In early February, 2016, I joined a week-long safari in Tanzania to see the well-known two million-strong wildebeest and zebra migration in the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  It was my first time in East Africa, and though I have a lot of experience in southern African national parks and wilderness areas, I did not know exactly what to expect of Tanzania’s parks.

Things didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped, for several reasons, and, to make matters worse,  I came down with food poisoning or an amoebic parasite infection at the end of the week.  Here is my report on the total experience, one I penned to an old friend who is the owner of the South African-based safari company that made the booking for me with the local Tanzanian company, Ranger Safaris.  Based in Arusha, the center of the Tanzanian tourist safari business, and owned by a parent company in the UK, Ranger is a large operator said to have some 70-odd safari trucks at its disposal and had the reputation of being experienced in operating safaris like mine.

This report is over 6,700 words, ten times the length of a normal blog post.  I am interrupting a series of topics on Southeast Asia, which I will get back to in two weeks.

Here starts the report, which, as I said, was addressed to my friend:

BACKGROUND & BRIEF

As you know, I have 26 years of highly varied and frequent safari experience in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia before this first trip to Tanzania.  I have led small group trips to places like Hwange in Zimbabwe; Chobe and Moremi in Botswana; Etosha, Skeleton Coast, and Kaokoland in Namibia; and countless times in the Kruger. I have also joined camping safaris in those countries like the ones Afro-Ventures offered for many years in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Except for the last day of this Ranger Safaris trip, which was a textbook screw-up, Ranger did not fail to execute its itinerary, strictly speaking.  My criticisms are not anything Ranger did overtly wrong; Ranger myopically hit all the bases, save utterly botching the final day, which was Thursday, 11 February 2016.

However, Ranger did not focus on the big picture, which is that every traveler on safari in Tanzania has come for one reason: to see the native wildlife, especially the famous migration.  That’s why you did not hear from me until Thursday, Feb 11.  I saw no reason to complain until last Thursday when I was sick and stranded because I could tell that up until then, within legal bounds, Ranger was technically doing what it promised to do, even though it wasn’t providing the experience that any person on safari to the Serengeti expects, which is to maximize game viewing, and especially of the big migration of wildebeests, zebras, and associated predators for which Tanzania is so world-famous.

Driver/guide Sylvester M. did a very fine job overall in every respect on this safari, save the morning of Feb 8.

  • On that day, as we were trying to leave the Serengeti Sopa Lodge to desperately locate the big migrations somewhere (we hoped) in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where they were believed to be, we encountered a Leopard Tours truck stuck in the mud, and Sylvester stopped to help out his fellow driver/guide.  This cost us over two hours of lost time.
  • We had left the lodge early at 0730 in order to make for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as fast as possible, a challenge for any driver given the extremely muddy road conditions, and we ourselves came very close several times to becoming mired in the muds.  Sylvester made a poor judgment call in the estimation of his three clients when he stopped, and then stayed for a very long while, to assist the Leopard Tours driver (see photos).
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The stuck Leopard Tours Toyota Land Crusier

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Still could not dislodge the truck even after more than 2 hours of trying

  • There were many other Leopard Tours vehicles and drivers about, and it certainly seemed that that company should have provided the assistance.  We were unable to dislodge the stuck truck in the end, anyway, and that vehicle’s two clients opted not to be rescued, but instead to stay with their driver/guide and truck until help arrived.  Thus the effort to assist, however nobly-motivated, was ultimately futile.
  • That was the only complaint that I personally have against Sylvester.  Despite the several hours of lost time, he did ultimately locate the big herds of wildebeests and zebra in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Thus the delay cost us at least two hours of time we would have spent with the migration, and that was our sole glimpse of the big herds over the entire week.
  • Sylvester pleaded on my behalf on Thursday, Feb 11 to his bosses in Arusha when I was sick and about to miss my flight that I would pay for a private air charter to get us out.  His management dragged their heels on my request, which I was forced to make through Sylvester since my own cell phone signal was mostly nonexistent and his phone was mostly functional.  Sylvester’s insistence that I was sick, would miss my flight, and was guaranteeing to pay for the charter saved the day, as eventually his superiors in Arusha agreed, and they contacted you about it.

