African safari 2013: Part 1

June 29, 2013

Jambo!

Safari is the Swahili word for journey. My friends, we are taking one! After years of pipe dreaming, we finally booked a safari and headed for Tanzania. I hope you enjoy my blog and photos.

We left Houston on Saturday at noon. We like to leave the driving to Action Limos so that we can relax and let someone else navigate the mysteries of Houston traffic, where a jam can appear inexplicably at any time of the day or night. Our driver picked us up on time and we said our goodbyes to Nala and the cats and to our house. We have decided to undertake an entire downstairs remodeling project this summer, so our whole kitchen will be demolished while we are out. Goodbye dog! Goodbye ugly wallpaper!

Our check-in at the airport was completely uneventful, and our 747-400 was waiting for us. This is our first time to fly with KLM, and we toyed with the idea of buying first class tickets. In the end, I just could not fathom paying for it. However, we did pay extra for seats with more leg room, and this was money well spent. That four inches makes a huge difference. The plane boarded on time, but we sat on the tarmac for a while, and it was HOT. Just as we were preparing to roll, Greg asked me if I had downloaded the new required AT&T wifi app that came with our international data plan. What app??? I almost started crying. I hadn’t read the message from AT&T. I just assumed it was a confirmation of our purchase of the data plan. I furtively turned my phone back on in the plane and quickly downloaded the app, just before they pushed back from the jetway. Whew. Those little details get me every time.

I liked KLM. Their in-flight entertainment was plentiful. They passed out piping hot towels several times. The food was acceptable. Genene immersed herself in her own small TV. She’s a veteran traveler and needs no special entertainment from Mom and Dad. Greg and I slept on and off, and we arrived in Amsterdam (Amster, Amster, Shhh, Shhh, Shhh!) on time.

June 30, 2013

It was morning when we arrived in Amsterdam. We hopped off the plane, and Greg found one of those perfect airport bathrooms–not on the main terminal and down a short flight of stairs, it was empty and clean. We returned to the main terminal and began looking for our departure gate. It was literally 30 steps from where we had gotten off the first plane. How easy was that?

For reasons that are not clear to me, we had to repeat the entire security procedure. I guess the Amsterdam airport security cannot trust that the US airport security has sufficiently undressed and humiliated everyone with their body scanning machines. Belts off, pockets emptied, electronics out for inspection, toothpaste and “spit kits” in the quart bags….we did it all again at the new gate. For once, none of us got selected for special screening, so in spite of my griping, it was all pretty uneventful…nothing more than a hassle.

We rode in a smaller 777-200. I was surprised at the clientele aboard. I expected more Africans. Instead the plane was mostly filled with Americans and Europeans. Greg and I were actually among the younger of the travelers. It seems that going on safari is on a lot of bucket lists, and perhaps many people don’t check it off until they are retired. Again, our experience with KLM was good. Hot towels, good food, no nonsense. We napped a bit on this flight, but Greg and I tried not to fall asleep for any big stretches. We were to arrive in Kilimanjaro at night, and so there would be none of the usual efforts of trying to stay awake all day to avoid jet lag. We let Genene do what she wanted, and she slept quite a bit.

It was really exciting watching the flight tracker: all of those evocative names….Nile River, Addis Ababa, Sahara Desert.

Greg served in the Coast Guard on an ice breaker, so of course he has been across the equator. Genene and I, on the other hand, were first timers. Greg told Genene many stories of the “ceremony” on his ship on the day they crossed. The first timers, pollywogs, had to wear their shoes on the wrong feet, shirts on inside out and backwards, and underwear on top of their pants. The veterans–shellbacks–made the pollywogs do all kinds of unpleasant things, including climbing through some sort of chute filled with several days’ worth of kitchen garbage. There was a ceremony with King Neptune that involved “kissing the baby.” The shellbacks found the largest man among them with the softest belly, put a diaper on him, smeared the belly with some nasty grease, and made each pollywog kiss the baby’s belly. I told Genene that this sounded like the kind of thing that happens when men are put in charge of something. Greg teased Genene all day about making her kiss his shellback belly.

Greg tried one more story on Genene early on in the flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. He told her that when his boat crossed the equator that two men rushed to the front of the boat with giant hooks to “lift” the equator up so that the boat could pass under it. Greg’s story was long and detailed, and Genene listened intently. In the end, she snorted and said, “Dad, do you really think I’m that stupid? The equator isn’t really there!!” We made the crossing without incident. The pilot did not even announce the crossing, so we had to estimate it by watching the flight tracker. Greg could hardly even rouse Genene, and he certainly could not convince her to kiss his belly. We are all shellbacks now.

