Most of you who know me know I am nuts about lions. These magnificent animals carry with them a little bit of the majesty of God! Though I am interested in carnivores in general, and cats in particular, this Godly connection makes me like lions far above any other animal. Besides this, they are fascinating animals to study!
I am also interested in animal life in general. I have studied biology and it's related fields for as long as I can remember. In fact, I'm somehow surprised that I didn't choose to make a career of it.
For these reasons, I have longed to visit Africa. Africa has the largest still-intact land animal ecosystems left in the world. (And of course, lions!) For the longest time, this was nothing but a distant dream. But, as my monetary resources and vacation time availability increased with my seniority at work, traveling to Africa became a real possibility.
It all started in April of 1997 when I went to the Rochester Computer and Business Show. Of course, many business people travel, so there were travel agencies there, advertising their services. One of these also had brochures out for pleasure travel. One of the itineraries shown was East Africa. Of course, the lion on the front of the brochure was what really caught my attention. I picked up the brochure and studied it over the course of the next several days. Business travel of my own prevented me from immediately researching the options for travel to Africa, so reading and re-reading the brochure served only to increase my excitement in the prospect of actually going to Africa.
As soon as I got back, I hit the internet and started doing research. After a few weeks of reading brochures and itineraries, I found a tour offered by David Anderson Safaris best met my goals. I attempted to book the trip with them, with a travel time of October 1997.
What followed next is typical of the kind of luck I sometimes have: everything that could possibly go wrong with booking this trip did. I won't go into details, but all hopes of travel pretty much died when the agent called me one day and asked me to consider canceling my booking. I did. God told me to drop the whole matter for now: I would go to Africa, but not at this time. To burn my bridges, I took $1,000 of the money I had set aside and bought a videotape machine to add to my VTR collection. This was, and still is, the most I have ever spent on an addition to the collection! It was now July 1997.
Almost a year went by before anything further happened. One day, I got a letter from Van Zile travel here in Rochester. It was an advertisement for a trip to Kenya with Chet Walker, an announcer for one of our local radio stations. He is well known for world travel, and especially loves Africa. The trip was to take place in August of 1998. Travel in August is out of the question for me, as I am required to be at work for a major fundraiser that occurs every August. I called Van Zile, and explained my situation to them, and they sent me literature on a number of other packages they had available. These ranged from overland truck safaris to private jet safaris! Most of these were priced out of my budget, or simply went places I wasn't interested in going. Nevertheless, I spent many happy hours poring over these brochures.
A new mega-bookstore had opened not far from me. From time to time, I would check out their Africa travel section to see if they had any new books. About this time, I visited the store, and found a book entitled: 'Africa's Top Wildlife Countries' by Mark Nolting. Besides being an extremely informative book, it also contained strong advertising for the Africa Adventure Company, a company that Mark Nolting ran. Soon, a large folder of info from them joined the pile of brochures on my dining room table. They had several itineraries that closely matched what I wanted to achieve in East Africa. After much study, and calls to a number of various travel agencies, I narrowed my choices down to two packages they offered. A chat with Mark Nolting himself easily narrowed this down to the 'Serengeti Unexplored Safari'. This was a bit more upscale (And expensive!) than I really wanted, but it was perfect in virtually every other respect.
I went onto a 'message board' on the internet for independent confirmation that Africa Adventure Center was a reputable outfit. I got a very good rating for them from none other than David Anderson Safaris, whom I had tried to book with the year before.
Now, things happened fast. I was offered a slightly better rate if I could book very quickly; this I did. I had the two weeks plus in early February 1999 that I needed off for the trip approved in 20 minutes. Normally, this takes a month! In retrospect, I'm very glad I booked this trip 9 months in advance. If I had waited a couple more months, there is a very good chance I would not have been able to get such a big block of time off.
Once the booking was confirmed as good, I had 8 months to prepare. The first thing I needed to do was get a passport. I chose to do this in the midst of another major activity. Bad mistake, but everything ended up fine. If you have never applied for a passport before, be advised that preparing for it takes a bit of research. You need your OFFICIAL birth certificate, as well as a lot of information on where your parents were born, etc. Two passport photos are required, and the passport agency has standards for these photos; take the time to make sure the photographer gets them right the first time. Having to resubmit the photos can add a month to processing time! (Mine turned out fine, but my parents had problems with their photos and had to resubmit.)
One important thing you really must have if you are to travel to a place like East Africa is a good camera and binoculars. I took the advice in 'Africa's Top Wildlife Countries' and purchased a good quality pair of binoculars. What I purchased was the Celestron Ultima 10X50. These were purchased mail-order, which is the best wat to get these sorts of things. Although this is a little on the strong side for this kind of wildlife viewing, they never let me down! I suspect they were the best glasses of anybody that accompanied me on this adventure. The 10X50's will also see much service here in the 'States for binocular astronomy, which requires the large aperture.
