Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Yanks Are Chewing On This One

Looks like I've given my fellow Flying Yanks plenty to think about. Because of the holiday season, we're going to convene in early January to make a decision on my recommendations from last week.

Oh, by the way -- I'm getting married in a few days! (That ought to be enough to distract me from Africa for awhile.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Results of Outfitter Research

I am out of my mind.

I have done so much research on African travel outfitters in the past couple weeks, I feel like I should be speaking Swahili by now.

Following is a mega-huge report on my research. It's paraphrased from the email message that I sent to my fellow Flying Yanks (which explains why it reads like an email). I'm simply too tired to try to put this into some sort of acceptable blog-entry format. Hopefully, you'll find some nuggets of info in here that could help you in your own Tanzania trip planning.


A little background on my research:

Over the couple weeks, I've spent about 20 hours making contact with about 26 trekking companies. I went overboard because our group's ideas seemed a bit hazy beyond Kilimanjaro, and I wanted to find someone who could take our varied interests and make a good trip out of as many of those interests as possible. I've also done a lot of background reading (books/web) to check out whether the things these operators claim are true. Bottom line is that I feel pretty confident in what I'm presenting to you here.

Companies that seemed somewhat legitimate included Adventure Center, African Encounters, Africa Travel Resource, Eco Africa, Exodus, EWP, FootVenture, Footloose Adventure, Good Earth Tours, Hoopoe Safaris, KE Adventure Travel, Marangu Hotel, Mountain Madness, Mountain Travel-Sobek, Roy Safaris, Shah Tours, Tropical Trails, Wilderness Travel and Zara Tanzania Adventures. A few other companies either turned out to be ridiculous for one reason or another (idiotic responses to my emails, Donald Trump prices, etc.).

I originally began to look only for trekking companies that could arrange a Kili ascent. However, as my research grew, it became clear to me that it made the most sense to look for an operator who also could arrange our other activities, at least a little bit. To me, it's important that we avoid the hassle of trying to figure out how to get from place to place (by car, airplane, etc.) and where to stay in between events. From what I can tell, it's also often less expensive to do it this way.

Our interests and priorities get a dose of reality:

We had a lot of things on our lists of interests for this trip. When you include days for travel and simple relaxation, it's pretty tough to keep things to three weeks or less. With that in mind, I started big anyway and waited to see what trekking companies had to say. Here are the things I listed as our priorities for the trekking companies to digest:

  1. Kilimanjaro
  2. Serengeti safari - preferably something with a bit of a twist
  3. Some quality R&R someplace
  4. Victoria Falls / Gorilla watching
  5. Amsterdam

Almost every trekking company that paid attention to my request for some direction said that we probably were asking to do too much in our timeframe and within our budget.

The main sticking point is Victoria Falls. Because our Kilimanjaro trek and Serengeti safari are both in northern Tanzania, it will be very difficult logistically -- and expensive -- to add Vic Falls to our itinerary. Here's one comment I got about this: "To visit the Victoria Falls from Tanzania is not a simple plan logistically and also will be very expensive. You would need to travel to Nairobi [Kenya] for flights to Lusaka in Zambia before flying on down to Livingston which is the main town nearest the falls. Also cost wise this is likely to add at least $2000 per person to the total cost of your trip." Moreover, while the falls are incredible to see, the other adventures around the falls are expensive and/or time-consuming -- meaning we'd need to shave off other adventures in Tanzania to do this. I'd love to see the falls, but I don't think we would get enough return to justify the investment.

The next issue is the safari. If you've done any reading about Serengeti safaris, you know that there are a bazillion different choices. I left this open to the trekking companies to see what they could come up with. My only requirement was that I wanted us to have some active choices on our safari; that is, I didn't want to sit around all day like we did in Chitwan park in Nepal. Later in this message, I think you'll see that I found a good safari option.

One of the Yanks wanted to see if we could do an overnight in a tent on top of a 4x4. While this interest is possible, it's a little complicated because there are five of us (i.e., more than two vehicles are needed). Beyond the self-drive safaris, there are very few options for trekking-company-led 4x4 tented safaris. However, I think we might all be satisfied with the tented safari option I'm leaning toward (again, more below on that).

