To go or not to go
“In the circle of life…it’s the wheel of fortune…it’s the leap of faith…it’s the band of hope…til we find our place…”
Well, we took a leap of faith and found our place in an unbelievable Serengeti safari experience! Where to begin? I’m sure so many of you fellow travelers are wondering about what traveling is like now, so I will give you an honest and extremely thorough account of our travels and sights during this crazy time. Get ready if you choose to read this, because it’s a very long blog!
Back track to a year ago when we were planning our trip. I have wanted to go to Africa for over 50 years, so this was going to be the perfect retirement trip for me after being a teacher for 40 years. I wanted to travel in late August/early September when I would normally be going back to school so that I wouldn’t be sad about ending my career.
We found Africa Dream during online searches and after researching many companies we knew that this was the one for us. PRIVATE! Plus, working with Michael to put our trip together was a dream in itself. Who knew you could get customer service like this? (BTW – Michael was in daily contact with us during our trip. He wanted to keep us safe and happy!)
We wanted a private safari with tented camps – the Hemingway experience sounded perfect for us. Michael set us up with Cathy King to get our flights. We decided to go with Qatar since they had the best deals at the time. We found a fantastic deal in business class and decided to throw caution to the wind and just do it! We were all set, or so we thought!
Fast forward 6 months…Covid came. Wow. A global pandemic. Who knew this would even happen in our lifetime? And our trip of a lifetime? On hold. I didn’t have the heart to cancel or reschedule, so I just sat firm. After awhile Tanzania opened up, Qatar airlines resumed some flights, our state of CT had very few Covid cases as did northern Tanzania (Michael’s doctor friend at FAME kept him updated), and we were still healthy.
What to do? Go as originally planned for retirement and see the Serengeti as I had always dreamed of, with no crowds and deserted, or postpone until a safer time? When we were planning our trip there were so many “this was meant to be” moments, that maybe this was a “meant to be” moment too. But in which way was it meant to be?
It’s a leap of faith….We decided to go. I thought, “This would be either the stupidest thing I ever did or the smartest thing I ever did!” (Fast forward – the smartest!) So that’s the story of how we ended up traveling during Covid.
Flying during Covid
I won’t deny it, flying right now is very, very different. It’s definitely not the way it used to be. Rules and restrictions kept changing every week, so we felt we needed to be safe and get a Covid test taken 72 hours before our flight in case it was unexpectedly needed to travel. We also didn’t want to accidentally infect our fellow travelers or the Tanzania people. It was a real challenge to find a place in our state that did quick Covid tests, but after days of searching we finally found one.
We wanted to do the same for the trip home, so Michael moved mountains for us and set up a Covid test for us to take at the FAME clinic three days before we left. FYI – They swab your throat there for the test, not the nose. We got the results back a few hours before leaving for the airport. What peace of mind that gave us flying back home with that “negative for Covid” piece of paper!
Our first clue of how different travel was going to be was when we were driving through Boston to Logan Airport and there was absolutely no traffic. Was this really Boston? Then we got inside the terminal and it was empty. I was wondering if the airport was closed! We walked a little bit further and finally found a line – there were 4 people in it!
We got through the line quickly, same with security. Very few people in the airport and all were wearing masks and most were social distancing. Some (like us) were wearing face shields too. My husband even saw someone walking with a hazmat suit on! Now that’s being careful!
When it was time to board the plane the Qatar staff passed out face masks and face shields to everyone because that was required to get on the plane. The kids’ face shields were absolutely adorable with animal pictures around it – I wanted one of those! They also took your temp before you got on. Once you get on the plane they also give you your own “safety bag” that includes another mask, hand sanitizer and gloves.
Now, if you ever in your life can travel business class, please do so. It just can’t get any better than this! There were only 6 of us there out of 36 luxury seats in the business cabin. They babied us and were cleaning constantly. Cleanest bathroom I ever saw – after anyone used it they ran in and sanitized it. We all wore our masks and shields most of the time – except when eating.
