Lions and Leopards and Elephants, Oh My!

I went on a five-day safari, through Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater immediately after I climbed Kili.  Overall, the safari was a wonderful experience.  The people I was with, on the other hand, were a different matter all together.

I left Moshi at 4:30 in the morning.  The safari had actually started the day before, but of course I was just coming down off the mountain.  Daniel, from Tro-Peaks (the company I did the Kili climb with) picked me up and drove me to the campsite, Zion Campsite, just outside Tarangire National Park.  We arrived just in time for breakfast, and I got to meet my travelling companions for the next five days.

I was with 5 Italians.  If they had been dwarves they would have been: Complainer, Princess, Clubber, Insufferable and Nice.  (Yes, one of them was actually a nice person, the others not so much.)  Of course, the first day I didn’t know this.  But over the next five days, their personalities became very clear.

We set off for Tarangire right after breakfast.  After registering at the gate, the top of land cruiser was popped open, and we began our game drive.  We saw hundreds of elephants within the first half hour.  (We were also charged by an angry elephant within the first half hour.)  Most of the day was filled with different animals sightings – giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, elephants, baboons, even a lion.

Around 5 we headed back to the camp, and the complaining began.  About the food, about the driver, about the campsite, about the stretch of time in the afternoon that we didn’t see any animals.  (As if they can be ordered to appear on demand)

The next day it was off to the Serengeti – a long drive that took us through a few small towns (including a stop for groceries, and to get a fuse fixed so the Italians could charge their phones using a plug in the land cruiser.), and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. 

The Serengti was indescribable. I’ll still try, but it was….one of the spots that you could easily see yourself spending the rest of your life. The light in the morning, when the sun rose was an incredible rosy colour, and at dusk when it was setting, the light seemed to hang in the air. We saw evrything – leopards in trees, more elephants, more lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelopes, a hippo pool. At times the animals were close enough that we didn’t need a zoom – we saw a coalition of cheetahs lazing under a tree on the side of the road; at another time we saw a pride of lions (including an adorable baby) resting under a tree, you guessed, on the side of the road.
At night, you could hear the hyenas as they prowled near the kitchens. Thankfully, they were the only visitors (that I know of) to our camp.

Our final morning in Serengeti we woke early to take an early morning game drive through the park. Then it was back to pack up the landcruiser, and head to the Ngorongoro Crater, after a stop at a Maasai village straddling the Serengeti the Ngorongoro conservation area.

At the NCA, we set up camp at Simba camp, the most popular camp at the top of the crater. It wasn’t hard to see why – with an elephant grazing on trees and bushes behind the mess hall, and a herd of zebras chilling on the grassy plain of the camp site, we had our fair share of wild visitors.

As in our camp in the Serengeti, we had electrical outlets in the mess halls to charge any electronics – phones, camera batteries, or tablets. Very useful for those of us who had spent more time camping with no electricity than in hotels! If only I had brought my chargers with me…

Our final moring we started the drive into the crater. One word of warning to anyone hoping to do a game drive in the crater, it’s cold. Pack several layers of fleece because you will definitely need it. One of the Italians on my trip pulled out her sleeping bag – another solution, but one that leaves you with fewer photo taking options. The Ngorongoro crater was…flat. There were a few trees, but for the most part you could see it stretching out in all directions until it was lost in the early morning haze.

I have to admit that by this point I was a little safaried out. I had seen pretty much every animal there was to see, with two notable exceptions. Servals, a small(ish) wild African cat, and a rhino. There aren’t many rhinos in Ngorongoro – there were 18 in 2001 (statistic found here), and the crater itself is 260 km sq, or 100 sq mi. However, withing a very short time of arriving, our driver suddenly changed directions, and began driving off down the road into a great expanse of green. We all wondered what was going – we had just been watching a mating dance between ostriches, and couldn’t figure out why we had so suddenly taken off. Turns out our driver had either heard news of, or had seen himself, a rhino off in the distance. And there he (she?) was – lumbering away in the distance. The closest we got was maybe 100 metres (maybe 150 – it was hard to judge the distance) but it wasn’t particularly close. With my zoom lens (35x zoom) I got a fairly decent photo.

I never did get to see a serval.

Staggering up Kilimanjaro

I booked a 7 day Kilimanjaro climb back in April. 5 and a half days up, one and a half days down.  I figured I’d need the 5 days for acclimatization – Ottawa isn’t exactly at a staggering altitude, you know.  Turns out – I was wrong.