From all accounts, visiting gorillas is also a high-expense, low-reward activity. We'd need to travel to either Uganda or Burundi for the best gorilla visiting, and some places only allow you to see the gorillas for one hour total. We'd probably spend at least three days in travel and several hundred dollars for an hour of gorilla visitation. It'd be cool to see them, but I just don't think we have the time and money for it.

It appears that Northwest/KLM is the best flight choice to East Africa. KLM flies directly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA!). The nice thing about all this is that the flights to KIA originate in Amsterdam! If we want, we can stay an extra day in Amsterdam on our way home, like a couple of the Yanks suggested.

With all that said, then, if we want to have a good time that captures the best of East Africa with appropriate rest time and reasonable cost, my belief is that we should focus on 1) Kilimanjaro; 2) an active safari; 3) some good R&R in which we can choose our activities; and 4) a short stopover in Amsterdam on the way home. If we try to do more than that, we're going to stay longer than we want and/or be exhausted.

Choosing a trekking company:

There were a lot of ways to sort these trekking companies. I could probably find something less than perfect about all of them, but many of them looked pretty good. It was tough to figure out which ones have the best activity/cost ratio, but here are some of the details that shook out:
  • All the companies I contacted do Kilimanjaro in one way or another; however, not all of them do the routes we prefer [we aren't interested in doing the well-worn routes, and we want to be sure we take plenty of time for acclimitazation0
  • Not all companies provide for a safari option in addition to Kilimanjaro
  • Some companies provide kick-ass safaris but then follow up with a crappy route up Kili
  • Almost all the Africa-based companies are way cheaper than the UK or US companies, but they almost seem TOO cheap (i.e., unsafe?)
  • In contrast, the US-based companies tended to be ridiculously expensive (e.g., $2500+ just for the Kili hike!)
  • Comments from users of the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com) and other such sites were very helpful
  • Trying to find a healthy balance between luxury and bare-bones accommodations on safaris is challenging
  • Most trekking companies responded to me with cut-and-paste sample itineraries; I wanted some personalized replies so I knew somebody actually gave a rat's ass about us!
Truth be told, there are a lot of quality options out there. I'm sure we could do quite well with several of them.

One company, though, has really stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of service: Africa Travel Resource. Their website, and their communication with me, is simply the best, hands down. They are not the cheapest, nor are they even close to being the most expensive. Spend lots of time reading about the locations, accommodations and opinions these guys have. They appear to have thought of everything.

I've been communicating with Nick at ATR for the past week. It's simply incredible how much information he has provided to me. In my first inquiry message, I just sent ATR the same message I sent to all the other companies, which basically said, "Hi, I'm doing research on an East Africa trip for five friends…we've traveled to Nepal and New Zealand, so we know how to trek…here are some things we'd like to do." Well, Nick responded with a message that must have taken him two hours to write. And none of that cut-and-paste shit; he wrote everything based upon my short introduction, and he nailed us dead on. He could tell that we liked adventure but weren't really very hardcore, and that we like to keep things a little rugged but we're not backpacker-poor. He even checked out my website (without prompting from me) and got an idea of what we've done in the past. I wrote an equally long message in return, and he responded with a detailed reply, itinerary and budget. In short, Nick is my new best friend. In fact, I think I love him.

Being naturally wary, though, I get suspicious whenever a stranger becomes my best friend. I figure that they must be trying to rip me off. So far, though, Nick is coming through with flying colors. I've found that ATR is highly regarded, and the research I've done on Nick's recommendations has backed up what he's said. He's clearly an expert, and I feel very comfortable with his advice. I think ATR is going to be our best choice.

Notes on Kilimanjaro:

I hope you all do a lot of reading about Kilimanjaro so you understand the different routes, the dangers, and so on. There's a lot to learn; each route even has variations that can make a big difference in our ability to reach the summit. (One tour company, for example, chooses to set up camp on the final day in the Kibo crater [18,000+ feet] so the customers don't need to wake up at midnight to reach the summit. It turns out that this company has a customer death rate of 1 in 400! That's a little too risky for my tastes.)

