My husband and I came back from a dream vacation in Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar a couple weeks ago. Everything about was absolutely perfect, and I’d like to thank TripAdvisor readers for offering their advice, recommendations and input into our decisions to get us there.
Our initial reaction was to book the trip locally through a large agency. A combination of large groups of 10-12 travelers, and limited itineraries turned us off doing so. We then started checking into booking a private tour through a local company. Very expensive!! This led us to look at other options and we considered booking a private tour through a smaller tour company based in Africa. The risks seemed great, as did the rewards. I started by contacting the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators. I was able to request online quotes from all their members in one quick request. I specified the approx. length of the trip, parks on our wish list, luxury of desired accommodations, and a price range. I received about a dozen quotes. Some matched our criteria better than others and about five were selected for follow up. To get more familiar with the tour companies I started reading reviews on TripAdvisor. One company stood out head over shoulders. All reviews seemed favorable. That’s how I selected BaseCamp in Tanzania. Surprisingly, they were also amongst the most price competitive.
Achmed, the owner of the company, was my direct contact. I corresponded with him through many e-mails to custom fit the tour to exactly our specifications. He offered invaluable feedback on some of the selections and this helped us make wiser decisions. After all, my knowledge of Africa was based only on what I read, whereas his on first hand experience of distances, road conditions, etc. It would typically take a couple of days to get a response since Internet in Tanzania isn’t the most reliable and there is a 10 hour time difference between us. Once the itinerary was firmed up it was time for us to make our 50% deposit. Again, I hesitated. This meant a money transfer of a fairly large sum of money to someone whom I knew only through e-mail, not to even mention African banks which I didn’t trust. Once again TripAdvisor readers gave me confidence by reassuring me that our money is safe, and BaseCamp would deliver. Achmed made arrangements with another tour company in Kenya, SafeRide Safaris for our tour of that country and we would deal directly with SafeRide for Kenya. I couldn’t find much information on SafeRide, and counted on Ahmed’s word that they were as reliable as he said. After all, it was our money, but also Achmed’s reputation on the line. I dealt with Francis at SafeRide to finalize details.
So, we completed a wire bank transfer to BaseCamp a few months prior to our trip. Deposit to SafeRide was sent through Paypal. Achmed and Francis booked the selected lodges and tented camps for us as planned. Booking were also made for a visit to the Masai village, hot air balloon ride in the Serengeti, as well as inernal flights to and from Zanzibar.
The next few months flew by. I was in touch with BaseCamp and SafeRide occasionally to get and answer to a question, and in the back of my mind to make sure they were still in business.
And then it was time for our big adventure. After a couple of very long flights from Canada, we landed in Nairobi, Tanzania. My heart was absolutely pounding at the excitement of landing in Africa, as well as the nervousness of whether dealing with a local company would fully pan out. What kept going through my mind was: “Will they show up?” I figured as long as a SafeRide rep was at the airport to pick us up, everything else would fall into place. You can’t imagine my relief at seeing our name on one driver’s board as he waited for us! We spend the day in Nairobi, and had reservations at Carnivore that night. Although the restaurant is known for game meats, Kenyan government now heavily regulates what they can serve. But we ate crocodile, camel, ostrich and other local delicacies. It was definitely a fun experience!
The next morning our SafeRide driver, Sammy picked us up in a small safari van. The van was older, but clean and well cared for. Sammy seemed eager to please. We quickly stopped by the office to take care of our final payment for the Kenya tour, and we were on our way to Masai Mara. Drive to the Mara was about 5 hours, with the first half on good tarmac road. The second half was bumpy and got progressively worse as we got closer to our destination. The last hour was on very rough heavily rutted dirt roads basically carved out of the landscape. Sammy maneuvered the difficult road with extreme skill and precision while maintaining a good speed to get us there as quickly as possible. We arrived at the lodge at the edge of Masai Mara, home for the next two nights. The lodge was beautifully placed on the edge of the park along the river with black-faced monkeys frequently visiting the lodge. Accommodations were very nice, and the covered open air dining area impressive. Sammy took us out for a late afternoon safari where the game viewing was amazing. We saw hundreds of wildebeest, several herds of zebras, giraffes, family of elephants, impalas, and gazelles inside a very short time period. Sammy picked us up again early in the morning, with the vehicle washed and cleaned (not sure if the man ever sleeps!) for a full day safari in the Mara. It was a fantastic day! The wildlife was amazing! Within the first five minutes we saw so many animals that I just about had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. But the sheer numbers of animals was way beyond anything I’d imagined! We took our time watching animals, including a several lions, and taking a lot of amazing pictures. Wildebeest migration was late this year due to the considerable rain in the Mara causing an abundance of grass and water so they haven’t had to move on. We finished off the day with a visit to the Masai village and were treated to their Young Warrior welcome dance. We got a peek into their colorful culture and their way of life in the village in their mud huts. It was the perfect finish to our stay in the Masai Mara.
