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:
- Serengeti safari - preferably something with a bit of a twist
- Some quality R&R someplace
- Victoria Falls / Gorilla watching
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!
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
08: Lemosho (private climb)
09: Lemosho (private climb)
10: Lemosho (private climb)
11: Lemosho (private climb)
12: Lemosho (private climb)
13: Lemosho (private climb)
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?