Many, but not all, of the trekking companies do the Shira route, which is the route we seem to be favoring because of its good acclimatization pace. An equal number do the Lemosho route, which is nearly identical to the Shira route except that it takes less time to drive to the trailhead (we agreed we don't want too much driving on this trip) and that the first day's hike is different. Both the Shira and Lemosho routes are slightly more expensive than the crowded routes like Marangu (the "Coca-Cola" route) and Machame, but it sounds like it's worth it. (By more expensive, I'm talking only around $100 more.) From what I've read in my responses from trekking companies, we've made a good choice in either Shira or Lemosho.

I personally want to do the Lemosho route now that I know about how long it takes to drive to its trailhead from "civilization" (2-3 hours) as opposed to the Shira route, where the drive can be as much as 5 hours. Plus, ATR prefers the Lemosho route as the most sensible option. ATR's suggested itinerary for us on Lemosho would include seven days/six nights on the mountain. With ATR, we can be guaranteed a private climb; no additional hikers would be in our group. More on the itinerary below.

Order of events:

All along, I had figured that we should do Kilimanjaro first, then follow up with a safari and whatever other activities we wanted. My buddy Nick has convinced me otherwise, and now I can't see doing it that way at all. Nick says that most people initially think that doing Kili first is the best thing to do, but it turns out that a lot of people simply aren't ready, even after a day or so to get over jet lag, to climb the highest mountain in Africa (go figure!). What they recommend is to go on safari first, then climb the mountain, and then relax again. This allows people to shake the jet lag, but, most importantly, it helps trekkers get accustomed to being in Africa. Now that I think about it, this makes perfect sense; imagine getting off the mountain after a week still without having any idea of how to deal with Africa yet. We'd be all exhausted after the hike, and then we'd still need to figure out how to deal with the culture and stuff.

So here's the sketch plan of Nick's itinerary for us:

01: Arrival KLM to Kilimanjaro International
02: Arusha
03: Safari
04: Safari
05: Safari
06: Safari
07: Arusha
08: Lemosho (private climb)
09: Lemosho (private climb)
10: Lemosho (private climb)
11: Lemosho (private climb)
12: Lemosho (private climb)
13: Lemosho (private climb)
14: Arusha
15: Zanzibar
16: Zanzibar
17: Zanzibar
18: Zanzibar
19: Depart KLM from Dar es Salaam

Notes on Zanzibar:

The more I read about Zanzibar, the more I want to go there. You don't need me to sell you on it; you can read about it yourself from others' reports.

I told Nick that we'd like to have some time during the trip to simply kick back and perhaps dictate our R&R activities in individual ways. He confirmed that Zanzibar would be a good place for this. If one or two of us want to go diving or snorkeling, the others could stay back on the beach, go to the bar, or check out a local town. Basically, we could do whatever; it would be a great way to come down from the Kili hike. Nick even suggested that we stay on the relatively deserted east coast a couple nights, but end our trip in Stone Town (Zanz's main city, on the west coast) on our last night so we could sample the nightlife (not that there is much).

Notes on safari:

I'm running out of gas here a little bit, so forgive me if things get a little short and I talk mostly about Nick's ideas for us.

Nick agreed that safaris can be a little too sedentary sometimes. He's plucked out some nice options, in my opinion, for hiking-and-camping safaris with a Maasai guide and armed ranger in the Serengeti ("guests must be aware that there is a serious risk of dangerous animals in the camp" -- whee!), as well as cultural encounters in local villages and a nicely appointed permanent tented camp. (On the ATR site, look for "Olduvai Tented Camp.") He's aware that we don't want to spend our days sitting around the camp and/or in vehicles the whole time; plus, we'll want to get warmed up for the Kili adventure, if we choose to follow his advice and do the mountain second. At the same time, however, he knows that if we do the safari first, we might be dealing with a little jetlag, so the tented camps will be a graceful introduction to the bush.

When we should go:

Either October 2005 or Jan-Feb-March 2006 appear to be the best options for us. The latter timeframe would be best for the safari because the wildebeest will be in town -- uh, in our area of the Serengeti, I mean. I originally thought that November might be OK, but now it appears that we should probably rule it out because of the potential for rain.