In business class you can take it off to sleep since there are fewer people, but I left mine on. It really wasn’t all that difficult to sleep in. I did purchase masks that were lighter weight for this trip. Make sure you bring lots of masks because I kept misplacing mine so it was good to have extras. Reebok’s athletic masks are great and also the Coolpix ones we got from Costco. Maybe the champagne and wine I drank helped me sleep too!
It was a 12 hour flight to Doha and an 8 hour layover there. When we got off the plane and went through security we did have to lower our mask and shield so they could scan our face. I absolutely loved the layover because we went in Qatar’s huge, business class lounge and had a great time. That place in itself is a vacation spot! They told us that normally they get a thousand people a day going through the lounge, but now they get about 100.
There were more workers than guests in the lounge and they were constantly cleaning. I think we ate at every restaurant, sat in every type of chair they offered, went in every gorgeous bathroom and also went in the “quiet room” to rest awhile on their couches. We didn’t go in the prayer room or the smoking room, but they do have them.
We said a sad goodby to the lounge and boarded the plane for the 6 hour flight to Kilimanjaro airport. When you see Mt. Kili rising up out of the sky as you fly by chills will run down your spine!
When we landed we had to sanitize our hands and get our temp checked before going in to immigration. Inside, they asked us some Covid questions, checked our immigration papers and then gave us another form to fill out. We had already filled out that extra paperwork ahead of time (of course Michael is on top of things and emailed it to us before we left) so we breezed through. Passport check and then on to baggage claim.
We easily found our luggage and this is why: we ordered Safari-beanos duffel bags from Red Oxx (based in Montana). Mine was bright pink and my hubby’s was bright green. Easy to spot, rugged, durable, and we could fit lots in. Packing cubes helped us organize too.
Almost there! Then we walked outside away from the Covid safety precautions of the airport and saw tons of drivers waiting for their guests and none of them were wearing masks and they were all squished together. That was actually the first time I felt nervous about traveling during Covid. But then our ADS Knights in Shining Armor came – Joseph and Emmanuel. They were waving their welcome sign at us and they had on masks and were carrying hand sanitizer. We were saved!
Accommodations Review during Covid
Are you still reading? I’m just getting to the good parts! Joseph and Emmanuel drove us to the Arusha Coffee Lodge. Gorgeous property and the people so very friendly. As soon as we got there we sanitized our hands and had our temp checked. That’s going to be the norm at every place you go. Then they gave us delicious iced coffee – the best I ever had!
Joseph debriefed us on the journey ahead and we were off to our absolutely lovely suite. There was a hot bath waiting for me in the soaking tub complete with rose petals all around. Michael had a fruit basket and bottle of champagne waiting for us there too. Heaven! I loved this place. It really sets the tone for your Africa experience. Oh, yeah, we were THE ONLY ONES HERE in this huge sprawling place!
They gave us dinner under the stars and waited on us hand and foot thanking us for coming. I was sick for a few hours that evening from the malaria meds we were taking. It did pass and I’m glad I didn’t stop taking the meds, because when we were in Zanzibar I got tons of mosquito bites one night while sleeping out on the hammock. You couldn’t see them or even feel them, but they are there, so be prepared.
The next morning we went to the Arusha airport to board the bush plane. We had to go through two securities there. Their airport security scanner is an older version and alarms went off due to metal in my husband’s leg from his knee replacement. One time he even had to roll up his pants leg and show them the scar! Some employees and guests wore masks and others didn’t. There is the typical hand sanitizing and temp checked.
We waited outside to board the plane. Emmanuel stayed with us, taking pictures, to make sure we boarded alright. Now, that bush plane is extremely small and very noisy. My husband is a big guy at 6’2”, so he was practically crawling in the aisle. If you can, sit up front right behind the pilot because there is more room there. Luckily we were all wearing masks in the tiny plane.
Our original lodging in the northern Serengeti was supposed to be two nights at the Mara River Camp, but it wasn’t open due to Covid, so we stayed at the Mara Mara Tented Lodge instead. It is a lovely place with gorgeous views of the sunset. There were only two other couples there. The staff was just ok, along with the food. And there were also huge spiders in the bathroom! But it had the best boxed lunch hands down! Veggie/chicken sandwich, big leg of chicken, cornbread, sweet bread, fruit, cheese, chocolate, cookies and water. Wow!