I started the climb back on August 7 from Machame Gate (I was taking the Machame route).  It turned out that I was the only trekker – so it was just me, and 6 support crew (1 guide, 1 chef, 4 porters.  That’s a lot of people for one person to summit a mountain!)

The first leg took me from Machame Gate to Machame Gate, and from there the next day to Shira Camp, where we get our first taste of “high” altitude (i.e. over 3000 metres).  I had just spent 4 days in Addis Ababa, which sits around 2500 metres, so the first two days were easy.  Which probably explains why I was the first tourist to arrive in Shira Camp.

The day after we hit Shira Camp, we hiked to Barranco, via Lava Tower.  The side trip to Lava Tower is important for acclimatization – you hit over 4600 metres, before descending back down to just under 4000 metres at Barranco.

The next day, our fourth, saw me tackle the Barranco wall (aka the Breakfast Wall, because you do it right after breakfast).  I have to say – I loved this part.  I loved scrambling over the rocks, hugging them as I swung a leg out to land on the next “step”.

From Barranco, our goal was Karanga Camp (which in my mind will always be Kangaroo Camp).  Being the speedy trekker than I am, my guide and crew decided that we should push on for Barafu camp – the camp before the summit.

Did I mention that my guide thought I could summit a day early?

So on day 5, at 5 am, I made the push for Uhuru Peak – the highest peak in Africa.  After what seemed an interminable age of zig-zags up the cliff face, we finally (and I mean finally – there were six or seven false summits!) came up to….Stella Point.  The second highest point in Africa.  Another hour of staggering found me at Uhuru Peak.  Where I promptly fell against the sign while my guide too my photo.  5895 metres is nothing to sneeze at.

We quickly descended, and I found a mild-to-moderate case of altitude sickness come on.  No headache, which is normal for me in high altitudes, but nausea.  And back at Barafu, where I gratefully fell upon my sleeping bag for a quick nap, I actually vomited upon waking.  Classy as always.

We pushed on from Barafu that day, to Millennium Camp – a new campsite that was installed in 2000 as a relief measure for all the people wanting to celebrate the New Years on Kilimanjaro, but who couldn’t take the altitude.  Needless to say, I was in my sleeping bag early, exhausting after the 7 hour hike to the summit, and 3 hours descent.

The next morning we pushed on down to Mweka Gate – a leisurely 4 and a half hour hike down slippery, rocky paths.  I seriously started to consider that they should award certificates for getting down the path safely, rather than for making the summit!

Oh, and the certificate for making the summit?  I have one of those!

Climbing Kilimanjaro (part 1)

I’m off in less than a hour to climb Kilimanjaro – the highest mountain in Africa.  Sitting at over 5800 metres (5895 metres to be exact), Kilimanjaro towers overs the plains below.

I’m sitting in a hotel in Moshi, a small town near the base of Kilimanjaro, waiting for my trek company, Tro-Peaks to pick me up.  I spent last night re-packing bags – putting everything I would need for Kili (fleece sweaters and pants, sneakers for the campsites, wool socks, mitts and a toque, base layers and gaiters) into a bag that porters will carry for me.  In another, smaller, day-pack, I’ve got my day-to-day items – camera, bandaids, binoculars and water that I’ll carry.  I think I’m ready.

I think I’m ready.

The company told me to take it one day at a time – don’t try to climb the peak before you get there.  Just look to what you’re doing now, go slowly, stay hydrated, rest and eat.  Those are the keys to reaching the summit. 

I’ve got four days of hiking upwards before I try to tackle the summit, leaving the last camp at midnight, to see the sunrise over the peak on the fifth day.  After that, it’s all downhill, as we push ourselves to be back in Moshi by the seventh day.  (But as they say, downhill is always so much easier.)

I’ve prepared by hiking in the Adirondacks with a friend, and by walking as much as possible.  Here’s hoping it’s been enough!

See you in a week, after I’ve conquered the snows of Kilimanjaro!

This is all moving so fast

I’m not sure what happened, but sometime between buying the plane ticket and today, I hit the warp-speed button and things are just moving along at a slightly-too-fast clip.

So, yet again, let me catch you up.  (Do I hear a new catch phrase?  Something to rival “I’m not wearing pants” maybe?)