DAY BY DAY ACCOUNT OF THE PROBLEM WITH THIS SAFARI AND ONES LIKE IT: EMPHASIS ON LODGE LIFE RATHER THAN WILDLIFE

Day 1 – 04 Feb – ARRIVAL – NO GAME VIEWING

Arrived Kilimanjaro airport and was picked up by Ranger Safaris staffer who transported me to the Arusha Coffee Lodge as advertised.  Trip took just under two hours due to heavy road congestion and construction. Overnight Arusha Coffee Lodge, perfectly fine as a jumping-off place for a safari.

Great dinner and breakfast the following morning at Arusha Coffee Lodge.

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Arusha Coffee Lodge was lovely–if you prefer lodge life over wildlife

Wonderful, friendly staff at the Coffee Lodge, too.

Day 2 – 05 Feb – NO GAME VIEWING

Did not leave Arusha Coffee Lodge until after 1330, as scheduled in the itinerary.  Why?  We (party of three on this safari) were all rested and could have left at 0730.  We were all ready and anxious to go.

Thus, half the day was wasted waiting to leave, when we could have been on the go early and been on a game drive in Lake Manyara National Park by midday.  Instead, arrived Lake Manyara Serena Lodge late afternoon with no game drive (as scheduled).

The Serena Lodge was perfectly fine for me, though far more luxurious than I require.  I say again that I went to Tanzania for the wildlife, not the lodge life.

Food was very good; staff was superb; but we were not seeing wildlife.  My trip was focused on seeing wildlife, not enjoying friendly staff and good food.

Day 3 – 06 Feb – HALF DAY GAME VIEWING

Left the Serena Lodge around 0800 after breakfast & had a morning game drive through the heavily-wooded Lake Manyara National Park.  Saw very few animals because the terrain did not favor game viewing.  I kept wondering why the park was even on the itinerary, as it was ill-suited to see game and short of many species anyway.  Roads were very bad, which slowed us down.  Returned to the Serena Lodge late morning for lunch.

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Lake Manyara National Park was heavily-wooded, which made spotting the few animals there difficult

Leaving after lunch, we drove as fast as possible to Ngorongoro Conservation Area to check in at gate, then around the crater rim through the Maasai area, then Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and finally to check in at Serengeti National Park.

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Expect long waits to check in at the busy Tanzanian park entrances, including this one

It is certainly true that en route we came across wildlife occasionally, but we had to make fast time to get to the lodge by dinner and thus had scant opportunities to enjoy what we were seeing. This was not Sylvester’s fault.  We were being driven by the itinerary requirements that we make the Serengeti Sopa Lodge by dinner rather than driven by a more flexible schedule focused on seeing wildlife.  It was a tiresome long drive not punctuated by any real game viewing.

After leaving the main Serengeti road to head for the lodge, the road deteriorated immediately into a muddy swamp, an endless morass of slick muck that at times was barely passable.  Sylvester explained that the rains had come 6-8 weeks earlier than usual and left all the roads in bad shape like this one.  He also explained that the Tanzanian government had done nothing whatsoever to repair the roads to drivable condition.

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Rivers of mud were the rule once off the main Serengeti road

Sylvester was right:  Over the next several days, and indeed until our final day, the roads everywhere were in terrible shape even for a 4WD safari truck.  Thus the drive from the main road to the lodge was very, very long and difficult, and proved to be a precursor of the days of muddy game driving ahead.  He could not explain, however, why neither the lodge, nor Ranger Safaris, nor the government would allow safari vehicles to bring tourists into the area given the atrocious road conditions.

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Though masterful at getting through mud, our driver had to turn around in some places like this one

We also noticed on the way that the grasses were very tall—man-high in many places—and were absolutely devoid of the herds we had expected. On the way to the lodge, we saw a few giraffe, a pair of Dik-diks, a small elephant family herd, and some warthogs.  But no wildebeest, zebra, or other antelope, and no predators.