One evening at the lodge it rained hard. That night I told my husband that I was hearing huge bullfrogs around our tent. Turns out it wasn’t bullfrogs – it was Wildebeests! They were all around our tent making their beastie noises and I went to sleep listening to them. From then on I lovingly called them my “beastie boys”.
We also stayed two delightful nights at Mbuzi Mawe Tented Lodge. They had a big washing station at the entrance. I loved that place. It was absolutely beautiful with great staff. And, we were THE ONLY ONES THERE – again. They were tripping over themselves to wait on us. I got used to being stared at, in a good way! There are also little hyrax’s running around all around the place! One time a baboon even ran across the dining room floor while we were eating!
We also did a nature walk there for a few hours with a guide and an armed guard. Thank goodness the armed guard was there because the Cape Buffalo that were all around had nasty attitudes. It was their goal in life to kill us! The guard made sure we didn’t get too close so they wouldn’t charge us.
On our walk the guide and guard got real excited because there were Wild Dogs in the distance. I thought, “What’s the big deal? They’re dogs that happen to be wild”, but I guess it IS a big deal and they are very rare to see. The sundowner at Mbuzi Mawe is absolutely stunning out by these huge rocks. But their box lunch for the next day was the worst we had yet! We were all starving by dinner time.
The next place we stayed for two nights was in Central Serengeti at the Seronera Sametu Camp. Washing station and temperature check before you can go in. Now about the temperature check, when they take your temp, they then show you the results. At first I had no idea what the numbers meant since it was in Celsius and not Fahrenheit. But eventually I figured it out. And again, we were the ONLY ONES HERE! This was my favorite place of all. This is what it is like to be in the bush.
The people there were my favorite because they just made you feel so comfortable, like you were their extended family. The guys happily brought me my morning coffee at 5:30 AM both mornings with a smile on their face! I loved drinking my coffee looking out at the sun rising. Food was good and tent was big with the most comfortable bed I had slept in yet! Now, they are renovating the place and are offering some nice huts to stay in too if you would like, but the tents are the best, in my opinion. The sundowner here was my favorite since the guys were so nice and I loved our table and chairs out in the wilderness by the river.
We stayed for one night at Ngorongoro Lion’s Paw Tented Camp in the Crater. It is not a tented camp anymore, so be warned if that is what you want. They are huge multi room suites now with little heaters in the bedrooms so you don’t freeze in the morning. Their bed was just as comfy as the Sametu Camp. The views are unbelievable too since you are so high up. There was one other couple from India there. Beautiful sundowner views and great service at dinner. At all of the places the food was just okay or good, nothing stellar. This certainly wasn’t a wonderful culinary experience, but we were here for the animals, not the food.
On the last night of our Safari we stayed at my least favorite place, the Escarpment Luxury Lodge. The lodge was exquisite, as was our suite and the views of the lake and mountains were unrivaled, so that part was great. But when we got there the manager and staff greeted us with no face masks, no hand washing, no temperature checks and no social distancing. We had gotten used to it in all of the bush camps and now we were at this luxury place with no Covid precautions being used. I think the manager must have seen the look of horror in my eyes (or maybe our guide said something, since he was NOT pleased) because half an hour later every employee was masked up. But it still made me nervous to stay there. There was also Masaii entertainment that evening but with no Covid precautions, so we didn’t go. They did give us an absolutely lovely private sundowner on the pool deck.
Now we did stay at one more place in Tanzania – that was in Zanzibar. We decided to do an “add on” at the end of our safari and relax for a few days before going home. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure if we can afford this extra add on”, but then I thought “How can we NOT go? We are here. We will probably never be here again. Let’s just do it.” So, we did and LOVED IT.