First thing to happen:  I emailed the Rwanda tourism office to see about a permit to go gorilla tracking.  They issue 56 permits per day (note:  they don’t only issue 56 permits a day, as in they work slowly, but for each date there are only 56 permits available.)  So they are incredibly hard to get, and they go incredibly quickly.  You need to book months in advance.  Why?  Because gorillas are endangered, you’re in a protected park, and they don’t want humans bothering/scaring/stressing the animals.  Each permit is $500US, but is, I have been told, completely worth it.

So I emailed them, and it turns out there are permits available for the 23, 24, and the 25 of August.  Which works out incredibly well with my schedule.  It allows me time to acclimatize in Addis (we’re getting to this point), climb Kili and do a safari.

Second thing to happen: Originally I was planning on doing the safari first, then Kili.  I thought, on the safari, I could climb Mount Meru to help with the acclimatization.  It’s a three-day climb- 2 up, 1 down.  But with the gorilla trek, it makes more sense to climb Kili, then do the safari, and let my legs rest before doing the gorilla tracking (which could include up to 8 or 9 hours of hiking).  So I won’t be able to acclimatize on Mount Meru.  Then, while doing some researching on Ethiopia, and Addis, I found out that the elevation of Addis is 2300-2400 metres above sea level (I have found differing numbers between those two points.)  That will do nicely to help me acclimatize to higher altitudes!

So that’s where things are.  I have my gorilla permit booked, and I’ve emailed two companies about Kili.  I still need to do some research into the safari, pick the company I want to trek with (and hopefully do a safari with, as that usually ensures a slightly better rate.) and research things to do in/around Addis and Kigali.

Let me catch you up…

So about a week ago, I found an excellent deal for a flight to Kilimanjaro airport, near Moshi, on the Travel Cuts website. $1619, taxes in.  Now, most flights to Africa cost somewhere over $2000.  To Dar Es Salaam, it’s generally $2300-2500, somewhere in that price range.  So this price?  Unheard of.

Of coruse, there’s always a catch.  The earlier I could leave would be July 31, and I would have layovers in Washington D.C. (overnight), and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before landing in Moshi two days after leaving Ottawa.  (To be fair, part of that two days is crossing so many time zones)  As for leaving…the two dates I tried didn’t affect the price.  August 31 or September 4, both were valid.

I ended up going into the travel agency, rather than book online.  I have booked online, and had no problems, but I wanted to see about staying in Addis for a few days.  I’ve never been to Ethiopia, and I figured if I was going to be there anyway….just do it.  It added about $100 to the total price – an extra $30 to stay in Addis for three days, and then another $70 for dealing with a real human.  For me, it’s totally worth it to pay that money to see a new city. 

So here I am, with a ticket to Tanzania, leaving July 31 and returning September 4.  I decided a few days extra would be a good thing – that way I’m not rushing to climb Kili, do a safari, get to Zanzibar…I can take my time to see Moshi, Dar, maybe fly to Kilgala, Rwanda for a few days. 

So I’ve got a ticket, and it’s now a reality.  I’m going to Africa, I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro. 

Tan-zany!

I found out, a little over two months ago, that my job would be cut, and my contract not extended past March 31.  (see this post, where I was optimistic of my travel opportunities still.)

I’ve never been out of work; in fact I’ve rarely worked less than 2 jobs at the same time; so I wasn’t too nervous about making ends meet.  I knew that I would always have a job that would keep a roof over my head, and food in my belly.  What might have to change, were some choices that I’ve made.

I would have to get a roommate.  Living alone is a luxury that I can afford because of the job I currently have.  With a cut in pay, there would be no way I could afford the rent on my apartment by myself.
I would have to cut back on travel.  I’ve been fortunate indeed, that I have been able to take two trips a year for the past three years.  This has been, in part, because I get four weeks of vacation annually – three weeks, that I am encouraged to take in the summer, and an extra week between Christmas and New Years.  Another reason would come back to pay.  I get paid enough money that, by cutting back on other things (I don’t have a car, I try to use minimal hydro to cut down on my bill, I rarely eat out, etc.) I can save up enough to travel more frequently that some of my other counterparts. 

The other sacrifice I would have to make:  sell a few of my belongings, give notice on my apartment, and move back in with my mother.  That would have made travelling possible, but would seriously have cramped my social life, as my mother lives a good 45 minute drive from…..well, everything.

So there I was, two months ago, faced with the prospect of delaying my trip to Tanzania.  I knew that what I had in my fund would have to be put to a more “adult” use – bills.  I knew that what I had in my bank account would have to be used for the same purpose.  I was still set on going, just perhaps delaying by a year.