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“Where the grass eats the sky” – The Serengeti Plains were grown up in tall grass and completely devoid of the big wildebeest herds which avoid such long grass because it obscures approaching predators

Reached Serengeti Sopa Lodge at dusk.  Had dinner. Overnight at Sopa Lodge.

Sopa lodges are not as well-kept as the Serena Lodge; we all found many small but telling defects in the Sopa Lodge maintenance, and no hot water except 3 hours AM & 3 hours PM.  I laughed at the irony of the fact that, though I did not WANT a luxury lodge experience—instead preferring an experience that tracked with the wildlife—I was nonetheless PAYING for a luxury lodge experience, yet one with limited hot water for showers, and in a place with very little wildlife in the heart of the Serengeti.  I kept asking myself, How could this be?

Although I didn’t come to critique the food, I didn’t think the food at any of the Sopa lodges was particularly good, and I am pretty sure I got sick from either food poisoning or a parasite through ingestion of food served at the final Sopa lodge in Tarangire.

That said, the staff at the Serengeti and Tarangire Sopa Lodges was outstanding, while the staff at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge was not particularly friendly or helpful.  Once again, however, I recognize the irony of my complaints since I did not spend all this money or travel all that distance to critique the staff at lodges.  I say one more time that the fault in this and similar safari programs is the emphasis on lodge life rather than wildlife.

In that vein, I take this opportunity to note that the rigid nature of such an itinerary has clients hopping from one lodge to the next with no emphasis on going where the animals actually are.  It is true that I signed up for what I got; I do not aver otherwise. But I did so in innocence and ignorance of the fact that by agreeing to such a rigid lodge-based schedule, seeing wildlife perforce becomes an incidental outcome rather than an imperative.  Sure, there are “game drives” scheduled into the itinerary, but because the trip forces clients into one specific lodge after another, the driver/guide is robbed of his discretion to flex the game drive routes to take clients to where the wildlife actually is located at any given time based on weather, seasons, and other environmental factors.  This is the key criticism I have of the nature of this trip and ones like it, regardless of whether conducted by Ranger Safaris or other service providers.  As this was my very first trip to Tanzania, I could not know that when I signed up.  But I know it now.

Day 4 – 07 Feb – FULL DAY GAME DRIVE

All-day game drive in the Serengeti, punctuated by a tasteless picnic box lunch provided by the lodge which we consumed at an airfield at midday.

Saw no wildebeests or zebras at all, let alone any herds, as they were thought to be still in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Came across some distant lions in a tree, and later another pride on a closer, but not near, rock.

Mostly we encountered just a lot of mud and running rivers of water everywhere on the terrible roads, and very tall grass everywhere, like this, so that game viewing was restricted for what few animals were there:

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Another Serengeti road turned into a veritable swamp

Sylvester had a plan mapped out to take us near the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where he thought some of the herds might be, but several safari trucks ahead of us turned back due to deep, impassable mud, forcing us to do the same.  We therefore retraced our steps along the roads where the mud was only barely passable rather than not passable at all.

About 25 safari trucks in the area converged in mid-afternoon some distance from a tree where a leopard’s tail could be seen flicking down from a branch while it slept, but neither we nor anyone else actually saw the leopard’s body. One positive aspect of the location was the good condition of the road (not muddy slush), probably because it was just off the main road.

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Some of the 20-odd safari vehicles straining to see a sleeping leopard’s tail flicking in a tree

Second overnight at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge.  By the time we reached the lodge, we three clients were imploring Sylvester to please leave as early as possible the following morning so that we could be done with the mud and tall grass devoid of wildlife, and instead make as fast as possible for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where the great migration of herds were thought to be.  Thus we agreed to be ready to depart by 0730 the following morning.