While there is a 7 hour difference between Houston and Amsterdam, there is only a one hour difference between Amsterdam and Kilimanjaro. In effect, we flew east to Amsterdam and then pretty much south to Tanzania. We arrived at about 7:30 PM Tanzania time. The sun was already down, and the jetway was nothing more than a set of stairs to the tarmac, which we walked across to get to the airport. It was a zoo. There was just one big room with the immigration agents at one end. In my typical fashion, I moved out of a good, fast-moving line because the sign said it was for East Africans. Of course, I managed to get us into the molasses line. As it turned out, the signs meant nothing. All of the immigration agents were tending to all comers, so I could have stayed right where I was. Oh no….I had to try to be a rule-follower and thus moved us into the line with the guy who didn’t care whether you came to his country or not. We had gone to the trouble of getting our visas beforehand to save time, but many people were able to get through the visa and immigration line faster than we got through the one line. Ugh. It was just one final indignity on a long day. We were fingerprinted and had our photos taken and finally crossed over to the other side of the airport. A porter helped us collect our bags, and we met our driver John and our host Fatima.

We met a couple from DC in the car. They were weary, as were we, so conversation was at a minimum. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to our hotel, Rivertrees Country Inn, in the outskirts of Arusha. Arusha is known as the gateway to safari country.  Our hotel hosts met us with cold towels and watermelon juice. They showed us to our room, where the bags were already waiting. We are in a cottage. Our beds have mosquito netting, and it is not there just for looks. It’s very romantic looking. We had a late dinner at the lodge. Genene had a massive cheeseburger, Greg had fish and chips, and I had pork in ginger sauce. From the time we left our home to the time we got to Rivertrees, 24 hours and 38 minutes had elapsed. We were worn out.

In this picture, Genene is waiting on her first meal. She has that jetlag zombie stare.

July 1, 2013

I am a light sleeper and awoke with a start before the sunrise. Someone was chanting/singing. Greg roused too, and I told him that I thought it was a Muslim call to prayer. We wouldn’t be sure until we heard it again later in the day and asked someone. She confirmed, “It’s Islam.” It really is a beautiful sound, and it highlights one of the reasons we chose Tanzania for our safari. It is a stable democracy, and its government keeps no official count of religious affiliation. It is estimated that 15% of Tanzanians follow animist beliefs; 40% are Muslim; 45% are Christian, mostly Roman Catholic and Lutheran. They live together in relative harmony. It is possible!

Here’s a picture of the main lodge:

And the entry to our cottage:
 

We had no special plans for the day and so went back to sleep. We had breakfast at the lodge and took a hike around the grounds. Rivertrees sits on the edge of a river, and the area is lush, green and subtropical. Birds are everywhere. I wish I knew more about birds. Perhaps some day when I have more time….Anyway, there are birders all over the property with spotting scopes and cameras. Not a one of them is a day under 70, so I guess I’ve got time to learn. The walk along the river is rustic and beautiful. The little wooden bridges across the streams have missing spans and creak when you walk across them. We are told that there are monkeys on the property but we have not seen them yet. We have seen squirrels, or something like them. Genene has made friends with Mickey, the caretaker’s dog. They are in America right now, and Mickey gets shipped out to Europe in a few weeks to meet up with them. In the meantime, he wanders the grounds, spoiled rotten by everyone. The staff gave Genene a leash and encouraged her to make him walk all around the grounds. She was only too happy to do so.

Genene and Mickey:

Genene down by the river:

Another view of the river:

The vegetable garden had an interesting scarecrow:

Our cabin:

It took us a while to see Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s called the “shy mountain” because it is frequently covered by clouds. We could make out the barest snow cap on it after a gardener helped us understand what to look for.

We had a wonderful lunch on the grounds. Genene made friends with the cook, and he let her help him make pizzas.

Making pizza:

In the afternoon, Genene and I got massages while Greg took some exercise. The massage was heavenly. I walked the grounds wearing nothing but a robe and was led into a tent with a massage table and huge stone tub. I got 50 minutes of Swedish massage and a nice hot bath. That reminds me: hot water is something of a commodity, even at a resort. The water pressure is fairly low. The commode has one of those European two-button set-ups, but only the big button gets you any kind of flush. We brush our teeth with bottled water and try to be careful not to get any of the tap water into our mouths. So far, so good.

We are in a compound of sorts, completely fenced and gated, with security at the perimeter. The main road is just over the fence, and we have seen all kinds of traffic on it. Old motorcycles, a goat herder and herd, people walking, cars and vans flying by….all manner of humanity. It’s an interesting show.

This evening, we saw a huge owl in the trees. Minutes later, we finally saw a monkey.

The sun is gone, and we are about to have dinner. It has been a good day.

Until tomorrow…..

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