In two months, a lot can change.  Well, in two months nothing can change, but I was lucky in that it did.  The department that I had been teaching at, offered me a casual contract for three months.  While this might not sound like the best-case solution (and I will admit, it is not) it is somewhat advantageous.

I had been planning to go to Tanzania in August.  As it stands now, my contract is set to finish at the end of June.  I can move my trip forward by one month with no problems.  I haven’t booked anything, and July means that I will catch the end of the migration in the Serengeti.

I had the fortune of receiving two free tickets to Ottawa’s travel and vacation show two weeks ago (The whole show will be another blog post – it was that cool).  I took my mother, and one of the first booths that we stumbled on (once we got through the Europe aisle we seemed to have found ourselves in) was…..Tanzania.  (Actually, first was Kenya, then Tanzania.  Followed quickly by Côte d’Ivoire, where we were plied with coffee.  But I digress)

There was a diplomat from the Tanzanian High Commision, who engaged my mother and myself in conversation.  One of his first questions was “When are you planning on visiting my country?”  (“Hello, sign!” I said to myself)  I talked to him about my plans to visit in July or August, and he gave me several brochures, pampletes, tour books, and not only a business card for the company that they recommend (Zara Tours in case you were wondering) but also his business card.  He told me to call if I had any concerns or questions.

From a quick glance at the website, it seems like an ideal company for me to contact.  They arrange group Kili climbs, so I wouldn’t have to find a group to join, I would automatically be attached to a pre-arranged group.  As well, they organize safaris (two words: camel safari) or trips to Zanzibar.  Dealing with one company for all three parts of this trip is, in one sense, appealing.  I would only need to deal with one company.  No need to worry about contacting another person/company once I am in Tanzania.  (On the other hand, if I have a bad experience with them for one part, that might colour my experiences in the rest.)

Now that I know I will be working until at least June, I’m going ahead with this trip.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be contacting companies and getting pricing.  I’ll be tracking down a good deal on airfare, and I’ll see if I can’t spend a few days on an extended layover in either Dubai, Doha or Addis Ababa, all cities that I might have to fly through to get to Dar Es Salaam.

Nickel and Dime-ing my way to Tanzania

Despite the title of this entry, this is really about budgets and Costa Rica.

You see, I get a week off between Christmas and New Years, and it seems like a waste to not travel when you’re given holidays.  So months ago I started planning a trip to Costa Rica, on the cheap.  I’ve been told it’s hard to do – out of all the Central American countries, CR is the most expensive.  So I figured it was going to be challenging, but I’d do what I could.

It started at home, of course.  I drew up a budget, and set out how much I would spend on the necessities – rent, hydro, phone, internet, and cable (ok, so cable isn’t a necessity, but if I was going to spend more time at home, I needed something to do!) as well as food, my bus pass, apartment insurance and my sponsor child through World Vision.  I then factored in entertainment, and how much I’d like to save per month for Tanzania.

This budget worked out great until I realized that I hadn’t thought of Christmas gifts.  No problem right?  I have a small family, it was doable.  Until I found myself with a boyfriend, which increased my Christmas spending.

I ended up getting a part time job in a bookstore (more spending!) to fund my trip.  I asked that an extra $40 be taken off for taxes, so that I didn’t get hit with a surprise at tax time (and with luck, I’ll get a small return, which I can then put towards Tanzania.)

Currently, I have paid off my flight, and exchanged currencies – I’ve gone with American dollars, as they tend to be easier to exchange for local currency in many countries.  I’ll get enough Costa Rican colones to get me through a day or two, as well.  My hostels are going on my credit card.  We’re staying in moderately priced hostels, so it shouldn’t be more than $200 for the week that we’re there.  My surfing lesson was a present from my friend Steph – she graciously offered to pay for it as my Christmas gift, which is amazingly awesome. 

And now all that is left is in incidentals.  Zip lining, guided night walks of the cloud forest, a coffee plantantion tour, bike rentals…whatever comes up. 

It’s not easy to travel cheap, or rather it’s not easy to plan to travel cheap.  You can save on accomodation – even a single room at a hostel is cheaper than a hotel, and you still get the privacy, albeit with a shared bathroom and shared kitchen.  Taking public transit, or local buses (chicken buses) over private/tourist buses helps as well.  Buying and making your own food, or going to smaller, local places, is also helpful.  Do some research – there’s lots out there, on any number of destinations.  Someone, somewhere, has been there and done that, and they want to share their tips!