I've received a lot of quotes from the trekking companies. Like I said before, some of them seemed extremely cheap, while some were so high, I had to laugh. (I simply cannot imagine spending four times as much for the same damn trek up Kilimanjaro.) I never told Nick at ATR what our budget was (we agreed earlier that somewhere between $5k and $6k was good), but he nailed our budget on the first try. Considering that most airfares from the US are about $1500 or so, the ATR quote of $3483 each will put us nicely in our range. There are other costs, like tips and drinks, that are obviously not included here, so our results might vary a bit. All in all, though, I think we're going to come in at just around the price we expected to pay for this journey.

Questions for the group:

So after all that research, I'm hoping the Flying Yanks appreciate my recommendation. I have a few questions for them... we'll have to see what their responses are to the following:

1. What do you think about abandoning ideas to visit Victoria Falls?

2. After reading up on Africa Travel Resource, how do you feel about using these guys? Anybody else you want me to report on?

3. With November not a good option, does October 2005 work for you, or should we wait until Jan-Mar 2006?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Africa Outfitters Aplenty

Geez, being project manager for a trip to Africa is no small piece of work. Here are the groups on my list to research; in addition to dredging up independent reviews on all these companies, I've sent inquiries to nearly all of them to hear their pitches. I expect to get an overwhelming flood of responses in the days to come...but I hope one company stands out over the rest, because the amount of data to examine is pretty daunting right now.

  • Adventure Center
  • Africa Travel Resource
  • African Encounters
  • African Horizons
  • EWP
  • Exodus
  • Explore Worldwide
  • Foot Venture
  • FootLoose Adventure Travel
  • Good Earth Tours
  • High Places
  • Himalayan Travel, Inc.
  • Hoopoe Safaris
  • IntoAfrica
  • KE Adventure Travel
  • Marangu Hotel
  • Mt. Travel-Sobek
  • Roy Safaris
  • Shah Tours
  • Sherpa Expeditions
  • Sunny Safaris
  • Trek Holidays
  • Tropical Trails
  • Wilderness Travel
  • Zara

And this is by no means an exhaustive list -- but you gotta draw the line somewhere!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Hamjambo, wazungu?

I'm finally taking the plunge to online journaling -- or I guess I should use the proper term, blogging, although it still sounds a little too much like a fad to me. (Five years from now, I'll read this and laugh at my naivete.) I've been writing in my paper journal off and on (more off than on, unfortunately) about this next Flying Yanks trip that we're supposedly taking, so I suppose I should go back to that and put those entries in this blog so this journal has some context.

But for now, a quick update on where things stand:

  • Although we're not 100% behind a trip to Africa, I think we're as close to 100% as we're going to get with any trip at this point. Nepal in 2000 and New Zealand in 2003 were our no-brainers; after those two destinations, we've all got a bunch of good ideas (like Peru, Europe, Iceland, Alaska and the Grand Canyon) but are missing a clear #1 choice. Africa gets the highest overall marks among the five of us, and we all seem content with the verdict.
  • I have to have rather major surgery in January for a tissue growth in my mouth -- how thrilling! It will knock me out of commission for several weeks, which means my goal is to arrange our trip to Africa between now and January 19. This trip planning needs to happen at this time anyway, since outfitters and airlines get booked up well in advance for journeys like this.
  • I've been polling the guys about their specific interests for a trip to Africa. It looks like we're boiling it down to a few main activities, namely climbing Kilimanjaro, doing a safari in the Serengeti and maybe visiting Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or going to the island of Zanzibar. There are a lot of other possibilities, but it's amazing how quickly a few weeks can pass.
  • I think we're pretty sure we want to go sometime around October 2005. Our schedules work for that period of time, and it also happens to be an excellent time to climb Kili and view wildlife in the Serengeti.
  • I set up a private discussion group on MSN so the Flying Yanks could converse about trip-related stuff. It's worked to mixed results. Email is still quicker, but the forum format helps keep the issues organized. I attribute our rather slow adoption of the message board to our rather slow adoption of the idea that we need to decide on a trip destination.
  • As project manager for this journey, I have tasked myself to look up a bunch of travel outfitters. It seems unreasonable for us five to go on the trip without some knowledgeable outside assistance -- that strategy worked fine for us in English-speaking New Zealand, but it would have been a disaster in Nepal. My goal is to find a reputable outfitter who will give us freedom to define our own trip but do all the necessary local coordination. I'll be scouring the travel message boards this month and sending out a lot of inquiries.
OK, so I'd better get to work on this stuff. More reports coming soon, I hope!