The following day we had a several hour drive across Kenya to get to Amboseli. Time went relatively quickly as we passed through the many villages and enjoyed watching the locals go about their daily lives. They were herding cattle and goats, selling fresh fruit, vegetables and sugar cane in tiny little booths along the road, and children were coming from school in their colorful uniforms. We spent a couple hours on safari in Amboseli on route to our lodge. I knew that Amboseli has a large elephant population, but never expected it to number in the hundreds that we saw just in the couple of hours. We got close to several families and enjoyed watching how they interact and protect their young. After a good nights rest at our tented camp we were on the move, again in a washed and clean van. We spent the morning on a safari through Amboseli before Sammy took us to the Tanzanian border where we would meet the BaseCamp rep for the Tanzanian portion of our trip.
Sammy did an amazing job as our host on our Kenya visit. He’s a very skilled driver, knows his animals, was immensely patient as he answered our many questions and has a great sense of humor. We enjoyed hearing about his life in Kenya, and shared details of our lives in Canada. It was hard to say goodbye to Sammy. Although we’d only known him for a few days, he became a friend that we wouldn’t soon forget.
SafeRide had all the details worked out of our transfer from Kenya to Tanzania. Sadly we said goodbye to Sammy as our luggage was transferred into the BaseCamp vehicle. We took care of the formalities of exiting Kenya and obtaining our visas for Tanzania. We were then transferred to our lodge in Arusha, a few hours drive along fairly bumpy roads.
That night Achmed, the owner of BaseCamp met us to finalize payment for our Tanzanian trip and give us details of what to expect. Achmed wasn’t exactly what I expected having dealt with him for months over e-mail. Had I met Achmed face to face right upfront I would have had NO hesitation turning over my money to make our trip a memorable one. Achmed is a middle aged British man who’s knowledgeable, well traveled, very chatty and has enough life experiences and stories to fill the rest of our stay in Tanzania without even leaving the lodge in Arusha. We took an instant liking to him. The following morning our BaseCamp guide, Joseph, picked us up. Joseph, an older man with some twenty years experience knew he had to make a good impression following our great experience in Kenya. No pressure! We were destined for Tarangire Park that day. WOW! The landscape of this park was absolutely stunning! Huge 300-year-old baobab trees provide beautiful shade to the parks’ animals and a visual treat for the eyes. The park was green and lush, and heavily populated with zebras, giraffes, baboons and elephants that regularly visit the river. Joseph was very knowledgeable about the animals, including the many species of birds that we found along the way. It was great to see that even after that many years of watching African wildlife Joseph keenly observed their behavior with interest, especially the birds. He knew where to find the animals and gave us as much time as we wanted to fully appreciate them. He patiently came to many quick stops when we saw something we wanted to photograph in this beautiful park of bright red soil and enormous trees. We finished the day at the lodge, and were refreshed to for our drive to Serengeti the following day.
The drive was long, and as we enter through the gates of the park the road became unbelievable dusty as we drove along the washboard road for a couple of hours. Landscape here was very different from what we had seen so far. This part of Serengeti was bone dry with a heat halo ascending from the earth. This changed again as we got deeper into the Serengeti where the west side was well treed and starting to green up as short rain season got underway. We saw many animals along the way. One great thrill was having Joseph find a leopard sleeping in a dead tree about 20 feet up. The man must have eagle eyes to notice a leopard in a tree as he drives down a dusty and bumpy road! What a great find! As we continued our journey to Kirawira Luxury Tented Camp at the far end of the Serengeti the heavens opened up. With virtually no visibility and extremely slippery conditions, Joseph drove through thick mud and safely got us to our destination. And a luxury camp this was! Open to the Serengeti wildlife with no fencing, the tents were all built on stilts. Our tent was beautifully furnished with carved wood furnishings, a four poster dressed in crisp white linens and luxurious red drapes hung around the bed. Bathroom was beautifully fixtured with gorgeous granite countertops porcelain fixtures. Several hurricane lamps gave the tent a cozy glow. Hardwood flooring covered with luxurious rugs added a rustic, yet luxurious feel to the “rooms”. We could hardly believe this was a tent. Basic ground rules of this camp were that you could not leave your tent at night without escort. A call to the front desk would have them send an escort in a flash.