Day 5 – 08 Feb – HALF DAY (NET) GAME VIEWING

Did leave as planned right at 0730 and tortuously made our way along the awful muddy road that leads out of the lodge area back to the main road.  Less than one kilometer from the intersection with the main road we encountered the worst mud we had yet seen, and though  Sylvester expertly (somehow) got us through it, the Leopard Tours truck following ours became stuck as described and depicted above.  Sylvester managed to turn around, and we backtracked to help, where, as described, we wasted more than two hours, without success.  Eventually we left them stuck there and continued on, but by then we had lost our time advantage.

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More and more mud in the Serengeti, deep and so slick that not even 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers in low range could always get through

Came across a pride of lions on rocks very near the main road, and a young male lying in the road, which were the best lion sightings we would have on the entire safari.  However, since we had lost over two hours, we could not dally watching those lions and had to hurry onwards as fast as possible, hoping still to find the migrating herds in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

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A few quick shots of these lions were all we had time for since we had already lost more than two hours

After several long and very muddy detours off the main Serengeti Park road in the general south-southwestern direction of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area without seeing anything except a few Grant’s Gazelles and Thompson’s Gazelles, we entreated Sylvester to query other drivers in the area via the radio to see if we could locate the big herds.  Sylvester did indeed talk to a fellow driver/guide, and headed off in the direction within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where he had been told a big herd was located.  Within 15 minutes we came across a huge herd of wildebeest, zebra, and white storks.  By then it was past midday, and we paused briefly for yet another bad picnic box lunch which Sylvester had collected from the lodge early that morning.

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Finally had an hour or so to view part of the big wildebeest migration, which we found in the safe short grass Ngorongoro Conservation Area rather than in the long grass Serengeti

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Seeing the big herd was breathtaking, but amounted to only one hour out of a week on safari because of the emphasis on lodge life over wildlife on such trips

Seeing the big herd was awe-inspiring, and yet by then we had lost so much of the day with the stuck truck and driving all over looking for the herds that we spent less than an hour driving around and in the herd before having to push on because of the tyranny of the unyielding fixed schedule of this safari.  We had yet to stop at a Maasai village, and then we had to reach the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge by dinnertime.

Kudos to Sylvester for at last finding the migration, but the three of us could not help thinking that we had just about one hour out of the entire week to see the very thing that had attracted us to Tanzania to begin with and for which we had paid many thousands of dollars.  I left the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with a heavy heart, feeling that I had been very foolish to have spent all that money for such a fleeting experience.

It’s important to understand here that I did not blame your company or Ranger Safaris for this.  I blamed myself for being so stupid, and I vowed to warn others before they did the same.  In good conscience I could never recommend a fixed-schedule, lodge-based Tanzanian safari after what I learned on this one.  I could only recommend that people book a mobile safari within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area  and Serengeti Park, one nimble enough to keep up with the migration, just as I imagined that we would.  Foolish me, I thought, and still do.

Our remaining afternoon was spent regaining the main road across more muddy tracks and then visiting a Maasai village.  That was quite interesting, but it again wasn’t focused on wildlife, and the need to make the stop—whether we wanted to or not—forced us to leave the one place we had been able to see the big herds.

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The chief’s son shows us the Maasai village 

Arrived Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge perched on the crater rim at dusk and found it to be very much like the others: many small defects hiding beneath a glitzy exterior and with mediocre foods ironically served up in a grand dining area that promised much more than it delivered.  I have already mentioned that the staff at this location was cool and not nearly as helpful as at the other lodges.

Despite the long, tiring, and frustrating day, we were all keen to leave early again the following morning to spend time in the Ngorongoro Crater, and we agreed to depart again at 0730.

Day 6 – 09 Feb – FULL DAY OF GAME VIEWING IN THE CRATER, BUT THE LIMITED AREA OF THE CRATER IS NOT WORTH SPENDING A FULL DAY THERE

Left as planned at 0730 and descended into the crater, immediately seeing elephants and black rhinos in the distance.

Actually saw quite a range of birdlife and mammals, though much of it was a long distance from us.

