water or Diamox will shift. Plus, you will probably get the shits from the change in food, particularly if you’ve just arrived in the country. A hot tip – which was in fact passed along to us before we booked the trip – choose a company that supplies a port-a-loo. Some campsites have public “restrooms” but trust me, you don’t want to use these long-drop squats unless you absolutely have to.
On the hike, carry toilet paper with you, hand sanitizer and baby wipes. The hand sanitizer is mandatory for maintaining adequate hygiene on the mountain, between the port-a-loo, the large rocks (daytime toilet) and mealtimes. Baby wipes are a good supplement to the daily bowl of warm water. The toilet paper speaks for itself – the port-a-loo is only set up at camp; during the day while on the trail, you’re on your own, and you’ll be peeing a lot. Not only does the Diamox make you pee, but you are drinking a lot – hydration is super important to avoiding altitude sickness. Luckily, your trekking company will supply you with water – worthwhile to check, but the water should already have been purified – no purification tablets required.
The hike that we did lasted just over a week. That meant we had a couple extra days free before we were required back at work. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to jump on board a Safari – and the obvious choice was the Serengeti. Perhaps it was because I had very little preconceived notion about Safaris in general – but it was one of the most fantastic experiences I have ever had. Not only is the Serengeti stunning in terms of terrain, but the animals are ridiculously visible and plentiful. You will gasp and click a thousand photos on your first sighting, and then be amazed the next day, when that first sighting has been followed by twenty since. Then there is the incredible vastness of the scenery that seems to go on forever and will leave you open-mouthed.
For me, 3-4 days on Safari was the perfect amount. Bouncing along dirt roads, getting thrown around the jeep, covered in dust from the open-top will eventually lose its charm, once you’ve seen another fifty elephants (including babies). If you’re leaving from Arusha, remember, it’s quite a drive, so your first and final days will involve a lot of time in the vehicle.
Tanzania really is a stunning country, and a good option for the first time Africa visitor. People are generally friendly, tourists are expected and the Safari will absolutely satisfy your inner child that used to wonder about the majestic animals of Africa. Pack your boots and bug spray, and get on your way.
- Choose your trekking company carefully – find one that provides a port-a-loo.
- Be prepared: pack light, but make sure you have your medical kit, hand sanitizer and basic hygiene tools.
- You can donate items you don’t want to keep to the porters at the end of the hike. They will take your socks, clothing – whatever. Remember – these guys are up and down the mountain all season and it gets bloody cold overnight.
- It can get boring. You go to bed early in the tent coz there’s nothing else to do. Bring a book.
- Allow 3-4 days for your Safari experience. Unless you’re really into animals, anything more is probably unnecessary.
- If you have a choice between Safari in a Reserve, or Safari in a National Park like the Serengeti – always choose the latter. This is the true, authentic wild.
- There are lodges in the National Park. You can literally sleep among the animals.