The other important thing is a good camera. An unexpected funds surplus put me in a good position to pick up a SLR and a good telephoto lens. The camera is a Canon rebel G. It is the bottom-of-the-line camera in Canon's EOS series. It is inexpensive, and readily available. It comes in a package with a 35-80 mm zoom lens. To this I added a Tamron 70-300 mm zoom lens. This gave me a wide selection of focal lengths with just two lenses. The Tamron lens is also of very good optical quality. Although there are zoom lenses that will cover this range with one lens, they are much more expensive. In any case, the combination was very serviceable, and the Rebel G stood up to almost every test I put it to.
While on the subject of cameras, if you are planning any kind of adventure travel, do yourself a favor and put a clear filter on the front of your lens. It's modest cost will be recovered many times over! Also, make sure you have a cleaning kit for the optics and the camera/binocular bodies. Last, but not least, carry your film in a good X-ray bag, and always take it as a carry-on! Make sure you have spare batteries, as well as a 'point and shoot' to use if your SLR develops problems.
The last subject on cameras I will mention is film. Many people make the mistake of bringing slow film on a trip like this. Although East Africa is famous for it's light, it is often a dim, difficult light. You will encounter many more situations where a fast film is needed rather than a slow one. I would recommend a good 400-speed film for general work, as well as some 800 speed film for marginal lighting. I took nothing slower than 400 and didn't miss the slower stuff for a minute. Another thing that is worthwhile is to spend the extra money for premium quality film. A good example is Kodak Royal Gold 400. That way, if you capture that 'picture of a lifetime', you can have it enlarged without showing too much grain. Personally, I took 16 rolls of Kodak Pro 400MC 36, a discontinued professional film I was able to get at a good price. I also took 8 rolls of Fuji G800 36 at the advice of several professional photographer friends, as well as the camera dealer. (I live in Rochester, NY, home of Eastman Kodak, and try to be loyal to that brand!) This, too is considered a professional film. It is a better value to buy fewer 36 exposure rolls than more 24 exposure rolls. Most dealers keep their professional film under refrigeration until it is sold. Any film, as long as it is in it's can, benefits from refrigerated storage. This is especially true if it has been exposed. You should also wait to buy your film until just before your trip.
Think twice before bringing a video camera. Most action you are likely to see will be a good distance from your vehicle. Most camcorders on the market do not have good enough zooms to really close in on the action. I think these new 'digital zooms' do not give good picture quality. (I am a professional video engineer.) Furthermore, you will need to carry a supply of heavy batteries to power them. Although some vehicles have power jacks for video cameras, not all do. You will only run into electric power for recharging here and there. Last but not least, the delicate mechanisms in the miniature camcorders is easily fouled by the heavy dust found in much of East Africa. Unless you have the necessary tools and skills to field-clean your camcorders' tape transport, take draconian measures to keep the dust out! The same holds true for the tapes themselves. In my opinion, you will do far better with a still camera and a good lens.
Another thing to think twice about is a digital camera. They are the 'in' thing right now, but their image quality is very inferior compared to film. They also tend to have the power and mechanical disadvantages of camcorders.
Take along ziploc bags and keep your photography gear in them at night. This will help prevent humidity related problems.
The final thing I had considered taking was audio recording gear. This was to consist of a minidisc recorder and a good microphone. I could set up the microphone outside the tent, and put the recorder inside. At bedtime, I would put the minidisc unit in record, and would capture 1 to 2 hours of night sounds. The minidisc recorder and it's associated support equipment was very small and would have added less than a pound to the luggage. Unfortunately, the budget never materialized for this.
This brings us to December of 1998. Now, preparations began in earnest. The most critical thing at this time was obtaining visas. For these, you need to send your passport to the embassies in question along with supporting paperwork (And $30-45 as well!). This needs to be done certified mail, and well in advance of when you plan to travel. However, it should be done within 3 months of your departure date. I had no problems with the Tanzania visa process. The Kenya one, however, nearly got snarled when I discovered an important document got left behind. I was forced to travel for business about the time I discovered this and was powerless to do anything about it for a week. (To add to the frustration, I was within a block of the Kenyan Embassy at one point in my travels, but it was at a time when they were closed!) I'll never know what happened for sure, but when I finally got the package in my hands, I discovered everything had been approved, anyway. Despite this happy ending, don't take chances with your paperwork!
Another thing that happened in December was getting the necessary immunizations. We are lucky here in Monroe County, NY. Kodak has so many people traveling all over the world that we have an excellent travel health bureau. They gave me shots for Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and an oral vaccine for typhoid fever. When I compared notes with the other persons in my group, I found I had paid less than half of what anybody else had paid. Make sure you get a vaccination certificate along with the shots. Carry it with your passport.
One extremely important medicine you need to take is an anti-malarial. For this, you will need a prescription from your doctor. For East Africa, a drug called Lariam is most often prescribed. This is taken just once a week. You start with a dose a week before you arrive in Africa, and continue for 4 weeks after you return. Malaria is a very serious disease, so you want to make sure you stick with it for the four weeks after!
Make sure you have a hat to protect your scalp and face from sunburn. The East African sun is very direct! Get one that can be wadded up and stuffed in your luggage when not needed. Sunblock, and especially insect repellent is very important in East Africa. Tsetse fly bites hurt! Make sure to also take any vitamins you need, as well as a supply of prescription drugs. If any of these is considered a controlled substance, get a letter from your doctor stating why you need to take the drug. A very small first aid kit is also quite handy. One important ingredient in this kit is antibiotic cream. Cuts can become infected very quickly in the tropics. Last, but not least, take preparations to deal with digestive upsets. Take something for both diarrhea and constipation. You're likely to need both at some point!