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Birds and wildlife mostly keeps its distance from the few roads in the Ngorongoro Crater

While the crater is a unique place, the vast open expanses there provide a good deal of range for animals to avoid the limited road network, which indeed is what happened.  We saw the same animals again and again because of the limited roads.  By the time we stopped for yet another bad picnic lunch box, we were bored and reflecting that this time could have been spent in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the big herds and their predators rather than in this natural, uninspiring zoo.  Those big herds were, of course, too far away by then, and once again we were trapped by the tyranny of the fixed lodge-based schedule that defined our “safari.”  We made the best of it and enjoyed being there, but I could not help once again feeling that we had been short-changed of the grand experience that we all came for.  That feeling has persisted and continues to nag at me.

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The Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful, but most wildlife keeps its distance, and roads are few

Late afternoon we headed back to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge for our second night there, and we came across a small family of elephants as we ascended the crater rim.  In many ways stopping there for a few minutes was the most satisfying experience of the day.

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Elephants by the road ascending from the Ngorongoro Crater were our closest sighting

The Sopa Lodge was no better the second night, nor was the food, and we were all anxious to depart the next morning as soon as possible.

Day 7 – 10 Feb – HALF DAY GAME DRIVE (NET)

Said goodbye to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge after breakfast and hightailed it to the gate to check out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and to take the road back towards the main Arusha-Dodoma road for our turn south to Tarangire.  We stopped once en route to buy diesel and reached the Tarangire gate in the early afternoon.

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A helpful warning sign at the entrance to the Tarangire National Park

As we were scheduled (again, the fixed schedule) to have lunch at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge, we didn’t dally in the park, but I did enjoy the ride in despite the already muddy roads.  The Baobab trees there are magnificent, as you know.  Except for elephants and a few giraffe, though, we did not see much game.  We did come across a young male lion sleeping in a tree, but we only stopped briefly, as we were already late for lunch at the lodge.  Again, the tyranny of the fixed lodge schedule put lodge life over wildlife.

The Tarangire Sopa Lodge is in a gorgeous setting and looks magnificent on the outside.  Inside the rooms, we found the same defects (e.g., lights out or malfunctioning, broken wardrobes, unfinished walls hidden by bed stands, etc.) as at the other Sopa lodges.  The rooms were especially dark even by day, grim, and poorly lit after dark.  As at the other Sopa lodges, no hot water except 5-8 pm and 5-8 am, which once again made me laugh, given how expensive this trip had been.  Even though I eschew the lodge life, the Sopa couldn’t even get that right.

I am pretty sure something I ate at the mid-afternoon lunch by the pool is what sickened me overnight (and is with me still).  There were several food items that I consumed which my companions did not partake of.  I drank only bottled water, and I never eat fresh fruits or vegetables in Africa or Asia.  Again the irony: The food wasn’t that good, yet I ate it because I was hungry, and because it was there and had been paid for quite handsomely.  And got sick.  Foolish, foolish me.

The staff at the Tarangire lodge was superb, notwithstanding the other defects.

After lunch we rested for about an hour and then set out on an afternoon game drive.  Since we had seen so little coming in, or on the day before, all three of us were anxious to keep trying.  We had no idea what to expect other than Sylvester’s excellent ongoing commentary, which was pretty realistic:  Don’t expect to see much, he said, because the grass was high here, too, just like the Serengeti, and the prey animals would have migrated out of the tall grass to avoid predators, just as they had in the Serengeti.

Sylvester was dead right.  We drove for miles without seeing more than a few elephants and another pair of Dik-diks.  We tried to ford a streambed that fed the permanent river without success: too muddy and dangerous.

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Pair of Dik-diks in the Tarangire National Park, one of our very few animal sightings there

Sylvester had also taken a very circuitous route to reach the lodge when we first entered Tarangire because, he said, the main river bridge had been damaged by recent floods and was impassable.  Nor had it been repaired, he said.  Our detour route in had therefore been long and muddy.  That should have been my first clue that we were already in trouble and might not be able to get out the next day.  The long gameless game drive that afternoon also demonstrated how poor many segments of the road system were within the Tarangire.  We had trouble traversing some of the muddiest places, as did other safari trucks.