Originally we were set to stay at The Palms, but it didn’t open due to Covid, so they upgraded us to their sister property called Zawadi (which means “gift”). And what a gift it was! Humongous suites on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, exquisite food and drinks (all included), everything you could possibly want in a beach resort. They employ 60 people and everyone of them were wearing masks and social distancing – even the ones working in the gardens.
They also have an adorable farm in their back yard since they raise lots of their own food. One of the safest places on the island. This was real luxury and you will love to experience it. Don’t pass it up. Can you guess? Yes, we were THE ONLY ONES HERE the first night. The second night there was a crowd – two more couples! One older couple from Spain and honeymooners from the U.S.
So, that’s it for the accommodation review. Hope it gave you a good idea of what they are like now.
Now for the main event – the animals! So everyone’s safari is different. Our drive/guide (the unbelievable Pokea – he has been with ADS for ages, was the best guide and best friend ever and is a LEGEND!) said going on Safari is like going fishing. You never know what you are going to pull up! Here is what we “pulled up”.
– Five minutes after arriving in the Serengeti and leaving the small airport with Pokea we saw our first animal – Elephants! Big ones and little ones! They were stunning out in the wild and bigger than I thought. Our best experience with them was in the Crater when a tribe came walking down the road and passed all around our jeep. The big bull elephant was so close I could touch him and the babies were so funny running to stay close to mom.
– Wildebeest – we saw two crossings and they were amazing. They were thundering past us with one thought – cross the river! Our guide told us that in a normal season there could be 50 jeeps all jockeying for position along the river to watch the crossing. There were a whopping 4 jeeps there.
Video of wildebeest crossing:
-Zebras were all around with the Wildebeest. I loved how they coexisted. Lots of pregnant zebras!
– Giraffes are kind of shy but we still saw many of them. One stand out moment was when two male ones were fighting over a female by using their necks.
Video of giraffe drinking:
– Leopards – we were so fortunate to see three different sightings. The first one was with a mom nursing and playing with her cub, the second sighting was on our hot air balloon ride where it was running by the river, and the third sighting was in Central when one was lounging on a tree branch.
Video of leopard mother and cub:
– The cheetahs were beautiful with their long bodies and small heads. We saw one hiding in the shade at mid day and on another day saw one sitting out in the early morning sun.
– Lions – I called one day “Lion Day” because of the variety of lion sightings we had on that day. It was my dream to see lots of Cats on this trip, so this was a day I won’t forget. It went from the throes of ecstasy (we saw lions mating on the side of the road) to Cub City (we sighted 15 cubs sitting together on kopjes patiently waiting for their moms to return) to the depths of despair (a female took down a warthog and she and a male lion were eating it – alive!).
That was the most disturbing thing I had ever seen and heard in my life. The circle of life isn’t always pretty and that was quite awful. I worked hard to keep down my lunch. I have since turned vegetarian – I’m not kidding! We also saw six very young lion cubs come and eat that warthog with the adults. That was a funny sight as they were sneaking in trying to get a bite!
Video of lion hunt (**warning – video below contains content that some viewers may find disturbing**):
Our guide, Pokea, wanted us to stay even longer because he said when they were done eating the lions would go down to the river to get a drink, and that would be a sight to see. He wanted us to see as much as possible! But I was too distraught to stay and asked to leave. I needed to get back to the haven of our tent to cry a little and to have a stiff drink!
– Baboons – I’m not a fan of baboons, but the baby baboons cracked me up when they wanted their mom to carry them on their back. They whined and made an awful noise just like a 2 year old would until mom said, “Oh, ok! Get on!”
Other animal highlights were the huge hippos, elands, impalas, agama lizard, crocodiles, cliff hopper, dik-dik, hyenas, jackals, ostrich, flamingoes and tons of birds that I didn’t even know existed! Our guide was so kind to me and spelled the name of each animal so I could write it down. There were all sorts of plants and trees that I never heard of. My favorite tree was the “sausage tree”. I laughed every time I saw it!
– The guides at ADS are the best. Our guide, Pokea, was what made our trip so great for us. How he could drive the bumpy roads avoiding all those aardvark holes, still spot animals and talk to us at the same time is beyond me.