One other health-related thing I will mention is water. Although I didn't do it on this trip, it is important enough that I thought I would add it here. I did not drink enough water on this trip, and became seriously dehydrated near the end. Having some traveler's diarrhea near the end of the trip only made this problem worse. (I drink a lot of water at home.) The usual solution is to purchase bottled water. This can get quite expensive. Thankfully, there are now simple water filtration kits on the market that allow you to filter out 99.9 percent of what's harmful in the water. Unlike here, most of the harmful things in the water are biological, not chemical in nature. These are easily filtered out of the water by simple mechanical filters. The only thing that might be missed is some very small viruses, but these are either not a problem, or are easily vaccinated against. In any case, these kits will filter 20 or more gallons of water (Much more than you would ever use in 2 weeks.) and are tiny and lightweight. Not only will you not be thirsty, but you will nearly pay for the filtration kit with what you save on bottled water. I will never go to Africa again without one!
It is important to have the right color clothing when on safari. This is especially critical for what you will be wearing above the waist. (The animals won't see your pants in a safari vehicle, so it's better to find something comfortable than the right color.) You can spend the big bucks with some of these travel clothing outfitters. Or, just go to a good sporting goods store. They will have khaki-colored T-shirts for a fraction of the price! For men, a battery-powered shaver, or a razor kit is a must. Braun makes a shaver that runs on 2 AA batteries. You can carry a couple spare batteries and not have to worry about finding a place to recharge. Incidentally, every place I went, in England, Kenya or Tanzania that had power, had dual-voltage shaver outlets with special plugs.
The biggest packing challenge was dealing with weight and size restrictions. Africa Adventure Center sent me a nice gym-bag type duffle bag. There was a commuter flight at a point late in the trip with a 15 Kg weight restriction for luggage, including camera gear. This is only about 33 pounds. I was also advised that things would be best if I could get all my stuff into the duffle bag and carry it on the plane. After a lot of careful planning and packing, I succeeded. One important thing is not to take more than 3 changes of clothing. However, a sweatshirt and light jacket are important, especially if traveling in winter or in the highlands. All medicines, vitamins, toothpaste, etc. were taken in original containers, but the smallest sizes I could find.
Make sure you have a good field guide; I liked the 'National Audobon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife', as it covered everything without being too specialized or skimpy. It is also widely available. A copy of Mark Nolting's 'Travel Journal Africa' is extremely useful. Besides having a journal section, it contains much useful information on travel and wildlife, as well as places for information that could be of use to you. A puzzle or crossword book will keep you occupied on the long flights. As you will read later, the flights were pretty much the worst part of the whole trip.
Make copies of all your important papers: tickets, passports, itineraries, etc. Carry these in a separate place from the originals, just in case something happens to the originals. Always keep your money, tickets, passport, etc. in a money belt worn in an inaccessible (to thieves) spot. A money belt is one of the best travel investments you can make.
When all the dust settled, everything except the camera gear fit in the duffle bag with a bit of room to spare. Total weight was 28 pounds!
No project of this type ever seems to go 100% smoothly. For me, I tend to have runs of the strangest or most unpredictable bad luck. It was the one thing I hoped wouldn't happen. I got sick just before the trip!
It was Monday, February 1st. My trip left on Friday the 5th. I remember remarking to my boss that afternoon that if I developed as much as a sniffle that I was taking the rest of the week off. Well, by 6 PM that evening, I had a sniffle. Or, should I say, a full-blown cold! For me, colds and air travel do not mix at all. I needed to get over this thing as quickly as possible. To top it off, my boss was having me work as many hours as I could handle!
Tuesday was a miserable day for me. As the result of some intensive prayer, the acute phase of the cold ended in the early evening with little or no chest cold complications. For this I rejoiced and thanked God! Now, I had to patiently wait for the congestion in my head to drain.
Things would have progressed much better if I didn't have to work a TV remote on Wednesday and Thursday. This meant hard work, and being outside in the cold. Although my head was draining, it was taking it's sweet time. At least, things didn't get worse!
Friday morning finally arrived. I had just the morning to finish preparations that had been delayed by the unusually heavy work schedule earlier in the week. The most important thing to do was get savings bonds and cash. I got $300 in cash, and $300 in savings bonds. This turned out to be an almost perfect amount. (I think though, if I had more money with me, I would have spent it!) $50 also showed up unexpectedly when somebody who I had done some personal work for visited me to hand me a check! This was a welcome surprise, and helped cover some last minute expenses.
Besides fighting the vestiges of the cold, I had one other extremely frustrating thing happen. I couldn't find the book 'Travel Journal Africa' anywhere. I tore my house apart looking for it, and gave up after nearly two hours. I finally stopped at a bookstore on the way to the airport and bought a new copy. Interestingly enough, the original copy has yet to turn up, six months after returning!