We finally arrived back at the tree we had passed earlier on the way in with the sleeping male lion, and it was just waking up.  We were lucky in being able to see the lion climb down from the tree, after which it disappeared quickly and without a trace into the tall grass.  That was the last sighting we had of game that afternoon, and we shortly returned to the lodge.

Just before dinnertime (around 1900) I began to experience cramping in my gut, followed soon by diarrhea.  The discomfort dissuaded me from eating more than a bowl of yogurt for dinner before retiring.

We had all agreed to leave early again at 0730 to get out and back to Arusha ASAP.  By then I was certainly disappointed in my decision to take the trip and felt it was mainly a waste of money.  This conclusion had nothing to do with feeling sick.

Day 8 – 11 Feb – DEPARTURE – NO GAME VIEWING

I heard it rain quite a bit overnight (thunderstorms) because I was up a lot running to the lav.  Because I was losing a lot of fluids through diarrhea, I made myself drink a total of 3 bottles of water during the night.  I also began taking Pepto-Bismal for my stomach, though it produced no discernible benefit.

I finally got up about 0530 and took a shower, since I knew that I would have hot water starting at 0500.  It was in the shower that I suddenly became nauseous for the first time.  Since there was nothing but water in my system. I was soon heaving and unable to stop.  The uncontrollable vomiting reflex convinced me I might be in serious trouble.  After managing to dress (I had packed the night before in case I became sicker than I had been), I asked a staff member to help me with my luggage and made it to the lodge lobby just as it began to pour rain again.  I informed the desk clerk that I was ill and asked if there was a doctor or nurse on staff.  Apparently she misunderstood, because she said no.

After sitting quietly in the lobby to regain some strength, I shuffled into breakfast at 0630 and tried to eat some yogurt and drink some water.  But within a few minutes of getting anything down, it would come up again when I ran to the men’s room.

At 0730 I loaded my luggage in the Toyota Land Cruiser and crawled into the front seat.  Sylvester by then knew I was sick, and he wanted me to see a doctor, but I told him that no doc was available, and that we needed to get to Arusha quickly so that I could find medical help there.  No sooner had I said that than I was overcome again with nausea and had to open the truck door and run to the fence to vomit.  Sylvester helped me back inside the lodge, and it was there that he spoke in Swahili to the desk staff and discovered that a nurse or doctor (I was never sure which because she didn’t speak much English) was indeed available and could come over from the staff quarters to see me.

The Tanzanian woman who came within 15 minutes was very helpful.  Sylvester translated for her, as her English was poor.  She gave me 3 meds: one to stop the nausea, one to stop the diarrhea, and one for protozoan parasite infections.  She made me take them all, beginning with the anti-vomit med, and I drank a couple of bottles of water, which I was able to keep down on account of the effectiveness of the drugs.  Through Sylvester’s translation she told me that I would feel sleepy and tired from the pharmaceuticals, which she said was normal.  As I had not slept much the previous night, I was looking forward to napping as we drove to Arusha.

The rain was steady and strong, and we set out, leaving finally about 0815 on account of the delay seeing the medical professional.  For the next three hours we went up and down many very muddy roads in the Tarangire, trying to find a bridge or causeway that was passable enough to get out of the park.  We were not successful, as you know, and by late morning I was coming out of my drug-induced comatose state.  I knew we were in trouble.  No truck could get out or in, as the bridges were out from previous damage which had never been repaired, and the very muddy causeway we had managed to get across the day before to come in was now a raging torrent of water.

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Stopping at a high spot in the flooded Tarangire Park to try to get a cell signal

Sylvester and many other driver/guides were stopped nearest the one causeway they thought offered the best chance of eventually being passable, and they all said they would “wait for an hour” to see if the water would go down enough to pass.  I grew up hunting and fishing and camping in eastern North Carolina in low-lying, swampy areas prone to flooding from our annual hurricanes and tropical storms which look just like Africa in many ways, and I could tell in an instant that the water wasn’t going to recede that day.

