Get What You Pay For: My African Safari Experience
Well, I couldn’t go to Africa without going on an African safari, and I especially couldn’t spend three months in Tanzania—one of the safari capitals of the continent—without seeing some of the best scenery Africa has to offer.
I signed up through my volunteer organization for a four-day, three-night trek through Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. I went with four of my closest friends here and another truck of five volunteers; each vehicle sat five passengers comfortably. We each paid $540 USD, plus a total of about $60 in tips to the cook and to our guide (whose nickname Chui, Swahili for “leopard,” was pronounced like the Star Wars character). Since safaris tend to run in the thousands of dollars, the deal we got seemed almost criminal; it also included tent, sleeping bags, and food. It seemed too good to be true. And we’d been in Tanzania long enough to know that “too good to be true” is exactly what it sounds like.
The trouble started just a few miles out of Arusha as we headed toward Lake Manyara. We were pulled over at a government checkpoint, and the official asked to see Chui’s papers. Although everything happened in Swahili, we figured something was off when Chui spoke with the woman for several minutes and then got out of the car looking resigned under his Notre Dame ballcap. When he came back twenty minutes later, he explained that the official had told him (he implied she’d made the rule up on the spot) that his car was supposed to be white. Since it was green—like plenty other safari trucks we saw—he had to fork over a hefty little bribe before they let him pass.
Not long after the checkpoint, I noticed the steering wheel shaking violently under Chui’s fingers. He was holding on so tightly I half expected the thing to snap off. We stopped a few minutes later while he checked the tires but hopped back in without changing them—which he ended up doing anyway an hour later when we pulled over again, switching them around from the back to the front and vice versa. We finally arrived at our campsite to drop off our gear and tents and food and to eat a quick lunch before beginning the actual drive around Lake Manyara.
I guess “quick” is a relative term. We sat at the campsite for a solid two hours while Chui took the truck to a repair station nearby after promising us he’d only be gone for half an hour. This campsite was particularly swanky and had a pool, so the other nine safari-goers and I lazed around and read books or slept. While under any other circumstances this would have made for a lovely afternoon, we noted a bit grouchily that we could sit around poolside at home. It was the middle of day one. We tried to be patient.
Unfortunately, we also had several unrequested stops during which he would raise the hood of the vehicle and putter around poking things mysteriously for several minutes before hopping back in.
Eventually, we set off on our very first safari drive, where we saw baboons, elephants, hippos, and storks. Chui proved a patient and knowledgeable guide and stopped the car for as long as we needed to take our pictures and narrate our videos. Unfortunately, we also had several unrequested stops during which he would raise the hood of the vehicle and putter around poking things mysteriously for several minutes before hopping back in. Sometimes he’d go to start the car after we took our photos and it wouldn’t start right away. Never a good sign.
The next morning, we drove toward the Ngorongoro Crater. We had to pass briefly through that park to reach the Serengeti, and then we would drive down into the crater itself on our way back to Arusha. On the way to the Ngorongoro check-in center, we stopped several more times so Chui could do his thing under the hood. We even pulled into another car-repair-shop-type thing and stayed there a good twenty minutes while other guys peered under the hood as well.
Get What You Pay For: My African Safari Experience
Finally we arrived at the entry point for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and got out to go to the bathroom, thinking we’d be passing through the gate after obtaining our permits and continuing our drive to the savanna. Given the way things had been going, though, we shouldn’t have been so optimistic—Chui and a bunch of other guides opened the hood again, and he approached us shortly to explain that he wanted to take the car back to the repair station to get new parts or something (if I spoke car, I would know more, but it was something about the radiator leaking, and earlier he’d blocked the leak with a teabag, which even I know isn’t right) and that the errand would take no longer than half an hour. Or, he added, he could call a new car, which would take two hours to arrive. It was up to us.
Well, first of all, we knew that just the time it would take him to get to and from the repair station was more than half an hour, since we’d just come from there. But even though the “repairs” were a risky bet, we wanted to get going and didn’t want to sit around and wait for another car all day. So we chose the former option, and Chui set off with the defective truck.
One of my carmates got attacked by a baboon who stole four bananas from her hands.
We sat in the parking lot of the conservation area and made polite conversation with a massive group of Kenyan tourists who posed for pictures with us like we were the safari animals. The half-hour mark came and went, and went, and went, and went. We ate our picnic lunches on the curb. One of my carmates got attacked by a baboon who stole four bananas from her hands. We wrote a song about our experience to the tune of “My Favorite Things.” The chorus went: “When the car breaks, and the flies bite, and baboons attack…”
We ate some more. We went to the bathroom again. We discussed American politics with the Kenyans (one was a Romney fan, and some of them thought they should be able to vote in our election) and on our own. We read every detail of the information in the welcome center. We watched the cooks throw rocks at the baboon when it slunk back to get more food. We found bubble-gum-flavored milk in the gift shop. We wasted our precious camera batteries taking pictures of each other looking bored. We waited.
Three hours later, Chui returned triumphantly with the car and we set off again. Fortunately, we only had a twenty-four-hour pass to the Serengeti, so our departure time simply depended on our arrival time. Unfortunately, though, there was no escaping the fact that we were running late, and Chui was not his usual patient self as he rushed us through the Serengeti sunset in order to reach the campsite before dark (which we didn’t) and get the tents set up before the hyenas came prowling around (which they did).
Thankfully, by this point most of the car problems were over for us, although I do have several more pictures of Chui in the Serengeti hunched over a tire or under the hood, and our partner truck broke down in the middle of the Ngorongoro Crater the next day.
We belted The Lion King soundtrack out the back of the truck. We drank Cadbury hot chocolate at night and woke up with the sunrises. It was everything I could have dreamed for a safari, and then some.
Ultimately we saw every animal I wanted to see except leopards, which are hard to find anyway. The first time we saw lions up close, I cried. We drove past warthogs, zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, antelope, wildebeests, hyenas, jackals, cheetahs, elephants, and enough other animals for me to take over a thousand pictures. We belted The Lion King soundtrack out the back of the truck. We drank Cadbury hot chocolate at night and woke up with the sunrises. It was everything I could have dreamed for a safari, and then some.
Lesson learned: you get what you pay for, especially as a tourist. But sometimes, if you’re patient and quiet, things turn out okay. Sometimes the bumps along the road just make the lions more amazing when you finally see them.