The following day we set out on yet another great adventure. We were booked for a hot air balloon ride at sunrise that day. What a lot of fun this was! The balloon ride was very smooth, including the takeoff and landing. We watched the Serengeti come to life as sun came up with the herds of wildebeest moving like ants below. The pilot would lower the balloon at times so we could get a close-up view including that of an ostrich family running along with their dozen or so young ones. Balloon ride finished with an outstanding champagne breakfast cooked and served in the open Serengeti. Everything about this experience was absolutely first class and worth every penny.
We spent the remainder of the day on safari with Joseph watching dozens of hippos play in the dirty river, and crocodiles lazily sunning themselves along the banks. Joseph found another tree leopard, as well as a pride of lions. Both provided us with more fantastic photo ops. Another night at our luxury tented campground, hanging out in the tented lounge luxuriously furnished with deep leather seating and various antiques, and finishing the day with a fabulously prepared dinner served in the dining room tent.
Back on the washboard road and we headed towards Ngorongoro Crater. We stopped at a village along the way for a cultural tour organized for us as a last minute request to BaseCamp as we wanted to learn move about Tanzanian people. The village was probably one of the wealthiest we’d come across as it was set on obviously fertile soil. The locals grew maize alternated with rice fields for year round growing, banana plantations and numerous other crops. The village was bustling with life. Young children followed us everywhere wanting to have their picture taken so they could see themselves on the camera screens. They held hands with us as we walked, and giggled each time we spoke to them. It was a great experience.
As we descended into the crater we were amazed by how large this area is. This was our last safari, and our mission was specifically to look for rhino and pink flamingos, which we hadn’t seen yet. Animals here seemed totally unafraid of vehicles and would get within an arms reach of our windows, or would sit on the dirt road in front of us. We found three black rhinos in the far distance but they could not be reached by road. We then stopped at the soda lake to watch the flamingos. This was a good way to finish our safari experience. We felt that we’d done and seen absolutely everything we came to see, and it was time to head up to our lodge at the rim of the crater and celebrate. As we exited the park I sadly watched the last of the zebras disappear in the distance. We settled at the lodge lounge for a drink with Joseph and watched the most spectacular sunset set behind the crater. Joseph was a fantastic driver and guide and became a friend whose experience and keen eye made our trip special and memorable. He understood what it took to get great photos and our need and passion to get those. He was thrilled to have us share some of our results on the view screen. Back to Arusha, we’d met with Achmed again to review our Zanzibar leg of the trip which would prove to be yet another incredible experience.
I wanted to share this experience with TripAdvisor readers because they encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and plan this trip directly with African companies. This proved to be a great choice and it put the money in the hands of the people who did the work.
I am grateful to Francis of SafeRide Safaris for doing such a fantastic job of organizing our Kenyan safaris. A big thanks to Sammy for being such a patient guide and a great driver through Masai Mara and Amboseli.
Hats off to Joseph for doing such a great job of showcasing beautiful Tanzania during our visits to Tarangire, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. We came home with some unbelievable pictures and a lifetime of memories.
Most of all, a great big thank you to Achmed at BaseCamp for looking after every little detail to such perfection. Absolutely everything was at least all that was promised, and often more than expected. We went to Africa with a just-in-case contingency plan in case something didn’t work out, and came away absolutely astounded that everything went according to plan.
I would highly recommend both SafeRide and BaseCamp as they are reliable and safe and you get serious bang for your buck.
I’d like to offer the following tips to anybody considering a trip to that part of the world:
Seriously consider a private tour as opposed to a group tour. It’s a great luxury to have the vehicle to yourself with all that interior and viewing room, as well as the freedom to make stops as desired. Private tours booked directly through the countries you are visiting are typically less expensive than group tours through a large agency. Ultimately large agencies subcontract the smaller local tour companies to do the work anyway, but they hold back a good chunk of the money for advertising and overhead. You get what you pay for.