As I said, I knew we were in trouble, and I stopped taking the meds to regain my wits.  I told Sylvester that we would need a charter plane and asked how close the Tarangire airfield was.  An hour away on those roads, he said.  Call your bosses in Arusha and tell them I’ll pay for it, I told Sylvester emphatically.  Give them my AmEx credit card to guarantee it, and get the plane here.  Then let us leave this area at once to make for the airfield, I insisted.  As we had already confirmed that Qatar Airways had no seats on any flights out of Kilimanjaro Airport for a week, I knew I had to make my flight that afternoon or be stranded in Tanzania while very ill, and that was a non-starter.

My safari companions, the Englishman and his wife, fully supported my decision that the only way we were going to get out was by plane.  They agreed to share the cost, though I was not then interested in doing more than getting the charter set up.  They had prepaid for 4 nights for a beachfront cabana at Anna of Zanzibar Resort, and their flight from Arusha to Zanzibar was scheduled well before mine from Kilimanjaro.  The Englishman was as anxious as I was to get out of the Tarangire by chartered plane.

Well, you know what happened then:  The idiots who run Ranger Safaris balked at ordering the plane even with my financial assurances, and the arguments went on for several hours about it, eventually involving you.  I could never understand why they phoned you except that they were so bloody stupid and incompetent.  They sure couldn’t make a decision, a common sense decision, and it was only because of my insistence that an airplane was finally dispatched.

Once notified, we set off as fast as we could through the muddy river that was once a road for the airfield, arriving just after 1500.  I was very worried that the airplane wasn’t there and quite relieved when I heard its reassuring buzz about 1515.  As you know, we three got out quick after that and landed after 30 minutes at Kili (KRO airport) around 1600 or just past.  I had left the Air Excel pilot my AmEx number, full name, address, phone number, and email address, just as he had asked me to.  He and I believed that would cover my liability of some $1610 for the total charter.

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The Air Excel plane I chartered for $1610 to rescue us from flooded Tarangire Park

With the help of a Kilimanjaro airport ramp staff person, I walked briskly from the runway all the way around the terminal building to the entrance.  I still felt very ill, but I was determined to make the 1740 Qatar flight.  When I saw the long queue snaking out of the terminal door, though, I had a moment of panic thinking I wouldn’t make it after all.  The Qatar A320 and an Ethiopian Air 777 departed at roughly the same time, both full, of course, which briefly overwhelmed the meager staff and security machine resources at the airport.

It was while waiting in line that a big African man approached me and identified himself as an employee of Ranger Safaris.  He said he was there to help, and I remember thinking in my somewhat delirious state at that point what a bad joke his offer to help was.  Ranger had fought me every step of the way—even sick and stranded—when I promised to pay for the air charter, and no one from Ranger had helped me get my luggage all the way around the airport building.  So how, I wondered, did he intend to help me now?

I never found out, as suddenly my erstwhile safari companion, the Englishman, showed up trying to run the gauntlet of the queue.  He was uncharacteristically rattled and determined to get inside the airport to buy tickets for him and his wife to get to Zanzibar that day.  The Ranger Safaris man abandoned me at that point and locked onto the other guy to try to help him fulfill his wish.  They both disappeared into the crowd trying to enter the terminal, and to this day I do not know whether the English couple made it to Zanzibar that night.

I subsequently discovered when I got back to the USA that the Englishman had paid for two-thirds of the charter after I left the plane, because my share of the cost had dropped from $1610 to $538.  For that I am very grateful, for one never knows whether others will shoulder their share of a financial burden.  I hope the two of them made it to Anna of Zanzibar and had a better experience than we did that miserable Thursday last week.

As I told you, I saw the Ranger Safaris man one more time for 5 minutes in the tiny Kili business class lounge  He came in and nodded to me, and shortly afterwards my flight was called for boarding, and I left.  He did not help me get to the plane.