Lt. Dan

Friday, September 24, 2004

Destination Still Unknown

(This post paraphrased from my paper journal.)

It sounds like the Yanks' camping trip in the Cascades had a few bumpy moments. There are still a number of concerns about Kilimanjaro that need to be addressed -- so many, in fact, that I'm starting to think that we might end up going somewhere else instead. The Grand Canyon has been suggested as an alternative. I'm not sure how I feel about that; call me petty, but I like the cachet of international travel.

But no need to get all whipped up into a frenzy yet. My job as project manager is a little more complicated now, because I think I need to poll the guys and see where we can come up with some consensus. This is one of those times when it would be good if we all lived in the same city; email and instant messaging just doesn't cut the mustard sometimes.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

No Flapjacks For Me

(Another post from my paper journal.)

See yesterday's entry about my health issue. I've decided to go ahead with the MRI tomorrow, so I'll miss out on the Flying Yanks reunion weekend in the Cascades. I'm going to mope around the house all weekend. Hopefully, the other four guys will make some Africa decisions in my absence.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Flapjack Lakes! ... Or Not

(Also transcribed from my paper journal.)

Looks like we'll be hiking in the Flapjack Lakes area near Seattle this weekend. (At least I think I'll be there -- health issues might be getting in the way -- see below.) Jax has done due diligence in prepping for the journey.

So now I have a health issue, thanks to the growth of tissue that's been residing in the back of my mouth for the past dozen or so years. I finally went to see a doctor about it, and he wants me to get an MRI done on it as soon as possible. They scheduled me in for this Friday -- which means I would have to bail on the Flying Yanks' guy weekend. The growth has been sitting back there forever; you'd like to think it wouldn't be a problem for another few days. But damn, Dr. Dierks has put a little fear of the Almighty in me. I need to make a decision rather quickly on what I'm going to do; the plan is to convene at Jax's place in Seattle tomorrow night.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Getting the Band Back Together!

(Another entry transcribed from my paper journal. This series of events occurred when Jax lived in Seattle and I lived in Portland...Jax now lives in Fargo, ND and I live in Richmond, VA. This was all more than you needed to know, wasn't it?)

No real progress on Kilimanjaro yet, but that might change soon: the Flying Yanks are getting together next month (Sept. 9-13) for some hiking and camping up in the Seattle area. Jax is hosting the event, the three midwesterners are flying over, and I'll drive up from Portland. A decent "guys weekend" ought to get us over the hump on our Kili concerns, I think.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Doubts About Kili

(Also transcribed from my paper journal.)

Not much going on with the Flying Yanks these days. We're all still talking about Kilimanjaro, albeit very slowly and only in sporadic emails. I have the feeling there will need to be an all-out dialogue on the phone one of these days so we can figure out whether we're really going to do this thing.

Monty expressed his concerns about altitude in an email to me today. He's got a good point; none of us have experienced life at 19,000 feet -- how will we hold up? I suppose that's a question all Kili trekkers face, though. Some people make it to the summit, some don't. My take on it is that I'd rather give it a shot and fail than not take a shot at all.

But let's wait and see what the group decides... we can have an equally great time doing Machu Picchu or something else if Africa isn't favored by the majority. As long as we go somewhere!

Saturday, May 01, 2004

We Dream Of Africa

(This entry was transcribed from my paper journal. I had no idea how to do a blog back in early '04!)

This is the first entry of what I hope will be many entries about the Flying Yanks' next adventure, which I think will be in Africa. We've been talking off and on since we were in New Zealand last year about our next destination, and Africa (Kilimanjaro in particular) has consistently arisen as a place of interest. We still have some discussion ahead of us about this, though; I'm not sure we're all 100% sold on it yet. For my part, I'm certainly sold -- I've neglected Africa and South America in my travels, and Kilimanjaro would be a great way to experience the continent.

We're also still talking about other places to go, including Machu Picchu in Peru, as well as Alaska. (Visiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before it gets drilled would be cool.)

Right now, though, the main discussion point among the Yanks is Kilimanjaro, so we'll see where that goes. On the table is the timing question; we're talking about whether October 2005 would be a possibility.