– The roads are quite terrible, so be prepared! They are even worse than usual now because there have been no tourists, so there was no money coming in to repair the roads after the rains.
– The jeep is a very bumpy ride! We found it was best to stand up with our head sticking out of the top since it was less bumpy for us rather than sitting. My hubby is tall so that was no problem for him, but I am a short 5’2” so I took my shoes off and stood up on the cushioned seats instead. We didn’t get any aerobic exercise in during safari but we got in plenty of strength training as we held on for dear life 8-10 hours a day! FYI – every time you get out of the jeep and then get back in, you have to sanitize your hands.
– Snacks – there is plenty of water and soft drinks in a cooler in the jeep along with some snacks, but I’m happy we brought our own too. (power bars and trail mix)
– Lunch – you should definitely take the boxed lunches that the lodge provides so you can stay out all day on your game drives. Pokea found the most beautiful places for us to eat lunch at. When will you ever have a chance to have lunch watching elephants and giraffes walking by? When he found out how much we loved coffee he also brought some along for us so we could have a “cuppa” out in the bush. Our guide was the best!
– Bush Bathroom – it’s located behind the jeep! Pokea advised us to always know what direction the wind is blowing and then pee accordingly, otherwise you might need to change your clothes! My advise is not to pee in front of zebras – they laugh at you! Oh, and I brought scented doggy waste bags to use. Got them on Amazon!
– Flies – there are definitely tsetse flies around, but they left us alone, maybe because I treated our clothes with permethrin before we left. The regular flies were more of a problem.
– Hot Air Balloon – Go if you can! It was one of the best experiences we had! Seeing the sun rise while in the air and all the animals below was a huge WOW! They normally do 5 trips a day but now with Covid they only fly one trip every other week or so. When we went there were only 9 of us in a basket that holds 16. Fun champagne afterwards and a really good breakfast too.
– The Crater was so gorgeous to see, even without animals it would be worth it. We didn’t see the elusive black rhino, but you can’t have it all! There was only one other jeep with us in the Crater. Michael told us that usually the road is packed with vehicles. I still can’t believe our luck.
– Lake Manyara was a big disappointment. There had been unexpected rain so many of the roads were flooded and we were limited with where we could go. I would have rather stayed in the Crater or even the Serengeti another day instead.
– The Maasai village was a personal highlight. The kindergarten school they showed us was so joyous to me, since I taught kindergarten for 35 years! Go to the village if you can, but be prepared to see flies in the kids eyes. Took me by surprise.
Video of Maasai school children:
– Also, don’t miss the Olduvai Gorge. The view from the amphitheater is beautiful and you will learn so much about early human evolution. We were reading as fast as we could when we went through the museum so we could take it all in. (There was only one other couple with us in the entire museum)
– Sunglasses: we brought a few extra pairs with us, but the ones that we kept using were “goodr”.
– Packing: I wish I brought a heavier jacket and more long pants that unzipped into shorts since it was FREEZING in the mornings and then hot in the afternoon. I also wish I had brought an empty backpack to put the extra things in that we picked up.
– Clothing: Here is what worked best for us:
socks – Farm to Feet
undies – Exofficio
shirts/pants – Patagonia (lightweight, breathable, quick dry)
shoe boots – hubby liked Arcteryx, I liked Merrell
jackets – we brought our Arcteryx but I needed a heavier one
You will need a wool hat and warm gloves for mornings in the crater and for the hot air balloon ride if you go on one. Do yourself a favor and use the laundry service for shirts and pants (you can quickly wash your own undies and socks). It will save you time plus you will be so tired every night.
– Camera: I used my iPhone camera since I sent pics back to friends and family on WhatsApp, but my husband had a Nikon Coolpix P900 which worked great and was affordable. But really, sometimes you just need to put down the camera and be in the moment.
So, this is my review, written from my heart, of our unforgettable trip that ADS set up for us.
“There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found”. That’s safari!
Penelope and Stephen C.
Safari dates: August 28, 2020 to September 8, 2020