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My Qatar Airways A320 flight KRO/DOH in the runway at Kilimanjaro, with my finger in the frame as I hurried to snap a shot while lumbering sick across the tarmac to board

You can probably imagine the great wave of relief that washed over me when the Qatar A320 was finally airborne (on schedule) and headed to Doha.  I began to think then that indeed I would get home on time.  Except for a three hour delay in Philadelphia on account of a canceled American Airlines flight PHL/RDU, I did, too.

Went directly to my physician upon landing at RDU; he was waiting for me.  We still don’t know what was (is?) ailing me, but my doc approved of the African treatment regimen and only put me on a 7-day Cipro prescription after the other meds were used up.  I am slowly feeling better, but am not yet over this sickness even a week later.

SUMMARY

I think you get the picture and understand my meaning now about what went right and what didn’t on this safari.  Safari companies can’t be held responsible for animals not being where you’d like them to be, but on the other hand, that’s why people spend thousands on safaris.  Locking clients into a lodge-based, irrevocable schedule is very risky business.  Even the English couple, who enjoyed the lodges more than I did, did not prefer lodge life to wildlife.  They, like me, felt cheated that the inflexible schedule of lodges prevented us from being where most of the animals were—and certainly not where the world-famous migratory herds of 2 million wildebeest and zebras were.

From a legal point of view, we got what we paid for and signed contracts for.  But the experience we thought we bought was missing.  It doesn’t speak well of the safari industry in Tanzania to hew to such rigid schedules not focused on the reality of animal movements.  Ranger Safaris doesn’t seem to care about that very important point so long as they robotically deliver clients along the fixed path of their agreed-upon schedule.  No nuances for them, certainly no thought involved.

However, last Thursday was a different kettle of fish.  Ranger should have quickly discerned the irresolvable problem on their hands and weighed the costs of stranding three clients in the Tarangire, possibly for several days, versus the cost of an air charter to evacuate us to our appointed flights and onward reservations.  Did they calculate the daily cost per person of just being in the park (4 X US$50/day) they would have to pay in addition to the lodge accommodation and food cost (several hundred dollars daily)?  No, they did not make those analyses, nor even, apparently, consider the possibility.  They just carried on with the unrealistic assumption that the river would ebb sufficiently for trucks to pass. Of course it did not ebb at all that day.

This is especially surprising since they live there and are supposed to be experienced in such circumstances.  I had never before been there and knew at once based on my experience in similar circumstances in the world’s outdoors that the only way we’d get out that day was by plane.  Ranger’s muddled-headed resistance to my guarantee of payment for such a charter makes it clear they haven’t a clue how to make common sense decisions based on changing real-world circumstances.

If I was in your position, I’d be looking for another partner in Tanzania.  I will certainly take every opportunity to tell the facts about Ranger Safaris.  It was a terrible experience, one that Ranger owners should be ashamed of.  Instead, on top of their failure to protect their clients, they tried to bill me for the credit card fees on top of the air charter cost.  I am happy to have their email as a documented record of that greed, as I will use it in my travel blog:

  • “Please assist me to complete the attached Credit Card Transaction Form [for the charter flight] so that we can process the payment due during office hours today.  As soon as the transaction has gone through successfully I will email you confirming receipt of payment.  …  For clarity please note that payment via American Express cards would incur a card processing fee of US $ 32.28.”  [direct quote from email from Ranger Safaris to me the very next morning after they stranded me and forced me to pay for my own rescue]

 

Thank you again for your intercession last week when they phoned you.  I appreciate that you made the right call, even knowing I might stiff you.  I won’t forget that.  It was the right thing to do for any client in such circumstances.

All that said, the emphasis on lodge life over wildlife meant that we spent a total of 3.5 days on game drives out of 8 days in country as recorded above and only one hour in the midst of the great migration of wildebeests and zebras that we came to see.  That is not acceptable by anyone’s standards at any price.

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